Kevin McCoy on Bridging and Blockchain

For the occasion of Quantum's ten-year anniversary—Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's work that played a pivotal role in early NFT history—Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) spoke to Kevin McCoy about the development of media art since the impactful project and its links to
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Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Quantum, 2014. Courtesy of the artists

Kevin McCoy on Bridging and Blockchain

For the occasion of Quantum's ten-year anniversary—Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's work that played a pivotal role in early NFT history—Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) spoke to Kevin McCoy about the development of media art since the impactful project and its links to

Peter Bauman: How did Quantum come about? When did you first get the idea? From the Seven on Seven talk, you said you first got the idea around six months before the release on May 2, 2014.

Kevin McCoy: In the summer and in the fall of 2013, I'd been thinking about it. 2013 was my big obsessive rabbit hole year with Bitcoin. It was Bitcoin in that era that brought everybody to the party. I began struggling to understand it—to see what was going on. It's funny because it even began the year before, in 2012, when for strange reasons, I ended up with a piece of mining hardware. That was the start: having this land in my lap and then using that as a catalyst to try to understand what Bitcoin was.

I found the Whitepaper, read it and tried to get my head around it. I went to BitcoinTalk, the site for all the discussion and dove in. Once I clicked into that fundamental concept of digital scarcity—that this system makes digital information unique in the sense that I can send you my Bitcoin and I don't have it anymore. Then it was a pretty short step—given my background as a digital artist and art and technology person into—to imagine you could make an artwork unique like that. It was that conceptual step that really made a lot of sense in my mind. Then I had to think about, “How would that work?”

It was an abstract exercise for a long time. Then, in the fall [of 2013] I made some posts about it on BitcoinTalk, proposing this idea and asking if anybody was interested. I didn't really get any responses. But Rhizome—the digital art organization I’ve known forever—through social contacts knew I was thinking about these things. They ultimately invited me to Seven on Seven to present this research and these ideas. So that was the opening. That was the public stage for it. I had some basic ideas and the talk became the deadline. As that date approached, that firmed them up.

The key insight in my mind in terms of how to make this unique was: You're not going to make the data unique, like encryption could be.​ It's the metadata record that can be unique. And that metadata record is going to connect to the digital artwork in some ways. That was the basic architectural idea.

When the time came for Seven on Seven, Michael Connor hooked me up with Anil Dash. At that time, it was fairly strict in the sense of a rule—you're not going to meet the person ahead of time. You've got twenty four hours. That's it. So when I met Anil, it was like, “Oh, I've got this idea for how to do digital provenance and ownership for digital artworks.” And he's like, “That sounds great. Let's do it.” Quantum was the first one in the sense of me showing him what I was talking about.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Quantum (Still), 2014. Courtesy of the artists

The first thing that we did together was to come up with a name for it. We spent a lot of time talking about what the idea really was about and what blockchains were doing. It was a wide-ranging conceptual conversation to come up with this term of “monetized graphics,” or Monegraph for the title. Quantum reflects that decision-making because the term Monegraph shows up in the metadata. So it's downstream of that idea.

Anil and I came up with this name, and then it was about how do we tell this story? Anil was really gifted at that, realizing the best way to tell the story was to walk people through the steps of it. We then broke it down structurally and made a website that people could use to generate their own metadata records. There was, of course, no wallet integration or anything like that at the time. So it was a fairly hopeful process. Could you get all those pieces together? We gave you a chunk, but you still had to do a bunch of work yourself.

The particular artwork is interesting, too, because it wasn't like there was this heroic vision of this transformational thing happening. And I better construct this ceremonially important artwork. It wasn't so much like that as it was—this piece looks cool and I've got it. This will be one.

That artwork has its own history. It was part of earlier pieces. It was the work that Jenn[ifer McCoy] and I did, which involved lots of different elements coming together—sculptural elements, video elements and software elements—all converging in different ways. That animation was something that I had made, and we had used it in the context of other video pieces and video sculptures. It was an element that was on my computer and I made sure I had some stuff ready to go at the time, like the ones on stage.

The Cars animation was something that Jenn had made, also part of an earlier artwork. Those pieces were just there and made sense to use. The one exception to that is the one that I minted on stage during the Seven on Seven presentation. That piece was an animated gif from a project that Jenn and I made with our friend Torsten Burns in the late '90s. That was intentional in the sense that I wanted to tie that earlier generation of digital art practice to this new idea and specifically bridge those two things. Because that's my background—coming from that scene and being a part of that scene.

I thought that this technology's point at that time was to create new possibilities for artists who hadn't been there before. So it made sense in my mind to connect it to

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Cars (Still), 2014. Courtesy of the artists

Peter Bauman: I’d like to touch on this connection to more later. Sticking with Quantum, it has been referred to by some as the first NFT, while others dispute that. Do you use the word first? Do you think about it in those terms?

Kevin McCoy: It's funny because there's so much latter-day language and concept that’s brought back to these earlier times. Obviously, NFT was not a term that existed. Minting didn't exist. So we called it monetized; we called it a Monegraph, and we called it a claim. We called it different things.

It's clear that there were other people exploring related ideas—interest in how blockchains and art could intersect. A lot of information is now more clear about those earlier times—artists selling stuff for Bitcoin—so there's lots of different ways you can chop things up into firsts. Rhea Myers was obviously doing really interesting work then, Ascribe was thinking about things and then Monegraph.

With all that said, Monegraph was doing something special, which was unique, and in many ways warrants a first, in the sense that it was explicitly about provenance and transferable ownership via blockchain records, via blockchain transactions, and that it wasn't just a one-off system. It was an artist conceptualizing this thing and then creating a mechanism for people to do that and showing examples of that.

It was the whole package and that whole package hadn't really been assembled until that time. So the conception of NFTs that swept the world in all the downstream Ethereum-based stuff from 2017 through the 2021 hype cycle was first in Monegraph. In that sense, it's the first. I'm proud of that fact. I'm happy with that. It's true that that's the correct history, I think.

Peter Bauman: What was so important, too, was that you were able to communicate your idea publicly essentially immediately after this first “claim.” You minted Quantum on May second, and then the Seven on Seven was May third and they were obviously tied together.

Kevin McCoy: They're tied together. Seven on Seven for us started twenty four hours before the public part happened. So it was all the same thing. Anil and I met and talked all about this idea, came up with this name and registered the domain. In that context, I then said, “Okay, here's what the blockchain stuff looks like,” and created this blockchain record. Then he knew PHP and could make the website and we made the functional web tool. It was all part of the same arc. The public presentation is the end of that initial arc for us.

But to your point, it is absolutely the case that all of that stuff happened in public. It happened in the context of a public presentation, and it happened in the context of something that was occurring at an art museum [The New Museum in New York], which I also think is super important with an art project.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy in collaboration with Torsten Zenas Burns, Maintenance/Web (Screenshot), 1997. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: And by an artist, too, of course. I agree it's super important and doesn't get highlighted enough. Talk about your headspace at the time and your expectations then compared to the reality of the last ten years.

Kevin McCoy: It's definitely true that I thought it was an important idea. I was a Bitcoin true believer. Seeing the promise of that technology, and then especially once it transforms into this thing about art, artworks and digital art. In my mind, it's like, okay, this is an actual alternative to the prevailing defaults of either Creative Commons, which I saw in the context of giving things away, or this platform-based dynamic of handing things over to corporations. This idea of a transferable blockchain system seemed important. I was very happy that we were able to come up with something that functioned—as imperfect as it was. Of course, we hadn't slept at all. It was a twenty-four-hour sprint.

Then I spent several years trying to build the platform. lived until late 2016. I spent two years just trying to get people excited about this idea and largely failed, which was frustrating. It was really an incredible emotional roller coaster.

But none of that really prepared me for the intensity of the stuff that happened in 2021. It's impossible. I remember walking around New York that summer and just looking around and going, “I bet most of these people have heard of NFTs.” And it was just weird to think that that was true—that this idea that I played this role in was so prevalent in the world.

The reality of it is that there were multiple, multiple inventions of the idea. There were multiple histories of it. And the version that I made didn't survive. And it was the Ethereum-based story that really broke through.

People come up to me at NFT events all the time and are like, “So happy to meet you,” or amazed at what I did. I didn't anticipate that. It was hard to envision that was going to be the future of this idea. In a couple of words, it's pretty wild.

Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash at Rhizome's Seven on Seven 2014

Peter Bauman: The current level of cultural ubiquity is still surprising. Yet you joked even ten years ago about how little overlap there is between blockchain and art literacy. I’m wondering if that overlap is still necessary. Ideally, shouldn’t the blockchain literacy aspect become less important over time?

Kevin McCoy: How literate are people of blockchains and how much technical literacy is required to use this technology—two super important questions. It goes back to because, in that era, out of necessity in the '90s, artists were trying to do Internet-based projects. Artists had to roll their own. It had to be DIY. That required a certain understanding and engagement with the technology, making HTML pages, trying to do cool things with the software.

That reflects my basic hands-on approach to technology. With blockchain, that was also the case. We saw something similar happen with Later generations shifted their creative work to platforms like Tumblr and early Instagram. There was a whole later generation of artists that didn't have to go under the hood. It was just at this level of social and distributed media and interaction. The same thing has happened with blockchains. Maybe that's just an inevitable part of the cycle of technological adoption.

Lots of people in the technology world see the creative power of technology as taking the place of art or being more important than art. So they're not necessarily that interested in art. It's like a meme of waiting for Silicon Valley to want to become art collectors. Are they going to show up at art fairs and buy these technology-based sculptures, software-based projects and whatever? The answer has largely been no; they do not show up for that. Maybe NFTs are the way in which they've shown up because it's certainly the case that the popularity of digital art has expanded massively with NFTs. They have brought in people who were not part of that art scene at all.

One of the great surprises in the last five years is just seeing how many people are brought into and are excited about digital art via NFTs. And it's just increased the community vastly on the artist side but really in interesting ways on the collector side.

Peter Bauman: You mentioned bridging to your Seven on Seven talk and I'm wondering if you can tell us more—your story even—about its connection to the hacker-artist Bitcoin community that both share an anti-authoritarian, decentralized ethos.

Kevin McCoy: That decentralized, DIY ethos was very much where I was coming from in the '90s. It was both a network-enabled international scene and a very local scene here in New York. At that time, there was another organization that was even more important than Rhizome and that was the Thing. That was an artist-run, pre-web bulletin board system that became an early-web ISP provider and general host for artist-enabled projects. It was built and run by an artist named Wolfgang Staehle, who was directly grounded in a New York and international conceptual art framework. Arriving in New York and finding the Thing, we made our way there. They had this cool office over on the West Side. They had a T1 line so had great connectivity at the time. They were the platform for a lot of different artists. Wolfgang’s from Germany so there was this whole connection of artists coming from Germany and other places in Europe.

There were a number of decentralized, bottom-up, distributed-thinking artists and projects that were happening there. Ricardo Dominguez’s group called Electronic Disturbance Theater pioneered the concept of a distributed denial-of-service attack as a form of sit-in. There were concepts around alternative DNS systems that people were experimenting with. There were experiments with alternative broadcasting and streaming. This is way before Twitch and YouTube.

In retrospect, people think of as websites and HTML but it was more diffuse than that. Websites are the things that can easily survive after the fact, but it was all kinds of performances, events, software or tools that people could work with. was just an element in a broader form of digital experimentation and digital creativity that was happening and that broader ethos was very much about decentralization, anti-authoritarianism, bottom-up approaches and anti-surveillance. Then I started seeing with Bitcoin, especially at that early time, a very cypherpunk, anti-authoritarian project. It was easy to connect with that for me. I definitely saw this in that same vein.

Screenshot of

Peter Bauman: You talk about the roots of blockchain-based art in, which received, quite a lot of public and institutional interest as well but without the additional baggage of NFTs. Does it frustrate you that NFTs have been co-opted and now many people, especially in the art world, have this negative view of them?

Kevin McCoy: It's funny. I say that I'm cautiously optimistic and glass half full, but it is surprising. It's been surprising the endless ways that scams and scammers have found to use this technology. The phrase that I came up with is that everything crypto touches turns absurd—it does these strange transformations to the things that it intersects with. We've seen that with Bitcoin fear for so long—misunderstanding, fear, ridicule. As this technology has marched into other areas, including art, the same thing has taken place.

Peter Bauman: There's always fear around new technologies so it's understandable that there’s fear around NFTs. But, again, this concept was all started by an artist at a museum under the auspices of a very well-respected digital art institution in Rhizome. Can the significance of this genealogy combat any knee-jerk reactions against NFTs?

Kevin McCoy: I do deeply believe that artists can operate at a fundamental level in the world. They can say things, create things and show things that are co-equal with what science and philosophy are doing. We live in a world in which that is not apparent. Science and technology and the scientists and mathematicians behind that are deemed to have some privileged access to reality and are making the fundamental, powerful insights. Artists are seen as downstream of that and are beaten down and broke or desperate or sad. And I don't think that that's the case. I want artists to grab that mantle and realize that they have that fundamental power. Whether or not the fact that an artist made this breakthrough is an example of that, maybe is debatable. But the larger point of the important role that artists actually perform, I don't want to get lost. To the extent to which this history can be an example of that belief of mine, it's important to tell that story.


Jennifer and Kevin McCoy are media artists whose works extends from the moving image and software to drawing, painting, and installation.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.