Originally published in the catalogue Teleporting an Unkown State, Peter Tomaz Dobrila and Aleksandra Kostic, editors. Published by KIBLA, Maribor, Slovenia, 1998, pp. 37-63.


Expanded Bodies and Minds

Arlindo Machado

There was a time when most of us proclaimed the rise of an "electronic revolution" and when the artists, thinkers and researchers who could be considered to be ahead of their time believed that computers and networks would be the next environment for cultural practices or for changing the concepts of art and culture themselves. Today, however, when everything is, in a sense, "electronic", when writers, painters, composers, performers, and photographers sit down in front of a computer to create their works, and usually to make them in a traditional way, it is time to ask if the expressions "electronic culture" and "electronic art" mean something distinctive, or define a specific field of events.

This article aims to examine the recent work of an artist who is determinedly contributing to the development of a new paradigm inside the dubious rubric of "electronic culture". Eduardo Kac, a pioneer in the artistic application of a wide range of new technologies, is currently exploring the ultimate dimensions of creativity which are being opened up by the new biological front. Like a few others who are currently trying to prompt debate on the new directions for art, he is also focusing on questions related to the new biology, Artificial Life, and the ecology of the bio-technosphere, among other areas of inquiry. After generalizing happenings, performances, and installations, after questioning the white cube of the museum and jumping to the public space, after employing all kinds of machines and technological apparatuses, after discussing the tragedy of the human condition and laying bare the embarrassment, the segregation, the unspoken differences of race, sex, geographic origin, and socio-economic contingency -- after all this, a small number of artists, here represented by Eduardo Kac, seem to be orienting art and culture now towards a discussion of the very biological condition of the species.

THE BIOLITHIC REVOLUTION

In a recent book on the changes that mankind is undergoing thanks to the latest discoveries and inventions in the fields of new biology, medicine, cognitive sciences, robotics, bioengineering, and Artificial Life, the French writer Hervè Kempf (1998) proposes the hypothesis that we are closing the Neolithic era, as we have succeeded, in a sense, in mastering our environment. He argues that we are now entering a new era, which he calls the Biolithic revolution (from the Greek bios = life and lithos = mineral), when mastering our own body and the living organisms in general will be one of our main tasks. In this new era we will be also transferring to machines and inorganic matter properties which until now have been specific to living creatures. "Instead of changing the world -- explains Kempf (p. 9) -- we are going to change the being." Like any other change, the passage to the Biolithic seems apocalyptic at first, because it embraces rather controversial novelties such as genetic engineering, cloning, biocomputing, and artificial biodiversity (creation of new species). Undoubtedly, we will face new kinds of troubles and dangers in this new era, but we can also see it as a time when living beings, natural environment, and machines are not necessarily destined to be rivals anymore, or even to seem to be as entities essentially unlike each other.

Some examples of this revolution stand out. On the one hand, interventions inside the human body have gained increased attention: the discovery of biocompatible materials, which can cohabit the living body's moist and aggressive milieu, the manufacture of artificial bones and synthetic blood, the cultivation of human skin outside the body, the creation of artificial organs, the cloning of embryonic cells (the Dolly affair), artificial insemination, and pregnancy outside the female uterus. These are some steps towards a life manufacturing process, i.e., an integral assembly of the human. On the other hand, we are also bearing witness to the increasing invasion of the human body by implantable electronic devices. There is already a specialty in medicine -- Bionics -- which principally concerns itself with the challenge of integrating electronic functions into the living body, to assist or increase an organ's performance.

The pacemaker has been successfully used in medicine since 1958. Today, the world-wide average amounts to more than 400,000 implants a year (Kempf, 1998). Other new devices have also been implanted inside the human body in the last few years. For instance: electrode arrays for making electrical connections to spinal roots, in order to stimulate paralyzed organs (after a murder attempt which turned Larry Flynt into a paraplegic, the editor of the pornographic magazine Hustler recovered his virility thanks to the implantation of one of those devices), and the incredible implant of artificial eyes (in fact, CCD cameras wired to image processors) for the blind by American ophthalmologists John Wyatt and Joseph Rizzo. The human body, which until now has been considered the private subject of the physician and the biologist, from now on will undergo the intervention of the engineer, the specialist in electronics and -- why not? -- the artist. If to date it has been difficult for the biologist to say exactly what life is, it will be harder than ever from now on to distinguish between the living and the lifeless.

In fact, beginning with Norbert Wiener in the early 1950s, scientists have been asking themselves if there are any ontological differences between human beings, living organisms in general (animals and plants), mineral matter, and the machines made by mankind. If such differences exist, they are certainly related to the level of complexity which defines each organism. Life is perhaps a property of the organization of matter and if we are able to duplicate its dynamic process in some other medium, we can synthesize a living organism. This would mean that we could "create" life, even if "artificial", or yet, if this expression sounds rather pretentious, we could, at least, create something that satisfies our own criteria for aliveness (Levy, 1993: 116-120). Today we are transferring what we know about machines to living organisms and vice versa. That is why we sometimes refer to bodies as machines, and to machines and technical processes as a kind of life (Artificial Life).

Artificial Life, or ALife, is a research field devoted to design and creation of lifelike organisms in non-organic environments. "Life", in this field, is a general denomination that designates the condition of complex systems which are endowed with the capability of self-organization and self-reproduction. They can learn from their experience, understand their own needs, perceive their milieu and choose the best behavior for survival, by developing group dynamics and adaptive strategies. The concept of complex system is a key component in ALife and it refers to those systems whose component parts interact with such an intricacy that they cannot be predicted by linear equations. The overall behavior of a complex system is irreducible to the sum of the behavior of all its elements and can only be understood as the result of the myriad interactions that occur within it. "Living systems epitomize complexity, so much so that some scientists now see complexity as a defining characteristic of life" (Levy, 1993 :8).

We can better duplicate or "mimic" living systems by integrating everything we know about biological mechanisms and the state-of-the-art of digital computing. At this moment, synthetic creatures are not yet living in vitro, but in silico, although a biochemical computer, capable of employing DNA molecules instead of electrical impulses, will probably surpass the current restraints. Good examples of life mimicry are the programming techniques called neural networks, which simulate the parallel processing of the brain and the dialogue between the neurons; genetic algorithms, which mimic sexual reproduction and natural selection; and also computer viruses, which imitate real life viruses in the way they infect the organism and reproduce themselves.

In the future artificial beings won't be distinct or disconnected from "organic" beings. Just like as today we see electronic devices inside the living body, tomorrow we will see biological "organs" implanted in machines. Robots will be able to use organs as bioelectronic sensors, or have bacteria and DNA molecules as component parts. The experiment performed by Raphael Holzer of fixing an electronic device on the back of a cockroach, after having replaced its feelers by electrodes and linked them to the insect's nervous system, made it possible to control the cockroach remotely. After the cyborg -- the human with mechanic or electronic component parts -- we are going to know the biobot (a concept first introduced by Eduardo Kac in the ISEA '97 catalog), that is, a robotic creature which is part animal or plant.

A MICROCHIP INSIDE THE BODY

For the past few years, artists like Orlan and Stelarc have brought forward a cultural and political 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 just anticipating 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 that day, 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. It 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 the 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 mementos 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 provided 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 huge response in the local press before and after the event. 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 and science worlds.

Kac's intervention touches on difficult and uncomfortable points in the debate on the philosophical, scientific, and ethical future of mankind. One month before the realization of Time Capsule at Casa das Rosas, the event had been commissioned for the exhibition Art and Technology by the Instituto Cultural Itau, also in São Paulo, and then canceled 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 event. 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 on 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 scientist or 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 of humans 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 the Internal Revenue Service, if we are facing criminal charges, or if we are hiding from the judicial system.

In fact, the implantable transponder, associated with a satellite monitoring system such as GPS (Global Positioning System), allows the owner to locate lost animals. Electronic surveillance of prisioners is also under consideration in several countries. The French law provides for the use of bracelet-shaped transponders by ex-convicts, in order to monitor them while on parole. The police of Florida and Pennsylvania are now trying a new monitoring tool called Pro Tech, which is also a bracelet monitored by satellite and compulsory for ex-convicts on parole. When the bracelet user enters a forbidden area or leaves his or her allowed area, the satellite triggers an alarm at the police station. Both the French law and the Pro Tech project admit that the replacement of the bracelet by an implantable microchip is a matter of time: in a few years, ex-convicts will have a transponder implanted in their bodies, like animals. This can be taken as a step towards a generalization of the practice. Jeremy Bentham's dream of a society fully monitored by surveillance devices is closer than we might think (Machado, 1992 :43-64).

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 our own memories. This reading is clearly authorized by the associations the artist makes between the implant of a digital memory in his own body and the public exhibition of his familial memories, 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 traits 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?

A NEW ECOLOGY

Before realizing the implant in São Paulo, Kac conceived three other events directly related to Time Capsule. One of them was premiered at ISEA '97 with the collaboration of Ed Bennett, a hardware designer specialized in robotics. Entitled A-Positive, the event promoted an intravenous exchange of body fluids between a man (Kac himself tried it first, but anyone could do it) and a robot. The human body donated blood to the robot, which extracted from it the oxygen it needed to fuel a small flame. In exchange, the robot gave back dextrose to the human body. Both the body and the robot (in fact, a biobot) were wired via intravenous needles connected to clear tubing and fed one another: the body kept the flame "living" in the robot, while the robot kept the body living by feeding it.

We are used to models generalized by conventional science fiction in which robots are portrayed as slaves or rivals of humans. Kac, however, puts us in the realm of a new ecology in which people and machines live in a delicate relationship, occasionally creating symbiotic exchanges. Machines, on the one hand, are becoming more and more hybrid devices that incorporate biological elements with sensorial and metabolic functions. On the other hand, technological devices penetrate the sacred boundaries of the flesh, enabling new possibilities of therapy and surveillance. Kac's work seems to suggest that emerging forms of human/machine interface are deeply changing the ground of our anthropocentric culture, by reconciling the human body not only with the whole biosphere, but also with the technosphere. As Kac pointed out in the ISEA '97 catalog, "The problem of Artificial Life is that it has been explored so far mostly as a software-based issue. A-Positive gives material expression to the Artificial Life concept, further blurring the lines that separate real (physical) and artificial (virtual) organisms.(...) In this sense, one might speak of the ethics of robotics and reconsider many of our assumptions about the nature of art and machines in the biobotic frontier" (1997: 62).

These ideas have been dear to Kac for years. He has been working with robots since the mid 1980s and has often given them animal names. But his vision of the human/animal/machine interface perhaps first came to him when creating Rara Avis, an interactive telepresence installation, in which a telerobotic bird simulating a Brazilian macaw cohabited a large cage together with real birds and artificial plants. Outside the aviary, viewers using a virtual reality headset could see the entire scene from the point of view of the macaw, as if they were the bird on the other side of the chicken wire wall. The telerobotic bird had stereoscopic color cameras for eyes and could move its head according to the head movements of the viewers. The piece, first installed at Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta (1996), was also made available to everybody via the Internet. Kac originally conceived Rara Avis as a comment on the relativity of notions such as identity and otherness (Kac 1996: 393). This was the first time in his work that humans could share the body of a bird which was at the same time a machine, and live the experience, at least in a psychological and metaphorical sense, of "being" a bird and a machine.

It was however in a modest installation made for Siggraph 96 that Kac succeeded in creating his best metaphor of the Biosphere's new ecology. One of the purposes of the installation was, as stated in the Siggraph catalog (1996), to take "the idea of teleportation of particles (and not of matter) out of its scientific context and transpose it to the domain of social interaction enabled by the Internet." Significantly, the installation's title -- Teleporting an Unknown State -- was a poetic fragment extracted from the title of the first scientific paper on teleportation. But what the installation really achieves is, starting with the idea of remote transmission of light, to bring before our eyes and minds the new condition of life in a technological milieu. The piece connected the physical space of the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center to the non-located space of the Internet. In the gallery, we only saw the lens of a video projector facing a pedestal, on which a single seed laid on a bed of earth. At remote places around the world anonymous people surfing the Internet were encouraged to point digital cameras to the sky and transmit sunlight to the gallery site using videoconferencing software. The content of the images was not important. What counted was the conveyance of light with the purpose only of enabling real biological life in the installation space. As the images of sunlight arrived at the gallery, they were projected onto the pedestal, illuminating it. The seed began to germinate and a youthful plant sprang up before our eyes. The entire process of growth was transmitted live back to the world, again via the Internet, allowing the participants to follow the results of their help.

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, biobotics, and Artificial Life, the automaton has progressively acquired competencies, talents, and even sensibilities that we once considered unique to our species, forcing us continually to redefine our notions of what constitutes our own humanity. More dramatic still, the development of wet and biocompatible interfaces are enabling the insertion of electronic elements inside our own body. Kac's emblematic event Time Capsule seems to suggest that in the future the machine and the robot, so often presented in science fiction as invaders usurping men's and women's places, might be inside us -- might become ourselves.

References:

Eighth International Symposium on Electronic Art, the (catalog) (1997). Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kac, Eduardo (1996). "Telepresence Art on the Internet". Leonardo, vol. 29, n. 5.

Kempf, Hervè (1998). La Rèvolution Biolithique: Humains Artificiels and Machines Animèes. Paris: Albin Michel.

Levy, Steven (1993). Artificial Life. London: Penguin.

Machado, Arlindo (1992). "La Culture de la Surveillance". Chimaera, n. spècial 2.

Visual Proceedings: The Art and Interdisciplinary Programs of Siggraph 96 (catalog) (1996). New Orleans: ACM Siggraph.

Originally published online in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 6, N. 4, May 15, 1998.


Arlindo Machado is a critic, curator, and professor at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. He published several books on art, culture, media, and new technologies and received the National Photo Award from the Brazilian Foundation for the Arts (FUNARTE) in 1995.


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