Passing the Baton

By Glenn Kaino

Published Monday, Dec 13, 2021

“Nice sketch, Glenn,” President Obama said, holding the framed drawing I had just given him as he stood next to me and Tommie Smith in the Oval Office. “Mr. President, we actually call that a drawing,” I joked, trying to elevate his perception of the artwork I had just given him. He patted me on my shoulder, looked me right in the eye and repeated, “Nice sketch.” And then he smiled a mischievous smile and moved the conversation along.

At that moment, I could not have predicted that the drawing would kick off a large-scale Web3 project that would connect the worlds of art, blockchain, and social justice. The image I recreated in graphite was taken from Tommie Smith’s vast collection of images of his victories, one wherein he was the third runner in a relay team, passing the baton to a fourth runner in world-record time. On the back of the framed work, Tommie included an inscription to the President. He wrote, “I can only imagine the length of passage. But most importantly, the baton was not dropped.” As we finished our brief but historic visit, we spoke about how human rights was an intergenerational and intersectional relay.


Only a few weeks after our visit, President Obama appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention and spoke about passing the baton. I won’t claim that our visit had any influence on that, but it did happen!

Tommie Smith, by way of clarity, is a historically important athlete for several reasons. He is the most dominant sprinter of all time, having broken thirteen World Records and simultaneously held nine. The significance of his dominating athletic performance would only be matched, and even overtaken, by the image he created while accepting the gold medal in the Men’s 200-meter sprint during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. During the national anthem, Tommie raised his fist in a silent protest that is regarded as one of the most important pictures of all time.

I met Tommie almost ten years ago when we were connected by a mutual friend, a collaborator of mine and a student of Tommie. I had a small image of Tommie’s salute taped to the corner of my computer in my studio and my friend came in one day, pointed at it, and said “Coach Smith! Want to meet him?” My answer was immediately yes, as apparently was Tommie’s when asked if he wanted to meet me. I flew out to Atlanta to meet with him a few days later and we have been working together ever since. The history of our first decade of working together was documented thoroughly in our Emmy-nominated feature documentary With Drawn Arms.

Pass the Baton is the first project of the second phase of our work together, which we describe as building Tommie’s Legacy Team. Our charge is to create sustainable ways for the memory of Tommie’s salute to live on for generations, and for as many people around the world to benefit from the hardship that he endured, and the sacrifices he suffered as the result of his courageous act.


That pivotal moment in the Oval Office was the inspiration. It was the spark that unlocked a unique set of ideas that had been brewing inside my studio and aligned the many parallel histories that I have developed over my years as an artist. I describe my work as attempting to use art and the opportunity that art creates to connect ideas, stories, and systems that do not normally have a chance to meet. I have rigorously developed and contributed to projects in several cultural spheres that have disrupted, reframed, and rebuilt entire models of creative engagement. I have invested in learning the tools of technology, artmaking, and social justice: from my time as the Chief Creative Officer of Napster 2.0 where we created the first music streaming service, my work creating the first website ever for artists of color in the early 1990s, to my most recent projects connecting the stories of Bloody Sunday around the world at MassMoCA.

Pass the Baton is a technology-driven art project that has as its core the intention to create a sustainable engine for philanthropy, one that drives resources to 23 different organizations around the country who all are engaged in the fight for equality and human rights. It is meant to bring together the best qualities from the disparate worlds of art, blockchain, and social justice that it connects.

When Tommie Smith retired, he took the baton that he used to break all those world records, the one I drew him passing, and he decorated it with the names of his teammates and their split times, using 1970’s red embossing label maker tape. When I saw the baton in his house, it struck me immediately as a beautiful, meaningful art object. It is so historically significant but it also looked so cool. It looked like a lightsaber for a civil rights hero. I knew instantly that I wanted to do something with the baton one day.

Several years later, carrying the momentum of the conversation with the President about intergenerational relays, I decided that I would try to deconstruct the baton and rebuild it in a generative way, with thousands of possible formations, to be carried by Tommie’s Legacy Team. I ruminated on who Tommie’s new teammates might be, and how the baton could serve them in the fight for equality. I then convened a meeting with my studio team and, together with Tommie, we went about designing the fundamental mechanics of the project.

Pass the Baton is a conceptual art project in the form of an economy of giving. It is a large-scale collaboration between Tommie Smith, the owners of the Pass the Baton NFTs, the 23 organizational partners, and the more than 50 million people they serve. It is a collective hallucination of a new world economy, where caring is built into the system. It is a roadmap to finding our humanity.

The ethical systems built in the physical world will be based on understandings of governance, trust, and truth that are coming from emerging Web3 platforms. The reliability of smart contracts promise the possibility of ethical engagements. The collective governance of decentralized autonomous organizations will stress-test old models of representation and decision making. And the transparency of cryptocurrencies and NFTs will challenge existing concepts of ownership and value. Blockchain technology is a fundamental evolution in epistemology and a new way of knowing that is vital to the future of our civilization. It is not coincidental that this new system of collaborative agreement on facts has arrived during an era of all-time distrust in the truth.

This article was originally published on (opens in a new window) Medium.

  • Essays — Passing the Baton, by Glenn Kaino, Dec 13, 2021