Originally published in English and Spanish Atlantica, N. 26, Summer 2000, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Espanha. pp.122-134.

Possible Bodies

Ricardo Basbaum

From the perspective of what may be called contemporary Brazilian art, this article will combine a few impressions about how the body has been approached by different artists, as part of the impact the arts impose on culture. Most of the artists to be mentioned here do not touch the body directly but through diverse mediations, resulting on experiences that reveal lines of flight out of the common sense and propose problems involving aspects of technology, consumption, gender, interiority and psychology. Those gestures should be regarded in their effects on perception, indicating how artists are able to set up a "problem space" in specific plastic and sensorial terms, revealing the particular role of artistic research as different from Science and Philosophy – although, as Deleuze and Guattari (D/G) state, the three fields should be seen in reciprocal presupposition.

Eduardo Kac is a well-known artist for his experiences articulating art and advanced technology. It is important to get artists like him out of the "high-tech ghetto" (if we consider that the art world is divided into several branches that seem to be blind to each other), and confront his work with other experiences in contemporary art. Not always the use of the most advanced hard and software result in the most challenging work, and if we consider "contemporary art" as a highly advanced conceptual tool in itself (in a private conversation in Rio last year Kac named this particular approach "art as software") – which enables one to produce radical and advanced gestures – the technical hardware aspect of the work should be redimensioned to another kind of adequacy, according to the work's proposal and the accuracy of the problems it establishes. I bring this comment here just to drop a line in a discussion that is growing in importance (art "as" technology or art "and" technology?) as the experiments on technology are raising issues about the redesigning of the human body, which imply different forms of sensibility and perception: the whole aesthetical field is being affected and art is the practice which responds to that. Eduardo Kac is highly engaged on such discussion, and his experiences bring new info and data as well as new "affects and percepts" (D/G again) to the art arena.

"A-positive" (in collaboration with Ed Bennett) and "Time Capsule" are two works produced and presented by Eduardo Kac in 1997 . Both involve the artist's own body as part of the propositions. In "A-positive" Kac links his body to a "biobot" (a "hybrid biological robot"), establishing an exchange protocol with it: the artist gives his own blood to the machine, which (who?) uses it to extract oxygen and produce a small flame; then the machine gives back dextrose to Kac, who has his blood returned intravenously with the addition of sugar. A particular project of dialogue is carried on, one between man and robot, revealing a ritual of mutual gifting, on which both parts "respect the deal" with each other. An ethical issue is made visible, one related to "how close technology is to the body, or how deep it already is inside the body" (Kac's words) . Our hybrid (body-machine) condition can be traced back easily to the beginning of the modern age, as consequence of the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and it has increased with electronic, informatics and telecommunication, which are bringing this condition closer and closer, with several consequences implied. "Time Capsule" demonstrates one more step on that process of bringing such issues to the visible field: Kac inserted in his own body a microchip able to send data to a computer in real time. The surgery was conducted in an exhibition space which was transformed in a kind of installation, with medical equipment, computers, scanning and tracking devices. Hanging on the walls, a series of photos presenting Kac's relatives in Poland before the Second World War, actually the only remaining images of them today (as they were victims of the Holocaust). "Time Capsule" is a work mingling memory and control, history and tracking, in which the body is the ultimate place where these issues encounter each other. Perhaps the most striking aspect of both of these pieces is how they lucidly displace towards the physical body a problem that was ever located in the social and political arena: we are confronted with the evidence of having our bodies as the "last frontier", the new battle field for the XXI Century struggles. Our bodies do not belong to us anymore, they are pieces of flesh and psychological matter shared by private and public interests, where the self is not less "ours" than "theirs". Kac runs the risk of experiencing the evidence of this new existential condition himself, developing and art piece that unfolds that problem into sensorial matter.

The work of João Modé is physically distant from Kac's but share a similar awareness of our body/mind condition at the dawn of the new Millennium. In the installation "Lush", presented in Rio de Janeiro in March 2000, Modé faces us with a proposition dealing with the so called "inner spiritual space of the human being": an environment fully occupied by varied sensorial stimuli (images, music, perfume, tactile surfaces, objects and lines) invites the visitor to stop and lose him/herself in a seductive and delicate atmosphere. A large dark yellow futon mattress dominates the space, and anyone who lays down there can listen to rhythmic, violent or calm music, provided by three headphone sets (a collaboration between the artist and the DJ Dudu Candelot). Hanging in the wall, digital photographic images of the flower Aristolochia brasiliensis, showing its peculiar surface, framed in red. When moving around the space, the spectator is affected by the subtle perfume of burning incenses, while follows the "Teia" ["Web"] (woven by a mix of natural and synthetic ropes and threads of various sizes, sometimes carrying insects and spiders collected by the artist from diverse locations) and the "9 viagens, 2 destinos" ['9 trips, 2 destinations"] (stones traversed in the middle by a silk string, seven above of and two laying in the floor) pieces. For anyone who comes closer – the installation indeed invites visitors to lay in the futon mattress – "Lush" creates a place where the senses are involved in deep comfort, not a luxurious but a "purified" one: the whole sensorial condition conducts the visitor to a spiritual impression, in the ethical sense. That is, the purpose here is to purify our inner space through the senses, mediated by aesthetic operations.

Modé has been developing such quasi-spiritual installations for a few years now. In the work "Mergulho no Reflexo" ["Dive into Reflection"] (1996), the artist had arranged the viewers to get a very similar sensorial impact, but from a diverse point of departure. This piece was structured as a labyrinth, containing hair shaved from all his body (he let his hair grow for five years before he cut it for the show). We had to pass a narrow wood corridor (wall made of vine bark, prickles, pods and roots) to reach a large room covered with earth, with a few plants and insects (among them a little Pau-brasil tree). The experience triggered by the whole installation is one of solitude, asceticism and emptiness: one feels purified (this intends to be a rite of passage), but without having the feelings conducing to this or that particular belief. There is no nature there, the space resembles experiences like the Biosphere 2 project (where several ecosystems are maintained in an enclosed space), as both keep "nature" in non natural environments. It is evident that the viewer is confronted with the lack of an "original natural impact" which would safely lead perception to a confirmation of our human natural condition: our inner space, the space of the interiority of the self, is felt as a void terrain that seeks for a re-colonization, a re-occupation. But the inner space of the body is not a physical space to be filled with matter, it's a mix of symbolic (and therefore cultural) and biological space, which constitutes the psychological dimension of our species individual members (it's possible also to speak of a collective psychology, putting together groups and societies). One of the possible modes of change and colonization of the body's interior space is the combination of "intensity" and "sensoriality".

João Modé's "Lush" is interesting for promoting the combination of such issues, conceiving of the installation as a space where the spectator is surrounded by a set of devices constructed as special processors: ones mastered for processing the sensorial and intensive layers of experience (artwork is the name of devices like these). Circled by a set o lively convivial situations, the spectator's body is drawn under a situation where s/he experiences her or his inner void, as has the body colonized by new intensities. Modé is asking how will we survive the new century without accepting our current spiritual emptiness (it is occupied by everything and everyone, except by ourselves) and considering new strategies of working over it? Following several contemporary authors, it's possible to state that this new body is not merely "human", it is something else yet to be re-invented. And it has been.

An interface joining body, mechanics and sexuality is found in the work of Márcia X. In the end of 1999 she showed the piece "Reino Animal" ["Animal Kingdom"], that deals with some of the topics we are discussing here. It consists of 20 assembled objects linked together, forming a curious set: each of the objects contains a naked Barbie doll, with little crowns on her head and feet, laying on the top of a white and fluffy pussycat, which in turn lays over a similar white and fluffy cushion. The assemblages are connected through a silver chain to another (and bigger) crown, on the wall, so the whole set is attached to a single point where lines converge to, which refers to the linear perspective's point of view as a point of control. The battery operated pussycat toys start to function (turned on and off by a small "sensor of presence" at the door's gallery) when a visitor approximates the installation: the cats move their tails and produce "meow" sounds. The peculiar aspect of the assemblages is that the cats' tails move exactly between the naked Barbies' open legs, creating the clean impression that a kind of sexual game is going on: "that's the reason of Barbie's ecstatic smile", one thinks. Márcia X. says she designed the installation after the structure of some religious paintings, and for her the Barbies smile because they are "illuminated by the spark of God", indicating a convergence of sex and religion. What strikes the viewer there is also the impression of "serial", collective work: "Reino Animal" displays a sex-machine where the spectator is a voyeur of an automatic and unstoppable session of joy between female dolls and cats, involving orgasm and religious feelings.

It's not the first time the artist mix popular and kitsch objects with mechanic devices: her since 1993 on going series "Fábrica Fallus" ["Fallus Factory"] displays more than 20 plastic penises (actually Dildos are not exactly "popular" and "kitsch"), each transformed in a different way with the use of various materials, making them to present funny movements. Márcia X. likes appropriating objects to create situations that link consumption, sexuality, taste and gender: she short-circuits the common use of things. At the show "Arte Erótica" (Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 1993) worried parents watched their kids playing with a set of "Fábrica Fallus" objects – certainly things they would not have permission to access in normal conditions, but through Márcia's work the penises became also innocent toys.

Both propositions speak about a subject assaulted by consumption euforia, whose affective life is wholly (we might say "holly") regulated by market products (only consumption brings happiness). A the same time, they raise topics about transgression as a value now integrated in the flows of capital goods, establishing patterns that are randomly spread through consumers: not Bataille's transgressive "Evil", but transgression marked with a "smile" (remember the famous yellow round smiling face sign). Márcia X. brings humor and irony to comment how the issues commonly associated with the value of a liberatory impulse, in Modern Age, were incorporated by consumerist logic, loosing their revolutionary substance. But does that mean less or more amount of pleasure particles running inside the body? Is it possible to measure the intensity of ecstasy? Fortunately, this is a non quantifiable value, that therefore cannot be computed, transforming the problem into a philosophical one: the ethics of building a system of value. We are in the point of – following Foucault's late suggestion of investigating the "technologies of the self" – establishing patterns (that by no means stop being collective) of perception which redirect intensities through the body, re-shaping the whole economy of pain and pleasure. Or we'll be limited to just transferring Barbie's smile to our tired faces.

I would like to add to this article a few comments on a series of works I have been developing in the last two years, which also deals with the body but from the perspective of the writing/drawing relationship. They are part of my "ME-YOU" series, where the pronouns identify the places related to the "subject" and the "other", permitting to bring into visibility the forces of attraction and repulsion, of gathering together, etc, as a map of the "games" usually played between two different persons who affect each other. However this series also accepts the fact that anyone can find several ME's and YOU's inside a single subject, and can create as well a collective body as a chain composed of many ME's or YOU's (Lygia Clark had already worked with both possibilities). In the particular work I intend to describe, a group of participants is invited to perform together exercises and games: they can choose to dress a red "ME" or a yellow "YOU" shirt and so play the exercise/game as "subject" or "object". Even if I come to place with some sketches and notes, the games take their final structure according to the people involved and to the particular characteristics of the location. It would not be incorrect to consider it as a "site-specific" practice, but actually what is more important is the engagement of the group (of each individual, of course) on the collective activity. So it may be said: the games are also "person-specific", as they change according to the participants will to take part in the propositions. During the exercises the pronouns move in the space, producing "lines" that trace their displacement, what causes the production of a writing in real space, in which only two words (ME/YOU) are animated by the people's bodies in action. Their movements are the "verbs" with which the writing takes place, generating non-linear sentences of a discourse that happens at the same time as a conversation among the teams and as an individual gesture (it must be emphasized that the shirts resemble football uniforms, and as any uniform the whole team dresses the same, lessening the individual signs). When a set of games and exercises is performed, the actions are recorded on video and later exhibited as video pieces. Therefore two different kinds of results can be obtained from the proposition: one is the personal experience of each individual participant, which is kept inscribed as body-memory; the other is the video projection, which produces a new experience in itself for anyone who watches it (and so reads the experience through another mediation) .

Thus this project involves the gesture of writing with the participant's bodies. A narrative is produced, one that is read at the same time it is performed and which constitutes the experience of the group exercise: the words are the visible signs (remember: pronouns are "shifters", getting their meaning according to the context and the act of speech) by which intensity is modulated, and the new "bodies in motion" can be designed by the close encounter between discursive and non-discursive strategies. It is clear that if the performance here comprises both the gestures of reading and writing as aspects of the same attitude towards the text, meaning is activated as a result of a game where all the players confront each other as parts of different teams, their roles sliding between the group and a singular particle. As the other works discussed here, the focus is in the understanding of the process of transformation of the body, pointing how it must be seen as a basic region where changes in perception are effective. For art practice this is a decisive frontier, as aesthetic relies on sensorial processes which do not exist without the body-mind paradigm: changing perception patterns only occur as a changing on how the body is perceived and constructed. Artists can be aware of these decisive flows and their artworks and propositions function as models where such problems are formulated in particular plastic terms, stressing the order of sensorial experience as an unique means for opening up questions, unfolding a "problem space" different (although strongly connected with) from Science and Philosophy.

Ricardo Basbaum
artist, writer
lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
co-editor of 'item' art magazine
co-director of the artist's run space 'Agora - Agência de Organismos Artísticos' (Rio de Janeiro)

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