“Making the Digital Visible (and Audible)”
Tiago de Luca (University of Warwick)
In increasingly cashless societies such as ours, the materiality of money – from the crispness of new notes to the dirt of old ones – is becoming a thing of the past. One of the most striking features of crypto-currency (or bitcoins as it is often called) as a new form of currency is that it came into existence without a material referent: you can’t touch it, smell it, or see it. You can’t withdraw it at a cashpoint either, for, unlike ‘real money,’ crypto-currency does not rely on a central banking system to administer it, but instead uses de-centralized control database systems connected through digital ledgers known as blockchains. This means that, technically speaking, anyone with a computer can mint, or ‘mine’ to use the correct jargon, bitcoins by solving mathematical problems in what is effectively a public transaction database.
When watching Misho Antadze’s documentary The Harvest (2019), I could not help but be reminded of a recent episode in the Netflix Explained series on crypto-currency, if only because both audiovisual texts could not be more different in their aesthetic approaches. As per its title, the Netflix series explains how digital currency works as an invisible system through didactic voiceovers, graphs, and illustrative montages. The Harvest, conversely, adopts a slow observational aesthetic in order to look at the boom of crypto-currency in Georgia, a small country that became a haven for ‘digital mining’ because of its low regulations and cheap hydropower energy. As an introductory title card states, while power outages were common across Georgia twenty years ago, today the country is the “second largest exporter of BitCoins in the world” (behind China). In the film, however, there is no effort to illustrate how intangible databases operate, but rather an attempt to show the material circuits and infrastructures that support and enable these elusive systems: from personal computers in modest houses, through the shabby digital centers in which rows and rows of machines do their thing while connected through an entangled web of cables, to the power lines and plants that now dot the mountainous fields of the rural region of Kakheti.
If anything, The Harvest shows that technology does not exist in a virtual realm of its own and apart from material reality but, rather, that it is firmly imbricated with, and dependent on, the natural and physical world. Here cows moo and graze in mountains littered with satellite dishes, the sun sets in fields dotted with power plants, sheep baa away against electric posts, while humans watch television and children play videogames in their spare time. Likewise, the sounds of chirping birds and mooing cows coexist with, and are often supplanted by, the droning beep and whir of computers, the humming of electric posts, and the high-pitched buzz of drones.
The Harvest opts for an austere style. The camera does not move once and symmetric shots last long enough to create a sense of strangeness when allied with evocative imagery and sound. There are no voiceovers, talking heads, or soundtrack music either, but only ambient and machinic noises singled out and amplified at the post-production stage. Above all, it is the documentary aesthetic of Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter that looms large in The Harvest as a likely influence. As seen in Our Daily Bread (2005), and more recently Earth (2019), Geyrhalter creates visually arresting images of machine-dominated environments, often turning them into otherworldly sites. In a way, The Harvest appears as a companion to these two films. If Our Daily Bread lays bare the high-tech processes of the food industry conveniently removed from sight in our urban centers, and Earth reveals the extractive activities that fuel and support capitalism, The Harvest makes visible and audible the material ramifications of immaterial digital worlds.
In his illuminating new book on documentary, The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama (2019), Scott Macdonald interviews directors (including Geyrhalter) whose films he deems representative of what he defines as “dioramic cinema” in their “nonargumentative combination of detailed, precise documentation and panoramic vision,” which provides visual evidence of “sites/sights the filmmakers feel we need to be aware of.” The Harvest subscribes to this documentary mode, which is not to say that the film does not have an argument. The encroachment of technology upon the natural world is a discernible topic throughout the film, but one that is treated in a way that viewers can make up their own minds about what they see via images that do not do all the work for them. But as the film also testifies, the sensory impact of a durational documentary aesthetic is not only predicated on uncovering sites/sights, but also on tuning in to the sounds and noises that create a vivid and concrete auditory world.
Not unlike the extraction of resources and minerals relentlessly conveyed in Geyrhalter’s Earth through the incessant sound of machines digging the soil, The Harvest shows, without a moralizing tone, the very tangible impact that digital mining is doing to a particular region on Earth. Contrary to the now tired assumption that slow cinema is about getting away from the complexities of the here and now, the film is yet one more proof that a durational aesthetic in contemporary world cinema is more often than not employed to give a sensory basis to elusive phenomena in urgent need of being seen and heard as material realities.
“Of Cows, Cryptocurrencies, and Machines in Images”
Silke Panse (University for the Creative Arts)
The contrasting elements in The Harvest – cows, cryptocurrencies, machines – are set up meticulously in the first shots. A robot appears on a television sitting on a fridge next to a window that looks onto a rural environment. The robot talks about reducing poverty and hunger while off-screen thuds can be heard, which turn out to be a man chopping meat. In the Republic of Georgia, the distribution of autonomous entities of cryptocurrency takes place parallel to the chopping up of (non-autonomous) parts of the former beings of cows. What is harvested here is immaterial cryptocurrency, but what we see are material machines. The home prospectors mine algorithms, not minerals. The Harvest observes the decelerated environment in which the frenzied abstract accelerations of cryptocurrency are engineered.
The Harvest follows the materialities of the virtual, but the boundaries between them are not blurred. Just as the televised android assumes a heavy physical materiality, even the abstractions of cryptocurrency are shown to be generated by material things that have boundaries. The machine that produces cryptocurrency can be repaired with a screwdriver. The motherboard attracts dust that can be blown away. The hardware rattles and generates wind indoors. The tablecloth is affected by the draft generated by the machine. These are machines in images, not image machines. The robot is not part of a “world picture” that Martin Heidegger cautioned against. In the age of the world picture everything is part of one film overdetermined through technology and science. In The Harvest, the enframing through technology is unconcealed, as Heidegger might have put it: the machines retain their machineness. Félix Guattari rejects Heidegger’s stance on technology because it curtails “a processual opening” through ontological grounding. But he too suggests that the machine is not just a subset of technology, and that instead technology relies on machines. The machines are not reduced to an overcoding technology, nor are they parts of us now fused into posthuman entities. In The Harvest, the mechanical and the organic—the machines and the cows—do not share the same informational syntax. There is life around the machines.
Guattari writes that “the technical object is nothing outside of the technical ensemble to which it belonged.” But this technical ensemble is in turn part of other assemblages. Machines produce their own assemblages of component elements. The machines do not merely follow codes but generate mutable machinic territorialities. In The Harvest, the machines are revealed as part of a technical ensemble; part of a filmic assemblage; and part of a human, animal, and plant environment. The machines exist in relation to other machines, be they virtual or actual, and in relation to the beings around them. Hence, the documentary follows not only the material components of the machines, but also their affectual environments.
The documentary can observe and understand the connections, relations, and situatedness of the machines, but it is clear that the images taken from the outside do not represent what is “inside.” Cryptocurrencies are generated from autonomous parts that come together through distributed block chain processing. Brian Massumi praises cryptocurrencies for bypassing representation since they are not represented through a banking system. The value of cryptocurrencies, he argues, lies in their “bare activity as the immanent limit of capitalism” (34). It could be argued that in its resistance to representing the virtual The Harvest parallels the way in which cryptocurrency itself circumvents representation. In this “experiment in chasing the invisible,” Misho Antadze writes in an email, he wanted to explore “the limitations of the observational form.” The Harvest does not try to relay the fast abstract flows of cryptocurrency, which cannot be seen or heard. Cryptocurrencies cannot be observed.
Others might describe The Harvest as slow, but to reduce it to one dominant quality of being slow is to miss the point of why it was made. The slowness of Antazde’s documentary is not just that of the length of shots. By emphasizing the contemplative material aspects of the production of the accelerated virtual, The Harvest forces the issue to address who or what exactly is slow. This includes the relation between the filmmaker and the filmed: the affect of the filmmaker when filming. For Antadze, this affect is patience. As the young Georgian filmmaker, who was James Benning’s student at CalArts, explained to me: “Most importantly, I took his somewhat legendary Shooting Landscapes class (which I think is also known as Looking and Listening) and the influence is probably obvious. What I learned from Benning was patience in my work — a quality that is lacking more and more from everyday life (at least, from mine) and also from cinema. Even the so-called ‘slow films’ seem to be impatient. I think patience in film is the possibility of letting things unfold on the screen at their own pace. If we slow things down to have them conform to our own aesthetic, is it also not the same type of impatience that most films display?” The relations at work here also encompass the patience of the ensemble of those who look at and listen to the machines: of those in the images and of those who made them.
At its own pace, the film meanders into the rural life around the cryptocurrency infrastructure which seemingly has nothing to do with it. Even the cowherds’ chatting in the vicinity of the telecommunication masts express unrelatedness: “How should I know?” But then, as a binary choice of income in rural Georgia, cows and currency machines might not be so unrelated after all. When a herder’s advice that a human being should eat at least one egg a day is extolled from off-screen over an image of cows munching grass, it allows for a projection onto them of low-lying resistance. The Harvest serves as a reminder of the material recalcitrance of beings on the planet on which our accelerated artificial worlds rely. Even the virtual needs the planet.