Nakamoto the Media Magnate and Art Collector?
Curator Jing Yi Teo interrogates artist Michael Mastrototaro on his prescient cyber novel and how a fictional stone evolved into a cryptocurrency.
Earlier on in Issue 3, I wrote about my haphazard first encounter with cryptocurrency in Tunisia through the senior associate of MACHFELD Foundation, a non-profit supporting artists and art institutions with their own cryptocurrency, KONJUNGATE (pronounced con-yoong-gah-tuh). The Foundation has recently evolved into wendy.network, a platform envisioning alternative financial support and blockchain-enabled solutions for artists, such as the implementation of smart contracts. Yet its origins date back to 1999 when founder Michael Mastrototaro wrote a prescient cyber novel foreshadowing the mining of an alternative currency, featuring a main character named Satoshi Nakamoto. I interrogated Michael to learn about the backstory to the cryptocurrency endowed with my meagre investment, and how KONJUNGATE evolved from a fictional stone into a cryptocurrency over the span of twenty years.
Jing Yi Teo: As the novel was published only in its original German I haven’t had the chance to know more. Can you tell us what the novel is about?
Michael Mastrototaro: The novel describes a world in which power and control are guided by the main character Satoshi Nakamoto. On the one hand, the book is focused on him as a power-obsessed media magnate and an art lover — as a world-famous collector with a huge museum, he has enormous influence in the art sector. On the other hand, the book deals with belief; it is about finding out why something seems valuable and how important it is to believe in that value collectively.
Teo: Why was it published as a cyber novel, as opposed to print?
Mastrototaro: In 1999 there was a spirit of optimism towards literary publications on the Internet. During this time, the first “books on-demand” emerged. With the Internet, it was the first time it felt possible for writers and artists to take control of the distribution of the work itself. Concurrently, MACHFELD also started as an art project in collaboration with the Austrian media artist Sabine Maier. We created a website that became a platform where artists could publish their short videos, and we grew it to an international collection. We did a lot of live-streaming just a few years before YouTube came to exist. Yet this form of live-streaming always referred to its own medium, and was not used as a pure transmission channel as it is today.
MACHFELD was published on this website and online communities in the international media art scene. Mailing lists were also quite common, and they were very good incubators for these sorts of projects in bringing people and ideas together. Link exchanges were also popular. It was how the web was growing. You also had to be active in getting in touch, whereas now you get all the information on the screen without really engaging through social media.
Teo: Let’s address the elephant in the room: do you have an explanation for Satoshi Nakamoto, the main character in your book, and the emergence of Bitcoin ten years later with a purported founder of the same name?
Mastrototaro: You can’t explain something like that. I do believe that Bitcoin is successful because of the story, where you have this unknown person you can’t locate, and so much space for speculation and re-interpretation. This was also how I wanted the novel to be, to remain cryptic. I didn’t pour everything that I knew into the book. I wanted readers to complete the image in their heads. Perhaps Satoshi was a common name in Japan, and I wrote the novel with the main character being Japanese in my mind, because it was the place where new technologies were emerging in the late 90s. However, the name led me to blockchain technology…
Teo: When you looked up Satoshi Nakamoto a decade later?
Mastrototaro: As far as I can remember I did an Internet search on the name and came across Bitcoin. Of course, I jumped onto the Bitcoin train. As a media artist I was fascinated by the technological possibilities right from the start and began to grapple with it. After a while I started to believe that blockchain also held possibilities for the art market.
I do believe that Bitcoin is successful because of the story, where you have this unknown person you can’t locate, and so much space for speculation and re-interpretation.
Teo: What was Nakamoto’s role in the novel?
Mastrototaro: The novel takes place in a landscape called Machfeld. This name is adapted from an existing place near Vienna called Marchfeld, which is an agricultural area that supplies your carrots, salad and produce to the city. The German word “Machfeld” also means a place where things can be done; a place for world-creation. So it is not only an agricultural area but also some sort of city with buildings, technology and innovation.
Nakamoto owns this whole landscape where he also has his museum. He faces off with the leader of another planet named Kojungy. Now, to reach Kojungy you need to have two things: the plant Jukava, and Konjungate, a stone that farmers mine.
Teo: Was there any other resemblance to cryptocurrency apart from the fact that Konjungate is also “mined”?
Mastrototaro: More than being a stone, it enables you to communicate with something “higher”, perhaps a higher level of thought that Kojungy represents.
Teo: It sounds almost religious.
Mastrototaro: Close, but not exactly. It focuses more on belief in value rather than a God, which is similar to Bitcoin. If you believe in Konjungate, you get value. If you believe in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, you get value. When it started, one Bitcoin was US$2 and nobody was sure of it; now it is at least US$10,000 and here to stay.
This uncertainty, doubt and faith also runs through the novel. There is a conflict when people believed that Konjungate would disappear, and no one would be able to get in contact with Kojungy, the leader of the other planet. But it didn’t disappear, because people believed in it with spiritual fervour.
Teo: Why the decision to transform Machfeld the novel into Machfeld the Foundation, and Konjungate the fictional stone into its real life manifestation as a cryptocurrency?
Mastrototaro: I felt like I had to do it, but I don’t know why, just like I didn’t know how the story was going to unfold.
The story was created with the help of automatic writing. In other words, the story was not subject to a pre-planned plot. It arose during the writing process. With automatic writing, feelings and expressions should be uncensored as much as possible, without the intervention of the critical ego. Typically, the process is a manual one with a physical writing instrument, like a pen or a typewriter so you can’t delete anything. Sentences, phrases, word strings as well as individual words may be written without intentionality or any sense of control. What is otherwise considered to be incorrect in terms of orthography, grammar or punctuation can be desirable and expedient under these conditions. The surrealists propagated this literary form of free association as a new form of poetry and experimental literature. The only thing that matters is the authenticity of the idea.
As a result, the cyber novel displayed a variety of cryptic images. Over the past 20 years, these images have completed in me and led me to the KONJUNGATE project. It’s my way of searching for answers to questions that came up in the novel. But even when KONJUNGATE was developed as a real-life project, it had a lot to do with belief in something. Today our investors believe in the possibilities of a cryptographically supported funding system for contemporary art.
The surrealists propagated this literary form of free association as a new form of poetry and experimental literature. The only thing that matters is the authenticity of the idea.
Teo: You chose to characterise Nakamoto as a prominent art patron as well. Was this an extension of your experience as an artist? What were you pointing out about the state of the arts during that time?
Mastrototaro: It was questioning the relation of money and value in the art market, something I was — and remain — very concerned with. I was doing a lot of things in the public space, installations, performances — I even did a radio show at one point reading the novel over a year. But there is always this lag between money and what you can realise as an artist. It was always my vision to portray this lag and the process of finding funds for art. In the novel, Nakamoto is not a nice guy — he is really an arsehole — yet he spends a lot of money to help artists get things done.
Even today, I don’t have the answer to this process of art funding, as an artist myself. But MACHFELD was first this cyber novel, and then it became an art entity between Maier and I, years later it became KONJUNGATE the cryptocurrency, and now we have wendy.network. It’s like an art organism that keeps mutating.
Teo: If you were to write a sequel to MACHFELD today, how would it “mutate”?
Mastrototaro: I think you will be able to read that soon. To be honest, it also took some time for me to understand the story that I wrote, but now that I have a lot more knowledge on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, I can put some faces to the characters — I know these guys now, as well as the technologies. But I won’t have the plot for the sequel until I start writing.
I’m currently trying to figure out how to write it on the KONJUNGATE blockchain. One possibility is that you would have to mine sentences out of the blockchain. So it looks like the whole narrative will be even more cryptic…