Technology has shifted our perception of the world and consequently of art. It has shifted the way we relate with other humans, paradoxically, not becoming simpler, but just more decentralised and completely quantified. Our traditional notions of time and space are progressively becoming obsolete through the networked reality we live in, as we are all used to WhatsApp or checking out our feeds while having a drink with other people or working. We are all over-present and, therefore, over-absent. Technology, in addition to neoliberal capitalism, has expanded our brain so that we can afford to not use it anymore, making us extremely stupid and intelligent at the same time, while elevating the urgency for immediacy and accessibility over anything else.

Phone calls have become cheap due to phone companies offshoring but can be annoyingly long and ineffective. In Rosi Braidotti’s words: “we have to run twice as fast, across automated replies or transcontinental phone lines, just to stay in the same place”[1]. This lack of centre also exists in what Rosi Braidotti calls the “post anthropocentric turn”. We no longer can define “anthropos” as the traditional figure of the white western man. This paradigm has shifted through the globalisation and of software-mediated systems.[2]

The use of computational technology has been present at a popular level since the aftermath of World War II and the implementation of computers in our every-day life has consequently had an impact in art production and exhibition ever since. The fascination with technology and its potential to generate content, new aesthetics and meaning was already explored in the exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity”, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, in 1968. Although unconventional, the show aimed to portray the aesthetic dimension of computers and how those could be used in order to draw, dance or make music. The same year, the first of “The Whole Earth Catalogue” was launched and distributed in California by Stewart Brand. The aim of this booklet was to bring together eco-psychodelia and cybernetics, in order to build an alternative communal society based on principles other than the traditional and the mainstream. Art was one of the many elements of the futuristic vision that the whole earth catalogue wanted to spread out.

In 1985, the philosopher Jean François Lyotard and curator Thierry Chaput, staged the most ambitious production so far at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. ‘Les Immatériaux’ gathered all sorts of more and less sophisticated technologies, hinting its radical effect in the human perception of the world.

The exhibition explored sensitivity, sensibility and artificiality, through several streams coming from the linguistic root “mat”. It was a contemporary art exhibition at a contemporary art museum, without any contemporary artworks on display. The curatorial gesture was replacing the works, and the exhibition could have been considered a massive artwork in its own right.

The 1980s were a time of fascination and fear towards technology, but also of transcendence of what was understood as humanism, humanity or humankind. The idea of the cyborg was aiming to reject binaries and claim for a more decentralised and inclusive humanism. However, in its popular representations in mainstream movies such as RoboCop (1987), Terminator (1984) or Cyborg (1989), it was still very primitive and raw. Blade Runner (1982) gave perhaps a more nuanced vision, which stays closer to the current one, in terms of a machine-human breed.

In her Cyborg Manifesto (1985), Donna Haraway points out the growing ambiguity throughout the 20th century, where the distinctions between natural and artificial, body and mind, nature and culture are too difficult to trace[3]. This human-machine hybrid would be one sort of the 21st century post-human kind that Rosi Braidotti describes in her seminal essay. Becoming machine is one of her three possible ways of becoming post-human, and one of the many ways to become machine is perhaps to get “datafied”. The possibilities of turning individuals into data are infinite and the potential profit that can be made out of it is the reason why information is the most valued currency nowadays.

What artist Lynn Hershmann calls “The Data Body” is, for instance, the only format in which a body can morph and, therefore, survive. In her words: “Data bases and code are the spine of an evolving cyborgian posture in which identity is provisional, and capture, surveillance, voyeurism and scopophilia are simultaneously the technique, the subject and the social medium”[4]. Hershmann Leeson was one of the first artists to trigger a shift in the production and reception of art due to the implementation of technology. She was a pioneer with the use of these ideas in her practice, which extended over decades till today. Her visionary approach aimed to subvert and pervert while co-mingling form, content and delivery[5] and her work was, in her words, “random, fragmented, schizoid, nonlinear, disruptive anti-narrative and interactive”[6]. As a young woman artist, nevertheless, she was told that  “media was not art and did not belong in a museum”[7], and, due to the lack of context and relevant language for her practice, Lynn wrote articles about her work under the names of Prudence Juris, Herbert Good and Gay Abandon. Those articles gave credibility to the work and attracted interest and shows.

That was just the beginning of the artist’s tendency to fake identities. Roberta Breitmore was Hershmann Leeson’s alter ego between 1973 and 1979. This fictional character had, in addition to a physical existence, a legal one. Roberta had a checking account, a driver’s licence and a psychiatrist. Before the Internet took over everybody’s lives, the artist was already playing with the idea of the virtual identity, which was constructed also in terms of language use and gestures. Roberta had a direct interaction with the external world, on the contrary to other projects of Hershman Leeson, in which it is an external agent who interacts with the work.

Another long-term project, this time dealing with AI, was Agent Ruby (1998-2002). Ruby was a virtual entity looking like Tilda Swinton, and was able to respond to the users and ultimately have moods and emotions, which might be affected by the web traffic among other things. The formats through which Ruby was presented were varied but this work can be still accessed online.

Through her long and consistent trajectory, Hershmann Leeson was looking for decentralisation of a single identity and of the medium, in order to generate active participation. The installation Lorna (1979) was one of the first interactive artworks ever made. It was completed only when the spectator interacted with the work. There was a limited choice of endings for the bored housewife called Lorna. Herschmann saw the viewer as an active participant with agency and access to the work[8].

All those invented characters were meant to exist beyond the screen, or beyond their own limits in order to empower viewers “by causing them to defy conventional linear structures and create new possibilities for autonomous action and gendered agency”[9].

A more recent example of such a practice is the artist Eloise Bonnevïot, who has implemented computational technologies in her works, as well as the principles of simulation and interaction. Bonnevïot deals, not only with the technology itself, but with a transcendental condition where the triangle nature-culture-technology merge in the form of an interactive work. As in the words of Haraway: “nature and culture are remodeled and the first can’t be a resource disposed by the second anymore”[10]. Those are thus just the same thing.

“Thinking like a mountain” looks like one or several camping tents in a sleek white-cube-space. The camping tents are hosting a sleeping bag on which a laptop waits to be used, near a bunch of energy bars for hikers and climbers. The laptop contains the videogame, which acts as the interface where you can find all this collected data of information about accidents that happened on mountains. This data is virtually shaped as an avatar and placed within the game’s interface. The only way of finding those avatars is playing the game and exploring the virtually constructed landscapes.

In “Thinking like a mountain” the facts of those accidents become part of the mountain, which is in itself a merge between nature and technology. The network of information is spread out like a swarm and therefore it adopts the face of a Venetian mask. This mask is the face of the facelessness, but however it becomes something to face. It is the threshold through which the gamer encounters nature, an artificial nature to be identified with. The same way as in ‘Lorna’, this game needs an active participation in order to be completed.  It is not a work to be looked at but to be experienced.

Science fiction is nothing but an aesthetic feature from the past, leaving space for unbelievable new realities. What is the face or the shape of a cyborg nowadays, of a “datafied” individual? Do those really have a shape or is it all a decentralised and faceless entity, post-human and post-anthropomorphic and post-anthropocentric? Did we already become machines? Did machines already become nature and the other way around? All those questions keep the general fascination alive since the early stages of computation. Movies such as Transcendence (2014) or Ex Machina (2015) explore this dimension of an artificial consciousness with and without a human-like body. Exhibitions such as “Human+” (7 October 2015 – 10 April 2016) at CCCB in Barcelona, curated by Catherine Kramer or “Nervous systems” curated by Anselm Franke together with tactical technology grounders Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski within the frame of the project 100 Years from Now (opening in March 2016) raise questions around this transcendental merge.

Haraway saw this new stage as a couple exchange and as a new level of bestiality[11]. Herschmann Leeson foresaw the current enhancement of our understanding of irrational presences and simulations through AI software mediated mechanisms[12]. It seems however that the last word belongs to the tech industry and co-grounder of OpenAI Elon Musk also rejects the feeling of otherness referring to how we use apps. Apps are extensions of ourselves that make us superhumans and so will AI be ideally programmed[13]. Nothing to worry about…

Gabriela Acha

Gabriela Acha is an independent curator based in London. She will soon complete an MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths University of London and is running the project space Green Ray in Deptford since December 2015 –together with Nathalie Boobis and Katy Orkisz. In the past she was running collectively the Berlin-based multidisciplinary space Altes Finanzamt. Gabriela is interested in current emergent practices that deal with temporality, networks and materiality.

[1] Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman, 2013, p.59

[2] Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman, 2013, p.57

[3] Dora Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto,1985 p. 3

[4] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings: The Data Body, p.2

[5] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings: The Data Body, p.2

[6] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings

[7] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings

[8] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings

[9] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings: The Data Body, p.2

[10] Dora Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto,1985 p. 2

[11] Dora Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto,1985 p. 3

[12] Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Writings: The Data Body, p.2

[13] Elon Musk in an interview with Black channel (https://backchannel.com/how-elon-musk-and-y-combinator-plan-to-stop-computers-from-taking-over-17e0e27dd02a#.7bu4xokyn)



One thought on “Nothing to worry about

  1. Pingback: Article: Nothing to worry about, article published for CtC | Gabriela Acha

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