A main source of such validation is being accepted into the archive of institutions such as museums and other art and cultural centres. This creates, as pointed out by Boris Groys in his book On the New, incentive in market value because such a position is then considered a solid investment1. The amateur can thus view their lack of economic value, or the lack/ withholding of a larger collective validation, as a form of resistance- yet the tides of cultural trends remain highly unpredictable. Yesterday’s trash turns too quickly into today’s treasure; today’s waste may well be adulated in the collective archive of tomorrow.
Creating Fictional Values
In his infamous book Sapiens, Harari tries to shed light on how Homo Sapiens became the only surviving Human species, able to multiply and have vast impact on the planet Earth. He speculates that what enabled this was our ability to work together as a large entity, cooperation being based on our success in sharing imagined realities in the forms of fiction and myth. Harari implies that our greatest achievement of shared imagination so far is the contemporary economic system: where we have collectively agreed to give value to the concept of money in its many forms- from data accumulated on various devices to coins or paper in our hands.
“Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs- it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.”2
Our current economy is even more complicated a fiction, no longer solely based on exchange but rather on debts and corporations that assert their own rights and existence, functioning on financial speculations and promises of imagined future returns.
Other shared fictions have allowed people to collaborate as group entities throughout history, such as imperialist visions and religious myths, paving the way for other ideological/mythological constructs such as nation states, capitalism and socialism.3
Humankind’s need for fiction and myth has remained through history- from the close relationship of art with communal religion towards ideologies of belief in the individual- creating and reinforcing a collective belief in innovation, founded by debts but holding the promise of infinite future returns.
Art has consistently played a major part in the creation and societal sharing of these fictions. It too has moved with the changing of the times, becoming a facilitator of innovation more than a preserver of tradition; museums and centres of contemporary art functioning as platforms of possibility where the new may emerge and take presence within societal culture at large.
The rise of new ways of exchange and immersing networks comes at a time when we are seeing the sovereignty of old structures crumbling and democracy in crisis. This is perhaps the time to imagine a new concept of capital as the artist Joseph Beuys attempted in his 1977 performance works, from everyone is an artist to art=capital where he insisted on using the term not to refer to economic ownership but rather to intellectual and creative property.4
“The economic logic of the revaluation of values is, however, the logic of culture itself. Culture is always already a value hierarchy. Every cultural act confirms this hierarchy, alters it, or, as happens in most cases, does both at once.”5
Economy of Revaluation
What could our new ideas for value be and how will we begin to create them?
In her book The Wretched of the Screen, the writer and artist Hito Steyerl explores how neoliberalism and technology have changed our relationships with work, cultural production and value hierarchies. She explores artists attempts for autonomy, from the avant-gardes up till today, and describes how the attempt to reintroduce art to life has failed, yet art occupies the life of today. In her writings on autonomy and art as occupation she looks at how a difference in terminology has affected the way we see labor, from work that implies a producer and a product, to occupation, which keeps people busy without financial incentive. Occupation as such is not centred on a producer or worker but includes consumers, reproducers, time-wasters and anybody seeking distraction or engagement.6
Inevitably, this has changed the way artworks materialize. Instead of being seen as an object or product art now tends to appear as an activity or performance. “Today the traditional work of art has been largely supplemented by art as a process-as an occupation.”7
We are, as Steyerl points out, occupied by art: fully engaged in the process of reproducing, consuming, aestheticizing our daily life; the borders between Producer and Consumer are fading. Art is embedded in the economic construct and logic, things and ideas are constantly being reevaluated and devalued, and the cultural and economic capacity to correspondingly incorporate this constant innovation appears endless.
An example of how economy is based on our creative ability to share and trust in fiction, the Rai stones are circular disks carved out of limestone, used as a currency in several of the Micronesian islands since 500AD. As they were very heavy to transport, using them simply meant verbal agreement to the change of ownership, and as long at it was recorded with oral history, physical movement of the stones was not required.
Today our exchange for commodities goes mostly through computer servers and the movement of electronic data. In such a landscape, the arrival of crypto-currencies is no surprise. These currencies rely on blockchains- ‘shared global infrastructures that move value around and represent the ownership of property’8, a system that decentralizes exchange and removes middlemen. It does not rely on one party, i.e. a bank, but rather the collective trust in computation and collection of data.
In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, child prodigy and founder of the Ethereum project Vitalik Buterin describes many future possibilities for the blockchain, not just as a currency but also as insurance and even the facilitation of a basic income system.9
As an artist in today’s world dominated by an apparent freedom of capital and commodities and endless appetite for the new, the act of resisting the economic logic embedded in artistic acts seems impossible. The hope for a new way of occupation and exchange are perhaps a way out, where this confusion of professions and the increasingly blurred distinctions between producer and consumer, professional and amateur, might open up new possibilities.
Like the blockchain, within this unstable fabric of culture and economy lie the possibilities of new fictions that might ultimately create vastly different structures and hierarchies, shaping human society into as yet unimagined forms.
What is this new incarnation, manifestation, apparition of value that we might collectively imagine in the near future? And if so how do we start and where?
Essay by Dagrún Aðalsteinsdóttir
Editor: Weixin Chong
- Boris Groys, On the New (Verso, London, 2014) 39–40.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage Books, London, 2011) 197.
- Information from Capital: Debt – Territory – Utopia, an exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ works at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin, 2016.
- Boris Groys, On the New (Verso, London, 2014) 39.
- Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2012) 103.
- Ibid. 107.
- Ethereum introduction, https://www.ethereum.org/
- Jehan Chu and Hans Ulrich Obrist in “Hello, Vitalik Buterin” in Tank Magazine, Issue 74, 2017, https://tankmagazine.com/issue-74/features/vitalik-buterin/