Transhuman Conditions Arlington Arts Center January 29 - April 3, 2010
Transhuman Conditionsfeatures ten artists thinking about the future of the human body. The works these artists create might seem humorous, visceral, or even outlandish, but they all raise serious questions about the next phase in human evolution—a phase that very likely will be self-directed. Mind you, these artists are not necessarily cyborg-obsessed millenarians. They attempt to deconstruct and reconfigure physical bodies for a variety of reasons: from meditating on the relationship between mind and embodiment; to considering gender, sexuality, and the construction of identity; to using an imaginary future as a means to critique the past. In other words, whether or not you expect to download the contents of your brain to a computer anytime soon, the artworks in this show can speak to your experiences in the world.
What does it mean to be transhuman? Transhumanism has existed as an idea at least since the 1950s, and as an organized cultural movement since the 1980s. A transhumanist is someone who actively seeks out and advocates for scientific and technological methods for enhancing human physical and intellectual capacity. Think of transhumanists as early adopters—except instead of being the first kid on the block ready to own an iPhone, wear a Bluetooth device, or open a Facebook account, a transhumanist is gearing up for radical gene therapies, brain-machine interfaces, or cutting-edge prosthetic enhancements.
As far as transhumanist artists go, the most visible practitioners have often pursued extreme body modification as performance. Take Orlan, the French artist who, through a series of plastic surgeries in the 1990s involving odd brow ridges, chin implants, and other radical alterations, attempted to change her appearance to match that of various canonical Western works of art. Also tied closely to the movement is Stelarc, an Australian artist who regards the human body as obsolete, and has attempted to modify his own flesh with electrodes, prostheses, and artificial organs—including, most infamously, a third ear sewn into his left forearm.
While both artists have certainly explored serious subject matter, the sensational aspects of their practices have tended to dominate perceptions of their work, leaving them stranded on the fringes of contemporary art discourse. Similarly, transhumanists are often stereotyped as people living in an alternate reality: a science fiction fantasy world in which difficult ethical and practical considerations are ignored in favor of generally being bullish on the future. Add to this the bad habit of those ready to live in Tomorrowland to over-promise. Take transhumanist author Ray Kurzweil, who, despite his uncanny ability to track and project developments in the field of information technology, often forecasts imminent breakthroughs in medicine that few medical professionals would take seriously—like, for example, his prediction that the majority of fatal diseases afflicting the industrialized world will be vanquished by 2019. Accordingly, it’s often joked that transhumanists prefer to predict that death will be defeated within their own lifetimes—not after they’re gone. But these sorts of associations can obscure the vitality of the debate about core transhumanist issues, and distract from the realization that this debate no longer exists on the margins of contemporary life, but very much in the mainstream. The future has finally caught up with us.
Today, amputee runners are barred from competition because their prosthetic legs are declared unfair advantages, not hindrances. Websites exist that maintain a person’s e-mail correspondence and web presence after death. People meet, befriend one another, and date over long distances via social networking platforms. And waiting in the wings are very real breakthroughs in nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics that promise—or threaten—to turn us into a new organism altogether: what biotech entrepreneur Juan Enriquez refers to as Homo Evolutis.
These developments serve as this show’s jumping off point. But the underlying aim, as with all AAC exhibitions programming, is to bring home to a general audience the power of contemporary art to help us define and understand issues of the present moment. Contemporary art can appear unfamiliar, challenging, or transgressive—but the good stuff is inevitably fearless, engaged, and topical, no matter how hallucinatory or hyperreal the imagery it deploys. In the presence of works of contemporary art, conversations happen that can’t unfold the same way, with the same speculative ferocity, anywhere else in public life.This type of art asks us to consider how we should participate not just in a discourse about aesthetics or culture, but in the day-to-day business of living.
Transhuman Conditions, then, is as much about the power of contemporary art to reveal our own situation to us as it is about any specific futurist scenario. The roster of artists presented here engage in a diverse array of practices, and operate from a variety of ideological baselines. In fact, despite the obvious reference in the show’s title, there are likely only a few artists presented here who would identify themselves as transhumanists per se.
Certainly Arakawa and Gins have devoted their lifelong partnership to a transhumanist aim: to abolish dying. Since 1963 the duo has worked across multiple disciplines—architecture, science, printmaking, poetry— with the aim of designing buildings that train human bodies to live longer. For Arakawa and Gins, a sedentary state is the beginning of death; the body must constantly be challenged, thrown off-balance, and exposed to multiple points of view. Accordingly, their houses are dynamic, forbidding structures that are, quite simply, difficult to live in and move through. Their work is a compelling metaphor for our contemporary condition, defined as it is by rupture, dislocation, and information overload.
Arakawa and Gins define a human as “an organism that persons,” i.e., a living being that undertakes a discontinuous, moment-to-moment task of creating and presenting an identity. This notion of the self as something in flux, shaped by external forces and feedback loops, is key to New York artist Geoffrey Alan Rhodes’s “Mirror Series.” In this two-screen video projection, Rhodes is shown standing in front of a bathroom mirror—the place where people typically conduct private rehearsals of the public persona. But Rhodes’s mirror is far from ordinary. Via crude special effects, the artist adds elements of technological fantasy: swapping out limbs, creating a composite body, or even making his flesh disappear altogether. In this way, Rhodes adds a new wrinkle to traditional ideas about the circuit created when a performer interacts with her or his own reflected or recorded image, and makes a technological assault on the idea of a unified self.
Chicago artist CarianaCarianne, meanwhile, truly pushes the limits of the idea of becoming another person. In her work, she stages real world actions that result in the legal recognition of two individuals occupying the same body—hers. In her installation here, “Drawing and Being Drawn,” the artist illustrates her efforts to design and patent an augmented double body. CarianaCarianne’s effort to redefine herself via intellectual property laws and social contracts poses difficult questions about the extent of our right to self-determination—as well as how the legal limits of personhood might be strained in a future populated by super-intelligent machines and technologically enhanced humans.
Arlington photographer Jason Horowitz’s subjects also initially seem to want to be two people at once. Horowitz’s ultra-close-up portraits of drag queens bring both the theatrical makeup of drag and the masculine features they cover into vivid focus. Yet Horowitz’s true subject is hyperreality and thinking of the camera lens as the eye of the machine. His 8’ x 10’ digital images on plexi are massive fleshscapes, appearing more like heroic abstract paintings than photographs of human features. These prints are extrapolated far beyond the resolution of his source images, or even anything resembling ordinary human eyesight. Horowitz’s work asks how our bodies and the complex of desires around them will be perceived by eyes other than our own. One might imagine how nanobots, tiny machines that in the future could preserve our health and maintain our body’s systems, would regard their human hosts.
British filmmaker Phillip Warnell subjects not the exterior but the interior of his body to the scrutiny of the electronic eye. Warnell’s piece “Sensors on the Abdominal Wall” offers footage from a live performance in which the artist swallowed a pill-sized camera, allowing the audience to see images of incredible exotic terrain inside Warnell’s intestinal tract. Warnell’s piece invites us to marvel at the dynamism of the human organism, and asks us to consider if we can really accept the notion, advanced by some transhumanists, that consciousness can be transferred from a living body to a new machine host without experiencing any loss. He denies French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s observation that the body “seems superfluous in its proper expanse, in the complexity and multiplicity of its organs, of its tissues and functions, because today everything is concentrated in the brain and genetic code, which alone sum up the operational definition of being.”
What about bodies that aren’t there at all? Baltimore artist Laure Drogoul draws unlikely connections between late 19th century spiritualism and our present-day interactions now with virtual beings. Drogoul’s past projects have embraced all sorts of transactions at the borderlands of normal perception, including séances, a museum of common smells, and a project exploring how earthworms “hear” sound through their epidermis. Her installation here asks to whom we are speaking when we deal with those most unwelcome automatons: auto responders, phone menus, and other imaginary gatekeepers. The suspended, glowing Frankenstein’s monster she offers here is, like much of her work, both theatrical and unnerving.
Chicago-based artist Ivan Lozano’s video work is haunted by ghosts of another sort: gay men who died in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. “21st Century Machines: A Technodrama for Future Generations” juxtaposes the futurespeak of transhumanist author Ray Kurzweil with images from gay pornographic videos circa 1981. Lozano equates the dreams of enhanced capacity and liberation of a generation of young gay men—dreams eventually consumed by tragedy—with transhumanist visions of escaping our biology and defeating death.
New York performance and video artist Shana Moulton considers the desire to project oneself into the future— and the failure to do so. In her 2006 video, “The Mountain Where Everything Is Upside-Down,” the artist’s alter-ego, Cynthia, struggles to be at peace with her body. Cynthia surrounds herself with faddish fitness equipment and vintage new-age devices for relaxation or contemplation. By the video’s end, Cynthia performs an act of radical self-surgery: trepanation, an ancient procedure in which a hole is opened in the skull, ostensibly to increase the brain’s blood flow and achieve mystical experiences. Ultimately Cynthia’s reliance on primitive medicine and cheap consumer products to expand her mind speaks eloquently to the problem of trying to envision the future through the impoverished means of the past.
Shane Hope seems to believe that the future will be so radically unlike the present that any attempt to picture it is bound to fail. The New York artist uses two different strategies for envisioning the unknowable. In one body of work, Hope creates large-scale monotypes depicting huge semi-abstract clouds of colliding matter—nanotubes, proteins, genetic code—referring to the future interpenetration of human bodies and electronic enhancements. More concrete are Shane’s smaller compile-a-child drawings, which appear to be letters from a future generation of artificially intelligent children. Despite strange lingo referring to a world of artificial beings and mehums (mere humans), these read like children’s letters from any era—suggesting that in even the most thoroughly reconfigured future, some things may still seem familiar.
And finally, New York artist Saya Woolfalk uses a projected image of the future to shed light on the past—specifically, the history of ethnographic studies. In her imaginary inter-species utopia called No Place, dark-skinned, sometimes faceless plant-animal hybrids covered with soft protuberances occupy a day-glo colored world. These creatures appear as amalgamations of various stereotypical representations of native peoples—perhaps suggesting that no matter how technologically advanced we become, our ability to understand or define difference may remain crude at best.
All of these artists show how the future is already with us—not only as a series of emerging or anticipated scientific breakthroughs, but also as culture. Transhumanists employ a number of narratives about how our lives will change in the next few decades; even where these stories seem implausible, they nonetheless play a role in shaping the content of debates about ethics and public policy right now. We must never underestimate the power of ideas, narratives and images to change who we are and how we act in the world. The ten artists in Transhuman Conditions understand this, and accordingly rely on events that have not yet come to pass—and that may never even materialize—to jostle us from our complacent acceptance of life as it has been, is, or possibly might be.