Some Baltic mythology to start. Neringa is a young giant from Lithuanian folklore, pure of heart and altruistic. One day Neringa was playing on the Baltic Sea coast when a storm hit, and the giantess piled up sand to protect the land—an area now known as the Curonian Spit. This sand-dune spit is divided in half between Lithuania and Russia, by way of Kaliningrad. At one of the widest points sits the Lithuanian town of Nida and, while the entire strip of land has a notable and twisting history, it’s Nida that stands out as one of the most interesting locales.
During the 20th century, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany jostled for control over Lithuania. Nevertheless, Nida has remained a constant draw for writers, artists, musicians and actors, the most famous being ‘Death in Venice’ (1912) author Thomas Mann, who kept a summer house on the bayfront. One of the first sites for a colony of artists in Nida was the ‘hotel of arts’, sponsored by Hermann Blode or the “king of the Curonian Spit” as many artists referred to him, and now an intimate museum of photographs of celebrated cultural figures who have spent time in Nida, including Max Pechstein and Leni Riefenstahl. Jump forward a hundred years or so and the Nida Art Colony, a subdivision of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, continues the tradition of drawing artists to the town.
It’s at their onsite exhibition space that Liu Chuang’s film ‘Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities’ (2018) was shown. The three-channel video begins with the narrator, speaking in a minority ethnic dialect, describing a case of repetitive strain injury related to Qing Dynasty telegraph systems and ends with footage and discussion of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1978) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1971). Somewhat wedged in the middle is the work’s most poignant consideration, on Bitcoin mining in China and the Zomia people.
Chuang makes use of James C. Scott’s description of the Zomia from the latter’s text, ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’ (2009), in which Scott describes the Zomia as a multi-ethnic group of around 100 million who occupy lands at elevations above 300 metres in parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and four provinces of China. Despite their multifarious differences, what these groups share is a history of escape and refuge, of eluding interpellation and avoiding hegemony as manifested through slavery, language and tax. Chuang demonstrates that Bitcoin mines—where computers essentially provide CPU in return for Bitcoins—in China now mostly occupy Zomia land, but also suggests that the decentralized, blockchain-based model of Bitcoin aligns with the Zomia’s relationship to outside nation-states. For example, Chuang’s narrator in ‘Bitcoin Mining’s’ describes “a yearning for a communal stigmergy” as a reason for the rise of Bitcoin. One specific way we can relate this to the Zomia is via what Scott calls their “escape agriculture”, which entails planting root crops rather than wet rice to make it more difficult for states to destroy plus regular relocation to new crop areas after burning the previously exploited land. This “communal stigmergy” is also an apt description of the way blockchain technology—a growing list of distributed ledgers that can immutably record transactions between two or more parties—functions, whereby a communal network of computers works together to record the transactions that will affect future functions of the blockchain, without the need for a centralized authority.
And yet, the Zomia and Bitcoin aren’t necessarily such a close fit. Bitcoin mining in China operates at the state’s pleasure. A miner migrating across the country for cheaper electricity is not comparable to the Zomia escaping state power. Still though, this foundational supposition of Chuang’s video-essay is an intriguing one, and while occasionally ideas are stretched in questionable directions, as with the sudden mention of an all-in-one entertainment system marketed to the Zomia people, these feel less like unsuccessful tangents than interesting ancillary thoughts that probe in new directions.
‘Bitcoin Mining’ hints at how Bitcoin and the blockchain have come to be seen as not only forms of financial arrangement, but models for society. It’s no surprise that some of the initial interest in Bitcoin arose due to a perception of an anarchic, anti-authoritarian spirit underlying the code, and interest in the Zomia has similarly arisen from a desire to uncover anarchic, stateless forms of living.
Chuang’s video uncovers narratives and mythologies that can help to reframe our understanding of Bitcoin and the blockchain. While in the past we looked to myths like Neringa’s, now we often look outside of society to the natural world for explanation—nature in its purest sense as well also as more “natural” ways of living as represented by the Zomia. The relationship of the human to the natural is at stake; in ‘Bitcoin Mining’, Chuang’s narrator quotes Maxim Gorky’s description of hydroelectric power stations “as able to tame wild rivers”, while early settlers in Nida had to plant trees to stop the encroaching sand dunes. By analogizing the Zomia and Bitcoin, Chuang seeks explanation in similar places.