THE New Museum | February 25 – May 24, 2015
so far > all I have .is. , an Awkward Body > i didn’t .pick.
- Everyone was touching each others gadgets
Like don’t tread on me with body parts . . , I already arrange my flight path
The body shifts in and out of focus in Ryan Trecartin’s “Summary Species,” the social media inflected poetic text sampled on the walls of the exhibit and excerpted above. Or rather it is the subject position, the position of both narrator and reader, which shifts amidst format changes. To whom does the “I” belong? Do the disconnected status updates refer to Trecartin’s body or ours? It is equally difficult to place the body and subject amidst the digital mediation that similarly dominates his video practice. As co-curator Lauren Cornell writes, Trecartin’s work captures how “the effects of technology and late capitalism have been absorbed into our bodies and altered our vision of the world.” Therein is the inspiration of the 2015 Triennial, an ambitious project that promises to “express both the possibilities and challenges inherent in a contemporary condition wherein we are encircled by a ‘smarter’ and more participatory world.” But while the curators propose that the works on display evoke “a very human process” of adapting to and coping with this world, I would suggest that much of the art on display clearly troubles the human subject. Despite curatorial objectives, Surround Audience points to what is beyond the human body, a non-human or posthuman subject position that has concerned artists for the past century.
The curatorial team argues that the rematerialization of digital and ephemeral forms, the making of physical sculptures from digital images or paintings from 3-D renderings, is the key strategy by which artists in the exhibition deal with a world of online platforms and monetized data points. New media fetishists and net-art fans will thus be disappointed by an exhibition that remains grounded in objects. Immaterial components of the exhibition, such as K-Hole’s advertising campaign or the various ongoing online components including Casey Jane Ellison’s Touching the Art series, are easily overlooked. Ironically, the return to “remateriality” is the most unifying element of a show that investigates a world allegedly altered by the immaterial digital mode. Is this return to materiality an intentional response to the digital trajectory we find ourselves on? Is it really a turn to the human, as the curators would tell us, or is the rematerialization of the digital turn simply the pervasive and structured need to come up with a product? As an alternative, I would argue that the art on display suggests that the integration of digital technology into our bodies is quickly moving us to something different.
While it is tempting to see the overemphasis on objects as a conscious push against the virtual and symbolic of the digital realm in favor of the analog and real, many works reveal an interest in a complete alternative to a human-centered position. Olga Balema’s “Untitled” (2015), a series of PVC bags filled with water, metal rods, and paper, suggests an alternative orientation in which the objects and materials themselves have their own being. Self-enclosed environments, the transformation of the materials as they disintegrate within the bags is independent of the human observer, the rust bleeding through the water in its own material life. Nicholas Mangan’s project “Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World,” begun in 2009, constructs a history and biography from the perspective of the coral limestone pillars found across the island-nation of Nauru. The story of the limestone is documented in film and is punctuated by a limestone coffee table sitting in the gallery, the life of that thing and its journey given its own point of view. Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Oculus Rift environment “Phantom” (2015) pulls on Brazilian indigenous cosmologies and the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of “perspectivism,” whereby the world is inhabited by different sorts of non-human subjects which apprehend reality from distinct points of view. Steegmann Mangrané’s virtual rainforest environment is full of leaves and grass that react to the viewer’s approach, reminding us that alternative ontologies to anthropocentrism continue to exist around the world.
What, then, has become of our own subject position, of the human? Just as the interest in non-human materialities points to a subject position beyond the human, the art on display points to the transformation of the human, through the modification, enhancement, and replacement of the body by digital-mechanical parts and prostheses. In particular the concept of the cyborg is key to understanding many of the works here, or rather feminist thinker Donna Haraway’s deployment of the term as a simultaneously animal and machine creature, the result of making technological augmentations to a biological body. Aleksandra Domanović exemplifies the organic merging with the robotic in “SOHO (Substances of Human Origin)” (2015). Her prostheses metastasize, sprouting mechanical tools and growing teeth. One set of these evolving limbs (all based on the Belgrade Hand, a prosthetic designed to sense touch) has generated a sonogram, recalling scholar Marilyn Maness Mehaffy’s concept of the sonographic fetus as the ultimate cyborg, created in a space that straddles the conventional boundary between an organic body and a digital text. In contrast, the works of Renaud Jerez pessimistically suggest that the body fully replaced by prosthetics is an abject cyborg. Bandaged cables and PVC pipes compose his disfigured skeletal patients “B” and “D” (2014), whose pipes and tubes conflate organic networks of arteries and veins with mechanical ones of electronic circuits and fiber-optic relays. Most abject of all are the corporate logos of hardware and tool companies implanted onto these wretched figures, signifying them as the products of consumerism.
While one can appreciate Cornell’s attempt to locate this anxiety over the technologically produced posthuman in contemporary human experience, interest in the post-human actually has a century-long history. Triennial artists like Shreyas Karle and Eva Kotátková only evoke the Dada with their montaged bodies that combine geometric parts, mannequins, and sexual tools to enhance the body while also disassembling it. The prosthetic here wavers between traumatic replacement and sexually-efficient addition, echoing the respective Dadaist and Weimar Bauhaus “posthuman” responses to World War I’s dismemberments. De Chirico’s painted mannequins echo in the puppets of Shelly Nadashi, and while the curators often evoke Surrealist Claude Cahun’s proto-queer photographic portraits, her contemporary Hans Bellmer’s corporeally disturbing compositions of altered female mannequin forms seem the more appropriate comparison to the unstable female body in the work of Sascha Braunig. Josh Kline’s “FREEDOM” (2015) asks us to consider how digital alterations, such as the replacement of faces and voices with substitution software, can examine regimes of control. His Teletubby riot-police cyborgs, though, are also the ultimate state of Futurist F.T. Marinetti’s armored soldier, a possibly more terrifying alternative to the Terminator.
The mechanically enhanced posthuman is not new. Yet some of the artists in the Triennial do present new, digitally inflected transformations of the human subject. The scholarship of Katherine Hayles, Anne Balsamo, and Rosi Braidotti addresses how the posthuman might make sense of our flexible and multiple identities and how gender and racial identity become increasingly complicated as the body is fractured into organs and machine parts. As artists such as Ed Atkins and Olivier Laric show, the posthuman can be, in addition to a technologically augmented cyborg body, a virtual symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence. Cornell rightly points to digital avatars as sources of a “myriad of personae” and many “surrogates of the self” and the exhibit illustrates how the cyborg exists digitally as a fluid enhancement of the body. For example the CGI avatar of Atkins in “Happy Birthday!!” (2014) is immersed in a digital landscape filled with liquid which he spews forth. Laric’s circulation of images in “Untitled” (2014 – 15) consists of morphing figures and hybrids, animated film clips that the artist redrew to collapse the distinction between form and copy as both constantly evolve in a flowing stream of changing bodies. These works point to the most exciting provocations by Surround Audience, which is to ask what happens when the subject’s body becomes fractured into digital parts.
In the collaboration of Juliana Huxtable and Frank Benson, the liquid digital avatar has already been rematerialized as a replacement for the human in the real world. Metallic and shimmering in unnatural glossy colours, Benson’s “Juliana” (2015), the 3-D scanned and printed sculpture of the transgender performer, greets viewers from a pedestal. As the curators describe, this physical rendering of Huxtable is the “new icon for our times,” and the Afrofuturist character’s perfect likeness has been distilled from her fluid digital presence online. “Juliana” is the Maschinenmensch of today, the digital gynoid-cum-Replicant of Metropolis and Blade Runner combined. The theories of Haraway, Hayles, and other posthumanist thinkers are materialized, and we find that digital prosthetics replicate rather than replace. Yet importantly, Huxtable asks what parts of her body and identity could not come along in her personal transition: “I feel a lot of existential holes—gaps in parts of who I am that, as I’ve transitioned, have not transitioned with me.” The inevitable question becomes what the transition to the posthuman embodied by the rematerialization of Surround Audience also leaves behind. Is the constant reimagining of our subject position a desperate push away from our contemporary condition, or the end result? While the curators want to humanize the responses to the conditions of the digital turn, the art on display affirms a keen interest in what happens when the human is radically transformed and left behind. We can only hope that with the absorption of technology and late capitalism into the artistic body we do not become, as Renaud Jerez suggests, unrecognizable abject cyborgs who have left behind everything.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.