Thursday, April 29, 2010

DEHUMANIZING THE BODY AS MEDIA a transmedia essay, Ana Rifa!

media history and theory [dehumanizing the body as media]

"Human experience is, unfortunately, butter stimulatingly, thee experience of nothing and thee only reality it knows is thee inability to interpret itself and its mythically inherited structure.
After thee accumulation of too much history we have lost our innocence, we cannot easily believe in any explanations. We describe rather than feel, we touch rather than explore, we lust rather than adore. So there you are...or were... " -Genesis P-Orridge

a transmedia essay by Ana Rifa!

I’ve always believed the human body is an extraordinary machine. We are perfectly designed from the inside out. We are a mix of balance, grace and biological perfection.

As humans we are not only blessed with this overwhelming container that we carry ourselves in everyday, but also given the gift of expressing our inner self into the world; we think, we feel, we desire making the human being a restless hunter of satisfaction and pleasure.
The fact that mankind can provoke this type of needs makes society an evolving organ for consumer growth which lingers from consuming thoughts, objects and even intangible things such as belief and faith. The need to move information around through diverse types of media not only shows the human genious of moving bodies to where they want to, but how the media influences bodies to be transformed: humans penetrate the mind through the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and touch.
What happens though, when we take the body itself not only seen as a bio-container but a way to signify what we want and tell others what they need? What happens when the body becomes the medium itself? What is the result of distorting what we usually know as “the human body”?
The purpose of this essay is to explore the unlimited boundaries of the human body as media, how the dehumanization and manipulation of the body is used as a channel to flux ideas, movements, politics and patterns of beauty. The body is power. Media is power. Both certainly, make a very strong combination.

Man has distinguished itself since the old times in many ways. We have been conscious of our very special physique, we do not have large claws to defend ourselves, heavy coat to survive extreme weather, deadly teeth to hunt our prey.
Being a clear skinned covered mammal, the urge to distinguish ourselves amongst us and other species that cohabit in the same planet is almost mandatory. That is the reason why we look for human ornamentation, to invade our physique is not only a matter of decoration but of spiritual exploration and expression as well.
It is the cultural context that has put constraints in the way people adorn themselves but throuought time, technological determinism and globalization have fused to give as a result an infinite amount of body interventions.
In The Imagination of Disaster by Susan Sontag she opens her essay with the following line: “ Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and invonceivable terror”. Eventhough this essay talks about science fiction in contemporary cinema, this line catches the essence of my interest on the body and its dehumanization from the outside into our insides, the influence of our external beings overpowering the inside. (mind). This era of mass accesible and visual information leads mankind to find ultimate ways to portray ones thoughts (and inner thoughts) into the body.

In 2006 the exhibit Into Me/Out of Me was presented for the first time in PS1 at Moma in New York city. This show visualizes many relationships of function and physicality as well as ideological and political of the human body. We can appreciate an intersection of all kinds of experimental interactions and and contexts on using the body as a transgressor medium, a tool of power.

Orlan, a french based artist, is one of the pieces of this exhibit. Orlan’s work in general is completely tied to using the human body as media. It was in her early stages where she used her body as a measurement device of scale and reaction. This stages though evolved into a much more complex ideology which gave birth to the Carnal Art Manifesto, in which Carnal Art becomes a technique of using the body to produce classical work. This technique embodies disfiguration as the prime resource, the body becomes an object that strips it’s meaning of hedonistic praise to a simple ready-made container. A literal body of work.
In her pursuit of transgression the body looses its importance as a sexual object and it becomes a useless carrier of the mind, Orlan preaches that the body is a medium of pain, constraint and interference to reach into the real human soul.
The re-encarnation of St Orlan comprehends a series of surgerys into which she gets attributes from classic masterpieces into her face but using the body as the ultimate medium of production: she gets anestesia to get her through the operation but not enough to knock her out, so she paints with her blood. She records the process as well. By incorporating these masterpieces into her face she creates new meaning corresponding to each specific feature taken from the original work, turning the body not only into a canvas but as storytelling media.

In the piece “Black Cross, White Cross and Artificial Food” (1990) Orlan exposes her body making a metaphor of the Christian cult holding two crosses, one black and one white, waving them in the surgery room. She also had a plate of fake and real fruit where she would eat and come on to the surgeon at the same time, feeding and seducting at the same time. Orlan states that her pieces are against god, the physical apprerance and genetics. Why is it a still image? Although it is a process of change and transformation, the piece ends when the surgery is over like any other photograph or painting the fixed outcome that in the future will be reshaped and re elaborated to carry on with a new meaning. At the end, she is the final piece, the photography and video are her immortal witnesses. “In showing you these images, I propose an exercise which you probably enact when you watch the news on TV: not to be fooled by the images but to keep thinking about what is behind them,” she says. Her storytelling is completely immersed onto her face, her body. Her human being transforms automatically into media of exploration, understanding and evolving. Her body is not to be praised but used. Cosmetic surgery is just a way for empty headed people to please the carnality of sex and Orlan proudly uses her own flesh to show and support her manifesto.
Orlan makes me think of Haraway’s text of a Cyborg manifesto in terms of Orlan and her perception of science, technology and feminism. Orlan lingers in a thin line of feminism and anti-feminism, while feminists oppose the use of plastic surgery, Orlan uses it to enhance her point about making the body and ephimerous entity: beauty is merely a characteristic of shallowness, of feeding the pain of complying to a cannon of beauty, having a body brings only pain, transformation hurts, the body must be improved.
On the other hand there are other “manifestos” that relate to Haraway and Orlan concerning the female figure and aesthetic: Pandrogeny. Genesis P-Orridge and his current partner Breyer P-Orridge have been put under the knife in several ocassions to become a being without genre, a new being that is not male or female, mimetism of the sexes into an evolving version of themselves. Genesis P-Orridge claims that due to the change of technology and the world we live in, the body must be put into a transformation process that pars up with the evolution of mankind ( in this case the environment, technology and modern life). That makes me think that maybe technological determinism not only applies to artificial objects but to us that are immersed into the artificial culture, us that recurr to it for our modern way of living. We are the ones that set the boundaries for technological determinism, in this case, the body becomes a piece of technology itself when matched to other tools for innovative ways of art and expression.
Are we playing god or transforming our beings into cyborgs?
Is becoming a cyborg the medium for our minds to express themselves?

Maybe it is not technology that defines the new body, but the body itself put through a series of changes with the help of technology that actually produces the new generation of cyborgs in the world.
Orlan’s work which fuses the use of traditional surveillance (cameras that record her performance in the surgery room) makes the body the true witness and final recording piece of the work (making it also a recording device). Sir Walter Benjamin talks about the use of these technologies as sometimes diminishing the “aura” of the work, but what happens when the body itself becomes the media and the technology at the same time? Then we can ask ourselves if the aura gone, changed or has it evolved into a new paradigm of what a human being is.
Culture and technology do dictate then how we must carry on with our bodies, but is also the reason for people to modifiy, elaborate, ornament and dehumanize it. In that way, it seems that not even technology has the same power as the body does when it comes to using it as media.

In Susan Sontag’s text about the human body and science fiction, the body is also mutated and transformed to create a new breed of storytelling. Strange modifications in a body can tell a things about that person or carry a new meaning with them (similar to what happens to Orlan and the body profaned directly).
Chris Cunningham, a video-media artist, develops a series of charachters that show strange deformations creating dehumanized people or humanized freaks. The body evokes feelings of curiousity, disgust, fear and awkwardness. His piece “Rubber Johnny” certainly exudes all af these.
“Rubber Johnny” is an avant-garde short film that combines cut-mashed sounds by Aphex Twin portraying a mutant teenager in a basement (played by Chris Cunningham himself). The story unfolds when Johnny is given somekind of sedative by a doctor and then shows in a basement with his pet chihuahua. Johnny, a dehumanized character (or humanized creature) dances and poses in different and disturbing ways to the broken beat of the music. Stiff and cold but alive and real at the same time, Johnny creates an ambiance of rejection, disconcern and pity, for the human side that is perceived lingers on to the viewer.
The viewer gets immersed in a form of scopophilia and voyeurism since the video is shot in a basement with a nightshot light.
Technological determinism has allowed him to create a new visual style of this dehumanization, making his creations a new breed of “humans” and new terms of perception.

The original work of “Rubber Johnny” was from the beginning designed to be a multimedia project. Starting from the main object which is Johnny and his disfigured being, going through dimmed lights in a basement, broken ambient music and editing. The work is also supported by a series of pictures and a book that shows the infinite positions that Johnny asumes in order to get amused in the dark. The piece originally was going to have a series of sculptures as well that would support the aesthetic of the artwork, but the artist decided that the edition and the pictures where enough for the time.

“Rubber Johnny” creates then a line of storytelling that resides in a combination of small dialogue, simple light, extreme editing and image content. The transgression that Cunningham achieves between his fascination of the human body and the qualities of a shapeshifting organism is succesful and depicts the idea of using human parts to create new bodies contained within the same body (and making it the main medium of the work).
Somehow our minds are drawn to this kind of work where the body is no longer the body we know but a new element of admiration, a thin line between strange beauty and morbid stare. That reminds me of Nietzsche's principles of Apollonian and Dyonisian roles: We try to keep our balance in society by adopting a norm of culture, moral and restraint. But as humans we have a side that gives and unleashes that desire of power that drives us to excess and irrationality. Is dehumanizing then, the point of balance of the human mind? Makes me think then that the body is the ultimate medium for balancing the human personae.

It is sometimes the equilibrium in the body that makes us find the beauty in it or even in the person, blinded by our Dyonisian passion. Beauty as an attribute (and as we know it) is a “positive” trait related to the human body. Patterns of how the body must look and be presented have existed for many years. Sometimes beauty is implicit literally according to fads and culture, sometimes is hidden in mysterious balance within bodies that are exotic and different to what we have seen. For example, in Rubber Johnny we find weird attributes in the body that may seem repulsive but there is a certain balance in the image that makes it beautiful in a strange way. Or in the case of Orlan, beauty is disposable, silly and mundane. The real beauty lies in transformation, trangression and evolution. Maybe an unconscious equilibrium in change.
Etcoff says " Although the object of beauty is debated, the experience of beauty is not. Beauty can stir up a snarl of emotions but pleasure must always be one (tortured longings and envy are not incompatible with pleasure). Our body responds to it viscerally and our names for beauty are synonymous with physical cataclysms and bodily obliteration- breathtaking, femme fatale, knockout drop-dead gorgeous, bombshell, stunner, and ravishing. We experience beauty not as rational contemplation but a as a response to physical urgency". Physical beauty then is what we may think of a mainstream agreement of one's look but it seems that nowadays it goes much further than that the reaction towards the countless types of bodies is what really defines what beautiful is.
It is very interesting to find there are all this connotations of beauty and how we find them in the many bodies we see everyday, mankind in the western civilization has made the pattern of beauty and the worship of it a must in everyday life, a boost of human ego, countless support in specific sectors of the economy and social status. Mass media inflicts it’s beauty cannon into the many bodies that are immersed in the culture, making them the media to transform media (that is, show bodies, to transform your body according to the body of media).
So you buy a magazine and you see a certain type of body that is supposed to be beautiful, the mind reacts thinking that it wants to be that body and becomes a media target. Many bodies follow the same pattern and make the change of the body a system of mass media: plastic surgery.

In the earliest civilizations, the body has embraced several different types of artifice and natural ornamentation. Enhancement of one’s own features created a temple of significance, cultural charge and spiritual meaning. The color, the jewelry, scaring and piercings had different things to say about the culure, the place and history. Throughout time, media and technology have opened an overwhelming amount of information saturating the minds of those exposed to it to comply to the dictatorship of mass media and justify it as cultural continuity.
It is kind of funny though to think of what real beauty is: Susan Sontag’s text of the Science Fiction reminds me of our endless fascination of the human body, I think humans have created a “real” state of Science Fiction through plastic surgery. The ultimate medium being the body as a signifier of shallow content (for the body, in this case, speaks for the mind).
How does dehumanization fit in all this? Accoding to Michel Focault and his terms of transgression, to dehumanize the body (in this case the system of dehumanization is plastic surgery) gives us power. Unlike the common knowledge that being human actually sets us free, in some strange way like Orlan, is just a constraint.
To dehumanize is to create a desire for power, to have a hold on it.
In the case of plastic surgery there is a way that I can agree with Focault. Plastic surgery, also a consequence of technological determinism, has found to be the "access" of "universal" beauty. All cultures are exposed to the various indicators of what beauty is, not as a culturally charged change (which it is, but not seen that way) but as a commodity, status and asset of adoration. It is plastic surgery that dehumanizes humans (making others more powerful) and turns them into objects to sell (brands, models, sex), possess (trophy wives) and just basically capitalize (health and medicine).

It seems like we have reach a point where we keep on challenging were to bend our minds, and take our body along with it. It makes me think sometimes that is the body that in such a banal era, empowers the mind. But in the end the body IS just a container: it lies within our wit and intelligence to make the most out of the ultimate medium we possess that I still believe firmly, is the body, the carrier of our heart and soul. To dehumanize is just a tool to express what is in our heads, we have the responsability of making dehumanization a process that becomes a resource to be better humans, find and understand ourselves better.
I agree then with Focault that dehumanization is power. But I also believe that knowing our body and understanding it from the inside out is one of the greatest powers one can have.

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