“Marina Núñez. Ciborgs”, catálogo, Galería Salvador Díaz, Madrid 2001, pp. 11-30.
In “Roadside Rescue”, a science-fiction short story by North American writer Pat Cadigan (1985), we are shocked to find that a strange, slimy and sweet-smelling alien being gets sexual pleasure from the sound of the human voice. The human “companion” who acts as its assistant, and also our narrator since the alien has no voice of its own, explains: “what it really loves is talking. Conversation. The sound waves created by the human voice are especially pleasing to it.” (Cadigan, 1985, 204). The object of our desire is, invariably, what we want in the sense of what we ack.
For these beings “from another world”, doing it is hearing us speak, the gateway for them to a wholly new experience: “Where they come from, there is no spoken language. And we are so new and different for them.” (Cadigan, 1985, 207). This idea of “novelty”, the search for something new, different, so intimately linked to the human dimension of sexuality, to what we can call eroticism in the case of humans alone, shows how much this remote alien springs from the mirror of our most deeply guarded privacy. More so when Pat Cadigan reveals at the end of her tale that not only does the alien like human voices but, pervert that it is!, if perversion exists, is particularly excited by angry voices: “It developed a preference for men speaking out in fear or rage, something that can’t be faked.” (Cadigan, 1985, 207).
Pat Cadigan’s story is just one among a host of examples from mass-market literature or films, in which we can detect the latent dreams and needs of our culture: a world where the human image is rapidly evolving towards a state of mestizaje and hybridization, the mixture with “the other”, with the non human, the extraterrestrial or the machine.
Steeped in this universe of new sensations and experiences, beyond the classic tradition of representation, Marina Núñez’s work appropriates these latent images of an increasingly global popular culture, habitually despised by the solemn, self-sufficient representatives of would-be “high culture”. Because there, precisely there, we can find the reverse image of our desire, that which we barely deem reachable, because of our own want.
Marina’s images of daily existence are exactly those of popular culture: best sellers, design, graphics, films. But she transcends them. She appropriates then takes them to a private, inner space, from where she engages in a radical dialogue about what we have and lack, about the fate of our civilization. Lately, she has turned her attention to the cyborg. A figure that the huge visual and iconic impact of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), has made familiar to us as something human; too human.
The term cyborg is an abbreviation of cybernetic organism. It first emerged in science-fiction literature to express the progressive replacement of human body parts by artificial components up to the last and closing stage: the replacement of the flesh-and-blood brain by a digital brain.
The cyborg, unlike the robot, involves a mix, a synthesis of body and machine. This idea, we must remember, is contingent on the development of modern technology. Thus, for instance, the “monster” created by Frankenstein (and the literary imagination of Mary Shelley), the new Prometheus of modern times, should strictly be regarded as the first cyborg. Obviously, “the idea” of the cyborg has gained fresh impulse with the advent of digital technology. And while medicine has certainly made use of prostheses since time immemorial ¡n its varying procedures of bodily “healing”, it ¡s only in these last decades that the use of all kinds of prostheses and the growing synthesis of artificial and corporal components has become a standard arm of therapeutic practice.
We are now all cyborgs to some extent: mixed, compound organisms. And will become so even more in the future already rapidly encroaching on our present lives. So Marina Núñez talks about “We, the cyborgs”, and warns us that this fusion of the body with technology implies “a significant alteration of identity”, and the birth of a “new kind of subjectivity”. This ¡s the horizon on which her works are ranged, and the wellspring of the bewilderment and uncertainty that her figures awaken: could they be us?
In Marina’s disturbing yet beautiful figures, we can trace some of the densest, most referential myths latent in the dawning digital age. Cyborgs are changing, metamorphic beings. Labile, in the science-fiction sense of the word, originated with Samuel R. Delaney and his 1979 narrative The Edge of Space. In biology, “labile” is the name given to a cellular structure which readily breaks or changes on examination. Delaney uses the term to express rapid mood shifts attuned to changes in the situation or setting. The cyborgs, we might say, are spontaneously “Interactive”.
Labile, changing or metamorphic are especially apt words to express the increasingly drifting nature of the contemporary personality: its splitting or even plural diversification. We are simultaneously, in response to contexts, hard and gentle, cruel and tender, ruthless and compassionate, masculine and feminine. More and more, interactive.
This last aspect is decisive in the configuration of Marina Núñez’s cyborgs, which may appear “sexless” to us on first glance. But the question runs deeper; they are more about a “sexual” lability. The Pat Cadigan story (1985, 203) which served as our starting point has this to say about the alien beings: “For some of them, gender ¡s irrelevant. Some have more than one sex. Some have more than two. Imagine making that trip, if you can.” The answer lies there: imagine. Because the blurring of the “frontiers” of “sexual” gender is one of the latent axes of our culture, at least since the sixties decade of the last century. And, also, one of the best worn clichés of science fiction.
On a more strictly theoretical plane, this problem was addressed by Donna J. Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto (1991, 2): “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world. It is not about bisexuality, or pre-Oedipal symbiosis, or non-alienated work or other seductions proper to organic totality, by means of a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts in favour of a greater whole.” Also: “The ‘sex’ of the cyborg restores something of the Baroque beauty that engendered the ferns and invertebrates (magnificent organic prophylactics against heterosexuality).Their organic reproduction does not require sexual intercourse.” (Haraway, 1991, 1-2).
The cyborg awakens the possibility, and the latent dream, of a sex without restrictions, not bound by the “limitations” of gender, a kind of polymorphism of desire which, in its facet of “non-differentiation”, is partly expressive of an obscure yearning for the universe of childhood. Changing standpoint, this also links up with the desire for rejuvenation, for feeling oneself part of the dawn of a new age of technology, preluding the utopia of a humankind eternally young and healthy; perhaps the most deep-rooted longing of “first world” societies in these days of accelerated transition to the new millennium. The wish to be children. Forever. The Peter Pan complex as the dominant symbolic axis of our present times. Marina Núñez locates in the body of the cyborg some of its most intensely positive elements. Its heterogeneous nature, set against the ideas of purity or wholeness that make up the canon of western cultural tradition. Its porous nature, permeable to context and to situation. And, also, ¡ts evanescent nature: the faculty of transit, whose ultimate expression is the disappearance of the body, its metamorphosis into a purely mental reality. This last aspect provides us with the keys to the energy which irradiates from inside the figures of her cyborgs. From those heads, for instance, which hold an entire planet in their interior.
At this point, on the very threshold of the digital age, advances in virtual reality and artificial life experiments provide an update on humankind’s ancestral dream. The idea of the full dematerialization of the body, the complete metamorphosis of body into spirit and its astral journeying, the keystone of spiritualist philosophies both oriental and occidental.
Bruce Sterling, one of the best known authors ¡n the so-called cyberpunk genre (a true counter-cultural current, which allies the use of digital technology with the will to rebel against the system) published a 1985 novel, Schismatrix, in which one character, devoured by an alien, is transformed into pure spirit and achieves at the last a cosmic transcendence, journeying and observing all the universe.
I share Marina Núñez’s distrust of this cliché of the elimination of the corporeal, if its aim is a kind of rebirth of spiritualist asceticisms. I prefer to
refer back to a materialist, anthropological tradition which vindicates the carnality of the body, among whose modern representatives we might cite, for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche. To suggest that the luminosity of the mind might be rooted in the body. This is what makes the cyborgs so luminous: they are, first and foremost, bodies, transcended bodies, arising from a fusion of flesh and artifice which bears them to the light. In them, we can perceive the body as an axis of energy and light, as a source of flowing spirituality.
It ¡s nonetheless true, as expressed by another cyberpunk author, Gareth Branwyn, that nowadays (though was it not always this way) “people’s minds are the new battlefield”. The relentless advance of digital technology utilization and, primarily, its application to informational channels and flows, have irreversibly transformed the horizon of our civilization. And from this standpoint, the fight for freedom is, definitively, a mental, philosophical fight.
What is “appearance” or “simulation”? What is “real”? These old questions, whose posing gave rise to the western philosophical tradition, are no longer the speculative domain of a small number of privileged minds, but a global, interconnected terrain of a growing density and complexity. Hence the will to control – commercial economic, political – of the system; resolved anew to deploy its authoritarian resorts. The philosophical mind has won a new challenge, a new telos or final cause, in the idea of cyberspace. That idea of a virtual terrain, of a global cyborg of human mind and human matter, so brilliantly formulated by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer (1984), enshrines the will towards a cosmic expansion of knowledge, in a sense not far removed from the different categorical variants minted by western philosophy regarding the cosmic or astral scope of knowledge.
The question is “in the air”: the new road to liberation (was there ever really another?) is the mental control of that construction we still call “reality”. This is the central theme of Gibson’s Neuromante, whose visual prolongation, at the hands of the Hollywood majors, was The Matrix (1999), by Larry and Andy Wachowski. Cyberspace: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, ¡n every nation”, wrote William Gibson.
This is the territory occupied by Marina Núñez’s cyborgs, where they live and breathe, and where we ourselves stand. In their artistic trajectory, these works are particularly charged with light and energy. They cannot be wholly understood from a merely external viewpoint: they direct us to an inner space, a mental universe. To that “battlefield of the mind” home to the new frontier of human freedom, of cyborg freedom.
Where we stand: because the cyborgs are nothing more than our own internal reflection. Like angels or guardian aliens: an image of what we would like to be and melancholically assume we never will be. Spirits of mediation between earth and flight, between the weight of the flesh and the elevation of the spirit.
This is why the light they emit is a dark light, black as melancholy: they, the cyborgs contain the shifting prism of our own desire. The dream of omnipotence we no longer entrust to religion or to politics. Which technology “appears” to have made possible. But this is the crux: appears. The distance between appearing and being ¡s as long as a journey between far distant galaxies. A journey only a cyborg’s porous and changing body can make.
Pat Cadigan (1985): “Roadside Rescue”. Spanish translation by Domingo Santos: “Rescate al borde de la carretera”, in Ellen Datlow (ed.): Sexo alienígena; Destino, Barcelona, 1992, pages 199-208.
Donna J. Haraway (1991): “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, chapter 8 of: Simians, Cyborgs and Women; Routledge, New York. [Spanish translation: Ciencia, cyborgs y mujeres; Cátedra, Madrid 1995], Spanish translation of the first work, published independently, by Manuel Talens: Manifiesto para Cyborgs; Eutopías, Vol. 86, Valencia, 1995.