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Posthumanism and Contemporary Art

October 6, 2016
Deeply invested in contemporary art, Widewalls magazine aims to provide a unique experience for its readers in form of in-depth and quality journalism.

Behind every big, new philosophical and scientific concept lies a paradigm shift in the way we think about and perceive ourselves, the world around us, even our relationship with the universe. One of those theories is Posthumanism, which seems to be studying and promoting the increasing presence of technology in our daily existence. As such, it not only changes our mindset, it influences art too, as art has always been there to “imitate life” as well as witness and mirror our own getting used to new ideas and how they relate to us.

That technology has already gotten ahold of us is an established fact, even though we are not fully aware of it. It has found its way in our lives, becoming an inevitable part of our everyday routine – just think smart phones, social media, virtual games. Not only has it left a mark on the very fabric of our society, it has also introduced a new definition of being human, an improved and empowered version of a human.

So what exactly does it mean to be post human?

get ethics information and press on how transhumanism theory and philosophy use technology and technological enhancements to create a better state of mind
The posthuman is roughly synonymous with the “cyborg” of A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway, which questions the salient line between humans and robots. Haraway’s cyborg is in many ways the “beta” version of the posthuman. Image via deviantart

Posthumanism – The Definition

To define posthumanist art is to define posthumanism which, as it may, does not have a single, cohesive meaning. In critical theory, posthumanism seeks to rewrite the very definition of being human[1], expanding the concept of identity by denying its singularity and refusing the traditional ideas about humanity and the human condition. For post humanists, the patterns of information are more essential to the state of being than any embodiment in a biological substrate, which is rather seen as an accident in history than an inevitability of life. They believe that the consciousness is an epiphenomenon and that the body is nothing more than a prothesis that can and should be repaired, and even exchanged for another. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences between bodily existence and computer stimulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals. This essentially allows and encourages different kind of enhancements for human beings and the generations to come, provided by industrial science and artificial intelligence, thus posing a number of ethical issues on whether this truly should be an option.

the philosophy of transhumanism proposes information on the engineering technologies of enhancement
A variation of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chappel, which suggest the birth of the New Human. Image via devianart

Is Post Humanism – Transhumanism?

Although some consider it to be the synonym for posthumanism, transhumanism should be regarded as a separate movement. As loosely defined as the former, it proposes a nanobiotechnological enhancement of humans through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly improve human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities[2]. In many ways, the society today has already started accepting and practicing these improvements, altering the natural limits: from “simpler” aiding items like glasses, eye contacts and hearing apparatus to more complex structures like artificial retinas, laser eye surgery and inner ears; even pacemakers and insulin pumps, which fundamentally allow us to cheat death itself. Transhumanism can perhaps be considered a more radical type of posthumanism, recommending an organism which wouldn’t be human anymore, having been so significantly altered as to no longer represent our species, and as such it would eliminate disability, suffering, unchosen psychology, disease, aging. Could we really be able to speed up and even control our own evolution ourselves?

What if we could become trans human ? | Oskar Aszmann | TEDxVienna

Being Human and Post Human in the Eyes of Art

The roots of Posthumanism, in art and in general, can be found in its predecessor and antithesis – humanism. It originated in Renaissance Europe, when Christianity was the central concept behind the creation and production of art. It was religion, in fact, which went hand-in-hand with a fresh and popular philosophy born in the late 1400 that influenced the conception of humanism as we know it, because its focus on human potential coincided with the rise of Europeans’ sense of their own power[3]. Thanks to a few mystical texts from the classical era, which were translated into Latin, people believed they could absorb godlike power and make themselves spiritually pure, like in the time of the Garden of Eden. Their species was perfect, “the measure of all things”, and as long as it included Christian devotion, the church was supportive of such ideology. Many famous painters and sculptors of the era transmitted the beauty of humanism through the representations of human figures – think Michelangelo’s David or Pietà.

For centuries to come, humanism dictated the rules in art and imposed the rules on how artworks should look like and what they should depict. Posthumanism was born with technology, much later, as an evolved, much advanced version of humanism, and it aimed to change everything the humans were, and thought they were. By inventing robots and discovering space, for instance, we diminished our specialness as a species, focusing more and more on scientific discoveries that would make our past clearer and our future easier. These tendencies were reflect by and in art, in all fields of it, be it literature or visual arts. Perhaps the first specific step towards Posthumanism art was taken by Futurism[4], through their bold manifesto written by F.T. Marinetti in 1909: ”We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit…” and ” We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

The famous Futurist sculpture, by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity with Space (1913), which melds human forms with mechanical ones. Museum of Modern Art

Post Humanism as a Cultural Movement

The visual arts have always been an integral part of just about any cultural or social movement, sometimes following, sometimes being at the forefront of innovative philosophical thought. It was precisely Humanism that had its most visible stronghold in painting during the Renaissance, leaving an important legacy. Even today, people generally connect the mere idea of it first with the arts, and then to all other aspects of thought. Some half a millennia later, after the Renaissance, after 18th century Enlightenment, after rationalism and empiricism, modernism and post-modernism, another school of thought is taking the spotlight, altogether different, but still following patterns established long ago. Rejecting the previous “antropological universals”, Posthumanism tries to detach itself from a restrictively human perspective, instead trying to remain fluid and manifest the individual thought through different identities. This sort of malleability makes it particularly attractive to contemporary artists who hope to explore points of view beyond their own, beyond their personal, ideological, or even identities as members of the human race.[5] Adressing questions of ethics and justice, social systems, language and trans-species communication, as well as the place of each and every one of us in the giant puzzle that is the Cosmos, they don’t so much offer answers but ask questions.

Natasha Vita-More – Primo Posthuman – via archimorph.com

Recognizing Posthumanist Elements in the Arts

Unlike previous centuries, the art scene today mostly lacks homogenity, offering instead a view of dispersed groups and individuals, each following a path that may be simillar or altogether different from the one next to it. This ideological and aesthetic fragmentation has lead to a multitude of artistic languages.  Performance art is a type in which posthumanism tends to reveal itself most commonly. With its use of the artist’s own form as a vehicle for expression, it offers a method of communication more powerful than most. Still, the whole concept may not be quite as simple as one would hope it should be. The mention of performance are in most instantly summons up the work of Marina Abramovic. Yet, with her exploration of the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the corpus, and the possibilities of the mind – her work is still very much humanist, deeply human even, and doesn’t quite fit the bill of the theme we are exploring. So how does one recognize postumanist art? From a purely visual aspect, it is not that simple to either define or spot. With as many styles as there are artists, posthumanism brings individuality to a whole other level, allowing the artist to assume as many angles and points of view as they wish. Adding to that the ever-changing definition of what it means to be posthuman, and the inability to pinpoint its historic roots and development, the challenge is quite a tough one.[6]

Eduardo Kac – Tesão (Horny), 1985

Roots of Posthumanism in the 20th Century

One of the earliest works to invoke a sense of being “beyond” human, of enhancing the body, making it better, more powerful and thus more than human (which is nowadays considered a purely transhumanist concept) was Umberto Boccioni‘s Unique Forms in Continuity with Space (1913). Melding human forms with mechanical ones, it transcended the boundaries of the body, giving a glimpse of something new.[7] Another example might be Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (established in 1978, and a fine example of land art). A small part of a Manhattan block, the area of land was set aside in an attempt to restore it to its innate state, to the forest as it existed before European colonialization. It shifts the viewer’s perspective from that of a casual onlooker, first into that of the 17th century pilgrim, then to that of a Native American, and even to that of the forest itself, of the trees and the shrubs – of nature.

Alan Sonfist – Time Landscape (established 1978)

Posthuman Art in the Whirl of the New Millennium

Located between science, technology and art, posthumanism is interdisciplinary both in its theory and (artistic) practice – accepting that human nature is far from constant, that it is ever-evolving, both as a means of expression as well as a way of understanding. Often, it’s more a way of looking at art than of creating art, more what is expected of the viewer than what the artist offers on view. It is a challenge and a dialogue, instead of a monologue recited to the public. Understanding the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives is becoming a prerogative. Our very own growing scientific abilities are undermining our illusion of centrality to the universe. Stelarc’s exploration of the relationship between science and art is revealing of this idea, focusing heavily on extending the capabilities of the human body, effectively rendering it obsolete in the end. ORLAN is another performance artist with a transhumanist practice, using plastic surgery as a part of her communication with the audience, to deal with posthumanist ideals.

Characteristic of the movement is also the incredible versatility and innovativeness which Eduardo Kac repeatedly takes to its limits. A pioneer and a protagonist in many fields, he explored holography applied to the arts, the creation of works to be transmitted by fax, photocopied art, microchips approached as human prostheses, experimental photography, video, fractals, digital art, virtual reality, networks, robotics, telerobotics, satellites, teletransportation, genomes, biotechnology, Morse code, and DNA. Natasha Vita-More, “the first female transhumanist philosopher”, is famous for her Primo Posthuman, an artwork depicting how a human may look very soon with such technological enhancements as color-changing skin.[8]

Stelarc – Portrait of the Artist – via i.ytimg.com

Gender, Transgender, Transhuman, and Beyond

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge – a singer-songwriter, musician, poet, performance artist, and occultist, identifying as third gender, and using confrontational performance work – transcends quite a few boundries, even by post-modern standards. Having married Jacqueline Mary Breyer in 1993, they embarked on the Pandrogeny Project, an attempt to unite as a “pandrogyne”, or single entity, through the use of surgical modification of the form to physically resemble one another.[9] Exploring and breaking down the limited notions of gender is a strong theme in posthumanism in general, with Micha Cárdenas as yet another example of an artist using their art as a vehicle for gender self-expression, projects of conceptual art, as well as social activism.

By asking so many questions, pushing so many boundries and casting such a wide net – over art, politics, science, education, technology and beyond – posthumanism is a philosophical open-source code, accessible to all willing to question everything and prepared to face change, modification and ehnancement of what to them means to be human. It is definitely a movement that is progressive and is not afraid to ask “what comes next?”.

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge – Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye Mirror (1999)

Our Posthuman Future

Since man’s understanding of human nature has been changing throughout history, we cannot help but wonder what will be the next stage in human evolution? In 1954, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote an essay The Question Concerning Technology where he argued that technology is how we understand what’s around us and that it shouldn’t be positioned as “other” or separate from the human. In the 1988 book The Inhuman, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard wondered if a thought can go on without the body and if this could be a vehicle for a fresh posthuman subjectivity.  Following this long-standing canon of de-centering the human in critical discourse, the contemporary posthumanist theory takes an “objectivist” and post-anthropocentric view of human advancement, placing an emphasis on the role of the nonhuman agents, whether they be animals and plants, or computers or other things. In this way, the boundaries between the artificial and natural will be dissolved. The contemporary world is overwhelmed by evidence of the long predicted merger of our bodies with technology, and the possibility of an upgrade that takes you out of your body and into another realm is becoming less science fiction and more a reality. Some argue that as a result of biomedical advances, we are facing the possibility of a time to come in which our humanity itself will be altered beyond recognition. Some even suggest that our corporeal vessel will become obsolete. Is this an actual possibility and how will it affect our understanding of ourselves and the world around us?

transhumanism offers information on the philosophy of enhancement through engineering technologies
Stelarc – Ear on Arm, via thinglink.com

The Artistic Framework of the Posthuman

When it comes to this subject, it is the place of art to provide a framework for a public debate. The philosopher and theoretician Rosi Braidotti emphasized the importance of art in this debate in the way that it connects us to “the animal, the vegetable, earthy and planetary forces that surround us”, giving us a non—anthropocentric view of our planet. This artistic framework provides a site for abstraction and consideration, allowing for the further exploration of these questions. Working with not only visual, but also the biological and mechanical, artists not only represent scientific advancements in their art, but also undertake new forms of research. Stelarc suggests that we have reached an evolutionary endpoint where the next logical stage of adaptation is for the organic to assimilate the mechanic. In Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence: Postevolutionary Strategies he writes: It is no longer a matter of perpetuating the human species by reproduction, but of enhancing the individual by redesigning. What is significant is no longer male-female intercourse but human-machine interface. The body is obsolete.” Neil Harbisson, the first ever cyborg artist, believes that humans have a duty to use technology to transcend their senses. Born with the inability to see color, he wears a prosthetic device – an antenna that curves up and over from the back of his skull – that allows him to hear the spectrum, including the colors beyond the range of human sight. For him, what’s coming is a cyborg age. Yet, he states that this bond with technology has brought him back to nature. On the other hand, the artist Natasha Vita-More imagines a future in which humans are freed from the construct dictated by nature. The way these artists integrate with technology produces fresh perceptions that expand posthuman subjectivity. These artists push the limits of the human body, using technology in order to give viewers a look into the posthuman world where the boundaries between external and internal, between technology and self, will be dissolved. This posthuman process allows for the integration of multiple perspectives into the structures of subjectivity and knowledge.[10]

many artists use enhancement technologies in their work
Neil Harbisson, via elmundo.es

The Obsolescence of Our Bodies

Even though the practice of artists such as Stelarc, Harbisson and Vita-More provides an insight into some aspects of our posthuman future, it still doesn’t seem that our body will become obsolete in the near future. Stelarc’s pieces express a posthuman desire to extend and augment the capabilities of the body by modifying it with technological enhancements. But if the body should be a site for design and augmentation, how can it be obsolete at the same time? The artist Patricia Piccinini has an ambivalent attitude towards postevolutionary strategies. She states that “the organic is now the stratum through which the cutting edge of technology most regularly passes”, suggesting that natural and artificial cannot exist without the other. She doesn’t think that the body should be proclaimed obsolete, but that technology should be regarded as increasingly naturalized. On the other hand, the doctor William Hurlbut specializing in bioethics calls for caution when it comes to bio-engineered enhancements. He feels that if we approach this in a frivolous sort of way, we could easily disrupt the setting in which human life has its greatest meaning. He argues that humans “should seek the moral and spiritual meaning of our lives in the midst of our suffering”, rather than “try to escape them through biotechnology”.

Patricia Piccinini - Artistic Mutations, via timetravelturtle.com
Patricia Piccinini – Artistic Mutations, via timetravelturtle.com

The Pluralization of Perspectives

If we define posthumanism as a position that wants to explore how other entities encounter the world rather than privileging our own world view, then it is not about the rejection or eradication of human perspective on the world, but the pluralization of perspectives. Thus, the technological merger should produce transversal relations and a new subjectivity, positioning technology not as “other” but as our way of knowing. On the other hand, it seems that with our growing scientific and technological abilities, our specialness as a species and our centrality to the universe is undermined. By having digital machines that can act increasingly like us, discovering the inner language of animals, or finding life in outer space, our importance as a species becomes diminished. These narratives that emerge from our discoveries, regarding our past and future, continue to arise through and be reflected by art. Artists who are blurring the boundaries between art, science and philosophy expand our understanding and our perceptions of the world by rejecting traditional ideas of the human form. Now that the postmodern technology, science, and thought have chipped away at the traditional, humanistic basis of our Western self-image, we must wonder upon what will be the base of our conceptual view of ourselves in the future.

 the information on how transhumanism uses engineering technologies and technological philosophy of enhancement to create a fresh state of mind is available here Editors’ Tip: What Is Posthumanism?

Exploring how both critical thought along with cultural practice have reacted to this radical repositioning, Cary Wolfe-one of the founding figures in the field of animal studies and posthumanist theory-ranges across bioethics, cognitive science, animal ethics, gender, and disability to develop a theoretical and philosophical approach responsive to our changing understanding of ourselves and our world. Then, in performing posthumanist readings of such diverse works as Temple Grandin’s writings, Wallace Stevens’s poetry, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, the architecture of Diller+Scofidio, and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, he shows how this philosophical sensibility can transform art and culture.

Written by Angie Kordic, Frederic Godward and Elena Martinique

References:

  1. Hayles, K., How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, University of Chicago Press, 1999
  2. Bostrom, N., Ethical Issues for the 21st Century, Philosophical Documentation Center Press, 2003
  3. Braidotti, R., The Posthuman, Polity, 2013
  4. Rainey, L., Poggi, C., Whitman, L., Futurism: An Anthology, Yale University Press, 2009
  5. LaGrandeur, K., Posthumanism and Contemporary Art, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies [September 27, 2016]
  6. Gaugy, M., What does posthumanist art look like?, Quora.com [September 27, 2016]
  7. O’Donnell, R. P., Posthuman: Exploring the Obsolescence of the Corporeal Body in Contemporary Art, Inquiries Journal [September 27, 2016]
  8. Gomoll, L., Posthuman Performance, A Feminist Intervention, Total Art Journal [September 27, 2016]
  9. Dvorsky, G., 7 Bio-Artists Who Are Transforming the Fabric of Life Itself, Gizmodo [September 27, 2016]
  10. Bradley, K., Envisioning Our Posthuman Future: Art, Technology and Cyborgs, Academia [September 27, 2016]

Featured images: scenes from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. Used for illustrative purposes only.