The Body of the Artist in the Digital Age

by Dan Collins

Gene Cooper inserts his index finger into a digital sensing device. Three wagon-wheel sized gears--components of a clockworks--lurch into motion. This ungainly machine is controlled by infrared light beamed through the skin of Gene's throbbing finger; each heartbeat is translated into a brief surge of electrical power. Every four minutes a cam screwed to one of the wheels triggers an event: hidden speakers whisper the recorded voices of heart patients and medical professionals; "live" text generated by the audience appears on CRTs hidden in hollow logs; rain falls gently into dried leaves; video monitors glow with "digital mandalas" derived from images of open-heart surgery.

The clock at the core of this performance/installation, cobbled together from recycled 2 x 4s and broken stumps, is actually a sophisticated chronometer that keeps its own special time: one revolution of the largest wheel measures Gene's average heartbeats per minute; the middle sized wheel marks the interval between the moment a heart stops and death; and the smallest indicates the average number of times the valves of the heart open and close per minute.

Inspired by Cooper's own chronic heart condition, the work articulates a series of interconnected themes: cycles of growth and decay, the connection between memory and dreams, psychic and physical healing. The project's title, The Bardo, references the Tibetan term for the transitional period between life and death.

I start with a description of this work to suggest a direction that veers radically from our collective dive into cyberspace. Cooper's work operates in the gap between our two selves--the self that is a projection that resides at the limit of our tools and language; and the self that is rooted in the physiology of what Husserl called "the lived body." It builds a bridge between our ability to abstract the world and our ability to engage the world directly. The former depends upon a sophisticated manipulation of tools and symbolic codes; the latter seeks reconciliation in the direct physical engagement of felt experience.

The new contested territory is the no-man's-land between the desiring body and digital projective space.

The Body and Its Double

We have come to disregard the role the physical body plays in the experience of the artist. And as spectators, we seem to prefer the seduction of the digitally simulated body over opportunites for body-centered awareness.

Our successes at developing new technologies that mirror and disseminate our digital identities hardly provide a definitive reflection of who we are; rather, we have created unprecedented opportunities for dissimulation, doubling, and a continuous morphing of the self. Furthermore, the "body" that is modeled within the space of the computer has little in common with the "human flesh" seated in the glow of its CRT. A kind of corporeal amnesia is induced by the screen--those flashing pixels leave vapor trails that lead us away, not toward, physical awareness.

Cyberspace is a consensual's notional space.

--William Gibson (1)

Increasingly, we use our tools to propel ourselves into fantasies about physical encounters with unseen partners--other cyberselves insulated from physical pain, heartache, and communicable disease. Chat groups, remote robotic links, and cybersex depend on a virtual body or presence that "stands in" for our disembodied selves. For many, this is a welcome relief from the numbing boredom of RL (real life). For a few others, cyberspace is a "free space" that provides a protected site in which to construct from scratch an identity that will not be subjected to the inequities and abuses of the physical world. But at what point do strategies of camouflage and resistence morph into rote behaviors of mimicry and capitulation?

As our command of tools expands the "reach" of our bodies, we encounter increased turbulence when trying to navigate the real crises in the health of our bodies and the global environment.

The Radically Divided Self

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker write: Electronic technology terminates with the radically divided self: the self, that is, which is at war with itself. Split consciousness for a culture that is split between digital- and human flesh. (2)

The problem of the "radically divided self" hardly begins and ends with the computer.

The Western celebration of disembodied reason, dating back to the ancient Greeks, has molded our social selves. A deeply embedded belief in the disassociation of mind from body--philosophically substantiated by Rene Descarte--has led to a codification of practices that privilege mind over matter, thought over physical engagement. We encourage our children to abandon tactile awareness for abstracted mathematical or linquistic forms. While the benefits of mental reason are obvious, we have forgotten how to tap the wisdom of the body. This essential blindspot intensifies the day-to-day experience of mind as disembodied--a bias that confirms the initial cultural premise. (3) An essential balance and sense of the whole is missing.

This schism between mind and body may well be the defining feature of the information age's fascination with cyberspace. The experience of the computer delivers us into a space that echos the essential split felt in contemporary experience.

Human/Machine Interface

If Cooper's performance installations represent one pole of a range of work being done with body/machine/performance hybrids, the antipode is Stelarc. Where a project like Cooper's The Bardo is concerned with finding analogs in the physical world that will help to explain the mysteries of the internal processes of the body, Stelarc's recent projects with bio-mechanical extensions of the body are obsessed with externalizing and extending the physicality of the body. He sees himself as "an evolutionary alchemist, triggering mutations, transforming the human landscape." Mark Dery, in this book Escape Velocity, describes one of Stelarc's many human/machine hybrids, the Third Hand:

Stelarc declares that "The Body is Obsolete" and seeks strategies for transcending the physical limitations of the flesh. Alternatively, Cooper sees the self monitoring processes at the core of his work to be ultimately empowering--but in a different way. He is currently working with psychologist Will Heywood who is helping him to learn to control his hyper-active heart with meditational techniques--a condition he currently controls with prescription drugs. Ironically, one of Stelarc's oft quoted prouncements--AWARENESS IS OFTEN THAT WHICH OCCURS WHEN THE BODY MALFUNCTIONS--would seem to be played out in the work of Cooper who has found through his art a method to both heal himself and teach about healing.

If we agree that it is desirable to effect a connection between the living body and some other system or device, a floodgate opens as to the nature of the relationship between the machine and the flesh. Specifically, what is the nature of the interface?

The truly liberating moment for many computer historians was the invention of the "mouse" in the 1960s by researchers at Xerox PARC. As Howard Rheingold writes in his book Virtual Reality, "instead of specifying a document or a program by typing in an arcane command code, it became possible to interact with a computer by using a natural gesture; when a user moves the mouse on the desk next to the keyboard, a cursor moves in an analogous manner on the screen." (5) Beyond physical gesture are voice recognition systems, devices for tracking eye movement, and brain emissions sensors.

An example of interface design that eschews physical sensors or other invasive techniques has been developed by researchers at the Institute for Studies in the Arts at Arizona State University. Dubbed the Intelligent Stage , the project is the result of an an on-going collaboration between composer John D. Mitchell and computer scientist/dancer Robb E. Lovell. The stage is a performer activated environment that couples computer technology with non-invasive video sensing equipment. A performer on the Intelligent Stage has only to move through a series of precisely placed "virtual triggers" to interactively manipulate any kind of digitally-based event--such as computer generated sound, computer animations, slides, video laser-discs, projection surfaces, and tele-controlled lighting. The stage takes the "immersive" aspects of virtual reality and creates a real-life analog to the synthetic creations characteristic of three-dimensional computer graphics.

While the system has been used extensively in a number of collaboratively produced, theatrically based works, the potentials of the Stage have begun to be explored by researchers from other body-centered fields such as physical therapy, kinesiology, medicine, and architecture.

Recently, dancer and kinesiologist Glenna Batson utilized the Intelligent Stage to investigate its potential in "(re)training dancers to alter inefficient and potentially injurious movement habits." Bateson operates from the premise that body-centered learning follows an essentially cybernetic model--that is, "motor learning is self-generated and self-guided by conscious awareness of one's (mainly bodily) perceptions." Dancer's are able to test their body positions against the virtual datum provided by the remote sensing system. Bateson writes: "The Intelligent Stage extends many of the criteria for an optimal learning experience by applying them specifically to the moving body as it interacts with technology (Bateson's emphasis)." (6)

Digital Versus Analog

We have moved from a tool-based model to a language-based model--from analog systems of representation, such as wood-carving, continuous tone photography, the LP record--to digital representation.

The essential feature of new digital media is its commensurability--that is, every media--and, potentially, every body--regardless of input or output device, shares common ground to the degree that it can be represented by a string of 0s and 1s (i.e., binary code). It allows for infinite reproduction--there is no degradation of signal. No difference between the original and its copy. In addition, everyone can be both a transmitter and a receiver of information. The very notion of an originary moment loses its relevance (and its "aura"). The traditional integrity of fixed concepts such as space, time, and mass become meaningless in a world in which the parameters of a given event can be altered simply by tweaking the code. Different arrangements of information come into play. Compositional strategies dependent on heirarchical structures and tree-like organization are replaced by fields of varying intensity and lattice structures. Information from one "form" can effect other "forms" through infection, deposition, mimicry.

For the machine media artist Woody Vasulka, there are an array of different issues that surface in what he calls the "noncentric" space of digital media: "Once the author constructs and organizes a digital space, the viewer can enter into a narrative relationship with it. (Traditionally) a shot in film indicates a discrete viewpoint. Its narrative purpose is to eliminate other possible views. In contrast, the world in the computer contains the infinity of undivided space, undissected by the viewpoints of narrative progression. In the world of the machine, all sets of narrative vectors are offered in an equal, non-hierarchical way. The machine is indifferent to the psychological conditioning of a viewpoint. All coordinates of space are always present and available to the principles of selected observation." (7)

I would add that all coordinates are also available to infinite mutation and transformation. For example, the shortest distance between two points may not be a line--it may be an interval. In other words, we can now move with complete freedom (or indifference) from spatial descriptions to time designation.

The necessity to create effective bridges between different electronic media was recognized early on in the work of Woody and Steina Vasulka. Much of their early investigation of video synthesis turned on the assumption that the phenomenology of the electronic audio signal could be mapped on the video image directly. That is, the visual transformation of one system (the video image) was affected (infected) by its proximity to another system (the audio signal). Marita Sturken describes Steina's work in the 70s in which she altered a video image with electronically processed violin music in real time: "The movement of her violin bow across the strings of the instrument disrupts and transposes the video image, causing the violin bow to appear to squiggle and snake into interlocking waveforms. The alliance of sound and image in the electronic signal allows the audio vibrations of the violin to create image disruptions. The violin is thus a means through which electronic sound can be spatialized to create an image performance." (8)

The site for this investigation has to date been largely electronic media--whether analog or digital. In so far as electronic media in general lend themselves to a transposition into digital form more readily than, say, carved marble, they represent a kind of frontier for investigations in "noncentric" space.

With the explosion of the Internet, there is a demand for transparent access to a multiplicity of forms--forms that traditionally would have been generated in very different ways. Various artists--trained in an array of "analog" processes (photography, printmaking, painting, scultpure, etc.)--are rushing to place a "digital" version of their work on line. Increasingly, the step of translation is being eliminated. Many artists are "going digital" precisely because of the increased opportunities for interacting with other media, AND because they can participate in a linked community that is hungry for fresh digitally generated material and interaction. But still, how do we effectively accomodate the "analog" in general, and the human body in particular in this brave new world?

The Body as Instrument and Interface

In seeking to explain certain problems of "electronic style" and the "institutional practices of schooling appropriate for an electronic apparatus," Gregory Ulmer invokes the metaphor of Deleuze and Gauttari's "rhizome"--the vehicle by which "any kind of swarming animal or vegetable system (rat dens or crab grass)" gives rise to spatialized relationships. For Ulmer, "The basic point of the rhizome as an inferface best seen in Deleuze's use of the orchid/wasp relationship as an example for conceptualizing an alternative to representation. Instead of the semiotic idea of signs as icons, indexes, or symbols, the rhizographic notion of signifying relationships is that of the symbiotic interaction of two different species systems (orchids and wasps). Meaning circulates in the manner of the exchange between two systems which has to do with fertility and not with signs. The part of the vehicle activated in this metaphor is that of the passage from one system to another." (9)

Digital media creates both a ground and a medium for precisely this kind of "passage." While it may be easy to understand how two digital formats--say a digital audio file and a digitally processed video image--may permit a certain "symbiotic interaction of two different species systems", how does the body (or another "analog" system) enter into this kind of discourse? Well, we have seen a couple of examples above in the work of Cooper and Bateson where different interface designed allowed for a dialog between the space of the body and the space of the computer. Most of us could come up with an example in our own experience in which the body is placed into a kind of "learning" relationship with some kind of digital system.

This situation in which one system responds to the demands or another can be likened to Deleuze's and Guattari's concept of "deterritorialization" and "reterritorialization." "The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid's reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome....At the same time, something else entirely is going on...a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp." (10)

Our awareness of the processes by which we learn--and by implication, the deeper structures that enable us to respond with sensitivity to our surroundings--can be developed in a purposeful and productive manner with machines that are "tuned" to the needs of individual learners.

The human body--our bodies--are rich arrays of interdependent systems, each with their own spatialized morphology and logic. With the explosion of advances in biotechnology and interface design, every cell, neuron, and sinew, every change in temperature, respiration, and pulse rate becomes a potential switch. Once the interface becomes transparent, what switches will we choose to operate? And when the promise of a wireless world meets the real-life drama of nano-technology (in which clockworks the size of a human ovum run miniature factories on the face of a dime) to which databases do we jack in; what partnerships do we foster; what affairs of the heart unfold? When your heartbeat can be synched to your lover's pulse--or when heads of state can feel the fear in the shallow breaths of their enemies' heaving chests--the promise of the body in the digital age will be realized.

3. Endnotes:

Stelarc. "Fractal Flesh" April 1996,

(2) Gibson, William, as quoted in Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 78.

(3) Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise. Hacking the Future (Montreal: New Perspectives, 1996).

(4) Ryan, Marie-Laure. "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory." Postmodern Culture , v. 5 n.1 (North Carolina State University and the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, September 1994) , para. 39,

(5) Collins, D.L.; Garoian, C.R. , The Deep Creek School: Technology, Ecology and the Body as Pedagogical Alternatives in Art Education." The Journal Of Social Theory In Art Education, , vol. 4 (Ellensburg: Caucus on Social Theory and Art Education, 1994) pp. 33, 69.

(6) Stelarc. ibid.

(7) Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity (New York: Grove Press, 1996), pp. 155-156.

(8) Instrumented Body Suits,3Space: Virtual Reality and Interactive Graphics, (Toronto: 3Space, 1995) [Advertisement from the Internet].

(9) Rheingold, Howard, Virtual Reality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), p. 83.

(10) New York Times (March 7 1995), p.

(11) "ES5000 Eye Controlled Hi8," Canon, U.S.A., Inc., 1996, (URL:

(12) de Biran, Maine. Influence de l'habitude sur la faculte de penser, 1803, pp. 56 -60. [as cited in: Crary, Jonathan,Techniques of the Observer. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), p. 73] .

(13) "What physiologists see from their externalized, third-person view is always a 'body.' What the individual sees from his or her internalized, first-person view is always a 'soma.' Soma is a Greek word that, from Hesiod onward, has meant "living body." This living, self-sensing, internalized perception of oneself is radically different from the externalized perception of what we call a 'body,' which could just as well be a human, a statue, a dummy, or a cadaver--from an objective point of view, all of these are 'bodies.'" See Thomas Hanna, Somatics. (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1988), p. 20.

(14) Bateson, Glenna. "Somatic Choreology." unpublished paper. (Tempe: Institute for Studies in the Arts, Arizona State University, March 1996).

(15) Clancy, Patrick, "The Imaging Effect," The Simulated Presence (Tempe: Institute for Studies in the Arts, Arizona State University, 1993), pp.16-17.

(16) Vasulka, Woody, "Notes on Installations: From Printed Matter to Noncentric Space," Steina and Woody Vasulka: Machine Media, Marita Sturken, ed., (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 69

(17) Ibid., p. 26.

(18) Stone, Sandy. As quoted by Susan Stryker inWIRED magazine, vol. 4.05 (San Francisco: Wired Ventures Ltd, May 1996), p. 152.

(19) Brickemp, William. As quoted in Pimentel and Texeira, Virtual Reality: Through the New Looking-Glass, Intel/Windcrest, (McGraw Hill, 1993).

(20) Ulmer, Jeffrey. "Unthinkable Writing," Postmodern Culture,
(22) 4 n.3 (North Carolina State University and the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, May 1994), paras. 5,6.

(21) Re: "deterritorialization" Ronald Bogue writes, "In a sense, the anthropomorphic levels of content and expression correspond to those human properties which, according to Andre-Leroi-Gourhan, are fundamental to the species....Gourhan argues that one can trace in human evolution a complementary modification of the function of the hand and the mouth that makes possible the development and use of both tools and language. When men assume an upright posture, their hands are set free from the task of locomotion (deterritorialization) and made available for fashioning the tools with which they shape the world (reterritorialization, or technological recoding)." See Ronald Bogue, "The Grand Proliferation," Deleuze and Guattari. (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 128.

(22) Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 10.