Danny Franzreb – Proof of Work

My initial response to the massive swell of attention that cryptocurrency received in 2021, and more specifically to the non-fungible token (NFT) hysteria that gripped so much of cultural discourse online and in the press, was a dismissive roll of the eyes. Admittedly, what I was reacting to most were the claims that cryptocurrency was going to democratize finance and become a real alternative to the paper economy, and that NFTs were a new and significant cultural innovation, one that would avoid being completely forgotten (and financially devalued) in just a few short years. Proclamations about NFTs in particular seemed to reach a fever pitch shortly after Beeple, a previously obscure digital artist, sold an NFT for one of his works at auction for $69 million in March of 2021, a sum that, while high, was hardly atypical for a major auction house in the art market capitals of New York and London. However, because tens of millions had been spent to acquire a digital record of ownership of what was effectively already a kind of digital code, and not, say, a painting by Gerhard Richter or a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, the novelty of it all captivated the popular press for at least a single news cycle. Within what seemed like a few weeks of the sale, more auction houses were announcing that payment in cryptocurrency would be accepted, galleries were making forays into the world of NFTs by offering them for existing artworks and even enlisting artists to create new works specifically for the format, and many photographers, like the rest of the enterprising art world, were beginning to see the allure (financial, no doubt) of a new and booming market for their work.

Predisposed as I was to understanding cryptocurrency in general and NFTs in particular as being little more than new forms of financial assets, (that would be, in the case of the former, the purview and plaything of venture capital more than the average private investor, and in the latter just another example of a cultural trend that would inevitably wind up as a mere footnote in a “year-in-review” list or something of the sort), claims that we were experiencing a watershed moment in the history of finance and culture struck me as fatuous and historically unserious. In truth, the idea of cryptocurrency was an almost illusory one for me: it seemed ethereal as so much of our experience with data and digital communication is on some level; the paradox being, of course, that even as we consume media through physical hardware of some kind, we are removed several times over from the systems and processes of its production. Within this context it is easy to forget, or neglect to contemplate, what the infrastructure of the internet, of cellular communications, or of cryptocurrency might look like, where it might be located, and who might be laboring in service of its functioning. It is one of the great achievements of Danny Franzreb’s Proof of Work (Hartmann Books, 2023) that it investigates some of the hidden infrastructure of our times, shedding light as it does on the cryptocurrency bitcoin and those who mine it, where, and with what materials.

Dino, a private crypto miner from Bavaria. Location: Triftern, Germany

Custom setup of graphics cards for mining Ether. Location: Triftern, Germany

The book doubles as a presentation of Franzreb’s year-long project that saw him traverse Europe visiting with and interviewing people running small to large-scale bitcoin mining operations, while also working more generally as an exposition on broader phenomena like blockchain. Franzreb is himself very much at the center of the book, interjecting into the pages of text with updates about his travels, insights gained, and obstacles encountered. His declaration of a kind of humble ignorance at the very beginning of the book (“For me, personally, concepts such as the blockchain were largely incomprehensible.”), coupled with the absence of a polemical edge to what he shows us and how he describes it, allows for an ease of identification with his perspective throughout, and also for the overall tone of the book to remain dispassionate, if not altogether neutral. Reinforced by the straightforward framing and measured psychological tone of his pictures, it is clear that Franzreb is not interested in creating a splashy photographic exposé that uncovers something sordid or shocking. Instead, he is out to rectify gaps in his own understanding of a new technology and the forms of social experience it is creating, and to do so by learning from the very people taking part in it. Such a position also helps the book disarm the person, like myself, who may come to the work with already formed opinions on its subject matter, regardless of how narrow or limited in understanding they may ultimately prove to be. Indeed, I picked the book up with an air of dismissiveness close at hand (not for the work itself but for its subject), only to find it gradually dissipate as my bias gave way to curiosity for a world I had never truly considered and would not have thought existed, let alone with the level of personal and geographic specificity that Franzreb establishes.

The sequence shuttles between individual miners of bitcoin, such as Jan in Munich and Dino in Bavaria, and larger operations run out of data centers, warehouses, or retrofitted factories. Franzreb visits with many miners at their homes where he is able to observe and document their unique configurations of hardware, building materials, and previously obsolete computer parts. We quickly learn to appreciate the ingenuity that many of these (mostly male) miners are able to demonstrate for Franzreb’s camera, and realize that, whatever social value we may or may not ascribe to cryptocurrency, or to bitcoin mining in particular, there is an impressive degree of technical sophistication needed to participate, one that surely goes beyond the capacities of the average person (i.e. me). Any sense of relation based on scale or feasibility that we may have had is obliterated when Franzeb shows us what an industrial sized mining operation looks like: vast rows of steel and aluminum housing hundreds if not thousands of computer towers, accompanied by towering views of electrical cords and intricate webs of wiring. Though the scale of mining and the amount of resources needed to make these sites run is dizzying, these pictures effectively show us static, repetitive, and programmed actions, and were it not for Franzreb’s diaristic descriptions that both set-up and augment what his pictures show, we would be without an essential understanding of what the physical experience of these spaces is like: “Entering the building, I hear a humming, like the sound of a million bees. […] Everyone here has to wear ear protection because of the noise.”

Mine worker wearing thermal clothing and hearing protection. Location: Irkutsk, Russia

There is a strain of optimism about bitcoin and the supposedly productive human energy it can mobilize that runs throughout the book, and which is bolstered by Franzreb’s accounting of the sites he’s visiting and their multi-purpose capacities. Or rather, if not an outright optimism, then perhaps something closer to the suspension of disbelief about the environmental toll that bitcoin mining, when taken in aggregate, is producing, and that such a consideration should be the common denominator to all discussions about it. We know that, under the guise of creating an alternative currency to those that structure the global economy and which are controlled by states or supranational governing structures (the dollar, the yuan, and the euro), global bitcoin mining was, as of 2022, consuming as much energy as the entire country of Argentina (population of 47 million), with some more recent estimates still indicating that the total annual consumption is more than that of Sweden or Norway (populations of over 10 and 5 million, respectively). Though Franzreb includes mention of the energy problem, albeit in less specific terms, he also documents how some sites structure their operations around the need to address this very issue. We learn that in Vienna, miners Christian and Claus have invented a cooling system to use the excess heat generated by mining to heat apartments, a system which had been patented and scheduled to test with housing providers in Austria later in 2022. In Boden, Sweden, Franzreb shows us an operation that uses the excess heat generated by mining to run a greenhouse. These small and anecdotal examples suggest that within the technological landscape of bitcoin mining there is the capacity to be energy-neutral, and that the individuals who mine may innovate in other, socially useful ways. In a sense, then, Proof of Work positions bitcoin mining as less of a dead end of private financial activity than as a potential incubator of new ideas and solutions for problems of energy consumption, waste, and renewal. We too could choose to be optimistic, or to see these as encouraging signs of larger trends to come, were we to forget that the very energy problem these activities are trying to mitigate are being caused by mining itself. This then brings us back to what, individually, we think of bitcoin mining and cryptocurrency, and thus to what extent we will deem the environmental blowback it generates acceptable or not. It is to Franzreb’s credit that he refrains from pushing us in one direction or another.

As more technological change is introduced to and imposed upon our lives, work like Franzreb’s will be a helpful antidote not only to ignorance and obfuscation, but perhaps even to political manipulation as well. In the United States at least, it seems more likely than not that the critical state of disrepair that our roads, bridges, utilities, and railways have been in for so many decades will, despite brief periods of attention and investment, remain a failing and neglected feature of social life for all but the richest. The infrastructure that may excite instead will be of the sort that Franzreb has documented for us here, if for no other reason than that the services it makes possible will be the objects of great political and economic attention. The future might not be thinkable on the road or underground – who dreams of concrete and steel, anyway? Instead, we may come to rely on artificial intelligence, or even some newer frontier of machine learning and consciousness, to create new concepts and map out our future for us. Some undoubtedly already want to. Will Franzreb and those like him continue to train their cameras on the new forms of  infrastructure that are undoubtedly on their way? If not, we may need them to.

One of the longest crypto mines in the world (360 meters long). Location: Nadvoitsy, Russia

Crypto mine in an old industrial complex. Location: Irkutsk, Russia

Ellinor, founder of a vertical farming startup. Location: Boden, Sweden

Network cables connecting all mining systems. Location: Nadvoitsy, Russia

Cables from crypto miners that are still being connected. Location: Nadvoitsy, Russia

Danny Franzreb

Proof of Work

Hartmann Books, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Zach Ritter. Images © Danny Franzreb.)

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