We Sing “The Body Electric”

The twisted, terrifying, fortune-telling new Walker Art Center exhibit sees technology pushed to the edge
Image from Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s “Second Sex War Zone” (2016)

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

You lean back on the only thing to furnish a small, medically white room—other than, of course, the lumpy imprint of a human face, hung like a trophy on the wall to your right. Otherwise, it’s just this vegan leather beanbag. Huge, black, a little stiff, like a BDSM LoveSac.

A virtual-reality headset fits you like a scuba mask. The Walker Art Center shines in these moments. Contemporary artists know which buttons to push, and in new exhibit The Body Electric, open through July 21, nearly 50 of them spam the same cataclysmic triggers that today’s dystopian writers and sci-fi filmmakers like to fuss over: about our bodies and identities in relationship to technology. All of it comes wrapped up in a nauseated understanding of what’s real and what’s not.

You look into a digital white space, which offers no horizon. The headset’s music is breathy, heart-pounding, industrial-club hazy. You realize, slumped in the beanbag, that whatever’s happening is happening immediately behind you. Because the Oculus Rift provides 360 degrees of VR, you turn your head.

Second Sex War Zone, made by Danish artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen in 1981, critiques commercial pornography by using—and warping—the industry’s own visual lexicon. Almost 40 years ago, Hansen acquired a royalty-free, feminine computer avatar. It stars, vicariously, as you. From a first-person perspective, the immersive 3D experience feels like a Cronenberg-creepy subplot cut from 1979’s Alien (to bump it from an X to an R rating), then spliced with an abject, post-human video game. The Oculus Rift has brought Hansen’s nightmare into the New Media Age. It’s not for the squeamish.

You’ll find the same sense of foreboding everywhere. The Body Electric spans some 50 years, yet everything implies a modern-day warning: Technology is advancing faster than we can reflect on it. Rooms progress thematically rather than chronologically, tracking the screen’s evolution from curious transistor to constant companion. Screens connect the galleries—and, we realize, ourselves, to the untamed parallel world of the digital.

“Two Minutes out of Time” (2000) by Pierre Huyghe

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Limits of Technology

If this is starting to sound like an art student’s senior thesis on Instagram—well, Body Electric gets to social media’s physiological effects by the end.

But the Walker goes further. Pieces from its collection feel like artifacts of our cyborg lifestyles. Starting with the television: That ’50s steward of the middle class quickly became, as a tour guide put it, a device of change.

In the first room, Japanese artist Shigeko Kubota’s video self-portrait (1976) envelopes a small monitor within a pulsating bag. The bag was her ex-boyfriend’s. By turning it into (yes) a vulva metaphor, she resumes control. It’s easy, in 2019, to recognize this power of the screen: to manifest a fiercer, more intimidating version of ourselves.

On another small TV, we watch 1968 performance art. A 28-year-old woman, artist Valie Export, has concealed her torso in a TV-like box with a flap over the front, through which anyone on the streets of Vienna can reach their hands for 30 seconds. Bemused men volunteer. She checks her watch or offers impassive eye contact.

The exhibit suggests that screen mediation altered how we view ourselves and others, from the midcentury to the millennium. A distance widened. An inner fixation deepened.

A little further on, a 1981 photo by self-portraitist Cindy Sherman hangs beside an enlarged selfie by 30-year-old artist Amalia Ulman.

In Sherman’s self-staging, she appears to have been thrown down—wet, frightened, and watched. Compare it to Ulman’s 2014 vanity project: Rather than the horizontal spread of Playboy, Ulman’s evokes the vertical frame of Snapchat. She captures a porcelain vision of herself, looking down at her smartphone while taking the pic, wearing a glassy expression and a white dress to match the chic backdrop.

Ulman, Kubota, and even Sherman, with her meta-pinups—they sought control over their likenesses.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Roberta Construction Chart” (1973/1994)

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

That might sound eminently possible right now, at a time when we all spend weekends turning cameras on ourselves and using filters to hack our own lineaments. But artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, toward the end of the exhibit, charts out the bleak neuroses of that image control.

Literally, she dots lines over a print of her face. In the ’70s and ’90s, she parceled out her cheeks and forehead: brighten the bridge of the nose with Dior eyestick light, apply Ultra Blue eye shadow by Max Factor.

It’s proprietary. She bought the makeup, the same way Hansen selected the royalty-free avatar. And yet, the point of Second Sex War Zone was that life-simulation—within the “untamed parallel world of the digital”—is, in fact, not boundless.

Shopping for avatars, Hansen could choose from only certain body types and skin colors. She took her avatar’s poses and actions straight from real pornography. These commodities were largely female. The possibilities were not endless.

In 2016, American artist Sondra Perry worked with a stock avatar, too. Hers appears on a monitor attached to a stationary bike. Perry says she couldn’t find a digital doppelgänger fat enough, or of the right skin tone, to properly represent her. A green background, customary for CGI, is thought not to match any natural complexion—but, Perry asks in Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, based on whose? Against her own skin, blue makes more sense.

Next to Hershman Leeson’s facial map, there’s a surveillance photo of the time she met up, in person, with a man whom her alterego, Roberta, had gotten to know through correspondence. She’s doing what we think of today as “catfishing”—leading others on with a false identity. It looks like a pitiful moment for Hershman Leeson, in her obviously synthetic blonde wig.

The Future Is Now

And yet, out of these limitations bursts a spunky resourcefulness.

In the exhibit’s final room, artists Candice Lin and Patrick Staff have jiggered everyday items—a fog machine, a timer, bungee cords, latex—into a contraption for spewing “hormonal fog.” A long tinfoil tube, laid out on the floor, intermittently releases steam drawn from jarred stashes of licorice root and black cohosh. These herbs naturally suppress testosterone production. It’s DIY hormone therapy, and it looks a bit like Ghostbusters tech. It’s also a scrappy futurist’s answer to the biochemical piece of transgender identity.

Just outside the gallery, Icosahedron, a 2019 work by American artist Zach Blas, represents a contrasting futurism. It recreates the place where many cisgender white male-designed technologies come from.

We recognize the setup: that PC altar of a wheely chair, computer monitor, and mouse. Expect the monitor is shaped like a crystal ball, and the mouse is a red philosopher’s stone, of immortality-granting, fantasy-fiction fame.

The crystal ball gives off a Mac’s glow. On the screen, an expressionless elf rotates like a screen saver. Think Lord of the Rings, not Keebler. Blas based this artificial intelligence on Silicon Valley’s Palantir Technologies, a company named for the future-glimpsing orb that evil wizard Saruman uses in J.R.R. Tolkein’s book series.

Blas considered the ways tech giants today also predict the future—through machine learning, risk assessment software, and consumer analytics. He tracked the big players’ sources of inspiration: Ayn Rand, Stewart Brand, Ray Kurzeil, Michio Kaku.

Icosahedron uses machine learning, too—but to predict the future of Elon-Musk-types’ predictions. It shuffles their favorite books, which are often sci-fi, often innovation-driven.

I asked the elf, via text, “When will I die?” It replied, “when Thomas Potts mans a die-off.” I asked, “What are you up to this week?” It said (in board-meeting Mad Libs), “while THIS WEEK will probably act, within 50 years, Apple TV might adhere to geofenc.”

Blas explains on his website that this is to show how “all predictive technologies are bound to material constraints and limitations.”

And, throughout Body Electric, artists have run afoul of those limitations, co-opting them, contorting them, and corrupting them with new texts—such as, in Hansen’s case, the existentialist feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

As for the name, Icosahedron: It’s the word for that tiny, white plastic die floating inside a Magic 8-Ball. When you pose a question and give the ball a good shake, 20 different responses can turn face up: 10 affirmative, five negative, five non-committal. You feel, between your palms, a universe of possibilities sloshing around. Maybe break it open instead. Decide for yourself.

The Body Electric
Through July 21
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

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