Response to Questions
Natasha Vita-More - Response to Questions from Colleagues
Research 4, Session 5, Milan, Italy, December 11, 2007
The aim of this 4th research was to develop a condensed version of a complicated schema of ideas in order to identify theory and practice within the arts which concern the “continuation of life”. By continuation of life, I mean as it is related to developments as a result of NBIC technologies, which include nanoscience, bioscience, information science and cognitive science. These emerging domains of science and technology may result in the continuation of life by augmenting, extending, and regenerating “life” in biological, synthetic and cybernetic forms. I would like to explain that the idea of extending life is broader than a singular thought of extending chronological life.
In performing my research, I investigated practice and theories within the media art, plastic, performance and Bioart which in some ways concern future human, identity and self. My conclusion is that it may be crucial to explore outside traditional, institutionalized protocol and incorporate deliberations and study which explicitly address radical body and brain modification, for example. Such inquiry can offer diversity in knowledge which may better assess proposals for a future human. Because it is unknown what behavior will be over time for any species in a transitional stage, especially when such transition is an organized effort and at a time of exponential technological acceleration - and ideas stemming from a possible serious discontinuities and possible Singularity, such investigation becomes ever more challenging.
I was asked about continuity of life in regards to sudden ruptures in the evolutionary trajectory. While discontinuities are sudden and eruptive, they are, regardless, still in the environment of change. Whether change is fast or slow it produces a variety of consequences; albeit they are still part of the spiral of change, no matter the direction. For example, a loop of change can be re-enforcing and or balancing, both of which eventually undergo discontinuities. Herein, a key constituent of thinking strategically is recognizing that issues do not exist in isolation. There are balancing loops and reinforcing loops in all systems and these loops are constantly changing. Even when reaching a state of stasis they die off, forming new loops.
I was asked to place my relation to a theory in respect to disembodiedment. My own position is “distributed” rather than “disembodied”. Therefore identity and self are distributed over time and space.
I would like to clarify that in my research, I reflected on the particular outlooks of several artists who, in their particular practices, have developed opinions on identity. The reason for this investigation was to explore how identity and the continuation of biological life are addressed in diverse artistic practices.
In my research, I did not take a strong stance on identity and its relationship to mind-body other than to state that, for the purposes of continued and regenerative existence, such inquiry into the diachronious self is crucial, regardless of whether the body is a physiological or cybernetic form. It is my position, at this point in time, that the body is a mindful and functional vehicle as a carrier for self and “life” and which vehicle may not remain in a state of biological mass when considering the many possibilities of extended life as man continues to merge with technology. Thus, in short, my research interest for this research was an investigation of the continuation of life force and if and where artists are looking at this topic and, if so, how identity is approached.
2.0: new minds, bodies, identities"
Conference: Researching the Future: aspects of Art and Technoetics 2007
Collegium, CAiiA Node
Faculty of Technology
School of Computing, Communications and Electronics
University of Plymouth
Introduction — Future human: constructing identity
Scenarios concerning the future human indicate augmenting, extending, and regenerating life in biological, synthetic and cybernetic forms. Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin noted that “Man, although he knew that the human race might continue to exist for a long time, had not suspected that it had a future. Now however, because he was a species, and species change, he could begin to look for and seek to conquer something quite new that lay ahead of him." (Teilhard 1959 p. 312) Taking these words literally, the author investigates practices and theories within the arts and sciences which concern minds, bodies and identities in relation to the continuation of life, whether biological or synthetic. While the future human does include elements of cyborg and disembodiment; its nature or disposition emphasizes continued, regenerative existence as a primary aim and the construction of its mass, or body, whether semi-biological or synthetic, as a secondary aim. Seen in this way, human identity is not differentiated by its association with a metal cyborg or disembodied human, but as a synergistic being encompassing a fluid, continuity of “self” over time.
The author refers to theories of man-machine as cyborg, as described by the neuroscientist Manfred Clynes, and Professors Antonio Caronia and Donna Haraway; disembodiment in cybernetic space as described by Professor N. Kathryn Hayles; and to posthuman as a semi-biological future human, as described by the author, the artist Robert Pepperell, the philosopher Max More and, alternatively, the sociologist Francis Fukuyama. The author suggests the future human as a transitional stage from human to transhuman to posthuman.
Body, mind, and identity
Standing still, I am 5'4" inches. Or is it my body that is 5'4" inches? I have a body, but am I a body? When I am mindful in thinking about my body is my mind actually 4" wide, and does this small space contain my identity?[i] (Fig. 1)
"Plato believed that I am a mind which just happens to be associated with [and chained to] a body." (Hospers 1988 p. 266) According to philosopher Rene Descartes the "self is the mind … it is not that I have a mind but that I am a mind—a mind which exists in conjunction with the body" and separate from body. (p. 266)
Bodily changes and cognitive experiences alter behavior and, thereby, perceptions of self. Such alteration, in turn, affect identity. The question is whether continuity of self depends on a cohesive relationship between the cognitive process.
The self according to philosopher David Hume in Treatise of Human Nature, is a "bundle of experiences," and the individual is a result or a product of thoughts and experiences but there is "no 'I' or owner of these experiences, just a set of experiences…" and "…different perceptions or different existences, which are linked together by the relation of cause and effect..." (Hume 2006 IV, vi)
It can be argued that the body will be replaced in bits and pieces over time with non-biological matter. For identity, the body is of instrumental importance in its functioning, which allows us to express ourselves. As philosopher Max More claims, "[a]part from the need to have some kind of body, it also seems clear that the particular body we have will deeply affect our identity." (More 1995 p. 265) However, even though parts of a body gain their instrumental importance from their functional roles (p.265), the particular matter [substance and form] that constitute a body could have less intrinsic significance for identity over time than a biological body wherein psychology and behavior directly affect identity.
If the human evolves into new forms which are comprised of material other than biological DNA substrates, then the mind and identity become far more diverse than we currently have the capacity to understand. Despite this, lack of knowledge and understanding do not prerequisite the urge to envision.
Life as movement
In Chapter XXII of The Future of Man, paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes:
"Not much more than a hundred years ago, Man learned to his astonishment that there was an origin of animal species, a genesis in which he himself was involved. Not only did all kinds of animals share the earth with him, but also he found that he was in some sort a part of this zoological diversity which hitherto he had regarded as being merely his neighbors. Life was in movement, and Mankind was the latest of its successive waves! (p. 312)
"In short, until then Man, although he knew that the human race might continue to exist for a long time, had not suspected that it had a future. Now however, because he was a species, and species change, he could begin to look for and seek to conquer something quite new that lay ahead of him." (pp. 312-313)
In approaching this paper, the author wondered if there is a paucity or a profusion of research and theory concerning the future human—the minds, bodies, and identities—within the media arts and design. Ecologist Tom Ray and creator of “Tierra” (1989), the artificial life computer simulation wherein self-replicating code evolves by natural selection, suggests that, "[a]rtists create and construct. The idea of creating life is exciting but extending life [of humans] for the purposes of continued [and regenerative] existence may not be realized as a mode of aesthetic creation in traditional works of art” and new media—building artificial life and programming virtual identities. (Ray 2007) But this, of course, is subject to change because if the future human adapts multiple identities as living sub-entities, then artists developing such forms would be characteristically producing and extending a manifestation of life, especially if such sub-entities are partially biological.
Arts and Design in motion
In May of 2007, MIT Media Lab held a symposium to explore how technology is merging with humans and to define the emerging science of human adaptability. The symposium welcomed a new science of human adaptability.
"The story of civilization is the story of humans and their tools. Use of tools has changed the human mind, altered the human body, and fundamentally reshaped human identity. … A science is emerging that combines a new understanding of how humans work to usher in a new generation of machines that mimic or aid human physical and mental capabilities. …severe cognitive, emotional, sensory, or physical disabilities. Given all or even most of this population a quality of life beyond mere survival is both the scientific challenge of the epoch and the basis for a coming resolution over what it means to be human. … The age of Human 2.0 is here."[ii]
For artists and designers within industrial design, the idea of building augmented and prosthetic body parts has credence because it fulfills a desire to construct and create. Mark S. Kimbrough, 2006 IDSA National Conference Chair said, "Design is synonymous with change. Human beings demand change as a result of evolutionary cravings for stimuli. [But] How will our senses be satisfied in the future?” A group of designers at ID Fuel agree that: "[i]t could be argued that the reason humans have come so far so fast where technology is concerned, is that we've never been satisfied with our own physical abilities. Our arms weren't fast enough to catch fish, so we whittled fishhooks. Our feet got cut when we worked tending crops, so we covered them with shoes. Our eyes went blind in the glaring snow, so we carved slitted goggles from wood to protect them. And, as our command of tools continues to improve, so do the items we develop to augment ourselves."[iii]
We might consider a new science of human hackability wherein the human body, mind and identity are capable of being modified by the user. Further, if design is a social process then the art of individual design is a process of adaptation as a basic human desire and as an outgrowth of need.
Artistic Practices – Creating Life - Identity
Jackson Pollack once said that artists create, as "a natural growth out of a need," … “[w]hen I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. … the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through."[iv] Wassily Kandinsky noted, "The true work of art is born from the ‘artist': a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation. It detaches itself from him, it acquires an autonomous life, becomes a personality, an independent subject, animated with a spiritual breath, the living subject of a real existence of being."[v]
Not so mystical are the paintings of the bioartist David Kremers who paints with living cells. Kremers' biomedia is genetics of bacteria. He uses microbes genetically modified to produce enzymes of different colors. In "Paraxial Mesoderm7" (1999-2000), Kremers uses microbes genetically modified to produce enzymes. “The work, while stable, is neither ‘dead’ nor ‘finished.’ It exists in a state of suspended animation, and at any time the resin might be removed, the plate scraped, fed, and placed in an incubation room to grow to a new stage of development.” The paraxial mesoderm creates abstract paintings by growing bacteria on clear acrylic plates.
For the media artist skilled in interactive, immersive environments, the idea of avatar as a constructed identity has continuant value regardless of its creator. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, comments that "… when a new technology comes on the scene, it is natural to first think about it in terms of instrumental effects, what it can do for us. Only with some time and distance do people tend to turn to its subjective effects, what it does to us as people. I think that we are just at this point now with the computer, as people come to realize that this technology offers dramatic new possibilities for personal growth, for developing personal senses of mastery, for forming new kinds of relationships." (Hafner 1998)
For Donna Haraway, author of the Cyborg Manifesto, the postmodern “self” is no longer characterized by a singular, unified identity, but an assortment of politicized and fractured cyborg “selves.” Confirming Tom Ray's assumption that building artificial life and programming virtual identities, the artistic desire to create new identities manifests in Ray Kurzweil’s conversational avatar “Ramona” (2001) who has become his female persona, tucked neatly away in digital codes. Like Marcel Duchamp’s counter-part “Rose Selavy” (1921), Kurzweil’s Ramona has appeal and intelligence and both men seem to flee a biological fixed identity, becoming other selves in the process, transformed and even fractured.
In cybernetic environments like Second life, identities are constructed as sculpture, one code in relation to the other. In biological life, identity is constructed DNA code, one code in relation to the other. However, the idea of identity to a human ought not to be minimized to parallel computer code—not yet anyway. A person’s identity comprises complex, conscious experiences, psychological issues, and is influenced by myths and rituals that are deeply ingrained in our sense of reality and considered as a “continuant, perduring, diachronic individual” as “person-stages, person-phases, or phases of the self.” (More 1995)
Many artists with a practice in Performance Art hold the body as a crucial vehicle for expressing an extension of “self.” For Stone, the body is her art, as it is for Stelarc. When Stelarc talks about ‘the body’, he means “a physiological, phenomenological, operational and interactive entity in the world. … The “Prosthetic Head” is an "embodied" agent, not merely a text agent but an agent that is a visual projection”, and as the “Head's data base increases and as the Head gains sensing vision systems and feedback from the real world, it becomes a more autonomous entity. …“Here, the mind is not the causal agent behind the actions and behavior of the individual mind and is indistinguishable from its expression. The mind is what the body does; it is the body in interaction with other bodies or things.”[vi] “The body is identity.” (Stelarc 2007)
Sandy Stone, professor of New Media at the ACTLab, believes that the physical “body” is crucial to self and futures. She claims that the origins of theories related to man-machine entities and disembodied agency are based in large part on Marxism and deconstructivism which frames what is means to be human. According to Stone, Cultural Studies is the name given to the culmination of feminist discourse[vii] on cyborgs at the time when she and her colleagues realized that they were all talking about similar relationships of humans and machines[viii] (Stone 2007). To Haraway, the concept of cyborg does not require a fixed, essentialist identity[ix], but suggests the notion of an “affinity” instead of an identity.[x] To Stone, personal identity embraces the body as a vital to “self”—but not as an unchanging body.
The feminist approach has significance but is not critical for artists within the context of extropy, an idea concerning the extent of a living or organizational system's intelligence and generatively. Its epistemology and ontology are based in being and becoming as a regenerative process. As such, the concept of identity is in keeping with genomic and life sciences. These changes synergize biology, cybernetics and artificial life as modes of transferring identity and creating new vehicles for agency. Emphasis is placed on continuing "being" over time and regenerative existence, the act of perpetually and, as seamlessly as possible, augmenting life for continued existence. In short, extreme life extension.
Identity currently located in the biological body suggests that such carbon body may undergo abrupt chemical changes, whether induced from psychological, self-imposed emotive or identity issues or from continuous demands placed on our limited lifespan. Addressing these concerns, the BioArt the short 8mm film “Breaking Away”[xi] (Vita-More 1980) (Figure 2) captures the artist sculpted into Red Rocks amphitheater. The acoustical arena, where Tiesto performed "Elements of Life", stages the mise en scène. As a metaphorical breaking away from human constraints, naked flesh is energized, amplified and then attenuated from the early morning sun.
The video “DJ Trace-human” is both an allegory and soliloquy concerning posthumans. The author’s words, although precisely stated, have been removed from each frame. When played to a harmonic mix and animated into a series of repetitious moments, the viewer intuits the value of the words, however silenced.[xii] (Vita-More 2000) (Figure 3) In contrast, the narrative of “2 Woman in B&W” is the storyline. As the two actors’ words repeat in sequence, during each round the words remain the same but it is the actor’s behaviors which change. The changes of behavior cause tension and inertia while the their identities overlap and end up pitted against each other. Yet the viewer witnesses a transitional state of being, arriving at a point of stasis by and through its inability to break away from the cloistered need of the other.[xiii] (Vita-More 1986)
Alternatively, the absence of the physical in virtual space is destined to provoke changes in the physical body and in our relationship to it in the real world. Artist Marilene Oliver contends that the "virtual world created by the computer is one that provides no place for the physical body.” Like Stone, she has a longing for the physical body in technological arts. The relationships she explores are designed to address an intimacy with the body while using high resolution MRI technologies. Her images, while digitized, give the viewer an intimate porthole into the body. The "processed data as figurative sculpture" allow viewers" to contemplate these copies of ourselves in an actual and physical reality where we can consider how they affect our sense of self both physically and digitally." … "If MRI is able to convert the body to data, how more far fetched than cryo preservation is the possibility that a future technology might be able to convert the data back to body. Converted to data, the body is freed from its physicality, its aging, its vulnerability. The data body is eternal." [xiv] (Oliver 2007) (Figure 4) Cryo-preservation or cryonics suggests that identity can be suspended in liquid nitrogen for long periods of time and reanimated if nanoscience, bioscience, information science and cognitive science (NBIC) and their accompanying technologies are available. A conceptual media work known as “Primo Posthuman" (Vita-More 1997) a future human 2.0 prototype suggests cryonics as one means for the transporting human identity from a living biological form to a suspended state, and eventually a reanimated, regenerative existence. (Figure 5)
Continuity of being
Turning again to Teilhard is the philosophical outlook that humanity will not be able to survive except by developing and embracing on earth the possibilities that are available to us. Teilhard suggests what he calls an "Ultra-Human." (Teilhard, p. 294, 1969) Could this mean that our surviving and the continuity of "being" or life on earth for future humans, in full or in part, is a result of biotechnological enhancements and cybernetic simulations? "Teilhard insists that only by cultivating our moral sense of obligation to life can we overcome our present fear and anxiety for the human future." As such, "human beings would become more individuated, and paradoxically this 'complexification' would also involve increased cooperation and interdependence." (Robbins 1999)
Moral obligation is subjective and prescribed by an individual’s set of values. A different way of looking at continuity of identity over time is to consider sudden ruptures in the evolutionary trajectory. For example, today AI is quite weak. It is merely a programming agent which performs a set tasks. What happens when AI becomes smart, or if AI becomes smart but not friendly? We could upload into AI as a leverage or embody AI, which ever comes first, into a posthuman state. The issue of humans becoming more individuated and complex may foster cooperation and liberty, and depends in large part not on whether change is fast or slow but which direction the future human will take. Herein, a key constituent of thinking strategically is recognizing that issues do not exist in isolation and that artists who are creating life might want to consider how their own lives and thereby adaptive identities might reach a state of stasis, die off, for form anew.
Conclusion: Synergistic Human 2.0
In this paper, the author attempts a condensed version of a complicated schema of ideas in order to identify theory and practice within the arts which concern new minds, bodies and identities. The emerging domains of NBIC sciences and technology may result in the continuation of life by augmenting, extending, and regenerating “life” in biological, synthetic and cybernetic forms. Herein, the idea of extending life is broader than a singular thought of extending chronological life.
The author does not support or propose a theory of identity and its relationship to mind or body other than to state that, for the purposes of continued and regenerative existence, such inquiry into the diachronious self is crucial, regardless of whether the body is a physiological or cybernetic form. Theories concerning disembodiedment emphasize a detachment of personhood and physicality and overlook the currents of “distributed” identity, which suggests the connective distribution of self over time and space. In summary, the body is a mindful and functional vehicle as a carrier for self and “life” and which vehicle may not remain in a state of biological mass when considering the many possibilities of extended life as man continues to merge with technology.
It may be crucial to explore outside traditional, institutionalized protocol and incorporate deliberations and study, which explicitly address radical body and brain modification, for example. Such inquiry can offer diversity in knowledge which may better facilitate artistic methods for conceptualizing and designing a future human. Because it is unknown what behavior will be over time for any species in a transitional stage, especially when such transition is an organized effort and at a time of exponential technological acceleration—and ideas stemming from a possible serious discontinuities and possible Singularity[xv], such investigation becomes ever more challenging.
Figure 1 – "4" Mind" (Vita-More)
Figure 2 – "Breaking Away" (Vita-More)
Figure 3 – "DJ Trance-Human" (Vita-More)
Figure 4 – "Exhausted Figure" (Marilene Oliver)
Figure 5 – "x-ray Head as Identity" (Vita-More)
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[i] Hospers, J. 1988, p. 266 refers to identity, body and self by questioning whether you are your body.
[ii] MIT 9, May 2007 Conference, “H2.0 – new minds, new bodies, new identities: Ushering a New Era for Human Capability.” http://h20.media.mit.edu/about.html
[iii] ID Fuel. (Accessed 22 November 2007). http://www.idfuel.com/
[iv] Quote taken from Enotes. (Accessed 28 November 2007). http://www.enotes.com/famous-quotes/author/jackson-pollock
[v] Quotes from Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944).
[vi] Stelarc in conversation with the author September, 2007. Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs) concern communicative behavior.
[vii] “Politics of technoscience that does not rely on universal truths” Sandy Stone (2007).
[viii] Stone, Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) in conversation with the author, 25 November 2007 at the home of Ms. Stone.
[ix] “Identity Politics” (2002) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/ essentialist identity - one fixed in nature (origins and 'blood' or genes) rather than made in culture - is often viewed with alarm within radical circles..." First published Tue Jul 16, 2002; substantive revision Fri Nov 2, 2007.
[x] Mark Zuss in his paper on “Zoography” (2003) makes an appraisal of currents found within feminist literature on cyborgian identities. He claims that cyborg women experience a freedom of “modernism’s scripts of bounded gender relations and representations.” (Zuss 2003).
[xi] Filmed by Don Yannacito, Film Studies, University of Colorado.
[xii] Directed by BBC filmmaker Christopher Spencer and edited in Los Angeles, the recitation became AC—an electric current that reverses its direction at regular intervals.
[xiii] Filmed by John Dore of EZTV in West Hollywood, the author directed and performed in this short which premiered at Women in Video.
[xiv] Marine Oliver in conversation with the author, 16 November, 2007 regarding her work "Resurrecting the Digitized Body: The Use of the 'Scanned In' Body for Making Artworks.”
[xv] The Singularity is a time when the technological creation of intelligence which becomes smarter than humans. The Singularity was coined by Vernor Vinge. According to Vinge, “The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.” (1993)