The Dis-Embodied Re-Embodied Body

Published in: Kunstforum. Die Zukunft des Kšrpers I, Vol 132, November 1995-January 1996, pp. 168-171.

The history of art exemplifies a complex set of negotiations between body and space - negotations between the actual domain of the real body of the viewer and the real space he inhabits and the virtual domain of the represented body and represented spaces. The contemporary body in space is no longer the classical model. Ours is a vertiginous location - suspended upside down (Baselitz), launched into space (Klein), declared as obsolete (Stelarc) and now seemingly superhumanly re-embodied in Cyberspace and suprahumanly re-united in Netspace.

In the 60's and 70's the evolution of mixed-media and inter-media researches made it clear that the exigencies of the body were a focal issue. The artist's performative body and the spectators participatory body together constituted the notion of a body that was increasingly being 'immersed' in the dialectics of mediated experience. Today the protagonist body plugged into virtual reality is a perspicuous extension of this conjunction.

Body and space are at the root of all extensions. The narrative extension is the temporal body in space. The ritual extension is the liturgical body in sacred space. The interactive extension is the body affecting space. Then there are the multifarious iconoclastic extensions which suppress either the body or space so as to elevate the predominance of one over the other. And nowadays there is the virtual extension of mediated bodies and hyper spaces.

All extensions of the body/space conjunction struggle with a basic disjunction within our attitude to the body itself. On the one hand the sensual body constitutes our very being, on the other hand the mortal body is what sentences us to non-being. This unbearable contradiction evokes a simultaneous affirmation and denial of the body, a contradiction that has historically and in many cultures an important focus of art's speculative and iconographic concerns.

It is clear that the current euphoric embrace of the virtualised body can also be traced to our disavowal of the mortal 'obsolete' body. At the same time this is counterbalanced by the sensuous assertion of the performative and 'interactive' body. Such a paradoxical conjunction of denial and affirmation is characteristic of our present mediated condition. Energetically disembodied we see ourselves as a pataphysical species, suspended in a vertiginous axis that extends seamlessly between the actual and the virtual.

The technologies of immaterial representation have opened a pandoras box of new relationships between the viewer and the artwork. The desire for the dissolution (and disillusion) of the corporeal artwork seems to be consistent with the avant-gardistic ambition for the convergence between 'art and life'. In Guy Debord's words: "Life can never be too disorientating".

A new aesthetics comes to the fore. The artwork is more and more embodied in the interface, in the articulation of a space of meeting between the artwork and the viewer, and even in the articulation of a space where the artwork as an artifact seems to disappear altogether and only communication between the viewers remains.

While the success of an interface is constituted simply by its efficacy as a mechanism of conjunction, the artistic quality of an interface is the extent to which this conjunction embodies new cultural values. The interest that is now focussed on the raw creative modalities of interactivity, virtual reality, hypermedia, telepresence and networking comes from a recognition of the implicit shift in cultural paradigms that they embody. But the liability is of course an enthusiasm that merely articulates the metaphoric and anecdotal values of these techniques. In this situation the poetic and conceptual rigorousness of traditional art practice may remain exemplary for all our efforts in the digital domain.