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In the early 1980s, at the age of four, Danny Franzreb had his first computer at home because his father worked at IBM. Therefore, Franzreb had access to technology that wasn’t common at the time. He worked with code on a computer, took photos with a camera as a teenager, and made money designing websites after school. Franzreb’s career is an example of a creative and artist navigating the world of computers, art, and technology from the 1990s until today. In the early 2000s, the Internet was still new. Franzreb got deeply involved with the Flash community and later Processing. He built interactive experiences, among others, sound sculptures for Sven Väth’s first Cocoon Club, spoke at conferences like SXSW, contributed to books like New Masters of Flash, and wrote a column on interactive design for IDN, an international magazine out of Hong Kong with a focus on graphic design, motion graphics, and interactive media since 1992. Fellow artists were Casey Reas, Brendan Dawes, Jared Tarbell, Marius Watz, Paul Prudence, James Paterson, and many more, now household names in today’s generative art landscape.

Danny Franzreb's interest in computers and technology led him to blockchain and NFTs. Understanding technology and its impact on society, art, and culture weren’t enough for him. He wanted to meet and understand the people building the infrastructure; he wanted to make blockchain and crypto mining tangible. The result is PROOF OF WORK, a photo book and exhibitions around it that capture the unique individuals and diverse locales of the crypto mining scene, ranging from small-scale basement prospectors and industrial mining farms in Russia to high-tech, sustainable factories in Sweden.

In conversation with Anika Meier, Franzreb discusses his career, from the early days of Flash and Processing to his photo book PROOF OF WORK, which documents mining and miners.

Anika Meier: Danny, you are a photographer and a design professor. What do photography and design have in common?

Danny Franzreb: I am a visual person; for me, photography and design mainly work in a visual context. Design relies on certain Gestalt principles in order for it to work; in photography, I apply the same principles when I compose a picture. If you look at my BENIDORM (2017) or ABOUT SPACE (2019) series, for example, you will find many graphical elements like symmetry or similarity in the photos. Sometimes photography and design also intersect; some of my graphic design work, like the seven abstract illustrations I did for the book ANDERSEN—THE ILLUSTRATED FAIRY TALES OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, for example, are partly based on photography.

There are also other aspects of my generative design work, for example, that are completely different from photography. In photography, I work with a subject and depend on the environment. With generative design, I can create whatever I imagine through code and rules. I like that both are possible; sometimes I am embedded in the world, and sometimes I can create my own world from scratch.

Danny Franzreb, Levante Beach from BENIDORM, 2017.

AM: When it comes to creating, what was first in your life—photography, design, or code? And how did you get from one to the other?

DF: This is hard for me to tell. Photography, design, and even code coexisted at a very early stage in my life. In the early 1980s, at the age of four, I had my first computer at home because my father worked at IBM for more than 30 years, and therefore I had access to technology that wasn’t common at that time. I created very early design work on simple printers back then. You also did have to code in order to actually run software or games on these early PCs, so coding became natural to me. At the end of the 1990s, I started to make money designing websites after school. A few years later, I got interested in interactive and generative design.

My father also let me borrow his SLR camera to photograph my friends during our skateboarding sessions. You could probably argue that skateboarding culture is something that connected me to both worlds. We photographed our tricks, and at the same time, board graphics and the whole visual aesthetic were very important, too. Magazines like Thrasher or Lodown were very influential to me. Plus music, I did artwork for punk bands that I later photographed at their shows or helped them build their website. I would say that I was fortunate that photography, design, and even code were often interconnected for me. This also went on in my professional career. I, for example, was in charge of the worldwide design and development for the Leica website, where we also had the chance to work with a lot of outstanding photography.

AM: What got you interested in interactive and generative design? You were an integral part of the early Processing community. Both as a writer and as an artist.

DF: In the early 2000s, the Internet was still new and exciting. It was kind of like the Wild West days, where every website looked different and artists created their websites on their own from scratch; you could think of them as art installations.

I was really hooked when I saw by Joshua Davis or by Yugo Nakamura for the first time, which were both Flash websites. I got deeply involved with the Flash community and built interactive experiences like sound sculptures for Sven Väth's first Cocoon Club website, for example. Through my work, I also had the opportunity to speak at conferences like SXSW or contribute to books like New Masters of Flash. New Masters was a global showcase of the most influential interactive designers of that time. The first and second volumes had chapters by many people whose work I highly respected, like Joshua Davis, Yugo Nakamura, Brendan Dawes, James Paterson, and many more. It was special to me to be asked to create the cover and last chapter for the final third volume.

Around 2005, I wrote a column on interactive design for IDN, an international magazine out of Hong Kong that has been focusing on graphic design, motion graphics, and interactive media since 1992. For one of my columns, I talked to fellow artists like Casey Reas, Ben Fry, Brendan Dawes, Jared Tarbell, and Marius Watz about new tools that could be used to create installations and generative art, including Processing.

Processing stood out because it was a flexible software sketchbook and a language for learning how to code, especially for the needs of visual artists. The community around Processing gave me the same vibes that I initially had when I found Flash, so I started to use it for my work, too. Among other projects, I created the first generative cover for Weave magazine and a generative music video for Michael Fakesch (Funkstörung) with Processing.

Danny Franzreb, THE CHILD IN THE GRAVE, one out of seven illustrations for the book ANDERSEN—THE ILLUSTRATED FAIRY TALES OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, 2004.

AM: Art and communication and how to bring an idea to life have been part of your path from the very beginning, working with musicians and brands. How did you get started in your career as a photographer, exhibiting your work, and publishing books?

DF: Since I was more connected within the design community, I started from scratch in photography. You would think that these fields are connected, but in reality, they are separate worlds. When I started to focus more on documentary photography projects around 2016 and 2017, I mostly applied to open calls to show my work and get to know people.

Using documentary photography gave me the opportunity to examine my surroundings up close. I base my initiatives on subjects that I find interesting because I want to learn about the world and build relationships with other people. Since I work as a designer and artist and spend a lot of time in front of monitors, I believe it is essential to me to move in the real world, especially when it comes to photography. When I commit to a subject, I want to fully explore it. Preparation and interpersonal relationships are just as important as the actual photography. Planning, communicating, and presenting the work for BENIDORM and PROOF OF WORK took up at least as much time as the project itself.

Platforms like PhMuseum share many opportunities for artists that work with photography. Through these open calls, I had the opportunity to participate in a few group shows and photo festivals between 2019 and 2022.

These events were a great way to meet new artists, galleries, and publishers. Many relationships with like-minded artists were also formed through the internet. I found the work of artists like Nicolas Polli and Brad Feuerhelm through social media and then closely collaborated with them for my first photo book, PROOF OF WORK. Later, I also met them in real life at events like Paris Photo.

AM: Your life and career somehow remind me of the pioneer of generative art, Herbert W. Franke. He kept three lives separate from each other: the caver and scientist, the artist and curator, the art theorist, and the science fiction author. Only on the occasion of his solo exhibition in 2010 at the ZKM Karlsruhe did he bring these three lives and careers together under the title "Wanderer Between the Worlds." In the early 1950s, caving led him to experiment with light and technology. He kept his curiosity throughout his life; it was his drive to examine new technologies for their artistic potential.

What drives you? And do you also have the feeling that you keep at least two lives separate from each other?

DF: I wish I knew what exactly drives me. All that I can say is that I can clearly recognize when I don’t create for a while because I slowly get into a bad mood. I am always more happy when I create, which is probably part of my personality. I can say that when I see great work by other artists, it inspires me to create and keep going. Not in a competitive sense, but rather appreciating great work and the energy of it.

For the past few years, Nikita Teryoshin, for instance, has been on fire. His work at the intersection of documentary photography and art genuinely appeals to me. For instance, his graphic photography documentary NOTHING PERSONAL, which explores war fairs, is as strong conceptually as it is aesthetically. In the generative field, it's similar. Typically, works that are aesthetically beautiful, and content-coherent inspire me. For instance, Refik Anadol's creations are already appreciated purely on the basis of their remarkable visual appeal, and their heavy reliance on actual data greatly strengthens them for me.

I can relate to what you said about Herbert W. Franke. Sometimes I have the feeling that I keep a few lives separate from each other, too. I don’t do this on purpose; it is more due to the fact that some people don't understand that you can be more than one thing in your life. Sometimes people in their respective fields just can’t relate to other areas, which makes it hard to fluidly switch topics, let's say from code to photography or from research papers to art. In my experience, digital media helped to open up the playing field a lot, though. The younger generation, in particular, doesn't see these borders anymore.

That is what I see at our university, with many new interdisciplinary study programs, too. I like a creative environment where disciplines overlap and influence each other. This is also why I chose to teach at the faculty of information management, because we have people here who work in design, code, photography, communication, or even physics.

Generative artwork by Danny Franzreb for the magazine WEAVE, 2009.

AM: But one could also argue that social media is contributing more and more to the fragmentation of society and that more and more niches are establishing themselves that hardly come into contact with each other anymore. How do you approach working on a project? Is it different to work on a book than on an exhibition?

DF: My photography projects usually start out of personal interest. I don’t think a lot about whether a body of work will attract a certain audience or work as a book. I need to feel that a project is interesting on a conceptual and visual level to me, so I am willing to invest my energy in it. If I am curious enough, I am confident that everything else will follow. While a project develops, it becomes clearer to me what form it will take, and I start to think about how to show it.

I discovered Benidorm by accident. While on vacation in the area, we unexpectedly passed through a very heavily populated city on the Spanish coast that I never would have imagined. Right on the beach were blocks upon blocks of tall skyscrapers. A few inebriated and exotic dancers were already there when we had the chance to be walking around the promenade at ten in the morning. It seemed somewhat strange. A few months later, I made two flights back to take photographs of the city. Initially, I found it intriguing, even though I had no idea how the project would turn out. Additionally, I hadn't determined if the emphasis should be more on architectural, documentary, or portrait photography. It was only later that I selected the photos and presented them at various open calls.

I feel that working on an exhibition and a book is different; I enjoy both equally. I love to work on exhibitions because I can create an immersive experience for the audience. Exhibitions also force me to focus on the essence of a body of work because space is usually limited. Books also can be a very intimate experience where I can lay out a narrative without thinking of the limitations of a space.

AM: You are a photographer. You are a coder. You work with cameras. And you work with code. In the post-digital age, art and technology quickly evolve. How do you feel as a photographer and coder about the speed at which technology is developing?

DF: It’s good to see that there are new ways for people to create meaningful work through AI or communicate through digital platforms. Sure, sometimes the speed of change might feel scary because it often challenges the way we work or even how we might live in the future, but at the same time, it makes art more exciting. AI, for example, opens up much more opportunities for creatives since it lowers the barrier between idea and execution. If artists can’t code, AI can support them in realizing their ideas. GitHub Copilot can help speed up the process of programming generative art.

NFTs and blockchain fall into the same category; they enable artists if used correctly. I wish we had such technology when I started 25 years ago. The technology helps artists create unique digital works and connect to new audiences in ways that were unthinkable in the early days of Flash and Processing.

It would be boring to just preserve the status quo; I’d rather live with change and be challenged by progress from time to time. In the end, I still have the choice of whether I want to be part of a technological innovation because it benefits my work or not.

First generative cover for the magazine WEAVE by Danny Franzreb, 2009.

AM: Do you have the feeling you have to keep up, or is it liberating knowing you have your life as a professor?

DF: A big part of my job as a professor is to keep up to date and make sense of my field of research, so I always have to be in touch with new developments. We recently published work about the user experience of virtual reality, for example.

Wanting to keep up is also a part of my character. I guess something like this doesn’t go away easily. But I would agree that I gained more freedom and could be much more selective. Having my life as a professor is liberating because I can focus on research and art that I regard as meaningful without being dependent on external market factors.

AM: Is trying to keep up with and understand what is happening around you also what made you travel the world to learn more about blockchain and mining?

DF: I early on felt that blockchain technologies like crypto currencies and NFTs might have a significant impact on our society. Like I mentioned, through my father and my personal background, I got a good idea of what is necessary to run a decentralized network the size of Bitcoin or Ethereum.

As I've already mentioned, I work a lot in the digital space. Ideas like Bitcoin seemed to be the digital money for the internet, something that was still required for such open platforms to function without the influence of institutions like banks or governments. I was interested in finding out more since it sounded like a fascinating, community-run, non-inflationary system. The steampunk and flawed aesthetics, which are uncommon in technology, also captivated me right away.

During the hype phases, I often saw investors talk about finances in the media, but rarely about the people that actually provide the infrastructure for these networks. I wanted to make blockchain and crypto mining more tangible and give these people a face. My aim was to understand what drives them and to document how they operate.

A custom setup of graphics cards for mining Ether on a table in a basement. From: Danny Franzreb, Proof of Work, 2023.

AM: How did you select the locations you have photographed for PROOF OF WORK? And how did you meet the people?

DF: Initially, I started to visit smaller miners in Germany to get a better understanding of mining. I found these people online through special forums and social media groups where they share their experiences in crypto mining.

I met Jan, the first crypto miner I photographed, via a Facebook group. Since he is an amateur actor as well, he replied to my post and was quite willing to be photographed. When I went to see him later in Munich, he was mining for the Ethereum blockchain on five gaming PCs in his basement. He was, in the best sense of the phrase, a basement hobbyist motivated by a novel idea, I would say.

After my initial visits, I started to contact larger mining companies that I researched through the internet and also got some personal recommendations from people I had already photographed. The locations depended on where crypto mining was happening at that time and where I got access. China, for example, banned crypto mining in 2021, so a lot of miners moved to the surrounding countries that had cheap energy, like Russia.

Jan, a crypto miner in his basement with his gaming computers that he used for mining on the Ethereum blockchain. From: Danny Franzreb, Proof of Work, 2023.

AM: I assume getting access was also about trust.

DF: That was one of the most crucial factors in the project. Some people who work with blockchain technology know that they challenge the conventional financial system; therefore, they are not too keen to be portrayed. Which I totally understand. Crypto mining companies had concerns because traditional media often painted a one-dimensional picture in regards to energy consumption or other aspects of crypto that were portrayed wrongly in the media from their point of view. So I talked a lot about my motives for the project and my background. Once I had photographed a few miners, I could also show people the photos so they could better understand what I intended to do.

I visited miners in Sweden who had a similar factory in Iceland, and the factory had hosted a press visit a few years prior. The few photos from that visit were often used without any context when bad news about Bitcoin appeared in the media, and eventually they were turned into stock photos. Even though the company had nothing to do with the news article itself, it makes sense that there was initially a bit of suspicion towards me. At first, I could only take photos of a greenhouse that uses surplus heat from Bitcoin miners to grow plants. They allowed me to visit the Bitcoin mine and were accommodating after I had the chance to explain my project to the CEO in more detail, though.

AM: What do you think motivated people to open the doors to their homes and companies for you?

DF: Many of the people that I met got originally involved in blockchain and crypto because they think that our society can substantially benefit from the technology. They believe in their work and want to be more transparent about it so more people can learn about it. To be fair, others, for example, in a Russia mine, were more in it for the money; they wanted to extend their services to Europe and get a broader reach through the coverage of their crypto mine. Most of the people I met had a fascination for crypto that went far beyond monetary aspects and wanted to share that with the public.

I met crypto miners in Belgium who use a biogas plant and mine Bitcoin with McDonald's leftover potatoes during the pandemic. In addition, I met miners in Austria who invented a way to use their machines' waste heat to heat family homes. I believe that the miners, in both instances, intended to show what crypto mining could be like in the future and were proud of the technologies they had created.

ASIC-Miners on shelves for mining Bitcoin and network cables on the ground. From: Danny Franzreb, Proof of Work, 2023.

AM: What have you learned about mining and the blockchain during the work on your project?

DF: While I was taking the photos for PROOF OF WORK, I learned that mining is a diverse field, as is the world of blockchain. Some people believe in it like a religion; others just want to make money. There are many fascinating ways to make crypto mining more sustainable, yet others will use any form of cheap energy that is available. To people in certain countries, Bitcoin might be the only way to save their money from a corrupt government or from inflation; others might not see a need to get involved in crypto currencies at all. The biggest mistake we could make when looking at technologies like Bitcoin, NFTs, and blockchain is to view them as the one-dimensional stereotypes they are sometimes portrayed as in the media.

I went to see a hardware seller in Schweinfurt for cryptocurrency mining who used to work in traditional banking before. When his father became sick, he had to use the darknet to purchase alternative medication for him. This is how he first learned about Bitcoin. He spent some time researching Bitcoin and became so excited about the concept that he quit his banking job to start a firm that specializes in Bitcoin and mining hardware. Not every person's story in the crypto realm conforms to the stereotypes you may imagine. It was fascinating to observe how someone from a traditional financial institution could be convinced by Bitcoin.

AM: As an artist and coder, has your perspective on blockchain and NFTs changed over the past three years?

DF: It didn’t change much; I still think that my initial perception of blockchain and NFTs is more or less the same. I got a deeper understanding of the space and learned about its diversity, though. By seeing the actual people and infrastructure, I also gained more trust in the movement. Like I said, I am a visual person; being able to theoretically understand a concept is one thing, but seeing 10.000 Bitcoin miners in a remote factory in rural Russia or sustainable mining operations in Sweden made the idea much more tangible to me.

Even before the project, I was intrigued by the possibility of using Bitcoin or NFTs, for example, as ownership proof. Nevertheless, categorizing some of the things I initially read was far more difficult. I kept hearing that certain nations were going to ban blockchain technologies, like Bitcoin mining, but I wasn't sure what it meant or for how much longer the technology would be able to survive. Will it still be around in this form in a few years? I now have a much better understanding of why blockchain technology is so resilient due to its worldwide decentralized user network, even in the face of a few controversial episodes within the past three years.

A crypto mine with old machines from the previously housed aluminum factory. From: Danny Franzreb, Proof of Work, 2023.

AM: What were the reactions when you published your book? Were there any questions that surprised you?

DF: I sent a copy of the book to each of the people that I visited for the project. All of them were happy with the way I portrayed them in my work. Their feedback was very important to me because I wanted to create an authentic documentary about their world. The book was also well received by several Bitcoin blogs, podcasts, and other parts of the community. We even did some guided tours for local Bitcoin user groups during the exhibition in Ulm.

The work got picked up by several photo publications and the media, too. Most of them did a good job capturing the essence of the project, which surprised me in a positive way. We also showed the work in a solo exhibition in Ulm and a group show about resource extraction at the Museum of Work in Hamburg. Many people came to learn more about Bitcoin, which still seems to be the poster child of blockchain for the public, and were open about it. What surprised me was that most visitors still had almost no clue of what blockchain is or how Bitcoin works. I assumed that they had heard more about the topic at this point, but I might have been too deep in the rabbit hole already.

There were a lot of questions, such as: How can I obtain Bitcoin? Who controls the blockchain? Who compensates the miners? Why does it have any value at all?

Ellinor, founder of a vertical farming startup. From: Danny Franzreb, Proof of Work, 2023.

AM: The hype around NFTs in 2021 made working with NFTs and the blockchain in general difficult. The discussions about money overshadowed conversations about art and technology. Do you have the feeling that the discourse about digital art and NFTs could be less focused on money in the future?

DF: There will always be people who try to exploit new technologies for others by selling the hype. It happened before in the early 2000s with the internet bubble and will happen again with technologies like AI.

Sadly, the discussion about NFTs was also overshadowed by this phenomenon. It took the focus away from the artists. We should get back to a discussion about the qualities of digital art and how NFTs can be beneficial to artists. The best thing we can do is develop a resilient community through great work and not get distracted by market circles too much. I feel this is already happening lately, though. It was the same with Bitcoin. A year ago, people asked me whether Bitcoin still exists because it disappeared from mainstream media, even though the Bitcoin community was more active than ever. Recently, Bitcoin climbed to an all-time high, and it is back in the mainstream news circle.

AM: Thank you for the conversation!