Held down by several hand weights, an inflatable white rat with a bitcoin symbol on one eye and the letters “POW” on the other menaces the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan’s financial district. On the afternoon of October 10, the rat’s second day on Maiden Lane, two men in crisp button-ups crouch in front of the roughly 10-foot art installation to get their picture taken. The older one, a gray-haired man with a matching mustache, works at the Federal Reserve.
Saiers wears a white t-shirt and sunglasses that obscure the bridge of his nose, and he speaks quickly about his work. After describing how the rat sits on Maiden Lane because that was also the name of the LLC that “helped facilitate the bailout of AIG and Bear Stearns” during the 2008 financial crisis, he mentions the tiff he had earlier with 59 Maiden Lane, the large office building across the street from the Fed. The rat rests on the office building’s very wide stoop, and Saiers has already had to move it a few times to make sure it’s not encroaching on the private property, marked by a black line separating it from the public sidewalk. The rat’s tail just barely inches over the line.
Rats often end up where they’re not wanted. That’s part of the reason why Saiers’s bitcoin sculpture looks like one. In New York City, union workers regularly install inflatable black rats in front of construction sites that employ nonunion contractors. “This is a very iconic image for protest,” Saiers says, going on to explain how “somewhere in the heart of bitcoin is a bit of protest of big bank bailouts.” Saiers makes sure I understand that when he says “protest,” he’s putting it in quotation marks.
Then there’s the Warren Buffet reference, which Saiers includes on a piece of paper labeled “disclaimer” taped to an a-frame sign by the rat. (Earlier this year, Buffet called bitcoin “probably rat poison squared.”) And then of course there’s Banksy, who’s all about rat imagery, and feels like a fitting nod for Saiers’s first piece of street art.
Plus, like rats, cryptocurrency is “under the radar,” the younger companion of the Federal Reserve employee says after they get their picture taken. Saiers nods and mentions Banksy again. This particular viewer clearly gets it.
Not everyone does. The installation is meant to be ambiguous, spreading “awareness,” as Saiers puts it, of both bitcoin and the Federal Reserve without directly disparaging either or even necessarily presenting them in opposition. Furthermore, the colorful strings of letters and symbols that cover the white rat aren’t obvious as blockchain code to the majority of people who pass by, though many take pictures, confused looks showing behind their smartphones. One man walks by and yells, “Rat!” Another shows the rat to the person on the other end of his video call. Few take time to examine the code.
“One person actually asked if it was about pharmaceuticals,” Saiers looks to the colorful text. “I guess the white, almost sterile background? They wondered if they were chemical bonds, or something…”
Saiers won’t tell me exactly what any of the code signifies, just that “there are some riddles in there” and the size and color of the text can help viewers solve them. On Reddit, some have recognized the original bitcoin blockchain code. I get treated to a less technical secret as Saiers points to the “POW” (which stands for “proof of work” in crypto) on the rat’s right eye. It’s similar to the image Roy Lichtenstein used in his famous 1965 work, “Sweet Dreams, Baby!” where “Pow!” is an onomatopoeia for a guy getting punched in the face. Still, Saiers mostly wants to keep the imagery mysterious. “I want people to actually wrestle with it,” he says.
On Wednesday, the rat’s relationship to bitcoin is much more obvious than it was during its first day staking out the Federal Reserve. Saiers had fitted a black bitcoin logo to its chest, coincidentally after a Redditor criticized the lack of blatant crypto symbology. (Later on Wednesday, someone on Reddit writes back to the critic, “It has a [bitcoin] logo on the left eye. I like the subtlety, most of the impact will be from news articles anyway, and those will mention the association.”)
Saiers and his friend Natasha—who took time to scroll through her phone to show me pictures of people taking pictures with the rat—along with the couple of guys who helped transport the rat to Maiden Lane in an Uber earlier that morning, stand around the installation all afternoon. They plan to stay until the generator keeping it inflated runs out of gas, watching as more and more people take selfies underneath the bitcoin symbol. Across the street, a security guard at the Federal Reserve shakes his head. “I don’t know who it’s for or who it’s against,” he says, playing appropriately into the sculpture’s ambiguity, before he asks me if I own any bitcoin.
Meanwhile, two uniformed men standing behind the front desk at 59 Maiden Lane have called the police. The Bitcoin Rat is violating the building’s codes. Three hours later, at 4pm, as Saiers and company deflate and pack up the rat, the police still haven’t shown.
This certainly represents some kind of perfect bitcoin/banking regulation analogy, but, in the spirit of Saiers’s work, I’ll let it remain ambiguous.