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the uncanny : cyborg lifestyle
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The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture
An Exhibition of the Vancouver Art Gallery
February 9 to May 26, 2002. Curated by Bruce Grenville

by Jim Bizzocchi

Sigmund Freud and Donna Haraway provide the philosophical foundations for the Vancouver Art Gallery's recent exhibit The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. In the companion anthology to the show (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002), curator and editor Bruce Grenville uses their writings to outline the ambiguities at the core of the cyborg experience.

In the famous essay that lends its name to the show, Freud describes the experience of the "uncanny" - or unheimlich (literally, a "disquieting familiarity") - as the recasting of the familiar to question our sense of the everyday. Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto (among other theoretico-philosophical papers on the subject) defines cyborg identity as a set of leaky boundaries: human and animal, organic and machinic, physical and immaterial. We exist within these boundaries - their ambiguities are the stuff of our lives and culture - and we have the responsibility to define their meanings. Grossly speaking, Freud reviews an aberrant reaction to the transformed familiar, while Haraway argues for a committed engagement with the unfamiliar that surrounds us, which she terms "cyborg citizenship."

In his curatorial role, Grenville looks at history and at art, and tracks for us one possible path through the many territories opened by the metaphor of the cyborg. His choices, in the end, are truer to Freud than to Haraway.

Using a variety of media - cinema, photo, painting, sculpture, installation - the exhibition proposes an impressive and coherent view of the representation of the cyborg. The works on display span high culture and mass culture, modernism and post-modernism, the avant-garde West and the techno-oriental East. The historical arc of The Uncanny spans the archaic and the futuristic: For example, the photography (the original mechanical trap for the human soul) ranges from Muybridge's nude and asexual Animal Locomotion studies to the fully clothed vision of a consumerist techno-sexuality in Mariko Mori's photo-mural Play with Me. However, the exhibition's exhaustiveness in this respect is offset by its relative weakness in communicating the experience of the cyborg.

I was most interested in those relatively few exhibits that elicited a visceral experience of the work, or that at least provoked an active involvement with it. In certain cases, viewing required action on the visitor's part, or an active navigation of the exhibition space. For example, I laid down to confront the disembodied, video-projected egg-head in Tony Oursler's Vanishing, and sympathetically experienced the same sense of weightlessness as the free-floating cosmonauts in Nina Levitt's video installation Gravity. I used the gallery's hands-on workshop to construct my own two- and three-dimensional "pseudo-cyborgs," and posted my written comments on the wall along with those of other gallery visitors.

Even more involving, and unsettling, were those few exhibits that went beyond representations of the cyborg in art to document the experience of actual lived cyborg experiences. Because they are grounded in real human lives, such works bring us far closer to the essence of the flesh-machine cyborgian dialectic.

One benign artifact in this category was a toy, the Nintendo Power Glove: a beguiling consumerist manifestation of cyborg culture. It wasn't activated for gallery visitors to use, but at least it represented a functional cyborg device.

There were two other artifacts that I would not want to use, despite my riveted interest, because their functionality and materiality were both compelling and repellent. One was an image of terror from my youth: an Emerson Iron Lung. This is the ultimate expression of the medico-mechanical cyborgian terror. In 1954, growing up in Michigan, I was a participant in the Salk trials of the polio vaccine. I still remember the little red-and-white "Polio Pioneer" pin they gave us. I remember even more clearly my fear and disgust at the thought of a life of imprisonment within that medieval/industrial cylindrical horror.

The other such exhibit was from Stelarc, whose work and life demonstrate a total abandonment of human nature to the modifications of the cyborg. His artistic vision is a direct manifestation of Haraway's call for engagement. Like the patients (or victims) of the Iron Lung, he lives as a cyborg, and some of his works seem almost as uncomfortable as that archaic medical device. Stelarc merges his body with the machine at the thresholds of pain and fear, embrace and surrender. His postcards show the sweep of his work: Stelarc suspended from hooks, Stelarc vised between planks, Stelarc being hurled through plate glass, Stelarc's bio-telemetry distributed on the Web. His capstone piece is the Third Hand: clamped to his right forearm like a living pirate-hook, controlled by his stomach and thigh muscles through a network of wires and body connections, the Third Hand can grasp, gesture, and write like a true hand. I look at the photos, the inscriptions, and the hand itself. His imagery makes me uneasy. I feel his hooks and wires and machinery imposed upon my own body, and my flesh creeps. Stelarc betrays none of this fear. He seems to accept, even embrace, the discomforts and possibilities of a cyborg symbiosis.

Stelarc and the Lung are the real manifestations of Freud's nightmare and Haraway's manifesto. They show us what cyborg life is like, and what it could be like, for members of the human species. Will this new experience be a patched-up remedy for human frailty or a device to attain human transcendence? Stelarc is clear: uncomfortable as it is, he sees his work "not as a prosthetic replacement, but as an aesthetic endorsement." For him, embodied media do more than frighten or engage humans - they extend humanity. We might soon recognize his ilk outside the art gallery itself.

Jim Bizzocchi is an assistant professor for Simon Fraser University's interactive arts program (formerly TECH B.C.). He has a B.A. in psychology from the University of Michigan and as M.S. in comparative media studies from MIT.

References :
Artists of the Uncanny

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

Mariko Mori (1967- )

Tony Oursler (1957- ) [http://www.oursler.net]

Lee Bul (1967- ) [http://www.leebul.com]

Kenji Yanobe (1965- )

Takashi Murakami (1962- )

Stelarc (1946- ) [http://www.stelarc.va.com.au]

Survival Research Laboratories [http://www.srl.org]

Links :


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