Cyborg Bodies

Posted by Rhizome | Sun Sep 15th 1996 1 a.m.

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.
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