A Microchip Inside the Body
Arlindo Machado University of São Paulo, Brazil
After generalizing happenings, performances, and installations, after questioning the white cube of the museum and jumping to the public space, after borrowing from industry and employing all kinds of machines and technological apparatuses to make images, texts, and sounds, after discussing the tragedy of the human condition and laying bare the embarrassment, the segregation, the unspoken differences of race, sex, geographic origin, and socioeconomic contingency—after all of this, art seems to orient itself now toward a discussion of the very biological condition of the species.
For the past few years, artists like Orlan and Stelarc have brought forward a cultural discussion of the possibility of surpassing the human through radical surgical intervention, through the interface between flesh and electronics, or with robotic prostheses to complement and expand the potentiality of the biological body. More than anticipate profound changes in perception, in our conception of the world, and in the reorganization of our sociopolitical systems, these pioneers foresee fundamental transformations in our species. These transformations could conceivably alter our genetic code and reorient the Darwinian evolutionary process.
An important landmark of this current took place on November 11, 1997, at the cultural center Casa das Rosas, São Paulo, Brazil. On this day, the artist Eduardo Kac implanted in his ankle an identification microchip with nine digits and registered himself with a databank in the United States via the Internet. Replacing the traditional branding with hot iron, the microchip--a transponder tag-- is used to identify and recover lost or stolen animals. The microchip is connected to a coil and a capacitor, all hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass to prevent the organism from rejecting it. The number stored on the chip can be retrieved with a tracker, a portable scanner that generates a radio signal and energizes a microchip, making it transmit back its inalterable number. The microchip implant in the ankle has a precise symbolic meaning: it is an area of the body that has traditionally been chained or branded.
The description sketched above is oversimplified and incomplete. Kac's work, entitled "Time Capsule," also included several other elements that were directly or indirectly related to the implant. The physical space at Casa das Rosas was converted temporarily into something like a hospital room, with surgical instruments, a doctor to assist with possible complications, and an emergency ambulance (parked inside the premises by the front door and visible from the street). There were also seven original photographs on the wall--the only surviving mementoes of the artist's grandmother's family, who were entirely annihilated in Poland during World War II. In the space we also saw computers that enabled access to the database in the United States, allowed the artist's body to be scanned via the Internet, and transmitted the event worldwide as a webcast. The next day an X-ray showing the position of the microchip inside the artist's body was added to the site next to an enlargement of the database record. There was also a live broadcast of the whole event by a commercial television station (Canal 21), two more taped broadcasts by other commercial television stations (TV Cultura and TV Manchete), and great response in the local press before and after the event. The Argentinean daily newspaper La Nación published a full-page story and the New York magazine Intelligent Agent covered the event with an extensive article. The artist himself may not have been able to anticipate and contemplate all of the implications and consequences of his intervention. Due to the broadcasts and the press coverage, for example, the implant and netscanning of the artist's body went beyond the intellectual ghetto and acquired a public dimension: the next morning the strange story of the man who had implanted a microchip in his own body was told and retold in cafes, subways, and in corporate offices by people who do not even remotely follow developments in the art world.
Kac's intervention touches on difficult and uncomfortable points in the debate on the philosophic, scientific, and ethical future of mankind. One month before the realization of "Time Capsule" at Casa das Rosas, the event was commissioned for the exhibition Art and Technology by the Instituto Cultural Itau, also in São Paulo, and then cancelled by the same institution under the pretext that a microchip implant in a human being could bring serious legal problems for the sponsoring institution. In the United States, important research centers requested copies of the videotape of the broadcast to analyze the experience while the Wearable Computing list discussed the event on the Internet. The fact that the work became polemical both inside and outside the country in which it was realized is a clear indication that Kac's intervention touched something important. As the placement of a foreign body (Duchamp's urinal) in the sacred space of the museum had unpredictable consequences for subsequent art, the implantation of a microchip inside the body of an artist will intensify the debate on the paths that both art and the human species will travel in the next millennium.
Because Eduardo Kac is an artist and not a political activist, the event he realized at Casa das Rosas remains open to multiple interpretations. One can read the implant as a warning about forms of human surveillance and control that might be adopted in the near future. The Brazilian press approached the event mostly from this point of view. The scenario evoked is that a microchip implanted in our body from birth could become our only form of identification. Whenever we needed to be identified we would be scanned, and immediately a databank would show records revealing who we are, what we do, what kinds of products we consume, if we are in debt with to Internal Revenue Service, if we are facing criminal charges, or if we are hiding from the judicial system.
However, one can also read Kac's work from another perspective, as a sign of a biological mutation that might eventually take place, when digital memories will be implanted in our bodies to complement or substitute for our own memories. This reading is clearly authorized by the associations the artist makes between the implant of a numerical memory in his own body and the public exhibition of his familial memories, his external memories materialized in the form of photographs of his ancestors. These images, which strangely contextualize the event, allude to deceased individuals whom the artist never had the chance to meet, but who were responsible for the "implantation" in his body of the genetic traces he has carried from childhood and that he will carry until his death. Will we in the future still carry these traces with us irreversibly or will we be able to replace them with artificial genetic traces or implanted memories? Will we still be black, white, mulatto, Indian, Brazilian, Polish, Jewish, female, male, or will we buy some of these traces at a shopping mall? In this case, will it make any sense to speak of family, race, nationality? Will we have a past, a history, an "identity" to be preserved?
Until recently humanity was understood, both philosophically and at the level of common sense, as essentially opposed to machines and to prostheses that simulate biological functions. Human essence seemed to reside exactly there, where the robot failed and revealed its limitations. However, with the development of robotics, the automaton has progressively acquired competencies, talents, and even sensibilities we once considered unique to our species, forcing us continually to redefine our notions of what constitutes our own humanity. More dramatic yet, the development of wet and biocompatible interfaces are enabling the insertion of electronic elements inside our own bodies. These elements then become part of what we call ourselves. Kac's emblematic event seems to suggest that in the future the robot, so often presented in science fiction as an invader usurping men's and women's places, might be inside us—might become ourselves.
Arlindo Machado is a critic, curator, and professor at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. He has researched and published extensively on visual arts and new technologies. His books include The Specular Illusion: an Essay on Photography, The Art of Video, Machine and Imaginary: the Poetics of Technology, and Pre-cinemas and Post-cinemas (in Portuguese). A. Machado received the National Photo Award from the Brazilian Foundation for the Arts (FUNARTE) in 1995. He is the Chair of the 1999 edition of "Invenção", an international symposium on electronic art sponsored by ITAU, CAiiA and Leonardo.
Back to Kac Web