Originally published in CIRCA - Ireland's leading magazine for the
visual arts, N. 89, Autumn 1999.
Part installation, part memory, part spectacle, Time Capsule was realized on Brazilian television and over the Internet in 1997 by the living artist Eduardo Kac and by the dead, living before 1939 in Poland.
September 1, 1939: Nazi troops invade Poland. The war annihilates millions for an identity that is their body; millions of others flee, before and after, one at a time and in great anonymous waves, Eduardo Kac's grandmother among them.
November 11, 1997. São Paulo. On hospital-white walls erected inside the baroque Casa das Rosas Cultural Center hang photos of Kac's grandmother: posing in a kayak, sitting on a motorcycle, smiling in the midst of family and friends. These sepia-toned photos are some of the few possessions she managed to escape with, passed on to Kac. An inheritance. He calls them time capsules for the memories they hold.
10:05 p.m. Viewers at home see Kac before the photos, sitting on a medical examination table, his bare leg waiting to receive a bio-implant that will allow him to be registered with an American company as the owner of himself. TV cameras crowd in, their lights bright as the halogen noon above an operating table. The moment passes.
Time is always a division. Assign a number to it, 1939, 1997, and that division is sharpened, each moment distinguished from those that follow the way we in our present always look upon photos of the dead with knowledge that is distinct from what they could ever know in their present. Yet the presence of the photo exists within our moment as well, and serves to knit the two times together. When we look at the sepia-toned photos in Time Capsule, we enter a world that no longer exists, its pre-war technology alien, the close-knit family and friends pictured intimating a social structure that is anachronistic. The people are posed too formally, grandmother wears her best dress even as she straddles a motorcycle, one leg exposed. Yet at the same time, looking at that leg, we can't help but see a family resemblance to the leg of the artist exposed on the table. Looking from the face of the sepia-toned woman to the living face of the artist, we see continuation. Another inheritance. And we realize that if, as Heraclitus noted, no man can step in the same river twice, it is equally impossible to be wholly original. This dual nature allows us to read time capsule as "time/capsule," emphasizing the separation or as "time-capsule," emphasizing the union. To read it as "Me/Not Me," or as "Us"; to read it as "Then/Now" or as "Then-in-Now." The moment passes.
10:13 p.m. "So the question of memory in the digital age is central to this work, correct?" asks Celso Zucatelli, the Canal 21 reporter holding a microphone for Kac's answer. The television broadcast of Time Capsule is nested within the nightly news so Luciana, the anchorwoman in the studio, keeps throwing it back to Casa das Rosas for updates. During this one, Kac describes the capsule that will be implanted in his body, a bio-compatible transponder. When energized by a scanner, it emits a low-power radio signal bearing a unique identification number that can be read by the scanner. It is this number that the company back in the States will warehouse as Kac's personal I.D. Whenever the station shows him, the word VIVO (LIVE) is superimposed on the scene.
It's impossible to leach Time from our bodies, cultures, or identity for it inheres in us even before the single cell we begin as divides in two. By the age of three days, infants are flexing muscles in rhythm to the speech around them. The beating of our hearts, turning of the earth, and other natural rhythms agglutinate with the rhythms of our society into a sense of time, which in turn informs our sense of self. Indeed, we initially learn "duration" from the delay between our first cry and its satisfaction. Infinite desire bounded by mortal finitude, as Dante had it. Or sex and death, according to Freud. Time speeds up naturally as we age. But it is also altered by artificial factors. The technological orchestration of procreation, for example, or of death, or of the intervening duration. It is this vehicle of change that Time Capsule addresses. What, for example, happens to our sense of time if technology increases life span to 150 years? Or 500 years, if researchers at the Geron Corporation learn to operate the genetic switch to aging that they have recently discovered? What happens to our sense of self if longevity becomes, like so many other things about our bodies, a matter of choice? Time Capsule serves as a hinge between that future and our past by inviting us to reflect on a present where communication is global and instantaneous, where surveillance is increasingly pervasive, commercial and fine-grained. Time Capsule asks us to reflect upon a landscape where the divide between body and machine is blurred and their interaction more common than the resetting of clocks.
10:18 p.m. "How's it going?" the anchorwoman asks, sending it back to the reporter on the scene. "Luciana, the process is underway. Doctor Paulo Flavio Gouveia is standing next to me and I'll ask him to tell us what is going on." The doctor's voice explains, "He is breaking the resistance of the skin." A close-up shows a large hypodermic needle puncturing flesh. A groan goes up from the crowded room. VIVO. An ambulance waits outside. The moment passes. "Now he's sliding the entire needle in subcutaneously parallel to the skin.î The needle wiggles, raising a large welt before a finger pushes the plunger of the hypodermic home, inserting the capsule. As it does, the camera pans back, revealing that Kac, dressed in black on the examination table, is the one who is performing the injection while the doctor is merely a bystander, looking on over his shoulder, the distinction between medicine and art blurred as thoroughly as Time Capsule has blurred the line between art and news. More importantly, unlike Orwellian images of surveillance and control, this dynamic is entered into voluntary in the way that a more public sense of self allows us to casually give our image over to surveillance cameras dozens of times a day. "He's applying pressure to the area to prevent bleeding and now he'll remove the needle. Excuse, me, I need to assist him now," the doctor says, returning from his role as art commentator to active agent. Those present let out a cheer. But why? Out of relief that a moment of tension has passed? Out of recognition of themselves in the work? As the doctor helps Kac apply gauze to the puncture, the reporter says, "In a few minutes, the chip will be read remotely via the Internet."
It's hard for us to imagine how disorienting talking on the telephone originally was for people, unable as they were to grasp being in one place while their voice was in another. But of course our difficulty arises only because time and repetition can make anything seem natural, even eating and sleeping not when we are hungry or tired but when the clock says we should. And just as technology made the disjunction of the body and voice common, just as technology made it natural for us to loosen time from the turning of the earth, so it is now loosening body from self. Cloning comes to mind, of course, but this is just the most dramatic landmark. More tellingly, our cultural landscape is composed of myriad moments that together shift what we see when we look in the mirror, familiarity allowing most of them to pass unnoticed. The 46,000 heart transplants that take place each year, for example; the manipulation of genes before birth; the men who father children after death; or the transplant Matthew Scott recently received, inheriting from a cadaver a hand that had once signed another's name, this hand that had once trembled with another's prayers taking up new prayers, the signature of another's body.
Complementing this sea change from being our bodies to having our bodies is the culture of surveillance and spectacle. Together they erode the distinction between ourselves and our neighbors and Time Capsule calls attention to this reconfiguration of the self by participating in it. Kac places his body and its voluntary invasion on display, using mass media to gather as many witnesses as possible. Yet the more witnesses who tune in, the more dispersed Time Capsulethe site of memory and selfbecomes.
10:27 p.m. "We go back live to Casa das Rosas now," the anchorwoman says, apparently controlling the show though she herself is, of course, controlled through her ear piece by a director who is invisible to viewers. "Celso Zucatelli, was it possible to read the chip through the Internet?" The ballet between the station and the artist has the odd air of an interview being conducted with a surgeon who is also the patient on the status of his operation-in-progress. The glare of television and examination lights is overwhelming. His face beaded by perspiration, Kac places his leg under the gaze of lenses: a webcam, TV and still cameras, their automatic film advances whirring. VIVO. The reporter, in contact with the anchorwoman through his ear piece, relays her question and Kac explains what everyone has just witnessed: an operator in Chicago remotely activated the scanner which read the number now stored in Kac's leg, Kac's body functioning as a node on the network between the U.S. and Brazil, his I.D. number traveling via the Internet, allowing him to register himself with a company that specializes in the identification of lost animals.
Similiar services are increasingly under consideration by prisons, we later learn, as well as by corporations who plan on using it in the event that their executives are kidnapped. If only to be able to identify the bodies. For always there is the body. Kac's body has now been transformed into a time capsulean icon for our time by virtue of the bio-compatible capsule buried within his flesh.
10:29 p.m. "Luciana, that is it, the conclusion of the live component of Eduardo Kac's work entitled Time Capsule."
The moment passes.
Yet the I.D. number remains indefinitely in memory, another time capsule, as does the globally dispersed site of his work, indefinitely accessible at http://www.ekac.org/timec.html.
Steve Tomasula's fiction has appeared most recently in Fiction International. Recent essays on art and culture can be found in Leonardo and the New Art Examiner.
Back to Kac Web