The online art platform Artsy has partnered with the programming collective Ruse Laboratories to host the first ever auction of code. The auction is a “move to celebrate the art of pure code and designate algorithms as an exciting new category for collectors,” Artsy writes in a press statement.
Though algorithmically generated art has gained prominence, with many artists using code as a medium, the idea of collecting a line of code itself, not as art, but as an artifact, is still very new. Seven lots have been donated for the auction, including OKCupid’s Compatibility Calculation, the algorithm the dating site uses to match its users, and the original code for “Hello, World,” a common exercise programmers use to test coding languages, written in 1974 at Bell Laboratories by Brian Kernighan. The program is so universal and so embedded in coding culture that it’s comparable to playing a basic scale on an instrument. “Even if they don’t remember their first kiss, every programmer remembers their first ‘Hello, World,'” says Fernando Gil of Ruse Laboratories.
Which poses some important questions about ownership. How do you own something that’s been used countless times around the world by millions of people for decades, and continues to be in use today? What is its value? The Algorithm Auction has come up with creative solutions to this dilemma. At the final party, a replica* of the ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablet Plimpton Cuneiform 322 which is printed with math equations linked to some of the earliest algorithms, will be on display, on loan from Columbia University.** Winners of every lot will also receive a 3-D printed tablet modeled in the Babylonian style and printed with the code they’ve won. The winner of “Hello, World,” will also receive an archival algorithm, “handwritten in original C syntax on acid-free dot-matrix computer paper,” says Artsy representative Michelle Finocchi, and signed by Brian Kernighan. For the OKCupid lot, the winner will not actually buy the rights to the code (that would presumably cost a lot more), but will receive two artistic interpretations of the algorithm mathematically expressed on paper.*** The winner of a new piece of code by musician Anthony Ferraro, which converts other algorithms into music, will in fact win a “living license” to use the algorithm however they like, along with access to a GitHub repository of the code.
The Algorithm Auction opens today online and runs through next Friday, culminating in a party at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York on Friday, March 27. The starting bids for the lots are between $1,000 and $2,500, but Artsy says they can’t predict how much they’ll end up going for–no one has ever sold algorithms in this form before. Tickets to the party run from $150 to $200. All proceeds of the auction will benefit the museum.
*In an earlier version of this article, we stated that the real tablet would be on display. This is not true, it is a replica.
**The earlier version of this article did not mention that said replica was on loan from Columbia University.
***In an earlier version of this article, we did not clarify what winners of the OKCupid lot would receive. They will be given two written representations of the Compatibility Code on paper, and a 3D printed cuneiform tablet inscribed with the keys to a Github portal with ancillary lot materials.