An essay about the piece of the Ljubljana-based artist Boštjan Drinovec. The text was initially published in the catalogue of the exhibition entitled Moebius Strip at Montfort / Obalne galerije, Portorož, Slovenia.
Ever since the first Industrial Revolution, which in some areas began in as early as the second half of the eighteenth century, the question of labour and the means of production has remained constantly in the foreground of discussions about the optimal organisation of society. The market economy has become an important element that, time and again, has successfully defied numerous attempts to change it. In earlier periods of history – in antiquity or the Middle Ages – different rules applied in society: rules based on symbolic statuses. With the establishment of a capitalist economy, however, the rules of the game changed entirely and since then have been based on complex networks of market values. Despite this, the monetary system as we know it today is extremely changeable, uncertain and, in places, entirely abstract. In the present period of transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, social and economic relations have once again grown tense and are constantly being questioned. After years of predominance of a planned economy, which saw the successful establishment of greater egalitarianism, the scales have once again tipped in the direction of the logic of the market, which leads to stratification, inequality and environmental imbalance. Scientific and technological progress allows many people an easier and better life than they could have had some decades ago, but on the other hand it is actually economic logic that tends to slow this type of progress.
New systems, devices, tools and medicines frequently fail to make it into production if they do not in the first place satisfy economic logic. That is why even today – in the age of the digital revolution – there is still an enormous amount of manual labour around the world that is based on (post-)Fordist ideas from the early twentieth century. Society is clearly changing more slowly than many imagined and hoped, yet the gradual automation of labour cannot be stopped. In some sectors human beings have already been replaced by robots, which are faster, stronger, more accurate and generally more efficient. This is something that humankind should be glad of, yet fear of job losses is increasingly present. Human beings dread their own uselessness.
These phenomena are addressed by the artist Boštjan Drinovec, who places a robot at the centre of his installation Möbius Strip in order to raise certain questions that have long troubled the human species. His robot, which was created as a working machine, is programmed to perform with infinite precision the monotonous and repetitive task of moving salt from one pile to another and then to a third. The robot’s operation follows an endless loop, so the quantity of salt in the piles remains unchanged. This status quo or Sisyphean task represents (or can represent) a metaphor for inevitably changing relations of production. Drinovec uses the method of the ready-made object that takes the place of the traditional sculpture, installation and kinetic sculpture. Here the role of the sculpture is played by an industrially manufactured device to which the artist has given a different purpose, assigning to it a wholly irrational task.
In the Anthropocene, a period of measureless human impact on the environment that is practically impossible to define in chronological terms, robots are commonly understood as a symbol of the beginning of the decline of human domination of the planet. Yet human encroachment on the environment has been taking place for thousands of years, meaning that automation, digitalisation and smart technologies are not the apocalypse but merely the current limit of human ascendancy over other living beings and inanimate matter. Despite this, fear of “intelligent” machines and self-driven systems is omnipresent. Could sophisticated technology and emerging artificial intelligence begin to function autonomously and take on the role of human beings? In the technical sense this is perhaps possible, since machines and robots can “learn” from experience and mistakes and choose the best path on the basis of complex calculations and networked systems. Nevertheless, human beings still retain solid control over technology and the human mind is still considered the most complex machine of all. But human beings are missing a key component: mutual compatibility and strictly coordinated action – elements that no social system to date has been able to promote successfully. All the same, we have succeeded in building some systems that drive themselves.
For example today’s monetary and economic system, which rests on the ideological assumption that the market is the best indicator of relations of power in society, that it is capable of solving all of society’s problems, and that there is no alternative to it. The activity of a robot, which Drinovec has adopted and given new meaning to, is actually a Sisyphean task that is evidence of the fruitlessness of resisting the established (unfair) mechanism of labour and production relations, and of the futility of opposing the introduction of new technologies and knowledge. With this gesture, the artist offers numerous legitimate reflections on the as yet unimagined social relations of the approaching era.
© Miha Colner, March 2018