The Post-Human Condition

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Week 4: February 4 – 10 (Adobe Connect)

In the context of performance, we will discuss the mediated transformation of the body, the man-machine dialectic, mechanical utopias and dystopias, the cybernetic organism (cyborg), wearable computing, remote sensors, gestural control, brain waves, motion capture, robotics, viewer-performer interactivity, and the use of virtual and physical controllers to engage with and manipulate the artistic work. In the post-human condition we are concerned with the sculptural and performative use of interactive forms that involve the body and its extension into the virtual environment. From the Italian Futurists, Bauhaus, and Dada to present day works, we will explore the relationship between the human body and technology, the dissolution of boundaries between man and machine, and the notion that we are all cyborgs tethered to our mobile devices.

Schedule / Assignments

  • Tuesday, 2/4: Class meeting (8:00 PM – 11:00 PM, Adobe Connect)
    • Adobe Connect Add-in per email instructions (use Safari to download)
    • Use Firefox for Connect
    • Audio Setup Wizard, adjust mic volume for good level
    • Approx. bi-weekly student assessment report
    • Interactive Media Lab: computer access, computer #20D, userid/password
    • Flickr privacy settings: go to settings (drop down user menu), privacy & permissions, first item: Who can access your original image files?: click on edit for “Anyone”
    • The featured image and the avatar: critical for formatting our activity feed
    • Audio-visual group sessions, scheduling begins next week
    • Presentation of Micro-Project #3: Soundscapes
    • Purpose of the lecture topics is to stimulate critical thinking and ideas for projects
    • Presentation / discussion of Week 4: The Post-Human Condition
    • Discussion of part 1 of the Project Hyperessay: Introduction
    • Next Week: former ADM student visiting artist Eugene Soh, discussing his virtual world that we will inhabit during class
  • Critique assigned work in a short blog post with media illustration and Research category (approx. 250 words with media) (due February 11)
  • Complete Part I of the Project Hyperessay: Introduction (see Project Assignments) (due February 11)

Week 4: Hyperlecture

Today it is the MACHINE which distinguishes our epoch…. Mechanical sense which determines the atmosphere of our sensibility… We feel mechanically and we feel made of steel; we too are machines, we too are mechanized by the atmosphere we breath… This is the new necessity and the basis of the new aesthetic.” – Manifesto of Futurist Mechanical Art (1922) by Ivo Pannaggi and Vinicio Paladini

The Futurists

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Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)

It is impossible to speak about the post-human condition without considering earlier manifestations of the man-machine dynamic as demonstrated in the works of the Italian Futurists. Futurism, which began with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti‘s Futurist Manifesto in 1909, defiantly published on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris, was concerned with the embrace of new technologies in the emerging 20th century during the years leading up to World War I.

Excerpt from the MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM by F.T. Marinetti (1909)

  1. We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
  3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  7. Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  8. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.
  9. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.

The Futurists considered the machine as an extension of man, an idea that has permeated the rise of new technologies throughout the century, and which is fundamental to our notion of the post-human condition. The Futurists transformed painting, sculpture, theater, film, and music by engaging the power and speed of technology into their work. They were concerned with how technology could lift man out of the doldrums of the previous century in an embrace of an entirely new world fashioned and accelerated by the machine. For the Futurists, technology was not just a tool, but an extension of our being, or as Marshall McLuhan later said in his book, Understanding Media in the 1960s:

“After more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

Nam June Paik

“Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important, and the latter need not be cybernated.” – Nam June Paik

Through the 1960s, before the advent of the information age, the man-machine dialectic was fundamental to contemporary art. Many of the works focused on the idea of the machine as an extension of man, the machine as an agent in man’s transformation, the machine as an appendage to the human body: an idea crucial to our understanding of the post-human condition. One of the key artists in the 1960s to explore this idea, a protege of McLuhan in many ways, was the Korean artist considered the father of video art, Nam June Paik.

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The picture was taken by Lim Young-kyun in 1983 while Nam June Paik was in New York City

Nam June Paik created numerous works throughout this career, until his death in 2006, which critiqued our relationship to technology, our adoption of technology in everyday life, from the television to the computer to the Internet. Nam June Paik was the first to talk about the “information superhighway,” and the many ways in which life in the 20th century was changing due to the speed and impact of new technologies. Paik was concerned with the effects of what he called “cybernated art,” and how it was an important role for the artist to consider the effects of new media by incorporating them into their work. Paik accomplished this defiantly, playfully, artfully, sometimes pushing his ideas to scandalous results.

Nam June Paik, TV Bra for Living Sculpture, performed by Charlotte Moorman (1969)

TV Bra For Living Sculpture (1969) is a crucial work within Nam June Paik’s career. Consisting of two miniature televisions attached to a set of vinyl straps so that the screens functioned as the cups of a woman’s bra, this sculpture was designed to be worn by Paik’s collaborator Charlotte Moorman as she performed on the cello. An object which conflates the use value of technology with the exchange value of fashion, Paik saw his TV Bra as a way of humanizing the technological by forcing it into a hybrid relationship with the body as well as other artistic media such as performance. Originally, when this work was used in performances, the sound played by Moorman on her cello was filtered through a processor which would change, modulate, disrupt, and regenerate the live television images playing on the video screens of her TV Bra.

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Kraftwerk

From Wikipedia: Kraftwerk (German pronunciation: [ˈkʀaftvɛɐk], “power station“) is a German electronic music band formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 in Düsseldorf, and fronted by them until Schneider’s departure in 2008. The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western Classical style of harmony, with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation. The group’s simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. Kraftwerk were one of the first groups to popularize electronic music and are considered pioneers in the field. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk’s distinctive sound was revolutionary, and has had a lasting effect across many genres of modern music. According to The Observer, “no other band since the Beatles has given so much to pop culture” and a wide range of artists have been influenced by their music and image. In January 2014 the Grammy Academy honored Kraftwerk with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Kraftwerk

In the late 1970s, Kraftwerk recorded the Man-Machine album, with a cover inspired by early 20th century constructivist art, a post-Futurist aesthetic that emphasized formalistically the impact of the mechanical on the human environment.

Kraftwerk_The_Man_Machine_album_cover

Kraftwerk’s blend of electronic music, machine-driven visualizations, euro-pop, and kitsch cultural references, has had a powerful influence on the repetitive, mechanical sounding music that emerged in later pop music, particularly the 1980s. Kraftwerk was a forerunner of techno music and helped launch the styles that led to house, acid, dubstep, ambient, etc.

Kraftwerk, We Are the Robots (1978)

Nobody owns me.
Nobody sells me.
we are programmed just to do
anything you want us to
we are the robots

We’re functioning automatic
And we are dancing mechanic
We are the robots

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From Wikipedia: “The Robots” (originally Die Roboter) is a single by the influential German electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk, released in 1978. The single and its B-side, “Spacelab”, both appeared on the band’s seventh album, The Man-Machine. However, the songs as they appear on the single were scaled down into shorter versions.The lyrics reference the revolutionary technique of robotics, and how humans can use them as they wish. The Russian lines “Я твой слуга” (Ya tvoi sluga, I’m your servant) and “Я твой работник” (Ya tvoi rabotnik, I’m your worker) (also on the rear sleeve of the album) during the intro and again during its repetition at the bridge are spoken in a pitched down voice, the main lyrics (“We’re charging our batteries and now we’re full of energy…”) are “sung” through a vocoder. When the song is performed live, the band is traditionally replaced by robots that resemble themselves.

The Cyborg in Contemporary Culture

The significance of this song is how Kraftwerk foresaw the impact of digital technology in contemporary culture, with the introduction of robots and other cybernetic manifestations into our everyday lives. This was years before the advent of cyberpunk fiction, as pioneered by writer William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace in 1984 in his seminal book Neuromancer.

William Gibson, Neuromancer

“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.” – William Gibson’s first use of the term ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer.

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Neuromancer explore the idea of the cyborg (a contraction of cybernetic-organism), the computer melded with the organic human, in which the narrative’s protagonists would “jack into” or couple with the network to enter the interface of an alternate reality in the third space. With Neromancer, the idea of cyberspace, and our relation to cybernetics had become part of the vocabulary of our time, particularly during the 1990s, when the immersive experience of virtual reality became a phenomenon in popular culture.

Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto

In such scholarly essays as Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto, who critiqued the concept of the cyborg from a feminist perspective, she describes how women are socially compelled to mold their bodies, alter their identity, and redefine their sexuality  through artificial, technological means.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction… The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century… Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs — creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.  – Donna Haraway, from A Cyborg Manifesto

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With the concept of the cyborg, the man-machine dialectic surfaced as a phenomenon that has developed from our interaction with computers. The term cybernetics (coined by Norbert Weiner as the science of human-machine interaction) became associated with our interaction with the computer interface. Since the advent of personal computing in the 1980s, the term cyber has been applied to all things computer-influenced. It has been suggested that we are all cyborgs: all of us who engage with the graphical user interface, which in a sense has become an extension of our physical world and being. The Futurist prediction of the man-machine relationship, as well as McLuhan’s notion of technology as an extension of the human nervous system, had by the end of the 20th century become the “cyber-reality” of our time.

Stelarc

“The cyborged body enters a symbolic / parasitic relationship with information… the body becomes a reactive node in an extended virtual nervous system…. The body, consuming and consumed by the information stream, becomes enmeshed with in extended symbolic and cyborg system mapped and moved by its search and prosthetics.” – Stelarc

stelarc

This statement by Australian performance artist Stelarc clearly demonstrates how his work and ideas support and integrate many of the trends and influences we have been discussing in regards to the post-human condition. Stelarc is not only relevant to our study of media and performance, given his forty-year investigation into the man-machine dialectic, but additionally, he situates many of his performances in networked space, or the third space as we call it. Such works as Ping Body (1996) and ParaSite (1997), confront our physical connection to the network, how this connectivity functions as an extension of the human body, or conversely, how the network operates on the body itself. Stelarc asks: what does it mean to be human in the age of connectivity? As cyborgs, how does our physical organism attach itself and respond to the cybernetic system of information technology. If in fact, as Roy Ascott says, we are potentially in a state of global embrace through the extension of the network to a constellation of other users, how does this in turn impact our sense of who we are, the condition of our body, and perhaps most importantly, our psychological state. Stelarc uses his own body and mind as a physical object to expose himself to the effects of media. In a sense, he has used his own body as a human sculpture harnessing the power of technology to mold and transform himself. Stelarc isn’t saying we are disembodied in the third space, he is celebrating (and sometimes abusing) the body to show how we operate simultaneously in physical, virtual, and networked spaces.

Stelarc, Ping Body (1993)

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From Meda Art Net: In Ping Body, the Stelarc’s work is electronically linked through a performance website allowing the audience to remotely access, view and actuate Stelarc’s body via a computer-interfaced muscle-stimulation system based at the main performance site. During the Ping Body performances, what is being considered is a body moving not to the promptings of another body in another place, but rather to Internet activity itself – the body’s proprioception and musculature stimulated not by its internal nervous system but by the external ebb and flow of information. The Ping Body performances produce a powerful inversion of the usual interface of the body to the Net. Instead of collective bodies determining the operation of the Internet, collective Internet activity moves the body. The Internet becomes not merely a mode of information transmission, but also a transducer, effecting physical action.

In this work, Stelarc not only underscores McLuhan’s notion of technology as an extension of the human nervous system, but he also shows how information flows as a kind of living force of a hybrid circulatory system that joins the veins of the human body with the wires and cables of a network. It is as though information moves as the blood of a cyborgian system, in which you might say that the post-human condition consists of a network that combines the human nervous system with electrical and digital impulses. An impulse generated from a computer interface can directly stimulate Stelarc’s body, causing his muscles to move involuntarily. His performance is a dance of electronic signals, literally, coursing through the network to his nervous system. How does this function as metaphor, perhaps even a literal demonstration, of how all of us are tethered and activated by our network connections. Each time our mobile device buzzes from a text message, we in fact become cyborgs responding involuntarily to information sent by a constellation of users on the network. In the broad sense, we are all performing Ping Body, every day, as we respond to the impulses that flow from our machines to our bodies.

Micha Cárdenas, Becoming Dragon (2008)

Micha Cárdenas brings Stelarc’s investigation of the human-machine dialectic into the virtual domain of Second Life. Micha Cárdenas is a transexual artist involved in transgender politics, who explores gender transformation and identity in the virtual world. (S)he essentially lived in Second Life for 365 hours, entirely immersed in the third space as a performance work and a means to achieve new sexual identity virtually. (S)he used a stereoscopic head-mounted display and motion capture to experience and navigate the space of Second Life, while interacting with viewer-participants across the network. Aside from gender issues, this work also explores ways in which we inhabit the third space and the degree to which we might lose the separation or distinction between the real and the virtual.

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Micha Cárdenas performing Becoming Dragon at the University of California, San Diego

The above physical lab configuration where Becoming Dragon was performed, is below rendered as a virtual environment in Second Life. Although Cárdenas performed the work in the above lab space, (s)he actually inhabited the virtual world of Second Life, where her interactions in the third space occurred in conjunction with other participants.

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Scale model of performance space in Second Life, with live video feed of physical performance space

From the artist, Micha Cárdenas: Becoming Dragon questions the one-year requirement of ‘Real Life Experience’ that transgender people must fulfill in order to receive Gender Confirmation Surgery, and asks if this could be replaced by one year of ‘Second Life Experience’ to lead to Species Reassignment Surgery. For the performance, I lived for 365 hours immersed in the online 3D environment of Second Life with a head mounted display, only seeing the physical world through a video feed, and used a motion capture system to map my movements into Second Life. The installation included a stereoscopic projection for the audience. A Puredata patch was used to process my voice to create a virtual dragon’s voice, which can be heard in the video. During the year of research and development of this project, I began my real life hormone replacement therapy and wrote poetry and prose about the experience which was included in the performance. The project was realized through a collaboration between myself, Christopher Head, Elle Mehrmand, Kael Greco, Ben Lotan and Anna Storelli.

In a conversation with Stelarc, he concludes the video by questioning how we “function beyond the boundaries of our skin.” In the post-human condition, the individual is not a single, separate entity, but rather a node in a larger network of individuals. Technology serves as a connective between ourselves and others, and we extend our bodies and our nervous system through the reach of our technological systems.

This study of post-human culture begs the question of whether or not as extended individuals, we are all functioning beyond the boundaries of our skin as cyborgs: for those of us who are tethered to our devices, do we truly inhabit the third space? Is this the operative post-human condition of our time? For not only have we become cyborgs coupled to our devices, but have we become permanent inhabitants of the virtual, connected to others increasingly by telematic means.

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