Robert Alice | Block 34 (51.895167° N, 1.4805° E) at Sealand
“Portraits of a Mind came out of a deep engagement with the crypto space and its history,” Robert Alice said in an interview with Sotheby’s. A global art project to decentralise Bitcoin's codebase into 40 “blocks”, each constituent part of Portraits of a Mind comprises a painting and an accompanying NFT; the physical work is disc-shaped canvas inscribed with about 322,048 digits. Altogether, they make up the 12.3 million digits of the original transcription of the historic codebase that launched Bitcoin, a text of sorts that trace the digital fingerprint of Bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder Satoshi Nakamoto.
“By focusing on the original source code for this entire ecosystem, I was interested in finding ground zero for this new community and philosophy,” Alice says. “Presenting it physically in paintings allowed people to have a human connection with this vast codebase in time and space, making it more relatable and more real. And equally the NFTs bring in it into the medium it engages with critically.”
In this, Portraits of a Mind has clear ambition: to show that the revolutionary bitcoin and blockchain software are humanity’s latest innovation in the art of the written word, to demonstrate blockchain’s monumentalism and its distributed characteristics are critical ideas of today; to prove that innovations like NFTs can break down the constructed notions of art; and to defy convention through the conceptual display of an “invisible” object like software code.
Block 34 (51.895167° N, 1.4805° E) from this historic series will be leading the NFT and crypto art offerings of Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction on 27 April. The work comes to Hong Kong by way of the Principality of Sealand, where it was most recently put on display in an exhibition.
Each of the 40 fragments from Portraits of a Mind contain geo-coordinates that locate each block to a corresponding site. “The locations of each painting are all chosen to reveal some part of bitcoin’s pre-history,” Alice says “ The geo-coordinates are my way of embedding this sense of networks and nodes with historical value, to reflect on the nature of the world’s first cryptocurrency and the reality that the ideas and philosophies that sit at the core of this new technology are not a radical rupture with the past, but a new way of doing old things with deep roots in history.”
The coordinates of Block 34 (51.895167° N, 1.4805° E) point to Sealand, an independent micronation established in 1967 on top of an abandoned gun emplacement built by the British during World War II. Sealand’s connection to early cypherpunk data privacy company HavenCo, which for a period in the early 2000s stationed itself upon an offshore “gray area” in an experiment at separating people’s identity data from a state-controlled Internet. “Sealand, and the data haven they built on it in the form of HavenCo, was an early lightning rod and flag bear for the cypherpunk movement,” says Alice.
“Hunkered down on a North Sea fortress, a crew of armed cypherpunks, amped-up networking geeks, and libertarian swashbucklers is seceding from the world to pursue a revolutionary idea: an offshore, fat-pipe data haven that answers to nobody.”
Sealand and crypto share an anarchic spirit, according to Alice: “The spirit of the early crypto movement moves what Sealand represents in the physical world into the digital one. The bold vision, disregard for rules, and a healthy blend of anarchy see both Sealand and crypto closely intertwined. Indeed, bitcoin itself is a very physical network, rooted in large warehouses with huge data racks, computing the protocol.… In this sense, HavenCo’s servers at Sealand, while they pale in scale, were just an early experimentation with these kinds of revolutionary network structures.”
Havenco was formed in 1999 by cypherpunk libertarians who sought a data hosting environment free of government regulatory control. Sealand proved an ideal location owing to its remote location and accessibility to the Internet. Launched just before the Internet bubble 1.0 collapse, Havenco hosted servers for a number of projects. Ultimately, it was not able to scale successfully and shut down in 2003.
Prince Liam Bates, grandson of the Sealand’s first sovereign Patrick Roy Bates, describes the unique geographic advantage of the principality, which is situated in the North Sea about twelve kilometers due east of England. “The brutalist structure that you see in the film has been well preserved since it was sunk into the seabed by the British Navy,” he says. “Before we took it over and proclaimed it Sealand, it was a former World War II aerial gun station to protect Britain from the German Luftwaffe. As such it still bears all hallmarks of a sea fort, making it an ideal holdout for what is now the world’s longest established micronation.”
“Seeing Sealand emerge from the mist on a bright September morning was absolutely magical. It is such an immense monolithic structure that is almost totally out of place in the sea.”
One can only imagine the otherworldly experience of seeing the work on location for the first time. Since visitation to Sealand is strictly by invitation or visa only, and visas are only granted to friends and family of the royal family, not many would be afforded the opportunity.
The logistics of staging the exhibition on a platform in the North Sea proved to be highly challenging. It required more than a year of planning, on top of the three years it took to convince Sealand to agree to the project. The shippers Queens Fine Art met the challenge, consulting with a helicopter crew on a specialist crate, renting an airfield on the coast, and preparing the wall and camera equipment in advance of the safe transport of the painting and NFT screen on location. Robert Alice and the Princes of Sealand arrived by chartered boat at dawn. The team of twelve would be winched onto the remote platform in a swing. But before the helicopter could land on the platform with all the equipment, they would have to wait for the mist to clear, which took several hours. The intensity of the half-day long mission proved to spur on the quest for new creative frontiers.
The work that was displayed radiates an aura of almost magical intensity. The sheer size of Block 34 (51.895167° N, 1.4805° E) is offset by delicate, individually hand-painted hexadecimal code figures that spiral around a central void in the wheel. The physical attributes of the piece are a constructed meditation on the power and the scale of code, its ability to reflect the human will, and a continuous history that goes back 5,000 years to the beginning of the first instance of cryptography.
“These locations reflect on crypto’s origins and taking this show to Sealand showcase NFTs in spaces that continue to push the boundaries of where they have been,” Alice says. “I have always been drawn to the idea of art extending out into the world, and the more surreal and off beat those locations the better. In many ways, in the emergent landscapes of the internet and now metaverse are an absolute rejection of the white cube.”
Portraits of a Mind was conceived in 2016, when Alice first became immersed in the distinct culture around NFT and crypto art, and noticed how it was scorned by the established art circles. The artist sees parallels with the way the Salon des Refuses spurred the rise of Impressionism in the 19th century, with NFTs and crypto similarly exhibiting the hallmarks of a new movement.
Alice regards the project as a crossover between the two worlds, as it simultaneously manifests as both physical and NFT components. Portraits of a Mind was the first NFT to be sold at a major auction house, giving the project an important place in the history of NFTs. The art lends itself aesthetically and conceptually to comparisons with art that draw inspiration from the beauty of engineering and mathematics.
“The work is highly indebted to the long history of conceptual painting – whether it is Jack Whittens’s abstract portraits in his Quantum Wall series or Jasper John’s Target paintings that play with semantic encryption,” Alice says. “Equally the major conceptual projects of Roman Opalka and On Kawara showcase that deep engagement in crypto, and its philosophies can find commonalities with traditional art histories.”
It’s an observation that fits well with Alice’s belief that the most radical ideas we see put into action today are simply iterations of long-held beliefs through recorded time.
Sealand itself has entered a new era of innovation philosophy. Prince Liam says the country will use the distributed network of a decentralised blockchain in hopes of transforming Sealand into a “leading and globally inclusive metanation.”
“By harnessing DAOs and NFTs, we aim to create a blockchain-based system of governance which embraces the technological advancements of the 21st century to enable Sealand to have global participation, governance, and benefit,” he says. “Our hope is that our future, and legacy, will be a leading and globally inclusive meta-nation that innovates on and disrupts legacy governance, alongside other next-generation nations and communities.”