Working the Soil and the Cloud

My first in-person encounter with the cryptocurrency world was at Progressbar, a hackerspace in Bratislava, on a freezing winter weekend in early 2014. I’d traveled from New York to write a profile of Mike Gogulski, an ex-Floridian ex-raver who’d become stateless by choice and started a life on the margins of Slovak society with his then wife, a cat, and dozens of personal computers. Progressbar was where Mike hung out with other hacker types. They spent a lot of time thinking and talking about cryptocurrencies; there was even a local Bitcoin ATM – at the time a real novelty.

Mike was the only one to have changed his life so radically. Nobody I met there seemed to think it was a wise move on Mike’s part to renounce his US citizenship. Still, they respected the ideas behind his decision. Those ideas, Mike explained over whiskey and bong hits, were political: as an anarchist, he wanted no part in the business of citizenship, or states, or nations. ‘Citizenship is a tool of class division, a tool of hierarchy, an instrument of social control,’ he said. ‘There is no equality between citizens and non-citizens.’

A stateless currency represented an extension of that ideal. Mike supported himself by operating a Bitcoin ‘mixing’ service – essentially, a way to add a layer of anonymity to cryptocurrency – while working as a translator on the side. He wrote a blog,, and dabbled in commerce on the dark web.

My trip only lasted a few days, but it was enough to get a feel for the (admittedly modest) Bratislava crypto scene. It was also, in retrospect, a critical moment for digital currency – not just its market value, which began fluctuating wildly, but for what it represented beyond the screens.

Because if Bitcoin and its sister cryptocurrencies once attracted the likes of Mike Gogulski, who saw in it the contours of life outside the mainstream, it has since transformed its public face. Critics contend that cryptocurrencies neither produce nor represent anything of value, and that any value ascribed to them is nothing more than a speculative bubble. But the currency has also been absorbed into the architecture of the global economy – roughly 30 percent of traditional hedge funds now invest in crypto assets. It has gone from obscure to overexposed. Progressbar is still around. It has pivoted to coworking.


Bitcoin was invented in 2008 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto as a model for a more transparent monetary environment.

Bitcoin mining was originally intended to be carried out by a network of individuals on personal computers equipped with special hardware – though ‘mining’ is a bit of a misnomer. What really happens is that the computers compete to validate each other’s transactions on a ledger called the blockchain by solving encrypted hexadecimal numbers. This is a complex and energy-intensive computational process, but the miner that manages to solve the encryption first is rewarded for their efforts with new Bitcoin. What sustains and validates the decentralised ledger that is Bitcoin, then, are the very computers mining for it.

At first, the coins were plentiful and easy enough to mine in a personal capacity: the Bitcoin blockchain adds a lucrative ‘block’ roughly every ten minutes. But the more machines vie to validate the blocks, the more energy is needed to compete. As more ‘coins’ have been doled out to miners, they have grown scarcer and more onerous to obtain.

By design, the rewards for mining also halve around every four years, with the objective of keeping inflation in check. This means fewer coins for more effort: the machines demand ever more cheap (read: dirty) energy to run and require cold climates to stop them from overheating. Today, Bitcoins are ‘mined’ by a galaxy of computers around the world, in industrial settings far from city centers, and mostly in the US, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

If Bitcoin started off as a utopian thought experiment, its shortcomings wound up feeding off of the existing system’s flaws and making our whole world more toxic (in that sense, it does resemble real-world mining). Estimates vary, but in the aggregate, mining operations release the equivalent amount of CO as a small European country. About half of it, according to Bloomberg, comes from non-renewable sources.

Much of the trouble stems again from the fact that Bitcoins are finite in number: of the 21 million, around 19 have been dispensed. This means they pass muster with inflation hawks, monetarists, and critics of fractional reserve banking. Their creation of ‘value’ on the blockchain also pleases people who desire decentralization (even though the algorithm tends to favor large-scale verification operations, which ends up concentrating power among a small number of highly productive miners). Even so, the idea is that the network obviates the need for a higher authority: on the blockchain, anyone can keep track of anything, from shipments of physical goods to the transfer of digital ones, and easily produce receipts. It’s possible to trace a Bitcoin’s every move, all the way back to when and where it was mined, without relying on a bank to hold on to the data.

Like all money, Bitcoin is valuable only to the degree that people believe in its value. Unlike most money, there is no state authority to support or ratify these beliefs. This is the point; it is also the problem. It’s either a house of cards or one of the most brilliant money-making schemes in modern history – possibly both.

The cost of one coin has risen and fallen drastically since Bitcoins began trading in online exchanges in 2010 (this was also the year that Bitcoins were first used to purchase physical goods: two pizzas in Florida for 10,000 BTC). Bitcoin has naturally attracted money launderers and other criminals because it is so unregulated. The coins have also spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of other kinds of digital cash, not to mention other digital ‘commodities’ like NFTs – the internet’s answer to baseball cards or Pogs.

Shortly after I landed back in New York from my long weekend in Slovakia, one Bitcoin was worth barely over $100, down from ten times that sum the month prior. It hit a high of $67,789 in late 2021, making a handful of early adopters extremely wealthy, and a larger group of speculators very rich. I myself am a minor beneficiary of this boom: having bought a few dollars’ worth in 2017 on a lark, I checked back in 2020 to find my investment had ballooned to more than $1,400. I sold it immediately. (I was also given $20 worth in early 2015 by a source trying to explain Bitcoin to me, but I lost the code, and forfeited a small fortune. It is estimated that one-fifth of all Bitcoins have met the same fate.)


In the process of this transformation, crypto in general and Bitcoin in particular have become synonymous with a cabal of tacky, greedy, small-minded ‘bros’ who proselytize with the fervor of a pyramid-scheme hype-man. They include financiers, lawyers, consultants, and heads of state clamoring to attract these entrepreneurs and take a cut of the profit. Central bankers and regulators pursue ‘legal frameworks’ (deciding what agency will regulate them, and how) to sanitize and co-opt the crypto economy. El Salvador has adopted Bitcoin as legal tender, though it is unclear if all that many Salvadorians use it to buy things. In Switzerland, the city of Lugano and the canton of Zug allow taxpayers to settle fines and bills with crypto. The Bitcoin’s initial stateless utopianism, if you can even call it that, is a distant memory.

In Number Go Up, the journalist Zeke Faux showed in detail how much of the crypto world is propped up by false claims, aggressive public relations campaigns, and willful ignorance. The pursuit of a fortune in crypto has led to many ordinary people losing their savings in pursuit of promised returns that could never be delivered.

In 2014, though, crypto – and in particular, Mike Gogulski’s small scene – still reminded me of the punk squats I used to frequent as a teenager in Geneva: basically respectable, a little misguided, and trying hard despite this to live differently. The cypherpunks of Bratislava, a town full of futuristic Soviet architecture, seemed to come by their paranoia honestly. It was dark all the time. The Old Town’s windows seemed to all be shuttered, tinted, or drawn, even during the day. I had the distinct sense that someone was watching.

The 1990s are usually credited (or blamed) for the rise of cyber-utopian thinking – the belief that the ‘net’ would end social hierarchies and make work easier, fairer, more lucrative, even fun. Of course, that didn’t happen. But the events that took place between Occupy Wall Street and the election of Donald Trump brought a renewed interest in anarchist and libertarian thought, and the media’s ongoing preoccupation with crypto suggests that those old ideas – and I’m thinking in particular of John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence for cyberspace – did not disappear so much as go dormant, to reappear in reaction to a spate of interlinked geopolitical shocks.

The global economy was still in tatters after the 2008 crash. Privacy in the digital realm felt impossible in the aftermath of revelations about mass US-government-sponsored surveillance leaked by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. In this cultural context, the prospect of a freewheeling unregulated system of digital exchange upending the nation state’s monopoly on currency was at least intellectually exciting. In September 2014, the now Republican donor Peter Thiel and the late radical anthropologist David Graeber debated each other in New York City. I remember them agreeing good-naturedly on pretty much everything.


In Proof of Work, Ulm-based photographer Danny Franzreb travels the world to track down the heirs to this idealism: people who, in spite of the reams of bad press and the spectacular failures of large-scale crypto operations like the meltdown of the Mt. Gox exchange and Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX, still believe they can change the world. Franzreb’s focus is largely environmental. The emissions produced by Bitcoin mining have prompted activists and the media to condemn the practice. The outrage seems to have stuck. Even if you do not understand how Bitcoin works or why it matters, you can easily grasp that an armory full of humming machines needs energy to function.

Franzreb’s subjects pursue their Bitcoins by different means. They’re home-grown, organic, and sustainably powered by solar, water and nuclear energy: the slow food of extractivism. The ambitions of his subjects are, on the one hand, vastly diminished from the grandiose fantasy of bank-free, state-free money, but their goals are also more achievable. The question is, to what end?

Franzreb began his project by casting around for willing participants in Facebook groups whose members thought he was a taxman or a cop. Gradually, he won over an unusually sympathetic group who invited him to take photographs of them and their work. They are heirs to the crypto movement’s early idealism, and it’s a testament to the industry’s bad reputation that their focus seems to be on cleaning up its image instead of dreaming up systemic change. To meaningfully reduce Bitcoin’s energy footprint would require rethinking its reliance on cryptographic puzzle-solving, not to mention its insistence on artificial scarcity. In other words, it would mean revising the concept entirely.

Franzreb met them in fields and factories and office parks, in Irkutsk and Karelia, in Vienna and Munich. He photographed them in Hönigsberg, Austria, and Tongeren, a Belgian town near the Dutch border. Franzreb made several stops in his native Germany: Simbach am Inn, Bad Kreuznach, and Schweinfurt.

His photographs at once reinforce common stereotypes – there’s the requisite fat guy in a crewneck sitting with his computing gear in harsh lighting – while reverse-engineering these tropes into something more surprising. In Sweden, he shoots a willowy young woman – a rarity in this milieu – tending to a vertical garden of vibrant green shoots. Outside temperatures can sink below twenty degrees Celsius, but thanks to the computers’ excess heat warming the greenhouse, the plants thrive.

In the media, Bitcoins tend to be associated with strings of ones and zeros, a gold ‘coin’ seared with a garish B, steely hallways in the style of The Matrix, and Bored Apes (NFTs that, not long ago, were valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars). These aesthetic limitations aren’t Bitcoin’s alone: computers, and what’s inside them, aren’t much to look at. But the Bitcoin set seem to have gone out of their way to make their world as off-putting as possible. Franzreb nods at their choice of imagery – the coin, the hallway, the memory cards and machines – while pushing us to consider what, and who, brings it to life.

He travels through rusting factories and rainy landscapes, documenting the bleak topography of post-industrial Europe. Franzreb visits a Bitcoin mine in Segezha, Russia, that has taken up in a former aluminum factory not far from a decommissioned mine. On the walls, he finds photographs of miners operating machinery underground. One generation works the soil, while the other works the cloud.

Elsewhere, Franzreb contemplates a Belgian mine powered by biogas from surplus McDonald’s and discarded apples. One striking image shows a cascade of decaying fruit tumbling down a hill into some mud. It looks otherworldly – Cézanne by way of AI by way of the apocalypse. There’s also a shot of pennies embedded in dirt, and one of an imposing mound of soil.

The soil both matters and doesn’t: since crypto-mining companies chase permissive regulations and low energy prices, they could be here today and gone tomorrow. When China, once the second-biggest producer of the currency, banned Bitcoin mining on account of its energy consumption in 2021, Kazakhstan stepped in to welcome them instead.


Franzreb’s work takes after the artist Trevor Paglen’s spectral photographs of the real-world internet – undersea cables, most famously, but also data centers and satellites. Paglen set out to actually witness the sites of digital exchange himself, and with that knowledge, visualize infrastructure we rely on constantly but that is deliberately hidden from view. Both artists pinpoint portals between the physical and the metaphysical, collapsing the dualism that sustains these technological systems.

Unlike Paglen’s impressionistic underwater compositions, Franzreb’s images are visceral, even disgusting. His work reminds us that a stableful of servers crammed into a warehouse in Siberia has a sound, a taste, a smell – and that they still have people tending to them. His scenes from inside the computer compounds feel particularly biotic. Intestinal cables spill out of computer towers like disemboweled carrion. They almost look like they are writhing.

The relationship between machines and nature preoccupies Franzreb. Sometimes, the two feed off of each other, producing unexpected byproducts. This is not so much innovation as it is recycling; a thought experiment, not a revolution (apples are, after all, for eating). It seems doubtful that green energy sources can be enough to redeem crypto, which also causes substantial air, water and noise pollution, making it harder for countries to lower their emissions to meet climate goals. But there is a grasping sincerity in the way that Franzreb portrays his subjects, be they humans or machines. It reminds me of the Swiss punk rockers of my adolescence, and the young programmers in tinted glasses I met in Bratislava years ago.


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