March 19, 2021

128: Ten Thousand Hours | Robert Alice, Portraits of a Mind and NFTs

128: Ten Thousand Hours | Robert Alice, Portraits of a Mind and NFTs

Robert Alice, artist and creator of the ‘Portraits of a Mind’ project, shares his story on how bitcoin - and to quote Robert – “and its essential ties to the past instead of the perpetuated perception of its radical severance with it,“ was a catalyst for a melting pot of inspiration for his mesmerizing artwork Portraits of a Mind, the crossover from physical art into digital art with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the intersection of artistry and entrepreneurship…and the joys of life as a triplet!


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Robert Alice founded his project in 2018 to promote blockchain culture within the visual arts. The completion of Portraits of a Mind spanned 3.5 years and resulted in a 40-painting work of art. Each of the 40 paintings is the size of a small but circular garage door and each represents one of the first 40 blocks of the bitcoin blockchain.  ‘Block 21’ was recently auctioned at Christie’s and had a guide price of $12,000-15,000, but sold for $131,250 in October 2020.

Each ‘block’ is as intricately crafted as a cuneiform tablet with the original source code of the relevant block carved into paint, with specific numbers on each block embossed in gold. When combined, the gold digits become global map coordinates tied to a location on Earth where a significant event occurred in the 5,000-year history leading up to the creation of bitcoin.

Accompanying each painting is a non-fungible token (NFT) including a digital version of that piece of the artwork. The full story of Portraits of a Mind can be found on Robert Alice’s website.

HIGHLIGHTS:

On the early days of the project:

“Around 2016, I got into crypto, and one of the things that I always do if I encounter something new is go to a place that I do know a lot about, which is art, and try to understand a space from the cultural production around it. As I started looking around in 2016-17, I was disappointed about the level of work that was being made in this space.”

“There had been some interesting NFT projects, but it was like a canary in a coal mine, really. That was frustrating for me because it was just a lot of kids on rocket ships going to the moon, and I felt like this was going to be one of the most important cultural transformations of the 21st century.”

“It's about this idea of how do you make a portrait of someone who doesn't exist or hasn't been seen, who has no visual identity?  And I settled on this idea that Satoshi Nakamoto really is more the code behind Bitcoin, than an individual behind the code.”

On one of his inspirations:

“It’s hidden from view that artists have been experimenting with a lot of the ideas around blockchain, some even 50 years before blockchains even existed. One of them is a Polish artist, Roman Opalka, who is very well-known and respected in the art world, but not really well-known outside of it."

“He started a project in the ‘60’s where he stopped all his other work and he went in front of the canvas and painted the number one. And then he painted two and three and four, and he filled that count up to 5,000 and then he started the next block - you can see how this fits into bitcoin and blockchain."

“Then he started with 5,001 and he filled out that block and started the next block. it. He did that for his whole life and he got to 7 million or something. The idea was, how do you paint infinity or how do you paint time? And you can't paint infinity because life is finite. So, you can only die trying.”

On Portraits of a Mind:

“The paintings are basically titled like a blockchain, block zero through 39 and effectively each work is almost exactly the same, except for the code basis on it."

“It is a portrait of Satoshi, but also I wanted to build into this idea of a history painting that tells a story, because a blockchain is like a history machine. I added in all these various network points where each block relates to a specific location and time, and all those locations relate to a part of the history of bitcoin."

“These points go from Hut 8 and Bletchley Park and the work Alan Turing did all the way back to the early cryptographers in the Renaissance period. And then even further back to the first inscriptions of textual modification in hieroglyphs and in the Egyptian period."

“When you zoom out and start to see the lineage, all the noise around the last five or 10 years around hacks - and it's an important part of bitcoin's culture, I'm not trying to whitewash it.  I’m just trying to say that if you zoom out, all of that stuff fades away and suddenly you see bitcoin as the latest iteration in a really long line of history.”

On the NFT space:

“It's been really interesting to see that over the last 10 to 15 years, the art world has really tried to court Silicon Valley, and they've established galleries in Palo Alto and San Francisco. But they haven't really been able to entice a lot of the first wave of tech tycoons into the art world.”

“Gagosian [a global network of art galleries specializing in modern and contemporary art] closed their gallery in San Francisco last week. They'd been there for five years. They basically failed to do what they wanted to, and this is one of the most important galleries in the world. And then a week later you have an anonymous crypto whale spending nearly $70 million on an NFT. And for me, that's a real bellwether point.”

“There’s a commercial side to it, but the real side is thinking about NFTa as a medium, and where is the best place to experience that? And it has to be online in a metaverse where the whole experience is digitally native, rather than in a gallery.”

On artists as entrepreneurs:

“Art is one of the purest forms of entrepreneurship around.  You create value out of nothing. Craft and skill can get you so far and present a level of value, but effectively, you're building a conceptual story or a narrative that you are asking people to buy into, with a product that does nothing, except that it makes them feel something.”

“Hard work pays off and commitment to something pays off and you may get that further down the line, but effectively, the deeper you go, the more time, the more preparation, the better the result over the long term.”

“From an entrepreneurial point of view, be as creative as you like, especially in your marketing, be mad and commit yourself to something and make sure you see it through.”

Episode title is inspired by Ten Thousand Hours from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.

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Robert Alice

Artist, Portaits of a Mind