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Cyborg Bodies
Mark Tribe

The problem of the body in technology haunted the European Media Art Festival like a zombie, staggering through presentations, performances and lectures by Stelarc, Prof. Joseph Weizenbaum, NVA and De La Guarda.

Stelarc's presentation at EMAF was part slide talk, part tech demo. He showed slides and videos of his work, from the early hook hangings (in which he suspended himself above crashing surf and from a construction crane) to his most recent Internet experiments, and proved that the electro-stim muscle control systems he uses really work by bringing up volunteers from the audience and making their arms flop about.

It was a provocative mix of speech and spectacle, and I appreciated the opportunity to see the development of his work from a kind of 70s body-art take on "primitive" ritualistic piercing practices to his current fascination with prosthetic extensions, implants and telematic activators.

In one of his most recent projects, "Ping Body," Stelarc makes use of a mechanical third hand, head-mounted lasers and Internet-activated muscle stimulators. A computer sends ping signals to various Internet servers, and the time it takes to get an answer effects the movements of a robot arm and, through the electro-stim, Stelarc's own naked, middle-aged male body. His body and the robot arm move about in an awkward dance to a soundtrack of modified and amplified body sounds, as green laser beams project from his eyes. It is a wild cyber-spectacle, and very strange. I appreciate the quasi-objective, Zen-like detachment Stelarc maintains during his performances, as well as the jolly sense of humor that escapes during his talk as an infectious, ghoulish laugh.

At the other end of the new media guru spectrum, Weizenbaum's lecture reminded me that professors still have near-holy status in this highly academicized country. Weizenbaum spoke about the temperamental similarities between programmers and artists, defined art as the attempt to say the unsayable and poetry as the attempt to say something that can't be said in everyday language (tell that to David Antin), decided that computers cannot write poetry, suggested that we shouldn't turn to dolphins for family advice, and asserted that any word beginning with "post-" is probably nonsense.

I enjoyed his lecture because, unlike most lectures in German, I was able to understand every word. And while I didn't appreciate his passive-aggressive jabs at postmodernism and feminism, I agree with his basic thesis, which, if indeed I understood correctly, is that we shouldn't look to computers for human intelligence. In this he seems to be in line with Roger Penrose, who in _The Emperor's New Mind_ argues against strong AI, concluding that human intelligence is bound to the biological structure of the brain. Rather than trying to make machines that pass the Turing test, Weizenbaum's argument would seem to suggest that we should focus our energies on making machines that do things that we don't already do well.

One of Weizenbaum's most disturbing jabs was taken at the expense of Stelarc. In his talks and texts, Stelarc asserts again and again that the body is becoming obsolete in the face of new technology. In the typically knee-jerk fashion of post-Frankfurt School German intellectuals, Weizenbaum hears a troublesome argument and decides it's fascist. In this case, he suggested that Stelarc's notion that the body is obsolete (and thus, by implication, less-than-human) is similar to the Nazi notion that Jews are less-than-human.

Obsolescence is inherently relative. Technologies become obsolete as new, more sophisticated technologies are developed. Stelarc's argument isn't that cyborgs are more human than old-fashioned human bodies, but that the human body is becoming obsolete in relation to the technologically enhanced body that his work represents.

Towards the end of his presentation, Stelarc stated that his work's "raison d'etre is using technologies in ways that produce alternative operations and possibilities for the body." He insists that he is doing art (as opposed to science or spiritual ritual), and in that context his work forms an interesting techno counterpoint to that of Chris Burden and other body artists of the 60s and 70s.

The question that I find myself asking in relation to Stelarc's presentation is: does he see his own work as a disruption/ interrogation of the new cyborg technologies, or as a progressive step toward cyborg utopia?

The answer is unclear. When Stelarc talks about the laser eyes, the muscle control systems, and the third hand, he seems to talk about them as enhancements. For example, he says that his lasers allow him to "create images with the eyes, not merely receive them." Of his Internet-activated muscle activation system, he says he is "scaling the body up telematically to the level where it... becomes a nexus that manifests the statistical ebb and flow of Internet activity."

If these are enhancements, they are not the functional improvements of medical science (prosthetics, artificial organs, gene therapy) but rather the more whimsical alterations of an eccentric.

The larger question that arises in relation to this notion of obsolescence and the body is not so much the post-humanist ideology that Weizenbaum mistakes for fascism but the problematic notion of technological progress that it implies. Progress has become the whipping-post of postmodern theorists who associate it with modernism, and as a product of late-eighties academia, I admit to a reflex reaction against progress that is worthy of Weizenbaum himself. But when you remove it from the context of modernism's teleological utopianism, the problem with progress disappears. What remains is the increasing gap that is emerging between those, including Stelarc, Weizenbaum and myself, who stand to benefit from technological advancements and those to whom access is denied.

From: Michael Gibbs Subject: net.art: missing link (artists/critics)

In reply to the comments by Markus Merkel and Josephine Bosma regarding net.art criticism [available at http://www.rhizome.org/query], I do not think that there is any real danger of critics "killing the infant during birth". If the baby is strong enough it will survive in any case. Nevertheless, any new form of art does need to be tenderly nurtured by being raised with care, attention and a modicum of discipline, and this is the task of critics and curators. Where would Impressionism have got to had it not been for the critical response of Baudelaire? Unfortunately there are (so far) woefully few critics or curators who are prepared to take net.art seriously. Catharine David's efforts, although flawed, are at least a step in the right direction, as are the excellent articles published in magazines like Mute. (Compare these, for example, with the minimal, token-like coverage in Artforum). Take a look at Switch (http://switch.sjsu.edu/) which has a thoughtful 2-part study of art on the Web, including its 'ontological' implications. Or check out the Reviews section of my own magazine site Why not Sneeze? (http://www.ccc.nl/sneeze/), which includes reprints of the articles I have been writing for the last year or so for the British art magazine Art Monthly.

Even though the medium is still young, there is already a great deal of interesting net.art around--Louise Lawler's Birdcalls piece is my current favourite (and I have to thank Tina LaPorta for bringing the feminist dimension of the piece to my attention). It is perhaps significant that Louise Lawler established her name as an artist not by doing net.art but in other media, and that she shows in traditional galleries and museums. The same goes for Lawrence Weiner or Matt Mullican who have also successfully ventured into net.art. Mature artists such as these do not need to seek "validation" by critics, but it does behoove the critic to respond to their work. It seems to me that only insecure, inexperienced artists are worried about acceptance by critics, whom they tend to regard with misplaced paranoia and ignorance. Young artists' refusal to accept "validation" by critics is not necessarily a sign of vitality, rather it displays an unwillingness to enter the lively field of discourse and discussion. To return to the "baby" metaphor, it is tantamount to suicide through self-imposed neglect.

http://switch.sjsu.edu/
http://www.ccc.nl/sneeze/




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