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ThemesCyborg BodiesCollective Bodies
Sunshine and Shroud: Cyborg Bodies and the Collective and Personal Self
Margaret Morse

I. Writing Cyborgs: Invoking Monsters

Donna Haraway’s «The Cyborg Manifesto» (1985) does not invoke a mix of flesh, electronics and steel, nor does it espouse a war of humanity against the machines [1] . Haraway’s cyborg is oppositional, part of a «double vision» (154), that creates a counterpart to and negation of cyborg bodies like the anti-hero of «The Terminator» (1984). She poses the cyborg as a mythic figure and tool of thought, an ironic intervention that shifts existing relations among society, science and technology through an act of declaration. Haraway’s cyborg bodies are «maps of power and identity» (180) that writing transforms from grid-locked exponents of global post-industrial society and the «informatics of domination» (161ff.) into liminal and mobile creatures at the boundaries between animal, human and machine and between the physical and nonphysical. As the word «Manifesto» suggests, this is an enunciative move in which language changes the world not in trivial ways, but «in a struggle for life and death» (149): «In the fraying of identities and the reflexive strategies for constructing them, the possibility opens up for weaving something other than ashroud for the day after the apocalypse that so prophetically ends salvation history». (158) Haraway is explicitly against total makeovers or finding the answer that will make us whole, all at once. Her project is less grandiose, «embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all our parts». (181) She calls this task «writing» [2] —but writing alone does not capture the act of imagining and nominating that is at stake. Art is also capable of and at times even more effective at making such declarations with this difference: The tools of technological and new media art forms are intimately related to the «technics of domination» making «remapping» appear all the more difficult and complex.

We know this: not only does Haraway reconstruct the cyborg body, her cyborg is a writer. Throughout the process of the essay «Cyborg Manifesto», Haraway nominates cyborgs: herself, Sister Others, i.e. women of color, and a crew of women who are science fiction writers. Sister Other is a point of fracture in gender, work and family under the stresses of globalization. If we are to take Haraway seriously, what Sister Other lacks in literacy she makes up by rewriting the dualisms of male and female, mestizo and white, feminism and other partial and limited identities. The cyborg body both writes and is written and in the process learns and changes. For Haraway, cyborgs are then subjects who make statements that transform themselves and the boundaries of the way things are. Cyborgification is subjectification. Nonetheless, this cyborg is as vulnerable as she is terrifying to entrenched beneficiaries of the way things are. Consider, for instance that Sister Other has been murdered by the hundreds without penalty in Juarez and Chihuahua City [3] and that she is sold into sex slavery with impunity in Cambodia and other lands. She needs alliances, affiliations and tools of survival—but she is more than a victim, she is a subject. It is often said that literacy and economic autonomy of women of color is a key to rising living standards and the quality of life in the poorest countries and neighborhoods throughout the world, but lack of progress toward that goal is seldom linked to self-defeating patterns of thought. By introducing a counter-image and ambiguity into a term that had been a univocally male andrelentless corporate and militaristic exponent of science and technology, Donna Haraway created an enigma, a site of cultural contradictions and contestations, an aporie or signifier of what is hard to imagine or think beyond—the cyborg.

We also know that the writing and written cyborg body is a «monster». «Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations», (180) Haraway tells us, suggesting the creatures that inhabited the edges of unknown territory on maps in a world undergoing European colonization. [4] Studies of ritual also tell us that monsters mark the middle or liminal stage in a rite of passage, for instance, between childhood and woman- or manhood, bachelorhood and marriage, and between being and non-being, birth and death. The body at the threshold of change is in-between categories and thus is neither/nor and both/and male/female, child/adult, animal/human, living/dead, etc. Thus each creature undergoing passage is precisely monstrous—a mixture of the incongruous and incommensurable—that is, «illegitimate» in a specific way unique to its time and place. For Victor Turner the monstrous body represented not only changes in the individual life course but also the play of a culture with categories of gender, roles and status in an otherwise fixed traditional society. [5] In carnival, man and woman, beggar and king can change places. In other historical formations—feudal, early modern, industrial and post-industrial societies—play takes on different forms of «public liminality». Festival, theater and film produce different monsters, bodies formed by mixing different contradictions according to varied kinds of dream logic. The cyborg is only the latest in this historical parade of bodies that mark cultural change. I propose to add technological art to the category of «public liminality», insofar as it plays with the boundaries that mark the cyborg condition.

II. Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin? Physical and Non-Physical Embodiment

Imagining monsters that combine all the liminal features Haraway addresses is a tough job; hence, it is no surprise that Western culture has fallen into clichés that limit our ability to write or remap the world. There are at least three major weaknesses of theimagination in regard to the cyborg body. I will address these undeveloped liminal qualities of the cyborg as a transition figure and suggest how the notion of ‹embodiment› already entails monsters at the boundaries between animal and human, animal/human and machine and between the physical and non-physical.

Weak Links in Cyborg Imagining

The first weakness in common ways of imagining cyborgs is the metaphor of the body as container, entailing a self-sufficient vessel with an interiority that is penetrated or replaced by alien machines. [6] We know this: the cyborg is indeed partly machine, according to Haraway but «the machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment» (180) rather than an alien and separate being. Furthermore, according to Haraway, «Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile….». Thus, «Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.» (153) The artist who has made the strongest point about the nonphysicality of our cyborg condition is Catherine Richards in her pieces «Charged Hearts» (1997) and «Curiosity Cabinet, at the end of the Millenium» (1995). As I explain in another place, «We are all immersed in a world that requires no electronic equipment whatsoever to be «plugged in» to electromagnetic waves that bombard the earth.» Take, for instance, Richard’s interactive installation, «Charged Hearts». This piece is about «the interface of the body with electro-magnetic systems.» [7] Though it is invisible, electro-magnetic energy is nonetheless material. When the visitor picks up a bell jar the glass heart inside glows with a blue fluctuating light that is like a ‹beat.› The nearby terella (or glass container) «excites forming a luminescent plasma cloud of electromagnetic weather, a miniature version of the unimaginable wireless dynamo that surrounds the earth and hides in our household television sets.» [8] The visitor can also communicate with another visitor holding another bell jar over a glass heart by creating a winking connection with her hand. In fact, it is very difficult to isolate oneself from any link or connection in interaction withthe electro-magnetic dynamo that envelops the world, even though the terella and the heart are containers, they are not closed off or separate, but rather invisibly connected. The visitor to Richard’s «Curiosity Cabinet, at the end of the Millenium » must enter a Faraday cage of grounded copper wire mesh and close the door. The experience of a visitor inside the cage is one of an absence achieved through the great effort to become unplugged». [9] So, the liminal or cyborg body is only partly physical— the rest is made of sunshine and a network or shroud (considering the lethal side of technoculture) of electro-magnetic waves, ubiquitous and invisible. Contemporary connectivity has woven the links and threads of the web and physical transport into an elaborate garment for the body that trespasses the boundaries between the physical and non-physical, the second subsequently poorly elaborated area of cyborg imagining in Haraway’s path of associations.

The last but pervasive weakness in cyborg imagining involves overcoming dualism between individual and collective. Haraway makes this explicit: «The cyborg body is also only partly individual; it is also a collective body. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.» (163) Furthermore, these are «Partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves…,» (157) indicating that collective embodiment and its shifting affiliations or bonds and links that are partial and changing is unstable over time. Considering that the occasion for Haraway’s essay in the mid-1980’s was the need to think through the relation of socialist feminism to women of color who may not be feminists and who have other links and affiliations, the problem of individual and collective is a crucial thread of Haraway’s essay and an important element of discussion in the commentary on art that follows in this essay. I hope to demonstrate next how embodiment precludes the notion of the body as vessel, how it presumes links forged between the physical and the nonphysical and how it presupposes collective and shifting affiliations over time. The negative space of links and bonds—invisible but not necessarily empty—is the key to the enigma of the cyborg’s physical/nonphysical, collective and personal self.

Embodiment and the Space-in-Between

‹Embodiment› suggests a body under construction—not a given but rather a process that requires tools and blueprints, models and images. Becoming human, much less becoming cyborg, means bringing multiple bodies into co-ordination in postures, motions, gestures and agency in the world. [10] ‹The› body itself is never singular since the ‹felt› or propriocentric body is mapped differently in the brain than the ‹seen› body. The feedback mechanism that allows these bodies to be configured is commonly thought to be a mirror. However, while it may seem implausible or mere pathetic fallacy, modeling embodiment on nature has examples too numerous to tell. Imitation of animal or tree or rock [11] or another human being can serve the purpose of model or mirror. The ancient Greek Kore or Kouros statue as the embodiment of and model for beauty and goodness has its counterpart in mass media advertising today, while less static models of embodiment include tools, machines and kinetic and peripatetic forms of art. [12]

Lacan’s famous «mirror stage» describes a process of formation of the «fortress» ego in a structure modeled on the Oedipal family. [13] Lacan’s infant viewer identifies with the mirror image as self or «me», in what is a dualistic and imaginary relation to the body ego; alternatively, the body image in the mirror is part of a triad, a symbol of self that is based on «not self». What Lacan doesn’t elaborate on is the space in-between the body and the mirror, on which embodiment implicitly depends. That is, it is the ‹relation› between the felt and seen that correlates them and forges ‹the body›. The body, whatever else it is, is also this space-in-between where vectors, links and bonds intersect. So, when Donna Haraway asks, «Why should the body end at the skin, or include, at best, other beings encapsulated by skin?» (178), she suggests the variety of models, but also the extension of the body beyond flesh into space. Consider also that the notion of the «seen» body is all too perceptually and conceptually limited to visuality and that a cloud—like garment of aural and olfactory perceptual space extending beyond skin is nonetheless a «skin ego» or «self». [14]

Embodiment is not a process that occurs solely in stasis before an image, but in motion with changingtools and shifting relations between felt and seen. Tool using and eye coordination—the use of chisels, forks and pens [15] to the keyboard and the computer—are a foundation of socio-economic, creative and contemplative culture that produces body postures, motions and meanings. Different media generate not only different images as models but also different spaces of embodiment.

Arts that play with shifting vectors and links between the felt and seen bodies in the mirror and in the monitor are like an intricate dance. The unities of felt and seen bodies forged in the process are always in plural, even if the dancer is alone. In the late 20th century the signature art of play with embodiment was the closed-circuit installation. [16] Today it is the computer that has forged coordinations of the hand and eye to new modes of embodiment. Even the computer cursor (as Johnson reminds us in his homage to the inventor Douglas Englebart) [17] represents the user’s self most often as controlled by the hand. ‹We› are inside the ‹skin› of the monitor, on screen as cursor or as avatar—and thus multiply embodied. (It is ironic that an online ‹skin› or arbitrary envelop for avatar or ‹self› can be composed by menu selection. The virtuoso play of the video game takes the metaphor of writing from inscription to processing to the creation of virtual worlds that can be entered via an extension of self. (What is self then but the shadow of corporeal control over one’s avatars?)

We have entered the mirror and the other scene behind the screen. ‹You› and your cursor body thus inhabit the physical and nonphysical world and employ more than one persona. The propriocentric body held in check in identification with film characters in action is virtually unleashed by the computer and given mobility confirmed by a mapped and plotted other scene. (Consider the implications of a relation to agency that is delegated to a persona in a virtual place.) ‹Your› cursor/avatar can also be linked to agency not only in the other scene, but also in the physical world; your acts at a keyboard co-ordinate not only action within the world to symbols in the other scene but also to war games or acts of war in physical space.

In other words, embodiment always entails multiple bodies that are coordinated into one or many; thebody as one is always already multiple. Thus embodiment is a collective process even when it constructs the individual. Furthermore, embodiment or selfconstruction relates engagement with vectors of motion through the space in-between in ways that are historical and changing.

The collective self is widely understood to be a negation of individuality, as Communism was in the West during the Cold War or The Borg is in «Star Trek: The Next Generation» (TV series 1987–1994) and «Star Trek: Voyager» (TV series 1995–2001). In fact, the language designating collective selves is impoverished and burdened with negative connotations of the crowd. (Oddly enough, the ‹corporate› self, in contrast, is nothing but a persona or mask of the ‹individual.›) Even ‹community› is a pale word for the links of and bonds of empathy leaking out of the fortress self. ‹Rhizome›, while irregular and networked, lacks the discontinuities of shifting affiliations and a partial and provisional self. Consider whether the cyborg seems all too mundane doing homework, writing at the computer, conversing on a mobile phone, or gaming with thousands on-line. «Cyborg imagery […] means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of everyday life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. …It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories.»(181) Thus, the cyborg is far from an abstraction: rather it is a specific and momentary network of bonds and links. Of course, everyday life is already a net of relationships, but the cyborg embodies one more thing—«writing» or what might be thought of as a conceptual framework that makes identities and relations mutable, mixed and transitory. In this way, Haraway’s vision of the cyborg is akin to conceptual art that is also a piece of and a reflection on everyday life. [18]

Chris Marker: «Level Five»

We know that the cyborg body is not a container, nor does it stop at the skin. It should not then be surprising to know that cyborg egos can introject, overlap and intermingle with other beings and things. My sense of embodiment, for instance, overlaps with my computer as well as parts of my husband, family, catand friends. Consider that my computer was and is part of myself; when it doesn’t work, my mind becomes confused as if had suffered an injury. However, my computer is not a second self or container for my ego as much as it is a space where minds meet. When I lost my husband, I lost part of myself and the space-in-between us as well—so I was no longer cyborg, no longer a writer. Two years of mourning and depression passed before I dared to open my deceased husband’s computer. It was promised to a young student and had to be booted up and prepared for her. What I dreaded and now desired was achieved when I pressed the on button. Everything was arranged and labeled like a mirror of my husband’s vocabulary and relation to space; I spend hours looking through the email that had been his life until a few days before he passed. Suddenly his portrait popped up; I was moved, grateful for the last intimate and embodied contact with my husband I shall ever know. Then I selected his files and clicked erase.

Chris Marker’s film, «Level Five,» (1996) concerns a comparable experience of a woman, Laura (played by Catherine Belkhodja), who is a writer and her lover, a computer artist who is presumably a suicide, but, in any case, absent. All that is left of their relationship is in the computer that they once used alternately. Her lover’s, in my initial opinion, cruel legacy to her is an unfinished video game on the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 that occurred near the end of WWII. Laura also conducts a one-sided, recorded conversation with a ‹you› in another inaccessible scene—at once the absent lover, the game on the repressed history of Okinawa, the «Chris» who will someday edit Laura’s scenes together and with an audience that at some future date is viewing «Level Five». The film preserves the notion of levels of gaming expertise but as social development rather than acquisition of skills that progress the game. To proclaim that one is an anarchist or a liberal, for example, is to make a statement of pure bigotry at level one. Laura tells us/her lover, «I said to you, ‹Must one die to get to level five?› » The pinnacle and end of the game—or «Level Five»—may entail death, but «The Battle of Okinawa» game operates under different rules than the forked paths of choice-making and cycles of death and resurrection in other games—neither programmer norplayer are allowed to alter history. Indeed, «Level Five» brings things together that are thought by some to be incommensurable—game and traumatic history, fiction and documentary, and the difference in magnitude between personal loss and genocide.

Because there is and can be no alternation with the other scene of her absent lover— beyond the video game—the presence of Belkhodja as Laura and her use of direct address make her screen presence uncomfortable and excessive. (Thus, the fascination of the director with the actress or at least her appearance, is implied—we see a film, rare since Dreyer’s «La Passion de Jeanne d/Arc» (1928), devoted to the beloved face.) What we see, beyond Laura’s face, are her attempts to program the video game and her research on Okinawa on the mysterious, parallel OWL network. She discovers how Okinawa’s peripheral and colonial relation to Japan brings about the collective suicide of about one third of its population in 1945 and ultimately the destruction of its Polynesian culture. The point is made that Japan sacrificed the island to the Americans like a move in the game of Go in order to defend the main islands. The civilian population obeyed the Japanese order not to fall into American hands by committing mass suicide. Husbands killed wives, children killed their parents. Interviews with witnesses of what occurred include the director Nagisa Oshima and a Christian minister, «Kinji», who as a child killed his mother and his sister. Laura also sees film documenting a woman jumping off a cliff. Showing the sequence in slow motion reveals the woman’s hesitation at edge of a cliff until she discovers a camera aimed at her. The camera implicitly imposes expectations of honorable behavior that demand she leap to her death. There is an Okinawan tourist spot that is an odd memorial to this genocide in 1945, a cave in which many young nurses died rather than escape. This tourist site is also a sacred place, but what does it commemorate? Is it the sacred honor of Okinawans? While Japanese commanders on Okinawa committed seppuku, painful self-disembowelment as an act of will, the film makes patent the difference between seppuku and the death of a population by expectation. Far from revising the battle, this game teaches a lesson. What has Okinawa in 1945 got to do with Laura’s own personal (and hypothetical) tragedy? How could herindividual loss be compared with genocide? On the other hand, what could Laura learn from the game but the ineluctability of history, respect for human life and self-determination?

When Laura last puts her hand on a screen to gain access to the game, she is blocked— the game is over. At the end of the film, it isn’t clear what Laura has decided to do. Her last words to ‹you› are «Mercie…Mercie….» There is critical speculation that she has committed suicide herself and the video we see is an edit of her recordings made by Chris after her death. [19] However, would that be social development at «Level Five»? Is the game that the film plays a finite game with winners and losers or is it what James Carse would call the «infinite game» that is played «for the purpose of continuing the play.» [20] Carse echoes Haraway’s notion of «writing» with his distinction «finite players play within boundaries: infinite players play with boundaries.» (12) The Okinawa in 1945 was a finite game in which the issue for the Japanese commanders was «How far we will go to have others act in complicity with us.» (17) Finite and infinite gamers also have different relations to death. Finite players seek to validate the mask or role they played in life, that is, to «preserve a public personage.» (30) «Infinite players offer their death as a way of continuing play. For that reason they do not play for their own life; they live for their own play. But since that play is always with others, it is evident that infinite players both live and die for the continuing life of others.» There are many other issues the film raises that cannot be discussed here—the implicit critique of gaming, of death by media, and of Japanese denial of this part of their history—nor can comparisons be drawn with Marker’s «Sans Soleil,» Alain Resnais’ «Hiroshima mon Amour» and even more appropriately, Resnais’ documentary «Nuit et Brouillard.» However, just as in the latter film, the relation between individual and collective fate is not shown as an opposition, nor is personal grief incommensurable with great tragedy. Rather, individual death may be measured not merely in terms of winning and losing but as a force in the continuity of life. The meeting between Laura and the dead lover/computer was a limited affiliation that affirms the infinite game.

III. Collective Affinities: Cyborgs in Art and Everyday Life

In the introduction, I suggested that technological and new media art forms can be ‹writing,› an embodied discourse that nominates cyborgs and remaps the world. However, these same technologies are also part of the «technics of domination» that art seeks to challenge. It is the dilemma of technological art that it must address and enjoy a critical relation to its own means of production. Certainly, the relation between individuality and collectivity is one of areas in which art discourse offers wide ranging «cultural work» of more complexity than dualistic thought or «sides» in relation to, for instance, specific technologies or struggles around the WTO, global mega-corporations and the public interest, intellectual property versus the commons, open source versus vertical integration and more. Art also addresses and contests other media and technologies that serve the connection and control of large entities and numbers of people (or what Foucault called «biopolitics», [21] albeit in a less intelligible than tangible way. Lev Manovich’s notion of «database» art [22] has been one recent attempt to link computational forms to a utopian discourse of collectivity, using Vertov’s «Man with a Movie Camera» (1929). This film is the exemplary database art work because it is a compendium of images of urban life that include the phases of work and leisure of all classes from dawn to dusk and the stages of life from birth to death, as well as all the stages of film production and exhibition and a narrative text, namely, the story of a day in the life of a city and how a film, the one we are seeing, is made. The utopian aims of this film are what infuse and retrospectively charge the notion of the «database» with values that are too flattering, considering the complex and ambiguous links of computational forms with biopolitical aims of domination. Meanwhile «database art» has been generalized to apply to all collective forms. However, the «database» as a computational form just as or even more likely to serve biopolitical aims of commercial exchange or corporate and governmental surveillance, i.e. Haraway’s «informatics of domination,» than to serve the public interest. Database art» as an actual computational form is but a subset of art works that deal with collectivity and individuality in a wide varietyof formal manifestations. In fact, the extent of art that addresses collectivity and the wide range of its expression suggest the obsessive nature of the discourse and its significance for understanding and engaging emerging cultural forms. Specific pieces of art that explore different relations between technology and the personal and collective self discussed below are based on my own encounters and make no claim to be representative or comprehensive

Generic Symbols: Motion, Individual and Collective: Jim Campbell

How do many become one? How can one signify human beings as a collectivity? Jim Campbell’s «Motion and Rest» (2002) is a series of six gridded LED displays of 768 evenly spaced red LED lights on black panels. Each grid displays a silent loop of a different solitary walker that to me evokes without entirely resembling the generic symbol of a pedestrian in a walk/don’t walk sign in some countries. The look of the display resembles the dot matrix of television and before that, the halftones of photography in print, an early means of abstracting pictorial elements into units. Dividing an image into a grid provides a means of blowing an image up into a larger scale. The content of individual units are not decipherable, but as a whole the grid builds a more or less intelligible image of a person or scene when seen from a sufficient distance. (The paintings of Chuck Close would be an obvious example.) This abstracting process is also a way of making something more neutral and universal out of what is inevitably culturally and locally specific. [23] In Campbell’s «Motion and Rest» series, the viewer gradually realizes that each walker in motion uses difference postures and gaits and is in fact handicapped in some way. The LED matrix is at the edge of intelligibility between an abstraction that could stand as a signal and command for everyone who crosses the street and the individuation of the image as a particular walker who is impaired and perhaps slower than the walk cycle. Doubt is cast on the universality of the command to walk/don’t walk at some standard pace. What is at stake is not a movement study like those of Edward Muybridge, but rather a liminal state between individuality and collectivity and between the photographic analog and the digital image. [24]

Clones: Multiples, Copies, Individuals: Lynn Hershman

How does one become many? Farce, fantasy and science fiction combine in Lynn Hershman’s film «Teknolust» (2003), the second in a series on women and technology. [25] While the other two films treat specific historical figures, the middle film is altogether about clones and copies. This brief discussion of «Teknolust» leaves aside the biogender warfare and detective plot lines in favor of the theme of repetition. The magical relation between DNA, computer programming and cooking—«It’s like baking brownies.»—allows Tilda Swinton (playing scientist Rosetta Stone) to make three RBG copies of herself (red, blue and green)—Ruby, Marinne and Olive. Rosetta was at first as interested in making household slaves as in assuaging her loneliness. However, she discovers that her clones are separate individuals of flesh and blood, different personalities with autonomy and free will. Ruby is a seductress who hosts a dream portal on the web and entices men into sex with ‹no attachments› in order to gather the raw material necessary to reinvigorate herself and her fading sisters—sperm tea. To motivate and train Ruby’s powers of seduction, scenes from the movies are projected over her sleeping head. This instance of acculturation by machines has analogs at least from Buster Keaton’s love-struck projectionist in «Sherlock Junior» on. Ruby finds Elizabeth Taylor’s line (to Van Johnson in «The Last Time I Saw Paris», 1954) «Don’t ever let the celebration end!» of use in her sperm gathering. In fact, every scene of «Teknolust» is itself an evocation of one or more famous movie segments: Rosetta communicates with her clones via video cell phone and microwave (see Chaplin’s «Modern Times»). Ruby is taken home to meet mom by her boyfriend Randy, a copy store employee («Mel Brook’s Frankenstein»?) Ruby’s raincoat and her visit to a «museum of copies» (with a Francis Bacon and a small crowd of identical human body casts (Marina Ambramovic) invoke the doll and automaton collection in «Bladerunner». When Ruby declares her embrace of culture as repetition and her love for Randy, she returns to Taylor’s line with new feeling: «Don’t ever let the celebration end!»

Murmurs, Chants and Biopolitics: David Rokeby

How is one taken from the crowd? David Rokeby’s surveillance installation «Taken» projects two very large views onto a gallery wall. On the left side gallery visitors are looped back onto their own images at 20 second intervals. The result is a layering of motion within the gallery, plotting at once the use of space in the gallery as a whole or the crowd and the acts of each individual visitor. The projection on the right is a grid of headshots of 200 recent visitors to the gallery, each zoomed in on and labeled with an adjective that is both arbitrary and threatening («complicit», «hungry»). Rather than conveying neutrality, the selection process is both arbitrary and orderly, reflecting the qualities of precision and error of surveillance by machines. While approximating human agency, these machine schemata persecute humans. By entrusting the policing of our boundaries to machines and biometric programming, we have delegated powers and processes of naming that excludes and condemns to alien or alienated modes of intelligence.

Rather than label persons with adjectives, Rokeby’s intelligent entity, «The Giver of Names», names common objects presented to it by grabbing an image and processing it (e.g. finding edges, division into parts, color and texture analysis). The agent then processes the information through a metaphorically-linked associative database of words and ideas. The computer selects the phrases linked to the features of the object and speaks a sentence in English that though nominally grammatically correct, is awkward, idiosyncratic and nonsensical. Nonetheless, the visitor can enjoy a different and surprisingly refreshing way of perceiving and naming reality. Rokeby considers «The Giver of Names» an isolate with a consistent if strange personality that conveys loneliness. Thus, «The Giver of Names» needs a community of intelligent agents, namely, «n-Cha(n)t».

«n-Cha(n)t» consists of a room of symmetrically arranged monitors each containing a human head on which one ear is shown prominently. A hand over the ear indicates that the entity is not taking in new information. Otherwise, when the ear is open, it is possible to influence the stream of language intoned by each member of the «choir» by speaking into a microphone. These phrases are both English and alien,poetry and nonsense. Given limited disturbance from visitors, the individuals in «n-Cha(n)t» influence each other, gradually coming into unison. This chant is a striking instance of mutuality or the crowd as one that is both chilling (perhaps because the visitor is excluded from their united power) and entrancing. The unison will inevitably decay into monolog even without further disturbance. Rokeby’s individual and collective cyborgs complicate the monstrousness of combining human and machine; they suggest there will always be a space in between them. Even when Rokeby’s cyborgs copy human forms of language and exchange, they remain alien, albeit in poetic and illuminating ways.

Games Finite and Infinite: Eddo Stern, Anne-Marie Schleiner

Massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPG) engage thousands of gamers at once in contests between individuals and groups and in the exploration of. alternate worlds on a grand scale. MMORPG’s have some of the qualities of the infinite game (never ending play), but on-line gaming society is constrained as much by the problem of how to imagine communal worlds as by technology. Eddo Stern’s «A Touch of the Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games» suggests how medieval narratives of magic converge computer constructed powers with wishful thinking. Stern uses games that are designed and programmed in collaboration with C-Level, a Los Angeles collective to critique gaming. Stern and C-Level’s strategy takes two tacks: 1-emphasizing or even exaggerating the players’ space, for instance by substituting the computer casing with a ‹case mod› or elaborate miniature world and 2-reductio ad absurdum of gaming tropes and premises. In «Tekken Torture Tournament», the on-screen contest is supplemented by electric shock to the player whenever his or her character is struck or defeated; thus the realism of pain is inflicted to on-screen acts otherwise without penalty or consequence. In «Cockfight Arena» gamers are elaborately costumed ‹cocks› whose moves in physical space are mimicked in comparatively pale fashion by on-screen chickens. It is the outrageous «Wako Resurrection» that displaces first-person shooters from, for instance, the Afghanistan and Iraq of«America’s Army» (a U.S. Army recruiting MMORPG) to the disastrous Texas shoot out between the FBI and evangelist/survivalist David Koresh. The player’s avatar (both in the form of a mask interface and one or many onscreen figures seen from the back) is Koresh with just ten minutes to live, collecting magical powers from his contact with Bibles. Koresh uses magic spells to convert FBI agents into followers before his dramatic death and resurrection to begin the showdown again. Stern’s critique of gaming fixation on war and mayhem finds another channel in «Sheik Attack» (2000), a movie made entirely from a game engine and existing game elements. Game events clearly invoke Israeli history, both in the sweetly sung folk songs of the kibbutz period and scenes which show characters in Middle Eastern dressed being hunted and gunned down by Israeli operatives. Stern’s more recent «Vietnam Romance» (2003) incorporates a collective memory of the American military presence in Vietnam degraded into first-person shooter animations. Thus, games represent a residue of past militaristic and colonial adventures that serve contemporary contest. I am reminded of the incessant repetition of the American Civil War that dominated my childhood, albeit in forts made of tall grass in vacant lots and wastelands.

Anne-Marie Schleiner has adopted almost diametrically opposed strategies in her critical relation to gaming than the ones described above. She has written on several essays on gaming subjects as well as developing and curating patches that modify existing games to feminist desires. In response to the Bush administration’s «War on Terrorism», Schleiner developed «Velvet Strike», «a collection of spray paints to use as graffiti on the walls, ceiling, and floor inside the popular network shooter terrorism game «Counter-Strike». Furthermore, rather than develop ironically hyperbolic new games or expand the external or enunciative realm of the game into case mods and performance, Schleiner tends to work through feminist intrusions and modifications within the frame of the game. She reports that she and a collaborator in «Velvet Strike» in Barcelona are working on an update that includes «games inside games». with little girl games like hopscotch and jump rope that are going to play inside «Counter-Strike» online servers. In another «game inside a game», the gamer matches portraits ofmilitary men in a kind of «map».that is like a bureau des etudes—but not as detailed—describing relations between military games, military institutions and movies. Critical gaming strategies such as Schleiner’s and Stern’s are a relatively new field for art that seeks to influence very large collective cultural forms.

Sublime Information: Rebecca Bollinger, Jordan Crandall

Rebecca Bollinger’s video installations demonstrate how information landscapes can reveal otherwise imperceptible ordering processes: for example, «Last Year by Color and Composition» (2000, 2002) flattens every subject and object with the same weight and value. [26] On the other hand, it produces an imaginary point of view onto vast data landscapes. This five minute DVD movie loop is displayed on a 42” plasma screen. It is «a movie of every image stored on [Bollinger’s] computer within one years time including eBay photos, artwork documentation, personal photos, stock images and search result pictures.» The sorting program that arranges by color and composition rearranges categorical and chronological material into new and unsuspected categories. The results at times resemble a narrative segment, but that is another «accident» in this overview of a life in images, both «flattening» a life lived in images and providing a sublime vision of its hidden links and affinities.

Collectivities seen from the appropriate distance have a grandeur that can be overwhelming. In «Drive» Jordan Crandall is concerned with a militaristic and corporate sublime. Crandall describes «Drive» as «a seven-part video installation that combines traditional cinema with military tracking, identifying, and targeting technologies.» The cinematic is contradicted and displaced and one senses that am entirely different social order is expressed in this shift from concerns with onscreen realism and narrative to a more predatory relation of the camera to the world. The image is there to be processed and manipulated in service of a voracious gaze that marks itself as a target into the screen image. The screen responds, coming alive with machines in motion and groups and parts of bodies in rhythm. The visual technics of domination have the strange and disturbing capacity to produce what Crandall calls «erotic couplings between humansand machines.» Throngs of machine/human assemblages are sublime, beyond vision and comprehension without computional support. Thus, the same support that maintains the military and megacorporations is made available to art.» [27]

Mapping Cyborg Bodies: Warren Sack

Warren Sack’s «Conversation Map» (1997—ongoing) is a «graphical browser» for very large scale conversations such as listserves and newsgroups. It maps social networks or who is corresponding with whom, themes of discussion and the semantic network of synonyms or metaphors. Exchanges and contents that would otherwise be too large to comprehend or summarize are made rational and comprehensible.

Access and Subjectification: Sharon Daniel

The full implications of ‹access› to the voiceless and indigent are seldom taken seriously in art. What would it take to make the web accessible to Sister Other? Sharon Daniel’s project «Need_X_Change» (1998—ongoing) is both a collaboration with Casa Segura, an HIV prevention and needle exchange program in Oakland, California and a «distributed work of public art». Homeless and drug-addicted clients document their lives with cheap audio equipment and disposable cameras. Daniel teaches basic computer literacy and web publishing to participants who are enabled to ‹tell their own stories in their own voices.› Her is an ambitious project of ‹cyborgification› for people who have never been online before. Each web page is the result of extraordinary effort from the participant and Daniel in projects that extend from Casa Segura to the criminal justice system and Daniel’s «JUSTVOICE/JUSTICE NOW_WOMEN PRISONERS’ ORAL HISTORIES PROJECT» (2000—ongoing) now in progress in a California women’s prison.

What does it take to ‹reconstruct the boundaries of everyday life› and make entry into collective and public life possible? Cyborgs made of sunshine, shrouded in ether, quintessence, are not magical beings but the result of arduous and passionate labor. A cyborg not only writes and is written, she teaches others how to write and she learns and changes in the process.

© Media Art Net 2004