Originally published in the CD-catalogue of the exhibition Fables of a Technological Era. curated by Antoinette te Paske and Nathalie Houtermans, June 16 to July 9, 1999, at the Blijdorp Zoological Gardens in Rotterdam.
A Brief Animal History
At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies around seven p.m. exited children were waiting for a new episode of the television program 'De Fabeltjeskrant' (The Fables paper). Every episode began with the same tune:
Hello, mister Owl, Where will you take us?
To the land of Fables? Yehes, to the land of Fables
And will you read to us from the Fables paper
Yes, yes, from the Fables paper,
Because in it is precisely mentioned how the animals are tempered
Really? - Really - Really mister Owl?
Hmmhm, because animals are just like people, with the same people's desires
And the same people's tricks, all that makes the paper,
of the land of Fables, of the land of Fables!
Not only children enjoy fables, adults do too. This becomes clear from the multitude of stories, mythologies and illustrations of fable animals, intended to entertain us.
One of the first drawings that humans from the Stone age made on a rock wall depicted an animal. People from the Stone age could of course have drawn a tree, but they preferred a bull to a tree, a deer to a river and a rabbit to a mushroom. This love of animals and animal figures has lasted throughout the centuries and often means more than just a nice drawing. The drawings of animals figures in the cave of Lascaux are probably intended as magic rituals, to exercise a prosperous influence on the hunt.
Whichever civilization we look at, animals make an appearance everywhere, from naturalia to artificialia. We encounter them in all sorts of guises, from gods to demons, from multicolored soft toys to tamagotchi's. Not only are they portrayed, they are also described in myths, bestiaries, the bible, in fables and fairy tales. Animal figures incarnate our deepest desires and most terrible fears, are our friend or our enemy. Or they impersonate human characteristics, like the animals in the 'Fables paper'. Although many animals disappear from our landscape due to increasing industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure, animals and animal figures remain and are closely tied to our lives. We cherish and slaughter them, show exotic species in Wunderkammers, create nature reserves for threatened animal species and turn some into celebrities and name them Jenny, Godzilla, Gromit, Herman or Laika. In short: animals and animal figures, science and fables, are a way to represent the relationship between humans and their environment. In a little while the exotic and threatened animal species or variations on the species will no longer find themselves in nature reserves or 'Wunderkammer', but in cyberspace.
God is sidelined
The new belief in bits and bytes enables contemporary man to create his own environment populated by his own creatures. Does this mean that contemporary man, who creates his own animals is an atheist? Has God been sidelined? The creation of our new, virtual environment is not due to God but to technological developments. Beings that are created here (meaning in the virtual world) did not stem from flesh and blood but are made by technological tools and originate from fantasies.
These fantasies did not sprout from a void. No, they elaborate on an existing tradition of images. The virtual landscapes and beings appear new, but actually they are a fusion, a synthesis of old, existing images and new technologies.
Old techniques such as painting and sculpturing make way for mouse and 17" monitor. At this moment the new tools define an esthetic and ethical world which we have recently been able to visualize. Artists that have mastered this new technology show us what occurs at this moment, which path our culture is taking. They are the archeologists of the future as it were. Man has sidelined God and taken command, creating a world that satisfies his desires and wishes.
Worldwide and in large numbers the many bytes flow in and out of databases and computer networks. This flood of new images and virtual worlds seems to frighten many people rather than fascinate them. But artists making use of this computer language do not intend to strike us with terror. They create virtual images and infinite worlds in order to make a changing - technological - society understandable and accessible for the masses. Will the German writer Goethe's (1749-1832) dream finally come true at the end of the twentieth century? Goethe dreamt of a world literature instead of a national literature, through which works from different times, places and cultures would be easily accessible to everyone.
Yet many people express themselves negatively on the new technological developments. They view computer technology as a numbing and threatening factor to society. Is this because computer language is mainly focused on image and not so much the word? Computers do indeed focus on image language, this is no reason however to maintain a negative attitude towards computer technology. Why then do many people fear the computer image? Is it because computer images create the suggestion of appearing from a void or rather because they have lost the knack of 'reading' images? Although past and present do not connect smoothly there are many computer images and -icons which we also encounter in the past. A simple example is the hand as an indicator. In my opinion the shift from the written word to computerized image language does not lead to cultural decline and it will also do no harm on a social level. Yet the battle between the script and the image will not be resolved easily. This battle has lasted centuries already and takes us back to the ancient Greeks and the philosopher Plato.
The Greek philosopher Plato, who lived around four centuries before Christ, expressed himself negatively on image language. An image, painted or sculptured was, in his eyes merely a shadow of reality. With this he meant that an image deceives people continually, presents them with a pseudo reality. An image merely shows a fragment, a reflection of reality: it portrays a distorted image of reality, as God created it. Actually you can compare it to your own mirror image. Although you know that it is your own reflection you also know that this image only shows a certain part of you. The mirror image tells you nothing about your personality, your character and partially distorts reality and is therefore no mimesis (perfect imitation, copy) of yourself. But is this reflection really so meaningless? No, of course not, it can tell you about your style of clothes, your sex, the color of your hair and skin. Only, the mirror image has not been created by God, it is not a mimesis of yourself, it shows a pseudo reality, because your person is reality.
Remarkable is that this discussion about pseudo reality of images makes a comeback every time a new optical technique is discovered. This is because the optical technique takes the image as a point of departure and not the word. Furthermore, every optical technique shows us a piece of world with which we are not familiar and it makes us conscious of our ignorance. A good example with which we can compare this aversion of the computer image is the disapproving attitude of a large group of people from the 18th century towards optical techniques and mechanical tools. The 18th century is characterized by archeological discoveries, amongst which fossils, the rise of the modern industrial culture and the resulting development of various - sometimes peculiar - machines, like mechanical ducks, speech machines, calculators and magic lanterns. The hand enters into competition with machines, as tools then start to be called. This doesn't mean that machines shift the attention to human skills into the background. However, machines do create a new need for physical training, a new form of eye-, arm-, hand-, and object coordination.
Fossils and magic lanterns were inextricably connected to vision and coordination of tools. Excavating fossils required a trained eye and the correct use of all sorts of tools. A good coordination between the eye and the tools was indispensable in this. The operation of the magic lantern (a kind of slide projector) and telling a good story mainly demanded a good timing in coordinating eye-, arm- and object coordinates. Both the fossils and the magic lantern required a different way of viewing than the viewing of naturalia in the Wunderkammers and (mainly Christian) paintings and/or sculptures. But suppose virtual reality means that you land up in an artificial world as a spectator, then the 18th century arrangements of mirrors and balls filled with liquid were one of the first optical projectors that the spectator embraced with this new world. Actually the step from the play of light- and shadow of these 18th century arrangements to the virtual computer world is not extremely large. In both worlds an interaction takes place between the medium (the arrangement or the computer) and the spectator. The big difference is the light. While the computer makes use of electric light the 18th century arrangement used candlelight. From the 18th century - the Enlightenment - we are suddenly confronted with a visual and, now, electronic culture, that is unrelated to God. A fossil is merely a petrified imprint of an animal, the magic lantern projects faint fantasy images and arrangements of mirrors and liquid filled balls create worlds of light and shadow, like the computer brings forth fantasy images and pseudo realities (virtual worlds). Perhaps now the time is ripe to break out of Plato's prison to free images of their subordinate position of deceiver and their status of bad copies of God's creatures. The virtual worlds of artists, like those of Jane Prophet, Dan Oki, Eduardo Kac, Martin Riebeek, Roel Meelkop and Marlou Elshout, are not a reflection of God's created world, but a world that we create ourselves and consider as valuable.
In the huge, unfathomable ocean Cyberspace at the degrees of longitude and latitude http://www.technosphere.org.uk/ you will find Jane Prophet's virtual island Technosphere. When looking at this Technospheric landscape initially you are touched by its romantic and Arcadian atmosphere, like we find in the paintings of baroque artists such as Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorraine. With its leafy trees, vast plains and gently rolling hills Technosphere appears to follow in Poussins Arcadia's footsteps. However, the video images of Technosphere show the opposite to be true.
The nymphs, philosophers and muses that so charmingly inhabit the pastoral Arcadia of Poussin and Lorraine make way for the strangest, monstrous beings in Technosphere. Prophet's virtual world leads us back to the old, originally beastly Arcadia, where the deity Pan, with his goat's legs and amorous attitude, scares the nymphs to death and desperately assaults goats and whatever other female beauty crosses his path. Fortunately Pan's bestialities are somewhat soothed by his enchanting flute play. As in the old Arcadia in the woods of Technosphere you may encounter peculiar beings that pan-ically scare you, only here the 'beasts' attain an endearing charisma because of their abundant colors.
Even though the animals in Technosphere have been brought to life by many people and not by nature, they are not at the mercy of contemporary gene technology. In Technosphere the animals procreate according to Darwin's biological principles. The 'animals' in Technosphere are absolutely non-functional, by which they preserve their individuality and symbolism. We can nurture the 'animals', attribute good (herbivorous) or bad (carnivorous) characteristics, whereby Technosphere becomes the decor for a new land of Fables.
Genetically manipulated animals like the bull Herman are, in contrast to fable animals, robbed of their individuality and have become a functional product. Or, as Aart Brouwer cites in his article " Ondieren"( non-animal, monster): 'Images sprouting from new scientific developments are often more absurd than the wildest fantasies.' As an example he quotes Jeroen Bosch's walking ears that, after many centuries, have finally come to life in the shape of a mouse with an ear on its back. This ear is created from an implanted matrix. Although this eared Dombomouse is non-functional and appears to be a fable animal it probably contains a functional value for science, namely the fact that it proves to be possible to generate human organs in the absence of humans.
The nice thing about Technosphere is that you can construct your own polychrome fable animal from a number of possibilities - eyes, body, limbs -, and once provided with an identification number it will be set free in the Technosphere nature reserve. This 'animal' is connected by a computer to Darwinian environmental factors, which in turn play an important role in evolution. Thus you cannot manipulate your 'animal', cannot provide or discard certain functions and characteristics, a herbivore remains a herbivore. Although the techno animal is a collage of different parts you do not experience it this way, the 'animal' appears to be one entity. Because of the advanced computer technique the separate parts make a perfect digital fit. And because of this perfection you experience the 'construction' almost as truly existing, this in contrast to the animal collages by the German artist Thomas Gr(nfeld.
Thomas Gr(nfeld's hunting trophies are clearly a collage of various animals. By placing his misfits in oak cabinets Gr(nfeld has attempted to exhibit them as existing, rare specimens. The more often you look at them the more conscious you become of their humorous and grotesque air. A rabbit may reproduce itself with a bird. But why are the various parts so easily recognizable as the animal from which it originates? Why aren't the wings provided with a rabbit skin or isn't the entire misfit covered with feathers? Gr(nfeld's anatomical freaks do not fire the imagination. Besides, the contemporary spectator has sufficient knowledge to know that a rabbit does not change into a carnivore by equipping it with a couple of tusks. Gr(nfeld's misfits are too ludicrous to be interpreted as seriously manipulated creatures. Obviously Gr(nfeld's misfits still have both feet in the culture of the medieval bestiary or the Bavarian Der Wolpertinger. Nothing, not a single biological or technological account supports the credibility of these animals. The animals are cute curiosities and because of their recognizable animal characteristics appear less credible and attractive than the many creatures that populate Technosphere. The misfits are too much of a funny object, which does not force you to ponder. Your view is literally limited to the surface of the animal. This feeling is reinforced by a visit to Technosphere, where as a spectator you actively participate in the artwork. Through the interactive character of Technosphere, you can surf to Technosphere at any time of day to see how your 'animals' are doing, your role of spectator changes into that of a participant of the artwork. As a 'spectator' of Technosphere you actually assume the role of the breeder: you decide what your 'living' artifact is going to look like. Will your 'animals' survive in this virtual world or are they doomed to a short life span due to their breeder's neglect? Hopefully you will create strong and healthy 'beasts' and will Darwin's environmental factors cooperate: climate, food- and water supplies, time of birth and fellow-techno-inhabitants so that your creations will live happily ever after.
Technosphere leads us into a new dream world, a world where fantasy and not technique rules. Technique does form the basis on which Technosphere is built, but this virtual world has sprouted from the creativity of the artist. Thanks to computer technology this world comes to life and perhaps, due to their isolation, the herbivores and carnivores will evolve into omnivores with peculiar colored spots, stripes and other unique features.
In case this Technospheric world is too distant for you then for a mere 2300 Euro you can always still buy Sony's robot dog Aibo, which according to its manufacturers can easily compete with a real dog. Unfortunately the cuddle-factor is very low, but then again, Aibo doesn't bother you with irritating panting and slobbering.
The new environment opens our eyes to the fact that there is more after God's creation. Both the various sciences - geography, biology, sociology - and art create images that seem to give an answer rather than raise a question on the future. Contemporary man views the 'elements of life' and uses metaphors for his own products in order to shape his own existence. The fact that we can decide for ourselves what our new world looks like explains our enthusiasm for the new technology or scientific innovations. The virtual world offers a new blueprint of the world and makes it possible to choose for ourselves which position we wish to take in this virtual world. Suddenly man is free from the existence of God: Frankenstein's monster appears more tangible than ever.
In a little while you can work magic in your own room, make a phantasmagoria with virtual glasses, in which you can create your own chimeras, sphinxes, demons, morphs and satyrs, like God once created earth. An artist who experiments quite extensively with this virtual fantasy world is the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac.
Chimaeric phantoms in Virtualitime
The Croatian artist Dan Oki creates morphs by making use of contemporary technology, which paint a picture of what the fauna of the future might look like. From the darkness of the black computer screen Oki creates light and a new world. Everything God ever stood for, everything that was self-evident, seems to have shrunk to an empty shell. Or, as the art historian Jan Hoet poses: ' everything has to restart, everything needs to be brought up for discussion again. We are obliged to take our individual responsibility... That takes courage, definitely.' Right now it isn't God who decides what 'reality' is going to look like, but the artist. An artist who dares to engage God in battle.
What do artists think about the creation of new life forms? Are these creation really so innovative, so different, and do they indeed represent a break with the past? No. Many computer images refer to an old image language. Just compare Dan Oki's morphs with creatures from mythology, the medieval bestiaries or the peculiar beings by Jeroen Bosch. Oki has clearly been inspired by an old image language. Suddenly the past and the present appear very close: century old images appear to be reborn in this computer age. But isn't the modeling of hybrids an attempt to face the terrifying, the terrible, or an attempt to maintain control of the increasingly speedy reality or to cope with black magic spells, evil forces or to negate gene technology? Which child did not fight the noisy dragon in its fantasy, the dragon turning out to be a mere storm afterwards, with its wooden sword or chased away the malicious shadow witch by flicking the light switch. However childish these fears may seem, time and again we conjure up stories - fables and phantasmagoria - in order to control our fears.
Phantasmagoria are not mere figments of our imagination, they also serve to shape the incomprehensible and the elusive and make it manageable. Phantasmagoria portray the unspeakable, they rise above the written language.
Dan Oki's computer synthesis - his morphs - are not so much synonymous with opposing characteristics of 'good' and 'bad', they go much further. Oki's morphs incarnate qualities like ugly and beautiful together. With his animations, his narratives, Oki brings mythical beings to life and so awakens inconceivable powers, initially reserved for the Gods. His created beings fascinate and at the same time assume any form we wish to see. But above all Oki's images seem meant to make us conscious of possible evolutionary developments, like the photos by the Spanish artists Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera make us conscious of animals that supposedly existed once. Fontcuberta and Formiguera made a series of photos with reference to a fictive tale, in which biologist Peter Ameisenhaufen has the leading role. The fictitious descriptions by the German scientist and biologist Peter Ameisenhaufen and his assistant Hans von Kubert have led to reconstructions of 'existing' animal species. In the tale Peter Ameisenhaufen makes many journeys during which he discovers the strangest animals, of which he takes precise notes. On Easter Island for example he discovers the M. colubercauda, a being with the outward characteristics of a squirrel monkey, an owl and a unicorn (Equus unicornis). And what to think of the kind Centaurus neandertalensis. This animal was surprised in the act of gathering firewood. By adding the term neandertalensis the suggestion is made that this animal lags some evolutions behind the mythological centaur. The way in which the Spanish artists have transformed Ameisenhaufen's descriptions into photographic images yields a beautiful and humorous blend of naturalia and artificialia, a blend of biology and mythology. Through the addition of the fictive story of the biologist Ameisenhaufen you in the role of the spectator begin to doubt for a moment on whether it is reality or deception. This doubt is reinforced because of the fact that these are photographs.
Whilst the reconstructions by the Spanish artists refer to the past, Dan Oki's reconstructions refer to the future. Aided by computer manipulation Dan Oki generates hybrids, the way these could come into being in the course of the twenty-first century. One example of such a construction is the rhinoceros-eagle. This bird of prey has a head that is reminiscent of a rhinoceros head, only the horn is smaller and clearly streamlined. The horn appears a logical attribute to limit the air resistance, as a result of which the bird can move through the air space faster and with more agility. This also goes for its claws, that appear a blend of the claws of an eagle and a tiger. The claws enforce the fact that its prey has no chance to escape its forceful grip. Oki's rhinoceros-eagle seems to have grown along with the industrialized environment, an environment that is dominated by speed and in which only the strongest have a chance to survive. This thought of a possible evolution is intensified by Oki equipping his beings with a smooth and monochrome gray skin, as though suggesting a viable animal. A seemingly inescapable notion when comparing his morphs to Aibo, the Sonydog.
How is it possible that a potential evolutionary theory in the work of Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Jane Prophet, Dan Oki and Malou Elshout does make a credible impression and this is laughed at when viewing Thomas Gr(nfeld's work? This incredibility, as is the case in the work of Thomas Gr(nfeld, is, according to art historian Douglas Crimp, because the objects are already dead before they have been constructed. With this Crimp means that artists like Gr(nfeld do not add to a discussion: no relationship, no contact between the work and the spectator is created.
Objects, like those by Thomas Gr(nfeld, are nice hunting trophies or Wolpertinger souvenirs, nice for the hallstand at home or in the windowsill, and seem to elicit mere cries of oh goodness or funny, they do not incite the mind to any pondering. The main difference between Gr(nfeld and the other artists is that their artificial beings move along a borderline and through this stir up the spectator's emotions, even though the machine is at this moment the only means that brings beings to life.
"Like mermaids, Doubtful Species appear most at ease underwater. They seem human, yet they are merely spotted phantoms that continuously appear and disappear under the waters surface."
As becomes clear from the text above, Doubtful Species by Malou Elshout are emotionally charged images without being sentimental nor anecdotal. Her video, at first sight showing an innocent and static situation, causes an oppressive feeling when studied attentively. Suddenly you become conscious of something strange, something unusual being revealed under the surface of the water. The spotted shapes, that first reminded us of exotic reptiles often found at Zoo's, prove to be people with extremely large birthmarks. The unspoken, the repressed, the concealed is expressed.
The manner in which Malou Elshout displays her appearances, her 'discovery', reminds us of fun fair attractions, freak shows or 17th century madhouses. Here the 'Other' was shown to a large audience, an audience that considered itself the norm and liked to entertain itself with everything that deviated. We not only come across the 'Other' in public places, but also in the plastic arts, photography and film. In 1488 Domenico Ghirlandaio painted an old man with a so called bulbous nose, Rembrandt painted a portrait with two black people en Pieter Bruegel the Old was tempted to paint a group of crippled. In the nineteenth century medical scientists enthusiastically grabbed the new medium photography to register the many abnormalities that crossed their path, a trend that was continued by many artists in the twentieth century, amongst whom the French photographer Brassai.
Although one would expect that the interest for the 'Other' would be subdued a little, the opposite is true. In our contemporary age we still don't seem to tire of registering the 'Other', - mental and physical aberrations, people that look different, etc. - everything that slightly deviates from the norm still arouses curiosity.
Yet the portrayal of the 'Other' has not always received a warm welcome. A good example of this is the movie Freaks. Inspired by fun fair attractions and freak shows, Tod Browning produced his movie Freaks at the beginning of the thirties. The movie disgusted the audience and critics so much that MGM (the movie producer) was forced to stop the screening. The reason for the audience's disgust was the fact that Tod Browning had cast real freaks, not actors in his movie. The movie was only brought back into circulation in the eighties, fifty years later. The question is though, what could have been the reason for such a powerful reaction to the movie Freaks?
Accustomed to freak shows and bizarre fun fair attractions one would not expect the audience to react in such an extreme manner to this movie. Was it the intimacy of the movie theater in which one suddenly became conscious of the voyeurism one indulged in? Or did it concern the character of the abnormalities? It was probably a combination of the two: the spying on people with malformations and the fear of being caught in the act. For a moment you feel a toddler again who is punished by a rap over the knuckles by his mum, don't stare at that man/woman, keep your eyes off. But do I ever learn to keep my eyes off? Once, at the market, I bought a jar of shoe polish. The moment I had to pay the stallholder turned his face, attached to it an enormous ball, as big as a grapefruit, towards me. Filled with disgust I watched the lurching colossus and at the same time I wondered if it wouldn't be tiring to carry such a pouch like growth around all day. And what was in it, how did it feel? With all the discipline I possessed I tried to look at the man normally, but every time my eyes were diverted to this peculiar bulge. Obscurities tempt the gaze and the more monstrous the harder it seems to keep your eyes off. In his book On the Origin of Species Darwin no longer speaks of variations when extreme abnormalities occur, but of monstrosities. Variations are small differences with ancestors, you may for example take a white fish and a blue fish and the offspring of these two fish have white/blue stripes. This offspring falls in the category variation. You may not like it, but this doesn't mean that the white/blue striped fish are deformed.
Monstrosities are extreme deviations and actually indicate that something has gone wrong in the reproduction from A to B and one tends to speak of a missing link in reproduction. The problem is that not all monstrosities are monsters, but are perceived that way because they do not fit the ideal. The latter is also valid for Malou Elshout's 'Doubtful Species'.
The extremely large birthmarks attract and revolt. We want to see it, but are at the same time conscious of the fact that these large moles are not really normal, they do not fit our idea of a birthmark. Yet does it mean that people with large moles like these are monsters or devils, is it a reason to avoid these people and to consider them dangerous? Basically it isn't, but history tells us that the 'Other' is treated differently to the so called average person time and again. Think of the persecution of the Jews or the Witch Sabbath. Of course it can't be denied that everybody - consciously or subconsciously or out of fear, locks out the 'Other', but as soon as one starts to do so consciously by means of genetic manipulation one walks on thin ice. Then we (we generally are the rulers or the people with capital) try to force the world to our will, which comes closer to mechanical systems and the yes-no principle of computer concepts than emotion. This manipulation cannot be compared to the idea of the creatable nature as it was preached in the era of Baroque. During the Baroque nature was changed at the surface, the DNA-chain remains intact. One started to construct landscape gardens and set out to breed dogs and horses. The surface, the outward appearance, is embellished, but the genes, or rather the ingredients remained identical. Genetic manipulation is intends to ban so called 'mistakes' in our DNA-chain. This means adding or removing a gene in order to eliminate these so called 'mistakes', whatever these mistakes may be.
Malou Elshout's phantoms, that come so close to the surface of the water, suddenly prove to find themselves in unfathomable depths and to be equipped with a metaphysical dimension. It is an iconological symbol that clearly relates to the new science. Only we cannot yet value the correctness of her symbol. Do we enter Huxleys Brave New World with clones or genetic manipulation? Although we think we can recognize the idea we cannot yet place it in our current communication system. Even though machines have increasingly become a part of our environment since the 18th century and have taken over various communicative and physical tasks from humans it still takes time to value and appreciate them. Clearly genetic manipulation and contemporary technology raise important questions and incite a new understanding of nature and being human. The contemporary environment is impregnated and ruled by various technical interventions and infrastructures. The body is equipped more and more with various cyborgian attachments like walkmans, artificial hips, pacemakers and implants and perhaps physical man will fade into the background by the appearance of machines, this is not an abrupt process however. With 'Doubtful Species' Malou Elshout seems to want to alert the spectator for a Brave New World. Her phantoms may be interpreted as so called shock-images, it supplies food for thought, per perhaps it is no more than a faint echo, a faint echo of an alarm that perhaps sounds without justification.
Sheena, Queen of the Savanna
Whilst I recover puffing and panting from one of my urban expeditions a crippled man takes a seat at my table, he turns out to be the troubadouring homeless city poet. Inquisitively he turns his eye to me and asks if I, in exchange for a nice! poem, will make a small contribution to cover his essentials of life. In general terms - love, death, god, street life, the city and illusion - he sums up his repertoire. I make my choice, at which from a large mountain of paper he brings out the poem 'Fake':
It was almost genuine, to be truthful
the way you stressed your distinctive features
It was really fake, as soon became clear
You were the wrong one
Fake and real, deceit and truth, culture and nature, illusion and reality, mythology and history. One by one notions that are applicable to the work (the installations) of artist Martin Riebeek. Such a collage of illusion and reality is the installation Sheena, Queen of the Savanna. This installation exhibits a combination of a surreal video and all sorts of physical objects, like a hallstand with a hare-suit on it and a toddlers swimming pool. Although the concepts, looking at them on their own merits, are antonyms, they adopt amorph meanings in the installation Sheena, Queen of the Savanna. The grotesque and heterogeneous manifestation of the installation evokes the idea that, in spite of its perfect finish, various object have been left behind by the movers. The image tradition of Sheena is more reminiscent of a late Baroque rhetoric than of linear, identical and homogeneous classical schemes.
Riebeek appears to challenge the spectator to compose his own story in this jumble of visual objects and so expose the relationship between known facts and an unknown entirety. Through this the installation obtains the character of a Wunderkammer, where the spectator becomes a link between intangible deceptiveness and tangible truth. A good example of such an intangible deceptiveness is the moment Sheena, the main character in the video, comes into the picture seated on her zebra. For a moment static occurs through which the video image switches from color to black and white for a moment. The opposite is true. Not the video image but your optical constitution seems to waver, because the image is and remains in color. Is it due to this waver that we experience the zebra as being real or is our view so conditioned? At a closer view it becomes clear that the zebra is a painted horse. Nothing is definite or sure in the installation. Or, as art historian Barbara Stafford puts it ' a nuanced physical, emotional and intellectual experience, not easily expressed in words'.
A similar experience occurs with the bubbles that rise from the toddlers swimming pool in the video projection. While you watch the soap bubbles whirl up in the video they suddenly turn out to pass the screen: the bubbles are real! The bubbles are produced by a genuine bubble-machine. The crossing of video image to real (tangible) image continually puts the spectator on the wrong track, in such a way however that it is enjoyable. That which you initially assume to be true is, in a few mere seconds, transformed into a trompe l'oeil and that which is a trompe l'oeil suddenly moves into real space. The switches from reality to illusion are estranging and contribute to the creation of an interaction between the artwork and the spectator. By making use of the game of real and fake Riebeek knows how to break the distantiating effect of the video projection which turns the passive spectator into an active participant. By blowing away the bubbles or piercing them, by smelling secretly or touching the empty skin of the hare, by hanging your coat on the hallstand or briefly admiring the reflection of your face in the swimming pool you are suddenly placed inside the artwork and not in front of it, as is usual with a painting or the average video projection.
The surprises of the spectacle make you alert and sharpen your perception so much that you suddenly perceive all sorts of things in the video projection that you did not see initially. The tangible swimming pool is not only tangibly present in the space but also in the video projection. The more intensively you look at the video projection the more questions and fabrications seem to arise. What kind of person is Sheena really? Is she a feminine Tarzan or Hercules? Does or doesn't she exist? After all the zebra is a painting and how for heaven's sake can you ride something that turns out to be a painting? Unless Riebeek's Sheena is the heroine Sheena from the cartoon bearing the same name, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, brought to life. Dressed in a panther skin and rider of a zebra Sheena could easily have stepped from the cartoon. This means that she could just as well be a female Hercules. Hercules is - like Sheena - an fantasy figure that embodies our longing for freedom, physical power and immortality. Hercules was also dressed in a predator's skin (a lion) and knew how to tame the most unwilling of animals, the zebra is known as an impassable animal. Suppose Sheena is indeed a courageous and powerful amazon, then why is there a boy in pants decorated with balls and a skateboard sitting next to a toddlers swimming pool? No contact seems possible between Sheena and the boy, this is enforced by his posture and point of view. The boy has his back turned towards Sheena and does not seem conscious of her presence. Also his ball print pants, skateboard and the bright sunshine suggest that he is enjoying a nice summer's day at the lake. Is it a mirage or is it intended to reinforce the difference between nature and culture, whereby the boy with his skateboard stands for the cultural and Sheena for the natural? Especially this final thought I find a pleasant option, because it allows multiple interpretations. On the one hand the landscape may be natural, a prairie for example. On the other the landscape may suggest a recreation area, a landscaped nature reserve. From this option the notions nature and culture, reality and illusion, real and fake obtain their amorph meaning and do you arrive at a point where it is legitimate to state that both the female figure as well as the male figure belong in this natural or artificial environment. This division, whereby Sheena stands for the natural and the boy for the cultural, is putting it too simply, however. Another possibility is that Sheena and her zebra are comic figures brought to life. This brings with it that the boy is natural, not Sheena. Through this Sheena changes into a created person, thus a cultural product. By the amorph character of the notions natural and cultural or reality and illusion it is difficult to name what you see, what you experience and what we can interpret as being reality.
This also goes for the hare suit hanging from the hallstand. What's it doing there? Is it a carnival suit or did Sheena transform from a sweet bunny girl into a courageous amazon? Or is this heroin, like a shaman, able to shift into the lives of animals? The many possibilities of interpretation would make Greek philosopher Plato turn in his grave. Because although Riebeek has a clear idea about how to shape his installations, this idea has nothing to do with the mimesis, as it was propagated by Plato. Riebeek makes installations that sooner tend towards 'Disneyfication' than installation which correctly reflect reality. But despite the fact that they do not reflect reality, they do make us conscious of what reality may imply.
Whichever way it may be, fact is that Riebeek with Sheena, Queen of the Savanna has made an installation that may be interpreted in very many ways. The scope of interpretations is enlarged because the video projection knows no beginning or end, time and space melt into each other and there is an interaction between the physical objects, the video projection and the spectator. With his installation Riebeek created a kind of twilightzone, in which illusion and reality melt into each other seamlessly. In this zone, this Wunderkammer, we seem to loose grip on chronological time and 'space' becomes a place where past and present merge and where we discover new meanings. Although you have absorbed the installation in a few minutes, the after image this installation leaves behind is infinitely longer, by which the past becomes part of the present for a moment. Rounding it up: a brief encounter where fake and almost real know how to transform into a lasting memory.
Darker than Night
In the constructed realm of spirits, in a cave made by human hands, somewhere in between the bats, a peculiar being called a batbot hangs upside down. This artifact, neither bat nor robot, attempts to make contact with his fellow cave dwellers by emitting sounds. Or, in fake cave a fake bat tries to come into contact with real, living bats, who in their turn are attempting to adjust to their fake environment.
For a moment the spectator has the feeling of being afloat between fact and fiction.
The inventor of batbot, a hybrid of bat and robot, is the Brazilian - resident of the U.S.A -artist Eduardo Kac. Kac (pronounce as cats) has been intrigued by language and communication all his life and appears to have reached a state of euphoria because of Internet. By the shift of poetry, billboards, telephone and fax to his so called 'telepresent' installations the words 'loop', 'link' and 'network' have gained an increasingly important meaning for Kac.
Born in the then militarily oppressed Brazil, Kac's predilection for 'telepresent' installations, in which language and communication are an important notion, can hardly be called strange. Especially his most recent works appear increasingly inspired by the (tele)communication possibilities that internet offers. Kac's interest of technique is not surprising. Ever since antiquity artists have been fascinated by new techniques, materials and the possibilities these bring along. A few historical examples of new techniques are the building methods like the Gothic and image media like photography, video and film, and all have generated possibilities for new art forms and - movements and have brought on euphoric feelings.
Kac's telepresentations must not be seen as esthetic objects, but as virtual places where people, robots and sometimes fauna and flora are brought into contact with each other in a seemingly mysterious manner, and come to an interaction. But what does the batbot have to do with notions like interaction and telepresence? What is the relationship between batbot, this batrobot, bats and spectators?
Batbot is no average robot, like the ones we find at flea markets, in toy shops, supermarkets or high tech industry. Quite the opposite. Batbot is a robot that you, as a spectator, become part of by donning virtual glasses, VR-glasses. You kind of 'transform' into the interior of batbot. By putting on the VR-glasses you suddenly 'view' the living bats from the batbot's perspective and you can also hear the sounds these bats bring forth and what you hear is visible to many people on the World Wide Web. Suddenly it's your glances and the movements of your head that determine what a larger audience on the Web gets to see. The application of the VR-glasses, that incidentally show an affinity with the nineteenth century stereoscope and the current toy 'View Masters', does not so much have a visual but rather more of a communicative function. And the latter is precisely the essence of the project for Eduardo Kac: the interaction between spectator, batbotborg and web user. In order to value Kac's work correctly we must realize that Kac neither intends to show a perfect illusion of an object nor a suggestive three-dimensional effect. He wants to acquaint us with a large communication network.
It's nice to see the flying route of the bats, but the essence of the work is telecommunication. For Kac, Darker than Night is a 'tele-empathic' artwork which investigates the human-machine-animal interface and telepresence as a form of mediation. In this interactive work local participants, participants at a distance, the telerobotic bat Batbot and many Egyptian fruit bats share a cave at the Rotterdam Zoo Blijdorp...... to see the bats the spectators have to peer through a window. The VR-glasses suddenly make this peering redundant. Through these glasses you transport yourself to the robot bat, instantly you become part of its living environment and communication area.
The idea that across the world people can hear and see what you see is fascinating and oppressive at the same time. Fascinating because by means of the web boundaries are imperceptibly broken and enormous distances can be covered very quickly. Oppressive, because every form of privacy is erased, everything you see is also watched by an unknown number of people. Fortunately the VR-glasses, and so the audience, cannot read thoughts, otherwise there would be no space for your 'own self' once you've put on the glasses. For me this is a relief, rather than a technical inadequacy. The notion of my thoughts being 'readable' worldwide would form an obstacle for me to put on the VR-glasses. It is pleasant to realize that Batbot is more of a concept than a high tech product that bares your soul and glory.
Aided by new technology Kac does not limit himself to the surface of communication, meaning face-to-face communication, but he breaks through this surface. The VR-glasses and the use of a computer make it possible to look behind the surface of an object, even shift into the skin of another, as is done on the so called internet chatboxes. Considering the voluminous network of chatters this transformation or metamorphosis of persons will only increase. The question that remains is: being a user, how do you know that your transaction with the World Wide Web is reality and not fiction? From your own intimate and safe environment you can lay anonymous contacts on a grand scale, but the fact remains that you will never know who is hiding underneath the surface. Kac is probably euphoric about the possibilities of interactive techno communication, personally though I have my reservations about the change of a biological to a digital form of communication.
The ambivalence of computer technology is that you are able to come into contact with people and computers all over the world, but at the same time you are isolated from tangible life. Also the disappearance of the skin, the surface as an indicator, renders me feeling ambivalent. On the one hand the disappearance of the skin allows you to encounters others in an unprejudiced and objective manner in cyberspace. On the other hand the disappearance of an indicator may lead to the erasure of racial characteristics, ethics and esthetics and our opinion will be influenced by artificial signs. In fact this way one kind of human is created, namely the anonymous invisible human. Yet isn't it wonderful that there are so many kinds - large, small, fat, skinny, ugly, beautiful, dark or light skinned - of people walking around adding color to our lives. Artificial, computer generated signs will and can determine the view and opinion and with that shut out the 'Other'. Variations in outward appearances, illness and peculiarities need to be seen, if these notions are to maintain their content. That we will increasingly make use of the web is clear, but who determines the ethical rules for the web? Personally I prefer encounters and contacts in real space, not so much in cyberspace. It's the tangible contacts and the 'Other' that make life so full of surprises and exciting. From this perspective Martin Riebeek's work Sheena with its coincidental encounters and Malou Elshout's work Doubtful Species, now stripped of its Darwinian interpretation, prove to gain new meaning(s). Because of the advancing developments our world will digitalize further, but as long as we can tear ourselves away from the screen, get away from our safe and intimate space, there will be sufficient time and space for tangible, physical contacts.
Spectators familiar with Star Trek, Star Wars and other dizzying 'science fiction' projections will utter a sigh of disappointment when taking off the VR-glasses. Even though the hybrid is loaded with high tech novelties, the fact remains that as a spectator you are presented with mere black and white flying routes and transformed sonar sounds of live bats. While you expect to land up in the exiting nighttime decor of the bats you suddenly turn out to have landed in a not so exiting interplay of lines. Darker than Night does not show an esthetic, sensational or critical image, but should be seen as a concept, a blueprint for a new form of communicating.
While for Kac the batbot is a metaphor for the enigmatic world of the Web, I can see his project as an extension of telephone, fax and e-mail. The overwhelming technology of and around the computer may seem to have pushed Kac's originality and fantasy into the background: it is not the artist Kac, but the engineer behind the technology that may seem to dictate his image language, his 'science reality'. Where art and technology meet, fantasy - the fiction - may appear to be eliminated. However, for spectators unfamiliar with virtual reality, internet and networks, a wondrous world, including all facets of the good, the bad and the ugly will open up.
One of the first episodes of the land of Fables was a tale of Mister Crow and Lowieke the Fox. The crow, who happily sits holding a chunk of cheese in his beak, is tempted by the sly fox to 'warble its tune' .
The crow, its vanity flattered, starts its tune and so loses its delicious hunk of cheese to the fox. In Taman Indah it is not the fox that tempts but the sound artist Roel Meelkop. With his sound installation Araoke he will tempt the parrots in Taman Indah to bring forth their finest tune and perhaps a mutation will occur in their natural voices.
For the soundinstallation Araoke, Roel Meelkop had recorded the natural sounds in the Taman Indah, the home of the parrots in Blijdorp. He digitalized these natural sounds and composed them into a veritable musical composition. The nice thing about digital sound is that every minor sound fragment can be duplicated, isolated, extended, amplified or muted. The natural sound can be copied perfectly by the computer, but it can also be modified until it is barely recognizable as a natural sound. By reducing the sound to binary codes it is possible to transform natural structures into a musical process.
The re-aligning and mutation of the Taman Indah sound will be played on the original location in the presence of the birds, whereby the birds present will be invited to act as soloists to improvise on their modified sound. At first hearing the listener may not realize that this is an adaptation of the harmonious and melodic birdsong. The listener is actually deceived, that which he/she is listening to is an illusionary, artificial sound.
The creation of artificial sound in itself is not so new. At the end of the 17th and 18th century the construction of automatons was very popular. Through the development of advanced timepieces it became possible to make complicated imitation-automatons: there were dolls that could talk, whistle or write, and birds that could flap their wings, could eat, drink, shit and twitter. There is a peculiar resemblance between these devices and contemporary technology, especially the interest for imitating sound and speech. The main difference with Roel Meelkop's copied sound is that it is not created by the vibration of strings, but by digital units. Because of this Meelkop can steer the digitalized sound to the second, the parrots will dispatch their sound by means of 'vibrating strings' (vocal cords) into the space.
In Meelkop's work the parrots can link up to the digitalized sound at any moment. Although the digital composition is set, the performance of the music composition in the Taman Indah is at random. By the bird's interaction the sound installation will change continually. Is it justified to speak of a sound installation given this interaction? Not to my idea. Personally I see Meelkop's sound installation as it is shown in the Taman Indah as a combination of a performance and an 'open system' music composition. Only in this performance it is not Meelkop but the parrots who play the leading role.
The digital music composition is not merely a performance, but a combination of a performance and an 'open system' music composition. With this I mean that the music continually changes by means of external influences and disturbances. These changes mainly occur by two factors:
* consciously controlled changes, this is the sound the parrots in Taman Indah add themselves,
* uncontrolled changes, these are caused by the listener/spectator and by the parrot's reaction to the visitors.
When the sound installation transforms into a performance a peculiar boundary between object and subject comes into being. On the one hand the parrots are the subject, because they are the executors of the performance. On the other hand the parrots are the object, because the visitor of the Zoo watches them because of their exotic character. The strange thing is however that the visitor of Taman Indah will in first instance not notice a sound installation present, at this moment the birds are object. But when the spectator stays in the area longer than he/she will notice that the parrots interact with the digitalized sound through which they become executors, thus subject. This way Meelkop's performance takes on a very different character from for example the artist Marina Abramovic's performances. In the performance Dragon Heads Marina Abramovic allows five pythons and boa-constrictors to writhe on her face, while she keeps her eyes fixed on the spectator. In the performance Abramovic is the subject and the snakes are the object of the performance, the way the digital composition is the object in Meelkop's work.
Because Meelkop has more or less calculated the changes consciously there is no mention of a work with a set buildup and obvious intervals. Through the factors the digitalized composition in Taman Indah will not sound the same for a moment or a day. As a listener you will constantly be forced to adapt your hearing, because you don't exactly know when, how and from which direction the sound will change. Will the sound installation add new sounds to the parrot's repertoire, as was the case with Alexander Graham Bell's dog Skye? Or will a true mutation take place in the parrot's voice? Questions that are difficult to answer. The parrots may stick to their natural sound, but it is also possible that a true change occurs from the natural to the artificial and that the araoke transforms into a karaoke.
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