In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna J. Haraway proposed that a ‘cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’ (1991:154).
Company in Space’s new performance Cybernetic Organism 3 (CO3), engages with Haraway’s notion of imperfect and oppositional points of view by traversing unfamiliar spaces and negotiating difference through simulation.
In this performance Hellen Sky transgresses the usual boundaries between human and machine. Her body, replete with gyroscopic global tracking device, potentiometer, battery, headset and light emitting devices, is positioned in real space as well as having a direct relationship with the on screen avatars. When she moves, the virtual bodies mirror her actions. Standing in the dark recesses of the theatre aisle, her monstrous cybernetic body, complete with long umbilical cable is familiar, if not as strange as the animated bodies projected on screen.
The exoskeleton that Hellen wears is closely related to her physical body and mimics her skeletal structure. Indeed it determines to a large extent the repertoire and range of movements that she can execute in the performance. However, apart from the freedom or restriction that may be placed onto her body, she remains interested in ‘pedestrian’ movement, ie, the way that we usually move, or the various ways that technology affects human stature. For this performance simplistic movements are more appropriate than culturally expected movements associated with dance. She is interested in the tension created between her body, the technology and the virtual body, and imparts her sense of the tactile into the performance gestures.
In this performance the body of the virtual and weightless ‘other’ is amplified by large screen projections, one at the front, and one to the side of the theatre, and may be read as the artists concern with the disappearance of the material body into data. In fact so much of human activity is reduced in cyberculture to the binaries of one’s and noughts.
Doubles and mirrors pervade the work, providing more opportunities for real or virtual bodies to recognise or find one’s own body alienating. As the virtual body acts as uncanny doppelganger to the self and its image, the large, dark shadows of Sky’s body on the wall creates yet another ‘other’ to contemplate.
John McCormick the other member of CO3 choreographs the movements. Using multi-cameras and points of view, he orchestrates the real time compositions – unfolding and meshing the images to give them weight and meaning. Although there is a certain amount of control exerted by him onto the performance’s artist’s body, Hellen's control of the performance lies in her ability to use imagination to forestall any intervals that she may not have expected.
Sky obviously applauds the interactivity of human machine interface, and opens up a space in the performance for criticism or resistance. As she navigates through the architectural terrain of the Capital Theatre (the familiar space of the cinematic experience, and the space of dreams and escape), she address the audience with what first appears as an alien and disconnected stream of consciousness. Embedded in the soundtrack (albeit unheard) are excerpts from Doris Lessing’s utopian and dystopian science fiction novel Shikasta (1979). Sky’s use of the Lessing texts is to enhance the virtual landscapes with descriptions of divergent spaces and locations; which buys into the VR rhetoric that bodies are dispersed and elsewhere in cyberspace.
It seems that the human body, colonised by the machine, has no choice but to become virtual, for in our high tech, ageist, disease ridden culture, which is fearful of other bodies, the safest ones to know are those that are virtual.
When she first speaks the most audible words are ‘I could be in Florida’, a reference to the unseen remote artist who will affect her performance, and ’Christmas Island’, indicating her sympathy for those considered outside, particularly the unwanted asylum seekers in the all too recent Tampa incident. Those ‘others’, which have historically included women, and people from other places, is shown here in this performance to be constructed and defined by technology. Both the Australian media and telecommunication corporations were co-opted to gauge public opinion in this matter.
This performance alerts the audience to the way that visual technologies create difference. She discloses that it is women who fall most heavily under this cinematic gaze, however the emphasis is placed on the representation of the female body through the spectacular and fictional cyborg, which, contra Haraway does have origins in Science Fiction. A young woman, a middle-aged woman and a partial, amorphous body are the other ways that women are represented in virtual space.
Sky’s distinct reference to Pris one of the genetically engineered Nexus 6 replicants in the sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982), alerts us to the various ways that the images of women are replicated and circulated in consumer culture, and the profound impact that cloning will have on reproductive technologies.
In this performance she subverts the perfect and homogenised female bodies presented in the media with monstrous ‘others’ that reflect both real and fictional bodies that haunt women in our culture. Her performance draws us into the problematic of imaginary bodies of perfection, with their unrealistic and unobtainable proportions, which do not take into account the bodily changes that women experience in childbirth, sickness or menopause. Sky attempts to reconcile women’s experience into a range of forms, reflecting their diversity.
Represented as cybernetic organism and replicant, she draws our attention to embodiment and lived experience. This is one strategy around the kind of ‘’science fictional’ narratives of biomedicine, which not only determine the parameters of normality, but which in the current ethos the Human Genome Project, would have us believe that we are determined by our genetic makeup (Haraway (1997), Waldby (1996).
For Sky the seductive forces in technological culture (Internet and 3D simulation) lie in the possibilities opened up for intimate connectivity, the ability to transform one’s self image and to be able to play with multiple personas; acknowledging that it is difference that pervades human existence. Her representation of different lives, lived out in different geographic locations works against any notion that there is a usual or normal mode of being.
I think that the connectivity presented by Company in Space/Helen Sky reveals that many women who were once isolated are now in a position to share information and resources through web-sites and one line learning and communication. But there are just as many other women who are still isolated, unconnected or disconnected from these resources. The virtual women projected on screen during the performance displayed this isolation, either in the vast snow filled landscapes or on the edge of a cliff.
In one of the performance Hellen became disconnected, with her umbilical cable adrift from her body. She wondered what she might do and chose to adlib some of her inner thoughts. This possibility of disconnection, whilst investigated in some of Laurie Anderson’s performances, primarily through the telephone is extended in Sky’s performance to include more recent technologies. The question arises of what happens to this symbiotic relation that we have with our technologies, and how will people be communicating without the machine prosthesis?
Participating in virtual reality may be immersive and empowering on a number of levels, but as Susan Hawthorn points out ‘our knowledge of the local progressively decreases as our knowledge of the global increases’ (1999:124). Indeed communication technologies enables us to connect with another person in a remote space, but we may not even know our neighbours.
What was important in this performance was the passion that was displayed in the performative acts and spoken texts, which were at times, measured and at other times pure excitation of her immersive experience. It was Sky’s sudden intake of breath, and the gasps and the expelling of air that reminded the audience that under all that outer cybernetic casing was a living, breathing being. It was a reference also to first and last breaths taken by every individual and how birth and death are more and more under the critical eye of technology.
It is useful here to consider Stelarc’s Movotar/Avatar performance, in which his body is moved by an on-screen avatar, or in his Ping Body performances in which his body is moved by Internet activity. Described by Stelarc as follows: ‘During the Ping Body performances, 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’ (http://www.stelarc.va.com.au
However in Hellen’s performance her movements directly affected the virtual body, creating a blurring of the borders between self and other, real and virtual, organic and digital images. Both Sky and Stelarc, create in these performances a mirroring affect, with the virtual body as extension of the real.
In CO3 the posthuman, modified and extended body is exposed to the whims of another body in a remote place. An artist in Florida configured computer data, thus altering the parameters of the performance. Stelarc has also subjected his body to this kind of experience in an attempt perhaps to integrate or reconcile the other.
In all, the performance was pure theatre, the exaggerated body gestures, the emotive and expressive texts, and the use of narrative. However, for me the performance aspects and interaction between bodies, both real and virtual, combined with a critique of technological culture were the most potent elements. As we watch the organic body affecting virtual bodies, we are asked to consider how we affect and move other bodies, where the body resides, how we are affected by technology, and above all, how the real body is figured in this new terrain.
Haraway, Donna, J., Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Fab, Free Association Books, London, 1991
Hawthorne, Suan, ‘Connectivity: Cultural Practices of the Powerful or Subversion from the Margins’, Cyberfeminism: Connectivity + Critique + Creativity, Editors Susan Hawthorn + Renata Klein, Spinifex, Australia, 1999.
Lessing, Doris, Shikasta : re: colonised Planet 5 : personal, psychological, historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban), emissary (grade 9), 87th of the period of the last days / London : Cape, 1979.
Waldby, Catherine, The Visible Human Project: Informatic bodies and posthuman medicine, Routledge, London and New York, 2000