Pour some ln2s, avoid condensation, win the prize: The environmentally-situated practices of liquid nitrogen overclockers

Cyrus Khalatbari

8 min readMar 13, 2024

During the autumn of 2023, FIBER hosted Part 5 of its Reassemble Lab: Practising Permacomputing, a concept and a nascent community of practice oriented around issues of resilience and regenerativity in computer and network technology that is derived, among others, from permaculture principles. In opposition to narratives of computational power as weightless and non-materially situated, Cyrus Khalatbari focuses on computer-cooling: the hidden environmental infrastructure upon which platforms operate.

Image courtesy of the author.


From Meta’s blue thumbs-up to infinite feeds and scrolling, our online experiences and interfaces are structured around seamlessness [1]. By consciously hiding these “seams” of our data transmission processes, seamless design contributes to the blackboxing of our technological landscape, giving the impression that data is weightless and non-materially situated. However, modern technology and computing heavily depend on maximalistic processes that contrast these light interfaces. From the large amount of water resources needed to cool down our server to the big data needed to feed us with always more accurate recommendation systems, extraction and mining are a core constituent of our daily interactions. At the level of hardwares, one object is crucial in order to power our maximalistic digital environments: the Graphical Processing Unit (GPU). As the hardware chip unlocking computing power at the global scale and used to train and retrain our algorithmic selves, the GPU is the core technical apparatus used by internet corporations to keep crafting their narratives of seamlessness and immateriality.

In this contribution, I’m zooming-in at the level of the GPU in order to nuance and contradict these tropes. In opposition with these narratives, I disentangle through the hardware how our computing culture relies on processes that are environmentally situated; depending on affordances and restrictions of natural resources and processes that allow computation to occur. My contribution focuses on a core characteristic of computers: the fact they “prefer to to run cold” (Selby9123, Overclocker, the US). Driven by fieldwork, I disentangle this environmentally-situated nature and entanglements of computing power at the level of a specific gaming and computer-cooling enthusiasts community I follow: liquid nitrogen (ln2) overclockers. The first section introduces their practices. The second section sheds light on the way they negotiate [2] with undesired effects caused by water condensation. The third section maps knowledge transfers occurring between these individuals and GPU corporations. Finally, the contribution places these practices in dialogue with permacomputing, the sociotechnical imaginaries it embodies, and the third workshop of the concept organised by FIBER Amsterdam.

Fig. 1. Motherboard with GPU. Fig. 2. Ln2 cooling rig. Fig. 3 Thermo-bottles used by ln2 overclockers. Images courtesy of the author.

Pouring liquid-nitrogen on GPUs: Extreme overclocking practices

Liquid-nitrogen overclocking (ln2) is, following the Chinese overclocker Micka, the “F1 car-racing of the computer-cooling game”. Expanding from other cooling techniques using air or water, this practice uses ln2 in order to cool-down computers to their limits. Here, a specific unit matters: the clocking rate, representing the speed in which the computer runs. By attempting to overclock their computers in the most extreme way, these hobbyists interact with their gaming machines through hardware and software modifications; as well as techniques they develop in order to effectively extract the most computing power they can from their use of the liquified-gas. ln2 overclocking builds are composed of turned-on gaming computers that are stripped from their cases (fig.1). Motherboards and GPUs are then placed directly on gaming desks and connected to the computer’s peripherals: keyboards, mice, screens. On the GPU, custom-cooling rigs are plugged (fig. 2). Isolating these chips from other computer parts, these rigs are used to pour ln2 on these component’s heat-producing silicon surfaces through thermo-bottles (fig. 3).

In order to test the efficiency of their builds, gamers run graphically-demanding video games and simulations also known as benchmarks. Benchmarks push computer resources to their limits, which in turns creates an exponential level of heat production at the level of the GPU. The logic of overclocking is then simple: the more overclockers activate their benchmarks, the more ln2 is poured on their machines to effectively regulate heat.

Fig. 4. Selby 9123 pouring ln2 on his build. Image courtesy of the author.

Don’t ruin your electronic-circuits (nor your hands): The problem of condensation

The activity of pouring ln2 on the machine (fig. 4) inherently creates a dissipation of the liquified-gas in the air and in the setup’s surroundings. With clouds of ln2 forming around the build, a specific (naturally-implied) consequence and effect of their practices is rigorously monitored by overclockers. This effect is condensation. It has a consequence: possible infiltrations and short-circuiting of water into computing parts that are not water-proof. Condensation can also have a deadly impact on their setups. It leads, in some cases, to the total loss of these hobbyists acquired hardware and GPUs that are sometimes trashed [3] up to fifteen times a year (BisoBiso, Overclocker, South Korea).

Fig. 5. Hair Dryer used by overclocker to reset the build’s temperature. Image courtesy of the author.

In order to prevent these undesired processes from occurring, overclockers develop all sorts of techniques driven by creativity and constant research. A common-one, argued by Selby9123, is the use of water-proof vaseline. Here, vaseline is directly placed on the chip’s integrated-circuits (ICs) as well as on the board, and then cleaned with a hand towel afterwards. Other techniques, as shown by BisoBiso, involve the use of hair dryers or torches (fig. 5) that can quickly be used to reset temperatures. Sometimes these explorations can be dangerous. The community shares how they overcome their hurdles and advise on the safest possible ways to go about it. When the gas liquifies, it can for example stick to their clothes without them being aware and, as recalled by Lucky_n00b sharing the details of a past session when he was wearing gloves, completely “burn all the skin of the thumb”.

Fig. 6. HWBOT.ORG. Homepage, Fig. 7. Hostess showcasing RGB keyboard. Images courtesy of the author.

They give us guidelines, we push to the limits: knowledge and labour infrastructures of computing power

This community of ln2 cooling enthusiasts is structured around HWBOT (fig. 6). HWBOT is a ranking platform and forum one can access online where members showcase and compare their builds; discuss techniques and strategies to overclock in the most efficient way. In addition, the community meets each year in specialised computing fairs such as the one of COMPUTEX2023 in Taipei. These fairs organise ln2 overclocking competitions, where gamers compete against each other in teams in order to win various cash-prizes. The structure of these competitions follows, to circle back to Micka, the world of F1. Teams are here composed of the worldwide’s best overclockers picked from the HWBOT platform partnering with GPU brands sponsoring and providing them with the latest hardwares. Such as F1 races, these events are intended as a spectacle [4] where computing power is celebrated with a maximalistic decorum; made out of smoke-machines, catchy-music, a female crooner and hostesses parading with hardware goods (fig. 7).

In exchange for hardware, GPU producers ask for participants to provide data helping them to further understand how their chips operate in extreme thermal conditions. With this specific data, the role of ln2 competitions is not only to entertain an audience of potential clients. It is, more specifically, to serve as an open-lab for brands in need of specific data regarding products that are in processes of being developed. The acquisition of this data helps brands to fine-tune and optimise these chips that are then sold on the global market and used to feed us with better algorithmic selves rendering in turn technology as always more seamless.

Fig. 8. Proposal. Third workshop on permacomputing, FIBER. Images courtesy of the author.

Conclusion: Permacomputing for alternative computing bridging moisture, water, hardware, software

During FIBER’s third permacomputing workshop, Olivier (Van D’huynslager) and I developed a small electronic circuit made out of composite objects (fig. 8). It combined transparent tubes pulling water from jars using a pump and servo-motor, a moisture sensor inserted into wet soil retrieved from outside, a few cables, a speaker, a microcontroller and a laptop. We developed the project as an alternative synthesiser producing computerised sounds: with moist values fed to the computer’s program in order to change the range of sounds and frequencies outputted in real-time through the speakers. Around us, other participants were playing with plants, imagining alternative sociotechnical imaginaries, exploring the role of low-energy sensing systems to monitor how forests breathe, and so on.

Likewise ln2 overclockers negotiating with natural processes in order to optimise and fine-tune their computer-cooling techniques, our workshop consisted in collectively exploring these environmentally-situated practices where computing and the earth are co-dependent and intertwined. In opposition, however, to these hobbyists, we engaged with computational resources in a finite and scarce way. While their competitions rely on countless quantities of gas (fig. 9) needed to operate the spectacle, we developed, inspired by permacomputing and its principles, our proposal as a conscious negotiation with the material constraints found on site. While GPUs and motherboards used by overclockers embody a shiny, polished and fetichized version of computation and its processes, our design intended to reveal the dirty matter of technology. [5]

This raw matter, as an analogy with earth sediments and metals crucial to producing technology yet often hidden from its dominant discourses, materialised in this context by the entanglement between the wet soil and software. In other words, it took shape with the substrate’s moisture actively used as an input impacting the sonic and musical output of the synthesiser. In opposition, finally, with ln2 overclocking and normative discourses on technology celebrating computing power in a solution-oriented and purely technical way, our installation was intended as artistic, critical and openly error-driven. Outside of the solution-oriented approach technology often embodies, producing this installation enabled us to nuance its tropes of immateriality, weightlessness and seamlessness.


[1] Matt Ratto. 2007. Ethics of Seamless Infrastructures: Resources and Future Directions. The International Review of Information Ethics 8, 20–27. https://doi.org/10.29173/irie93

[2] Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

[3] Jonathan Sterne. 2007. “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media”. In Charles R. Acland (Ed.) Residual Media (pp. 16–31). University of Minnesota Press.

[4] Guy Debord. 1977. The Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red.

[5] Jussi Parikka, J. 2012. Forum: New materialism new materialism as media theory: Medianatures and dirty matter. Communication and Critical/ Cultural Studies 9(1), 95–100. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2011.626252

Cyrus Khalatbari is an artist, designer and PhD candidate of the joint program between the Geneva Arts and Design University (HEAD — Genève, HES-SO) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). Cyrus makes websites, sculptural works, and publishes on computing cultures, critical technical practices and research-creation.




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