THE PUBLIC BODY .03, Curated by Talia Linz and Alexie Glass-Kantor

Artspace, Sydney, 31 August - 28 October 2018

What a pleasure it would be to relinquish the body.

‘Is the art pretty?’ asks Susan.

‘No’ says Mummy

‘Pretty is not important’ [1]

To be untethered from corporeality and its constraints, from the axes of privilege that are enacted differently according to the differences of bodies. To be read as an essential entity per se (in and of itself), without any referential trace in the real.

Isn’t that our (automated and autonomous) trajectory anyway? If you were not already convinced, The Public Body .03 will dispel any lingering doubts. This is the exhibition’s conceptual testing ground: how the body is experienced and defined once it has been detached and/or expanded from its enfleshment. The third and final iteration of a tri-annual exhibition series, .03 presents a variety of artistic responses to the proposition of the body as mediated ‘by notions of the digital, the hybrid, the atemporal and the futuristic.’[2] It offers a selection of artistic imaginaries—utopian, dystopian, melancholic—that speak to the possibilities and perils of technology’s role in constructing new architectures of selfhood.

The premise is not particularly original. Our fascination with future potentials of the augmentation or supersession of the body has been ongoing since the advent of the machine, having permeated popular culture as well as the vernacular of industry and economics. I am reminded of the fury of technocratic faith and fascination at the turn of the century that spawned waves of art movements and manifestos (Futurism, Constructivism) across Europe and the United States. With the digital, however, technology has been expanded from merely the mechanic, to encompass the biological and physical, and a reverberation of visions responding to this current network of rhizomatic interconnectivity is presented here. While broadly related to a plethora of other ‘internet shows’ that are positioned as perennially contemporary, and are themed around the superabundance and accelerated movement of information, images, and ideas as a result of technological culture, The Public Body .03 differentiates itself by its use of a framework of the body.[3] As a result, the works here are overwhelmingly personal in the nuance of vision that each articulates.

In his sci-fi surrealist video works, Jacolby Satterwhite contorts the body into a platform for the projection and reflection of digitally enunciated desire.[4] In Avenue B (2018), Satterwhite twists himself into a punctuation mark, facilitating the shift between clauses to offer passageway to an alternative ‘cybernetic reality’.[5] To engage with the landscape of this cybernetic reality is to communicate using a lexicon defined by the artist. Its construction constitutes a relocation to an alternative space where Satterwhite dictates the rules of engagement, as a strategic response to oppression and trauma (historical and bodily). For Satterwhite, as for many queer artists, the digital offers a critical medium for the re-curation of the self, as well as a means of expression free of the raced historical baggage embedded into other mediums, such as painting. Evoking tribal rituals, sadomasochism, BDSM fetish and ceremony, the artist’s body is posited as sacrificial. He is seen suspended upside down from a rope and wrapped in strips of white cloth, a literal binding of the digital imagery—for which his body is a screen—onto his skin. Suggestive of the consequences of constructing the self within the schizophrenic, hyper-consumerist and egotistic (masturbatory), echo-chamber that is the digital, the work illustrates the absorption of this battery of imagery into the body.

I am mesmerised by Archie Barry’s Tatsache (2017)a single channel video work that sits between genres of music video, video art and performance. I crouch in front of the television-size screen to watch Barry’s body cast in negative, dancing, speaking, chanting a devotional poem.[6] It is short, four and a half minutes or so, and I stare as their face contorts into a grimace—a strained confessional—before hardening, resolute, to recite in modulation: ‘this body is not real, this body is not fake’. A seemingly intractable dichotomy that is unwound by a recognition of the work’s object-status as a pre-recorded trace of the self, existing aspatially, that we nevertheless engage with as a fragment of the real. In this sung/spoken voice, Barry asks ‘What is touch?’, answering themselves: nothing ever really touches anything else, electrons are always pushing away or against other matter (repulsion). Here is a melancholy induced by the scientific: we are isolated by our own advancements, declared by science as destined to be contained within the singular corporeal self. Barry is probing at definitions of the real, at the certainty with which we draw distinctions between matter as electromagnetic impulse and matter as virtual.

New forms of interconnectivity that bypass physical closeness (however scientifically real that closeness may or may not be) are proposed in other works. Tabita Rezaire’s 13-minute video work Premium Connect (2017) envisions new cybernetic spaces that integrate African divination systems, ancestral knowledges and organic communication networks (such as the fungal or water-based) to proffer the digital as an interface for the spiritual. She goes on to suggest that in this expanded form, the digital holds the potential for decolonial healing. Rezaire’s work has an early internet culture aesthetic, mimicking now defunct ‘geocities’ websites, that has been reimaged by contemporary digital processing programs. Think WordArt graphics, flame borders and crude overlays of animations on backdrops of binary counting systems or glowing grid formations. Morpheus and Neo of the Matrix make a cameo appearance. Against the violence and erasures that our current information technology systems reify, Rezaire suggests an alternative framework for creating and sharing information, predicated on the excavation of systems of knowledge and exchange deemed irrelevant by mainstream neo-colonialisms. It’s black empowerment in the language of New Age mysticism. In the vision outlined in Premium Connect, humankind is plugged into a cosmic data stream, such that the histories of the world, their mysticisms and ancestral knowledges (from human as well as flora and fauna sources), are collectively downloadable. This idea carries interesting notional ramifications: how differently would we read the world and its current socio-political or environmental ruptures if we were embedded into a total universal knowledge stream? If we existed in an atemporal reality where vision and knowledge were cumulatively experienced, extending far beyond the vantage point offered by the experiences of a single lifetime?

Adjacent to the room in which Rezaire’s work is screened, the detailed watercolour, pen and graphite Medical Study (2013/2017) drawings of Doreen Garner draw connection to the historically unequal application of technology and its advances. These are intricate and grotesque works. Medical instruments protrude from organs, a gold-toothed jaw bone is tagged as a specimen, a foot with blackened toenails hangs from a mess of tendons and splintered bone. Many of the works relate specifically to Garner’s research into the work of ‘father of gynecology’, Dr. James Marion Sims, a nineteenth American physician who performed experimental operations on enslaved black women under the belief that they did not require anaesthetic due to high levels of pain tolerance. Garner’s works shift examination of the relationship between the body and technology from the speculative to the historical, reminding that the digital was not the first technology to colonise the body (and in particular coloured, enslaved, and disabled bodies) in the name of progress. Her works visualise the intersection of power, beauty and medicine on the body.

Korakrit Arunanondchai’s melancholic video work With history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 (2017) takes up Rezaire’s project of humanity’s digitisation. The spirit-drone Chantri asks: ‘will you find beauty in this sea of data?’. ‘We left it behind just for you’. Arunanondchai’s work is a living archive. It is a sculpting of footage from the personal, journalistic, political and performative, incorporating episodes featuring the artist’s grandparents in Thailand, scenes of mourning after the death of the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, anti-Trump protests, and a sequence involving an oversized rat in dystopian reference to the inheritors of the earth. The interposing of disparate footage reveals a concern with how to house these histories, a search for a means with which to successfully store humankind’s multiplicitous archive within a single space.

A sea of drones rises into the air, ‘the air is full of spirits.’ Here is our reincarnation. Within Arunanondchai’s work, the cyclicality of life and memory is considered through a Buddhist lens, one that is always reflecting on past and future through a frame of transformation. Mediated by the digital, the ground of reincarnation shifts. If we are always already interconnected by technology, reincarnation becomes a falling out of, and rejoinder of a universal atemporal memory. These evocations of the archive provoke the question, what role does the corporeal self play in memory? And ultimately, who will wear the trauma of the world once the body becomes defunct? Will this history be rendered less meaningful if it is (as it must eventually be) stored in digital form rather than passed down orally or organically?

For me, the exhibition is timely. I have been thinking recently about the body. About the seemingly intractable contradiction between disembodied authenticity of expression, and the criticality of embodiment, of how selfhood is informed by the body. Is this the tradeoff? Must we do away with the body altogether in order to rid ourselves of this inextricable knot of hierarchical privilege that is read through bodies, and enacted onto them? Despite the surprising optimism in some of the exhibition’s works, it is too simple to conclude the digital will be uniformly, or even substantively, emancipatory. There is much to suggest that the digital simply regurgitates our old prejudices in new forms. Tabita Rezaire highlights this, pointing out that the infrastructure of submarine fibre optic cables that carry and transfer data have literally been laid directly on top of colonial shipping routes.[7] Trials using algorithms for risk assessment during sentencing in the US show that delegating such decisions to technology does not bypass our own bias, but in fact compounds it.[8] Taught using historical data, algorithms internalise and exacerbate the prejudice they find there. If blacks are statistically more likely to re-offend, then the algorithm will sentence them accordingly. Even if it were possible, is such dematerialization or disembodiment—the prospect of sublimation into some great server—really desirable? The body is crucial in informing the way that we conceive of ourselves in relation to the world and to others. Experiences, particularly traumatic ones, are indelibly imprinted onto the cells of the hippocampus, like a thumbprint on the brain that ripples outwards: our brain bears physical trace. Forgetting our animality makes us arrogant. Unable to remember the feeling of pain on our own skin, the hot flush of shame, the tight-chested breathlessness of fear or anxiety, we become inoculated to empathy. It is through the body that we are taught vulnerability: the sick body, aging body, weak body. It is the feeling of a dry hot wind across your skin, day after day during a summer heat wave—the embodied experience of the climate—that makes climate change tangible on a cellular level. Many of these issues were taken up in the Public Body’s second iteration, which dealt primarily with subjectivities of feminist, queer, and anti-racist art practices as they function through the flesh. In that sense .03 offers a critical counterpoint.

This exhibition does not resolve any of these questions for me. On the contrary, it complicates them further, which is largely the point. The more successful works here are those that use technology as an armature upon which to hang concerns that we already have, augmenting pre-existing questions on the nature of history and memory, narcissism, consumerism, GMOs, the expression and distribution of power. The works that draw in most articulate specific and detailed visions rather than relying on digital or doomsaying buzzwords. It is dense, ambitious, provoking. This offering of individually inflected possibilities, the opening out of future techno-imaginaries that are presented here, reminds that the future is not preordained. The specificities of whatever future we emerge into will have been shaped by individuals.

 

[1] Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia, We go to the gallery, Dung Beetle Reading Scheme 1a, 2016, pp. 8

[2] Artspace, ‘The Public Body .03’, https://www.artspace.org.au/program/exhibitions/2018/the-public-body-03/, accessed 22 October, 2018.

[3] Examples include Art in the Age of the Internet: 1989 to Today at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2018 and Electronic Superhighway: 2016-1996 at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2016. Brian Droitcour, ‘Broken Links: The Internet Show’, Art in America, 1 September, 2018, URL: https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/broken-links-internet-show/, accessed 22 October, 2018.

[4] Kindness, ‘Interview: Kindness Explores the Sci-fi Surrealist Paradise in Jacolby Satterwhite’s Artwork’, Saint Heron, 21 June, 2017, URL: http://saintheron.com/featured/interview-kindness-explores-the-sci-fi-surrealist-paradise-in-jacolby-satterwhites-artwork/, accessed 22 October 2018.

[5] Artspace, Jacolby Satterwhite, wall text

[6] Archie Barry, Tatsache, https://archiebarry.com/tatsache/, accessed 22 October 2018.

[7] Tabita Rezaire, Exotic Trade, http://tabitarezaire.com/exotictrade.html, accessed 19 October 2018.

[8] Ellora Thadaney Israni, ‘When An Algorithm Helps Send You To Prison’, The New York Times, 26 October, 2017, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/opinion/algorithm-compas-sentencing-bias.html, accessed 22 October 2018.

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Jacolby Satterwhite, Avenue B, 2018, detail. Image courtesy the artist and Morán Morán, Los Angeles.

Zan Wimberley

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Archie Barry, Tatsache, 2017, installation view at Artspace, Sydney. Image courtesy of the artist.

Zan Wimberley

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Korakrit Arunanondchai, with history in a room filled with people with funny names 4, 2017, installation view at Artspace, Sydney. Image courtesy the artist and CARLOS/ISHIKAWA, London.

Zan Wimberley

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Korakrit Arunanondchai, with history in a room filled with people with funny names 4, 2017, installation view at Artspace, Sydney. Image courtesy the artist and CARLOS/ISHIKAWA, London.

Zan Wimberley

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THE PUBLIC BODY .03, 2018, installation view at Artspace, Sydney.

Zan Wimberley

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THE PUBLIC BODY .03, 2018, installation view at Artspace, Sydney.

Zan Wimberley

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THE PUBLIC BODY .03, 2018, installation view at Artspace, Sydney.

Zan Wimberley

Genevieve Trail is a Melbourne based writer, with a research focus on contemporary Chinese art. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Art History) with First Class Honours from The University of Melbourne.

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