“[Tulip Mania meant that] the order of the stock market was introduced into the order of nature. The tulip began to lose the properties and charms of a flower: it grew pale, lost its colours and shapes, became an abstraction, a name, a symbol interchangeable with a certain amount of money.”

Zbigniew Herbert

Bloemenveiling is an auction of artificial-intelligence-generated tulips on the blockchain. Echoing the auctions that sprung up throughout taverns in 17th century Holland at the height of Tulip Mania, the piece interrogates the way technology drives human desire and economic dynamics by creating artificial scarcity.

Short moving image pieces of tulips created by generative adversarial networks are sold at auction using smart contracts on the Ethereum network. Each time a tulip is sold, thousands of computers around the world all work to verify the transaction, checking each other's work against each other. Even if the website for the auction shuts down, a permanent record of tulip ownership will always exist.

A network of bots participate in the auction alongside humans, driving demand in much the same way as the automated trading algorithms that drive modern financial markets. After a week, the tulip is blighted, and the moving image piece can no longer be viewed by its owner. Thus, the decay and impermanence of the natural world is reintroduced into the digital world. While the artificial intelligence behind the moving image pieces has the potential to generate infinite flowers, the enormous distributed network behind Ethereum is used, at great environmental cost, to introduce scarcity to an otherwise limitless resource.

Bloemenveiling is a functioning decentralized application. For instructions, consult the About page. It is an experiment but it is real.

Anna Ridler & David Pfau, 2019

Currently on display as part of the “Entangled Realities” exhibition in HeK Basel
Development with Sam Kaufman and Francois Hoehl