Courses by Esta
Real Time Newspaper, December
issue, 1998, Australia
Honest to God, if I hear the
'm' word one more time, I'm going to have a cartographic seizure.
Since the early 80s when Fredric Jameson conflated porno angst
with an inability to represent the reconfiguration of spatiality,
cultural production has remained in the thrall of the map.
The 'will to cartography' describes the dominant critical
stance informing a broad range of cultural practices, aesthetic
commentaries and emergent social sites. One thinks immediately,
of course, of all those energetic efforst to map, navigate
and chart the spaces of post-corporeal digital existence.
Yet it has to be admitted that there are some environments
where a spot of mapping comes in handy: bioethics, new reproductive
technologies and the Human Genome Project. A preoccupation
with the logic of maps reflects our current fascination with
borders and boundaries, interface and intersection. What constitutes
the inside and outside of the body has become increasingly
problematic for cultural commentators, scientists, media theorists
and artists. And what might be the consequences of transgressing
or mutating these limits was the subject of a recent Experimenta
Media Arts event held in Melbourne, Viruses and Mutations.
Curated by Keely Macarow, the
event brought together a diverse group of academics, genetic
scientists, bioethicists and artists. Produced with the assistance
of Cinemedia, Viruses and Mutations was part of the
Melbourne Festival Visual Arts Program and consisted of three
interrelated projects: a one-day cultural symposium, an exhibition
-- with works from digital artists and medical industry professionals
-- and a website. These three elements offered a way to critique
and represent the issues that are generated when aesthetics,
science and technology clash.
Indeed, a number of the contributors
to the exhibition seemed quite keen on collision narratives.
One of the most intriguing, albeit disquieting, installations
imagined biotechnology as an aircraft crash. Called C.O.T.I.S.
Movie ('Cult of the Inserter Seat' and 'Mechanism of
Viral Infection Entry') this digital sound installation, by
the international artist collective KIT, used medical scanning
apparatus as a metaphor to trace all kinds of worrying links
between bodies, technology and virology. Activated by one's
own body -- you had to get up on a little stage and sit in
a simulated aircraft seat to start the show -- C.O.T.I.S.
Movie constructed an environment of uncomfortable immersion
and somatic pain. I mean this quite literally. The sound sculpture
created by the three speakers surrounding the aircraft seat,
reverberated in a way almost too painful to bear. Afrantic
voice screeches "we're going down". Seated in front
of a screen you read that the Cotis Movie scanner has, apparently,
located your vulnerable point in order to implant a virus.
A tad apocalyptic? Well, yes. And this is what makes C.O.T.I.S.
Movie a troubling encounter. If mapping has captured
the cultural imagination, then the millennial discourse of
the virus is no slouch either. While tropes of infection and
viral transmission are made to stand for a plethora of cultural
phenomena or transformations (malfunctions in computer software,
popularity of theory in literature departments and so on)
those with actual, material bodies infected by viruses continue
to suffer. We ought to be a little cautious when the representation
of illness appears to articulate a kind to techno-sublime:
"the intended outcome of the C.O.T.I.S. Movie
is an aircraft crash -- which in this case suggest a mutated
body -- a body fused between technology."
Theorising the body as
a site for technological intervention -- as collision, fusion,
transgression or intersection -- concerns a number of the
other works in the exhibition. Justine Cooper's digital video,
Rapt, for example, imaged the artist's own body to
explore the effects of biomedical technology on corporeal
understanding of time and space. The Tissue Culture &
Art Project (reviewed in the Oct/Nov issue of RealTime)
by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr used living tissue to 'grow'
a conceit about the relation between process and product --
life and artificiality, art and science. The Love Machine,
an installation by Michele Barker and Anna Munster, aimed
to "represent the hybridity which computer imaging makes
possible between technology and flesh." This exhibit
mimed the logic of a photo booth; that is, it simulated a
particular kind of photo booth that the artists discovered
in Japan and Hong Kong which takes a photograph of a couple
and then digitally predicts and delivers a picture of the
offspring. For Barker and Munster the structure provided a
way to speculate about notions of definitive biological origin,
ambiguous identity, authenticity and digital modes of reproduction.