“For anybody who’s gone to an arena, you know what’s going on here. You buy the box of M&Ms, you bring it back to your seat, you open the box of M&Ms, and there’s a bag of M&Ms inside the box of M&Ms. It’s an empty box with a bag of M&Ms in it!” I found myself yelling this to a couple of strangers on Sunday with a phone pressed to my ear. One of the strangers smiled at me, confused but being a good sport in the face of this unwelcome diatribe. The other shuffled her feet and pleaded with her eyes for me to get away.
“So then you’ve got a big choice to make,” I continued. “Do you eat them out of the bag, or do you pour them into the box? Because the bag is flimsy!”
At this point, a man with headphones in his ears had walked up next to me, repeating exactly what I’d just said. “The bag is flimsy!” The strangers looked at each other, then back at us.
A gray-haired woman wearing pointy sunglasses, apparently listening to someone on her phone, all of a sudden also became very impassioned about M&Ms. “I don’t want to lose an M&M, not one!” she insisted. “This is not that hard to understand.”
The strangers looked at all three of us, smiled politely, and turned around.
My time spent covering blockchain and crypto has led me to plenty of gatherings I might otherwise not attend. They usually consist of rooms full of white men wearing varying degrees of business casual, talking about the upsides of proof-of-stake, and telling me it’s “cool” I drink whiskey. But this event is different. It’s an art show full of interactive booths, many of which feature increasingly edgy ways to depict male genitalia.
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I’m there because I have a token. The token certifies that I’m a performer in a piece called “…And All the Reporters Laughed and Took Pictures,” directed by Jack and Leigh Ruby live at the Spring/Break Art Show at 866 UN Plaza in midtown Manhattan. I don’t know any of the other performers involved in the show—we haven’t met before, and there’s been no advance coordination other than the instructions I received when I claimed my token last week. The tokenized part of the performance was implemented by Snark.art, a group that helps artists experiment with using blockchain as a medium.
My ERC-721 token is currently sitting in my Trust Wallet, a crypto wallet app I was instructed to download upon confirming my performer status in “…And All the Reporters.” In preparation, I tapped the token in my wallet and read through a set of instructions for the Sunday performance, which assured me that a “Snark representative” would be waiting at the entrance of 866 UN Plaza, wearing a Snark.art hat. They would direct me to a particular location where I’d have to dial a specific phone number, which would deliver “spoken word audio” I’d have to repeat immediately upon hearing. I’d have to say the words like I was having a normal conversation with whomever I approached.
Supposedly, I’d hear other people having the same phone conversations around me. I would have to “start to gravitate toward” those people. Additional “choreography” instructions would be told to me over the phone throughout the course of the 45-minute performance.
To mentally steel myself for this performance, I spoke to the organizers—Snark.art’s Andrey Alekhin and Misha Libman, along with the artist, Jack Ruby. I wanted a better idea of what I was getting into.
“We’ve talked about how to connect the physical and digital worlds,” Alekhin told me. “…And All the Reporters” would be “maybe one step towards this idea of a decentralized performance.” I would be “asked to engage random people, or not—it’s up to each performer to do what they’re asked.”
I got more specific information from Ruby, the puppet master behind this flash-mob-esque spectacle, which I learned has been going on all week at the Spring/Break Art Show, though in a centralized fashion (as in, all of the performers were aware of each other rather than coming together only after receiving matching blockchain-based tokens). Participating performers have been accosting strangers for days, approaching them with lines from a speech Bill Clinton made about his legume-focused diet, a talk Gwyneth Paltrow gave about founding her now-burgeoning Goop business, an apology from an author who plagiarized, and a rant Chris Christie once went on about opening a box of M&Ms only to find inside of it a bag of M&Ms—a rant I ended up repeating with gusto.
Ruby picked these monologues based on a single criterion. “The general idea is people that are not really lying, exactly, but they’re bullshitting you in a way,” he said. “They’re not being authentic—it’s hard to describe.” Ultimately, the aim is to “break through the artificiality of having conversations with strangers.”
Always up for a disaster, I headed to Spring/Break Art Show on Sunday ready and unwilling to engage in some very awkward shared moments with strangers.
I asked Ruby if he had any advice for me, a future performer in his live, somewhat decentralized sketch. “I’ve worked with Misha on [the blockchain] part of it, and I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to work,” he said. “None of us really knows what’s going to happen. It could be a complete disaster.”
Always up for a disaster, I headed to Spring/Break Art Show on Sunday ready and unwilling to engage in some very awkward shared moments with strangers. There was no “Snark.art representative” waiting to greet me at the entrance, but finding their booth wasn’t difficult. As I approached, a woman in a red sweater came up to me. She was wearing headphones.
“Do you think that this is the appropriate way to do this?” she said to me. “No matter where you go, you’re going to have to get your laundry done.”
It was the performance. I wished I hadn’t known, because I might have been more amused than bored when a glasses-wearing man joined us to repeat the woman’s speech, an older man eventually coming up behind him to do the same. Because I was one of the token-holding, “decentralized” performers, they didn’t know that soon enough I’d be joining them in this strange game. As I stood there, stupid smile plastered to my face, I felt like I was being disingenuous by not telling the performers this—but I also didn’t want to interrupt their groove. Walking away felt impossible, but I did it when a fourth person started giving me a hard time about where I was going to do my laundry if I ran away from home.
As I peeled away from the group, I noticed another woman similarly extricating herself. Her name was Anna, I learned, and she’d lost her friends somewhere in this maze of an art show. She’d been approached with a monologue about a car. “I know nothing about cars, so for the sake of just playing along I nodded,” she said. “Then a few other people started saying the same thing to me. It was kind of a surreal experience, but I caught myself responding to it and nodding.”
After I called the number and began participating myself, I found a lot of people responded that way. They nodded along with my thoughts on M&M boxes and car registrations while I received verbal instructions from artist Eve Sussman on where to go to bother strangers next. (Sussman previously collaborated with Snark.art on a project called “89 Seconds Atomized.”) The words sounded like they were coming from me, even though they weren’t. I was “channeling” someone else’s speech.
So why blockchain? “The ‘channeling’ is in many ways about anonymity of the speaker,” said Libman, “and sourcing the anonymous performers through the blockchain seemed like an ideal way to further this distance between the performer and the director.” There could have more decentralized aspects to the performance, Libman added, but this was their first attempt at a live, blockchain-assisted show. They were just dipping their toes in.
Over the course of the weekend, two different performances involving 41 token holders took place. When I’d asked artist Ruby what he ultimately hoped to get out of the experience, he said, “Misha has this idea that art can be made using blockchain somehow, and I don’t think anybody knows how that’s going to work yet.”
He paused for a second. “It’s like when movie cameras were first made, and they’d have things like a train pointing straight at the camera and people watching in the theater… they jumped out of their seats because they thought it was a real train and they thought they were going to die. I think we’re at that stage with blockchain now.”
At the time, I was puzzled by that comparison, but during my performance in “…And All the Reporters,” it started to make sense. Except I didn’t feel like the theatergoers; I felt like the train.
This article has been updated to reflect that the token for the performance was an ERC-721, not an ERC-20, token.