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 pathMythical Bodies II
Mythical Bodies II
Cyborg configurations as formations of (self-)creation in the imagination space of technological (re)production (II): The promises of monsters and posthuman anthropomorphisms
Verena Kuni
Primo Posthuman 3M+ (Vita More, Natasha), 2000

For an introduction into the context of «mythical bodies» and their cyborg configurations, refer to the introduction in Part I. Part II focuses on the «promises of monsters» and posthuman anthropomorphisms of technological stories of (re)production as mirrored in the computer-generated visions of contemporary art and the current game culture.

Body projections under posthuman conditions

Artists, male and female alike, reacted early on to the ‹monstrous promises› of the new technologies—however in rather different ways. «Be Art!», for instance, is the motto into which Natasha Vita More translated the imperative of cyborgization. As a dedicated «extropian» and «transhumanist»—i.e. a follower of the view that with the aid of the new technologies, humans have to equip themselves to overcome the weaknesses, and above all the mortality, of their organisms—Vita More also regards her participation in courses to become a nutrition specialist, a fitness trainer and a futurologist as part of her training as an artist. For this reason, she not only consistently works on her own body using those bodytechnologies that are customarily available, in her project «Primo Posthuman 3M+» (2000 ff.)—which she wants to be understood as «transhumanist»—she develops a design for the future that is intended to illustrate the conditions of the future posthuman body. This designer body—an idealized and animated 3- D model based on Vita More's own body mass—demonstrates the technological processes which are necessary to equip and upgrade the human organism in order to be able to remove «political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits» and to overcome «constraints on our progress and possibilities as individuals, as organizations, and as a species,» as formulated by Vita More's partner, the writer Max More, in his manifesto «Principles of Extropy. An evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.» [1]

Since the late nineteen-nineties, to take measurements of the human body and project them into virtual space in order to explore the conditions of the posthuman body is a process that has been encountered frequently in art. In the meantime, like stimuli are by no means solely being supplied by

icon: top
Future Body (LaPorta, Tina), 1999

science fiction fantasies, which—like the cult film «Tron» [2] —imagine humans' entry into cyberspace, but also by developments in the areas of information science and bioscience, where metric and imaging processes are combined with those of medicine, as, for instance, in the «Visible Human Project»: an anatomical computer model of the human body whose data records come from microscopically small slices cut from the corpse of an executed man. [3] The fact that this connects the «Visible Human» not only with numerous anatomical specimens in medical history, but indirectly also with the main character in Mary Shelley's «Frankenstein,» who was assembled from parts of corpses obtained for the ambitious scientist out of the graves of hanged men, is less an absurd coincidence than it is a revealing detail: The ethos that puts forward that human dignity is inviolable even after one has died is transformed into an offer to poor sinners to at least once in this way serve the welfare of humankind. However, because the body donor in «Visible Human» was made this offer while he was still alive and he consented to the deal, in ‹virtual space› he resecures—at least virtually—the unity of hiscontour. In contrast, the scars and coarsely patched cuts on the body of Frankenstein's creature, who is made up of disparate source material, identify it as a monster.

Not least of all it is the altered technological processes that enable making the cuts of particularization invisible. Contemporary cyborg configurations therefore also stand out by their having incorporated both aspects: On the one hand the divisibility of the body into minute units, which are due to its informatization and cartographization, and on the other hand its assembly into a functional unit, which—at least at the simulation level—is intended to correspond to that of the human organism. For this reason, what is decisive for the interpretation of cyborg configurations is which interfaces are made or remain visible or invisible, and which interfaces are activated or deactivated. Very like the «Primo Posthuman 3M+,» Tina LaPorta's vision of a «Future Body» (1999) also presents a 3-D grid model of a body, whose contours identify it as female and which users can explore per mouse click. But unlike Natasha Vita More, LaPorta is not interested in the potentials of a

icon: top
EvaSys (Wohlgemuth, Eva), 1997

technologically upgraded human body and its functions, rather her interest is directed towards a particular aspect of the ‹monstrous promises› of the new technologies, i.e. liberating the body from its bond to the materiality of the organic. Instead of translating these promises into a technoid materiality, the body is to be regarded as a system of data records that can be represented in its entirety in cyberspace—a concept we not only encounter in the science fiction and cyberpunk literature from Philipp K. Dick to William Gibson, [4] but which is also related to the visions of enthusiastic representatives of robotics, who, like Hans Moravec, speak of humans one day being in a position to transfer intelligence and consciousness to a silicon chip. [5]

LaPorta, however, intentionally leaves the promise unfulfilled—which in this case again refers to the problematic analogization of the genetic and the digital code—of being able to make the concealed structures of a system visible, of communicating them or, if necessary, even manipulating them: Despite its complete transparency, its ubiquitous availability and the accessibility of the codes, which appear directlynext to their graphic conversion on the web site, the «Future Body» behaves hermetically. The matrix allows neither the locating of the body, nor do the data records convey contributive information. Although it has been placed into the Net, it is impossible to establish communication with it. Movement and voice are held captive in loops. And finally, the invitation to penetrate it also literally leads into thin air: Every zoom leads back to the whole figure, which for its parts goes away and disintegrates into separate parts. The cartographed, idealized body is nothing more than a shell—and as such it is to a large extent uninteresting.

The project «EvaSys» (1997 ff.) by the Austrian artist Eva Wohlgemuth [6] is not only optically, but also conceptionally related to LaPorta's «Future Body.» In «EvaSys» a 3-D scan of the artist's body, which appears to weightlessly propel through cyberspace as a data shell, constitutes the starting point. In the way the «Future Body» allows the projection of a technically and optically smoothed down, unclothed female body, which can be randomly circled, zoomed in on and ‹palpated,› at first «EvaSys» seems to offer nothing more than a further variation of IT-animated ‹dolls›

icon: top
Suspension (Stelarc), 1976

such as the computer game heroine «Lara Croft» or the virtual pop starlet «Kyoko Date,» who not only resonate the marketing strategies of consumer culture, but also traditional gender perspectives. Whoever is not content with looking at «EvaSys» and navigating her through Net space will come across a number of packed nodes in the cartography of her bodyscape. If one touches these nodal points with the mouse, her voice begins to reveal ‹more intimate› things: From «what I like,» «places and countries I have been to,» up to «how I spent my day.» However, these confessions are hardly suitable for satisfying the voyeurism of a ‹data sex tourist.› Quite in the spirit of Donna Haraway, who in her «Manifesto for Cyborgs» establishes an increasing «translation of the world into a problem of coding,» [7] it is with cool precision that «EvaSys» furnishes us with Wohlgemuth's «personal information» as a pure data set—from the measurements of her exterior to her credit card number.

The body as software

Viewing one's own body as software and—though invery different ways—making it an interface is an option that two artists—the Australian Stelarc and the French artist Orlan—have interpreted in a particularly radical way and consistently pursued for many years.

Stelarc became known for his «Suspensions»: Between 1976 and 1989, on 25 different occasions the artist had steel hooks driven through his skin in order to suspend his body on ropes at different locations and in changing positions and situations. [8] However, Stelarc does not see himself in the tradition of representatives of ‹Body Art,› who—at precisely the same moment in time the electronic media opened up new spaces to art—discover the «body in pain» as their preferred artistic material and medium. [9] Rather the artist wants to regard his body as a manipulable and modifiable structure. [10] In his view, the skin has had its day as the traditional interface between the body and its surroundings; with the aid of technology it is now time to penetrate and stretch it, thus outfitting it with new functions. [11] The works Stelarc produced in the ensuing years resemble series of experiments, in which with the aid of various processes he subjects the structure and the functioning of the body to

icon: top
Third Hand (Stelarc), 1981Amplified Body (Stelarc), 1996

systematic examinations aimed towards extending and expanding the body into space. With growing ambition he falls back on the newest developments in the field of high-tech medicine, robotics and computer technology—developments which operate at the interfaces of humans and technology, which examine, expose and extend the functions of the body, not with a claim to improve them, but—increasingly so—to substitute them as well. If humans, who stand out as organic beings due to a number of involuntary bodily functions, have in part always been «zombies» and on the other hand have always created «artifacts, instruments and machines,» which marks their growing «cyborgization,» then it is necessary to push ahead with their «cyborgization » and redefine the «obsolete body» (Stelarc). [12]

It can no longer be a matter of designing artificial limbs for a body whose flaws and malfunctions cannot, in the end, be compensated for, because under the posthuman conditions created by humankind by means of its technological developments, the body has itself become a malfunction, an incarnation of imperfection. As a radical consequence of this, Stelarc takes thereverse path: He allows his body to become a prosthesis for a technologized environment. His «Third Hand» may, at first glance, resemble a conventional robot arm that supports the function of the other two extremities. However, unlike the other two arms, it is not only moved by means of impulses coming from the lower extremities, which forces the body to completely reconsider its kinetic reasoning, in addition, in turn it also sends control impulses back to the body. The organic body proves to be a host organism for a piece of equipment that has fused so thoroughly with it that the equipment becomes capable of steering the body. Stelarc's «Amplified Body,» whose brain waves, muscle contractions, pulse and blood pressure are collected by various sensors, electronically amplified and used to control a complex light and sound machine, is only ostensibly the central player in his performance of the same name.

Because in the end, the neuronal activities, the acceleration of the pulse, the rising and falling of blood pressure, i.e. that which makes it a ‹mover,› are responses to impulses the body experiences from its environment. The «Ping Body,» on the other hand, is

icon: top

hooked up to a network, enabling it to be stimulated and moved by users from all over the world. Integrated into complex technological feedback structures, whose interfaces enable them to become agents of other human and non-human systems, humans are no longer merely network users, rather they have literally become part of the network. As do so many science fiction fantasies, at first glance Stelarc's works seem to thrive on the same culture medium that science and art have produced in the wake of what Donna Haraway calls the «C3I metaphor»: «command-control-communication-intelligence,» the credo of a colonialist cyborg mythology of white, western, patriarchal coinage. [13] However, one of the crucial characteristics of this mythology is that it is in service to the subject position, who continues to consider itself as the crowning glory of creation and man as the great creator, who competes with the ‹deus artifex.› Stelarc's radical identification with cyborgization, which implies a dissolution of the subject's boundaries, is in its own way closer to that of Haraway, who stresses: «I'd rather be a Cyborg than a Goddess.» [14] It is not a third eye that Stelarc imaginesas an extension of his body, which can hardly be brought into concurrence with the phantasm of a whole, god-like, white, western male body. It is a third ear, an «Extra Ear,» that is able to function as a broadcasting and receiving station with an interface to the Internet, «[a]nd when no sound is being transmitted, ‹the Extra Ear might whisper sweet nothings to the other ear anyway.› Or maybe a good night lullaby. » [15]

As the credo of his work on the cyborgization of his body, however, Stelarc cites a motif that we already encountered at the interface of the old and the new stories of (self-)creation: Endowing images with life. «IMAGES ARE IMMORTAL, BODIES ARE EPHEMERAL. The body finds it increasingly difficult to match the expectations of its images. In the realm of multiplying and morphing images, the physical body's impotence is apparent. THE BODY NOW PERFORMS BEST AS ITS IMAGE. Virtual Reality technology allows a transgression of boundaries between male/female, human/machine, time/space. The self becomes situated beyond the skin. This is not a discon- necting or a splitting, but an EXTRUDING OF AWARENESS. What it means to be human

icon: top
La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan (Orlan), 1990

is no longer the state of being immersed in genetic memory but rather in being reconfigured in the electromagnetic field of the circuit—IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGE.» [16]

A radical subordination to images that are superior to real bodies also marks the starting point of the long-term project with which in 1990 the French artist Orlan began her work complex «The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan.» Very much like the legendary painter Apelles, who reproduced only the most beautiful parts of his models' bodies in order to achieve the depiction on canvas of a woman of perfect beauty, Orlan takes familiar portraits of femininity from art history and puts them together on the computer to make an ideal portrait. [17] This epitome of idealized art-femininity consequently serves as a model for the redesigning of the artist's own face with the aid of a series of cosmetic operations. At first glance, in doing so she hardly differs from those women and men who have been operated on to change the size of their breasts or the shape of their nose to correspond with ‹their own› ideas of beauty, for which as a rule they also have specific models. The informatization andparticularization of the body, which Haraway points out as being characteristic of cyborgization, [18] has caused these kinds of operations to become increasingly common. In her ‹pupation,›--or better ‹dollification›--Cindy Jackson, who step-by-step has redesigned her face and her body to emulate a Barbie doll, does not consider herself a victim of patriarchal standards of physical beauty. Rather she claims with self-confidence: «This is the ultimate feminist statement. I refuse to let nature decide my fate just because I missed out on the genetic lottery.» [19]

Orlan's artistic credo sounds very similar: «My body is my software.» [20] In fact, in «The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan» one can discern a consistent continuation of her early feminist performances—an «ultimate feminism» which, however, has a different emphasis than that claimed by Cindy Jackson. She not only proceeds in a much more radical way than Jackson in the media marketing of her cyborgization by staging her operations as performances, recording them on video and offering them for sale on the art market. She also regards the photographs that show her before and after the operations and document the gradual

icon: top

mutation of her facial features—such as in «Omniprésence » (1993)—as works of art and places them on exhibition. Above all, however, she ardently rejects the myth of the ‹whole human› those are devoted to who use the new body technologies to transform their own bodies according to an ideal image: It is characteristic for Orlan that the ‹model› for the «Reincarnation of Saint Orlan» was a patchwork put together out of disparate body images whose contours all too obviously compete with one another. Thus the transfer of this process to the human body hardly leads to an incarnation of ‹supernatural› beauty: Not only does the violence of the surgery—the scars, the swelling, the bruises that disfigure her face—become visible in the photographs, there is also something monstrous about the result of this surgical process—a face composed of the features of other persons. [21] This applies even more to «Self-Hybridations» (1998 ff.), with which in a similar way Orlan has in the meantime also incorporated fragmentized ideals of beauty from other times and other cultures. [22] Phenomena of hybridization, as they are characteristic for the post-colonial age, arecondensed into figures of transgression, whose corpo-reality make the breaks and cuts visible instead of covering them up—a working method similar to the one we encounter with the artist group Mongrel. Concurrent with their project «Natural Selection» (1998), in which stories about experiences of everyday racism were woven together using multi-media, they put out animated images and posters in which the facial features of people of different ethnic groups were stitched together. In the tradition of a culture which regards the idea of the ‹whole› white man as the crowning glory of creation, voluntarily imagining, recognizing or even creating one's self as a «patchwork» is connoted with fear. Correspondingly, it is hardly a coincidence that this is the material that «freak shows» and horror films fall back on—from Frankenstein's monster to Jame Gumb in «The Silence of the Lambs,» who sews himself a second skin out of patches of skin he has removed from the women he murdered. [23]

Image processing methods

Under the sign of «cyborgization» it is in fact body

icon: top
Pathologien medialer Konstitutionstypen (Käch, Markus), 1994The Dystopia Series; Maria (Aziz, Anthony; Cucher, Sammy), 1994Faith, Honor and Beauty (Aziz, Anthony; Cucher, Sammy), 1992Hautnah (D\'Urbano, Alba), 1994Final Fantasy (van Lamsweerde, Inez), 1993The Forest (van Lamsweerde, Inez), 1995

surfaces that frequently become interfaces: They communicate the image of a human who under posthuman conditions is threatened by dissolution and who with the aid of techno- logical tricks now strives towards a ‹wholeness› that all too easily ends up as a patchwork. In the course of the nineteen-nineties, countless works were produced in which the suspended ambivalence of the utopias and realities of the new technologies found expression; cyborg configurations in which computeraided processes of image processing were used to lend shape to ideas and visions of future bodies.

For instance when in his «Pathologien medialer Konstitutionstypen» (1994) Markus Käch projects—with a wink—the entire range of options offered by contemporary graphic instruments into an image atlas of physical defects, [24] or when in their computer manipulated portraits in the «Dystopia Series» (1994) the artist duo Aziz & Cucher erase specifically those areas—the eyes, the nose, the mouth—that give facial features their identity and through which humans communicate with their environment. Their allegories on the virtues «Faith, Honor, and Beauty» (1992) alsoappear to have paid a dear price as modern embodiments of these ideals: like mannequins, their well-modulated bodies lack genitals.

Alba d’Urbano's project «Hautnah» (1994 ff.), on the other hand, allows designing the image of a dream body through computer simulation. On the basis of one's real body mass, which one enters into the computer afterwards, it then produces paper patterns that one can use to make T-shirts, suits, blouses or skirts. If one prints out and sews together the finished cuts, one can wear them like a second skin over the first one. [25] Using digital image processing methods, the figures in Inez van Lamsweerde's series «Thank You Thighmaster» (1993), with which the professional fashion photographer gained notoriety in the art business, were also ‹cloned› out of the bodies of models and mannequins. If due to the almost artificial smoothness and perfection of their limbs and the smoothing out of their external genitalia there is something uncanny about them, this applies even more for the protagonists in the ensuing series: For «Final Fantasy» (1993), Lamsweerde combined childlike bodies with the facial features of adult models; for «The Forest» (1995)

icon: top
Thank you Tighmaster (van Lamsweerde, Inez), 1993

she attached female extremities to male torsos. Compared with the smooth doll bodies we encounter in «Thank You Thighmaster,» the irritation increases in as much as these are not media propagated, socially sanctioned physical ideals, but rather fantasies of the seductive woman-child and of transsexuals or transvestites: Images which may arouse desire, but at the same time mark figures of transgression. While for this work series Lamsweerde generally worked with professional models, in «Me» (1999) she becomes the model who passes through various ages and genders by projecting her own facial features onto other people's faces, thus fusing with them. [26] It is not only the transgression of gender boundaries that seems uncanny—which takes place less on the level of the image than in the eye of the viewer—when the portrait of a man is identified as a «self(portrait)» («Me») of the artist. The promise of rejuvenation or even agelessness qua the upgrading and reequipping of the organic body, which is transported by the new technologies, is not only placed into the image, but it is also confronted with its counter-image—thus heightening the question of technological feasibility byLamsweerde's formulating it under the premise of self-creation: which in the case of her artificial aging oscillates with a moment of self-destruction. All of these works have one thing in common: Although they operate—in a two-fold sense of the word—on surfaces, at the same time they suggest that the clutches of the new technologies are more far-reaching. Even if they do not proceed as radically as do Orlan and Stelarc, who turn their own physical bodies into a venue for the technologies, in their own way they lend expression to the suspicion that under the premise of cyborgization, physical boundaries and constitutions begin to become fluid, and along with them the boundaries and constitutions of the subject.

Cyborg subjects and their masquerades

It would be too simple, however, to regard solely the body as an interface at which the imperative of cyborgization can be construed or demonstrated in its consequences. It is not without reason that Haraway emphasizes that it is primarily our consciousness that makes us into cyborgs even now. Cyborg configurations of art do not solely negotiate the changing relation

icon: top
Play with Me (Mori, Mariko), 1994Miko No Inori (Mori, Mariko), 1996Wave UFO (Mori, Mariko), 1999

between human and technology, rather they also make reference to the social place in which this relation articulates itself. Accordingly, it is not only a matter of the constitution of the biological body, but also of the role models that are embodied, and not only of the physical, but also the social gender—even if the body is still not only the preferred venue for the discourses on cyborg configurations, but also the medium preferably used to lend them shape.

Mariko Mori slipped into the role of cyborg very early on. [27] In photographs such as «Subway» (1994) or «Play with Me» (1994) one sees her emerge into various everyday situations as a reanimated cult science fiction, Manga or computer game character. It takes a longer look at these works to detect in them moments of breaking away from the overdrawn images of femaleness provided by pop culture cyborg configurations.

It is not necessary to insinuate that the artist's work is critical of contemporary culture. The light contact lenses in Mori's video «Miko No Inori» may lend her the uncanny gaze of a cyborg, but the soft spherical music ensures that the figure rubbing a crystal ball assumes the appearance of a savior descended from heaven. In contrast, in the 3-Danimated film «Nirvana» (1997), the goddess idolized by kitschy-colorful boddhisattvas, who also plays a leading role in other of the artist's works, fuses trivial pop culture with borrowings from traditional religious iconography in a highly harmonious way. And finally, in her project «Wave UFO» (1999–2002)—a futuristic space capsule in which visitors can view their brain waves translated into fluid images—Mori combines old esoteric pipe dreams of a visualization of conceptional images with those from science fiction and applied technoscience in order, for her part, to now claim a place on the Mount Olympus of artists-scientists as a successor to Leonardo 2000. With this move she transports the phantasmatic space of her cyborg configurations from the ‹virtual space› of art into ‹real space› in two ways: On the one hand by directly involving her audience. On the other hand, as an artist she embodies an artificial figure that under the premise of futuristic masquerades revitalizes traditional images of femaleness and authorship, and succeeds in appropriating them for herself in a skillful blend.

icon: top
Phantom Limb Photographs (Hershman, Lynn), 1980Lorna (Hershman, Lynn), 1979

Lynn Hershman is one of the artists in whose work we encounter cyborg configurations long before the hype surrounding the new technologies in art and science—and this in a variety of media: from performance to photography, film and video, to multi-media installations and interactive works. For the «Phantom Limb Photographs» (1980–1990), a series of classic black- and-white photographs, Hershman mounted cameras and other equipment onto female bodies—mostly in place of the head. By explicitly calling these works cyborgs, Hershman not only quashes the concordance of classic notions of cyborg configurations as technologically upgraded humans with Marshal McLuhan's thesis that media represent extensions of the human body, [28] she also states this more precisely with regard to the ‹interface gender›.

Ten years prior to this, in her real time/real space performance «Roberta Breitmore» (1971–1978) she had created an ‹avatar,› an artificial figure which she herself embodied. Considering that the contours of «Roberta Breitmore's» identity were produced from various media and social technologies of communication and recording such as newspaperadvertisements, photographs and video recordings, but also psychiatric reports and human witnesses, one can easily detect a link to the artist's later work, which logically thinks these parameters ahead under the signs of new media. Unlike «Roberta Breitmore,» while «Lorna» (1973–1989), the main character in a video disc installation of the same name, embodies herself exclusively in the ‹virtual space› of the medium, the two «Telerobotic Dolls,» «Tillie» (1995–1998) and «CybeRoberta» (1970–1998) are ‹animated› dolls who serve as interfaces to the ‹virtual space› of the medium in real space. By on the one hand being able to see with their eyes, and on the other hand their further processing and communicating the information they retrieve from us, the gradation of the boundary between human bodies or sensory systems and their technical simulation or extension by the dolls is questioned and eroded. Hershman's more recent films go a step further: In «Conceiving Ada» (1996/1997), the computer expert Emmy, who wants to explore the memory of DNA, advances further and further into the story of Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, who together with Charles Babbage for her part is not only working

icon: top
Teknolust (Hershman, Lynn), 2001Ping Body (Stelarc), 1996Future Body (LaPorta, Tina), 1999EvaSys (Wohlgemuth, Eva), 1997

on the «Difference Engine,» [29] but who also dreams of discovering the formula for artificial life. Via the interface of Emmy's computer, they both succeed in making a connection through space and time—which extends so far that the daughter Emmy is pregnant with will carry Ada's genetic information. In «Tekknolust» (2002), on the other hand, the biogeneticist Rosetta Stone [30] secretly produces three clones out of her own genotype, which apparently only exist in ‹virtual space› as ‹avatars› or life forms endowed with artificial intelligence —in reality, however, they continuously transgress the boundary to human habitat. Hershman succeeds in crossing both the ‹imperative of anthropomorphism,› to which the clones are subjected, with that of ‹cyborgization,› whose mirror they are. [31]

Cyborg technologies

However, not only have the means of creation and self-creation been extended with the advent of the new technologies—Hershman's films also deal with this—but so have the means of their communication through media. And this not only applies to the mediawhich transport images of creation and self-creation, but also to the media spaces in which they can be generated and communicated.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the Internet, which makes possible the interfacing of the basic generation medium for digital creations, i.e. the computer, has developed into one such communication space. If up to this point it has become clear which substantial impulses the theoretical, the artistic but also the popular cultural cyborg configurations have experienced through the examination and the use of the computer, then a whole number of them—for instance Stelarc's «Ping Body,» Lynn Hershman's «Telerobotic Dolls» or her film «Tekknolust,» but of course also Web-based works such as Tina LaPorta's «Future Body» or Eva Wohlgemuth's «EvaSys»—suggest asking about specific potentials that the computer as a generation space for, and the Internet as a communication space of cyborg configurations, have in store. Because the computer—as is already suggested in the term «personal computer»—as well as the Internet can be regarded as media not only due to their individual use but also their use in a collective

icon: top
Dandy Dust (Scheirl, Hans), 1998

space, in which processes and formations of individuation as well as their integration into a technological, social, spatial and historical environment converge, besides the traditional dichotomy of creator and creation, selfcreation as a ‹figure of the third› ought to play an outstanding role, and furthermore it should be possible to find crucial ‹interfaces› here that are significant for its design, communication and perception. Before these again become the focus of attention, however, it is necessary to state in precise terms which expectations are attached to the «promises of monsters» of cyborg configurations.

Technologies of the subject and technologies of gender The examination of the traditional stories of creation showed that within the framework of the tales and images in which they are communicated, one ‹interface› is particularly prominent: the ‹interface gender.› On the one hand as an index that not only makes the relation between creator and creation identifiable in its contours as a relationship of desire and power, but also marks the success or failure of the act of creation. On the other hand, and in connection with this, as that place in which the monstrosity of an‹artificial creation› becomes visible.

If this monstrosity on its part is closely coupled with the potential or the desire of the creations to themselves become subjects who are no longer subject to the laws of their creators, this is not only a general indication of the cultural fears associated with the ‹monstrous promises› of new technologies: They are promising and frightening in particular because they have to be regarded as «technologies of the subject.» [32] And as «technologies of gender» they are quite clearly particularly promising and frightening. [33]

This also no doubt appears where we encounter cyborg configurations as ‹figures of the third,› i.e. of self-creation. It is hardly coincidental that in the nineteen-nineties, in both popular culture and the arts we find countless examples for images and narrations that explicitly regard the «technologies of the self» as «technologies of gender» and question them as to their potentials and limitations. If one bears in mind films as different as Monika Treut's documentary «Gendernauts. A Journey Through Shifting Identities» (1999), Hans Scheirl's cyborg splatter science fiction «Dandy Dust» (1998), and Shu Lea Cheang's science

icon: top
BRANDON (Cheang, Shu Lea), 1998

fiction porno «I.K.U.» or her Web-based artistic work «The Brandon Project» (1995-1999), which all thematicize the utopias and realities of transgressing gender boundaries, then it appears to be quite characteristic that as transgender subjects, their real and fictitious protagonists are frequently perceived by society as ‹monsters›—while they identify themselves in a positive way as cyborgs. [34]

But what is it that at a more fundamental level constitutes the appeal of the «promises of monsters»? Deviation from the norm no doubt has a particularly attractive effect where the norm itself preserves existing relations of power that severely curtail individuals or whole groups of subjects in their existence and their development. While those who benefit from the existing power relations regard the monster as a counter-image and «significant other» of their subject position, it has a resistant potential in that as the epitome of transgression and mixing, it is neither the ‹one› nor the ‹other›: «The peculiarity of the organic monster is that s/he is both Same and Other. The monster is neither a total stranger nor completely familiar; s/he exists in an in-between zone[…] the monstrous other is both liminal and structurally central to our perception of normal subjectivity.» [35]

In an age in which we—to use Haraway's words—are all cyborgs, this can be unquestionably be asserted for the hybrids of organism and machine as well as for the way in which the characteristics of the cyborg body are recognizable in the condensed profile Rosi Braidotti draws up for the monstrous body: «The monstrous body is a shifter, a vehicle that constructs a web of interconnected and yet potentially contradictory discourses about his or her embodied self.» [36] Understood as a figure of transgression, displacement and confusion, the cyborg, like the monster, therefore possesses a resistant potential. [37]

However, if one looks back at the traditional stories of creation, in which we encounter artificial creatures as monsters, the pressing question arises of how a factor of deviance is able to become a factor of subversion, because the uncontrollability of the creation is already a central theme that marks the monstrous as a deviation from the norm. But as a rule, this factor of deviation —traditional stories of creation as well as their rerendering and rewording in literature

icon: top

and film also tell us this—remains firmly integrated into the logic of the ‹freak show›: According to this logic, the ‹horrendous›—the mixture of fascination and horror that distinguishes every deviation from the norm—can be put on display and looked at with a pleasant shudder; in the end, however, it always remains or becomes banished. At least this is what is reflected in those tales that, after the creation of an ‹artificial human,› focus on its persecution and destruction.

In contrast, as works by Stelarc and Orlan appear to postulate in a radical way, could the identification with the monster's position harbor promises for the future? What would this mean for all of those—unlike Stelarc, Orlan and the protagonists of «Gendernauts»—who are not willing to transform their own bodies into figures of transgression?

The central role that masks and masquerades play in our culture to this very day verifies that the playful identification with figures of deviance has always been part of the temptations of ‹monstrous promises.› Traditionally, however, they have had a stabilizing function. This indirectly becomes apparent in the cultsurrounding a film such as the «Rocky Horror Picture Show,» where groups of well-behaved citizens put on costumes for an evening at the cinema, and under the premise of a carnivalesque masquerade slip into the role of Frank'n'Furter—who in the end, however, is punished in a quite conventional way for his hybrid as a transsexual creator. Under the premise of the masquerade as well, a subversive potential can only be released if this is bound to the understanding that there is no ‹true face› to discover behind the mask—or in this case: no ‹true gender.› Interesting here is the question of which experiences the people who play Frank'n'Furter, Janet or Rocky take with them into their everyday lives—and whether these experiences alter their perception, their thinking, their behavior, and finally also the roles they play in their everyday lives. [38] At any rate, the keywords ‹role play› and ‹masquerade› appear to point in a direction that also could be made productive for the question regarding possible moments of subversion of the premise of a coherence of body gender, sexuality, gender identity and gender role, and their integration into the traditional, dichotomous gender hierarchy. And namely

icon: top

at that point at which we go over to the computer from the more or less linear narrations in the print media and the (feature) film on the screen or on television. The ‹media jump› alone, however, is not the crucial point, because the same still or moving images that transport traditional notions of gender in the ‹old› media can just as well appear on the monitor of one's personal computer at home.

‹Playing and learning›

Traditionally, in the field of computer technology terms such as (gender) ‹role play› and (gender) ‹masquerade› are associated with a completely different area, namely the classic Net-based communication environments of chat rooms, MUDs and MOOs. [39] Because when constructing an ‹avatar›—an ‹alter ego,› in whose ‹identity› one communicates and interacts with others—one has the option of choosing more than just one of the two gender identities, the latter can in fact be described as «gender identity workshops»: [40] As spaces of experience in which under the premises of role play and masquerade, dealing with gender roles and gender identities can be explored ina performative way. Scientific investigations have shown, however, that in itself this is no reason to imply that cyberspace has a subversive potential. Not only are the limitations of stereotypical gender categories experienced in this way, but also the boundaries of the game with gender roles and identities. And if this on the one hand intensifies perception of these boundaries and can support their critical reflection, it also shows that the usual gender-specific attributes are reproduced and in part even reinforced through ‹doing gender.› The latter can be established all the more for those areas of the Net that, unlike text-based communication environments, offer visual representations of gender. As an «arena of representation,» [41] in the World Wide Web in particular, stereotypical representations of femaleness and maleness, as they also circulate in other «mass media,» seem to dominate. [42] In view of the fact that in recent years, the WWW has increasingly developed into a «world wide industrial park,» it is also no surprise that alternative representations of gender or representations of alternative views of gender roles and gender identities—as far as these are not already

icon: top

part of a carefully calculated marketing strategy—remain marginal or reminiscent of the ‹logic of the freak show› and serve a similar purpose as in the other advertising media of the consumer and entertainment industries.

But what could cancel out this ‹logic of the freak show›? Possibly precisely that factor that in the text-based communication and game environments, too, is most likely to be capable of contributing to crossing the stereotypical patterns of perception and self-perception or action, reaction and interaction within the framework of traditional gender dichotomies: The experience of gender as construction.

If role play and masquerade, or more accurately put: a role play that allows gender to become discernible as a masquerade and ‹doing gender› to be experienced in interaction with others, are important vehicles, then at this point it suggests itself to have a look at the area of «adventure» computer games: These are computer games in which the players slip into the role of a main character in order to enter interaction either with programmed characters orcharacters activated by other players. [43] However, as a rule the «artificial humans» who act here as protagonists and representative figures, i.e. «avatars » of the players, are usually embodied by gender stereotypes that border on being caricatures—something that can be demonstrated quite succinctly on one of those figures we previously became acquainted with as «Future Eve's» sister.

New heroines?

Female heroines, as they populate the computer screens in the wake of the most well-known amongst them, «Lara Croft,» may represent strong fighters by nature, however at the same time, with their long legs, wasp waists, narrow shoulders, doll faces and above all their ‹naturally› protruding breasts they correspond with the familiar ‹Barbie doll› scheme from head to foot—as more or less incessantly propagated since the nineteen-sixties by the entertainment industry and the mass media of the Western world as the image of the ‹ideal woman› furnished with ‹ideal measurements.› Many of them also directly or indirectly cite the iconography of idealized images of women handed

icon: top
Flames 1+2 (Manetas, Miltos), 1997

down by art history. [44]

In «Lara Croft's» case, the artificialness of this kind of construction is obvious—which in the eyes of her defenders lends her the characteristics of a «post-gender cyborg» (Haraway) [45] with whom players of both genders may identify. [46] Nonetheless, markings of a stable and uniform (female) identity dominate, which clearly contradict her interpretation of the cyborg as a «creature in a post-gender world»: «Lara's life is geared towards stringentness, consistency and realizing her true mission; her behavior is predictable and permanently repeats itself; and her over-sexualization suggests an inherent femaleness.» [47] Thus the designers of the game have supplied Lara Croft with a biography that corresponds with the ‹imperative of anthropomorphism,› also in respect to her human origins. [48] Her father, who is dead, is not only a model for her choice of career, but he also repeatedly plays a role in the basic plot of the games. In addition, the fact that Lara is never shown completely nude and never enters into relations with other characters that would suggest a sexual relationship fits into the heteronormative perspectivein the same way as the fact that all of her actions have to be steered by the players—who are not directly in Lara's body, but who control it. And if Lara's ‹hypersexiness› is not transferred into sexual acts in the game itself, it is preserved—quasi in virgin chastity—all the more effectively as a promise to the playing voyeurs. It is hardly by chance that there are countless fan sites in the Internet in which Lara poses as a nude model or a soft porno starlet. There are also program sequences—«patches»—in circulation in which Lara performs a striptease, or as the «Nude Raider» even battles throughout entire game sequences. [49] And it is hardly by chance that numerous artistic works aim at accentuating precisely these ambivalent qualities of the charismatic game heroine: For instance when in his minimalist videos «Flames 1+2» (1997), Miltos Manetas loops brief game sequences in order to let her repeatedly die a senseless death as the incarnation of the automatic game action implemented in her; or when the Dutchman Rob van Oostenbrugge poses as «Lara@HAL» (2001) at a meeting of hackers; or when in their performance series «Lara Croft <listen:do>» (1999) [50] the Norwegian group «Motherboard» invites

icon: top
All New Gen (VNS Matrix), 1995

one to continue the game with Lara in the real space of everyday life or in the space of a museum. [51] Both the creations by the fans as well as those by artists allow concluding that Lara is perceived as a sexualized object of desire, as an ‹animated doll.› In the same way that the «patches» and parodies of artistic appropriations accentuate the conventional in the construction of an ‹artificial woman› such as Lara, games can of course also be invented that appear to turn the tables: For instance when the group of artists VNS Matrix put forward their monstrous heroine «All New Gen» (1994/1995), who sets out with a wild gang of «DNA sluts» to sabotage «Big Daddy Mainframe's data banks.» [52] In her own way, this kind of heroine, who is decidedly directed at female players and because she is a monster is utterly useless as an ‹object of male desire,› is also unsuitable for upsetting traditional gender dichotomies.

Rather one might suspect a starting point for crossing gender relations in a game inviting its players to identify themselves with the game characters. Empirical studies have actually shown that only a comparably small percentage of male players describetheir relation to ‹their› female game characters as an object relationship or relationship of desire. And where there is an option, a far greater percentage prefer to slip into the role or the artificial body of a female game character. [53] Only in exceptional cases did those questioned indicate that their reason for this predilection was cross-gender identification in the literal sense. Rather, by changing genders players hope to gain advantages in the course of the game based on the functioning of stereotypes of femaleness on the part of the other players and find expression, for example, in the false estimation of aggression and strength, which can then be expressed in a willingness to help and have sympathy with the apparently weaker gender.

«Digital drag»

Can this term, which describes a conscious masquerade that refers to donning and taking off a gender body, which in turn has already been recognized or regarded as an artificial construct, also be applied to dealings with figures such as «Lara Croft»? And what would be the conditions for getting a

icon: top

subversive potential out of this masquerade? The feminist game theorist and practitioner Anne-Marie Schleiner actually suggests that from the start we should regard «Lara Croft» and other protagonists of an artificially constructed ‹super-femaleness› under the premise of «drag»: an overdrawn «femaleness,» whose donning and overt flaunting can already contain the parody of the copied stereotype of femaleness beyond the consciousness of the fabrication of the role.

In this sense it would now not be sufficient to regard a figuration such as Lara as a «female Frankenstein,» as a «monstrous offspring of science, an idealized, eternally young female automaton, a malleable, well-trained technopuppet created by and for the male gaze.» [54] And from this perspective, positions that view the game sheroe as a post-feminist role model for a strong ‹femaleness›, but in the end one that conforms with the dominating gender order, or whose crossing at best grants artificial characters the scope for their becoming a projection surface for lesbian desire, are oversimplified. Adventure games such as «Tomb Raider» may lack the interaction with other players characteristic of MUDs and MOOs, andthe avatar identity neither has to be constructed, nor can it be produced. Rather it is a matter of an industrially prefabricated ‹skin› that is equipped with the same rigid contours as a role model sanctioned by dominating social dogmas. A successful game nevertheless requires that the body and the ‹personality› of the artificial character can be navigated, that players of both genders can slip into Lara's skin, and that they be able to act for or as Lara.

But as Judith Butler already pointed out by way of the example of Jennie Livingstone's film «Paris is Burning» and its protagonists, even acting under the premise of «drag» is not inescapably intended to be criticism or—even more—the subversion of normative gender categories. [55] Correspondingly, the «terminal identity» [56] of the ‹artificial human› cannot generally be assigned to a mechanism of affirmation or one of subversion. Rather it oscillates between that which has already been produced as the simulation of a human image—one could say: what is set in advance ‹as skin›—and can invite identification just as well as it can invite distancing, and that which is discursively produced via processes of identification and

icon: top

interaction when the ‹skin› has been slipped on and filled with ‹life,› or is perceived as an ‹artificial living thing› and integrated into courses of action.

In fact, as Randi Gunzenhäuser notes with regard to the making a fetish of the ‹female› body of artificial figures such as «Lara Croft,» such a constellation can «[…] definitely lead to exciting models of resistance, within which there is a place for the self-reflexive games with identities and desire. […] Then as a fetish, posing becomes a strategic game, identification with the position of the technological fetish becomes a subversive counter-narration. […] In case of doubt it depends on who is assimilating the text. [57] And, it might be added, who ‹brings it up› performatively under which premises. Correspondingly, the playful identification with an artificial gender body as well as its functionalization may indeed be accompanied by the knowledge that in a dual sense gender is a ‹masquerade›—whose functioning is based on the fact that the ‹mask› is not the copy of an original, but the clone of a stereotypical construction. This process may not necessarily exclude an analysis or criticism of the model the construction is based on—but it doesnot inevitably include such criticism, nor is it assumed as a matter of course.

‹Making sex›

From the observations made thus far, with regard to the imagination space of digital creation and the question concerning the (re)production of genders for the images of artificial humans, which we primarily encounter in this setting, in summary the following can be inferred: The producers of ‹artificial humans› may like to put forward that they created them according to models from nature—and not only do they lay claim to the status of ‹artificial life› for their creatures, they frequently even cite an ‹improved nature.› However, when in the course of this body gender, gender identity and gender role—and thus gender differences on the whole—are formulated hypertrophically, this has the consequence that ‹artificial humans› ultimately embody a monstrous gender. And this is the case regardless of whether they use gender as a weapon—i.e. whether they are armed phallically as male or female fighting machines or function as a ‹femme fatale› of disarming sexuality with devastating

icon: top
Bodies INCorporated (Vesna, Victoria), 1995

results—or whether they represent an ideal image of so-called ‹maleness› or ‹femaleness,› which is unattainable in real life and therefore instills fear. According to the ‹logic of the freak show,› the monstrous gender of these ‹horror pictures› assumes the role of a counter-image to the normality of the dominating gender order with stabilizing functions.

In contrast, where would we find a possible starting point for other or altered perspectives specifically for the digital medium? As demonstrated, it could lie in the potential of «doing» or «being gender» under the premise of a digital masquerade—which, however, only takes effect if this masquerade is not already a calculated and calculable part of a game function and thus quasi mechanically implemented.

De-monstrations of the monstrous

On the other hand, a deviating perception or a subversive treatment of these images is only possible if the horror has been recognized in its function as a function within the ‹logic of the freak show› and if this mechanism for its part is put on display or made experiencible as a mechanism.

An artistic project that begins at this level is Francesca da Rimini's «Doll Yoko»: A Web-based, non-linear narration that works with hypertexts and images and which intertwines the various formations of monstrous and trivialized artificial femaleness until they become indistinguishable by allowing a girl murdered in the course of misogynous birth control measures to become a revenant. In her multiple manifestations, precisely those stereotypes that normally—played out as projections «over her dead body»—contribute to a restrictive and normative fixing of traditional notions of femaleness are brought back to life in a kind of surplus production that bursts all perceptive capacities:

‹Rock the Horror Picture Show.›

Conversely, what can also be helpful is the examination of the limitations cyborg configurations are subject to because the ‹imperative of anthropomorphism› clearly continues to be the decisive condition for our identification with the images we have of cyborgs.

In Victoria Vesna's project «Bodies INCorporated» (1995 ff.) we are invited to create for ourselves a second body in cyberspace as a «substitute

icon: top

existence.» In this case, in the categories «sex assignment» and «sexual preference» there may be a whole variety of alternatives that approximately correspond to the range of offers in MUDs and MOOs. However, as soon as it comes to designing the body image, we are confronted with the familiar tight restrictions: The variety of the deductive possibilities that arise by our being allowed to assemble the substitute body piece-by-piece and equip it with all sorts of textures and sounds cannot obscure the fact that the contours themselves practically remain typically restricted: A part of the body may be male, female or child-like—if we do not want to entirely do without it. Whether we regard the ‹avatars› we have created as «significant others» or as «alter egos» or even as «sexual playmates»: what we create are ‹freaks›—projection surfaces endowed with life that despite the apparent variety of the monstrous turn out to be as repulsive and restricted as the stereotypes out of which they are put together.

In this respect it is not surprising that many of the «substitute bodies» neglected, forgotten or discarded by their creators ultimately end up in the necropolis of«Bodies INCorporated.» This circumstance adverts to a question that already plays a central role in the majority of literary and cinematic stories of the creation of artificial humans and at the same time is its absurdity. Borrowing from the title of an essay by Margaret Morse, «What Do Cyborgs Eat?», [58] the question could read: How Do Cyborgs Die? While the creatures were created to beguile human mortality, the central plot of the narrations—from the «golem» legend and «Frankenstein» to the «Blade Runner» and the «Terminator»—soon focuses on how the ‹monstrous promises,› which have become reality, can be put an end to. If this fails, then—as in «Terminator III»—the definitive end of humanity is at stake. It appears, however, that a ‹happy ending› can only be achieved under the premise of a return to the ‹conditio humana›. At least if one believes in the doctrine of the primacy of the ‹whole human.›

The doctrine of the monsters

In contrast, from the direct dealings with ‹artificial bodies,› not just as permitted by computer games but also by artistic works that enable us to explore our

icon: top

cyborg condition in ‹virtual space,› we can learn something else. In the process, an identification with the position of the ‹freak› or the ‹monster›—donning its skin—is not as crucial as recognizing the function it has as a surface that can be made a fetish of, a surface that is not a ‹shell› for a ‹core,› but is already everything: The ‹whole› is an image that—reproducing the ‹old stories› or the traditional ‹narrations›—is intended to be ‹revitalized› or mobilized.

This ultimately also results in a further decisive indication of why images of ‹artificial humans› are so prominently equipped with the features of physical gender in the first place: If they are personified proof of fathering «without a woman,» i.e. if they come from a ‹test tube› or the memory of a computer—if they do not require dual biological sexuality for their reproduction, or if dual biological sexuality was not required for their production—then we can assume that their ‹physical gender› decidedly serves the invocation and demonstration of ‹femaleness› or‹maleness›—a ‹femaleness› or ‹maleness› that corresponds less with any reality of ‹woman› or ‹man› than it represents an idea of what ‹femaleness› or ‹maleness› should be. However, precisely with reference to the interface gender we can learn something else: Namely—in confirmation of Judith Butler's argument—not only that «gender,» but also that «sex» must be considered under the premise of the masquerade. [59] In other words: At the moment we begin to abstract from its function for biological reproduction, in its specific role for producing meaning physical gender proves itself to be a function of the representation of a human image that is intended to be animated or revitalized in the ‹artificial humans›—«over their dead bodies,» ‹eerily› brought back to life. And this, on the other hand, is an understanding that cannot only be transferred from the ‹virtual reality› of digitally generated image spaces to those art historical or historico-cultural narrations of ‹artificial humans› in general, but also to any other perceptual reality.

icon: top