‘If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I might have written a completely different dissertation,’ says Barbara Cueto. “The pandemic exacerbated so much discomfort and inequality in society that questions about how society can be organized differently became even more pressing. The world was in an impasse, which fed the imagination.”
Many PhD candidates do not complete their thesis within the prescribed four years. Cueto did it in three years, she says in a video call from her home in Berlin. In addition to her PhD, she worked as a curator, but that was on hold. All the time for a dissertation. Cueto grew up in the north of Spain and moved to Berlin in his early twenties to write about culture as a freelance journalist. Curatorship turned out to suit her more, she went on to do a master’s in that direction in Maastricht. Her curation projects operate at the crossroads of art, technology and politics. Cueto’s thesis White Papers on Dissentfor which she received her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam on November 10, “is in fact one huge curation project”.
It is about blockchain and the imagination that the technology of the public ledger provokes about how the world can also be organized, beyond the market model that now determines so much. Blockchain is more widely applicable than just the crypto coins with which the technology became known. In the digital, public ledger, as blockchain is often described, all kinds of data can be kept securely without a central body to monitor it. Transfers of money and goods are obvious applications, but you can also track the exchange of care in them, one of the examples that Cueto explores in her dissertation.
“In the current system, value is mainly expressed in money. But of course there is much more that has value. Family, religion, time, just to name a few,” says Cueto. “In small groups such values are already exchanged, think of mothers who support each other, but blockchain has created an infrastructure with which such values can also play a role on a larger scale. Then they can suddenly become a factor of importance, in addition to or instead of money. Perhaps the blockchain technology itself is not the answer, perhaps another technology is better, one that has not yet been invented. But blockchain does point to the right questions,” says Cueto.
What has value is already a question and how do you exchange that, but also: what are the consequences if there is much more to value than money?
Cueto researched it with, among other things live action role play. During the Design Week in Eindhoven in 2021, fifteen people experienced for five hours what it means when society revolves around care in the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. They played a role-playing game in which the exchange of care took place via a blockchain-like system. Nobody knew each other, there were artists, designers and random visitors. “Everyone was given a card with rules and personal scenarios, and everyone had a profession, from hedge fund manager to carpenter,” says Cueto. “The circumstances of the participants’ fictional lives changed as the game progressed. They had to make decisions about their lives, and not money, but care was the element by which they acted among themselves.”
“The people with a large safety net ended up with the most points. Participants made different decisions than they probably would have done in today’s society. That sounds logical, but family is often taken for granted in today’s society,” says Cueto. “A role play is a very interesting way to investigate how a collective works. It is often used by designers in the prototype phase to discover the implications of a design or technique. It is good to do that for blockchain now. With Google, Facebook, mobile phones and other technologies that are now very decisive in people’s lives, I think we as a society have been surprised by the enormous impact.”
Blockchain is small now, but the impact could be big. “The technology still needs to be developed much further. We are just starting to understand the blockchain language, but we are not yet fluent in it. So my research does not stop here either, I will process new questions in a new program that I curate.”
“I am not an activist, but I do think it is important to make people aware of mechanisms in society. Art and technology are means to this end. Museums are invaluable in this respect, they provide a platform for questioning power structures. Blockchain shows us a glimpse of the future, so much is still possible. Writing this thesis has given me hope.”
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