Under the VR spell?

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:22 -- damien
Subverting America's masculinist global hologram

Queensland now has its own Virtual Reality Pty. Ltd. The company's publicity states that you can join its cyberclub for only $50 a year, meet competitors, and "duck, dodge, punch, stab, crouch, spin, climb, shoot, pick up, turn, throw, slash, push, etcetera" for just $5.00 every three minutes. If an analysis of player data that concludes "women need a reason to be aggressive; men only need a place"2 is any guide, however, they'll have to provide more than just virtual venue and arbitrary virtual adversary. In Sydney last November, the curatorial emphasis of the Third International Symposium on Electronic Art (TISEA) was the human/machine interface. Videoplace, the 1970's Artificial Reality 'brainchild' of American artist Myron W. Krueger, which was exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum, marked the American origins of human/machine art practice. Continuing the focus of previous electronic art symposia on critically evaluating the implications of the "most exciting and controversial mutations emerging from the intersections of art, science, mathematics, technology and culture", the context for this symposium hosted by the Australian Network for Art and Technology was Cultural Diversity in the Global Village.


Some of the works at TISEA were shown at Ars Electronica, the annual festival of art, technology and society held at Linz (Austria), earlier in the year. The concept for Ars Electronica for 1992 was the world from within. Presentations foregrounded the perceptions of scientists, philosophers and artists in relation to endophysics and nanotechnology. As endo (from within)-physics and nano (very small)-technology have radically transformed our world image and the new image worlds accompanying it, this international event was a forum for 'world image' and ' image world' practitioners. 'Image worlds ' exhibited during that festival were selected according to the criterion that the work's topic be a "new" perspective. Again, the historical beginnings of electronic art in the United States was highlighted. In this instance early (1960s) New York alternative video practitioners, Woody and Steina Vasulka, constructed an interactive museum of experimental video technology and of the heros of 'the tribe that worshipped electricity', entitled Pioneers of Electronic Art. Acknowledging that new physics made old notions of scientific objectivity, in terms of looking away from ourselves and at the external world, no longer viable, the festival's seminar panel of (male) physicists, computer scientists and the odd cultural theorist presented its favourite nano, endo, artificial intelligence and observer/observed theories. In this context, the concept of artificial or virtual realities was addressed on the rationale that, as everything we can see, hear, think or do has been constructed and created by ourselves, " ... reality is not real, but artificial.” Most contributors from the strong American 'pioneering' contingent who gave papers had been NASA or defense-linked at some time during their R & D days.


Artificial Reality or Virtual Reality (depending on whether you align with Myron Krueger's4 or Howard Rheingold's5 definition) has attracted an enormous amount of hype because of the possibility it appears to offer for transcendence

of the human body. American Howard Rheingold, who defines Virtual Reality as 'a consensual hallucination', started a computer network discussion group for virtual reality research that is now purported to have over twenty thousand subscribers. Drawing attention to options he and fellow researcher Walser predict for the future, he enthuses:


.. . as you conduct more of your life and affairs in cyberspace your conditioned notion of a unique and immutable body will give way to a far more liberated notion of 'body' as something quite disposable and generally, limiting.6 (Rheingold, 1992: 191)


In Rheingold's version, the body is increasingly covered over by a technological sensorium, and the self increasingly subjected to an exteriorisation of the senses via a technical apparatus that substitutes a language of codes and processed

information for encounters in 'physical reality' : Picture yourself a couple of decades hence, dressed for a hot night in the virtual village. Before you climb into a suitably padded chamber and put on your 3D glasses, you slip into a lightweight (eventually, one would hope, diaphanous) body-suit, something like a body stocking, but with the kind of intimate snugness of a condom. Embedded in the inner surface of the suit, using a technology that does not yet exist, is an array of intelligent sensor-effectors ... that can receive and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence . .. You can run your cheek over (virtual) satin, and feel the difference when you encounter (virtual) flesh. Or you can gently squeeze something soft and pliable and feel it stiffen under your touch ... your representations are able to touch each other, even though your physical bodies might be continents apart ... If you don't like the way the encounter is going, or someone requires your presence in physical reality, you can turn it all off by flicking a switch and taking off your virtual birthday suit.?


It seems that mainstream techno-immersion experience can only be defined in the embarrassingly narrow, maleorder, 'sex-without-responsibility' terms ubiquitous in trashy porn literature by men for men. However, for Krueger, (who acknowledges his debt to "the scripture of the scientific community-science fiction"),S the quest is for an artificial reality in which the body is freed from apparatus and cover:


I recoiled at the at the thought of wiring people, because I thought that would complicate my efforts to bring a benign version of technology to the public. Instead, I resolved to make the computer perceive people's movements without encumbering them in any way participants must try to anticipate the consequences of future actions, formulate the intent to execute those actions, coordinate the actions as they are being performed, and then react to any surprises that occur.9


This confluence of science, technology and culture culminating in artificial or virtual realities is utterly problematized by the introduction to it of biology in the form of the human body. Arthur and Marie Louise Kroker, the Canadian 'panic ' theoreticians, claim that 'virtuality' is the dominant sign of contemporary technological society where the newest technology invades and possesses the body of the possessed individual. The performances of Australian artist, Stelarc (Third Hand at Ars Electronica and Host body/coupled gestures: event for virtual arm, robot manipulator and third hand at TISEA) are spectacles of techno-panic, in which the male sexed body perpetuates the tradition of standing for the supposedly neutral human body. He states: What is significant is no longer male-female intercourse but human-machine interface. THE BODY IS OBSOLETE. We are at the end of philosophy and human physiology. Human thought recedes into the human past ... ONCE A CONTAINER, TECHNOLOGY NOW BECOMES A COMPONENT OF THE BODY. It is no longer of any advantage to remain "human" or to evolve as a species. EVOLUTION ENDS WHEN TECHNOLOGY INVADES THE BODY.1o


In Stelarc's futurist vision, the human body is restructured-' hollowed out, emptied of redundant systems and malfunctioning organs, with its human skin replaced by a synthetic oxygenating skin which converts light to nutrient'-and its operational possibilities thereby multiplied for an extra-terrestrial future.

Feminist critical analysis of the conventional masculinity of science (and, by inclusion, technology) is linked to the gendered mythologising of scientific endeavour as an erotic journey of discovery: Science remains an important genre of Western exploration and travel literature.. . Similarly, no reader, no matter how literal-minded, could be innocent of the gendered erotic trope that figures the hero's probing into nature's laminated secrets, glorying simultaneously in the layered complexity and in his own techno-erotic touch that goes ever deeper. Science as heroic quest and as erotic technique applied to the body of nature are utterly conventional figures. They take on a particular edge in late twentieth-century immune system discourse, where themes of nuclear exterminism, space adventure, extra-terrestrialism, exotic invaders, and military high-technology are pervasive. II


While he was Creative Director of the Advanced Computer Graphics Centre at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Paul Brown expressed his concern that the majority of critics of new technology were women, and it seemed that the reason for this was a reaction to its threat of motherless birth.12 It is true that the ethics of reproductive technology have, with good reason, been a focus of feminist critique. But it is understandable, given the range of deceptive simulations of realities made possible with this new spatiotemporally based technology, that feminist philosophers, science historians and cultural critics like Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway and Zoe Sofoulis have directed their energies to theorising the implications of future lived spatialities for women in what has become known as the 'informatics of domination'. Because of the new possibilities for the regeneration of old know ledges or the generation of know ledges of a different kind, women are taking a position against the transposition of the old order of social relations- exploitation, exclusion and domination-into this developing space. Just as feminist science fiction writing has problematised the statuses of man, woman, human, artifact, member of a race or individual identity and body, by conjuring up an imaginary world of no-man's land, the feminist cyborg, as "a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, a bio-techni cal being of no specific sex or gender" (Haraway) represents a politicisation of the conventions of the science fiction genre and an exploration of possible subjectivities which transgress traditional boundaries and spaces.


Virginia Barratt's cyborg performance, lnvert -X, at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art (IMA) during the recent Heat Seeking Performance Series, operated to construe future sexual difference as a kind of madness residing outside the existing social order as pain, danger, power and ecstasy. Playful explorations of what might constitute women's pornography is one of the strategies used by 'the ultimate mercenaries of slime', VNS MATRIX (Virginia Barratt, Francesca da Rimini, Julianne Pierce and Josephine Starrs) whose Cyber Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century appeared at Ars Electronica, and at Siggraph '92 (Chicago). This group's practice centres on ethics and technological development; the imaging of women in cyber culture; the relationship of the gendered body to computers, and future sex. ALL NEW GEN , an interactive work-in-progress, previewed at the Australian Centre for Photography during TISEA and later at the IMA introduces a new cyberconstruct onto the block: ALL NEW GEN , the "gamegirl" whose enemy is "Big Daddy Mainframe" ... the essence of a futuristic

omnipotent military-industrial complex (who) with her posse of Homegirls ... acts as a virus, infiltrating and corrupting the BDM databanksJ3


Mainstream techno-discourses that link human systems and machine systems by drawing analogies between the nervous or immune systems and computer systems and communications networks when dysfunction occurs (for example, the use of the metaphors of immunology and ecology- 'pollution', 'virus', 'disinfect' 'clone', etcetera) reflect the depth of penetration of supposedly value-neutral medical research, such as that into AIDS and reproductive technology, into our cultural assumptions. The aligning of women with negative attributes in gendered dualisms is one of the many strategies of the dominant culture that has transposed itself into an informatics of domination. Like VNS Matrix productions, Linda Dement's multi-media interactive work Tales of Typhoid Mary exhibited at The Performance Space as part of TISEA, responded, at the leaky boundary, to this fusion of biology and technology. Dealing with 'nebulous things' like sex, violence, corporeality, experiences, memories, madness, desires and passions, dark and dangerous visceral images on the screen aroused a voyeuristic curiosity. The probing of these images unlocked Typhoid Mary' s private thoughts and gruesome tales, to output as data, falling from the printer like leaves from a stolen diary.


A characteristic of recent feminist work in performance and machine art has been its use of the visceral to rupture and to seep through the boundaries at the human/machine interface with an accompanying stream of appositional dialogue- verbal and/or written- which functions to problematize dominant perceptions of pornography and sexuality. In her analysis of the phenomenon of women's underground porn stories which present Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Spock as spacefaring lovers (written mostly in fanzines like Naked Times, Off Duty, Fever, and Final Frontier), Constance Penley claims that aside from the fact that the fans would claim that they are just having fun, it represents


 ... a unique, hybridized genre that ingeniously blends romance, pornography, and utopian science fiction and a comfortable yet stimulating social space in which women can manipulate the products of mass-produced culture to stage a popular debate around issues of technology, fantasy, and everyday life.t4



This kind of imaginary, which merges biology and technology, organism and machine, could be viewed as escapist if it were not for the fact that this coupling is already forged in the present in the forms of in-vitro fertilisation, genetic engineering and prosthetic implants, to name just a few. The performance

at the 9th Biennale of Sydney of French artist, Orlan, illustrates her views about the fraught relationship between female identity and body image. Refusing to become the docile, sterile body subdued by narcosis and asepsis-the disappearing patient of the operating theatre whose internal body organs externalise into the functions of 'life-support' technology Orlan presents a profoundly different perspective to that of the traditional sculptural practice of surgery on the object body. Her video performance and its residue (body parts displayed as reliquaries in glass jars with accompanying video text) is representative of an extreme, and to most people, quite shocking, inscription of the body, as symbolic art object, with the rhetorics of technology. Notorious and life-threatening negotiations of the categorisation and inscription of bodies as either masculine, or feminine, or even human, demand recognition of what must be considered to be at stake here. Technological regenerations of domination such as Rheingold's 'vision'; the objectification of women in computer and video 'games'; the tragic outcomes of the reshaping of women's bodies with technology to prescribed notions of femininity; and the repression of women through exclusion from the means of production of knowledges, have resulted in critical responses that deal in cultural transformations through technological means. Elizabeth Grosz's insight into technical productions as


.. . products of collective fantasies of the body's forms and functions, its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, its points of augmentation and supplementation, its reading of bodily zones as sites of prosthetic transcription, a mapping and remapping of corporeal alignments and intensities ... 15


suggests possibilities for a critique of the claims of knowledge within this new space-beyond live performance and human engagement with technology in an external or generated space-at the point of fusion of biology with technology. The inner space of the human body has become the new zone of contestation for feminist art practice.

Travel to Cyberspace!

Meet new and interesting people ... and kill them.1


1. Engler, C. "Demilitarized Battle Tech!", Mondo 2000, 7:29

2. Engler, op. cit., made this comment in relation to similar activity at

The Battle Tech Centre in Chicago.

3. Gerbel, K. & Weibel, P. (Eds.) Die Welt von lnnen : Endo und Nano,

Conference Publication, Ars Electronica 1992:6

4. Myron Krueger, as a visual artist in the late 1960s and early 1970s,

worked with virtual environments. He wrote Artificial Reality (Reading:

Addison Wesley)-now out of print---in 1983.

5. Howard Rheingold's book Virtual Reality (London: Seeker &

Warburg). which gives an historical overview of VR development, was

published in 1991. References in this article are to the Mandarin

Paperback edition published in 1992.

6. Rheingold, op. cit., 1992:191

7. Rheingold, op. cit., 1992:346

8. Krueger, M.W. "Response is the Medium" in Cultural Diversity in the

Global Village. Conference Publication, TISEA, 1992:8.

9. ibid.

10. Stelarc "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire: Post Evolutionary

Strategies" in Gerbel K. and Weibel, P. op. cit, 233.

11. Haraway, D.J. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of

Nature (London: Free Association, 1991 :205)

12. Brown, P. "Metamedia and Cyberspace". Hayward, P. (Ed) Culture

Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, London: Libbey,

1991 :237, anecdote from his discussion with Stelarc.

13. Exhibition catalogue, Australian Centre for Photography.

14. Penley, C. "Brownian Motion: Women Tactics and Technology" in

Penley C. & Ross, A. (Eds) Technoculture Cultural Politics, Volume 3,

University of Minneapolis Press, 1991:137.

15. Grosz, E., "Lived Spatiality: Insect SpaceNirtual Sex", Agenda 26 &


Glenda Nalder is a Brisbane-based writer.