Automated machines that take over the physical labour of workers; obsolete people who make their money at leisure, a (virtual) currency that is produced solely by our body heat and works independently from the financial market. Sounds heavenly?
The Spanish explorer, artist and activist Manuel Beltrán recently investigated the possibilities of this or other scenarios in his exhibition Speculative Capital at the Elevate Festival in the Stadtpark in Graz. There, Beltrán, under the title Institute for Human Obsolescence, poses existential questions of a technology-driven society.
His master thesis, conducted by gallery owner Reni Hofmüller and exhibited at the Media Art Laboratory in Graz, engages with the virtual flow of money - ergo whoever wants to make his or her body heat into (crypto) money can by engaging with Beltrán’s work. One must only lie down on a bed to generate electrical power through body heat, which is then converted into commuting power by means of a mini computer (Rasberry Pi) to generate the (crypto) currency.
The 27-year-old art student from Spain, already active in a variety of political actions and movements, combines these experiences with visual arts, science, robotics, technology and algorithms in order to accurately reflect the political ramifications of man-machine innovations.
His intensive exploration of past and present work models and their social developments leads us to our technological capital society and reveals its political dimensions. Beltrán's research and art project deal with the investigation of alternative economic systems and the exploration of possible scenarios for the future. This also includes his plea for a "Digital Basic Income" for all people. In this way, he intends to explore opportunities to positively impact economic trends in the Information Age.
In his conjectural work, the artist Manuel Beltrán explores alternative, future-oriented and technologically innovative economic models, trying to explore the relationship between real and virtual scenarios. He refers to the reciprocal relationship between man and machine, especially with regard to the socio-cultural development of our society. He also focuses on new technologies concerned with aesthetics.
His latest work is an example of his exploration of technology, art, and activism. Even though Beltrán’s work questions the idea of a virtual money system, the artist feels obliged to embrace this vision. Beltrán designed a system to make the relationship between man and machine visible.
Manuel Beltrán uses specific methods and techniques for this purpose. While scientific facts are packaged into aesthetic products, biotechnological data are examined using computer-controlled interfaces. Using this translation process, the artist designed a system that makes the relationship between man and machine visible.
Beltrán's idea for an alternative payment system differs insignificantly from previous model mechanisms. With the worldwide replacement of domesticated horses by trains and automobiles and the accompanying shift from manual to machine labour, these burgeoning technological developments entailed certain socio-cultural ramifications. Drawing on the widespread development of technological achievements, Beltrán developed his thesis, which can be tested in the context of this speculative design and transferred to a real model.
The work’s speculative evaluation of current social trends questions current contributions of conventional work models. The performative installation also questions the value of passive existence: the idea of productive and economically usable idleness - irrespective of the sector-specific conception of productive idleness. This idea emerges from the work’s questioning of how the real value of labour is transformed into virtual reality, and furthermore, how individual and collective circumstances as well as technological development can be made tangible in a concrete way.
Finally, Speculative Capitals explicitly refers to the idea of a scientific society in its conceptual development. In both qualitative and quantitative terms, the decisive factors for production and innovation in Betrán’s work are not "labour" and "capital", but "science", "technology" and "nature". The production and exploitation of specific scientific information is also the driving force that transforms the industrial society into "post-industrial social forms". Due to the fundamental importance of scientific knowledge production, the term "science society" characterizes much more precisely the basis of today’s industrial societies than all other terms. The hope and desire for scientific information production and utilization transform the artist into a total work of art: Body heat is transformed into a virtual currency; obsolete people are monetarily rewarded for their idleness.
The artist lets us immerse ourselves in a paradisiacal scenario that becomes a reality. The realities of longing, imagination and actual things begin to penetrate us, and yet, never completely losing their connection with the real world.
With the installation, Speculative Capitals, and the resulting performance, Manuel Beltrán takes us on a journey into the world of conjecture by producing a variety of references to the various involved real-life situations. Furthermore, at the centre of Speculative Capital, Betrán provides the possibility for a counter-world: A utopian image of desire, guided by pure idleness; an imaginary image of another world in which there are no restrictions, all needs can be fulfilled with ease, and the conventions and hierarchies are set or are even lifted. But wherever this journey leads us, Beltrán leaves open to interpretation.
The performance and the exhibited works, performed and displayed in the gallery of Medien Kunst Labor in Graz, continually reflect the current high-tech revolution. As the artist shared in an interview: “The starting point for the project was the interest in the mechanisms of capitalism and innovation, which we wanted to turn into a product”. According to Belthrán, his project research followed three distinct paths: “First, the research of examples of technological innovation throughout history; [second], the technological development of the suits which uses kinetic energy; and [lastly], research related to the visual form of the product and how it interacts with the audience”.
According to Manuel Beltrán and the curator of the exhibition, René Mahieu, Speculative Capital engages with the spectator at varying levels of involvement: “There is one degree of involvement that is where you can come to the space and observe or interact with the work. But then, [at the second degree] you might get confronted with the question of how to work with us and how to sign a contract and perform biological labour. At the third-degree, a spectator actively participates in the work. I think the goals remain the same in the three levels of engagement... the confrontation becomes personal.“
Ultimately, the artist wants the work to touch the audience in a personal way: “I hope people can think about the consequences of technology critically and ask themselves questions about it. For me, it is important that people start to think for themselves about how we are creating new forms of labour and to understand the dynamics of capitalism…”
All images courtesy the artist.