Posthuman Body as an Interdisciplinary Concept in Today's Contemporary Art
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
This is my artistic and academic research documentation on the posthuman subject since 2001 which includes some of my artworks and texts from my PhD thesis entitled with the same topic above.
This research process started after I had a surgery on my spine because of an accident at the restoration project course in the university.
I was studying architecture at the university and while working in an old historical building in Galata, Istanbul for this course, I fell one floor down by stepping on a rusty metal plaque which was hiding itself under the garbage over the ground. The plaque was there to cover a hole on the floor and at the time I stepped on it, it shattered and I fell down from that hole. I injured my spine and had surgery.
Nearly one year after this, I started to have fun by thinking that I'm a cyborg because the doctors have attached titanium and platinum fixtures on my bones and said to me that I was going to live with these fixtures forever.
Then I started to study my master's degree in the department of architecture and when my thesis advisor asked me what I was thinking as a subject for master research; I said that now I am a cyborg and wanted to explore my own species.
The highlights from that process were the words of William J. Mitchell in his book: City of Bits, Deleuze and Guattari's smooth & striated space notions related to cyberspace and desiring machine notions about body and society, Merleau-Ponty's bodily perception of space, Donna Haraway's declarations on being cyborg, MIT Media Lab's tangible media studies, immersive architectural experience at H2O Pavilion of NOX Architects and Stelarc's performance art experiments on his body. Although I didn't like Stelarc's works much at first sight; they were very valuable for me because I guess that was the first time that I heard the posthuman concept from his works.
At the end of this master's degree process with a thesis entitled The Hybridization of Body and Space in the Context of Postorganic Paradigm in Architecture, I have acquired an interdisciplinary perspective on posthuman notion in between art, architecture, philosophy, science and technology. Therefore my jokes on being a cyborg at the beginning turned into an ongoing research as an inclusive daily habit of thinking and seeing and producing around the concept of posthuman.
This text is the English version of the academic paper published in the Social Science Studies Journal that I wrote at the end of my PhD period.
For Turkish version; http://sssjournal.com/Makaleler/1708979750_11_5-33.ID1394_Yurtta%c5%9f_2071-2076.pdf
Posthumanism is a historical and cultural perspective that extends from the present to five centuries ago and to the future. The body is an interdisciplinary concept that transcends the boundaries of this perspective. In this perspective, the body has been the subject of research in disciplines such as biology, anthropology, medicine, sociology and philosophy. However, art has evolved from the classical fine arts to contemporary art. In today's contemporary art, body interpretations have acquired post-humanist layers with new perspectives of digitalization as well as performance art. These layers first emerged with the mechanization of the body by the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the First World War in the art; since the middle of the 20th century, it has been influenced by artistic expressions such as happening and performance and with the development of information technologies until today, it has turned into digital art works.
Keywords: Posthuman, Transhuman, Postdualist, Purgatory/In-Between, Transitivity
Although it is a correct start to associate the transformation process of the posthuman body concept in contemporary art with mechanization and digitalization, it is not enough to comprehend the multi-layered structure of the process. It is necessary to attempt to analyze the understanding that is effective in this transformation process and to investigate where this understanding is connected. This understanding is the dualist mentality of humanism that has penetrated humanity, that is, a mentality that determines binary opposites and places the mind above the body and the human species over other species. Analyzing this dualist mentality is connected to the postdualist understanding of the posthuman body, which goes beyond binary oppositions. The postdualist understanding enables the body to go beyond anthropocentric interpretations in contemporary art and to interact with the non-human elements of the ecosystem it is in. Although the postdualist understanding of the body is close to anti-humanist philosophies, it demands an exemption that avoids being determined by antagonism. Because when it establishes a discourse, even if it is oppositional, it continues to be fed from a source whose borders are determined by the potency and cannot go beyond these borders. The postdualist body understanding, in this context, accepts that humanism is a determinant resource and strives to imagine beyond this framework and develop new visions.
THE BODY AND ART AFTER HUMANISM
Humanism started in the 15th century as an Enlightenment period that closed the dark period of the Middle Ages, but the origins of the dualist body understanding of humanism go back further and are connected to the soul-body dualism in Antiquity philosophy and the mind-body dualism in Ancient Greece.. In these periods, the mind and soul were considered more important than the body, and human was seen as the measure of the whole universe thanks to his mind. (Cevizci, 1999). While the Renaissance thinkers of the 15th century defended human will and individuation, the artists of this period such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer produced works that took the perfection of human as a criterion. The understanding that instrumentalizes the body in these works was combined with the easing of the church's prohibitions on the body in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the body continued to be instrumentalized as an object of surgical examination in science and art.
In the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, with thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke, the mind and human freedom came to the fore, and with the effects of the Industrial and French Revolutions, the Aristocratic Baroque style was abandoned in art, and Neo-Classical works that interpreted the body with the Ancient style of Greek and Roman sculptures were produced. (Gombrich, 2007). Since the 19th and 20th centuries, world wars and industrialization have affected art, and the body has been visualized in avant-garde art with a contrasting aesthetic to the people of the society ruled by the objective reason. While dualities such as beauty and ugliness were overthrown by this counter-aesthetic; black-white, European-African dualities became controversial in the context of the ethnicity of the body as well. While Picasso liberated the female body in his Cubist paintings, artists like Hannah Höch created hybrid bodies with non-human figures in her collages. Dadaist and Surrealist painters also painted surreal, irrational bodies in parallel with the rationality criticisms of thinkers like Adorno. The criticism of the mind and the treat of the body as a phenomenon, which were effective in the second half of the 20th century, also changed the perception of the body in art. With body art and performance art, the body has been interpreted as a self-evident phenomenon that is present there at that moment. Artist Yves Klein used the body as an energy center in his performances; artists such as Nitsch and Burden have explored the limits of the body in their performances. In parallel with the discourses of Poststructuralist and Postmodern thinkers such as Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze; the body has been an element of a critical language in the works of artists such as Hamilton, Gilbert & George and Abramovic in the context of consumer culture and the surveillance-control mechanisms of power. (Antmen, 2008)
The dualist body understanding of humanism, which has existed for five centuries, has continued to transform in today's contemporary art by being associated with the fields of artificial intelligence and biotechnology. The research of scientists such as Minsky, Moravec, Shannon in the 1950s and Alan Turing's argument on “Can machines think?” in relation to Turing’s studies that affected the course of the Second World War have been decisive in the intersection of the field of artificial intelligence with contemporary art. The representations of the body in sci-fi cinema which can be manipulated, associated with information patterns and reduced to a tool with artificial intelligence and body dualism, have also affected the works in today's contemporary art. In the films adapted or inspired by William Gibson's sci-fi novels, the body is virtualized, stripped of its corporeality and opened to cyberspace (Nazlı, 2009) and reproduced like an artificial intelligence machine.
Artists such as Stelarc and Antunez Roca have also opened their bodies to the interventions of the viewers by combining their bodies with machines in their performative installations, creating a consciousness synchronized with artificial intelligence. While this intervention was sometimes one-on-one through the mechanisms in the venue where the performance was held, sometimes it was a remotely commanded intervention over the internet. As another perspective, artists such as Steyerl and Demers have approached the dualism of artificial intelligence and body as a social phenomenon in their works and have expressed the sharing of people in data flow or being followed by artificial intelligence eyes in a space in the context of surveillance and control mechanisms.
On the other hand, the body in biotechnology research has been associated with biohacking and the work of bioart through its chemical manipulation. Artist Kac implanted a microchip under his own skin, intervened in his body with robotic technologies, and produced transgenic works that glow in the dark by combining the genes of a rabbit and an underwater creature. Artist Haines opened up the ethical aspects of these modifications to discussion through the family institution, reproduction of the human and babies in her sculptures in which she criticizes the social aspect of interventions to the body with biotechnology. With a similar approach, the artist Van Loon transformed his own gene map into digital data and offered it for sale, investigating the ethical aspects of scientific research shaped by liberal economy through belonging and commodification.
The social dimension in the critical interpretations of today's contemporary art, brought to the relationship of humanism's duliast body understanding with biotechnology and artificial intelligence, has also been valid in the body understanding of queer theory. The body in queer theory, which arose with the inadequacies of the LGBTI+ identity policies and the movement that promoted gay rights in the 1970s, has been a questioning that includes the Humanism's perception of sexual identity, the deconstruction of categories, the opposition and the analysis of the structure that ensures the continuity of the system. Theorists such as Sedgewick and Butler interpreted the body as a flowing and performative phenomenon; they developed their theories through examples such as drag queens. (Yardımcı & Güçlü, 2013). Artists such as Morimura and Bobbe queerized the body by stripping it of dualisms with a similar attitude and produced works in which they used drag queen aesthetics. Artists Olesen and Zach made installation and video works in which they explored new possible bodies related to the decomposition of bodies in new digital spaces, by considering the queer body in relation to technology.
POSTHUMAN BODY AND CONTEMPORARY ART IN POSTHUMANISM
With the development of technology since the second half of the 20th century, the criticisms of posthumanist philosophers such as Haraway, Hayles, and Braidotti has given birth to a postdualist body understanding that does not comprehend the body with non-dualistic dualisms such as mind-body, soul-body, woman-man, human-animal, human-machine. This understanding was also fed by Foucault's concepts of biopower, Deleuze & Guattari's social, desiring machines and body without organs, Baudrillard's simulation concepts and appeared in contemporary art. In her performances, Abramovic showed the state's intervention in her body as a mechanism by using psychoactive drugs and violent rituals. Artists Azarella and Cunningham drew attention to the issues of originality and reproducibility as a source of knowledge of the body with simulative manipulations in their videos and photographs. Transhumanist thinkers such as Bostrom and More in transhumanism, which is a movement connected to posthumanism, saw the body as a transitional form and envisioned that bodies without defects such as death, disease and aging would exist in the future thanks to technological advances. (Pepperell, 1997). Artist Natasha Vita More, who works with transhumanist thinkers, also visualized the postdualist body as a body that can be changed, updated and has augmented senses. Interpretations similar to the discourses of the transhumanist Kurzweil on the transformations of the human body interacting with robots until the year 3000 (Kurzweil, 1992) were included in the installations of the artists Evans and Dunne & Raby. In Evans' installation, a constantly changing fiction emerges with the reflection of the dialogues between visitors and robots on digital screens, while in Dunne & Raby's works, social relations in a daily life established in partnership with robots are explored. Feminist thinker Haraway's concept of cyborg has made the postdualist body understanding more visible since the 1990s. The cyborg, thanks to its cybernetic and organic structure, has shaken the dominant human phenomenon to its foundations and caused it to be rethought on gender, race, embodiment and differences. (Haraway, 2006). In her installation, where artist Lee Bul interprets cyborgs, the headless, fragmented bodies he produces with machine parts and cables have reached forms that displace the dualisms before the cyborg. In the videos of Hugyhe and Roca, the ideas that the cyborgization of the body is an evolutionary process and that human provides a transition between animal and machine were visualized. The posthuman view of the posthumanist writer Hayles has also been as influential as the concept of the cyborg in the postdualist body understanding. Hayles' multi-layered posthuman concept suggested that the postdualist body would be much more than a human being augmented by technological prosthetics. (Hayles, 1999). While the body in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari became deterritorialized and became independent from the regulations of power as desiring machines, the posthuman body of Hayles could also be conceptualized as an entity that deviates from the material forms in its past. Just as Hayles saw the posthuman body as a unique prosthesis which can be manipulated; in the works of artists Piccinini and Atkins, the bodies have evolved in a dystopia or an accident environment and adapted to the conditions of the environment they are in.
Braidotti, one of the current thinkers of critical posthumanism, explained the postdualist body with animal, machine, earth becomings. (Braidotti, 2014). While becoming-animal suggested a trans-species solidarity based on the symbiosis of all organic species, becoming-earth focused on ecology and social sustainability, and becoming-machine abolished the distinction between humans and technological devices. Braidotti's postdualist body has been a complex human and non-human, a heterogeneous assembly of the organic and the inorganic, and has evolved into a fluid, nomadic, embodied and attached, polyhedral and relational body. While the artist Piccinini's sculptures, which have a corporeality between human, animal, machine and beast, fit Braidotti's depiction of the heterogeneous body, Kac exhibits a polyhedral and relational corporeality as an ecosystem in which different organic and non-organic species can coexist. Huyghe also made possible the sustainable environment of different species such as cancer cells, glass, concrete, snails, genetic algorithms within a heterogeneous whole, with the ecosystems he created like Kac in his installations.
In this research, the posthuman body has been considered as an interdisciplinary concept in today's contemporary art and three key concepts have been reached as a result of the research.
The first key concept is “postdualist”. The posthuman body is postdualist because it is not within a two-dimensional and closed framework in which dualist oppositions such as animal-human, woman-man, black-white, organic-inorganic draw the boundaries; It is an n-dimensional and open-ended space that stretches its borders with postdualist multiplicities such as human-animal-plant-machine-earth.
The second concept is “in-between”. This concept, which expresses being between more than two states, mainly emphasizes a corporeality that exists without transforming into any of the elements that make up postdualist multiplicities. Although the concept of purgatory/in-between evokes Deleuze & Guattari's or Braidotti's concept of becoming (Braidotti, 2014), its difference is that it exists in an eternal flow, as in queer theory. The posthuman body does not turn into one of the bodies that it stays between at the end of a transformation process and maintains its in-betweenness, which is a kind of a state of being in limbo.
The third concept is "transitivity" and it states that the posthuman body, which continues to exist by transforming among postdualist multiplicities, can no longer be in an isolated form like a singular entity. The posthuman body is no longer a single body that reflects a single species, but rather a plurality of bodies, and they are posthuman bodies. Posthuman bodies are not homogeneous and defined like a single body, but heterogeneous and undefined. (Halberstam & Livingstone, 1995). The parts that make it in-between are in constant relationship and transition to each other, so it is impossible to separate the parts or species that make up posthuman bodies.
These key concepts are seen in my contemporary art works that I have produced during the research process too.
My work (Bear)d is a postdualist multiplicity that embodies performative scribbles on paper that can neither be considered as a painting nor a drawing. While these multiplicities have female features at the beginning of the process of transforming into sketches on paper, they gradually have a space of an overly masculine looking male and a wild animal (Bear as used in LGBTI+ jargon) and even a sketch of a sketch.
In my work called Rhodesia, bodies are constantly transforming into each other in a video, and their bodies are in purgatory/sometimes in a never-fixed flow.
My works entitled Lax express a transitive, inseparable posthuman corporeality both in the form of a book and as works that involve an object or a space.
As a result, this article instead of understanding the posthuman body in contemporary art as a dualist, fixed and isolated body, proposes to understand as a space consisting of transitive, postdualist and in-between bodies.
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