MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN with Joyce Beckenstein
See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded
(Black Dog Publishing, 2018)
Madeline Schwartzman’s unconventional methodologies—as a scholar, teacher, writer, artist, and curator—navigate intricate webs through art, science, reality, fantasy, logic and absurdity, though they criss-cross with startling ease in both her books. See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception (2011) presents fifty years of futuristic projects for the human body and the senses and See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded (2018), her forthcoming follow-up book, explores the future of the human head. Schwartzman sights no one perspective and bows to no political or academic agenda, preferring to focus on an astonishing display of rational and irrational aesthetic constructions that go to the heart of humanity’s effort to grasp the terms of mortality and survival. Where some would nudge their readers towards apocalyptic outcomes, she celebrates the serendipitous, the weird, and the impulsive as wondrous phenomena of life’s eternal cycle. I had the pleasure of meeting Madeline at See Yourself E(x)ist (December 7, 2017 – February 17, 2018), an exhibition she curated at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that draws on the themes in her books, and was delighted when she agreed to this interview to discuss her unabashedly offbeat approach to art and life.
Joyce Beckenstein (Rail): Seeing tongues…robotic hair? Where does this stuff come from and what draws you to it?
Madeline Schwartzman: It comes from near psychedelic rabbit hole journeys through the Internet—searches that are non-linear, with no agenda and no desired end point. They are almost like dissections or cross-sections that lead me to weird places. But mostly, I dare to conceptualize—to think something and make connections that come from my whole body of work and different disciplines I’ve studied. I trained as an architect at Yale, studied film and video at The New School, made installations and social art projects. You have to know many disciplines to see across disciplines. A while back I made a film called Aphrodisiac (2000), a comedy about the search for Jesus Christ’s foreskin. No fewer than twelve churches claimed to have the holy relic! In my film it’s considered a powerful aphrodisiac, so all kinds of factions—some sent by the pope—are hunting for it in NYC. That made me an expert on relics. Since 2013, I’ve been riding the subway and asking strangers to write poems for the project, Poems by New Yorkers. I’m like the conductor on the train, except that I’m conducting connection.
Rail: How did your early projects lead to your books?
Schwartzman: Research is key. When you study relics, you study magnificent objects, the strange cult of the “human” body, religion, culture, theft, competition, museums, human morphology, and more. My interdisciplinary focus fueled my books. But more specifically, they emerged from my design studios at the Barnard + Columbia Architecture department where I’ve been experimenting with teaching design through sensory projects. One course, “Architectural Representation Perception,” made me realize that the word “perception” required me to address what it means to be a human who perceives things. I asked students to do a one-minute performance highlighting and analyzing two senses in combination with one another. Based on their analytical data they created wearable constructions that allowed the wearer to become aware of the strangeness of the senses. Students explored the anatomy of a blink, the path of tears, the re-contouring of the face, face morphology, and sensitivity to pain and the mobility of the tongue. These unconscious things happen every day. This awareness of the human sensorium led to See Yourself Sensing.
Rail: How did these projects resonate with other sense-based projects?
Schwartzman: The classroom constructions I devised in the early 2000s went against the grain of typical architectural teaching. I discovered very few sense-based projects when I turned to extensive Internet research in 2008, though they have increased exponentially since then. I guess I was ahead of the curve at the time. Now there are hundreds of thousands. But if you’re not careful with your searches, you can end up on threads that close off possibilities and prevent you from looking beyond the economies of disciplines, or that feed a particular agenda. You have to break free from the bounds of a discipline. I have a different analogy for how I work.
Rail: And that is?
Schwartzman: It relates to a trip to Agate Beach in Trinidad, California. You visit this beach expecting to find glowing translucent agates everywhere, but you can’t find them unless someone teaches you how. You have to look askance, with the side of your face parallel to the ground, and then all of a sudden these glowing things reach out to you. My ideas come from that kind of sideways distant glance. I bring that perspective to my design teaching. For example, I got fed up with the entrenched architecture studio agenda that assumes one way to learn how to construct space. Instead, I asked students to write poetry about a journey through Manhattan and to make models of a reconfigured New York City using food products—mushrooms, bread, radishes, eggplants, carrots. The models were astonishing, and the studio smelled great. Smell was one of the most powerful aspects of this project—you never exercise smell in the design studio. Over the course of the week the aroma changed from fresh to rotten. The models sagged. This approach helped students break out of a pretty boring system, engage in natural systems, and realize that nothing, after all, lasts.
Rail: You often speak about the role serendipity plays in your work, citing your experience with a plane crash. How did that impact your thinking?
Schwartzman: My plane hit a bus as it landed outside Detroit. The left wing toppled a bus. It was scary, but I kept thinking about whether or not the pilot could sense the tip of the wings. If so, how wide did that make him feel? I later questioned several pilots about this: the older ones said they could sense the width of the plane’s wings, while younger ones, trained to use electronics alone, did not share that sensation. That led me to think about where we as humans begin and end.
Rail: Your books unfurl more like curated exhibitions dealing with “humanness” than they do running narratives about the relationships between art and science. How are these two books linked?
Schwartzman: In some ways, they are similar because all perception is in the brain and both books relate to the brain. See Yourself Sensing deals primarily with the senses and includes practical and fantastic futuristic sensory constructions. Paul Bach-y-Rita’s BrainPort, for example—already being developed—enables the blind to see. It relies on an array of electrodes placed on the tongue, which in turn transforms visual data, like contrast, into electrical stimulation and sends it directly to the visual cortex via the brain—what is known as plasticity—making it possible to bypass the retina and “see” with your tongue. See Yourself X deals less with futuristic innovations, more with the head and the brain. It explores how humans extend into space through morphological features like the hair, nose, eyes, and beyond—through prosthetics, neurology, and ultimately, the displacement of the brain from the body.
Rail: The morphological and analytical content of both books recall wunderkammers—intriguing oddities in naturalist antique collector cabinets—that you juxtapose with wonders of our technological age. How did you discover these connections?
Schwartzman: Going back and forth in time unfolds evolutionary data, cultural and historical transformations, and the development of technology. It’s a long view that reminds you that things were once different and may be again in the future. Two neat projects relate to the way our brain cavity has changed over time and undermine our preconceptions about the morphology of our head: Jaime Pitarch’s Cyclops (2007), a perfectly crafted one-eye eyeglass, triggers a number of evolutionary what ifs. What would the shape of our brain be if we had only one eye—where’s the nose? This work resonates with a 19th century finely carved prosthetic nose attached to a set of glasses, an incredibly beautiful prosthetic designed for those who lost their noses as a result of syphilis. Dorry Hsu’s 3D printed jewelry provides the face with a baroque insect exoskeleton. Might it be useful in the future to hide behind a chitin-like shell that expresses your mood and hinders facial recognition?
Rail: Some projects recall elegantly weird high fashion shoots such as Susanne Stemmer’s forest image with a human head, its hair growing in the shape of two giant mushrooms—a human-fungi hybrid. Where are artists taking us with these works?
Schwartzman: Some human/animal or fungi hybrids in playful fashion shoots trigger futuristic conceptual ideas for me. Many works imagine merging forms of nature with human life, suggesting that we may evolve a life that is different from the one we know. What will we look like 100 years from now? There are ideas about robots’ intelligence superseding humans, or downloading consciousness into machines—interesting pronouncements, but they are a dime a dozen on the web. It is not my agenda to fit into hype ideas about the future, especially when they involve corporate or military agendas that conjure fear of the future.
Rail: Yes, but you are exploring who, what, and where we are as evolving humans. You are not doing all this research to simply ferret out what is weird for weird’s sake—a word I think you should define for us because it occurs frequently with respect to your work.
Schwartzman: I use weird in a positive way. Weird to me is stuff you haven’t seen before. Take the world’s longest beard, a Smithsonian collection relic that came off of a human being who naturally grew the beard. What’s weird is this: nobody wants to look at how weird, how monstrous it is. Look a long time at any single body part, and you’ll see how strangely gross it is. The human tongue, for example, is really freaky. A pangolin’s tongue goes down its ribcage. Think about it—if our tongues were much longer, or more agile, what would the possibilities be? I put hybrid things out there to present the weird in meaningful ways that open up human possibilities.
Rail: Yet these creative investigations do bring us back to scientific realities that carry with them wonderful and terrifying consequences. Some of the messages contained within these fantastic projects take us from humanism to trans-humanism… post-humanism… or no humanism. Should we be concerned about this?
Schwartzman: Nobumichi Asai’s Connected Colors projects celestial imagery and concentric rainbows, which you could say are just pretty pictures, onto a face. But the projections change as the face changes. This reminds me of Charles Darwin and Duchene de Boulogne, who studied the connection between facial expressions and emotion. We now know that internal states cause the face to move, and facial movements cause internal states. For example, Botox can influence emotions: the inability to frown may make one happier while impeding a smile may make one sadder. If we can mask facial expression with chemicals, we can also do so with projected imagery that can stymie facial recognition and other modes of surveillance. Someday images across the face will be moving tattoos, traveling within or below the skin.
It’s certain that we will soon be device-less, with electronic apparatus embedded or exoskeletal. Parts of the body may fall by the wayside. Computers are starting to read our brains. When we can download our brains, will we need our bodies?
Rail: Will we?
Schwartzman: I was reassured by a conversation with physicist Matt Strassler, who thinks trillions of years into the future. He explained that physicists can predict with some certainty when the sun will burn out, but he didn’t find the thought depressing because, he said, “We’ll have moved on to a planet around some other star, or other forms of life may carry on where we’ve left off… it’s not necessarily dire.” But going back to your question—should we be concerned? I don’t get too involved in all these things; I just need to know about them. I’m very interested in the transformations and aesthetics of the next twenty or thirty years. In the decades to come we’ll still have bodies and brains. But there will be all sorts of changes.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.