Note: If you see this text you use a browser which does not support usual Web-standards. Therefore the design of Media Art Net will not display correctly. Contents are nevertheless provided. For greatest possible comfort and full functionality you should use one of the recommended browsers.

Themesicon: navigation pathCyborg Bodiesicon: navigation pathEditorial
Cyborg Bodies. The End of the Progressive Body.
Yvonne Volkart

In order to examine the specific contribution art makes to the discourses on future bodies and subjects, the point of departure of this topical focus are the artistic reflections on and realizations of cyborgs. Cyborgs here are not only cybernetic organisms, i.e. link-ups between humans and machines, as they are commonly defined. Rather they generally denote fantasies about hybrid, monstrous, machine-like, cloned, digital, networked, cellular or transgendered bodies. Thus «Cyborg Bodies» essentially encompasses all of those notions in which the body is considered to be something put together, artificial, and new.

«Cyborg Bodies» assumes that new (media) technologies influence our body and its perception (not only in the present, but also in the past), that the body and its rights are grossly at the disposal of others, and that media art is an important place at which these questions can be thought about using a variety of media. Although the end of the body and the human is no longer being blaringly postulated or feared today as it was in the course of the debates on the so-called «posthuman» at the beginning of the nineties, the issue has not yet come to a close. The discussions andfantasies have simply changed. While the machine-like and cosmetically optimized technobody was predicted more than 20 years ago, in recent years notions of biotic, cellular, networked, emergent and dynamic body entities and communicating flows of information have increasingly emerged. What these notions have in common is that the body is a set of interacting codes that has been wired up. The approach of «Cyborg Bodies» is based on theories developed by the American biology theorist Donna Haraway [QT]. Her cyborg figure is not only a technoid mixture of human and machine, rather it epitomizes all of those beings whose conventional boundaries between natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, are no longer accurate. To Haraway, cyborgs are both humans with prostheses as well as organic data carriers (humans or animals) who communicate with more or less intelligent surroundings. They are unicellular organisms, biotechnically mutated mice or humans exploited by the globalized technoindustry. Haraway has even bent this current variety of composite and combinable bodies and subjectivities into a thought figure for notions of the subject beyond conventional gender

icon: top

and ethno-specific power relations. In doing so she has developed an alternative notion of the subject supported by the queer theory that has influenced and inspired many media artists.

«Cyborg Bodies. The End of the Progressive Body» maintains that despite what we are led to believe, the technical extensions and social structures that make humans into cyborgs to not lead to optimization and self-empowerment. Rather they lead to a loss of control and feelings of being deprived of power and fear; however, in the spirit of Haraway they also lead to new forms of embodiment and subjectivity beyond conventional progressive thought, to which the term «cyborg» was originally bound.

The artistic projects and theoretical approaches presented here essentially pursue this other track or the suppressed other side of the cyborgs. They put that which is generally not mentioned up for discussion when fantasies about new technological possibilities are elevated into the fantastic. Not all of the artists, however, treat this ambivalence towards what is technological with an equal amount of criticism or would even maintain that they would celebrate «theend of the progressive body.» However, this is precisely the contention of this project. The untenability of progress optimism is always part of every outline, even if some of them require a critical analysis in order to track it down. «Cyborg Bodies» is less on the trail of the much implored ‹disappearance of the body› than it is of the new, multiple and ‹cyborgized› forms of embodiment and the possibilities of other subject positions associated with it.

«Cyborg Bodies» developed out of my work on the subject of «Weiblichkeit als Subjektentwurf des Informationszeitalters. Lektüren zeitgenössischer Medienkunst» as well as out of various curatorial projects. [1] All of the artists involved in these projects have an advanced notion of technology and the body on the one hand; on the other hand they make an appeal for the necessity of a constructive criticism and reinvention of one-dimensional notions.

The texts by the participating artists have enhanced this subject by a variety of further aspects and perspectives. What connects all of them is the virulence of the Haraway approach, the questioning of progressive thought, and the development of

icon: top

progressive theories on new bodies beyond simple body extension fantasies. The focus is on the following questions: What body images and body fantasies are contained in media art? What influence do new technologies have on the body and its perception? What kind of aesthetics do the artists elaborate?

Because «Cyborg Bodies» was conceived and realized in Zurich, it was also important to me to include local discussions on the topic. While the artistic discourse on new media technologies has only just begun, there are several projects currently examining the meaning of or the danger to body and subjectivity.

Structure and contributions

«Cyborg Bodies» makes no claim to completeness. Rather it raises an issue and offers an insightful, embedding discourse on the productions of artificial bodies in recent years. The texts deal with current topical focuses, which are not arranged linearly but in the form of key words. While in the first group the focus is on historico-philosophical aspects, in the second group of texts current work is discussed basedon different theoretical questions. Verena Kuni's essay «Cyborg_Configurationen als Formationen der (Selbst-)Schöpfung im Imaginationsraum technologischer Kreation (I): Alte und neue Mythologien von ‹Künstlichen Menschen›» presents a broadly interpreted, historically accentuated history of the fascination with the cyborg. This basic introduction into the cultural history of the artificial human is contained under the key word «Mythical Bodies I.» The key word «Doll Bodies» also includes historical bases, in relation however to the doll fantasy and how it is adapted in media art. In her text «The Media/Games of the Doll — From Model to Cyborg. Contemporary Artists' Interest in Surrealism,» Sigrid Schade discusses the meaning of the uncanny for the shaping of media in art. In «The Making of … Desire, digital,» Marie-Luise Angerer examines what she diagnoses as today's «postsexual bodies» and explains them in relation to psychoanalysis and current discussions on subjectivity.

The second group takes a specific look at today's media art: In «Mythical Bodies II,» Verena Kuni's essay on the cyborg configurations, «‹Monstrous Promises› and ‹Posthuman› Anthropormorphisms,» shows how

icon: top

media art's digital images and the game culture adapt and further develop the history of the fascination with the artificial human. Yvonne Volkart's essay «Monstrous Bodies. The Dissaranged Gender Body as an Arena for Monstrous Subject Relations» starts out from the assertion that cyborgs ‹demonstrate› the monstrous circumstances that subjects are faced with in the neoliberal age of information and biotechnology on and with their monstrous bodies and genders. In «Unruly Bodies. The Effect Body As a Place of Resistance» she shows that cyborg figurations are resistantly conceived agents who embody the symptoms and effects of the information society and turn them inside out. In «Transgenic Bodies. Where Art and Science Meet: Genetic Engineering in Contemporary Art» Ingeborg Reichle deals with that art that wants to create life itself: Be it that artists either intervene in genes directly, as is the case with «transgenetic art,» or that they attempt to generate life using genetic algorithms, as is the case with «artificial life art.» In addition, for English readers the key word «Collective Bodies» includes an essay by Margeret Morse, «Sunshine and Shroud: Cyborg Bodies and the Collective and Personal Self.»In her unconventional interpretation of Donna Haraway's cyborg as a narrative figure of collective embodiments, Morse introduces current American media art work and reads them as metaphors for collective (self-)conceptions and practices.

The initial situation is described in «Extensive Bodies,» an interview with the Australian media artist and theorist Jill Scott, who currently lives in Zurich: The changes with regard to the notions of an extended to a morphological and relational body are discussed based on different works.

In addition to these text-based contributions, the Croatian artist Andreja Kuluncic created a net art piece for «Cyborg Bodies» with the title «Cyborg Shop.» The ambivalent promises and ideologies of the new technologies and bodies can be experienced directly in this interdisciplinary and participative work. Users become shopping players who buy their prosthesis parts to have a competitive body.

Above and beyond this, «Cyborg Bodies» contains a series of source texts that provide the central theses and backgrounds of the topic. These include the following contributions in German: Barbara Becker,

icon: top

«Cyborgs, Robots und Transhumanisten: Anmerkungen über die Widerständigkeit eigener und fremder Materialität»; Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky, «Das virtuelle Geschlecht und seine metaphysischen Tücken. Das Fänomen Lara Croft»; N. Katherine Hayles, «Fleisch und Metall: Rekonfiguration des Geistkörpers in virtuellen Umwelten»; and Yvonne Volkart, «Das Fliessen der Körper. Weiblichkeit als Metapher des Zukünftigen». English contributions include: Rosi Braidotti, «Teratologies»; Marina Grzinic, «Dragan Zivadinov’s ‹Biomechanics Noordung›: The Body as Vector,» and N. Katherine Hayles, «Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments.»

Despite the variety and differences between the texts, theories and artistic projects collected here, all of the contributors view the cyborg body in media art as an arena in and with which analyses can be carried out on the subject-altering effects of the new media and new technologies.

In closing, I would like to thank all of those who enabled the coming about of this project, in particular Rudolf Frieling and Dieter Daniels, Sigrid Schade as Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies (ICS) at theUniversity of Art and Design, Zurich (HGKZ), Jennifer John for her assistance, and Verena Kuni, who was substantially involved in the project in its first conceptual phase. My thanks is also due to the contributing authors for their texts and to the artists and galleries who generously supplied illustrations of the required 5 works. The project would not have come about without the financial support of the HGKZ (ICS), Pro Helvetia, and the Präsidialdepartement of the City of Zurich.

icon: top