By Julia Rasmussen.
The unsustainability of the function money has under the framework of capitalism has brought about a counter commentary visible in all layers of society, foreshadowing a shift in the infrastructural paradigm of capitalism and consumerism. The introduction of cryptocurrencies and the art world’s approach to it, suggests the potential of a future where power is taken from the state and placed in autonomous technology, ultimately for the benefit of mankind. Kevin Abosch and his piece YELLOW LAMBO (2018) encapsulate the potential of cryptocurrencies as a medium for conceptual art all whilst provoking a broader conversation on the problematic pillars that hold capitalism in place. To understand why the potential of a dramatic paradigm shift is underway, it is worth going back to the beginning, with the evolution of money and the premises of how it has been perceived and how that has changed over time.
As Marx wrote in The Jewish Question, on the concept of money: “Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. Hence it has robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its proper value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.” (p. 63)
Money as Marx points out is a made up good, used to quantify everything physical on this earth, including time and labor, becoming the center of the capitalist universe that Marx lived in. The depletion of value that money had on the world at the time of Marx has only worsened in the neoliberal era of today, where money has gone from quantifying the value of all things, to quantifying the value of all things that we wished we had. More concretely, currency as we are familiar with it came about ‘after the gold standard was abandoned in 1971’ (Kostakis, 2014) where it ‘became more credit-oriented to facilitate the growing rate of the capitalist system’. (2014). Money went from being a currency of exchange, where for example time could be exchanged for money which in turn could buy goods, to being a currency of debt. A currency of overextending oneself as an individual, of maxing out credit cards to buy a commercially created dream, and a currency of speculation, where borrowed money is gambled in the hope of creating real profit. As Balaskas & Aceti write: ‘In a world with finite resources; unlimited financial expansion is an illusion.’ (2015) Money became unsustainable the moment it started being perched to infinite abstractions.
The financial crisis of 2009 illustrates the infrastructural failures of the development of currency, with very concrete negative effects felt by the majority of society, inflicted upon them by the greediness of a minority, and their manipulation of the role money plays in society. The global outrage sparked by the financial crisis catalyzed a movement for change, and the wish for a fundamental restructuring of the understanding money.
Technological advancements and the digital sphere are often used as a space for change and activism, where the voice of the individual can mobilize the voice of many as an alternative to the discourse presented by the state. Technology as a potential tool for change can be seen in the introduction of cryptocurrencies in our global consciousness.
Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or ethereum are innovative in their apolitical features. Parallels can be drawn to Haraway’s definition of the cyborg and modern machinery as being ‘an irreverent upstart god, mocking the Father’s ubiquity and spirituality’ (2016). These cryptocurrencies are mimicking the role of traditional currency, and in a sense have the potential to rock the foundations of the patriarchal capitalistic state (in this context god, as well as the father) making a farce of the pillars of modern day society and suggesting an alternative. Cryptocurrencies shed light on a world where money is not regulated by the state but rather by a code written by an unbiased machine, where the character of the currencies are not manipulable by any conscious being.
Apart from the technical aspects of cryptocurrencies that set them apart from traditional currencies, their existence as a viable option to traditional currency, that can be held, touched and smelled, shows a shift in the human consciousness from the physical realm to the digital realm. A shift that leads to the further abstraction of money as a concept, since in the case of cryptocurrencies, it truly only exists in our minds, and on a screen. The potential digitization of currency has caught the attention of several artists, where some have used the digital realm as a medium for their art, while others have used cryptocurrencies as the framework for a commentary on the pitfalls of capitalism. The arguably most avant-garde amongst these artists, touching upon both aspects of cryptocurrencies, artist Kevin Abosch, drew headlines with his most recent piece YELLOW LAMBO from 2018.
In an interview piece published by The New York Times, Abosch’s piece YELLOW LAMBO is discussed, the piece described as focusing on ‘distilling the emotions around value’ by ‘creating a digital token, called YLAMBO, and turning its address into a physical sculpture in yellow neon meant to represent a yellow Lamborghini in its numerical code. This sculpture then sold for $400,000 at a San Francisco art fair to Michael Jackson, the former chief operating officer of Skype.’ (The New York Times, 2018) With this piece Abosch is commenting on the #lambo (short for lamborghini), a hashtag often used by cryptoenthusiasts amongst themselves as a way to stress the easy money that can be made by speculating in cryptocurrencies. Abosch is addressing the symbolic relationship between value, as understood in the value of currency and in the value of art. With the piece YELLOW LAMBO Abosch provokes the traditional assumptions people have both about art and about new technology, by stating: ‘You meet people in the crypto world who throw millions into coins backed by nothing, but don’t understand how a piece of art has any value’ and ‘Then you meet people in the art world who don’t understand why you would invest money in art that has no physical manifestation.’ (2018) Abosch is playing with the idea of the material both when it comes to money, and art, and his piece illuminates the falsification and inflation of value that something has based on demand, a symptom prevalent both in the world of art but also in the idea of currency.
Both art and money only have real value because there is a demand for them. A piece of art is only worth something if someone has an interest in buying it. And currencies (crypto, or traditional) only have a value worth trading with if their premise is accepted by those using it. Therefore, the falsification of value present in both realms illustrates the vulnerability of the paradigms we work under. The digital shift away from the physical foreshadows both the potential future for art and for currencies, and begs the question: is stepping further away from nature and further into technology a plausible way of finding a sustainable future for humanity?
Balaskas, B., & Aceti, L. (2015). Liberating Speculation: Art, the Currency of Capitalism and the Death of Currencies. Journal of Visual Culture
Haigney, S. (2018, June 5). «When Crypto Meets Conceptual Art, Things Get Weird.» The New York Times.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, And Socialist-Feminism In The Late Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press.
Marx, K., & Lederer, H. (1958). On the Jewish question. Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion.
Vasilis Kostakis, Chris Giotitsas (2014). «The (A)Political Economy of Bitcoin.» Vol 12 no 2. Triple C