Digital subjectivity

Norie Neumark reviews State of the Heart at the ACP and BioTechSex New Media Forum

The BioTechSex heart is an empty space, traversed only by code, aching for information, haunted by memories of a fleshly existence. Or so it is understood by many new media artists asking what has happened to erotics and politics, to ethics and intimacy, to embodied subjectivity in the digital era. This is not a nostalgic longing for old media and ideologies, but rather an immersed exploration of digital subjectivity. These concerns animated the State of the Heart exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography and were explored further at BioTechSex, the New Media Forum organised to coincide with it.

State of the Heart, excellently curated by John Tonkin and Blair French, brought together diverse and thought-provoking photographic/digital media projects. As you moved from space to space in the exhibition, your own digital subjectivity shifted uneasily. In the main room, Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski presented their Diagnostic Tools for the New Millennium comprised light boxes and computer interactive stations. The artists continue their formal interrogations of interface and their ‘schizoid’ attraction/repulsion to new technology—entranced with its “flexibility and freedom” while wary of its obsessions and surveillance implications. At first sight this split was addressed by two separate works—one about love and the other, paranoia. Yet the works took on a strange life of their own with audience interaction, as Starrs noted at the forum: the Fuzzy Love Machine induced paranoia and the Paranoia Machine embraced you. The fuzzy machine photographed you and extracted intimate data before allowing you to play in the database. This activity clearly put some people on edge, making the erotica/danger edge all the sharper. And while the Paranoia Machine represented paranoia, the delight of the interface, even its intimacy, made the experience sensually pleasurable. The Diagnostic Tools in light boxes similarly refused to stay in neat conceptual categories, thus poetically conveying the contradictions and energy of the artists’ own relationship to technology.

The blown up digital photographs in Michele Barker and Anna Munster’s The Love Machine were startling. The work seemed like a straightforward re-presentation of photos from a photo booth in Hong Kong (the Love Machine), which combines features of the two ‘parents’ to re-produce their offspring. The Machine has pre-sets for race, gender, eye and hair colour that are folded into the morph, or morpheme, as Barker and Munster figured it. The elegant simplicity and power of the work emerged as you registered the strangeness of the images of Kenji Barker-Munster, the Asian son, Lissie Barker-Munster, the Afro-American first born, and Mary-Beth, the blond, blue eyed child who held pride of place (though somewhat like another Munster, Marilyn, she was, in her normality, all the more disturbing). The re-ordering of Barker and Munster’s own images on the side walls underlined their disruption of the standard heterosexual reproductive couple—who was really ‘on top’, and where was the desire to see yourself in your offspring’s face going in the digital era? By inserting themselves inappropriately into the Machine and blowing its output out of proportion, Barker and Munster refused an easy, humorous take on The Love Machine with its promise of flesh becoming code and code becoming flesh. Instead they teased out the tensions and political implications of the way normalising (pre-set) culture and power relations produce and code not just The Love Machine but genetic engineering in general—reducing difference and specificity.

The third work in State of the Heart was Francesca da Rimini’s dollspace with Michael Grimm’s soundtrack for an empty dollspace. Well placed in its own little alcove, the viewer was positioned in an extremely disturbing space, where the detailed observations of everyday life that interest da Rimini were at play. More than, different from cyberspace, it was an intimate story space which undermined narrow categories of photography, writing, web work and interactivity. The sound held you there, immersed you, and yet powerfully disturbed your position. Its visual elegance was very moving—with the carefully laid out text, haiku-like, sitting on a variety of screens composed of an eclectic assemblage of photos and drawings. Equally powerful was the writing, a strange and haunting exploration of “identity, desire, death and deception.” The poetic fragments, story segments, and electronic correspondence (written to doll yoko/da Rimini) moved between mournful reflections and pornographic imaginings. The play between these registers was abrupt and disturbing—especially disturbing to be in the same room with other people, to share your uncertainty or witness their discomfort. Inspired by a pond in Kyoto where women drowned their unwanted baby girls, the work moved beyond this focus and operated as a space of reverberation, where the lack of central or single organising narrative left you disoriented, as “haunted by…hungry ghosts” as da Rimini herself.

The artists from State of the Heart were brought together with academics at BioTechSex, one of the best of the excellent New Media Forums. One of the issues that wove through all the provocative and insightful papers was regulation. The level of argument went beyond the common technofear or instrumental reading of technology (the use/abuse debate) to raise questions about the relationship between science (in general and biology in particular), technology and culture and the implications for artists of the bio/sex/tech nexus.

Adrian Mackenzie countered the prevalent technofear that technical codes regularise and smooth out differences; he argued instead that “life introduces something that is not fully determined by codes.” For him, confusion, change, and short-livedness break the seeming totalising power of codes through their depth, their layers. Further, since codes are always embedded in (graphic) marks and must be materialised, they are “contingent”, specific and dependent on a context. Anna Munster approached regulation from a different angle, focusing on the coded regulations and nodes of power already present in (capitalist) culture and therefore already/inevitably embedded in codes and technology. As an embodiment of culture, technology is entangled with social, political, and economic relations. Munster noted the way some cyberfeminists forget this and overly sanguinely appropriate technologies to avoid the problems of humanism.

Biologist Lesley Rogers unpacked regulation and codes, a prominent issue in biology in this era of the human genome project. With stunning examples from the sex lives of chicks and rats, she argued that behaviour can affect biology and its genetic codes. Given the conservative prominence of biology and genetics in this code-obsessed digital era, including in the media, this critique of science from an insider was valuable and satisfying.

The relationship of these critical ideas for art was also raised. Adrian Mackenzie noted the way many artists’ works repeat existing problematic structures in order that they no longer do what they were meant to do. This resonated with Barker, Starrs and da Rimini’s discussion of the ways their works de-contextualise cultural practices, and how this throws into relief the implications of those practices—from net sex to digital reproduction. As Munster pointed out, new media artists are well placed to “work within existing structures and tease out implications and histories.”

State of the Heart, Australian Centre for Photography, March 27-April 25; BioTechSex New Media Forum 7, Powerhouse Museum, March 28.

RealTime issue #25 June-July 1998 pg. 29

© Norie Neumark; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1998