Friday, April 8, 2011

As I have continued my research on Magid, particularly in the different ways she collapses and combines physical spaces as well as individual spatial perceptions, I feel the result leads me to believe that what Magid does is not unlike the construction of cyber-space. In Aharon Kellerman's book The Internet on Earth, Kellerman discusses his definitions of different types of space. He points out that our human relationship to socially constructed spaces is through experience, perception, and imagination. Social space can be also at an intersection between multiple representations of space, such as the geographic and the imagined. Kellerman considers virtual space to be imagined space because it is merely a description of space and place rather than that space and place. He includes a table that charts real space versus virtual space and describes each one with a list of categories such as identity, content, space, matter, distance, time, etc. Sure enough, in the "experience" category, virtual space is imaginative and metaphorical as well as disembodied.

I find Kellerman's description of spaces reliable and consistent within the context of cyberspace, which is his focus for this book. That being said, what does Magid's space become if we create a third section for her alongside real and virtual, and then define her work in each specific category, such as "experience"? By acknowledging that her work occupies a third section altogether obviously elucidates how I classify it. I use my computer to access the videos of her evidence locker, which is kept in "virtual" form in the "memory" of Citywatch's virtual storage on the hard drive of a computer. I then watch Magid's short videos, later edited with computer software, and observe how she interacts with the very real geographic space of Liverpool. She is spatially constructing a social relationship to Liverpool via the Citywatch employees who interact with her through prosthetic cameras by watching and focusing on her with her knowing. In the final video Magid goes on a motorcycle ride with one of the Citywatch employees as another observes them with his or her "eyes." Her relationship to these employees and, therefore, Liverpool is socially constructed because, as I said in my earlier blog essay, her identity in Liverpool is interlaced with the Observers and her awareness of self through their "eyes." Magid interacts, very intimately, with a virtual aspect of the city's space: the Citywatch camera recordings that the employees later save to a hard drive in her evidence locker. Magid's Evidence Locker is (to build on a notion from my earlier essay) a collapse of real and virtual spaces.

Kellerman's idea is extremely narrow and compartmentalized, but this does not mean it is not also useful. More that he is limited in how he contextualizes very specific spaces that he has chosen to include. Magid's work complicates Kellerman's argument or even subverts the boundary altogether. The virtual space of Magid's videos is neither metaphorical nor imaginative, and she was very much embodied in the making of her work. Yet, she is not necessarily in a real space, either, particularly when I access her work via the internet. At one time she was in real space, but not for the Observers, whether the Citywatch employees or me.

This is an issue I continue to think about as I work on my research and explore Magid's work within the context of this class…

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Memory Prosthetic: A Comparative Analysis

Every time one of Liverpool’s Citywatch employees situates him or herself in the control room to monitor the city’s 242 CCTV surveillance cameras, the information arrives on the screen nearly instantaneously, conveying a sense of real-time to the Citywatch employees.  The employee controls the direction of the cameras, using them for viewing and interacting with a geographic space the employee does not physically occupy.  For 31 days in 2004, the camera, in addition to its everyday city monitoring, records the artist Jill Magid at short intervals and in various locations throughout the city.  At times Magid stages her actions for the surveillance camera, aware that she is under the gaze of the remotely located employee, whom she always refers to as an Observer.  Because the Observer can only watch Magid within the parameters of the camera’s viewing capabilities, the relationship between perceived real-time image as subject, Observer, and specific geographic space is interdependent.  In a similar way but using a different medium, Jewish-American artist Shimon Attie collapses geographic space in his site-specific European installations between 1991 and 1996 collectively entitled Sites Unseen.  Attie projects archival photographs from Europe’s Jewish past during the Holocaust onto the present-day location.  Attie illuminates doorways, building walls, and sidewalks for two to three days at a time with photographs of Jewish life that flourished and occupied these spaces long ago.  Memories of forgotten identities often peer out at the viewer as both image and viewer conduct daily business in the same landscape space.  Similar to the CCTV camera that acts as the Observer’s gaze, mediating images and complicating human relationships to geographic spaces, the camera that produces the archival photographs as well as Attie’s projector act as similar mediums.  In doing so, Attie confuses time linearity, creating a space in which the past and the present collapse and merge into geographies of dual temporalities.  Through this process, both Attie and Magid create moments of memory and reflection in a transitional space located between dual times and geographies which both artists have manually constructed.[i]
For their artworks to function, Attie and Magid each rely on technology mediums they manipulate in different ways to mediate the types of information conveyed to the viewer.  As N. Katherine Hayles posits in her book, How We Became Posthuman, information must always be instantiated in some kind of body, whether organic or machine.  When information is accessed by a machine, the machine acts as a technological prosthetic for the human who uses and engages the machine and the information it either contains or relays.[ii]  Attie chooses specific remnants of a European Jewish past, retrieved from public archives, from the 1920’s and 1930’s held captive within the parameters of a photographic frame.[iii]  The images are re-contextualized by Attie when they are now projected into a contemporary landscape.  Although the images are merely two dimensional, some are often life-sized and projected in spaces so that steps or doorways support their corporeality.  At the corner of Grenadierstrasse and Schendelgasse in the Scheunenviertel district in Berlin, a book salesman appears prepared to offer a purchase, meeting the eyes of the viewer as he bends slightly over his table full of books (Figure 1).  In another example, a girl peers playfully over her shoulder at the viewer as if the viewer has interrupted the conversation she was having with her friend who also faces the viewer (Figure 2).  Even her small feet appear to be fully supported by the step she stands upon so that her presence as a city resident in the viewer’s space feels natural.  Attie’s medium is therefore a blend of photography, projection, and geographic space that results in a type of memory prostheses, the instantiated information retrieved from an archived past.  The information contained in the photographs, people and places from a past existence acts as a memory prosthetic for both temporalities: the past and the present.  The photographs are an extension of representation for the people and places depicted, but also re-contextualized through the projector as Attie’s instantiated medium to create new, living memories in the gaze of the viewer who sees and experiences the installations.[iv] 
Magid’s work also exhibits a complicated interdependence with the CCTV cameras as prosthetic viewing machines the Observers use to keep careful watch over Liverpool.  She intentionally wears a bright red coat so the Observers can find her more easily in crowds and often telephones them with her current location (Figure 3).  Some days she will only contact them in the evening, asking if they saw her.  Magid also writes highly personal letters to the Observers daily, drafted in the style of diary entries or, as has been suggested, love letters. Each of Magid’s letters is delivered to my email to accompany the link to the video surveillance tape from that day.  She always addresses the Observer as the familiar and intimate “you.”  When I read the letters myself I feel like I am intruding on private, irreplaceable memories where she even describes such events as her bath that day and her reflections on whether or not the camera can see through the window.  Magid uses the space of the letters to recall and explore her journey through the city as she writes at the end of each day and remembers how she felt and what she experienced specifically.  She always refers to the cameras as anthropomorphic extensions of the Observer.  In letter #4, she writes, “I walked in circles around your feet and your neck got stuck.  It was funny to see you following me.  You constantly moved to meet me,” (emphasis added).  Early on, she is clearly still slightly awkward under the gaze of the Observer, instantiated through the CCTV camera as a prosthetic extension of the Observer.  However, by letter #26, Magid alludes to a relationship between herself and the camera-as-Observer that has become intuitive: “It’s true, you looked at me. But you did not watch me. Not yet. Your body is there always. But your attention is there sometimes. I have learned to tell the difference.”  By day 26, Magid naturally accepts the CCTV camera as an extension of the Observer.
These prosthetic mediums that Attie and Magid engage, Attie’s archival photographs and projector, Magid’s CCTV cameras, each produce a specific resistance to time linearity.  Attie’s Sites Unseen is more easily read because he is projecting a memory medium, the archival photograph of former Jewish residents, onto a present day site.  The projections, however, occupy a transitional space between past and present, collapsing our concept of compartmentalized time by contextualizing images of the past in a specifically present space.[v] Attie re-contextualizes images in dual times and dual spaces.  The buildings, sidewalks, etc, necessarily change over time as natural decomposition and human presence (bringing in dust, replacing components of the spaces, causing wear through tread) dictates that the physical objects in the district when the archival photographs were taken are not the same objects upon which Attie projects the photographs.  Evolving this further, one of Attie’s pieces takes place in the Børsgraven Canal in Coppenhagen where Attie arranges nine light boxes with images of Jewish exiles in a long row, floating beneath the surface of the waterway (Figure 4).  In 1943 this water space was the passage of rescue for Danish Jews, marking it as a place of movement and journey.  The transience of these images in space and time is underscored; any direct constant between past and present linearity made even more ambiguous by the very nature of water as an ephemeral medium.[vi]     
Magid’s Evidence Locker presents the viewer with an understanding of time and space relationships that are similarly indefinite and constantly transitional.  Although the Observers film Magid in supposed real-time, the images the Observers see on their screens are not occurring simultaneously with Magid’s movements; there is always a lag so they are watching and interacting with Magid’s past self, but never her present, mirroring present-day patrons who are confronted with Attie’s photographs in their usual neighborhood spaces.[vii] The tapes can be accessed by any third-party witness who visits Magid’s website and submits an electronic-mail address.  Every hour for 31 hours a link to the tapes is sent to that address, which then becomes my prosthetic gateway to Magid’s tapes.  When I watch the tapes through this mediated information storehouse, my computer, I become an Observer, but at any time of my choosing and with no direct relationship to the original time the videos were recorded.  Unlike Attie’s projections, which are time-sensitive and only remain as long as he decides (typically a few days), Magid’s work occupies a constant space of transition between the past when the videos were recorded and any possible point in the present when a third-party witness retrieves them.  While watching the videos, the time and date are not included on the tape so one is never reminded that one is watching a past event, detailing an ambiguous distance between our time and the time the videos were recorded.  This is similar to Attie who has no precise dates for his archival photographs so that one can never pinpoint an exact time existence of the individuals relative to when Attie projects the photographs during the present.  They merely originate at some other time.  
In this way, both artists clearly rely on their work existing in transitional spaces that are neither past nor present; their relationships to specific points in time tenuous.  Importantly, this characterizes how the works can then function as spaces of identity and memory by highlighting the binary struggle in both works between ephemerality and permanence.  In Magid’s case, she designs two installations from the surveillance camera recordings and the letters she wrote to the Observers: Evidence Locker, for the Tate Modern in London, and Retrieval Room at FACT, a Liverpool-based art gallery.  Similar to Attie, Magid manipulates the concept of her piece through spaces of her control.  She requests the layout of the Tate be reconstructed like the actual CCTV room so that the work emphasizes the act of surveillance and the viewer’s sense of temporality (Figure 5).[viii] The room is small, dim, darkly painted; it gives the impression of privacy, enclosure.  The visitor can sit in a large, ergonomic desk chair, take notes on the small dark table directly in front of him or her, and carefully study the screen as Magid’s videos play.  The viewer can actively Observe during the surreal reproduction that relies on the viewer suspending any sense of present time, floating in transition by temporarily accepting participation in Magid’s anachronistic memory space. 
Magid’s FACT exhibit goes on to explore the concept of permanent memory, again parallel to Attie, because Magid displays the 31 letters she writes to the Observers as well as clips of the surveillance videos.  She stresses visibility in these two exhibits of her piece, but it is Magid’s visibility that the viewer senses as he or she sits anonymously in the desk chair.  In an interview, she even tells us, “This technology offers me a way to place myself, to become visible (and potentially permanent) within the city.”[ix] Attie, too, creates a space of visibility, (re)placing the individuals in the photographs back into public, geographic places they occupy as (self) representations.[x] Attie’s archival photographs are a more aggressive prompt to the viewer, however, due to the blatant discrepancy between past images and present sites.  Although his projections are temporary, they paradoxically continue as new archival photographs of the installations.[xi]  Through different technology mediums, Magid and the people in Attie’s photographs transcend their own human ephemerality, achieving a precariously balanced permanence in which their physical presences are absent but identities remain in a continuous visual field of existence through the installations.  
Magid’s journey through the city is individually centered on a single identity, hers, she is both the maker and the made.  In the 30th letter, she writes to the Observer, “I realized then, that before I had arrived, you simply had approved me. You let me come here blankly, with an ambiguous identity, and I got to make one myself.”[xii]  In this statement, Magid implies that the making of her self is something that will occur during her time in the city; in other words, her identity is strangely tied to the “eyes” of the Observers, and these eyes also provide a type of self-reflection as she watches her tapes after the 31 days.  On day #15 she states directly: “I am your subject.  I relate myself to the city by the way you frame me in it.”  Furthermore, on day #30 Magid becomes an actual subject of the Observer: she wears an earpiece and closes her eyes, listening as the Observer actually guides her steps through the city.  The Observer uses the CCTV cameras as the sole visual access to Magid, and each successive step emphasizes that her journey relies on the Observer’s “eyes.”  Attie, on the other hand, guides anonymous masses of viewers through a different type of journey: it is an other-oriented reflection in which Attie fills various spaces with forgotten identities that represent a more total past and collective Jewish identity.  The forgotten memories become new, living memories to each viewer who encounters them in the present and through the photographic cataloguing, but they are also very personal memories of Attie who is himself Jewish. 
Both artists prompt viewers to consider the relationship of individuals to a specific space, but this in itself is merely a reconstruction we can think of as amortal.  Magid reflects through the prosthetic gaze of the Observer, and Attie’s viewers are confronted with photographic projections of identities presented to the viewer now as if they still fill the same geographic spaces they once did.  The identities of Magid and the people in Attie’s photographs linger in time spaces that are neither past nor present, but in ambiguous transitions between past and present, physicality and memory, identity and anonymity.


[i] I hesitate, yet wonder to what extent I could discuss this concept in regard to Wole Soyinka’s “The Fourth Dimension” and Yoruban myth.  The Yoruban god, Ogun, occupies a type of transitional space between past and present, present and future.  In other words, Soyinka disregards the fourth dimension as we understand it in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in which the fourth dimension is defined by time in relation to space.  Instead, time exists in its own space, so the fourth dimension is a place of time existing simultaneously in transition.  For further reading, please see: Wole Soyinka, “Appendix: The Fourth Dimension” in Myth, Literature, and the African World.  (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  
[ii] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatic (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
[iii] James Young, At Memory’s Edge (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2000), 67.
[iv] Ibid., 66.
[v] Ibid., 62.
[vi] Ibid., 75-76.
[vii] The images cannot reach the camera and be transmitted to the viewer at the speed of light, so simultaneity is impossible.  See: David, Bohm, Special Theory of Relativity (London : Routledge, 1996).
[viii] “Interview with Geert Lovink,” accessed 3/16/201. http://www.jillmagid.net/press.php.
[ix] “Interview with Geert Lovink.”
[x] James Young, At Memory’s Edge, 70.
[xi] Ibid., 72.

Figure 1



Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review of Folasayo Dele-Ogundrinde’s film/poetry evening at the VAC

The Houston-based artist, Folasayo Dele-Ogunrinde, recently presented two short films and two poems at UT Austin's Visual Arts Center to a crowd consisting primarily of undergraduate women (with a few professors and graduate students sprinkled throughout the audience). Her work for the evening explored issues of domestic abuse, rape, and dominance-submission tensions in heterosexual relationships. Her primary agent of confrontation was showing women who upset established power relations in traditional, male-dominated relationships. Her films were aggressive and disarmed the audience (I saw some women consistently shift uncomfortably in their seats while a few actually pulled scarves up to partially cover their eyes) with realistic, disturbing images of violence first against women, and then by women as a means of empowerment. It was this second theme that I found particularly problematic: for example, Dele-Ogunrinde's second film portrayed a woman imprisoning and raping a man while her second poem discussed ownership of her husband's penis (possession and objectification). Although I admire her work and found her to be an engaging and provocative artist, the short films and second poem do nothing to discuss an end to domestic violence or issues of human ownership in interpersonal relationships. The works merely show women who are now guilty of the very violence, possession, and objectification they fight to overcome. The result: the perpetuation of violence and human objectification, not its abolishment.

Dele-Ogunrinde's first film, The Woman with a Past, opens with a woman living in abject conditions, mirroring what the film tells us visually about her character. She is unkempt, dirty, drinking cheap alcohol from a bottle, and a cigarette quivers at her mouth and threatens to fall, unraveling the tenuous balance she has between life and death, misery and hope. She drags a child's toys from the lighted inside space of family and domesticity, now completely chaotic and strewn with litter and mess, to an outside space of darkness, both literally and figuratively. The inside and outside spaces feel suffocating as you watch the film while the camera focuses close on the woman, isolating her and preventing us from open space and air or an understanding of her environment. We feel captive. The woman then saturates the toys with her own vodka and discards of a final item: the picture of a smiling, baby girl.

The following scenes, which constitute the heart of the film, show the same woman, living with her husband who abuses her and blames her for not carrying on his lineage through the birth of a male child. He beats her repeatedly and rapes her as she falls into a tormented despair on her own bathroom floor, alone and isolated. The images are disturbing, painful, and difficult to watch.

Finally, the woman is back in her apartment we saw at the beginning, holding her female child. Her narrative voice envelops the audience, and we begin to understand a greater dimensionality to the woman's emotional response to her entire ordeal. She at once loves her child but also blames her for not being born a male. The child becomes a symbol of the innocent but guilty. At the opening of the film Dele-Ogundrinde discussed a problem in Nigerian society still prevalent today in which male children are favored over female children to the point where female children are emotionally discarded by their parents. The husband tortures his wife in his own pain but the film also alludes to the woman's own later abuse of her female child in a complex web of interplay between the dominant and the submissive. The film excellently calls acute attention to multiple issues: emotionally abusive favoritism of male children by Nigerian parents; domestic abuse toward women; and abuse toward children. The mother in the film is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but at the same time she carries on the chain of abuse toward her daughter, who does not survive the story. The abused becomes the abuser, another aspect of this situation that I find films and literature investigate with less frequency and fervor.

In the second film, a woman of Asian descent appears to be stalked by a white male on a NY subway in The Hunt. However, within minutes the woman has bludgeoned and imprisoned the male in her concrete, basement lair. Her dogs wrestle and play happily on the floor and a mannequin sits comfortably on an ottoman and provides companionship to the woman who enjoys riding her bicycle through the open space of the huge concrete area (reminiscent of the ground floor of a parking garage in terms of how the space is laid out). The man is gagged and restrained in a white-sheeted bed; photographs of his own face and body dangle above him similar to a mobile hanging from a newborn's crib. He struggles, but the woman continues to enjoy her casual bicycle ride and ignores him.

The climax of the film arrives when the woman slowly and carefully spreads lubrication onto a bat, gently lays the bat on the bed near the man, and begins to unbuckle his jeans. We hear him scream, and the woman is then back on the NY subway, another stalker-victim male sitting across from her, presumably preparing/being prepared for a similar fate.

This film feels less realistic than the first and reads closer to the horror genre than a fictional account of actual events; nonetheless it is extremely interesting, engaging, and superbly edited. It is also disappointingly problematic. Women continue to be stalked, raped, and abused regularly. My own undergraduate university campus installed safety telephones about ten years ago because campus-based rapes were so prevalent the university was forced to either lose students too afraid to go to the library or provide some means of protection. Dele-Ogundrinde's film underscores a disturbing, violent danger women face; however, the protagonist of this film is a deeply unwell individual who exploits rape and violence in a sadistic, revenge-motivated game. She does not overcome violence, she embodies it and becomes the dangerous. Although the film calls attention to issues of rape and stalking, it also inadvertently supports them. Violence is again perpetuated.

The third piece I will review is a poem Dele-Ogundrinde wrote and recited. She says that her husband can own her as long as he understands that she owns his penis. The next few minutes she spends speaking slowly and more softly, explaining to her audience how she will treat the penis, for example she'll caress it, love it, treat it with kindness, etc. As she recites her voice quickens pace, gathers momentum, becomes louder and louder, tenses and builds with each line. Her words also build, moving faster and faster toward a climax, and although she began talking about holding the penis, she now exclaims that the seas will part for it and women will write poetry about it. Finally, at the climax, she breaks into a Nigerian song; her voice is booming, clear, full.

The poem is light-hearted after the films we just saw. It provokes giggles, the tension in the room seems to subside a little. Dele-Ogundrinde smiles and her warm charisma spreads over us. I want to appreciate the humor in this poem while simultaneously understand the power-dynamic of her central theme. However, what I hear is a slippery situation in which one form of possession is condoned while another is borne as a "balance" to the first, but this only serves to emphasize the dysfunction of both. Although women often struggle in heterosexual relationships where the man assumes entitlement and ownership of her, establishing the woman's possession of the penis and lauding its objectification is counter-productive. The issue of possession and objectification are reversed, but still forcefully present. One cannot beget the other.

Dele-Ogundrinde was a captivating artist, her films intense, her poetry performance unique and engaging. I appreciate that she uses her artistry to raise awareness in regard to domestic abuse, rape, objectification, and power struggles in heterosexual relationships. However, I think the primary problem is that she overcomes one kind of violence by introducing another, and thus in each scenario the violent act is only perpetuated. Also, the victim becomes the abuser, adding an ensnaring emotional dimension. While it is helpful that Dele-Ogundrinde shows us how the abused can become the abuser, which is a very real and possible outcome, I think the pieces only convey this ambiguously at most.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Interiority Complex: Who Do We Think We Are in Cyberspace?

In 1982, William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” in his science fiction short story, “Burning Chrome,” and it was later widely popularized in his novel Neuromancer.  It is a word that has evolved and become increasingly reflexive as we attempt to grapple with how, what, and who it describes.  Although it is tempting to assume we become disembodied information patterns when we situate ourselves comfortably at our desks and log into our online accounts, this is an inconclusive conclusion.  Foundationally, the word “cyberspace” designates a new type of space conceptually unknown until the latter half of the twentieth century, but what is contained within that space, and how or what does the information truly represent?  Our modern love affair with cyberspace technology continues to spawn furious philosophical debate, particularly focused on our degree of cyber disembodiment as well as how virtual culture reformats our collective versus individual identities.  As I proceed through this essay, I will incorporate and briefly introduce some of the interrelated ideas surrounding this debate and close by proposing my own questions and broader notions of cyberspace.  There is, however, one overarching observation that I will carefully weave throughout this discussion: cyberspace has created a shared interiority that penetrates the modern, external world, gripping us as individuals in a collective body as we support and explore the vastness of information and communication in cyberspace.    
Scholarly discussion on the disjunction of dual spaces represented by the physical, exterior world and the interiority of cyberspace has roots in the early twentieth century when artists were experimenting with Charles Howard Hinton’s recently proposed theory of the fourth dimension.[i]  As Linda Henderson proposes in her book The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, artists in the early twentieth century began fervently exploring the concept of higher dimensions and worked to incorporate the theory into their works, no longer constrained by single point perspective or three-dimensionality.  They were liberated to express new spatial relationships, for example in early cubist art, which reflected the mysterious higher dimensional space that Hinton suggested.[ii]  For example, some artists of early cubism tried to pluralize the view of an object as a means of expressing all sides and aspects of it at once.  The viewer was therefore no longer limited to a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object but could gain access to a fourth spatial dimension that simultaneously revealed all three dimensional surfaces to which he or she was previously denied. 
In a way, these early experimentations that Henderson isolates foreshadowed the philosophical infatuation with cyberspace during the second half of the twentieth century to date.  Once Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity in 1919, elucidating the fourth dimension as time, artists generally abandoned the assumption that they could express higher dimensions spatially.[iii]  However, cyberspace today reopens and broadens a collective ability to explore the fourth dimension whether we approach it spatially or as designating a dimension of time.  Cyberspace, similar to what modern artists were hoping to express visually, provides access to all the information it contains without the restriction of linear time or physical constraints.  Information and access to cyberspace is instantaneous and perceptually all-encompassing.  Previously we needed to venture to a bookstore for a new publication; now we download books instantly to our Kindles and read them within seconds of wanting them.  We are no longer aware of time or physical, spatial limitations.  All information can be expressed equally at all times.  There is a parallel between this sense of cyber-immediacy and the immediacy that early twentieth century artists were hoping to represent by subverting previous limitations of time and space to express a more absolute depiction of visual information.         
The major evolution between these two steps of immediacy is that even though some artists create two dimensional artworks to incorporate and visually project four dimensions, the artist’s presence as creator and agent of visual information is always present.  Cyberspace, however, removes organic mediation so that one gains instant connection to the informational corpus through technology.  We no longer perceive the body who designed the tools of access (our phones, computers, GPS navigation systems, etc.); the tools merely appear before us as space/time/information transmitters.  Because we no longer have a relationship to the designer/artist agent, the technological gadget becomes the agent, mediating our relationship with the information it contains.  Not only is cyberspace defined as a central collection of any and all information individuals have provided it, but can also be understood as what Federico Casalegno has described as “an open communication system that exists thanks to the support of the individuals.”[iv]
If we define the structure of cyberspace as I have done above, then what are we specifically when we access the cyberspace that we support?  Do we retain materiality in some way, are we disembodied symbols, or something else entirely?  Our direct relationship to this communication/information system lingers with ambiguity and scholarly resolution often centers on isolating a constant by which to measure individual identity, often by disregarding early, flawed theories.  For example, N. Katherine Hayles, in her book How We Became Posthuman, argues against her “nightmare” of a world in which humans abandon their organic bodies to adorn themselves with purely cyber identities.  It is impossible to download one’s consciousness into a computer, which also disputes liberal humanist theory in which mind and corporeal existence are inherently separate entities yet, thus far, casually merged.  Hayles rejects the romantic proposition that we can abandon this inconvenient coupling and the ennui it gives us in favor of a new, more exciting prosthesis: the computer.  Hayles ultimately states her desire to put the body back into embodiment, despite prior philosophical leanings of scholars toward a theory of human selves that are merely inconvenienced by corporeality.[v]    
Assuming, therefore, that information must always be instantiated into some medium, whether a computer or a body, we can view our fascination with cyberspace as a hunger to connect with the collective body of information.  I am here evolving Hayles’ insistence on embodiment to suggest a new kind of collective embodiment based on shared information and cyber social experience mediated through technology.  Denying ourselves access to this mysterious corpus results in a disconnection from the interiority of collective cyberspace and isolates us from our new social body.  To support this, Michael Heim, in his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, argues in favor of the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, concluding that cyberspace elevates us so that we reach an information apotheosis.  Similar to how “God” can see all paths at once, possessing total knowledge, cyberspace is a congruent matrix of information.  Our desire for this powerhouse of information is titillated by the internet as an information matrix, and in turn we wish to extend ourselves into the matrix by both seeing and being seen by the collective body of other cyberspace frequenters.[vi] 
 We can see an excellent example of this in a recent AT&T series of commercials marketing their 4G network phones.  In each commercial, the protagonist becomes an alienated outsider when he or she receives information on his or her inadequate phone much later than the other characters.  The ensuing hilarity warns the viewer that without this phone he or she will clearly find him or herself excluded from the collective body whose phones granted them nearly instantaneous access to the desired information and the temporary community bond it created between those who have the information versus those who do not.  Pointedly, the commercial producers assume viewers will respond to the two intertwined concepts the commercials manipulate: the viewer desires information as quickly as possible, collapsing any sense of elapsed real-time; further, the viewer especially wants and needs to engage in the collective body that already has the information he or she is denied without a faster phone.
Hayles would likely maintain that the phone becomes the posthuman’s prosthesis, an extension of the body because it is held and manipulated by the hand and acts as an autonomous agent transmitting information as part of a heterogeneous whole, the body.[vii]  In this way, it is similar to what the camera is to the flâneur: a technological prosthesis, a tool for the voyeur of information.[viii]  Significantly, the technology requires human actors, reminding that the temporary prosthesis is a tool that projects information into our external world while we connect into the interiority it mediates.  In this way, cyberspace is “a fragmented, divided, and contested multiplicity of heterogeneous infrastructures and actor-networks.”[ix] 
Consequently, the phone, or any type of technology with cyber access, becomes an agent for our connections to the larger body of external humans all meeting in a centralized, interior location: cyberspace.  Heim argues that our virtual selves are also a type of prosthesis, but technology no longer quivers in the guise of an information transmitter: our virtual selves, a type of consciousness prosthetic, can become so enmeshed with machine that amorality prevails in the cyber world.  Humans will rely on their prosthetic consciousness so that flesh encounters cease and our grip on moral, social society will fade.[x]  While Hayles assumes the physical technological object is the prosthetic and works with our bodies to transmit information, Heim’s darker fear suggests the disintegration of the self through the mind prosthesis, or our virtual bodies. 
Heim’s cautions are grossly exaggerated and generally apocalyptic; however, there is some validity to Heim’s foundational theory, which centers on cyberspace and its capacity for human exploration and drive.  Because the individual now has access to this vast body of information in cyberspace to explore as well as the structure and tools with which to create new information in the form of communication, how does this change the nature of the individual him or herself while he or she engages cyberspace?  The final question is therefore: Who does the individual become in cyberspace?  The individual participates actively, manipulating his or her dominion over the cyberspace he or she occupies.  Is the individual presence in cyberspace a complete fissure, a direct mirror of the original individual, or is it represented with varying degrees of intersection between the individual’s original identity and the new projection into cyberspace? 
To answer this final question, I turn now to Wole Soyinka and “The Fourth Stage.”  Soyinka, in a discussion of Yoruba tragedy, tells us that the greatest tragedy is the separation of one’s eternal essence from one’s corporeal form.  The Yoruba will always seek to relieve his or her anguish from this sense of incompleteness, the tragedy that resulted from a loss of totality.  The god Ogun was the original being who bridged the abysses from the three stages: the past eternal realm of the gods, the present realm of man, and the future of the unborn.  Ogun’s fourth realm is the chaotic abyss between the three realms, conceptualized as the space of transition.[xi]  Underlying Soyinka’s philosophy is a language in which reconnection to the eternal, or to the collective, is the determining drive of the human soul.  Soyinka speaks of Yoruba art as possessing “a quintessence of inner being,” thereby contrasting the arts of the classical Greeks that merely symbolized a certain idea or concept.[xii] 
Contextualizing the question of individual identity in cyberspace with Soyinka’s philosophy, are our cyber personalities are either a true projection of our inner beings or simply a virtually represented symbol of ourselves?  Do we remain ourselves or is it merely the illusion; the symbol of a thing, or the thing itself?  The interiority of cyberspace is a heterogeneous abyss of remote identities forming an ultimate collective, and this interior collective is a part of our external world.  Can our virtual selves then become like Ogun, occupying the fourth stage of transition in the abyss by bridging multiple realms?  Are we the bridge between the alienation of living in separate, external bodies and the collective body we join in the interior of cyberspace?  I have only begun to answer this question, but I believe it is not an either-or outcome: we are not either disembodied entities or simply external agents with helpful, prosthetic gadgets.  We are not always visual illusions or always projecting our true essence, filling cyberspace with our authentic inner selves.  Instead, we are beings who occupy a new stage of transition between the interior of cyberspace and the external world. 


[i] For further reading, see The Fourth Dimension by Charles Hinton, 1912.
[ii] Linda Henderson.  The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art.  (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1983); 339-41.
[iii] Henderson, 339
[iv] Federico Casalegno. “Thought on the Convergence of Digital Media, Memory, and Social and Urban Spaces,” in The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology.  (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); 119.
[v] N. Katherine Hayles.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
[vi] Heim, 95.
[vii] Hayles, 3.
[viii] Susan Sontag, On Photography.  (New York: Picador USA; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2001], c1977).
[ix] Stephen Graham, “The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place,” in The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology
[x] Michael Heim, “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); 101.
[xi] Wole Soyinka, “Appendix: The Fourth Stage,” in Myth, Literature, and the African World.  (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[xii] Soyinka, 141.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Heim and the Urge to Merge

In his chapter entitled "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace" in the book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Michael Heim draws on the writings of William Gibson as a basis for Heim's philosophical departure into the driving motivation fueling the love affair between man and technology. Borrowing Gibson's metaphorical signifier of Eros, Heim writes, "We seek to extend ourselves and to heighten the intensity of our lives in general through Eros. The psyche longs to perpetuate itself and to conceive offspring, and this it can do, in a transposes sense, by conceiving ideas and nurturing awareness in the minds of others as well as our own," (p 87-88). Cyberspace indeed provides agency to this kind of self extension through a network of communication access points, allowing a window into the individual ideas we nurture as well as the idea of our selves as existing. I am struck by Heim's proposal that the deepest desires of our psyches are titillated by cyber capabilities. Heim further explicitly states that our 'urge to merge' with the virtual world is not utilitarian but erotically motivated, and I wonder to what extent cyberspace can now exploit this consequence of cyberspace Heim discusses (p 85).

There is an act of intercourse, arriving sometimes at climax, in the process of cultivating ourselves and projecting our identities into the minds of others through various means. I am reminded of the book the Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and the character Teresa after she has begun making love to a man whose body was not her husband's and thus foreign to her. Teresa's desire was not for the man, but the aspects of herself that became thrilling through the act with the foreign body. "She wished to see her own private parts in close proximity to an alien penis. She did not desire her lover's body. She desired her own body, newly discovered, intimate and alien beyond all others, incomparably exciting," (p161). Like Teresa, when we extend ourselves and create a love affair of exchange through a medium like Facebook, do we become excited at rediscovering ourselves during the act of meeting self in relation to foreign body selves?

Teresa's body was redefined, re-signified, re-identified because she projected and extended herself into a new love affair and in turn this extended Teresa's knowledge of herself only through intercourse with the foreign body (knowledge) in relation to herself. When Teresa gazes upon her naked body in the mirror at a spa during the above passage, she focuses on a tiny blemish and imagines how it looks when the alien penis is in close proximity to it, heightening her awareness of it. She becomes obsessed with the blemish that has now been revealed to her, despite her having already been aware of it previously. When we construct ourselves on Facebook, given the enhanced capacity for a foreign "penis" to come into close proximity to us, heightening our awareness of our profile self-projections, do we become Teresa through our newly discovered, intimate selves? Furthermore, the benefit of cyberspace is the immediacy of the medium so that we have not one penis, but an infinite range of penes that could possibly nurture our "awareness in the minds of others as well as our own."

How do we chose to define ourselves, for others, in cyberspace, and in turn does this awareness of self-construction for others serve to re-define our awareness of ourselves? The medium of cyberspace becomes the agent by which we can simply explore Eros, the drive to extend the self. This can also be merged with the excitement of discovering ourselves through extension and intersection with other minds, knowledge.

To conclude, I'll quote an excerpt from a later chapter in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that is only too fitting for this discussion:

"We all need someone to look at us. We can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes….The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes….Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love….And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present….” (p 269-70).


 

 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Welcome to Reality

Living in an age where artists can construct entire portfolios in cyberspace without ever touching a canvas or picking up a drawing pencil has raised questions for me in terms of artist presence and identity. Constructing any kind of digital presence can be considered a form of artistic creation and the projection or extension of one's self. For example, the artist Oleg Dou commented on the nature of his digitally enhanced photography explaining that he strives for a type of presence in his pieces, what he describes on his website(http://www.douart.ru/)as the feeling of presence you get when walking by a mannequin. To do this, Dou photographs his subjects focusing on their faces, and removes physical idiosyncrasies so that individual physiognomies are blended into an androgynous prototype. As a result, Dou encourages the viewer to see the person in terms of a type of presence and accurate perception of the inner self of the subject. However, are these digitally altered photographs a new projection of the original model, or do they become a projection of artistic identity on the part of the artist, Dou himself? Furthermore, although Dou works to reveal an identity of the subject, the photographs do not portray actual physicality but Dou's own perception of the subject's inner self that he transfers to a digital space. It is this ambivalent, artistic cyber-oriented space that underscores the question of identity in digital spaces. Dou's altered photographs show a projection of himself onto a closed community of selected models and identities. His subjects become part of his own artistic identity; their characteristics are now a visual representation of Dou's creativity and personal aesthetic. Dou's final products blur a demarcation between two spaces: the physical space of the actual model and the abstract virtual space where Dou wants to display an inner essence of the model.

If we take the simple idea of artistic projection in a virtual space a step further to discussing the actual self in cyberspace, the question of identity becomes more complex. When one creates an avatar and enters a digital space, say in the game Second Life, physical, expected identity can be subverted to a new, more essential identity. In other words, when one moves about in physical space, one is subject to an identity that includes the imposed guidelines of society, i.e. social mores, as well as a set of behaviors that incite specific action-reaction combinations. Sets of expected behaviors act as identity signifiers. One might be a more "extroverted" individual or "shy" individual, "conservative" or "liberal" due to where that individual falls on the scale of normal social behavior within the parameters of a given society. Cyberspace elicits similar action-reaction identification standards based on written communication and interaction, but the individual is at a slight advantage in projecting how he or she perceives his or her real identity. For example, a person who retains the biological components of a white male in physical, societal space can create an avatar in the space of a game like Second Life that more closely reflects how that person truly identifies, say as female or gender fluid. A person can adopt alternative communication signifiers to accommodate this "authentic" identity beyond the parameters of what is expected of that individual in regular society. Thus, I'm particularly interested in this specific aspect of cyberspace culture, namely the ways in which individuals project themselves, especially artistically, to bypass certain parameters they would otherwise encounter in everyday society that limit identity.