Acclaimed documentary artist Lisa Barnard shares her approach to documenting the virtual currency BitCoin for the next chapter of her project The Canary & The Hammer
“I like to work in a photographic format that embodies the concept of the project; so the idea behind the work is thoroughly entwined with its appearance,” explains photographic artist Lisa Barnard, following her most recent shoot with the Fujifilm GFX 50S. Renowned for making work that interrogates deeply political subject-matter while simultaneously exploring the aesthetics of the medium, her most recent, ongoing project tackles the complex history of gold in response to the financial crisis of 2008.
The Canary & The Hammer exists as an online, interactive platform that guides viewers through the many different incarnations of gold and Barnard’s investigation of them. Employing both image and text, Barnard considers important moments throughout the history of this precious metal, including its contemporary application as an essential nanomaterial in the search for solutions to global health and environmental challenges.
Currently there are six thematic sections but this is set to increase as more stories are added. The site will eventually hold the research undertaken for each chapter and will exist as a free resource showcasing the importance of a rigorous documentary practice.
Despite being centred around the physical material of gold, The Canary & The Hammer deals largely with abstract ideas and immaterial subject-matter, including the sexual politics around the medium and the themes of beauty, wealth, knowledge and power intrinsic to it. For the next chapter of the project, Barnard embarked on a trip to Japan to experiment with the Fujifilm GFX 50S, faced with the challenge of documenting the virtual cryptocurrency, BitCoin.
A reader in photography at the University of South Wales and Programme leader of the MA in Documentary Photography, Barnard’s work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally. Her practise centres around the themes of Global Capitalism, the relationship between the military industrial complex, screen based new technologies and the psychological implication of conflict, employing both traditional documentary methods and more conceptual forms of representation. Barnard has also published two critically acclaimed books, Chateau Despair (2012) and Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden (2014).
“Gold is ubiquitous in South East Asia and Japan, so, in a sense, my decision to focus on BitCoin may seem a bit strange” says Barnard. BitCoins are however now often referred to as digital gold: the virtual equivalent of the precious metal on account of their limited availability, stable value and independence from any central banking system. “And Japan is really interesting in relation to BitCoin because it only recognized the currency as a legal method of payment in March of this year,” she says.
Each existing chapter of The Canary & The Hammer makes use of an array of photographic styles and techniques. Traditional landscapes, portraits and still lives are interspersed with more experimental imagery, video and graphics, which slide across the screen against a soundtrack of varying tracks.
As a new medium format mirrorless digital camera, the Fujifilm GFX 50S presented the optimum way to shoot this segment of the project. “BitCoin is a completely digital currency so it made sense for me to use a format that is very much connected to those ideas. I’m really interested in how photography can discuss something that doesn’t exist in reality. Bitcoin embodies the complexity of some of my research.”
Finding a way to communicate the narratives around BitCoin, via this digital medium, presented its own set of challenges. When asked how she envisioned photographing such immaterial subject-matter, Barnard replied, “I must admit it crossed my mind when I was getting on the plane to Japan. I thought, how on earth am I going to do this and it was really, really difficult because, as predicted, there was very little to shoot.”
An investigation of women’s roles throughout gold’s history, exists as an underlying narrative running through the entirety of the project. After becoming very interested in a company specialising in BitCoin mining, Genesis Mining, Barnard discovered that one of the women involved in its development lived in Japan. Knowing this, she decided to focus on females working in the BitCoin community as a way of visualizing the topic. “As in any financial industry, females are very underrepresented, so I sought out some amazing Japanese women and used their stories as a way to develop this project,” she explains.
Although Barnard usually travels with a range of equipment, she only took the Fujifilm GFX 50S on this trip. Despite having never used it before, the camera served her purpose perfectly. Visiting these businesswomen in their workplaces, Barnard decided to make very simple portraits of them set against the backdrop of their office environments. “I only had about fifteen minutes to take each portrait” remembers Barnard, “so I was just shooting these photos without a tripod, but the GFX was suburb – it was so light and worked perfectly in low light.”
The resulting images are “extraordinarily detailed” remarks Barnard, giving the photographs a digital aesthetic that compliments their subject-matter. In order to further translate BitCoin into the work, Barnard is planning to, with the assistance of the developer of a Bitcoin game called SaruTobi about a flying monkey, embed a code in the images that will enable viewers to collect their own Bitcoin on the discovery of certain words connected to photography.
Barnard’s next destination for the project is Iceland, the birthplace of Genesis Mining. She is keen to continue to delve into the world of BitCoin and experiment with ways to document this immaterial subject-matter, interrogating the medium of photography in the process. Barnard is currently also working on a book, which she sees as the endpoint of the project: bringing the website offline, into a physical publication.
The GFX 50S is Fujifilm’s first medium format mirrorless camera system, offering outstanding image quality in a digital format, at an affordable price. It’s available to buy now. For more information please visit the Fujifilm website.
Sponsored by Fujifilm: This feature was made possible with the support of Fujifilm. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.