Terraforming is a solo exhibition of Sarah Friend — an artist, technologist, and software developer, who works at the imbricated fringes of art, finance, and blockchain technology.
The Internet, the digital, the virtual, and blockchains have an enormous impact on the matter of our world. If the medium is the message, why would one use physical material to talk about digital and technical content? Because technology is not immaterial and has impact power on our earth, on social beings, because it is highly political. Sarah Friend impressively presents this tension in her exhibition. Terraforming questions the dichotomy between competition and cooperation, presenting new works that explore data centers, blockchain mining, and the iterated prisoner's dilemma. This exhibition includes both physical and digital works, using found text, video and code.
"The prisoner's dilemma, a common scenario in game theory, describes a situation of dependence of multiple parties within a conflict of interest. Using an algorithmic approach, it analyzes the overall strategies of characters and how they behave toward each other: do they cooperate or defect? Existential risk or mediocre security? In the one-off prisoner’s dilemma, the "rational" approach is to always defect, or betray the opponent. But when the prisoner’s dilemma is iterated, meaning two players play against each other again, the incentives change. Iteration reveals that collaboration is always the more lucrative path in the long run. Indeed, in The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, a competition among many strategies for playing the iterated prisoner’s dilemma found that almost all of the top performing algorithms were "nice", meaning they would never betray their game partner first. Moreover, the book argues that collaboration can arise specifically out of a competitive atmosphere over time. Such findings suggest that any supposed dichotomy between cooperation and competition may be more of a projection than an innate property of systems or their participants. It also shows that the outcome of the game is never decided individually, but is always subject to the collective, and one's agency is limited."
Upon entering the exhibition Terraforming, this circumstance is the first to be reflected to the viewer - very literally. The floor at the entrance door of the Crypto Kiosk becomes a mirror over which the visitors have to bend and walk. They mark their entry into the gallery with scratches and road dust, and over time write themselves into Friend's work as if into a living guest book. The mirror is adorned with a passage from Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution: "The world itself never asks whether it is based on a principle of competition or cooperation."
The original mechanism at the heart of blockchains - before any NFTs, DAOs, other tokens or smart contracts - is the mechanism of mining. In blockchain terminology, mining is the process by which new blocks are created. Historically, it has been done using proof of work, an energy intensive process by which many powerful computers compete to solve a cryptographic puzzle. More recently, other methods of mining have been developed and put into production, which use less energy but maintain a similar structure of incentives. The most common of alternative is Proof of Stake. Who is allowed to generate the next block is decided by a weighted random selection. The weight of the participants is determined on the basis of their assets, their stakes. To participate, they would lock up funds (put them at stake) and lose them if they are found to have behaved badly or sabotaged the network.
In recent years, wide attention has been paid to the environmental effects of proof of work mining, which is still used by some major networks today. Many estimates have been made of its impact, some hyperbolic and some painstakingly researched - but this is only a subset of the environmental impact of internet infrastructure as a whole. Nor does it begin or end with the most obvious climate effects in the form of fossil fuel and energy consumption. Literal mining, metals, minerals, etc is the base layer of computing infrastructure. When we speak of the "cloud", the server "farm" and the "mining rig", the metaphors are not an accident. The internet has already been called "the most ambitious terraforming project ever undertaken" by writer and researcher Ingrid Burrington. Or perhaps as the largest sculpture.
Looking more deeply at the incentives at play among miners in a blockchain, we see a familiar pattern - any miner seeking to fraudulently spend money must weigh first what they would lose in terms of their "stake" (infrastructure investment or literal funds) and secondly, the future profits they would make hypothetically if they continue to mine correctly. In other words, despite the characterization as being the utmost arena of competitive forces, miners in fact find themselves playing an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. In 2014, for example, when mining pool Ghash.io controlled over 51% of the hashrate of the bitcoin network, we see that they did not attack or steal any funds. Instead, they voluntarily scaled back their operation. Perhaps they did not think they could successfully cash out before the attack would be discovered, but it is more likely that they felt, as Axelrod calls it, "the shadow of the future", and believed they had more to gain long term from a collaborative approach.
Similarly, perhaps the most competitive or adversarial arena within the already-competitive blockchain world may be MEV (Miner or Maximum Extractable Value). In MEV, blockchain miners extract additional funds from their ability to see all incoming transactions and insert their own - very similar to frontrunning in traditional stock trading, which is illegal. MEV is the layer where infrastructure maintainers betray users, the darkest forest. Recently, two MEV actors wrote collegial, almost poetic messages to each other in the blockchain before one of them withdrew from the competition. Their messages, presented in White Flags, reveal something like sportsmanship or a sense of comradery that belies their position as adversaries.
At so many places and layers of the infrastructure stack, from the hardware to the human, when we zoom in on the specific and the local, we find echoes of those things too big to get in frame from any one position: the network, the planetary, the thing being terraformed, the terraformers. Thus, two large monoliths consisting of server racks filled with computer fans rise almost to the gallery ceiling: Gate, something you pass through.
The exhibition is also expanded by a video work and guided tour of data centers in Berlin, As Above So Below. Using satellite footage, it mines the history of Berlin’s internet, revealing the locations that house it, complex layers of ownership, and lingering historical legacies. As further reminder of this tangibility and physicality, this exhibition uses waste materials sourced from a Berlin data center as sculptural components: cable housing, cables, air filters, and flooring.
Drawing its name not only based on the fact of the enormous impact of advanced digitalization on our ecosystem, the exhibition title, Terraforming is also derived from the programming language terraform, an infrastructure as code tool used to create, update and destroy remote computing infrastructure. This exhibition turns to the protocol layer of blockchains and the physical reality of the internet as subject matter. Looking at this infrastructure, its stories, shape, and materials, is integral to understanding not only blockchains, but computing technology as a whole. When software is only perceived in the abstract, it’s easy to imagine it as the domain of magicians, where anything is possible, all problems solvable, when in fact it is constrained by physics and maintained by people at every layer.
Outside the simulation, we earthlings remain predictable protagonists.
In 1992, Felix Guattari wrote: "Informatic subjectivity is moving us at great speed away from the constraints of the old scriptual linearity". Sarah Friend's work lies within this described simultaneity. In the infinite play of intersections, she conjures for us an understanding of decentralized complexities and guides us through the mechanical flows of our time.