How does our physicality affect our experience of art? Natasia examines the crossovers between art, technology, and the body at the Goldsmiths MFA degree show, and uncovers some surprises.
“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” writes Donna Haraway in her essay, A Cyborg Manifesto.1
Locked down and dependent on our devices to sustain social interactions while we wait on a vaccine, 2020 has revealed human cyborg-ness more than any other year. And what is a vaccine if not technology designed to upgrade our physiology; a bio hack? In an increasingly online life, what do embodied experiences become?
These were the questions on my mind around the time that I visited the MFA degree show. It was one of the few degree shows still going ahead in person2. The ability to wander and linger as you choose, to absorb sounds, smells, the quality of the light, the feeling of being around other people, are all things which can’t easily be replicated in a digital space. With that in mind, the pieces that stood out both spoke to and spoke of the body.
We began by picking our way across the flooded hallway of the Laurie Grove Baths building to reach the test and trace station – it had a somewhat apocalyptic feeling to it. My companion was looking for some footage for his EP, so we spent a little time here with the video works.
Enda O’Riordan’s mixed media work, Can’t Wait to do This Again,was the first piece to draw us both. A sheet hung in the middle of the darkened room, footage of what looked like the inside of someone’s throat was projected onto it, a camera being pushed down into a stomach. On either side were screens flicking through chapters of text, each telling the story of a bodily fluid in a narrative which read like science fiction:
Black vomit coalesces into a volcanic landscape. The eruption is a synthetic process: two-become-one. Mistaken is the conventional wisdom that the eruptive cataclysm is destructive; certainly, it is catastrophic, but not destructive. Vomit is a diabolical conflagration. Universal gorging causes the earth to burst.
All wetness and leaky borders, the text uses the watery parts of the body as a portal to examine earth and technology. It unceremoniously melts the margins between interior and exterior. We think of ourselves as discrete objects with firm and impenetrable edges, however, this paradigm of the body as separate from its environment was invented and perpetuated by capitalist individualism. The reality is much more complex and Enda plays with that. Consider eating. Digestion queers the relationship between humans and food, consumers and consumed. Food is reshaped, nutrients extracted and absorbed, eventually incorporated into us, becoming the technology that supports our growth. In the same way, Enda’s textual process queers the body: Vomit becomes magma in a transmutation of the human body and tectonic activity, bile infiltrates fibre optic filaments, and a man carries his spittle around in bottles like a prosthetic.
By hybridising the individual body and the planetary body, both become a cyborg of the other, products of organic and geological technologies. Both exist in flux, changed by and actively changing the environment. Enda brings the technology of the body into sharp relief in a work that reformulates our idea of human skin using language as the technology that enables this shift to take place. Dark, playful, and incredibly sharp, reading the text and viewing the work had the same sort of grim satisfaction to it as successfully popping a spot.3
Another standout was Evangelia Dimitrakopoulou’s Flaming Tongue. Despite the minimal style, Evangelia created a curious atmosphere by placing objects in the space that were activated by the visitor. The floor of her allocated white cube was covered in terracotta coloured stones that crunch as you walk over it. From the centre of the room water bubbles from a tiny… pelvis fountain? The label tells us it’s a potion: ‘Vapor and liquid containing hawkweed, black henbane and sage leaves, testosterone augmenting powder and rose water’. There’s a black shape on the wall that looks like a labia, and coloured resin leaking from pipes erected on the back wall. To the right was a huge invasive speaker emitting a low pitched drone that eats your ears in a pleasurable sort of way, like being underwater.4 The smell of the potion, the sound of running water and the drone, the crunch of terracotta underfoot that subtly vibrates through one’s body as they move through the space. Evangelia takes advantage of the body’s porous borders, infiltrating them with the innocuous yet ubiquitous smells and sounds. These diffused components enter us, creating a physical experience both erotic and unsettling.5
Evangelia cites Greece’s political turmoil and a militarised state among her influences, and her work contains both the hard and sharp, as well the soft and fluid. The labia is surrounded by sharp wooden spears that jut aggressively out from the wall whilst the resin leaks from industrial pipes. If Evangelia’s influences are violent militarism on one hand, and the softness of the body on the other, then Flaming Tongue is the illegitimate offspring of both. But, in Haraway’s words, ‘illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins’1. The sharp, violent objects are interspersed with ephemera that pay close attention to the organic body. The cyborg piece that’s born, both subverts the industrial and betrays the body.
In the Ben Pimlott building, Yasamin Ghalehnoie’s untitled work brought a bitterness and a light touch to anti-capitalist discourse. Slogans like ‘the paradoxical promise of sustainable development’ were printed over heavily edited images of nature. There’s valid criticisms of Instagram friendly art and activism, designed for quick consumption. Activism on Instagram can, at times, oversimplify complex issues, leave the door wide open for false information, and is often co-opted by virtue signallers6. However, there’s something to be said for the skill it takes to deftly capture an issue in a way that strikes the depleting attention spans of the technological era. I was taken aback and it took me some time to figure out why. The message of the piece reminded me of WALL-E. The font, the Amazon-esque company that has monopolised every aspect of life in 2805 – a horrifying parody of modern consumerist culture. The grainy, washed out image carries all the nostalgia of looking at a sepia photograph or video from ‘the olden days’, making us go wide eyed with wonder; something which WALL-E does at a number of points in the film7. Yasamin’s work is a tough pill to swallow. Whilst the font screams that everything is going to be fine, the words themselves abruptly tell us that more development is not the answer to the environmental problems caused by development in the first place. These cleverly constructed visual ironies struck me and stayed with me. It’s a cruel and clever trick to combine a font that reads positivity with a pessimistic message, and it is definitely effective.
Visiting an exhibition in person for the first time in months already had me thinking about embodied experiences versus ones facilitated by technology, but these works caught me by surprise. Enda takes a magnifying glass to the abject parts of us, zooming in close enough to reveal a new narrative. Evangelia toyed with the senses by creating a piece not just viewed through the eyes, but experienced by all the senses, blurring the boundaries of the body. Yasamin draws attention to the separation of the human body from the natural environment by critiquing our flagrant abuses of the planet that our bodies are reliant on and entwined with. The works remix the organic and the technological, and transgress the parameters of both. They are hybrids, leaning into that uncomfortably recognisable feeling that our bodies are not singular units, but supplemented by a plethora of technologies, both organic and otherwise. In short, we are living, breathing, cyborgs.
- Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181.
- If not the only one in London?
- Writing this, I’m listening to a video piece on Enda’s website about time and society. ‘Time has burst through the dam wall and is flooding everywhere. Or so it seems’. Their work seamlessly melds the micro and the macro together. http://ednascamz.net/imgs.html
- To get a feel for what the mood was like in the space you can watch this video from her website.
- Perhaps it was unsettling because it felt like an erotic interaction in a public space.
- Virtual signalling is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
- This can be seen via this link: https://youtu.be/WB8LrCWmGYw?t=82