Digital Handwork


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]


Artist Profile: Cecile B. Evans


Cecile B. Evans, You May Keep One of Your Children (2011)

Many of your works reference and seem to be derived from popular culture icons, from Paula Abdul and Meryl Streep to Jean-Luc Goddard and J.D. Salinger. What is the role of popular culture in your work? Do your works attempt to comment on our conceptions of these cultural references or are they simply a point of departure?

One thing that is important to me in the work I’m doing now is to get to where several points of reference can exist on the same plane, with equal weight. In this world, Paula Abdul goes with Pina Bausch, Meryl Streep with medical instruments, and an array of other elements in each piece that vary in their visibility. I’m interested in reaching a place where the high blends into the low, the earnest into satire (and vice versa) and making a complex constellation of elements that winds up as something that’s really simple aesthetically. As I write this, I’m gluing nail art rhinestones to spell out a quote from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? in Braille to spill from the tear ducts of a vintage photo a friend emailed me of her parents kissing. I’m simultaneously editing a video that features a semphore version of Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing on sleeping pills that unfolds while a Lucinda Childs-like ghost floats around dying golden embers. At the moment, we exist in a culture that lets me use these very different values to refer to the same emotions. It’s as though we’ve entered a 2nd wave of New Sentimentality where it’s as appropriate to relate loss to an Aaliyah song as it is to do so with Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and either can be done sincerely or ironically… at least I’ve always equated things that way.

I enjoy using broad references in popular culture as a reflection on how different industries have created universal conduits.

Your past works seem to levitate around notions of intimacy and relationships. Some of your projects imply that intimacy doesn't necessarily require physical closeness and can be instead experienced through connections made in internet or other forms of technology. Yet, in the age of tweeting and texting, social networking creates this constant yet increasingly vapid communication between people that feels anything but intimate. How do you think recent technology affects our perceptions of intimacy? Do you think physical closeness can be replicated within a technological frame, or do these new forms of connecting force us to reevaluate what we deem “intimate”?

In the past I’ve been interested in the internet as an intimacy generator, using its content as source material, without judgement. One thing that I’ve found since I’ve started is how blurred the lines between the virtual and real have become, to the point where it isn’t a big deal. There are feed relationships that can cross over to a more direct form of contact, either as an extension of what you’ve created or used as supplements to wish fulfillment- from rejection to validation. The volume of people and easy access serves as a lubricant either way 

The danger isn’t with ourselves- I don’t think those of us who have the filter to realize what’s ok and what isn’t will lose that. It’s more how flippantly we display our feelings. The faith in an emotional utopia was decried in 1994 by Carmen Hermasillo (aka humdog) who warned that the spilling of our guts on the internet would result in the commodification of our feelings by large corporations. That’s happening now. I fear that the companies are mirroring back what we unknowingly feed them in ways that will reevaluate the meaning of intimacy for us...