SCI-ART: Mapping Movement
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen, 1997
With recent technological and scientific advancement, thinking of the body as a territory to be mapped is daunting. How do we decipher what lines to draw on a map that dictates the human body’s longitude and latitudes, the directions and hierarchies of the body system? Who determines where the body begins and ends? Technological imaging chops up body parts, without real regard for human sentience or identity, and instead endows it with a number and name that seem far removed from the actual person that generated the images. Certainly, medical representations of the body have been doing this for centuries, but what does it mean to map the body completely with the Human Genome Project today? And whose body are we talking about? The cultural practice of coding the body and reducing identity to data is troubling, but it happens all the time. From the extreme cases of medical treatment, to the cultural hype of body morphing, as biotechnology information to everyday experiences of screen-names, social security numbers, and passport identifications the body is constantly being mapped and surveyed.
It makes sense that to respond to the reality of body mapping, artists have started to utilize technology. Taking the technology that has helped further separate the Cartesian ideal of the mind-body split and taking the science that has created an almost amnesiac religious experience of disembodiment, and the result is artwork that subverts the idea of body as information. The body on the move cannot be imaged without the blur of transient states. The resulting images are traces of the body in action and rather than a static carcass. Visual blurring is essential in understanding our cultural body as that which cannot be simply determined, deciphered, or claimed as a territory of exploitation.
New York based artist Richard Humann has created an interactive Internet art piece titled, Ghost Trails, a constantly evolving online piece [www.ghost-trails.com]. It was displayed in a group exhibition titled "Super Depth Mapping" (Union Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, fall 2003) as a video projection installation piece as well as an Internet piece. Six anonymous participants from different locations sent emails to the artist that explained and traced their behavior throughout daily activities. Individually, these participants submitted their conceptual trace of existence with words that described their habits, routines, rituals, and daily experiences. The artist would receive texts that were as banal as "work, school, eat/wife time, sleep" to psychologically creative and abstract descriptions such as "funny, laughing, wine, spacious room, ephemeral drapes, happy, sensual, cohesive, associative, southern grace." These texts would then inhabit a life of their own in Humann’s art piece. The texts were translated into color-coded line patterns that represented the six people’s habitual movement. The lines were drawn out in real-time on top of a gridded 3D-graphics background. The hyper-text that appeared and disappeared throughout the screen and the animated line patterns drew trails of these people’s lives as highly performative traces of movement and experience, illuminating and screening bodily consciousness. Humann, while placing the metaphysical traces of the body into transcendental space of the virtual screen, projected the cultural crisis of the loss of human identity onto this techno-savy world.
Robert Lawrence recreates the New York subway map by connecting the station stop signs with genetic codes of the body. His project, DNA/MTA/NYC, a work in progress, is also an Internet art piece where viewers can click on the dots of the subway map. The links are then connected to historical explanations of the city or the biological information that is then analogously mapped out. Through the interaction of the Web art piece, the artist challenges viewers to think further about the social, cultural, and historical implications determined by biological and location technologies. The artist also proposes to install billboards at every subway station which address the issues of body mapping and display images of the website link. How wonderful it is to think that New Yorkers and tourists would be able to contemplate their bodies while moving about in the Metro system! [www.h-e-r-e.com]
Hong Kong artist Anita Wong has been working on a video series entitled, Techno-Scientific Ice Age. Sometimes it is screened as an individual piece and other times as part of a larger projection installation. She uses her own body to make video pieces that animates morphed and mirrored body parts. These body parts are clearly flesh but the identity is unclear: the body is transformed into broken pieces of grotesque animals. Citing the ice age declares both uncertainty of the future and questions what hides underneath the layers of froze ice. The skin, surface, and the screen are all a landscape of the morphable and the fragmented.
All three artists have contributed in reconstituting a new perspective of the cultural body with lines, dots, and imagery that has no fixed system or charted identity. These artists have blurred the boundaries of what is map-able with technology. We are witnessing the organic resisting the simple analysis and out-putting of the mechanical. This is "mapping movement" – the new message that must be delivered from body codification processes.