Current Obsession: Can you share more about the inspiration behind the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™?
How did your personal experiences shape its creation?
Saemundur Thor Helgason: The design of the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ is based on my own experience with anxiety and panic attacks, which I first encountered following the financial crisis in 2008. By sheer coincidence, one day during a panic attack, I pressed my fingers into the solar plexus area and noticed that it calmed me down, providing surprising relief. I began doing this every time I experienced these panic attacks.
The design of the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ aims to simulate the pressure I applied with my fingers. After conducting some research, I discovered that this treatment is a form of ‘Deep Touch Pressure Therapy’ widely used for individuals with anxiety and autism, especially for those who prefer to avoid the potential disruptive side effects of prescribed pharmaceutical medications.
There are other real-life examples of Deep Touch Pressure Therapy, such as ‘weighted blankets’ that apply pressure to the body to induce a calming effect and ‘hugging vests’ that aid children with autism in maintaining focus at school. Additionally, there are dogs trained to provide pressure to their owners when they sense a panic attack. However, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ stands as the only one of its kind specifically designed for addressing financial anxiety.
CO: How does the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ connect with the larger mission of the ‘Félag Borgara’ to lobby for basic income in Iceland? What impact do you hope to have?
STH: In 2013, financial anxiety was officially recognized as a medical condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a manual widely used by mental health professionals around the world. In a recent study conducted by an advisor to the Ministry of Finance, adults surveyed in the Netherlands reported a sharp increase in money-related stress during the Covid-19 pandemic. Factors such as increasing debts, dwindling savings, and the insecurity of self-employment and zero-hour contracts contributed to this stress. Additionally, adults continue to report increases in anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
This disorder, which can affect individuals of any class, race, or social status, could potentially be permanently eliminated by implementing a Universal Basic Income. As described by the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a Basic Income is a “periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” The goal of UBI is typically to foster equality, reduce widespread poverty, and provide all citizens with a universal standard of living. As a system, UBI can help address the growing wealth inequality prevalent across Europe, including countries like Iceland and the Netherlands, by giving citizens the means to lead stable lives. At its core, UBI fights for the universal right to exist.
Pilot projects for Universal Basic Income that have been tested around the world have so far been conditional and limited to marginalized individuals in the labor market. This approach indicates that the goal of UBI, as implemented by most governments, is not to grant all citizens their right to exist, but rather to restore all citizens to the path of productivity. This was the model Finland experimented with in 2017, a nation where only 10 percent of the population owns over 50% of the nation’s wealth. The effect is that these nations miss the opportunity to examine the potential influence of Basic Income on society as a whole. Instead, it promotes the universal right to work and contribute to GDP (while decreasing dependence on welfare), rather than the right to a basic standard of living.
With the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™, I aim to directly address the widespread prevalence of anxiety in today’s societies and advocate for the implementation of a Universal Basic Income for citizens of all classes.
CO: Can the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ be viewed as a placeholder for a more systemic solution, such as the universal basic income you advocate for?
STH: The function of the belt is twofold. Firstly, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ is designed to alleviate anxiety caused by financial insecurity. Since the belt can be worn outwardly and openly, it also serves as a rhetorical tool to advocate for Universal Basic Income, addressing the structural issue at the heart of the anxiety that the product temporarily reduces.
The basic idea is that while we don’t have a system in place that provides financial security for everyone, the belt can bridge the gap until such a system is established. The hope is that the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ will not be needed in the future.
Although the belt has been developed in response to the economic unease many of us feel, it can and has been used for broader anxieties. In the past few years, I have given a handful of individuals who experience anxiety on a regular basis a Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ to test its effectiveness. They have all reported back to me that the belt has a calming effect on them.
CO: The Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ gives physical form to abstract concepts like anxiety, financial insecurity, and societal pressure. How important is this tangibility to your work and its reception?
STH: By creating a product that incorporates social commentary and sheds light on the physiological and neurological implications of capitalism, the design actively critiques the system in a way that is accessible to anyone. Instead of merely reading about the necessity for wealth redistribution, customers can directly experience the commentary through their own bodies and reflect upon that experience.
Whenever the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ reaches a wider audience, it sparks a ripple effect of discourse surrounding financial anxiety and the need for Universal Basic Income (UBI). The belt has been showcased in art exhibitions in cities like New York, London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Reykjavík. Additionally, it has been made available for purchase in commercial stores such as ZUG ZUG, a fashion store in Shanghai, and ELKO, an electronics store (similar to MediaMarkt) in Reykjavík. The project has transcended its status as artwork, product, or medical device—it has evolved into a platform for international discussions on the importance of UBI.
By creating a product that incorporates social commentary and sheds light on the physiological and neurological implications of capitalism, the design actively critiques the system in a way that is accessible to anyone.
CO: Can you describe the evolution of the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ from its initial prototype to its current version?
STH: I collaborated with fashion designer Agata Mickiewicz and graphic designer Gabríel Markan to develop the prototype of the belt in 2018. The prototype consisted of a 3D printed center buckle that applied sharp pressure to the solar plexus. We utilized white faux leather, medical straps, and gears sourced from a local fabric store in Amsterdam. In retrospect, I consider the prototype to be quite old-school compared to the new iteration. The current design of the belt is more ergonomic, conforming to the organic curves of the human body. It features bespoke gears and casted straps that are securely fastened with double cap rivets. The idea behind the current design is to enable quick assembly without the need for stitching or gluing. However, since each belt is handmade in my studio, it requires a considerable amount of time to produce.
Currently, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ exists at the intersection of fine art, fashion, and healthcare, which contributes to its relatively higher cost, depending on how you perceive the item.
CO: In your recent work, MANTIS, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ takes on a role in a fictional narrative. Can you share your intentions behind situating the belt within these fictional contexts, and what effects or responses you hope to provoke through this approach?
STH: Since the first prototype in 2018 I have made short advert-like videos that show people (usually young creatives) in exceptionally tight financial situations. These days it is such a universal and relatable experience that it doesn’t take much to sympathetically or empathetically connect with the protagonists. Because much of the workforce has been in this exact situation. So MANTIS continues this series of emotional connection, while serving as a sort of ‘how it’s made’ documentation of the project. The usage of science fiction is a way of capturing the social imagination and a convenient means of envisioning alternate futures. Also the desire to escape this world, exaggerated as an alien abduction in this instance, it’s a common and normal one given the level of stress everyone feels. Since Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ taps into a very subjective experience of financial anxiety, it is hard to capture with simple product shots.
Another reason for making the short film was to generate exposure for the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ at the Rijksakademie open studios where it premiered last year. In a sense I see it as a fashion film where the product shares the leading role with performer Anto López Espinosa. MANTIS tells the story of an artist producing the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ in their studio at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. During a late night of work, they are suddenly abducted by extraterrestrials. Upon returning to the studio, they find that their appearance, as well as their mood, has begun to change.
CO: What are your hopes for the future of the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™, and how does this fit into your larger vision?
STH: The long-term goal is to seek a co-branding partnership to collaborate on the production of the belt. The aim is to leverage the existing manufacturing infrastructures of the respective fashion brand, thereby reducing the costs associated with establishing an entirely new production line. By doing so, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ will become accessible and affordable to anyone seeking relief from anxiety until a system is in place that ensures financial security for all.
Bringing the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ to the general market has been a long-awaited dream. By making the belt available in stores, a new platform has emerged for discussing the need for Universal Basic Income (UBI). This platform allows for direct experiences and mobilization by the wearers of the belt. In addition to its therapeutic properties, the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ serves the purpose of shaping a collective imagination regarding the potential of UBI and planting a seed for future generations.
In the future, the belt will be wearable by anyone, regardless of their social status or income. Different forms of anxiety are prevalent in today’s societies, and the goal of the Solar Plexus Pressure Belt™ is for it to be proudly worn, symbolizing a stance against such anxieties.
CO: As an artist, you’ve employed your work as a platform for commentary on societal issues, and even as a catalyst for change. Could you discuss how this role of art influences your creative process, and how you see it evolving in your future projects?
STH: Typically, I work from a place of frustration, driven by a sense of injustice in society. I aim to channel that frustration into something positive through artwork that addresses these issues in a meaningful way.
I wrote and directed the short film ‘MANTIS’ with the intention of featuring parts of it in ‘Hagsmunir Heildarinnar’ (translated as ‘Interests of a Whole’), a speculative documentary that I am currently working on. The film explores a new thought experiment that expands the idea of the ‘U’ in Universal Basic Income (UBI) to encompass the various entities that constitute a society, not limited to humans alone. It raises questions about whether humans are capable of understanding and considering the interests of other species, and if so, how those interests can be incorporated into the organization of society. Given that natural phenomena can obtain legal rights similar to legal personhood, as demonstrated by the Whanganui River in New Zealand, can they be regarded as citizens and thus eligible for some form of Universal Basic Income?
To push the boundaries of the concept of ‘universal’ in UBI, the film also features a chapter on how hidden people (commonly known as elves) have influenced road construction and urban planning in Iceland. This serves to highlight that if Icelandic authorities can take the interests of hidden people into account when developing infrastructure, they can similarly consider individuals* marginalized in the labor market and provide them with the financial resources necessary for their livelihoods.
Even after UBI is implemented in Iceland, Félag Borgara’s mission is far from complete, as UBI is likely to continue being discriminatory in its limited and conditional selection of (human or unemployed human) citizens. My vision for the future of Félag Borgara is for it to evolve from its current larval stage into a more active organization that can sustain its efforts for years to come.
Cover image: Saemundur Thor Helgason, ‘MANTIS’, Rijksakademie open studios, 2022
Writer / Director:
Saemundur Thor Helgason
Anto López Espinosa
“Departed Jewels of the Preeminent Antiquated Firmaments” by Julia Felix’’Battle Trance’’ by
Saemundur Thor Helgason
Anto López Espinosa
DOP / VFX / Editor:
Saemundur Thor Helgason
Félag Borgara (eng. ‘Fellowship of Citizens’)