All Pictures: Institute of Human Obsolescence / Elevate Festival — ESC

Subject © Institute for Human Obsolescence

Automated machines that take over the physical labor 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, no?

The Spanish researcher, 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 esc medien
kunst labor in Graz
. There, under the title Institute of Human Obsolescence, poses existential questions of a technology-driven society.
His project, curated by esc’s artistic director 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 electricity through body heat, which is then converted into computing power by means of a mini computer (Rasberry Pi) to generate the (crypto) currency.

The 27-year-old artist 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 dynamics. His intensive exploration of past and present work models and their social developments leads us to our technological capitalist 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 “Data Basic Income” for all people. In this way, he intends to explore opportunities to positively impact economic trends in the Information Age.

Subject © Institute for Human Obsolescence

On the concept of Alternative Economic Systems by Manuel Beltrán.

Subject © Institute for Human Obsolescence

In his conjectural work, the artist 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. Also focusing on new technologies concerned with aesthetics.

His latest work is an example of his exploration of technology, art, and activism. Even though his 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 using 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 significantly from previous model mechanisms. With the worldwide replacement of domesticated horses by trains and automobiles and the accompanying shift from manual to automated labor, these burgeoning technological developments entailed certain socio-cultural ramifications. Drawing on the widespread development of technological achievements, Beltrán developed his project, 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 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 questioning of how the real value of labor 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 Capital 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 Beltrán’s work are not “labor” 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.

Subject © Institute for Human Obsolescence

A Utopian Image of Desire

The artist lets us immerse ourselves in a paradisaical 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 Capital, 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 center of Speculative Capital, Beltrán 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 even lifted. But wherever this journey leads us, Beltrán leaves open to interpretation.

The performance and the exhibited works, performed and displayed in the space 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 mechanisms of capitalism and innovation, specifically the blind belief in technological progress”. According to Beltrán, 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 residual energy from the body; and [lastly], research related to the visual form of the project and how it interacts with the audience”.

Subject © Institute for Human Obsolescence

According to Manuel Beltrán and his colleague in the Institute, economist 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 working with us and to sign a contract to perform biological labor. 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 labor and to understand the dynamics of capitalism…”

Contract Speculative Capital © Institute for Human Obsolescence

— Laura Krok

Website of the project:

Website of the project at ESC Medien Kunst Labor:

Website of the project at Elevate: