text of a talk at the Intermediality – digital images in contemporary art event, ICA 16 November 2013
Chris Cunningham's 1999 video for Bjork's All Is Full of Love is an icily sensuous theatre of carnal cyborgs for whom milk is erotic danger. A vision of the posthuman?
The term is too much with us. My claim is that we are not posthuman because we have yet to become human.
We might start with Claire Bishop's short, controversial essay in Artforum in which she owns up to 'a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labour and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution'. Though admitting a handful of exceptions, she is right. What was controversial was her decision not to address new media arts, because they occupy a different sphere to what Eddie Shanken calls Mainstream Contemporary Art; the art of the biennials. It was a peculiar move, but understandable: contemporary art has failed, formally and thematically, to address the contemporary. It has reprised the moment when, in Peter Osborne's account, philosophy's turn to language abandoned the fields of ethics, ontology and phenomenologies of perception to be taken up by the advance of the modernist avant-gardes. Now those avant-gardes have turned, in their neo-conceptual guise, to reflecting on the condition of art, and abandoned the questions of ethics, ontology and phenomenology in their turn. Leaving them to the technological arts.
As a brief example I give you Oblivion, a more or less run of the mill summer action movie telling the tale of a clone dredging about in his innards for some last, lost memories of being human. The rather lovely design of the film (its director Kosinski has an architectural background and a thriving commercial practice) has one curious feature. Many of the effects we presume to be digital are physical – the skytower house, the bubbleship aircraft – and some that we presume are physical are not: in the second shot in this clip, Tom Cruise is played by a digital double.
You can work out the intricate mirroring this sets off, and –without spoiling the story – how the ambiguous reality and unreality of the character is elegantly expressed in the dialogue of physical and digital effects. Jack seems to me just what Bishop was looking for: a response to the meaning of becoming digital. His mission is to prove that he is a person, but his tragedy is to discover that he is not unique.
That failure of uniqueness is what lurks behind the contemporary condition that contemporary art does not address.
The enclosures and colonialism that marked the (continuing) era of primitive accumulation shattered the old tribal communities. The needs of industrialisation were no longer met by the extended families people brought from their villages, specifically the task of disciplined consumption required to offset crises of overproduction. Suburbanisation and the first half century of consumerism encouraged nuclear families. In the later years of that organisation, the heteronormative family collapsed under the double weight of the reproductive and consumptive cycle demanded of it.
after the failure of the molecular family (amd liquid modernity), we had the atomised individual, a gaseous state. Today that individual is in crisis – the burden of Lacan's sujet barré and Guattari's schizoanalysis. In its collapse emerges the plasma society: the quantum level of desire (no longer anchored in individualist subjects), and its biopolitical management under the guise of lifestyle - the kind of lifestyle ironised but never analysed by contemporary art (Laclau on Populism)
Jack's condition is ours: popular digital media already respond to it, even when, as in Oblivion, they give us a resolution in the third act.
The materiality of visual effects, as an industry, the international headquarters, the off-shoring in South East Asia (evidenced by the Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy), the sealed bidding system forcing down wages.
The materiality of the energy it uses in work stations, server farms and transport via fibre optics - energy that too often comes from lands once deemed 'reservations' for the last traditional peoples - Geoff Kyle is an industrial chemist ... employed by the Mirarr people. ... there's no way the company will be able to safely treat the contaminated water stored at Ranger by the time the mining lease expires in 10 years: "They have facilities to remediate water through chemical water processing, ends up with micro-filtration and osmosis and it is top shelf stuff but it can only do a couple of megalitres a day and they have got 10 gigalitres. We are terrified that this is going to ruin our country." The traditional owners are repeating calls for Ranger to be shut down permanently ... They also oppose the company's plan to use an acid leaching process to increase production and the construction of a new exploratory mine shaft.
The weight of the internet: the materials it is made of - for example In northern China, near the Mongolian border, radioactively contaminated leaks from two decades of rare earth refining have been slowly trickling underground toward the Yellow River, a crucial water source for 150 million people. And in Guangdong province in southeastern China, regulators are struggling to repair rice fields and streams destroyed by powerful acids and other runoff from open-pit rare earth mines that are often run by violent organized crime syndicates http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/business/international/china-tries-to-clean-up-toxic-legacy-of-its-rare-earth-riches.html?_r=0
The demolition of these regions is not an Australian or a Chinese problem: the WTO is only set on ensuring that China exports its controlling share of rare earths, not to curtail their exploitation. The UK is racing towards a nuclear solution in the name of greenhouse gas reduction but clearly in the real interests of energy security, and where more secure than Tony Abbot's Australia.
I wish I could believe that ethical consumerism was the answer: it isn't. Like private debt paying for the global financial crisis, the mortgae on the future benefits the kleptocracy, while we pay for it.It is another example of governments too scared by the Market to lead, and devolving responsibility for solving their crises onto the shattered, scattered individual citizen.
The actually existing cyborgs are the vast technological machines we call corporations, and the vaster one still we call the market - a huge technological ensemble with human biochips implanted. We can tell they are not human because they do not care how or if we live and die, and how or if the world survives , so long as they secure profit – the relentless and ultimately suicidal demand for growth.
Jack is not the only cyborg, but he is the end product of the cyborg process.
Jack, either played by Cruise or his digital double, is not only photographed but mapped: by lidar and texture mapping as well as sprites. He is more, not less, indexically formed. But in his heart he is an iteration of a model.
He is the product of a set of technologies in full evolution, however wasteful. I add to our debate on the specificity of the digital to say that we need to analyse medium extreme specificity
we should, that is, analyse Jack (measured and indexed in multiple dimensions) as exemplary of the coded human - which is the state of quantum desire biopolitically managed as lifestyle.
An economy run by cyborg corporations, whose sole motivation is profit, who lack all sense of communality and shame, and who are prepared to sacrifice the happiness of the living and the lives of the unborn.
A polity dominated by the Market, a cyborg operation increasingly determined by automated algo-trading.
A society governed by the probabilistic managerial principles of biopolitics, which has already breached the tolerances of individuality, and now mobilises desires framed by lifestyles, and constrains through communication protocols and urban systems design.
Whether the code that is now the truth of human being is digital or genetic , the ambivalence of depicting humans and world as both flesh and code, expresses the germ of contradiction in data visualisations and synthespians.
The purpose of art, of digital art, in this is to back up the analytical success of popular media by producing alternatives that the pop media are largely incapable of. To picture desire otherwise than as the quantum effect of postindividuation. To picture for us what it might mean to become human, before we cease to be at all