by ERNESTINE DAUBNER
“Our generation was born in the last decade of the l9th century and was conscripted by an era in which human history made a fresh start… At the age of five I witnessed Edison’s phonograph, at eight my first trams, at ten my first cinema, then the airship, the airplane, the radio. Progressive European and American technology is at pains to equip our generation.” Russian Constructivist/Productivist, El Lissitsky (as cited in Schrader & Schebera, 1988, p. l47)
El Lissitsky’s euphoric statement, written at the beginning of the 20th century, illustrates the outright enthusiasm, felt among many, at the dawn of what was deemed a new era. The breakthroughs in science and technology spectacularly expanded the mobility of the human body, changing perceptions of time, space, and “omnipresent speed” that so enthralled the Italian Futurists (Marinetti, pp. 41-42).
Certainly, physical and mental limitations have triggered technological explorations ever since the invention of the first tools. Breakthroughs in science and technology over the centuries have increasingly expanded the mobility of the human body in the world through the invention of the wheel, automobile, airplane, even rocket science; they have also enhanced human communicative abilities, as well as imaginary and cognitive capabilities through incremental advances in diverse telecommunication or information technologies. While expanding human capabilities enormously, each innovation also spawns a network of interrelated events that affect the socio-cultural realities of humans in the world, sometimes radically. Indeed, the enthusiasm felt by El Lissitsky and others, was short-lived. With the onset of the Great War, it also became clear to many, including avant-garde artists, that technological advancements also held enormous destructive capabilities, further witnessed in the ensuing Second World War and subsequent conflicts. Indeed, these examples, as well as many other histories of modernity, elucidate how technologies are in no way neutral; that they are not simply a series of increasingly sophisticated inventions, but are inextricably embedded into the social fabric of societies that produce, use and misuse them. For this reason, theoretical models for understanding the way in which technologies relate to the socio-political and cultural histories, and how they affect the human subject, are pertinent.
Every new technology is an extension of the body, Marshall McLuhan (1962, 1964) reminded us. He argued that with every bodily extension, there is a corresponding shift in the ratio of our sense perceptions. The invention of moveable type by Gutenberg in the 15th century was not simply a practical innovation. It triggered a revolution, allowing the broader dissemination of knowledge through the publication of mass-produced books, more literacy, and a kind of linear thinking, based on a primarily visual sensorium, which provided the ideal mindset for the technological and scientific developments that ensued over the subsequent centuries. Thus, the Gutenberg revolution, declared McLuhan, changed the Medieval Western world from a primarily oral, tribal society, with an audile-tactile sensibility, to one that became increasingly ocularcentric.
Later, at the dawn of the Electric Age, which El Lissitsky describes so succinctly, a new sensorium developed once again, according to McLuhan. Through incremental developments in telecommunication and information technologies, we extended our central nervous system in a global embrace. As a result, we became once again a kind of tribal community reassuming a medieval kind of aural-tactile sensibility. I think that we can all agree that our communication capabilities have augmented enormously, just in the past decade alone, with the remarkably swift increase in the deployment of information technologies, which bring many of us (though not all) closer into a kind of global village. This said, today, certain technological interfaces appear to challenge McLuhan’s model to some degree, expanding, amplifying or confusing sensory modes in astounding ways. The observations, on interactive technologies, by Canadian media artist, David Rokeby, provide a conceptual model that is relevant in this regard:
“McLuhan often referred to technologies as “extensions of man” but in fully interactive technologies, the flow of information goes both ways; the apparatuses become more like permeable membranes. If there is a balance of flow back and forth across this membrane, then the interactive technology is an intermingling of self and environment.” (Rokeby, 1995, p. 154)
In his early interactive works, Very Nervous System (1983-91), David Rokeby already illustrated how technology operates as such a permeable membrane. In this work, he provides the visitor with the opportunity to transform his/her body into a musical instrument. Standing in front of a video camera, the visitor’s bodily movements are captured; an image processor feeds the message of this motion to a computer, to a synthesizer and to a sound system. Integrated into this closed electronic circuit, the interactor is able to have every gesture translated into repeatable sounds: sounds that can even be programmed to approximate the music of a particular musician.
Rokeby explains that Very Nervous System (VNS) is significant in that it “transform[s] the interactor’s awareness of his or her body.” (1995, p.146) Plugged into the electronic circuit of the VNS, one no longer perceives the senses and the mind as distinct domains, or even as a unified subject gazing at a fixed object outside of oneself. Indeed, as one moves and produces the musical sounds, one becomes aware not only of one’s bodily actions in time and space, but also of the interconnections between our physical gestures, the act of hearing, and the electronic sound. Once an integral part of the VNS, distinction between mind and body coalesce: mind/body and technology merge, become one.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the VNS was adapted so that a totally paralyzed woman might speak. Only capable of moving her eyelids, the VNS captured the coded eye movements of the woman, translating them into words, and thus into communication with the outside world. The VNS is thus not simply an extension of the able or disabled body (a new way of creating sound, language) but works more like the permeable membrane, of which Rokeby speaks: creating a flow back and forth, and an intermingling of self and environment.
Different kinds of interfaces further eclipse ordinary sensory modes, allowing a crossover between the senses and new experiences within the world. For example, the wearable technology called, The vOICe, is designed for visually impaired persons, allowing them to see with their ears. The vOICe technology translates video images, captured from the blind person’s environment through a regular PC camera in eyeglasses, into sounds. These sounds are then deciphered by the user into visual input. The sounds, a new learned language, provide the blind person with first hand visual experience so that they can navigate an environment. The glasses include a microphone for the user’s speech commands, while the notebook PC, running The vOICe software, lies inside the backpack. Such interfaces provide us with insights or glimpses into the potential ways in which cross-sensory modes might transform a person’s cognitive, even psychological and imaginary realms, and thus their life experiences.
The art installations and performances of Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman make this apparent as well. Here, too, crossovers between the senses occur, this time from oral sound to the visual. Messa di Voce (Levin & Zachary, 2003), meaning, in Italian, “placing the voice,” is an audiovisual performance in which the speech, shouts and songs produced by vocalists are transformed, in real-time, into expressive graphics by means of interactive visualization software. While voice-generated graphics operate like an instrument for the singer-performers, conversely bodily manipulation of these graphics also allow them to replay the singing sounds.
The technology operates once again like that permeable membrane, of which David Rokeby speaks, allowing a flow back and forth, creating, as Levin and Lieberman, themselves, state: “a cycle of interaction that fully integrates the performers into an ambience consisting of sound, virtual objects and real-time processing […] Utterly wordless, yet profoundly verbal, Messa di Voce is designed to provoke questions about the meaning and effects of speech sounds, speech acts, and the immersive environment of language.” (2003) Such crossovers between the sensory modes challenge any preconceived notion of separate, self-contained senses. In neuroscience this phenomenon, called, “cross-modal interaction,” (Scott, 2006) describes how characteristics of one kind of sensory mode (here sound) are transformed to stimulate another sensory mode (visual).
Cross-modal interaction is exemplified in still another way with the e-Skin project of artist, Jill Scott. Here the skin, the largest organ of the human body, becomes the site of an expanded sensorium since, as Scott (nd) states: “The ability of the skin to acquire and process information rivals our senses of sight and hearing.” Indeed, the complex tactile quality of skin (mostly unobserved) provides the body with important feedback and ability to navigate and inhabit spatial environments.
The wearable e-Skin interface mimics the sensory capabilities of the human skin, thus operating like an artificial skin. It is a multilayered flexible textile, capable of sensing stimuli on the exterior of its surface, as well as on the interior, so that the wearer is provided with tactile feedback. It does this by means of tactile cues, such as pressure, vibration, and temperature, as well as by sound cues. This interface can thus operate as an aid for the visually impaired to orient themselves and to navigate in space. For example, temperature feedback on the skin serves as a proximity detector; Braille letters provide electro-tactile stimulations that produce coded messages on the skin and so on. (Scott, 2006)
Further, wireless technologies are used to transport the electronic tactile and sound cues so that tactile stimulation and acoustic feedback by a visually impaired actor could be transferred into visual stimuli for a sighted audience, also wearing the e-Skin interface. This way the e-Skin operates, as Jill Scott explains, like a mediated stage whereby communication between sighted and non-sighted persons is facilitated. Tracking and sensor information is distributed to several different computers that transform user interaction into visuals and acoustics, creating what Scott calls, “a collaborative synesthetic experience.” (Scott, nd) In this way, e-Skin has been employed in performances in virtual environments, involving the collaboration of Zürich dance companies, where the dancers are able to sense the tactile, acoustic and visual information in real time, and convey this sensory feedback to other dancers and to the audience.
As we have seen, these diverse interfaces expand sensory modes, allowing one to produce sound with one’s body movements, to see with one’s ears, to create images with one’s voice, to visualize and communicate one’s tactile and acoustic experiences. While earlier technological extensions of the body at the beginning of the 20th century exhibited, according to McLuhan, an audile-tactile sensibility, altering one’s sense of time and space, these contemporary interfaces prompt one to revise pre-conceived distinctions between the senses altogether. Indeed, the diverse crossovers, fusions or confusions of sensory boundaries might better be described by the term, mutamorphosis, to borrow the title of this conference: muta (silence of a single sense); mutation: process of change; morphosis: alteration occurring in an organism or any of its parts. Increased deployment of such interfaces by able or disabled persons will significantly alter sensory modes along with their cognitive, psychological and imaginary realms, as well as their life experiences, in ways we cannot yet quite envision.
Biotechnologies similarly defy traditional preconceptions about the interrelationship between body, mind and the world, also presenting a sort of mutamorphosis. Gene therapy, assisted reproductive technologies, tissue culture, Radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants, nanotechnologies are but a few biotechnologies that are currently altering one’s notion of the healthy, normative body, its ability to heal and regenerate itself, and its capacity to operate autonomously with expanded sensorial and cognitive abilities. Many of these developments promise enormous benefits in health, longevity and well-being, but also present a host of difficult ethical, moral and philosophical questions.
Relevant, in this regard, is the research in artificial intelligence, control and robotics, and experiments in neurosurgical implantation by Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading (Warwick, 2002), which extends the body’s capabilities beyond the boundaries of the surface skin. In 1998, he had a silicon chip, a RFID transponder, emitting a unique identifying signal, surgically implanted in his left arm. It was linked directly to a computer that monitored his movements in a specific environment, allowing him to open and close electronic doors, turn on lights, heaters and other computers without actually activating them manually.
Further implant experiments in 2002 were carried out, employing a more complex neural interface, a microelectrode array, to explore how it could send signals back and forth between Warwick’s nervous system and a computer, connected to the Internet, in Columbia University, New York. Stimulating individual electrodes within the array, the implant in his arm created artificial sensations and Warwick was thus able to control remotely a robot arm in Reading University in the UK and obtain feedback by means of sensors in his fingertips. This neural interface also allowed him to control an electric wheelchair. As such, this technology promises astounding benefits for those physically impaired and the potential to create new medical tools. Warwick lists the ways in which this technology might benefit disabled people: “Contribution to movement in limbs for those with a break in the nervous system or MS. Potential alternate sense (ultrasonic) for blind people giving them a sense of distance. Possible electronic medicine – electronic signals to remove headache, as a tranquillizer, to bring about pleasure etc. Possible pain equalizer – direct immediate painkiller.” (Warwick, nd) Ongoing research by Warwick’s team aims to investigate how movement, thought or emotion signals might be transmitted from one person to the other possibly via the Internet. Warwick enthusiastically points out that there are many limits, such as our sensorimotor abilities, that we can overcome with such technologies.
Indeed, even though one can agree that neural interfaces of this sort promise remarkable benefits, to both the able and disabled person, one might also readily envisage their negative potential, when employed for surveillance purposes, the possibility for the invasion of privacy and the potential power to control a human subject, even from remote locations. Far from being simply an extension of the body, such neural interfaces are designed also to affect the body and mind from the exterior, conjuring up a variety of benevolent and nefarious scenarios.
Tissue engineering, particularly the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A) of Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts (nd), provide another potent example of remarkable developments on the horizon. Tissue engineering is a biotechnology that promises, in the not too distant future, the ability to grow spare body parts to replace injured or defective ones. The culture of organs from one’s own cells would eliminate problems associated with the rejection of a donor organ by the immune system of the host body.
Zurr and Catts became interested in tissue engineering after learning about the work of scientists who created a truly science fiction creature: a hybrid of a mouse and human ear. First, creating a prototype of a human ear out of polyester fiber and human cartilage cells, the scientists subsequently implanted this ear structure onto the back of a hairless mouse. The mouse’s tissue nourished the ear while the cartilage grew to replace the fiber. Zurr and Catts were invited to work in the Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory, at Harvard Medical School with Dr. Joseph Vacanti, one of the leading scientists working on the ear-mouse project. There, they learned important tissue culture techniques and, as one of their projects, cultivated a semi-living ear, an exact replica (1/4 scale) of the ear of the artist, Stelarc, who now wears a facsimile on his arm – certainly, challenging our notions of the normative body.
These artists have employed tissue engineering to make numerous other semi-living sculptures from cultures of skin, muscle and bone cells grown on artificial biodegradable polymer of a variety of shapes and sizes. These semi-living sculptures, exhibited in international venues, are fragile life forms, and are thus always displayed in a fully functioning tissue culture laboratory. Such an exhibition lab includes a sterile hood, incubator, microscope, a sophisticated monitoring system, and a bioreactor that simulates the conditions of the bodies from which the cells were derived, allowing the tissue to grow.
Caring and nurturing these semi-living entities for the duration of the exhibition is an essential part of TC&A’s art projects. The audience is invited to view the daily feeding of these semi-living entities, emphasizing the necessity of caring for these new life forms. The end of the exhibition, however, represents the death knoll for these artistic creations. At the closing of the installation, Catts and Zurr perform a killing ritual when the semi-living sculptures are removed from their sterile environment and placed in miniature coffins where they die. By nurturing and then allowing the death of their semi-living sculptures, the artists exhibit not only the fragility of these lab-produced life forms, but also confront the visitors with implications of the new bodies of science.
Their creation of semi-living entities serves as tangible examples of the new kinds of post-biological semi-living entities that tissue engineering holds in store. Contrary to human hair, teeth, or finger and toe nails, which can be severed from and exist separate from the body, these regenerative entities can be coerced to grow in predetermined shapes outside of our bodies, as autonomous life forms. How is one to conceive of such semi-living entities that are at one, and the same time, foreign bodies and fragments of our biological body? Is one to look upon these regenerative bodies as having separate identities, as quasi-autonomous entities that are hierarchically inferior to the (micro) biological life within us? Will one regard one’s own fragmented body parts as monstrous? Or will one conceive of them as purely, neutral biological object-bodies, and thus revert to conceptions of a mind-body duality?
In short, today, (bio)media art, the life sciences and technological innovations are what one might call “extreme” cultural practices, as they bring us to the very limits of current conceptions of the “normative” body, its sensorial capabilities, and display the mutamorphosis of the human body/mind currently in process. At this juncture, it might then be vital not only to scrutinize the dazzling new (bio)technologies, but to assess how they are theorized. It is somewhat paradoxical, and highly problematic, that conceptions of such innovative technologies often slip back to earlier reductive models of thought that objectify the body and the mind, eclipsing the unique psychological, emotive, imaginary characteristics of all human beings. As cultural practices become so extreme, can one allow oneself to ignore that every human being is unique, singular and inextricably embedded in diverse socio-cultural realities – and that a human being is not simply a body with a physiological brain and nervous system that can be enhanced by (bio)technologies.
Catts, Oron and Ionat Zurr, (nd) from http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/
Levin, Golan and Zachary Lieberman (2003) Messa di Voce from http://www.tmema.org/messa/messa.html
Marinetti, Filippo Tomasso. (1972) Marinetti. Selected Writings. Transl. by R.W. Flint and A.A.Coppotelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rokeby, David. (1995) “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media.” In Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Edited by Simon Penny. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Schrader, Bärbel and Jürgen Schebera. ( 1988 ) The ‘Golden’ Twenties: Art and Literature In The Wiemar Republic, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, l988, p. l47.
Scott, Jill (nd) AILab E-skin from http://e-skin.ch/ascii/index.html; http://www.ifi.uzh.ch/ailab/people/dbisig/eSkin.html
Scott, Jill. (2006) e-Skin: Research into wearable interfaces, cross-modal perception and communication for the visually impaired on the mediated stage. In Brooks, A.L. (ed.) Proceedings ArtAbilitation2006, Esbjerg, Denmark.
Warwick, Kevin (2002) I, Cyborg. London: Century, 2002.
Warwick, Kevin (nd) from http://www.kevinwarwick.com/index.asp