There is a ton of cocaine somewhere in the open sea right now. Not in the Caribbean Sea, not in the Pacific Ocean. It is on a blockchain platform called OpenSea, which translates to ‘open sea’, and where several artists have recently offered their works in the form of NFTs: encrypted codes known in Spanish as non-fungible tokens. There, the Colombian artist Camilo Restrepo has released his latest work, his first in the form of NFT, entitled aTonOfCoke: a thousand images, each one representing 1 kilo of cocaine, up to one ton.
“My works, many of them, have been a statement about the war against drugs, and this NFTs is also going that way, ”Restrepo explains to El PAÍS. “I want to exploit these types of platforms but what interests me the most is the speculation of art, rather than the image of cocaine itself.”
The images are, as the artist puts it, “boring”: a white rectangle on a gray background. The first kilo costs 0.001 ethers (the crypto-currency of the platform Ethereum), the second 0.002 ethers, and so on until reaching the thousandth kilo, which will cost 1 ether. “The latter is supposedly the real price of a kilo of cocaine in Colombia,” he says. Currently, 1 ether is equal to $ 2,359, but the price of cryptocurrency, like that of cocaine, fluctuates constantly.
“Let’s say there are three markets with which I am talking: the art market, the cocaine market, and the NFTs market. In all three markets one finds impressive similarities in terms of speculation, ”says Restrepo.
The price of a kilo of cocaine varies, for example, due to the restrictive policies that a state takes to criminalize the drug. “What he proposed [el expresidente] Andrés Pastrana was to end production and what he really achieved is that the entire process became so expensive that it impacted the final price of cocaine, ”says Restrepo about the president who approved Plan Colombia 21 years ago, the failed military strategy financed by the United States to eradicate coca crops.
But the value of cryptocurrencies and the encrypted codes known as NFTs also fluctuate wildly, in part because of a group of speculators who have wanted to push the cryptocurrency outside the market regulators. An ether cost $ 350 in October last year, a little over $ 4,000 in early May this year, and now almost half that price. This instability, however, has not prevented art galleries and auction houses such as Christie’s from auctioning their first NFTs – the most expensive of these codes has reached 69 million dollars – and generating a debate on the art market: Is it the work that is really worth that price? Or is it market speculation that determines the value of the code?
Restrepo’s work, in that sense, is an effort to reveal the way the art market moves. “This is a more conceptual act,” he says. “It’s not like other digital art that he does, for example, with avatars.” The artist explains that he will be selling his cryptococa for the next few months – currently he has only sold the first kilos, two of them to a North American crypto activist named Brandon Zemp – and adding elements that can play with that speculation. Restrepo explores, for example, the possibility that one of its buyers is a drug dealer known in the world of culture: alias ‘gold tooth’, a fictional drug dealer played by Mexican actor Fernando Bonilla from the theater company Earth Fist. A fake Mexican narco, buying fake Colombian cocaine, in a fake open sea, then selling to a dealer American also false.
“This is a collective art project,” he explains. If the fake drug dealer buys, that affects the market price. If an art critic promotes it, that can also play a role. If the price of ether increases, so can the kilo of digital coca. “And could this article also have an influence?”, This newspaper asked Restrepo. “Yes,” he replied. “The COUNTRY would be part of the work of art as well.” Although, of course, this medium has no commercial interest in this work, the speculation that Restrepo tries to expose is fueled by the notoriety, virality, and popularity of a cultural object. Although it is intangible.
From Pablo Escobar to crypto art
The issue of drug trafficking for Camilo Restrepo is not simply conceptual. Born in Medellín in 1973, the artist lived in the Paisa capital during Pablo Escobar’s bloodiest years during the drug trafficking boom. “The first time I faced a corpse I was five years old,” he writes in a book about his work. “The eighties and nineties were very complicated in Medellín. Fear was a dog that you always took for a walk ”. Daily fear of corpses in the streets, or of shootings, or of the bombs that exploded the windows of his house.
Art, on the other hand, has been a visceral outlet for thinking about the failed war on drugs and the psychological impact of violence. “The experiences of the war in Medellín are a starting point for my works and in this sense the work is cathartic,” he explains. Among his works is White on White, a series based on photographs of cocaine seizures; or Figurines on the ground, whose installation includes black plastic bags in the streets of Medellín with which people have taken drugs with glue.
Restrepo has exhibited his works in various cities in Colombia, but also London, Rio de Janeiro, Miami, New York and Los Angeles. In the latter city, at the Steve Turner gallery, he has had several of his solo exhibitions, where in 2017 he caught the attention of a famous collector: Leonardo DiCaprio. “He is the person who has the most paintings of mine,” says Restrepo about the actor from Titanic Y The Revenant.
The first of his works that DiCaprio bought, Restrepo says, is one called Mere fever, a huge painting made with different paper daughters and with various cartoon characters, including Donald Trump snorting cocaine through a donut, and the former president is surrounded by a hydra with several heads. “As happens in Colombia or Mexico, when a head of drug trafficking falls, others appear immediately,” Restrepo explains to El PAÍS.
But among the dozens of cartoons there are also several of the elements that have environmentally impacted the country in this war on drugs, such as the herbicide Roundup, which was used to eradicate contaminated coca crops thousands of hectares. “Leonardo Di Caprio was very interested in environmental issues,” says Restrepo. “Then he told me that Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, who had filmed the film about [la amante de Pablo Escobar] Virginia Vallejo, they saw that painting and they told her that they were very impressed by the work because the chaos there represented the Medellín of the 80s ”.
Restrepo presented on July 1 at the Steve Turner gallery another new work on drug trafficking, with digital content, but different from that of the NFT. Is named The Other Names (The Other Names): 503 cartoon drawings displayed on three white walls in the gallery. Every day of 2020 Restrepo read the national newspaper Time, looking for the ‘aliases’ there: the people – many times guerrillas, paramilitaries, corrupt politicians or drug traffickers – named through their pseudonym, their alias. He organized them all in an excel sheet, counting how many times they went out in the year, and in 2021 he spent the first months drawing the profiles of each one using Google images.
“It is almost a tragicomedy, images of popular and digital culture,” says Restrepo. “There is everything, alias the nerd, aka Pokemon, aka Jesus Santrich and aliases Ivan Marquez”. These last two are two former FARC guerrilla commanders who have rearmed in Colombia.
“The project is about the proliferation of aliases, because it doesn’t matter if there is one less, there will always be more,” says Restrepo, explaining that when a drug lord falls in Colombia or Mexico, there is an immediate fight from others. to take their place. “So the proliferation of aliases is also another example that these wars are all failed wars.”