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Ping! Drape!: Revivifying the 21c. Body Electric in Australian Performance Art


Notes: Buildings, Movies and Brains. From the symposium organized by Barbara Drucker, Chair of UCLA school of Fine Arts, and Warren Neidich, co-founder artbrain.org

Introduction:
This afternoon, my talk grows from questions I’d like to raise for our neuroscientists, and other discussants, namely: Does the brain know the difference between an imagined and actual reality? And if so, how? Or to put it another way, given the aging brain in terms of human life cycles, how does the brain select for valuing the imagined, yet performed there and then, as as distinct from the performed here and now?

I ask this thinking back on the premise of the Sydney Biennale 2002, which declared “the world (maybe fantastic)” as its premise. Using the word “fantasy” in direct conceptual opposition to “rationality,” curator Richard Grayson produced a pure spectacle of art works framed by a theory of everything epistemologically alternative to rationality. Here he included a variety of artistic strategies ranging from cunning acts of deceit to imaginative propositions of pure pretense, foregrounding the “as if” or subjunctive dimension of human longing. Culling works primarily from the U.S., Australia, and Western Europe, Grayson quite successfully drew together a plenitude of visual phenomena and narrative presuming the existence of material and virtual fakes, UFO’s, and human auras, along with projects that toyed with archetypal consciousness, multiple identity formation, science fiction story-telling, multi-dimensional time/ space travel, paranormal communication, drug and alcohol hallucinations, along with mystical revelations — in other words, anything that fell outside the culturally specific Euro-centric paradigm of common sense, rational understanding and behavior. My critical commentary on the Biennale lead me to entertain what I refer to as a Philip K. Dick theory of aesthetics — an aesthetic system informed by (but not mimetic of)Dick’s writings in an effort to read some of the emergent characteristics in work produced over the recent turn of the century by artists based in the Los Angeles and select AsiaPacifc cultures.

For today’s discussion regarding the mapping of relations between art, technology and the brain, I want to gloss my Philip K. Dick theory as way of encouraging us to look through a different lens at performance imagery that bears evidence of current artistic attempts to revivify the body electric by means of play .

Reflecting on Dick’s 1981novel VALIS, we find our first principle nestled within claims Dick ascribes to himself as alter-ego Horselover Fat, wherein he states:

‘The phenomenal world does not exist: it is a hypostatis of information processed by the Mind “ (my cap) which is to say that information is the bottom line stuff that makes up what we call the universe.

The 2nd Principle follows ever thus: Pinkness, plastic, and pattern and decoration are codes for VALIS — Vast Active Living Intelligent System OR COSMIC INTELLIGENCE, that which is both rational and non-rational in epistemic demeanor.

The 3rd Principle: Art produced in culturally gorged metropolitan areas like L. A., Tokyo, Bangkok or Sydney have shifted in geneological orientation away from paying direct homage to an art history of iconography and turned instead to experimenting with multiple cultural histories of fantasy, the grotesque and the hyperreal, each systematically rearranged to a cinematic editing meter of video time, dvd time, highspeed download jpeg time, Frank Zappa time, Mariachi time, freeway gridlock time. Technologically informed cinematic meter sets the rhythm for visualizing VALIS.

The 4th Principle: The determinate dispersion of information throughout location yields (>) an indeterminate dispersion of interpretation throughout time. Time/space dispersion opens up what L. A. video artist Joe Herring calls a “sweet spot” of perceptual experience or information processing that allows direct contact with VALIS: Vast Active Living Intelligent System.

Entering the Sweet Spot

With consideration of one or more of these four P.K.D. principles in mind, I want to push the aesthetics of play to the fore of our consideration, using as evidence, the photographic and WEB performance imagery produced respectively by two Australian artists Stelarc and Poli Papapetrou. Neither artists’s works were not included in the Sydney Biennale but indeed their practices exemplify clearly demarcated directions artists are taking to address the ways in which we currently struggle to corporeally adapt to the speed and dispersion of the information flow brought about by emergent technologies of the late 20th and 21st centuries. [Promo Images: Olympia as Elizabeth; Stelarc with Third Hand]

Let me state from the outset, the local friendship the two Melbourne artists have maintained over the years, became a point of departure for my decision to have a deep think about Papapetrou’s theatrical language of costume and props and Stelarc’s scientifically appropriated cyborg rhetoric of “prosthetics.” Given the limit of time, I hope to merely provoke some questions about the way these two rhetorics converge in the dimension of “play,” where bodies are extended by stuff we touch and that which touches us, thereby augmenting information flow and instigating experiences of transformed body image, subjectivity and neuro-mapping.

The central figure in the convergence is Olympia, Papapetrou’s young daughter who Stelarc knows and enjoys as a family friend and who, as a budding performance artist in a collaborative art practice with her mother, poses curious points of comparison and stark contrast to Stelarc’s artistic efforts of the last thirty years.

Today we have time to look briefly at Papapetrou’s photographs of Olympia performing the “revivification” of young girls posed in photographs taken by the infamous 19th century writer and photographer Reverand Charles Dodson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll. Let us together square Olympia’s revivifying photograph performances that extend her own body image and skin by means of costume, props and imagined time/space travel with Stelarc’s performative laboratories wherein he devises electronic circumstances and dons cyborgian masks to extend body image and skin throughout time/space. What I hope to show is the triadic points of commonality shared by the three artists — Poli, Olympia and Stelarc — converge in the use of analogic and digital technology to induce

* Time/Space Travel
* body/image shifting brought about by creating dramatic, imaginative ruptures in reality construction
* revivifying and reconfiguring the body electric with the help of toy or prosthetic extension.

As we will see, too, each performance practice presumes vastly different points of departure in assuming what it means to revivify the body electric, both in terms of subjective agency as well as the time/space conditions of the performance mediated by analogic and digital photographic apparati.

Poli and Olympia Papapetrou

It is Papapetrou I follow first in thinking about her practice of collaborating with her young daughter Olympia to revivify the dead. In her recent project, entitled, “Phantom Mask Series” we see Olympia recasting herself as the little girls posed as characters in Lewis Carroll’s Victorian tableau vivant:

[“Olympia as Alice Liddell,” lounge and bed)

As a photographer based in Melbourne and recognized for her interest in photographing theatrical impersonators of the celebrated, archetypal dead, namely, Elvis and Marilyn, Papapetrou first turned to rephotographing Carroll’s by-gone fantasies during one truly rainy day, mother-daughter game of photographic “dress up.” Thinking back over the choice of revisioning Carroll’s material, the artist speaks of “resurrection” to implicate the process of what she calls “border crossing” — that is moving between the theatrical symbolics of fantasy and reality, between death and re- incarnation in her practice of child portraiture. And by choosing to move between past and present tenses in her representation of old man/little girl fantasy, Papapetrou knew she would not be alone in a profession Barthes determined as that which thrives on ‘denying alibi of the distractedly “alive.” As collaborator in production design and as performing subject, daughter Olympia participates in the denying alibi by carefully choosing Carroll’s photographs as inspiration for games of dress-up and make-believe. By acts of dramatic intention, theatrical extension and tranformation, Olympia reactuates Carroll’s fictive Orientalist and British Social Class portraits, energizing them with her magnetic gift for silver nitrate presence: (Images)

Lewis Carroll’s Xie Kitchen

Olympia as Xie Kitchen

Lewis Carroll’s Beggar Maid

Olympia as Beggar Maid

As mother and photographer, Papapetrou is taken, maybe event haunted by her daughter’s extraordinary capacity to resurrect the photographic dead, realizing especially that in doing so, Olympia commits herself to inhabiting a photographic realm that hovers between the thanatological space of the photographic lie and the pretense of theatre: As Barthes reflects ‘.. however “lifelike” we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up faces beneath which we see the dead.’

Thus, in response to my query regarding her Greek Orthodox Christian use of the term “resurrection,” Papapetrou responded,
“Now that you ask, I guess that a theory of resurrection is implicit. But I sense that my references are pre-Christian. I have long been taken by Roland Barthes observation that photography is like Greek theatre in reviving the dead. Although any mystical , theological elements would be lost on us at the time, Olympia nevertheless experiences something spooky in being these people from the dead.”

What evidence do we see of this spookiness? This I can not say, but what I can say is that we see an image of a girlchild who has spent two years collaborating with her mother in making “dress-up” photographs, choosing specific Carroll imagery, deciding on costume and choreographic affectation. And we learn from photographer Papapetrou that over time, Olympia has learned to look at photographs as signs of altered body image identification, as maps of potential time/space travel, as invitations to engage in stimulating skin extension experience brought about by performance, that is, by costumes, gestures and props which enable her to transmute her body image and transport herself between everyday and literary categorical realms of life and death. Let us recall the decoration as an aesthetic attribute of futurist aesthetics.

In other words, what started out as a childhood game of “dress up and make-believe” at age 4 has now at age 6, quickly transformed into a “third-hand,” mother -daughter game of artistic revisioning. Together Olympia and Papapetrou construct pointed tableau vivant that encourage Olympia the photographic subject, to radiate the body electric with skin sometimes augmented, sometimes exposed, but always draped and transformed by what Papapetrou calls the “power of fancy dress” to “border cross rigid boundaries determining age, gender, ethnicity and social class.” Thus with the help of Olympia and the camera and the invocation of deep play, Papapetrou manages to transmogrify Carroll’s Victorian fantasy into a 21c century photographic exploration of time/space travel with full-on revisionist body image shifting principles at work.

Stelarc:

In light the Papapetrou art of playful revivification, let us take a comparative, circumscribed look at Stelarc’s ludic interface with robotic and cybernetic entities. Stelarc, who was recently in town, does not use the term “resurrection” to speak of his cyborg activities, but he does speak of his interest in extending the biological body which he regards as “obsolete. “ In his web published statement, entitled “The Obsolete Body” he declares,
” …it is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision, and a 14,000cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed, and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its extraterrestrial environment.”

In the same online paper, Stelarc goes on to claim,
“It is no longer a matter of perptuating the human species by reproduction, but by enhancing male-female intercourse, by human machine interface. The body is obsolete. We are at the end of philosophy and human physiology. Human thought recedes into the human past.”

The heterosexual orientation to the Darwinian rhetoric may override the Christological aspects of Stelarc’s practice, but one may find the latent metaphor of resurrection in the Frankensteinain overtones of Stelarc’s humachine experiments. That is to say, if there is a comparative 19th literary touchstone of resurrection in this artist’s practice, it is surely Mary Shelley’s story of one questionably mad scientist taking God’s Will out of God’s hands to vivify a reconstructed dead body.

For those with imaginations nurtured by Shelley’s novel, or Mel Brooks cinema, the resurrected body as”humachine” is neither a nascent idea or image, now blown up into full Hollywoodesque proportions to lead us to think that all Frankensteins of the future will look like Arnold Schwarznegger. And I am not alone in pointing to Stelarc’s 19th precursors. For instance, film scholar Mark Poster brings a Heideggarian reading to Stelarc’s practice as a high-tech Frankensteinian experiment, one that ”draws attention to the fate of the body under the conditions of global connectivity.” Death in Stelarc’s aesthetic universe is no longer denied by mechanical reproduction but by alibis that report “virtual life.”

Where Poster and I read the signs of a Frankenstein narrative, Stelarc claims to work without guiding metaphors, symbol or fiction. As an artist who has collaborated off and on for nearly thirty years with members of the robotics and digital science and art communities, he privileges and immerses himself in the linguistic assumptions of the empirical and the conceptual bracketing that allows for phenomemological experience and remarks. He also presumes and is aware of the originating military medical history of prosthetic equipment, a history that presumes the violent connotation of late Renaissance rhetorical practices. Prosthetics, Stelarc researcher Joanna Zylinska reminds us, deals in a “double articulation,” of both silence (the missing limb) and speech (the rearticulated limb). It also suggests an grammatical alteration, an interruption of a word with a newly deposited syllable.

With historical definition in mind, we find the artist claiming to put “the body” in “alternate” empirical situations in order to induce experiences which he can later take time to articulate. If one looks closely at the trajectory of his artistic opus, one can begin to see the ways in which Stelarc has played with what comparatively amounts to high tech toys and body masks that test low tech entrained body image and mediate central nervous system activity under cyborgian conditions of prosthetically extended time/space exploration. Like little Olympia, Stelarc chooses to place himself in an immersive body masking environ, but here he pushes into a territory that depends manipulating information in terms of cyber rather than historical time — a perfectly P.K.D. strategy for an artist pioneering Vast Active Living Intelligent Systems.

Let us consider one stunning example, “the Ping Body.” (Show Web Image)
In his 1995 Telepolis Fractal Flesh performance, audience members situated in Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Media Lab in Helinksi and the Doors of Perception conference in Amsterdam, were able to “jack” into cyberspace, to use Gibson’s term, in order to remotely access and actuate Stelarc as “body” via a “computer-interfaced-muscle-stimulation system based at the main performance site in Luxembourg. Stelarc notes “although the body’s movements were involuntary, it could respond by activating its robotic Third Hand and also trigger the upload of images to a website so that the performance could be monitered live on the Net.

The artist goes on to declare

” …what is being considered is a body moving not to the promptings of another body in another place, but rather to Internet activity itself — the body’s proprioception and musculature stimulated not by its internal nervous system but by the external ebb and flow of data…. Instead of collective bodies determing the operation of the Internet, collective Internet activity moves the body. The Internet becomes not merely a mode of information transmission but also a transducer, effecting physical action.”

“Ping Body” is just one of the many prime Stelarc performances that give rise to the Philip K. Dick principles of 21c aesthetics. True, Stelarc rejects the mystical, science fiction reading of his endeavors, and in this respect his work departs from comparative discussion concerning Papapetrou’s interest in “spooky” transportation and transmogrification experiences for which performance photography allows. But here, I submit that Stelarc, as well as mother and daughter Papapetrou, engage in projects that perform imaginative ruptures in body image and reality construction that challenge somatic beliefs in subjective identity. All three artists are committed to revivifying the body electric — in each case, by constructing immersive theatrical spaces that highlighted prolong play with prosthetic devices.

Conclusion:

For all that has been written about Stelarc’s futuristically bold and for some, disturbing artistic statements, one might think it strange or even unkosher to align his radical Darwinism with Papaptrou’s comparatively quaint, retrofitted photographic portraiture steeped as it is in childhood fantasy literature. But in the short time I have had, I hope I have been able to clearly emphasize the key element of play and specifically time travel in two examples of 21c Australian performance art. With a now admitted intent to separate the artistic from the historical medical and military use of technology. I want to redignify a value that many dismiss if not denigrate in our oh so self-serious, academic and critical circles of art. Because by looking at play with 21c Philip K. Dick influenced eyes, we can begin to consider the 20th and 21st meltdown of the Western paradigm that has otherwise distinguished logical and psychological categories of fantasy from reality. By recollecting the 19th literature of resurrection, we begin to recognize the art rather than merely the psychology of Stelarc’s and Papapetrou’s experiments in challenging body image and body boundaries. And by thinking about art as choreographed, strategic play that induces “alternate, intimate” experiences of the body, to use Stelarc’s starting point, we can begin to consider the use value in asserting a Philip K Dick aesthetic in hopes of getting us to Warren’s question for the day, namely by what means does art remap our brains, our technology, our culture? For Stelarc and Papapetrou, we can say by analogic and digital means of revivifying and dispersing the body electric through time space.