Exhibit — "Alchemical Infrastructures: Making Blockchain in Iceland"

Opening Reception
Zane Cooper in Iceland
13 Sep 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:00pm
Annenberg School Forum
Open to the Public

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About the Exhibit

This year, the hunt for Bitcoin, Etherium, and other cryptocurrencies will use more electricity in Iceland than all of the inhabitants of the country combined.

Opening in September, an art exhibit at the Annenberg School for Communication by doctoral candidate Zane Cooper examines the relationship between energy, environment, value, and information with a 360 degree immersive film. Cooper’s exhibit features work by two collaborators — conceptual immersive audio work by Rutgers University doctoral student Katie Gressitt-Diaz and a traditional still photo series by photographer Kyle Cassidy — as well as an actual cryptocurrency mining operation, immersed in a liquid cooling bath, that will produce  blockchain as viewers watch.

Join us for an opening reception of the exhibit on Friday, September 13 at 5pm. The exhibit will remain on display through May 2020, and is part of Penn's Year of Data.

Alchemical Infrastructures poster

About the Project

“Alchemical Infrastructures: Making Blockchain in Iceland” explores not the mining of cryptocurrency, as it’s conventionally thought of, but rather the complicated, difficult, political, and energy-intensive practice of making cryptocurrency in Iceland; a combinatory process of infrastructures, social systems, political institutions, and desires, all intentionally brought together in search of new monetary futures — or in other words, alchemy. Not unlike medieval alchemists, those building cryptocurrency and blockchain architectures must follow complicated recipes, conjuring the right assemblage of machine, human, and environment that will yield the greatest value — a value often dictated by and through energy costs and availability. In search of a sort of digital philosopher’s stone, the blockchain alchemists flock to regions where the Earth sings with natural energy in order to mix and mingle their hardware — regions like Iceland.  

The exhibit examines the work of Iceland’s blockchain alchemists by assembling and mixing different modes of qualitative research in an attempt to synthesize an understanding of what the practice of blockchain looks, feels, smells, and sounds like. The exhibit is loosely structured around an experimental documentary film, produced in 360-degree immersive video, that attempts to materialize, spatialize, and personalize the experience of blockchain in Iceland through the blending of multiple voices and stakeholders. Taking a multi-sited, network ethnographic approach, and through the lens of situational analysis, the film places blockchain in Iceland within a larger situation of action. The immersive juxtaposition and blending of environmental, industrial, and infrastructural spaces will educate viewers on the embedded complexities of blockchain as a system, illustrating how large technocratic imaginaries (like blockchain) are locally negotiated.

While the film accentuates the visual and spatial experiences of blockchain in Iceland, the conceptual sound work by Katie Gressitt-Diaz brings the complex aural dimensions of this project into sharp relief. Sometimes we may feel it somewhere in our bones, or on the backs of our necks, but we often do not consciously consider sound’s profound influence, and its communicative, affective power. Gressitt-Diaz’s contributions to this exhibit will explore the variated and entangled sonic environments conjured forth in the alchemical making of cryptocurrency.

As both the film and the conceptual sound work endeavor to highlight friction, tension, entanglement, and collaboration, the photo series by Kyle Cassidy personalizes individual experiences of making blockchain in Iceland. Through Cassidy’s photos, the turbulent ecology of cryptocurrency, energy, and earth is temporarily frozen in order to bring into focus the personal stakes, ambitions, and passions of those involved in Iceland’s cryptocurrency ecology. In Cassidy’s contribution, instead of the individual emerging from the situation, we see the situation brought forth through the individual.

Lastly, a Bitmain Antminer S7 cryptocurrency mining device is included as a material anchor, as well as the fourth active contributor to the exhibit. While the rest of the exhibit was produced digitally and can effectively be downloaded in its entirety, the cryptocurrency-producing Antminer is the only element of the show that is fundamentally not digitally native, and whose specific setup cannot be reproduced. As such, it is a tangible assemblage of potential value, actively combining and mixing with Penn’s local infrastructure in search of Auroracoin, Iceland’s unofficial national cryptocurrency. Throughout the year, Cooper will trace both how many coins the machine has produced, and how much energy it has used.

There are profound limits to how much the traditional academic article or monograph can communicate. Innovating the presentation of scholarship with tools like immersive video, conceptual audio, and photography can help illustrate socio-material affects and complexities that become obscured in traditional academic writing. Part of what this exhibit hopes to accomplish is to introduce new possibilities for conceptualizing and presenting our relationship to infrastructure, and to open up questions about how new ways of seeing can produce more just, equitable, and sustainable futures. 

This event may be photographed and/or video recorded for archival, educational, and related promotional purposes. We also video stream many of these video recordings through the Annenberg web site. By attending or participating in this event, you are giving your consent to be photographed and/or video recorded and you are waiving any and all claims regarding the use of your image by the Annenberg School for Communication. The Annenberg School for Communication, at its discretion, may provide a copy of the photos/footage upon written request.