THE INHUMAN CONDITION

entire Cyborg

I have been thinking about cyborgs recently.  Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days.  Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information  sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities?  Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction.  A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain?  New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates?  At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?

The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.

It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives.  The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance.  It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.

The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when  it can be turned on or off,  is acceptable.  I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away.  So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world.  We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.

And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains?  Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible.  “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”

Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative.  And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening.  I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?

But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other?  The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition.  The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?

Advertisements

VISIBLE, ALL TOO VISIBLE

crossreferences7

The visible has been and still remains the principle human source of information about the world.  When we can see we can orientate ourselves.  Even perceptions coming from other senses are often translated into visual terms, when we say “I see” we really mean “I understand”, and the sensation of vertigo originates in the ear but is experienced as a visual spatial confusion.

Thanks to the visible we recognise space as the precondition for physical existence.  The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us.  Nothing is more two-faced.

The visible implies an eye, it is the stuff of the relation between seen and seer.  Yet the seer, when human, is conscious of what the eye cannot and will never see because of time and distance.  The visible both includes us because we can see and excludes us because we cannot be everywhere.  The visible consists of the seen which, even when it is threatening, confirms our existence, and of the unseen which defies that existence.  The desire to see something like the sun setting behind the horizon, the stars on a clear night or heat haze in the dessert,  has a deep ontological basis.

To this human ambiguity of the visible one then has to add the visual experience of absence, whereby we no longer see what we saw.  We face a disappearance.  And a struggle ensues to prevent what has disappeared, what has become invisible, falling into the negation of the unseen, defying our existence.  Thus, the visible produces faith in the reality of the invisible and provokes the development of an inner eye which retains and assembles and arranges, as if in an interior, as if what has been seen may be forever partly protected against an ambush of space, which is absence.

Both life itself and the visible owe their existence to light.  Neither the optical explanation of visual perception nor the evolutionist theory of the slow, hazardous development of the eye in response to the stimulus of light dissolve the enigma that at a certain moment appearances were revealed as appearances.

Theories and observations of visual perception have been the main source of inspiration for computer vision (also called machine vision, or computational vision). Special hardware structures and software algorithms provide machines with the capability to interpret the images coming from a camera or a sensor. Artificial Visual Perception has long been used in the computer industry and is now entering the domains of automotive and robotics.

Areas of artificial intelligence deal with autonomous planning or deliberation for robotical systems to navigate through an environment. A detailed understanding of these environments is required to navigate through them. Information about the environment could be provided by a computer vision system, acting as a vision sensor and providing high-level information about the environment and the robot.

Artificial intelligence and computer vision share other topics such as pattern recognition and learning techniques. Consequently, computer vision is sometimes seen as a part of the artificial intelligence field or the computer science field in general.

LOOMS AND LAPTOPS

Old Looms

The loom was the first piece of automated machinery.  It was basically a simple system although it looks really complicated. There are horizontal rods, which connect with vertical rods with hooks. The horizontal rods interact with the punched cards which either have holes or un-perforated card (yes or no, on or off, one or zero, good or bad). If they move, then the vertical rod is moved. If the hook at the rod top is moved into the path of the griffe as it rises, then the hook is raised, and the thread is lifted. That creates the shed for the weft to pass through.

As a weaving system which withdrew control from human workers and transferred to the hardware of the machine, the Jacquard loom was bitterly opposed  by workers, who saw in this migration of control, a piece of their bodies literally transferred to the machine.  The Luddites opposed this automation and were supported in the House of Lords by the poet Lord Byron.

Charles Babbage, interested in the effects of automated machines on traditional forms of manufacture, published his research on the subject The Economies of Manufactures and Machinery in 1832.  He later said that looking back on the early factories was like seeing prototype ‘thinking machines’.

It was the Jacquard loom that excited and inspired Babbage (maker of the Difference Engine) who went on to build his Analytic engine, in which he was greatly helped by Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of previously mentioned Lord Byron. It was Ada who commented that if the Difference engine could simply add up, the Analytic Engine was capable of performing the whole of arithmetic.

Charles and Ada developed an intense relationship and in agreeing to write the footnotes to – and to translate from the Italian – Louis Menebrea’s Sketch of the Analytic Engine invented by Charles Babbage (1842) Ada produced the first example of what was later to be called ‘computer programming’.  The introduction of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating his looms, the punched card, was copied by the pair to attain the varied and complicated processes required to fulfil the purposes of the Analytical Engine.

Old fashioned telephone exchange

Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page. Only by criss-crossing the complex topical landscape can the goals of multifacedness and the establishment of multiple connections begin to be attained.  Where there are a jumble of voices, ideas, and gossip, where there are people talking at the same time, where there is empathy and discourse, that’s where you‘ll find the real world of women.   The Internet shatters the myth that women are victims of technological change.  Weaving and typing, computing and telecommunicating, women have been tending the machinery of the digital age for generations, enjoying intimate relations with the techniques and technologies which are revolutionising the Western World today.

laptop and hands

WRITING OUR OWN HISTORIES

Nancy's print re-sized and cropped

Images are everywhere.  Never has so much been depicted and watched, theatres of war and traffic accidents, the funny and the sad, the boring and the wonderful are all mixed up in a jumble of pixels. We have glimpses at any moment of what things look like on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the moon.

Technology touches everything we do both on and off line and digital photographs record the rules of life through a lens of obsession with catching everything.  Appearances registered, and transmitted with lightning speed.

Yet with this has something innocently changed?  As we move towards more photo representations of our lives will we be confident in our own memories, in our memories which are not supported by photo-evidence?

They used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies.  Now appearances are volatile.  Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent.  And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit.  It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.

Consequently, considering the physical implications of the notion of appetite – the existent, the body, disappears.  We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks. Where there is no body there is no need, only the not-yet-real, the virtual, and the next purchase.  Does this produce in the spectator a sense of freedom or is it isolation?

History has given us accounts of people who struggle with living with need. Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy but today, in the system’s spectacle, it exists no more, no experience is communicated.

The data stream of our lives is logged, placed out there where they can be seen.  Seen by whom, our friends?  We can control who sees our images by limiting them to certain lists, but governments and organisations can, and do, gain access to anything they want.

There is no pure memory but a reconstruction of our lives through stories, our stories, but stories that have been (or can be) edited by us and contributed to by others.

All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everyone can watch.  As has never happened before, people have to try to create and place their own stories in the vast arena of time and universe.

We crave to be seen, to become micro-celebrities in front of friends and strangers alike; to share, to broadcast; to make friends; to become a known. Are we convincing ourselves that our life is so good, are we re-writing our histories?  So much time is spent on capture and display have we lost the sense of the experience, or does the ubiquitous digital camera come between us and life?

THE PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART.

Cezanne's Mont Ste Victoire

Superficially Cézanne’s art is pleasing, the glistening colours are clean and fresh, the meticulous line work looks impressive. His landscapes represent nature at its best and his brushwork implies order and reason behind the bucolic splendour of provincial France.

Unfortunately Henry and Rose Pearlman didn’t collect any of Cézanne’s figurative works but the landscapes on view in this exhibition in Oxford are revealing enough to gain some sense of this artist’s mysterious alchemy.

Because he was so delicate and considered in his colour and his network of lines, Cézanne’s paintings are widely appreciated throughout the world for their beauty.  But the pleasure bestowed by looking at his paintings can mask the thinking man behind his vision.  One look at one of his self-portraits (not present in this show) would be enough to demonstrate how deeply reflective this artist really was. Looking at the progression of his over twenty self portraits is to personally witness his growing self confidence and his wariness of prospective viewers.

Walking around the Ashmolean you can see clearly his interest in the formal relationship between the geometry of buildings and the supple lines of their natural surroundings.  It was not enough for him to simply paint fleeting moments like the Impressionists, no, his open, fragmented brushwork were subjected to a more ordered principle. However much Cézanne insisted upon the centrality of colour, drawing and form were never subservient in his art. The same paintings that are so subtly coloured often have a network of containing, defining lines above and below the surface pigment.

It is always uplifting to see the precision in his drawings and the use of positioning lines are never more clear than in his Mont Ste Victoire watercolour.  In this picture disparate and unrelated touches of coloured watercolour look at first glance like haphazard splishes and splashes of different colours covering the paper, but look closer and a narrative and unity appears that is not dissimilar to those fairytale painting completed by Kindinsky years later.

Standing out above the other works in the second room of this collection is Cézanne’s magnificent Mont Ste Victoire, oil on canvas.  When looking at this painting I was struck by the patience and deliberation that must have gone into making this work of art.  The painstaking touches of colour, the vibrant greens and bright terracottas remain un-muddied despite their proximity to other colours. The lightness of parts of the painting like the sky and foreground is achieved by leaving parts of the canvas un-painted, a technique common to watercolours but not usually in oils.  There is a puzzling horizontal line of blue in the sky which made me expect that this work was achieved by the use of deliberate, assured mark-making, no over painting of mistakes for Cézanne.  Go right up to it and you can see that every revolution of modern art is there like a reverse palimpsest.   Mondrian’s grids and outlines. Rhythmical patterns of colour like an un-dripped Jackson Pollock.  Modernist abstraction. The pixelated screens of computer-generated imagery.

He treasured his independence and isolation but towards the end of his life, slowed down by ill health, he drew comfort from his assimilation by a younger generation and looked forward to becoming ‘the primitive of a new art’.  His famous remark “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” was famously followed by a new movement called Cubism. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones has said, “every revolution of modern art is foretold.  The urinal, the shark, the lights going on and off?” And I think he means that these are all example of art where the brain is engaged.

Cézanne is rightly lauded for the beauty of his work but is seldom recognised as the revolutionary he really was.  He was an outsider who didn’t follow any school of thought but had his own independent vision.  He was strong and authentic and doggedly kept true to his own personal perception of the world.  He resisted the easy formula and truly believed that a painter, by means of drawing and colour, gives concrete form to his sensations and perceptions.

MARTYRS at St. Paul’s

Martyrs_(Earth,_Air,_Fire,_Water)

“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.” ― Julian of Norwich.

On my way to see Bill Viola’s video installation at St. Paul’s I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the work, Martyrs, was displayed on four vertical plasma displays on the South Quire Aisle and I knew that each screen contained a figure being subjected to the elemental forces of earth, wind, fire and water.

I was hoping for was an echo of Viola’s stunning projection The Messenger, made for Durham Cathedral, in which he pulled off a transcendent piece of art shot-through with pulsating, gurgling colour; an incredible and disturbing soundtrack; and at four metres high an artwork on the grand scale.

I was worried that it might resemble The Passions in which he recreated scenes from the bible using actors and shown on LCD screens lying on their sides.

What I found was fresh and didn’t actually look like either of these.  Approaching this work you see the installation positioned on the side of the high altar at the end of the quire. The structure in which the screens sit, designed by Sir Norman Foster, fits the space perfectly, measuring 140 x 338 x 10 cms, neither huge nor mundane.

On the left hand screen there is a man covered in a pile of earth holding his head.  Slowly the earth flies upwards and the man stands, ultimately alone, looking upwards.  The second screen is the only woman, who is bound hand and foot and held, dimly hanging from above.  Wind blows her from side to side, painfully twisting her around.  Eventually her ordeal ends and she hangs, now still but looking upwards.  In the third screen sits a man in a darkened space.  Very slowly little tongues of fire fall around him, culminating in a conflagration that engulfs him.  The flames stop and he rests, looking upwards. The final screen on the right shows a man lying on his side and bound at the ankles, his eyes shut.  He is pulled upright, upside down.  He hangs with his arms raised in the horizontal, with water falling heavily onto his feet and down his body. The water lessens and he is drawn upwards, his arms back at his sides, and out of vision.

Many thoughts were sparked by looking at this and many religious parallels could be made. Many questions about man’s endurance, persistence and steadfastness also came to my mind.  I repeatedly wondered at the pain the woman must have felt, hanging there, and I wondered, was it deliberate that Viola give the woman the heaviest burden?

Bill Viola uses technology but his sources of inspiration are the Western and Eastern mystics.  And many of Viola’s titles simply are religious content. It seems to me that Viola is asking fundamental questions that traditionally we look to religion for the answers.  By asking those questions it doesn’t automatically make the work religious.  If that echoes the way we pray and meditate that merely reflects man’s insecurities not religious faith.

I thought the work might take on something of a moving stained glass window but this work is not concerned with colour, then I realised there are no stained glass windows in St. Pauls – too Popish I suppose – and maybe he was respecting this.  He also eschews sound, sadly but understandably, especially as, when I was there, a simple sequence was being played quietly by an organ somewhere.

Like most of his work, Martyrs is shown in slow-motion (the second screen may have been in real time, it’s not exactly clear) a device that has been criticised for being inappropriate, ponderous and achingly obvious, but isn’t the point of slowing things down more to do with exposing the true elegance and wonder of the world around us, of giving us time to think?

Viola’s work The Passions has been called vulgar, smug and tear-jerking hocus-pocus but I can honestly say Martyrs struck me as understated and dignified. I can see that some of his comments can be seen as self-satisfied but this work is anything but vulgar or smug.  Bill Viola and his technology have come of age.  This work shows an artist at his peak, assured of his tools but restrained and considered. All was exceeding well.

ZERO STATE

In a state of zero there are no questions.

An empty void waiting to be filled?

On my bike today is my existence elevated by

a black cormorant sweeping low over the water and a flying fish jumping out to meet him,

the sun in an azure sky, small white clouds low above the horizon,

eight duckling chicks with protective Mother, a moorhen’s precarious nest propped against a post,

a cluster of iridescent dragonflies busy on the banks,

one of the first cuckoos singing in the distance,

elegant reeds – standing tall and soft in their massed ranks,

pink-tinged wild roses abundant along the banks rubbing branches with blowsy elderflower bushes in full bloom,

a cacophony of smells – hot hearth – damp algae – fishermen’s decaying maggots – a lavender bush – grass cuttings accumulating on the water,

all carried to my senses on the breeze blowing from the water?

10390194_10152552365844575_844116115045685904_n10405606_10152552365374575_4213970871557934758_n

All senses indeed elevated by the experience.