Aesthetica Issue #72
Posthuman Encounters at MCA, Sydney
July 24, 2016
Dystopian worlds, fusions of nature and technology, cyborgs and transhuman images have come to dominate exhibitions over the over the past five years as artists and curators discuss the Anthropocene and the Posthuman. These terms appear regularly in exhibition catalogues, but what do they really mean and why have they become such common points of reference?
The Anthropocene is a theme which is growing in popularity exhibition by exhibition, and refers to the new geological era that the Earth has supposedly entered: leaving the Holocene for a new era in which humans dominate the Earth’s fabric more than any other influence. It has been recognised that humans have fundamentally changed the biology and the geology of the planet: numerous species are driven to extinction while we create new life forms through gene technology, up to 4 billion tonnes of ice is melting each year, we are creating new ‘technofossils’ through landfill - a fossilised biro for example - and equally, there is now enough plastic found in our rocks to wrap the Earth as if with clingfilm. Facts such as these are leading artists to develop works illustrating our impending doom, or in a more optimistic way, which seek technological solutions.
Posthumanism meanwhile has many definitions, reaching into life on Earth after the human being, into Transhumanism whereby humans are technologically altered to live longer and better - and even into ideas of an Artificial Intelligence Takeover - but most commonly looking past Humanism, which emphasises the value of humans, and instead considering us as an equal part of a global system. In looking at humans as part of the Earth, rather than controlling nature, Posthumanism can provide alternative understandings of the Anthropocene and how we might prevent further damage.
New Romance: Art and The Posthuman, a new exhibition of works from Australian and Korean artists which takes place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, uses this perspective to question humanity’s place in the world now and what it might become in the future. A partnership between the MCA and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, MCA curator Anna Davis explains that “although there are many definitions of posthumanism, myself and Houngcheol Choi (MMCA, South Korea) were most interested in reframing relationships between humans, nature and technology by questioning old definitions between what we see as natural or artificial, human or non-human.” The result is an energetic exhibition of predominantly installation, new media and active sculpture which both incorporate and reject contemporary technologies, point to the retro-utopias of the 1970s as much as futuristic dystopias in a strange mix of individual impressions of what the future might hold.
Pooled from studio visits predominantly across Sydney and Seoul and born across five decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s, the selected artists display a diversity of perspectives yet there is a discernible difference between the approaches of Australian versus South Korean artists. Environmentalism and ecology has been a consistent concern for artists working in Australia yet travelling to Seoul, which has been hailed as the world's most technologically linked city - alongside London - Davis explains that she “sensed that there was a real need for people to engage with this idea of the new media landscape that they were deeply embedded in and how to live through this reality – I felt that it was quite pressing in Korea.” This conversation emerges in the works of artists such as South Korean Airan Kang, whose Digital Book Project critiques the way that we now live our lives in the interspaces between the virtual and the physical. Her ‘books’ sit on shelves as if in a small, conventional library, yet formed from LEDs closed within clear plastic covers, they glow luminescent to “give the impression of being in a virtual space” according to Davis. Although the ‘books’ cannot be reached for and opened, visitors can browse the library by downloading any of the texts via a free app, standing in between the experience of reading an online e-book and visiting a physical literary space.
Kang’s work also reflects on the persistence of the analogue: the fact that bound books remain popular in spite of the more economical, easily accessible and readable data which is globally available. Although Kang’s work makes use of new technologies, its nostalgic perspective is similar to the works of various Australian artists in New Romance which engages with the retro notion of cyberpunk. Initially a 1980s science fiction movement, classic cyberpunk novels, games and films were often set in a futuristic post-industrial dystopia in which rapid technological change had caused social breakdown and cultural ferment, and where the protagonists - punk misfits - often fought against mega-corporations or artificial intelligences.
The fear and rejection of technology in the cyberpunk genre is displayed in works by Australian artist Ian Burns’ whereby the artist takes on the role of inventor or hacker to combine everyday objects until they make one another near obsolete - a comment on the over-technified, over-automated systems we now experience daily. Blender (2014) for example uses a hacked keyboard, a timing system and computer-controlled lightbulbs to project the lyrics of Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols through tiny magnifying glasses onto a wall, meanwhile its electronic keyboard repeatedly plays ABBA’s SOS aloud and activates a kitchen blender, which mixes dishwashing liquid into ‘the colour of urine’ in a salute to the punk movement.
This use of humour allows different entry points to an otherwise serious and challenging discussion, and as Davis attests to, the rejection of technology is common amongst the younger artists of the exhibition. Davis explains that “I have noticed a nostalgia for the pre-internet time, young artists seem to be interested in changing technologies and amongst the Australian artists in the show there seemed to be a common DIY hacker punk mentality.”
In fact the namesake for New Romance is seminal cyberpunk text Neuromancer written by William Gibson in 1984, a novel which managed to predict our present technological era with near exactitude. As Davis recalls, she and MMCA curator Choi held curatorial discussions over Skype for the first few months of preparation which were often interrupted with mistranslations and misunderstandings; when Davis mentioned Neuromancer, it transpired that the novel had been published in South Korea but with the incorrect title ‘New Romance’ and therefore presumed to be a romance novel. This seemed a fitting title for a collection of works with such powerful emotional and sensorial pull, while there is an uncanny parallel between the apocalyptic images of New Romance and the sublime impressions of natural disaster that were conjured by 19th century Romantic painters.
Young New Zealand-born artist Hayden Fowler, for example, whose installations set up a surreal mix of artificial worlds in which humans desperately attempt to repossess nature after it has already been lost. For example, displayed in New Romance is public installation Dark Ecology (2015/2016): a geodesic dome which appears to be a remnant of a utopian society, mirroring those envisioned by architects in the 1960s, yet contains a ruined world of blackened trees and scorched earth, which men in grey suits enter at times to tend and try to restore to health. Similarly concerned with the social function of art, are South Korean artist duo Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon, whose incredibly immersive and stirring two-channel video installation EL FIN DEL MUNDO (2012), which translates as ‘The End of The World’, follows a man and a woman across separate screens as they go about their daily life.
The two characters seem to have both survived a catastrophe that has left them isolated and alone; while on one screen the man struggles in a dingy studio amidst the devastation, the opposite screen shows the woman working busily in a brightly lit lab, arranging test tubes in her pristine white outfit. The audience is unsure if the two scenes take place in the same world and at the same time, although at one point the young woman picks up a string of decorative LED lights and places them over her head as if remembering - the very same lights that the man picked up on the opposite screen just moments before.
As Davis acknowledges, Moon and Jeon question the meaning of art if we are facing environmental apocalypse, a question which “many artists are asking of themselves now: in a world where so much is happening what is the point in art and what can art do?” Davis also notes that it is important for the MCA to question how an institution can act and how to curate with these conditions, as although works which function on a serious level are effective, the message can lose intensity and shock value if repeated too often in the same way.
An oversaturation of fear or dystopian imagery is avoided with artists such as Ian Burns presenting bizarre DIY machines, or Australian artist Wade Marynowsky bringing the audience into contact with an inflated, self-important robot which speaks in a snobbish British accent while twirling in its frilly gown in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot 2 (2010). Perhaps the most bizarre experience for viewers is a visit to the Land of One Thousand Distractions via Justin Shoulder’s performance The River Eats (2012-15), in which the Sydney-based artist takes on the guise of Pinky, a hyperactive, neon pink creature which slowly transforms into an insect-like hybrid of information and being. As Shoulder explains, Pinky has been ‘manipulated by Tumblr and Pinterest. His eyes compelled to scan and devour vast torrents of images, categorising them into aesthetic mood-boards based on emotions like “middle-class domestic bliss state” and “aspirational vogue object”, a state which sounds all too familiar to the contemporary viewer.
While most reject the infiltration of technology into our body, pioneering Cyprus-born and Melbourne-raised performance artist Stelarc has welcomed cyborgization after long stating that the human body is obsolete and should be updated, openly advocating transhumanism for us to survive. Stelarc has been performing since the 1970s, with works including publicly displayed films of the inside of his lungs, colon and stomach, in performances from 2000-15 attaching himself to a pneumatically controlled robot prosthetic arm for several hours while his own muscles were stimulated by an electrical current, and most famously in 2006 having an artificial ear transplanted onto his arm. The ear cannot currently hear, however the artist now plans to use his own stem cells to grow an external ear lobe before implanting a Wi-Fi enabled microphone which will be permanently activated so that people all over the world will be able to listen to what he hears 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Stelarc’s material has long been his body, although he has usually been present and performed his works. In a different strand of works, New Romance exhibits Blender (2005-16), a collaboration with Melbourne-based Nina Sellars. In this piece four pressurized gas tanks surround a steel column which supports a clear glass globe, filled with a swirl of liquids and solids, lit orange-gold. The contents are in fact subcutaneous fat from Sellar’s limbs and Stelarc’s torso and peripheral nerves. While a sound piece plays out the sound of a pulse, blades inside the globe blend the mixture every few minutes and then stop again, to let the bodily materials settle. By removing parts of their bodies that are unnecessary for continued existence and reviving them via mechanical means, Stelarc and Sellars remove the body from any auratic value.
This is a direct interrogation of what it is to be human: the beating heart even a reference to Stelarc’s suggestion that we will all one day avoid biological deaths through having been fitted with unbeating turbine hearts, silencing the universal symbol of life. The impact of this notion highlights how emotionally driven our categories of humans, nature and technology might be, and forces us to consider how the relationships between these entities will evolve in the future.
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