VOXXCOIN: A Blockchain Opera in Two Acts

Loré Lixenberg

VOXXCOIN is an opera using the drama of fiscal exchange as its structure and – in common with my opera installations “SINGLR” and “theVoicePartyOperaBot” – explores the liminal space between analogue and digital worlds and the dichotomy and meaning of being a flesh machine in a digital world going towards the great singularity.

Act 1 is the exploration of the idea of potlatch which is a distributed system of currency.

Act 2 explores the idea of a meritocratic paradigm where value systems are attached to different vocal gestures, each one being worth more than the other, or not – depending on a certain set of parameters.

The installation presented at Process and Protocol is an invitation to the “Great Voxxcoin Throat Mining” where participants are invited to have their throats mined (mirroring bitcoin mining and the great American Gold Rush of the 19th Century) hash-tagged and turned into NFTs to be utilised as the primary coins in Act 1 and 2 of the great Voxxcoin opera.

“All gifts that really mean something are often quite useless.”
“In the system of gift exchanges, most of the time, there are extensive passages of time.”
“Gifts are weaving shuttles…”
—Marcel Mauss, The Gift (1925)

Up until the 19th century, the Kwakiutl, one of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, practiced a form of exchange called potlatch, which means “to give” or “a gift,” which often involved lavish ceremonies that included feasts, dancing, the generous giving of gifts, and in some cases the destruction of one’s own property as a sign of status. Economically, what was going on is referred to as a redistributive exchange. For the Kwakiutl, potlatches were important social gatherings used to assert or transfer ownership of economic and ceremonial privileges.

The idea of the potlatch isn’t limited to the Kwakuitl, but was ubiquitous among many Indigenous American tribes and societies. It was viewed with suspicion in the occidental societies of that time and was outlawed by 1885 by the Canadian government. Penalties included jail time for participants, and the law, contained in the Indian Act of 1884, stayed in effect until 1951 when it was repealed. One of the agents commissioned to investigate the Indigenous people of this area was Gilbert M. Sproat, who wrote about the potlatch in a letter to the prime minister at the time, referring to it as, “the parent of numerous vices which eat out the heart of the [native] people… It is not possible that the Indians can acquire property, or can become industrious with any good result, while under the influence of … [the potlatch].” The potlatch was seen as a destructive force.

In societies that held potlatch ceremonies, gifts can be defined as performing a similar function to a weaving shuttle, the thread being attached, moving back and forth between members of the society. In this way the gift can be regarded as a binding agent just like in weaving, that facilitates a unifying thread. The shuttle moving back and forth is representative of social relations that are welded together in the structural system of the society. In this system, as in weaving, the gifts (shuttles) themselves don’t really matter. What matters is the social relationship that is bonded together through the passage of the gift back and forth.

There is a fragile analogy here between the function of a distributed blockchain and the way this functions and “the gift.” It is maybe possible to understand the fear with which the potlatch was regarded by outside societies who actually used this system because indeed it has a dark side in the same way the cryptocurrencies now have. They tend to be viewed as benign and fair systems for the redistribution of wealth put in place for the greater good. However, there really is no such thing as a free gift. To receive a gift precisely meant that you had “a gift on your back,” which suggests a huge burden of responsibility. It was incumbent on the receiver to pass on the gift, but amplified, at the next potlatch ceremony. Exchange of gifts was not limited to an interchange between individuals, but also to whole tribes and societies. If a community failed for whatever reason to pass on a potlatch, it indebted and enslaved that tribe or community. A gift wove a thread between the giver and receiver that could be viewed as a connection or an entrapment. A gift would be given by the bride’s mother to the groom’s family for instance. Interestingly the word “gift” in Danish means both marriage and poison.

Therefore, the whole idea of the potlatch is not the cute, cuddly inclusive and supportive method of exchange as it is often portrayed. It could also be seen as a rather nasty, bitchy system of entrapment where the recipient of the gift could be poisoned by the impossibility of passing a similar energy on when they are not in a position to do so. This more unpleasant side of the potlatch however is brilliant news for someone intending to create an operatic form out of it via a blockchain as it’s these malevolent frictions that will make for a more interesting vocal exchange. Crypto values fluctuate wildly every day in price giving the impression of being made-up money, advertising for it, more resembling ones for gambling. In this sense, cryptocurrencies can seem like handfuls of air and people are utilizing those handfuls of air to trade. There is definitely an essence of potlatch in cryptocurrency in terms of its method of exchange, also the thread, or agreement that it forms between the users of these currencies and it is this link that Voxxcoin seeks to explore as opera.

“Potlatch” is made in collaboration with Evan Snoswell at the University of York.

“The avarice and injustice of princes and sovereign states, abusing the confidence of their subjects, have by degrees diminished the real quantity of metal … to pay their debts and to fulfil their engagements. [This is] … favourable to the debtor … ruinous to the creditor, and … sometimes produced a greater and more universal revolution in the fortunes of private persons, than could have been occasioned by a very great public calamity.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

The same voices (or coins) from Voxxcoin Act 1 Potlatch are utilised in Act 2 where, after the “Great Voxxcoin Throat Mining,” the voices are hashtagged and blockchained in readiness for the exchangeable Voxxcoin blockchain.

Money has been a polarising and unresolved socio-economic issue for more than 300 years. The State became increasingly involved in money and, through the words of prominent monetary theorists, identified the problem of the State in money. Crypyocurrency could be a solution to this problem but the political dimension needs to be the focus of theory in the 21st century – and that control of the supply of money, and the power that it gives, is the root of contention. If we apply Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1900) to examine cryptocurrency from a technical perspective it could be argued that debate should move beyond the traditional and fundamental clash of commodity theory versus claim theory, thereby framing the second element of the money question as the most important. Potentially, the political dimension is at the heart of the debate about money and that at the epicentre of centuries of tension is one issue: supply. In the 21st century, this is where we need to focus the debate about the future of money.

As in crypto and fiat currency, opera has been shifting and morphing seismically with meaning and value being brought into question, above all how meaning and value are communicated and constructed are ceding to questions concerning “authorship,” “voice” forms of transmission, “performative context” and audience appropriation. The work is no longer a given but rather something continually re-enacted through variations in modes of presentation and reception. With Voxxcoin, the notion of supply is turned on its head with each voice entering the chain and triggering a value response alongside more voices joining and being transformed throughout the blockchain.

Loré Lixenberg‘s pieces explore new forms for opera and voice performance. Escape from the human form underpins the shamanistic piece BIRD (nominated for the Prix Bernard Heidsieck–Centre Pompidou, 2021). Participatory, social and digital forms are explored in her real-time “opera installation” PRET A CHANTER (Hamburger Bahnhof and HEAR ME! Festival, Czech Republic) and AN APP-ERA! SINGLR, a new operatic form based on a vocal dating app, was shown at the Tête à Tête opera festival (UK) and York Design Week in 2022. During the UK election of 2019, she created the real-time opera and political party THE VOICE PARTY from which “theVoicePartyOperaBotFarm” was produced by Radio Ö 1 and Deutschlandfunk Kultur, winning the Phonurgia Nova Prize prize in 2021. PANIC ROOM -THE SINGTERVIEWS uses the form of the interview as the basis for operatic narrative, singterviewing Pauline Oliveros and IONE, Phil Niblock, David Toop and Trevor Wishart (The Armoury New York, Sound of Stockholm, and One Archive in Los Angeles). INNANACARA, exhibited at De Player in Rotterdam, explores the hairdressing appointment as an operatic narrative based on the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Her vocal transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow (NANCARROWKARAOKE) was released in 2021 on the De Player label. She ran La Plaque Tournante projektraum with composer and long term collaborator Frederic Acquaviva.
> https://www.lorelixenberg.art