HODLism: Initial Soul Offering

an interactive art installation exploring blockchain as a religious experience

About this project:

Vapor Ants / 2018

  • Blockchain
  • Art Installation
  • Physical Computing

Blockchain enthusiasm might be getting out of hand

Or maybe it’s those of us who aren't yet converts that are missing out on the biggest technological and social revolution since the Internet. For an art installation at the 2018 Ethereal Summit in Queens, I worked as part of the art collective Vapor Ants (formerly known as Picnic) to design, build, install, and run an interactive installation exploring attendees' fanaticism and enthusiasm towards blockchain, and the mythology surrounding its anonymous creator.

Our goals for the project were:

  1. Create a more spiritual way to interact with the blockchain
  2. Introduce newcomers to the non-technical aspects of blockchain culture: the memes, the irreverence, the social promise of decentralization, and the mystical nature of its creation
  3. Have fun with the subject matter and put smiles on attendees' faces

Blockchain-as-religion brainstorm

We originally conceived of a three-part installation. In the middle would be a shrine to Satoshi Nakamoto, the name chosen by the creator (or creators?) of blockchain. We wanted to play with the idea of HODL, which was introduced to us by Vapor Ants member Tyler. Bitcoin owners who held onto their cryptocurrency in late 2013 when it was losing value were later greatly rewarded in late 2017 when the value of bitcoin skyrocketed. We wanted to recreate this experience by having attendees kneel on a pillow with embedded sensors, and reward those who knelt the longest with micro-transactions of crypto.

On one side of the shrine we envisioned a reliquary of items that were significant to blockchain's short history and culture. We thought of it as a way to introduce people unfamiliar with blockchain to the more cultural aspects of the technology. We pitched ideas such as "the first GPU to mine bitcoin" and "a piece of toast with a holy hash burnt into it by the toaster."

The third element of the installation was a "prayer terminal" where people could type prayers to Father Satoshi. To tie them into the lore of blockchain, we wanted the prayers to be cryptographically hashed into private keys that would be used to attempt to unlock Satoshi's wallets, which have never had any bitcoin withdrawn from them and contained bitcoin worth many millions of dollars at that time.

A rendering of our initial concept
A rendering of our initial concept

Scaling back

We were delighted that the Ethereal Summit's arts team selected our proposal to be included for the conference. They recommended that we simplify it to be more contained in one installation, which we agreed with.

As these projects go, the simplified version ended up being somewhat of a combination of all three ideas. We designed a central shrine with cultural artifacts scattered around, surrounded by prayer terminals which interacted with the shrine. The prayer terminals were designed to be interacted with while kneeling, with small 7" displays to create an intimate experience.

A rendering of our updated combined concept.
A moody rendering of our updated combined concept.
CAD drawing of refined concept.
CAD drawing of refined concept.

Development and testing

Vapor Ant Azu showed us this video which established our vision for what the aesthetics of a techno-shrine could look like. I created some renders in Blender3D to visualize how the shrines could interact with the central column of LEDs. We created a parts list and budget and started ordering things to test.

Tyler and I began wiring and programming LEDs to test the aesthetics of the shrine. We worked with Alex Tsankov to write a simple python application that would hash users' prayers into private keys and test them on Satoshi's wallet. I managed to connect the python application to a Processing script that would display the typed prayer on the LED column.

Azu brought the shrine to life with visual elements from Guatemalan shrines. The addition of plants, candles, framed photographs, mirrors, crystals, and lucky cats created a really inviting spiritual vibe.

Tyler testing some code on the lights
Testing some code on the lights
Shrine mockup
Test with lucky cats

Installation and interaction

We chose to install around a structural column at the Knockdown Center, the conference venue. The biggest challenge was mounting the LEDs to the top of the column and down the side such that they stayed straight, aligned, evenly spaced, and without twisting.

The hard work paid off at the conference. We had steady foot-traffic throughout the two-day event. It was a delight to see people drawn to the shimmering lights of the shrine's dormant state, and then see the joy on their faces at the details of the shrine, and the humour in the prayer terminals. The prayers entered ranged from whimsical to surprisingly earnest. People brought their friends to try it out. We were worried that no one would want to kneel at the terminals to interact with them, but that wasn't a barrier at all. We even had a few attendees kneel at the shrine itself, close their eyes, and sit still in a meditative state amidst the hustle and bustle of the conference.

Testing the shrine during install
The resting state of the shrine
In its resting state, the shrine visualizes an abstraction of blockchain acitivty.
Conference attendees interacting with the artwork
What you see on the terminal screen by default
A woman kneeling in front of the shrine with the palms of her hands pressed together in prayer
A man kneeling with his eyes closed, his hands resting on his knees
Facing photo frames of Vitalik and his Lambo
A black lucky cat among the LEDs and plants and other shrine-y things
The installation with no one around

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