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ThemesCyborg BodiesExtensive Bodies
Extensive Bodies
Interview by Yvonne Volkart with media artist and theorist Jill Scott about fantasies of the extensive body as a morphological and relational body
Jill Scott

Yvonne Volkart: The body and technologies have always been located in the centre of your various enterprises as artist and media theorist and currently as the leader of a scientific research project about interfaces. From your point of view, what influence do new technologies have on the body and its perception?


Jill Scott: Yes definitely, I think really there has been a significant influence, particularly through the fantasies available in media technologies. Media technologies such as virtual reality, or real time screen interaction, can blend the represented organic body with the imaginary digital image of the body. By the same token, electronic interfaces can add artificial manipulation and digital control or navigation for the audience. However, we are also witnessing a change in body-definition from technologies like biotechnology, artificial intelligence and physics. I know that recently in these sciences there is a lot of ethical and critical reaction against reductionist practice and more interest in holistic and embodied levels of perception. Traditionally here, as Haraway says the process of science itself, of witnessing, or of bearing testimony,has not only changed its commercial potentials, but also shifted the subjective and objective approaches of the research itself. Lately, there is an optimistic opening up of discourses about the body between scientific disciplines, which might also effect how we perceive our body in the future. Perhaps because media artists are often using the same visualization tools as scientists, and if artists feel any responsibility to reflect these issues, then perhaps combinations of art and science might have a further impact on the perception of body and its evolution in the future. This is one of the issues we wish to further develop and analyze in the project «artists-in-labs»[1].


YV: Before discussing this important last point, I would like to know more about your assessment regarding your artistic work. What about the impact of new technologies on the body, or subjectivity or health, have these issues influenced your work? How would you describe the transformations of the body in relation to your own work and how would you relate these transformations to the question of the cyborg body? JS: Well, as an artist I always thought that media could explore the most recent discourses around the changing idea of the body, but I also chose media because I wanted to shift the somatic and interactive role of the audience in new ways. One of my first works entitled «TAPED» (1975), not only represented the body as an icon, but engaged the viewer in the role of liberator, while other works of the same era used video surveillance to transform the movements of the audiences bodies into coded notations. («INSIDE/OUT» 1978). In the eighties I became interested in how the digital image could shift our traditional representations and metaphors of the body on the screen. At this point in my life I contracted breast cancer («CONTINENTAL DRIFT», 1989), and since then, my focus has also been on the transformations of our bodies by the molecular sciences and by our minds of utopic concepts from sociology and psychology about time and space. Therefore, you are right, in fact it was my own health problem, which started my investigation into the problems of the cyborg-concept, particularly the incorporation of technology into the body and the effects of medical visualisation on theway we see and interpret our own body. («INTERSKIN,» 1997). For me it is still very interesting to try to re-define the body by immersing the audience inside hybrid environments, where they can in turn, interact with questions about body transformation.


YV: What links your body images and fantasies to other cultural, artistic and academic/scientific field, and what distinguishes them?


JS: Perhaps I can summarize an answer here, by saying that I have often been directly inspired by reading literature and related theoretical discourse particularly about the body and identity. I am also inspired by the popular future- imaginary bodies of science fictions senarios, particularly those dystopias inspired by the ethical potentials of bio-technology. In other areas of my work, e.g. in «FRONTIERS OF UTOPIA», one can find very archivalstyle representations inspired by documentary film and oral histories or <herstories> as I call them. These extend my interest in the collapsing of time and space, where the representation and interpretation of the female body is culturally important. Naturally, as an artist I share an exploration of discourses about the transformation of the body with other women artists like Victoria Vesna, Char Davies, Melinda Rackham, Diane Gromala and Adrianne Wortzel. Each of these artists treat the concepts of the mediated audience, the representation of the body and constructed space in different ways. While Victoria Vesna networks e.g. «Bodies INCorporated» often comment on political metaphors of ownership and trading of body parts and avatars in cyber-cities, Melinda Rackham releases her viewers to be immersed in VRML worlds where her intention is to feminise VR. In other words she tries to make the user feel that they are cohabiting with body-like peach-soft avatars floating in a type of 9soft space. : In «Empyrean» space becomes a living organism embodied with the attributes of growth and floating with molecular bodies. This same desire for a more intuitive interactive experience is also favoured by Char Davies in works like «Osmose». However, here the interface is very grounding for the body, as the actual organic breath of the viewers, allows them to navigate through a set of artificially constructed fairylands.By comparison, in Diane Gromala' s work entitled «Living Book of the Senses» viewers can influence the contents and layers of the book through their sensory (bio) feedback and in other works she deals with health and thresholds of human pain. She often firmly asks the viewer to take on socially responsible roles. Adrianne Wortzel looks for metaphors of fusion between robots and humans in her theatrical spectacles like «Camouflage Town» an Internet driven robot who inhabits public cultural spaces. What these artists share is a keen interest in the transformation of the body, and they are all exploring dramas, spaces and interactivity as a way to express this interest. With them I have often discussed our role as women in the exploration of technological metaphors. Consequently, we often share discourses about media as a device to shift the viewer's experience of the body in time and space.


YV: With respect do body fantasies, artistic strategies, and theory and science, how and to what extensions did the body discourse change within the last years? JS: The easiest way to answer this question might be to trace the reaction and growth of feminist discourse in the last 15 years. We women started to see technology as a way for us to reinvent ourselves; even so fundamentally as to choose one's gender and determine one's identity, as well as the environment in which it/they might appear. This has included women in the current discourse about mixed realities or integrated techno-zones: spaces that not only collapsed geographical boundaries and time zones, but incorporated women into the zone of technology. Perhaps these changes are related to our own shifting relationship to technology where the representation of bodies can easily incorporate more artificial, virtual and organic transformations. For me, artificial characters on the screen can reflect these changes. In addition virtual agents can be used as metaphors to illustrate the new idea of the body as an immersive and mediated body, layered with relational networks and techno-zones. In «A FIGURATIVE HISTORY» (1995), I tried to give the viewer an idea of feeling like a cyborg, by letting them control the screen characters bodies by using their own natural body electricity. If theaudience interacted here then they could -reflect about post-gendered perspectives, multiple personalities and experiment with combinations of immaterial and material surfaces. One of the main aims of media art is to melt these definitions of body together by using ambiguous spatial and temporal holistic perspectives as Gilles Deleuze once recommended. This Deleuzian definition of the body is very appealing today. He suggests that the body is floating between molar and molecular, in between being and becoming other, wavering on the edge of constant change. When fused with communicative technologies this in-between state could extend our definition of our bodies.


YV: Actually, these ideas relate to your «FUSION» net-event experiments don't they? Could you tell us more about them?


JS: At the Bauhaus University, we tried to combine some of these media-related shifts in perception with the influences of scientific discourse. Here I founded a series of on-line experiments called «FUSION» which ran over three years. Many of the art works from Sydney, Los Angeles and Weimar were about virtual- body-sound displacement, the collapsing of geographical and body boundaries and the re-construction of nature by science. For example in the first Net Event of Fusion in 1999, Melinda Rackham presented «Carrier,» her VRML network about Hepatitis C, and Victoria Vesna presented «Bodies INCorporated.» Both of them also participated in a work of mine called «Future Bodies.» These were agents (or bots) I created on a Hotline server with a WWW chat. Behind the scene an artificially intelligent program was able to recognize keywords and therefore it seemed as though these agents were actually reacting to the audiences responses. The critical dialogue I tried to create was about the commercialization of genetic manipulation between three virtual characters or agents. (Ms. Rich, Ms. Poor and Ms. Perfect)


YV: How did the bots react to the keywords? How much could you control the process?JS: Well the program is based on a program called «Eliza», which allows the viewers to type in sentences, if those sentence contain keywords I have listed then the character reacts in certain ways. There is a random potential built into the program which cause un-predictable reactions, and the program can conjugate - for example if I tape «How are you?», then the bot will answer «I am fine and you?» There is a similar program called «Alice» currently on the net.2 In «Future Bodies» the characters had very elaborate scripts and the drama evolved around the concepts of beauty, women, media and genetic manipulation.


YV: If I consider your new research project «e-Skin», it seems, as if you were interested in developing a new idea of extension. An idea, that is not anymore about the progressive and optimized body, but more about a coded, net based and communicative body. How do you depict this? JS: This is a difficult question because the depicting of coded, net based and communicative bodies is not an easy task. From my studies of interfaces and biotechnology, I came across the development of artificial skin. You see, our own organic skin and its hair is our biggest tactile-reactive interface with special metaphorical connotations of communication. I also personally think that media art should move away from the reliance on the audio-visual stimuli to the opening up of other sensory perception. Together with the Artificial Intelligence Lab here in Zurich I have been focusing on interaction with objects using touch and tactile feedback and biological simulation as a way to communication between objects. This means we are trying to build extensions of the body, which exaggerate the point of contact where the organic meets the artificial resulting in the blurring of the line between them. These sculptures we call «e-Skin», they are heat and stroke sensitive objects that respond to touch and control either virtual or real environments. This new idea of the cyborg attempts to collapse the gap for the viewer between touch and the other senses (vision, hearing, propioception). Also, thesymbiotic and spatial transformation of the human-machine interface is important. In other words «e-Skin» tries to explore the meeting point between the body (biological function) and the object (artificial reality) but using body functions like pressure, temperature, vibration and propioception. For an art context, the racial and ethical metaphors associated with the skin are also important areas to display.


YV: Would you say, this is an «evolution» (in the beginning of our interview you use this highly contested term) in the sense of a progression and extension, or something out of this progressive idea?


JS: Yes I would say the word «evolution» but not in the Darwinian sense-more in a morphological sense.


YV: «e-Skin» is conceptualized for several environments. One of them should be an intelligent office room for students with a smart environment. Every student will wear an interface that links him/her to the office room and other students and there is an on-line version which runs around the table. They don't have to communicate anymore face2face, but the interfaces will do this for them. This possible environment seems to fully promote the idea of optimum and surveillance, although it may not be the first aim. How do you as an artist, who tries to develop new ways of communication and extension beyond pure progression of intelligence, treat this problem?


JS: Perhaps I could answer this by saying that there are two basic investigations going on in «e-Skin». Firstly, there is the one you mention, a reactive office environment where the use of the interface is related to a real environment and yes, it should contain those connotations and criticisms of surveillance and disembodiment. This is also a commercial interest of one of our research partners about information management. Then there are two virtual audio-visual environments, where the interface can be used to respond to art and science contexts. The science context is a journey through skin layers (the epidermis and dermis of the human skin). Here viewers can re-construct and learn about the current discoursessurrounding scientific skin-research using the interface. However being an artist the art context is naturally more important to me. Here three characters from different cultural backgrounds can tell their personal stories by responding to the viewers use of the interface. We are hoping that these three levels of interaction will constitute a type of ergonomical and metaphorical extension of the skin as an intelligent interface, but also the use of «e-Skin» can raise awareness for the need of more intuitive perception and healthier navigation devices in technology rather than simply constructing more controlling mechanisms.


YV: Would you say that art has to help to improve industrial devices so that we become cyborgs more at ease?


JS: Yes that is so. Most of our interactive technologies are badly designed and un-healthy for the body, especially the computer keyboard.


YV: At the beginning of our talk you suggested, that perhaps combinations of art and science might have a further impact on the perception of the body and its evolution in the future. Doing so, doesn't art helps to fulfil the neo-liberal wish to create a cyborg world in the worst sense of the word?


JS: As Haraway suggests in relation to transgenics, what we have to keep in mind is that we might have been «other» and we might also turn into «another species» in the future. I personally think that artists are in a great position to comment on the problematic ethics and social implications of body-transformation by scientific research.

© Media Art Net 2004