As The Body Electric opens at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Walker curator Pavel Pyś shares the thinking behind the exhibition.
“Long live the new flesh,” utters James Woods’s character Max Renn in the final scenes of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), a meditation on the merging of human desires, TV screens, and mass media. Throughout the film, flesh and screen are one: at one point Renn’s chest turns into a VCR player, at another a veiny skin envelops a gun protruding from the TV set. Permeating Videodrome is the mindless consumption of imagery and the constant cycle of violence, sex, and destruction—all negotiated vis-à-vis the screen. Almost four decades later, Videodrome gathers a renewed salience given our relationship to the omnipresent screens of our lives—phones, tablets, computers, etc.—and the endless stream of scrolling and swiping through media content that seamlessly blends images of war, desire, and sex. What defines our relationship to the space of the screen? How do we negotiate ourselves and others via technology? How do artists respond to a shifting technological landscape in relation to identity and embodiment?
Though not organized chronologically, The Body Electric is an exhibition anchored in the mid-1960s with artists such as Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Shigeko Kubota, and Wolf Vostell, who were the first to employ the TV as both the subject and material of their work. Given today’s continually cheapening technologies, it might be challenging to appreciate the radicality of this generation’s actions. In the 1960s, US television ownership reached new heights, and the TV was at the very center of home life, at once a platform for entertainment and a conduit for ideology. For these artists, activating TVs with ephemeral actions played an integral role not least in subverting their symbolism but also as a way to break down the disciplinary boundaries separating performing and visual arts. For Wolf Vostell, events were “weapons to politicize art”1 and his happenings—in which TVs were routinely “desacralized” by being encased in concrete or buried—raised questions about the role that technology plays in everyday life. Though a sculpture today, Nam June Paik’s TV Cello (1971) was originally designed as an instrument for Charlotte Moorman, whose movements would alter the imagery seen on its screens, while TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) literally fuses the technological with the human figure. Performance pioneers Joan Jonas and Ulrike Rosenbach frequently turned to this exact interstice between technology and the performing body.
Joan Jonas’s Funnel (1974/2019) revisits the eponymous performance, which was presented across Germany, Italy, and the US, including the Walker Art Center, in 1974. During the event, Jonas sang, created drawings on silk, and enacted gestures aided by props including a white rabbit, spinning discs, and a leather belt. Moving within a layered space arranged with paper cones, hanging curtains, and a child’s desk, the artist was also shown via a live video feed on a nearby TV monitor. For Jonas, the installation is a “translation of the performance,”2 a tableau of props and objects that harken back to the original event. Similarly, Rosenbach’s Reflections on the Birth of Venus (1975/78) references a performance of the same title, which can be seen in the life-sized projection of the artist posing in front of a slide showing The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510). Accompanied by a triangle of salt on the floor and a video of lapping waves within a shell-shaped object, the work explores female identity and, in the artist’s words, speaks to the “cliché for the erotic adaptation of women to the sexual needs of a male world.”3 By exploring the space between the performing body and its mediated image, these artists opened new possibilities not least in regards to interdisciplinary practice, but crucially in terms of representation.
For many of the artists in The Body Electric, the lens of the camera and the space of the screen offer avenues to explore the politics of the mediated image. The exhibition draws on intergenerational dialogue to reveal common ground, especially in relation to shared concerns with nationality, sexuality, race, and gender. Consider a trio of works by Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and Amalia Ulman that investigate how the circulation of the photographic image shapes conventions of femininity and beauty. Originally conceived for Artforum to mimic the centerfold format of men’s erotic magazines, Sherman’s Untitled (1981) subverts the pin-up style by showing the artist in a disturbed emotional state, injecting her photograph with a sense of terror and foreboding rather than voyeuristic pleasure. Lorna Simpson’s 1957–2009 Interior #1 offers another take on the pin-up: the series juxtaposes appropriated amateur photos taken in Los Angeles in 1957 alongside Simpson’s self-portraits that faithfully replicate the setting and poses of the originals. Seen together, the images reveal a dialogue that spans more than five decades and questions how clothing, skin color, hair, and gender inform our understanding of identity. Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections brings the vintage pin-up into the contemporary moment not via the format of the magazine but the social networking service Instagram, for which the series was conceived. For this performance, Ulman took on the persona of an urbanite beauty blogger, crafting a Pinterest moodboard-worthy feed of lifestyle images (shopping spree selfies, champagne brunches, etc). Social media users interacted with Ulman without realizing the staged nature of her imagery, some lambasting a perceived vapidity, others fawning over her with flattery.
Whether turning to the amateur photograph, printed magazine spread, or digital social media platform, Sherman, Simpson, and Ulman question how we understand the female self in relation to mass media. Martine Syms has frequently cited the cultural historian Alison Landsberg in this regard, and in particular her conception of “prosthetic memory,”4 a term that proposes that in today’s media-saturated landscape, we understand our own identity in relation to a common memory that transcends the boundaries of social class, gender, or race. This sense of memory is not rooted in lived experience but instead in our shared social familiarity with cultural texts, such as films and books, but also GIFs, Vine videos, and Memes. Syms’s Notes on Gesture (2015) addresses this idea through the visual language of looped GIFs. The video shows the artist Diamond Stingily repeating a number of authentic and dramatic gestures that each relate to African-American women: “famous women, infamous women and unknown women,”5 as Syms has said. Inspired by English philosopher John Bulwer’s Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand, a 1644 thesis on the communicative meaning of hand movements, Syms’s video offers an inventory of gestures, questioning the assumptions we make about a person’s appearance, behavior and nonverbal communication. Throughout The Body Electric, groupings of artists demonstrate shared engagements with themes of transgender identity (Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, Juliana Huxtable), visualizing queerness (Paul Mpagi Sepuya), and race (Howardena Pindell, Lyle Ashton Harris), speaking to how we negotiate our sense of self in relation to media-driven systems of representation.
In 1986, the performance artist Stelarc wrote: “Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality … technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence.”6 While mostly clunky (think Google Glasses) or still at a conceptualization phase (i.e. the “Cicret,” a waterproof bracelet that projects your smartphone system onto your wrist, with the skin as a stand-in for the screen), advances in body hacking and wearables are seeking to make porous the boundary separating the body and technology. Many of the artists in The Body Electric dwell on the blurring of these, moving from the place of the world into the screen and back again. New technologies always necessitate experimentation, and the exhibition includes key milestone works, such as Simone Forti’s mid-1970s holograms and Peter Campus’s seminal Three Transitions (1973), in which the artist uses chroma-key effect to layer video imagery to create a series of self-portraits. Several of the artists on view engage with avatars as a means to extend the self into a virtual space. In Lynn Hershman Leeson’s first interactive video installation Deep Contact (1984-1989), viewers are invited to engage with Marion, the work’s “guide,” by pressing images of her body parts on a touchscreen, each corresponding to different narrative possibility. The erotic association of intimacy with technology promises an ambiguous and voyeuristic encounter that raises questions about the objectification of femininity in digital media.
A more sorrowful tone fills Pierre Huyghe’s Two Minutes Out of Time (2000), in which the manga character Annlee describes her existence. Though originally likely destined to be merely a background character, she had been “waiting to be dropped into a story” and appears “animated … not by a story with a plot [but] haunted by your imagination.” While at first her voice seems to be that of an adult, it quickly changes to the tense tone of a young girl, who describes viewing a painting of water lilies and disappearing into a strange light (the voice, in reality, is an altered recording of a 5-year-old girl to whom Huyghe showed the manga picture and asked how she might respond if she knew that the character had only two minutes to live).
It is odd how tender characters such as Annlee, or the somewhat hung-over protagonists of Ed Atkins’s works, may appear to us. In Atkins’ video Happy Birthday!! (2014), we come across a highly realistic CGI male character voiced by the artist. Mumbling through a seemingly arbitrary list of years, days, and time codes, he appears to be struggling to remember a significant past event. As he searches back in his “memories,” various imagery appears collaged—swirling CGI animations, the night sky, a bedroom—and set against pathetic heart-wrenching music, such as Elvis Presley crooning Always on My Mind. Atkins has described Happy Birthday!! as a work full of “terrible nostalgia,” an achingly melancholic meditation on memory and mortality. Confused and dazed, it is impossible not to forge an empathic connection with Atkins’ character, which similarly to Annlee is rooted in the real world. Its CGI likeness takes after a real-life model, and was purchased via TurboSquid, a website that supplies 3D stock models used for computer games, adult entertainment and architectural renderings.
These works forge an uneasy relationship between a tangible real world referent and the infinite possibilities of the screen. Trisha Baga takes these concerns with embodiment and disembodiment to the most cosmic and ethereal extent yet in her immersive installation Mollusca & The Pelvic Floor (2018), which originated with the artist seeking to train her Amazon Alexa virtual assistant to respond to the prompt “Mollusca.” Criss-crossing between appropriated imagery from Hollywood movies (such as Ivan Reitman’s Evolution and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact) and video shot by the artist in Sicilian caves and Filipino rice paddies, the installation densely layers physical and digital spaces, projected images and handmade objects to address themes of interspecies mingling, metamorphosis, contacting extra-terrestrial life and pondering the future of the human species.
The accelerated rate of technological change frequently outpaces the opportunity for ethical checks and considerations. Nosedive (2016), an episode of the dystopian science-fiction TV series Black Mirror, portrays a world, where every social exchange is rated and contributes to a person’s ranking. The episode shares much in common with the Chinese Social Credit System, a program set to be fully implemented in 2020, whereby artificial intelligence and mass surveillance monitors and scores citizens based on their social interactions and consumer habits.
Sondra Perry’s Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016) speaks directly to such questions of control and biases inherent in technology. The sculpture consists of a modified bike workstation, fitted with three TV screens. Workstation equipment is a type of office furnishing that queasily reinforces the glorification of capitalist productivity: the worker not only performs their role, but also works out, toning their fit body. On the screens, a story unfolds narrated by Perry’s own avatar. She describes the limitations of the software that rendered her being: “It could not replicate her fatness … Sondra’s body type was not an accessible pre-existing template.”
Any humor inherent in the avatar’s deadpan delivery quickly dissipates, when considering the many problems that people of color face in relation to new technologies. Several recent studies have shown that facial recognition software used by police in the United States disproportionally selects non-white individuals, while even mundane appliances, such as automatic soap dispensers, have been unable to recognize darker skin tones.
The work of artists such as Perry (and Zach Blas), as well as activist sites (such as the World White Web, a website that draws attention to the dominance of imagery of white bodies of the internet) gathers a politicized significance given the rise of such discriminatory and racist technologies. Other artists, such as Sidsel Meineche Hansen, question the way in which new technologies are changing our approaches to sex and desire. SECOND SEX WAR (2016) is a body of work by Hansen, which was spurred by the 2014 ruling by the British Board of Film Classification that restricted the showing of a variety of acts (such as female ejaculation) in pornography produced in the UK. Responding to this decision, Hansen created DICKGIRL 3D(X), a work that features EVA v3.0, a royalty-free avatar that the artist purchased through TurboSquid. The hypersexualized CGI animation shows the character fitted with genital props and interacting with an amorphous figure, her movements motion-captured from pornographic films. Hansen deliberately chose to generate DICKGIRL 3D(X) in VR to engage with “post-human porn production from within,” harnessing the very technology that the porn industry is currently most aggressively investing in.
Commissioned especially for The Body Electric, Zach Blas’s Icosahredron critiques rapidly advancing technologies of prediction. These include not only consumer analytics (i.e. the algorithms that generate suggestions on your Amazon or Netflix accounts), but also predictive policing (think of the mutated human “precogs” of Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, who psychically visualize crimes before they happen). The installation can be thought of, as described by Blas, as a satirical take on what Peter Thiel’s work desk might look like. Thiel, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, is the cofounder of Palantir Technologies, a data analytics company that takes its name after a crystal ball in J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which allows its owner to both communicate from afar and see future events. The business also problematically lays Tolkien’s fantastical geography over that of the real world, forging questionable correspondences, for example between the Middle East and the evil realm of Mordor, effectively vilifying a majority Muslim sociopolitical context.
Blas nods to the way in which such companies structure their work around play, magic, and fantasy through the elements included in the installation: a glowing “philosopher’s stone” (an alchemical substance that not only turns metals into gold but guarantees its possessor immortality), as well as a crystal ball within which “lives” a free-floating artificially intelligent elf that predicts the future of prediction. The work’s title references the twenty-sided die that can be found inside the fortune-telling Magic 8-Ball toy, and points to the interactive elf, which has been trained on a limited set of 20 writings by philosophers and fiction writers such as William Golding, Ayn Rand, and Yuval Noah Harari (their books can be found on the desk) to respond to the viewer’s questions about the future. Though deeply engaged with contemporary politics (at the time of writing, Palantir Technologies faced protests over its software contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency), Isoahedron is also a send-up. The work is purposefully infantile—given the limited number of source texts, its elf is actually quite dumb—a critique, in Blas’s words, of the “childish masculinity and bravado” of entrepreneurs like Thiel.
Some of the most recent works on view in The Body Electric explore notions of health and treatment. These are particularly pertinent issues today given the ongoing politicization of healthcare, such as the wrangling over the Affordable Care Act in the US and the rising threat of privatization of the British National Health Service. It is unsurprising that artists increasingly turn to these topics at a time of heightened institutional scrutiny and crises such as the Purdue Pharma opioid addictions and the Flint water contamination scandal.
Made for Instagram, Carolyn Lazard’s series In Sickness and Study (2015–) is informed by the artist’s experience of living with chronic illness and autoimmune diseases. Each of the images shows her holding whatever book she might be reading at the time, as she receives her biweekly intravenous iron infusions. Whether making art, publishing or via her role as a cofounder of Canaries (a collective of cis women, trans and non-binary people living and working with autoimmune conditions and other chronic illnesses), Lazard makes visible her chronically ill body to open conversation about how we understand issues of the “healthy” and “unhealthy” body.
Hormonal Fog Machine (Study #1) (2016) by Patrick Staff and Candice Lin speaks to a related concern: the way in which substances we ingest have the capacity to shift our hormonal balances. The sculpture consists of a hacked commercial fog machine, which vaporizes a herbal tincture made of licorice and black cohosh that when consumed in large amounts may suppress the production of testosterone in the human body. Unpacking the associations by which our bodies become associated with perceptions of gender lie at the core of Staff and Lin’s investigation of botany through a queer lens. Marianna Simnett’s The Needle and the Larynx (2016) also considers the gendered body, but through the format of a fantastical parable. Shot in agonizing slow motion, the video show Simnett receiving Botox injections into her larynx, effectively paralyzing the muscle and lowering her voice. This procedure is typically reserved for men who perceive their voice as not deep enough. For Simnett, the work melts “the borders of what it means to be female,” a meditation on how to transgress the conventions that shape our understanding of the body.
While technology marches on at an irrepressible pace, The Body Electric views tech changes skeptically. Through intergenerational and international dialogue, the exhibition looks to common threads that ultimately point to key concerns shared by artists, despite each having access to differing technology at vastly different times. Certainly Marshall McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message,” rings true: artists will always respond to the specificity of new contemporary technologies (whether photographic, televisual, digital, etc.) and seek to challenge and subvert their logic. Yet, regardless of how advanced technology might appear, The Body Electric posits on the perennial timeliness of questions of identity, embodiment, race, gender, sexuality, and belonging, across time and generations.
1 Quoted in Giancarlo Politi, “Wolf Vostell,” Flash Art 72/73 (March–April 1977), pp. 34–39.
2 Quoted in Joan Simon, “Imagist: Joan Jonas in conversation with Joan Simon,” Art in America (2010), p. 164.
3 Quoted in Videokunst (in German), Köln, 1982, p. 13.
4 Alison Landsberg, “Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance” in New the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
5 Quoted in Amy Sherlock, “25 Artworks: Martine Syms ‘Notes on Gesture,’” Frieze, September 2016, p. 132.
6 Stelarc, “Beyond the Body: Amplified Body, Laser Eyes, and Third Hand” (1986), reprinted in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists Writing, eds. Kristine Stilles, and Peter Howard Selz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 427–430.