Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities

Liu Chuang


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three-channel video (colour, sound)
40 min 9 sec
Described by the artist’s gallery as a ‘speculative journey through the history of technology, infrastructure, ecology and finance, intertwining this with anthropological knowledges and science fiction’s global imaginary’, ‘Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities’ was initially inspired when Liu noticed that a large number of bitcoin mining sites are located inside abandoned hydroelectric plants in the rural terrains of Western China, an area also home to many minority groups. Expanding on Hal Foster’s notion of the artist as ethnographer and enters the realms of speculative and fictive histories, juxtaposed with documentary and archival footage. Liu ‘s work suggests that new and cutting-edge developments in techno-science are bound together with the ecology of the natural world and with the fates of often disregarded peoples. So, what is bitcoin mining? Performed by high-powered computers capable of solving complex computational problems, the act of verifying bitcoin transactions to make cryptocurrency networks safe and reliable produces new bitcoin for the miner, creating the tantalising promise of massive profits. It uses a vast amount of electricity – recent estimates put the annual carbon footprint from bitcoin mining comparable with that of Denmark, and the electricity used is comparable to the annual power consumption of Austria.
Researched in collaboration with curator/researcher Yang Beichen, Liu’s three-channel video connects hydraulic projects and Bitcoin mines in southwest China, positioning them as sites of exchange between energy and information. The found and filmed footage and its voiceover narrative (some in Muya, a language related to Tibetan) trace real and virtual lines of power, and the historical and contemporary technologies that have displaced people and conquered territories, generating material and immaterial profit. Writing in ‘Art Review Asia’, Mark Rappolt describes how the narrative moves ‘from economic inflation triggered in eastern China during the fifth century BCE, when King Jing of Zhou reduced the amount of copper in coins in order to fuel an obsession with creating enormous bronze chime bells, to nomadic bitcoin miners, operating outside any centralised banking system, herding their rigs across present-day China in harmony with the seasonal and regional variations in energy’. The video installation raises challenging questions about the geopolitical, economic and cultural impact of technology on peoples and societies across the globe, both historically and in the present day, when bitcoin mines use approximately 70 percent of the world’s computer power and are distributed through Southern Asia. Drone footage of bitcoin mines, filmed footage of workers, and archival footage is woven together with references to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 film, ‘Solaris’, and Steven Spielberg’s 1977 ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ to create a poetic sub-textual narrative of ‘the other’. The virtual currency of Bitcoin thus becomes a metaphor for larger issues of displacement and alienation.
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