PERFORMING SPACES FOR CYBERNETIC ORGANISMS

22 02 2009

By JANA HORÁKOVÁ

The cybernetic term feedback loop has created prolific figure of cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) that spread over different cultural fields of our society during the second half of the 20th century. The term cyborg emerged in 1960s from a cybernetics discourse dealing with a feedback loop concept related to the problems of adaptation of human organisms to extreme external environmental contexts, (specifically to space exploration). Clynes and Kline, authors of the neologism cyborg described the subject of their research as a connection of human organism and machine system which will be an „…exogenously enlarged organizational complex unconsciously functioning as an integrated homeostatic system.“(Clynes,Kline, 1960:27).

As long as cybernetics and the successor disciplines (computer science, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics…) have focused more and more on interaction of man with information (digital) technologies – the problem of the adaptation of human beings to their external environment headed to the problem of an adaptation of the human -organism to the digital data-system conditions. Consequently, the terminal figure of the cyborg in the sense of human organism adjusted to data-environment would be “human information” (Wiener, 1954 :104). In other worlds, the feedback loop of human-machine interactivity in the context of the cyborg discourse leads to „human interface that disappeared“(Fisher, 1991:109).

The cyborg discourse approach is well illustrated in the paragraph on Phantom Body by Stelarc: “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. […] What it means to be human 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.”(Stelarc, 1994). The paragraph illustrates very well the recognizable domination of the notion of cyborg in the fields of the present days cyber-culture and media art.

SOFTWARE vs. HARDWARE ART

We can find the above-indicated tendency to deal with a human body/organism by means of metaphor of digital image in aesthetics of the media art based on preference of software over hardware, on shift from media studies towards software studies (see e.g. Manovich, 2002). However, Michael Whitelaw in (Whitelaw, 2004) proposes different point of view on media art history. His book is dedicated to media art works inspired by engineering and scientific disciplines that spread from cybernetics – particularly by disciplines of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Artificial Life (AL) and advanced robotics. AL premises are reflected in art-works that can take form of generative and creative processes in which artist’s creativity is substituted by some forms of artificial evolution of complex forms of interactive systems that draw viewers into artificial ecosystems or into environments of embodied agent societies.

Whitelaw reads media art history as an evolution of art-works based on user’s interactivity with a world and artificial creatures behind computer screen towards interactivity of man with artificial systems in shared environment of physical time-space reality. He deals with this kind of art-works in a chapter significantly entitled Hardware in which he “…considers works that pull away from their inner window provided by computer screen and consciously occupy physical space.[…] In placing their works in the room with us rather than in the “elsewhere” of a virtual or simulated space. These artists build a variety of physical systems: interactive robotic creatures, technological and biological composites, installed robotic “ecosystems” and “communities”.[…] This sense of “being with us” is at the core of the concerns articulated by these artists.“(Whitelaw, 2002:103).

Feedback metaphor in man/machine performances

We have taken the above-mentioned Whitelaw’s approach to the media art evolution in this paper, and we deal with the notion of feedback loop as a metaphor that binds men and machines in a shared space-time context. Consequently, we can say that our understanding of cyborg is not an anthropocentric. We are not interested in the human body evolution in the sense of a man with technological prostheses, which enlarge some of his/her body and mind abilities – the approach related to futuristic visions of Super-man or Super-machine. We deal with different possibilities and embodiments of the human-machine feedback loop investigated and embodied in different interactive communication scripts and performances that embrace cybernetic aesthetics preferring modelling of behaviour or system activities over the evolution of a particular object/body.

So we can declare that our understanding and also our dealing with the notion of cyborg is based on topological understanding of this metaphor that embrace man and machine in one shared space in different inter-relations which their interaction can adopt. (Shanken, 2000)

We will provide two different examples and strategies of human-machine connection from a media art history and presence, which represent, from our point of view, two basically different conceptual positions of, and technical approaches to human-machine relationship embodied in their spatial arrangements. The first example will be the project Grass Field by Alex Hay that was presented as a part of the 9 Evenings, Theatre and Engineering (1966). The second will be the robotic performance Le Procès (1999) by Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, presented as one of guest members of Robert Lepage’s technological cabaret Zulu Time (August 1999, Zurich Switzerland).

Our primal goal, however, is not to deal with these performances in details, but just to point in their direction, and use them as significant examples of two different strategies of human-machine relationship staging in the field of artistic creativity. We name these strategies closed and open circuit performances in the advance contribution.

CLOSED CIRCUIT PERFORMANCE

9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering took place in Armory Hall, New York (1966) as a project of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) – the group that had a pivotal role in advancing possibilities of technology and art since the 1960s. Presented  performances connected performers’ activities with technological images and sounds.1 These artistic experiments (also because of their technical demandingness) emphasized the process over result and led towards latitude of an author-performer relationship rather than towards openness of interactivity of happening forms.

Alex Hay, one of participating artists, whose solo dance Grass Field was accompanied by the amplified sounds of his brain waves, heartbeats, and muscle and eye movements, expressed his curiosity about the new territory created by linkage of human bodies with media images. He said: „I want to amplify activity, its changing tempo and value.“(Quoted in Whitman, 1966). Hay’s performance is an example of human-machine system/performance inspired by an idea of permeation and amplification of the body and its linkage with media-images that open up artists own bodies, and leads toward erasing boundaries between inner and outer space of performer’s body.

In the case of this kind of performances, we can talk not only about the end of dichotomy of categories like inside and outside but also about the end of a distance between a subject and its image. Screens that record performers’ bodies in real-time are tools of human body refraction: “Refraction that doesn’t have anything common with an image, a stage or a power of representation, that in any wit doesn’t serve to mirror or represent, but that is used to enable any group, any action, event or an entertainment to be connected to itself.”(Baudrillard, 1989) Interface between man and his/her technical image is disappearing in their blurring, coinciding and overlapping.

These performances in which there is staged performers’ bodies activity next to real-time technical images of his/her bodies activities and processes deal with a closed circuit principle. The closed circuit performances break aesthetical distance between subject and its image in favour of closed circuit of connections and engagements. It is important to bear in mind that in spite of the immediacy of closed circuit relationship between man-performer and his/her image, these technical images are still behind the monitor screen – in the distance that body can’t reach.

OPEN CIRCUIT PERFORMANCE

The above example of human-machine interface, that we called closed-circuit performance, is based on blurring of man and his image. It is a situation (mise en scène) in which the interface between them is transparent, and disappearing. In the contrary, in the robotic performance Le Procès(1999) by Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn is staged the human-machine relationship in its primordial heterogeneity which makes the interface always visible and impassable.Vorn and Demers make this interface threatening, playing fear and anthropomorphic empathy against each other in what becomes a robotic theatre of affect”, writes Whitelaw (Whitelaw, 2004: 116).2

The performance plays with an inter-dependence of man and machine worlds, and also a fundamental machines’ otherness – their substantial difference from us. As we will demonstrate in the following paragraphs, the traditional theatre situation of the performance suits well as a tool (and a model) of the ‘love and hate’ relationship of man and machine.

The robotic performance Le Procès deals with a theatrical illusion – with an unconscious, automatic projection of (human) audience emotions and intentions into the behaviour of performing machines on the stage. Mirroring of man in very abstract machinist system on the stage is possible thanks to common adoption of cybernetic premises on man-machine relationship and anti-mimetic shift in human-like machines as well: The cybernetic automaton’s mirroring of the human body was not established on the basis of conventional mimicry, as in the case of androids and their internal parts, so much as on a common understanding of the similarities that existed between the control mechanisms and communicational organizations of machine systems and living organisms” writes Thomas, and continues: “it was no longer a question of machines functioning as organisms, or of organism functioning as machine. Instead, the machine and organism were to be considered as two functionally equivalent states or stages of cybernetic organization”(Tomas, 1995:27).

Robotic performances placed in a theatre space can profit from power of theatrical illusion, from conventions of puppet and object theatre, as well as from aspects and effects of anthropomorphic empathy and a human desire to create mechanical/artificial life that corresponds with a play of chance that Artificial Life discipline is dealing with. If we have defined the theatrical illusion as a part of the experience of the robotic performance Le Procès then an audience placed in an auditorium space can be seen as an integrated part of the theatrical installation of men and machines. “The machines don’t explain anything; you have to analyse the collective arrangements of which machines are just one component.”(Deleuze, 1990/1998 : 193).

We have named this kind of robotic performance an open circuit performance (in opposite to the closed circuit performance example of Alex Hay’s solo dance), because in this case the concept of feedback as a spatial metaphor of cybernetic organism is applied to the stage-auditorium relationship, which is a tool of aesthetical distance – the condition and situation of unexpected and unpredictable experiences. The gap between stage and auditorium is a space for transgression on the side of human audience connected with a complementary notion of emergence on a machine side. In a case of open circuit performance of robotic performers/objects, we are dealing with a kind of ‘human-effect’ that is able to animate machine motions, as well as to prepare conditions for possible transgression of an anthropocentrism on the side of the human audience (the transgression on a conceptual level rather than on a biological one).

Conclusion

Media-performances that include human groupings and information technologies assemblages are feedback loops playgrounds in which ‘cybernetic serendipity’ takes part. As Jasia Reichardt, the curator of the famous London exhibition of the same name, said:One thing that foreigners, computers and poets have in common is that they make unexpected linguistic associations” (Reichardt, 1971).3

We have focused on these kinds of artistic performances that embody the concept of cyborg in a form of its primordial heterogeneity reflected in a spatial disposition of closed or open circuit performances.

Example of Alex Hay’s solo dance based on a recording of performer’s body movements and processes and their translation into technical images projected in real-time on the stage refers to the closed circuit aesthetic of video-feedback installations. It is an example of spatial arrangement of man-machine feedback loop (or cybernetic organism) that represents approach that tends to smooth and wipe away interface between man and machine, biology and technology, between performer and her/his technical image, and consequently leads towards cancellation of the borderline between the audience and the artwork. This kind of media-performance benefits from a stage-space order possibilities. If, from a semiotics perspective, theatrical stage is considered as a mean to transform ‘reality’ into sign-systems and/or into a play, then both the man and the machine involved into the performance on the stage are thus partly dematerialised and conceptualised, and work as equal parts of the sign system opened for different combinations and interpretations. This general characteristic of theatrical stage-space is able to describe sign-regime of closed circuit performances as the Grass Field by Alex Hey.

In the case of the robotic performance Le Procès by Demers and Vorn, we made a step over the border of illusive stage space, since our interpretation is based on embracing the whole theatre space: We interpret the distance between the two literally opposite places (stage vs. auditorium) as a metaphor of impassable and inevitable difference of human beings and machines, which can be seen as one of central themes of robotic performances. Spaces for machines and men are strictly separated – machine assemblages perform on the stage and human viewers are placed in the auditorium. In this case we can see the ground plan of theatre performance as certain kind of a cybernetic organism-installation, constituted from two opposed spaces – a stage and an auditorium. We can state that heterogeneous space of mirroring, reflection and projection – the theatrical space – can work as a playground of open circuit performances in which unexpected associations of man/machine concepts can emerge.

In our contribution we wanted to present two different aesthetically and emotionally powerful performances that work as border-spaces in which human and mechanical lives meet and encounter, and in which a possibility to overstep and remove the boundary line between them takes place at the same time. However they are built in different strategies of human-machine inter-relation orders that we have named open and closed circuit performances. We understand these human-machine performances as two different strategies of movement over the borderline between man and his/her technical image (or machine). We believe that this movement is able to overstep borderlines of traditional concepts that define our world in favor to awaken sensitivity for unknown, unusual, other. In other words – to enter and to investigate an extreme spaces that are not on our maps yet.

Footnotes:

1 Examples of pieces presented within the 9 evening performances: John Cage made indeterministic music using sounds from open telephone lines, household appliances, and other rather non-traditional sources. Yvonne Reiner spontaneously choreographed performers via walkie-talkie while film, slide, and physical “events”, preprogrammed on ACTAN drum switches, were activated. Robert Rauschenberg presented tennis as formal dance improvisation, controlling the light with the racquets, and eventually putting the lights out completely so that that a stage full of people became invisible to the audience except via images from infrared television projectors. (Source Frieling, Daniels, 2004:211).

2 Le Procès/The Trial shows in a symbolic way the trial of machines by men, but also the trial of men by machines.
This project goal is to create a mult-imedia performance staging a world populated exclusively by robotic actors. […]
It acts like a reflexive tribunal where identities intermix, where judges, jurors, victims and accused, take flesh in metal creatures born from our own conception of the world, of what is good and what is bad, of what is alive and what is not. As in Kafka’s famous novel, of which crimes are we accused? Who’s judging? What will be the verdict? (Demers, 2004).

3 Cybernetic Serendipity is a title of an exhibition that took part in London 1968, from August 2nd to October 20th at the ICA Gallery, curator Jasia Reichardt.

References:

Baudrillard, J.: Videowelt und fraktalen Subjekt. In: Philosophie der neuen Technologie. Merve Verlag, Berlin, 1989, pp. 113-131

Clynes, M. E.- Kline, N. S. (1960) Cyborgs and Space. Astronautics. September, 26-27, p. 74-76.

Deleuze, G. (1990/1998). Rokovania: 1972-1990. (Pourparlers, Paris.Translated by. Miroslav Marcelli), Bratislava.

Demers, L.-P.(2004). Le Proces. Robotic performance. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from artist’s homepage http://www.hfg-karlsruhe.de/~ldemers/frames.html?cat=frameliste_m.html&topic=plant/latest_news.html

Fisher, Scott S. (1991) ´Virtual Environments: personal Simulations and Telepresence´, pp. 101-10 in S.K.Helsel – J.P. Roth (eds.) Virtual Reality: Theory, Practice and Promise. Westport, CT: Mecker.:109

Frieling, R. – Daniels, D. (2004) Medien Kunst Net/Medienkunst im Überblick//Media Art Net/Survey of Media Art. Wien and New York: Springer

Manovich, L. (2002). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Reichardt, Jasia (1971) Cybernetics, Art and Ideas. In Buscher, B.-von Hermann H.-Ch. – Hoffmann, Ch. (eds.) Asthetik als Programm. Bax Bense/Daten und Streuungen. Berlin, Vice Versa, 2004, p.259/262.

Tomas, David (1995) Feedback and Cybernetics: Reimaging the Body in the Age of Cybernetics. In: Featherstone, M., Burrows, R. (eds.) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk. Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London and New Delhi: Sage, p. 21-43.

Shanken, E. (2000) Cybernetics and Art: Cultural Convergence in the 1960s. In Henderson, L., Clarke, B.(eds.): From Energy to Information. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 255-77.

Stelarc (1994). Phantom Body. Stelarc Archival space,. Retrieved August 28, 2007, from artist’s homepage http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/

Whitelaw, M. (2004). Metacreation – Art and Artificial Life. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Whitman, S. (1966). Theatre and Engineering. An Experiment – Notes by participant, New York, 1966, E.A.T. Archive, ZKM Mediathek. (Adopted from book: Frieling, R. – Daniels, D. Medien Kunst Net/Medienkunst im Überblick//Media Art Net/Survey of Media Art. Wien, New York: Springer, 2004. p. 150.)

Wiener, N. (1954). The Human Use of Human Beings: cybernetics and Society, 2nd edn. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

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