Artlab23, on-line journal sponsored by the Art History Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Spring 2002 :: Issue 1 :: Art History Department


Christiane Paul

Surrealism addressed many issues that surround the technologically enhanced and extended body, ranging from the collision of (sometimes irreconcilable) realities to juxtapositions of unstable and shifting oppositions. The fusion of man and machine has reached new levels today and requires a reconsideration of many of our traditional values, among them identity. In the following, I will focus less on the connections between surrealism and the cyborg than on the topic of the cyborg as body in cyberspace. I will concentrate on the issues of virtuality and the body; man/machine symbiosis and its relation to evolution vs. design; as well as online art projects that are relevant in the context of the cyborg and cyberbody.

Virtuality and the Body

In the so-called information age and digital networked society, the body and identity have become a much-discussed topic. Our bodies seem to have become increasingly transparent and, at the same time, are stripped of their sensual capacities.
Exact surveillance and identification seem to threaten the idea of individual autonomy. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras track our movements; biometric technologies, such as electronic fingerprints, software for face recognition, and the scanning of the retina, push into the market as a means of identification. On the Internet, "intelligent" software agents attaching themselves to our data-bodies promise to filter and customize information for us while making us targets for marketing and advertising campaigns. Mass dataveillance turns us into transparent customers whose transactions can be tracked.
Science adds its own layer of transparency by investigating our bodies on the DNA and nano-level.
On the one hand, the body is a single, unitary, physical object, and on the other hand it has been transformed into a multiple self of mediated realities.

In the age of the Internet, people visit MUDs and MOOs and choose avatars to represent themselves in virtual environments; they slip in and out of character. In a virtual community, the "players" live parallel lives by cycling through windows. Windows and screens are the metaphors that influence our experience of life, and virtual life allows people to have a presence in several windows and contexts simultaneously.

Sherry Turkle has defined the online self as a multiple, distributed, time-sharing system. Our identity in the age of the Internet is characterized by multiplicity, heterogeneity and fragmentation.

Embodiment vs. Disembodiment

One of the crucial issues in this context is that of embodiment/disembodiment.

When Galileo's telescopic eye reached the moon in 1609, the telescope did not only extend the range of human vision; to some extent, it detached the eye from the physical environment of the perceptual body. By now, this detachment or flight from the body has been taken to new levels by the concept of virtual reality. As the product of an interactive technology that immerses its users in a three-dimensional world generated by a computer, virtual reality ideally allows users to interact with the virtual objects that comprise that world. Today, the fact and the dream of virtual reality lie somewhere between the flight simulators used to train pilots during W.W.II and the "holodeck" on the Enterprise. But it may not take long until full bodysuits, which allow users to sense the movement of their virtual body in virtual space, are commercially available. We finally may become cybernauts floating in digital, electronic space.

To some extent, virtual reality constitutes a psychology of disincarnation, since it ultimately promises the possibility of downloading consciousness into a computer, leaving the obsolete body behind, and inhabiting the datascape as cyborg. VR opens up the thrilling possibility of a mind independent of the biology of bodies—thus oscillating between a celebration of the Cartesian separation of mind and body and the "I think, therefore I am" metaphysics of Descartes.

Virtual reality and cyberspace promise to finally provide users with a three-dimensional interaction experience that creates the illusion they are inside a world rather than observing an image. Scott Bukatman has claimed that "virtual reality has become the very embodiment of postmodern disembodiment." From this point of view, virtual reality is the manifestation and continuation of a flight from the body, which has its origins in the fifteenth-century invention of linear perspective vision. In this context, it makes perfect sense that the body in cyberspace has been referred to as "electronic cadaver"—a term that combines disembodiment with the transformation into a digital body.

The attraction of virtual reality also consists in the possibility of remaking the body, of creating digital counterparts released from the shortcomings and mortal limitations of our physical bodies. Metaworlds allow visitors to create their own (cyber)self and be all they want to be.

Katherine Hayles, on the other hand, points out that "it is a historical construction to believe that computer media are disembodying technologies." According to Hayles, this construction requires systematic erasure of many significant aspects of our interactions with computers. One cannot afford to ignore the materiality of the interfaces that are being created or the effect of these interfaces on our bodies.

We have to pose the question in how far the human body has already become an extension of the machine. As Eduardo Kac puts it, "the passage into a digital culture—with its standard interfaces that require us to pound a keyboard and sit behind a desk while staring at a screen—creates a physical trauma that amplifies the psychological shock generated by ever-faster cycles of technological invention, development, and obsolescence." Current interface standardization has led to an overall restraining mechanism for the human body, which is forced to conform to the boxy shape of the computer setup (monitor and CPU).

We are only now beginning to understand the effect of computers on culture, subjectivity and the body. Catherine Richards and Don Idhe have done research on proprioceptive coherence, examining the way perception of body boundaries is affected by technological interactions and interventions. Proprioceptive coherence in interplay with electronic protheses is crucial in perceiving body boundaries, especially when it gives users the impression that their subjectivity is flowing into the space of the screen. As Hayles points out, when the interface is configured as keyboard and screen, users tend to perceive that space belongs to the computer and flow to the user.

I would suggest that the tension between embodiment/disembodiment can not be constructed as a choice of either/or but rather has to be understood as a reality of both/and. The symbiotic relation between humans and machines has effects that point in various directions and has to be understood in multiple contexts.

Man/Machine — Evolution/Design

The issue of the cyborg and man/machine symbiosis also is inextricably interconnected with that of evolution vs. design.

The evolution camp would argue that the Net has evolved into an organism where computers exchange ideas with each other, and that computers will soon be able to think autonomously and develop a consciousness; there’s a continuous process of evolution in which technologies will more and more assume the role of second nature.

The design camp would oppose that computers and the Net are far away from being organisms, but are mechanisms and tools created through the careful design of scientists and technology-savvy individuals.

This discussion tends to set up an opposition between evolution, a natural process with its own dynamics, and design, technological development based on research and hard labor. A basic question is whether computers are tools designed to help us think or whether we are close to becoming (or have already become) man-machines, cyborgs, technologically enhanced and extended bodies.

Setting up a polarity between evolution and design may not be the most constructive approach to the whole issue, which itself isn’t particularly new.

The concept of the man-machine symbiosis goes back to the research of Norbert Wiener, who believed that the digital computer had raised the question of the relationship between the human and the machine, and that it was necessary to explore that relationship in a scientific manner. He came to the conclusion that all the existing terminology didn’t serve the future development of the field and felt "forced to coin at least one artificial neo-Greek expression to fill the gap"—"cybernetics" (from the Greek term "kybernetes" meaning "governor" or "steersman"). Wiener coined the term to designate the important role that feedback plays in a communication system.

In Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), Wiener defined three central concepts which he maintains were crucial in any organism or system— communication, control and feedback. He postulated that the guiding principle behind life and organization is information, the information contained in messages. As a governing mechanism, messages rely on feedback; different inputs lead to different outputs, and the computer essentially is a simulating machine that processes inputs.

The concept was further explored by J.C.R. Licklider who would play an important role in the developing computer revolution (as director of the Information Processing Techniques office of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency he funded the origins of ARPANET). In 1960, Licklider, who had done his graduate degree in psychology, authored the paper "Man-Computer Symbiosis." According to Licklider, the main aims of this symbiosis "are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable man and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs." Licklider hoped that through its contribution to formulative thinking, the computer "will help us understand the structure of ideas, the nature of intellectual processes."

A more organic approach to the Machine was pioneered by Marvin Minsky, who saw the machine as protoplasm which could be brought to consciousness.

The notions of the computer as thinking tool or organism may be more intertwined than they appear to be. Wiener’s concept of information and feedback as organizing principle of life already has an organic quality (and is close to Richard Dawkins concept of "memes," ideas and cultural information units that replicate through communication, thus writing a culture-based history of development). Computers may not only help us to understand the structure of ideas, the nature of intellectual processes, as Licklider hoped, but they may very well change these very processes and the way we think. The term evolution has itself undergone an evolution, and to some extent has become a process that can be influenced with the help of technology. Perhaps we have to think about this process as an evolution of the cooperation between man and machine or the vanishing of the boundaries between them, an evolution that is both a product of design and a process with its own dynamics.

As Hayles points out, the illusion that information is separate from materiality could lead to a dangerous split between information and meaning and flattening of the space of theoretical inquiry.

The Cyberbody Online
Over the past six years, many online art projects have addressed issues surrounding the cyberbody and the relation between our physical bodies and digital technologies. One of the most radical among them is Eduardo Kac's Time Capsule (fig. 1) (, which crosses the frontier between the body and technology invasion by turning the body into a "site" hosting artificial memory. Kac's radical approach to the creation and presentation of the body as a wet host for artificial memory and "site-specific" work raises a variety of important questions that range from the status of memory in digital culture to the ethical dilemmas we are facing in the age of bioengineering and tracking technology. By now we are used to thinking of objects as containers of memory—what are the ethical implications of turning the human body into a host for artificial memory?

Time Capsule is an "intracorporeal" art work that combines a local event-installation with a site-specific work—in which the site itself is both the artist's body and a remote database—and a simultaneous broadcast on TV and the Web.

The Time Capsule event took place on November 11 at Casa das Rosas Cultural Center in São Paulo, Brazil: using a special needle, Kac subcutaneously inserted a microchip with a programmed identification number into his left leg. The microchip—a transponder with no power supply to replace or moving parts to wear out—is integrated with a coil and a capacitor, all hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass. After implantation, a thin layer of connective tissue forms around the microchip preventing migration. The scanning of the implant generates a low-energy radio signal (125 KHz) that energizes the microchip and causes it to transmit its unique and inalterable numerical code, which is shown on the scanner's 16-character Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).

At the event, Kac placed his leg into a scanning apparatus, and his ankle was then webscanned from Chicago (the scanner's button was pushed via a telerobotic finger). Kac subsequently registered himself in a Web-based animal identification database, originally designed for the recovery of lost animals. It was the first time a human being was added to the database—Kac registered himself both as animal and owner. The event was shown live on national television in Brazil and on the Web.

Walking on the edge of dystopian surveillance and liberation from the machine, Time Capsule might be considered an Orwellian dystopia come true. Implanted microchips might as well become the passports of the future, allowing the identification and tracking of the individual and offering the ultimate protection from crimes such as abduction.

Yet there are medical uses of intrabody microchips that seem to be perfectly acceptable. As Kac points out, the current successful use of microchips in spinal injury surgery has opened up an as yet uncharted areas of inquiry; bodily functions are stimulated externally and controlled via microchips. Experimental medical research using microchips that enable the blind to see by creating artificial retinas would be yet another example of the liberating effects of technology.

Time Capsule might be seen as a radical liberation of the body from the machine—a reconciliation of aspects still generally regarded as antagonistic, such as freedom of movement, data storage and processing. As Kac puts it: "The living body wants to get out of the uncomfortable box and have unrestricted motion."

The Web component of Time Capsule offers yet another perspective by making the body accessible to the machine. The webscanning and identification of a body (fig. 2) over the Net reinstates a temporary coincidence between body and cyberbody; the temporal scale of the work comprises the ephemeral (identification through webscanning) and the permanent (the implant itself). In a clash of the tangible and the virtual, Time Capsule frees the body from the machine and at the same time makes it permeable and readable to the Internet.

Stelarc ( is another artist who has for some time been exploring the possibilities of using the Web to connect remote bodies and to displace movement from one physical space to another. In Ping Body, Stelarc provides his body as a host for 'pings' or locators that are mapped to body muscle, so that main muscle groups can remotely be activated.

Victoria Vesna's Bodies Inc. ( offers a different take on the subject by allowing visitors to the website to create a cyberself and cyberbody. The project was created years ago and was visionary in terms of the concept of the incorporated body, which has gained new significance with the rise of e-commerce and the ways in which our data-bodies and online behaviors are tracked. Vesna has developed this basic concept into further manifestations of data-bodies that function as data containers on the network and allow users to both represent themselves as a container of various kinds of information and search information contained in other bodies. Her project Datamining Bodies ( was a site-specific installation shown at the exhibition Vision Ruhr in Germany (, which took place in a former mine. Visitors were able to "datamine" various levels of a data body, descending through fabrics of continuously updated information that consisted of images from the area, medical imaging of the body as well as sounds. Vesna's latest project, Notime (, a visualization of social networks, is currently on view as part of Steve Dietz's exhibition Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace ( People are asked to represent themselves as "meme fabrics"—geometries of data-bodies containing information about their creators. The installation allows the audience to navigate the networked environment with their bodies and through their interaction affect the constructed geometries representing other people's information data-bodies.

Another piece relevant in this context is Mark Napier's ©Bots, pronounced see-bots ( The project, a "meme-robotic tool that combats the toxic effect of corporate meme overload," also connects back to the idea of surrealism and the collage. ©Bots invites vistors to the website to create a collage of a bot by choosing from categories of body parts (arms, legs, eyes etc.). The bots are built from components of familiar pop-culture icons, often copyrighted icons and "memes" created by corporations to represent their corporate identity or their products. ©Bots allows users to reconstruct this corporate memetic property and distribute it online, thus taking back control over the meme population of their own minds.

While all these projects play with the idea of establishing connections between our physical and online bodies or create alternate cyberbodies, there remains a fundamental difference between the cyberbody in the digital space and the perceptual body in the space of the physical world. Both the cyberbody and the perceptual body may interact with the world they find themselves in, but there still seems to be a lack of sensory experience in virtual worlds. Can cyberspace become an extension of our nervous system? Is there something like digital perception? How can our technologically enhanced bodies connect? Various projects have tried to address these questions.

Stahl Stenslie's Tactile Technologies (TT) ( attempt to expand the perceptual limits of technology. TT tries to introduce the body to digital perception by focusing on bodily sensations and stimuli. In Stenslie's Inter_Skin project, the two participants wear a sensoric outfit that is capable of both transmitting and receiving different multi-sensoric stimuli. The communication system concentrates on the transmission and receiving of sensual contact.

The possibilities of "connecting" are taken to a further level by the Inter Dis-communication Machine developed by Kazuhiko Hachiya (Prix Ars Electronica, 1996). Played by two people wearing head-mounted displays, the machine projects one player's sight and sound perception of the virtual "playground" into the other one's display, thus confusing the borders between "you" and "me." Both "Inter_skin"—which let's you feel the bodily sensations of another person and can record and play back the tactile stimuli—and the "Inter Dis-communication Machine" are reminiscent of the "Sim-Stim" device in William Gibson's Neuromancer, which allows a user to 'enter' another person's body and perception (without being able to influence it).

On the basis of these projects, one could make convincing arguments that we already have turned into cyborgs as technologically enhanced and extended bodies. The cyborg as cyberbody still is to a large extent an unexplored field and we're just beginning to understand the effect that technologies such as genetic engineering have on our physical bodies.

One might speculate that the boundaries of our bodies will continue to dissolve and that the question "Who am I?" will become less relevant in the future, replaced by "What is all that I can be?"

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