Public Key / Private Key

A project for The Whitney Museum of American Art

Jennifer & Kevin McCoy
3 min readApr 8, 2018

by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

frames from the 16mm film Public Key / Private Key, cinematography by Eric Lin, performance by Gillian Chadsey. The 3 minute film is an attempt to capture how mathmatics deals with the slippery concept of time.

Public Key / Private Key is a project that addresses themes of ownership and the role that donors play in the mission of museums and their conservation of cultural objects. It launched March 5th, 2019 online at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Museums generally are understood to keep an artwork in trust but to make it available to many. Often artworks are donated to a museum by trustees or other collectors who are then publicly credited as the titular giver of the art object (ie. gift of Jane and John Doe). Usually this accession into the museum collection marks the end of the ‘market life’ of the artwork. The provenance history of the work notes the past owners, but the final and ultimate donor, who may have paid a great deal of money for the artwork, gets his/her/their name permanently associated with the gift of the work to the museum.

Our project for the Whitney Museum will extend the ‘market life’ of the artwork even after its accession to the Special Collection of the museum. We will do this by issuing a blockchain-based cryptographic certificate that represents the right to be credited as the “donor of record” of the artwork. Over the past several years, we, along with other artists and startups, have explored the use of blockchain systems (the ledger technology that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) as a method of recording provenance, usage rights or fractionalized ownership of artworks.

Our project will link together an actual object, our artwork, with a virtual object, the digital certificate we will issue. Because of its nature as a blockchain-based record, the digital certificates are inherently tradable by those who possess them. This means that, while the ownership of the work remains with the museum, there can be an active and ongoing secondary market for the rights to be credited as the “donor of record” of the work after the fact. This open period of trade will last for 6 months after which the list of participants’ names will be frozen and made permanent. The Whitney’s Artport site will host a webpage where the public can vie to acquire one of the 50 digital certificates. Once acquired, the holder of the donation token is free to retain, give or sell that token to whomever they wish. The museum has agreed to credit the people who are listed on the cryptographic ledger as the “donors of record” of the work.

The art object for this project is a unique 16mm print of a film called “Public Key / Private Key”

To underline the changing, increasingly abstract relationship of the mediated image to traditional ideas of the art object, the artwork we have made is a unique, singular physical print of a 16mm short film we have produced. We are working with 16mm film for Public Key / Private Key because it can be seen both as a solid, distributable object (made up of the canister, and the film itself) and as an ephemeral moving image, a flickering projected light. We are also interested in using one of the oldest forms of the moving image, a format that we have worked with in many capacities over the course of our collaborative careers from film, through analog and digital video, and now digital files.

The blockchain-backed digital certificate, and the real-time list of current certificate holders is provided by a collaboration and Monegraph is a creative blockchain platform initiated by Kevin McCoy in 2014 that lets artists register ownership information for artworks on the bitcoin blockchain. OpenLaw is a legal technology platform developing blockchain-based smart contracts and markup languages for dynamic legal agreements.