Digital Handwork

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In Luc Besson’s sci-fi classic The Fifth Element (1997), the "veryperfect" future human is reverse engineered from a severed hand. As sole surviving fragment of the hijacked Mondoshawan spacecraft carrying the antidote to the "Great Evil," this bronzy limb first appears laid out for examination in a gravel-floored capsule. "A few cells are still alive," analysis reveals, and the hand provides the building blocks for Milla Jovovich's Leelo. Mechanical and chemical processes generate skeleton, tissue, and finally skin... "Reconstruction complete." Initially resembling a prosthetic fused to a new body, the metallic hand has in fact formed a sort of glove around a replacement humanoid limb, which Leelo promptly employs to smash her glass surround—the screen that separates her from the outside world.

Terminating at the wrist, the severed hand of The Fifth Element corresponds to a recent proliferation of hand imagery in art concerned with the framing of human life by digital technologies, as well as the shaping and subversion of these technologies by humans.[1] While the hand is a motif of long standing in art, it plays a crucial new role in this discourse of cyborgian intra-activity, given its ambiguous status as tool and not-tool, human and technology.[2] In this article, we discuss hands as they take on different valences as human and technological actants, performing labor, forging intimacy, and experiencing sensory pleasure. Throughout, we argue that images of the hand in contemporary art problematize the boundary between organic human and inorganic tool, with implications for our understanding of labor, the body, and touch. Where the subject appears impoverished by constant connectivity, several artists break the screen, like Leelo, in a bid to emphasize materiality, the "immediacy and irreducibility of lived experience."[3]

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Questioning the World as Image: The 55th Venice Biennale and "The Whole Earth"

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Photo of Earth by the crew of Apollo 8. December 22, 1968

The central theme for this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, comes from an obscure patented design for an encyclopedic palace by the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti. Envisioned as a 136-story building that would take over sixteen blocks of Washington, D.C., Auriti’s palace was to house all the available knowledge in the world. Titling the show "Il Palazzo Enciclopedico" after Auriti’s unrealized model, Gioni and his team selected an eclectic group of artists, psychologists, mystics and more whose work resonates with Auriti’s desire to create a total image of the world. In many ways, the exhibition can be seen as a response to the exhaustive overabundance of information available on the internet. As Gioni pointedly asks in his essay, "…what is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?"

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