Science-fiction. On representation, alterity and the cyborg
“Marina Núñez”, catálogo, Consorci de Museus de la Generalitat Valenciana. Valencia, 1998, pp. 50-63.
ALONE / From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were – I have not seen / As others saw – I could not bring / My passions from a common spring. / From the same source I have not taken / My sorrow; I could not waken / My heart to joy at the same tone; / And all I lov’d, I loved alone. / Then -in my childhood – in the dawn / Of a most stormy life – was drawn / From ev’ry depth of good and ill / The mystery that binds me still: / From the torrent. or the fountain. / From the red cliff of the mountain, / From the sun that ‘round me roll’d / In its autumn tint of gold – / From the lightening in the sky / As it pass’d me flying by – / From the thunder and the storm, / And the cloud that took the form / (When the rest of Heaven was blue) / Of a demon in my view.
Edgar Allan Poe
As I read, I felt that I was being drawn ever closer into the pictorial universe of Marina Núñez.
…The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. …earnest research lo learn the hidden secrets of nature …The ancient teachers of this science …penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how the works in her hiding-places. …they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. …they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its shadows …One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? …To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. …After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. …
A while ago, Marina was telling me how she has been fascinated by anatomy since she was a child. And also by science fiction and tales of horror.
…So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more, will I achieve: …Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty …
The story by Mary Shelley made me understand that in creation, both passion and knowledge become intertwined with the same naturalness or dramatism as life and death. In the same way Marina Núñez represents possible states of life and death in many of their outward manifestations such as madness or the monstrous. Her works seem to be strategies for liberation, just as creation itself could be, subverting values, concepts which are pre-established and hierarchic.
…the figure of the monster that I had given life to was continuously before my eyes…
While I continued reading I had some reproductions of the latest work by Marina Núñez in front of me; they are ways of representing life (however alien), and the monstrous, as well as containing ideas about women and vision.
When re-reading another classic I felt once again how the metamorphosis of the commercial traveler Gregor Samsa represented Kafka’s thinking and his interest for the other, alongside a criticism of bourgeois values, society and the family (synthetically and masterly represented in the characters. The still innocent, younger sister is the only one who dares to cross the threshold of the doorway, to cross over to the other side and make contact with the “monster” alone in his room, while the figures of the mother and father refuse all contact with the unknown, the different, in short, the abject). Throughout history the mechanisms rejecting the individual who is different have been as brutal as they are subtle. Gregor, like Frankenstein’s monster, feels this rejection, feels how he is perceived as a threat and consequently, how individuals withdraw horrified front the vision of the different, of alterity without giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his otherness because this is denied to him from the very outset. Faced with this panorama, the latter of the two literary characters, also one of the greatest myths of cinema, responds in kind to his treatment at the hands of society, with evil, violence and destruction as the only possible answer to a system of thinking and power which establishes what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, according to its own interests.
As a reply to this, and as the enthusiast for gothic, horror and satirical literature from the 18th and 19th centuries that she is (more than moral fables, they are critiques of society and a bitter rejection of it, the opening salvo being Gulliver by Swift), I also believe that Marina Nuñez’ drawings and paintings, feeding from science and the aforementioned literature (as well as the human frame she previously referred to, Marina has also found an important reference point in the exhibition L’Ame au corps: arts et sciences 1793-1993 1 which began with the attempt during the Illustration to situate man in nature through a synthesis of physio-psychological knowledge) do not represent so much an essential subject as variations of the subjects of alterity. Her work responds to some critical (or theoretical) positions belonging to the discourses questioning the presupposed bases of modern theory (or the theory of modernity), primarily the critique of reason centered in the subject, in an ‘essential’ and ‘unique’ subject. The representation of multiple women’s bodies, or fragments of them such as hands, heads, eyes or arms, but always ‘alienated’ bodies, posits a rejection of universal and essentialist ideas as well as proposing a questioning of the supposed ‘stability of the signified’, something which is impossible in these fragmented, monstrous, alienated bodies. It is a criticism of the global discourse in favour of the fragment and an exploration of difference, and pleasure in deconstruction; and on the other hand, it demonstrates an interest for the abject as ‘that which perturbs identity, system and order. That which does not respect frontiers, positions or roles.” 2
Marina Núñez has opened up to new fields of signifieds in art and in life, in her experience as an artist and as a woman, as creating subject and as social agent, through a body of work articulated around theories on gender; ‘alterity’ and ‘difference’ are precisely what gender deals with ‘grammatically’. This fact constitutes feminism as a policy defined by its area of response and by a repeated rejection of dominant theories.” 3
If we were to ask the artist whether she were looking for ‘new forms’ of the subject, I believe that , apart from the rotundity of her plastic work, she would answer us with the no less rotund arguments based on solid criticism ranging from an analysis of the theory and aesthetic of the novel by Bakhtin to the pleasure of the writing (of creation) of Hélène Cixous or the polemic, visionary and vital cyborg manifesto of Donna Haraway
She is interested in the displacement of the patriarchal discourse and the elaboration of a fictitious discourse in Cixous, as well as the emphasis in the need for a space of desire, and in the need to be prepared to eliminate systems of censorship that try to deny any attempt to speak of the feminine … “there is a lot of work to be done against the masculine and persuasive urgency to judge, diagnose, digest, name … not so much in the sense of poetic naming but in the repressive censorship of philosophical nomination/ conceptualization. We must be prepared for an ‘affirmation of difference’. an adventure, an exploration of the power of women, of their potential … an endless flow of desire”. In the essay The Laugh of the Medusa instead of looking at syntax she proposes fantasy, the unconscious, an approach to the language of the flesh, not chasing the signified but being in the vestibule of feeling, in tactility. Approaching laughter. Laughter, together with symbolic innovation and the desire for transgression are some of the achievements of feminist positions. I imagine that this is a belief shared by Marina, except perhaps that instead of speaking about laughter in connection with her work we might use the expression ‘towards tears’. However, these are not tears to wallow in victimization but to potentialise generative fluids which, like other emotions and manifestations – of pain, of rage, of horror – demonstrated by the figures she represents, posit a presence, more specifically that of alterity, together with her interest in the body (like in works by Mike Kelley and Cindy Sherman which, nevertheless, are so different from hers) as a place of representation of the social and psychological, as well as a receptacle and circuit of fluids and desires.
Cixous and other French theoreticians, Irigaray and Kristeva (situated intertextually with Derrida, Lacan and others), insist that the subject, which is perhaps better approached through writing and textuality, is always in process, always disorganized, that the idea of woman remains unclosed and multiple. 5 Marina Núñez’ work also includes the carnivalesque for its emancipatory power and as a discourse opposed to the dominant. It is a concept widely discussed in French feminist theory taken from Bakhtin’s analysis 6, proposing heterogeneous, multiple voices, intertextuality and the liberation of the consciousness. In Marina´s work this is not revealed through laughter but through the liberating powers of madness, disorder and the bizarre. The series of recent paintings, Monstruas, belongs to the world of the grotesque, of the parodie, of the hybrid, a state which according to Bakhtin, has the ability to establish a distance between language and reality. The monsters (always female) are ‘possessed’ by external emanations or cables that invade them, creating an interrelationship between the interior and exterior world, at the same time as confusing the border between them. To a certain extent like in the previous series, Locura (madness), with its isolated phantasmal bodies in white gowns, these images revert to the myth of the human and superhuman and from there to the human and machine. Despite the different means and contexts, it remits us to many science fiction films, another of Marinas reference points and sources. They take us to the fiction of Videodrome by Cronenberg where the television is such a totally absorbing technology that it invades the body of the spectator, consuming it; or to Blade Runner with its disturbing characters who make us doubt which side they are on, and whether or not they are human or replicants, to the point that we begin to suspect ourselves as we remain connected and hooked up to all types of machines, prostheses, networks (computers, scanners, pacemakers, information highways); or to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film where the metaphor of giant pods, as an image of power and the manipulation of power, invade human bodies while sleeping, and transform them into ‘obedient’ bodies no longer responding to their thoughts or instincts but solely to the orders of the power that has created them. This last film is a political fable on the United States during the 1950’s and while Marina and I were watching (and discussing) it recently, the relevance of Foucault’s statement that ‘the power has penetrated us’ and the way the bourgeoisie have produced means of regulating our bodies became clear to us.
Marina Núñez’ work is ambivalent in its representation of women (images from popular iconography and the history of art) in various stages between madness and perversion, between passivity and compulsion. They live in discontinuous time swinging between action and a state of rest. Some of them, like presences, inhabit rooms full of baroque imagery, they are still-lifes where the inert life is watched over by hanging ocular globes, merciless in the penetrability of their impossible, torn-out sight. Others wander alone under the roofs of a sinister space which we can make out to be an abandoned church or a factory in ruins. Yet others, in a bid to reconcile pleasure and reality, are placed on the ground among stone circles, mummies with their eyes open, mummies covered in hairy eyes. A bejewelled woman freezes hieratically in the presence of a dead chicken on her head (series Muerte– death). A beautiful head with huge eyes watches the inert birds that are impaled by her hair (series Medusa). An impassive face without any phonic organ (series Monstruas– monsters). Faces reddened with gestures of fury and all sorts of active states of mind; lascivious and visionary women in ecstasy; bodies physiologically contorted to impossible extremes (series Locura– madness). Freud wrote that when psychoanalysising a patient suffering attacks of hysteria, it becomes patent that the attacks are nothing but fantasies projected and translated into a kind of activity represented m pantomime. The distortion produced by the pantomimic representation of the fantasy is the result of censorship 7. It is not casual that the concept of ‘perversion’, the liberating capacity and critical conscience of madness (the discourses of neurosis can be seen as the physic irruption of suppressed social practices”) are means to trespass established limits and barriers. The law is interested m maintaining order, separations and distinctions. On the other hand, perversion and madness, opposed to order, have the primary objective of undermining values that reinforce the homogenization and control of individuals.
treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. …
In rewriting these extracts from the work by Mary Shelley and using them to bring me closer to the work of Marina Núñez, I believe that I am not only establishing a parallel between her work and novels of terror (and through them a world of artificially created strange beings from science fiction), but also with postmodern theories on representation and more specifically those dealing with feminism, like those already mentioned, that have been searching with great intensity for new paths, discovering and exploring in the ignored during the last forty years.
It is curious to note that the beginning of the science fiction boom can be traced back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, coinciding with the moment in which Europe and the United States were about to experience the first feminist theories and practices, and subsequently the activist movements representing the counterculture, the antithesis of the static, hierarchical conception of the world necessary for the maintenance of a class, challenging the western, patriarchal and Eurocentric way of thought. This interrelationship between science fiction and feminism is made explicit in the imaginary of the cyborg expounded by Donna Haraway 9. It is an imaginary in the context of the criticism of reason centered in the subject, in the context of the thesis that man, that autonomous and rational being we suppose to be universal, is no more than a modern construct and like all subjectivity, including reason itself, it is always inseparable from power and desire. In the same line of thought that led Foucault to state that man was only a recent invention, a figure less than two hundred years old, a simple fold in our knowledge and that it would also disappear when it finds a new form.
As well as for other theoreticians, for Donna Haraway, who places Foucault alongside feminism in her analysis of postmodernity, the limits between the I and the other are becoming blurred as are other modern dualisms: materialism/idealism, mind/body, human/animal. Haraway suggests that these new fluid boundaries are possible thanks to advances in cybernetic technology: at the moment when cybernetic technologies of power begin to act on and penetrate into people’s bodies, they start to generate new types of subjectivities and new types of organisms: cybernetic organisms: cyborgs. 10 Marina Núñez’ latest paintings continue to represent the figure of the woman, but they are no longer self-absorbed, alienated or suffering women but women that carry the hybrid in their bodies. We could in one sense then consider them as cyborgs: a mixed body between organism and machine. Like bodies perceived as previous to all construction, the necessity of the hybrid cyborg is necessary for transformation. The most terrible and perhaps the most promising monsters in cyborg worlds are found embodied in non-oedipal narratives with a logic distinct from repression 11.
The effects of feminism after many decades as a political force have finally forced an acknowledgement of the diverse.
The end of the 1960’s saw the beginning of theories around women’s bodies, implying a political analysis, questioning the relationship of power and control that govern a society. For centuries women have been the object of men’s theories, of their desires, their fears, their forms of representation, and this is why women have had to invent and re-appropriate themselves as subjects. The reality is that women are now representing themselves in a dynamic and vital phenomena, they are painting, filming and narrating themselves. Marina Núñez’ work can be placed in a time and space as experiential as it is theoretical. The invention of a new poetics and new politics, promulgated by many theoreticians and activists, have led to a rethinking of the body with many and varied options. Marina’s options (I don’t think we could use the term ‘are centered’. not because she doesn’t have her ideas clear, but because she is trying to deconstruct the centre and decolonialise visual codes, in which case another term might be more appropriate) circulate, like blood circulates in the veins and arteries, between representations of death, of madness, of monsters as forms of representation. alterity and the cyborg and, at the same time, between forms of resistance. It was Andreas Huyssen who pointed out that feminism alongside anti-imperialism, the green movement, and the consciousness of the presence in the West of other non-European cultures, has created a postmodernism of resistance.
I think that the following memory is relevant and I would like to thank Marina and her work for giving me the opportunity to recall it (I also read in Uncontrollable Bodies 12 that writing is a form of excavation, something obvious when realizing that ‘loss’ is in fact a starting point). I remember when I was young, the image of my father, a doctor, holding the telephone away from his ear and saying ‘she’s hysterical’. It was a call from one of his patients who rang frequently and we, his daughters, thought that she was ‘hysterical’ without even knowing her just because he told us so. In my fear and fascination I gave her the face and hair of a witch and fierce expressions while I watched my father standing there with the phone still in his hand without listening. He made faces as he stood there because he didn’t need to listen, he already knew what she was going to say – the same as usual. The words ‘she’s hysterical’ that he always used sum up all those phone calls. Those were the days before mobile phones or cordless phones, or even telephones on a table. They were still heavy black presences attached to the wall. At the time I didn’t understand the scene. In my remember it always take place at night, but I believe that, thanks to the rebellious seed (like the monster) that we all carry inside us, it bothered me or at least it left me uneasy despite the ‘authority’ I conferred on my father for his medical knowledge and his power to cure the body and maybe even the soul. Of course, many years later, I understood that hysteria was not an inseparable feature of many women, which I believe was the unfortunate message our father was sending out from the hall where the telephone was, but another social and cultural construct, like orientalism to name but one more. Those memories, the ‘hysterical’ voice of the anonymous woman, are examples from biography and experience how it is possible to deconstruct the authoritarian and patriarchal discourse of power and to generate strategies of resistance. In his visionary essay on orientalism, Edward Said highlighted the necessity to clarify that, when referring to cultural discourse and interchange within a culture, what commonly circulates in it is not the truth but its representations. It is not necessary to demonstrate yet again that language itself is an organized and codified system using many recourses to express, indicate, interchange messages and information, represent 13.
While Doctor Frankenstein said that
…on the other hand, Chemistry always holds the possibility of new discoveries…
I believe that the same holds true for art. Among the ‘new findings’ by Marina Núñez are the representations of a new series of female spectres and monsters somewhere between madness and androids, between alien and automat. A fascination for the world of automats existed even before they came into being: “ …even before they existed … myths were built up around them, expressing a longing firmly rooted in the human soul, the longing to create life, or at least bestow movement on inanimate objects … Vulcan … Daedalus … One of the first moving models for which we have testimony is a dove built by the Pythagorean philosopher Architas of Tarento 14”. The almost seductive serenity of these women painted in cinematographic perspectives (they are almost zooms converting the spectator into a voyeur) contrasts with the imaginary of hospital tubes and the lymphatic system, tumours and ganglia, veins and ectoplasm, fog and worms. The strange, the alien, invades the bodies and transforms them (here the alien takes on a cathartic value close to certain performances by Gina Pane).
Jeffrey A. Weinstock began the essay ‘Freaks in Space’ 15 by pointing out that it was no coincidence that three theoreticians, Elizabeth Grosz, Michael Beehler and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, see freaks of nature, extraterrestrials and monsters in an almost identical fashion: The three categories are simply different branches of the same family amorphous, disorderly and breaking the limits. The three, in their relation with and proximity to the ‘human’ and the ‘normal’, posit and problematise the opportunity to oppose categories such as I/Other, Difference/Equality Human/Non-human, Normal/Abnormal. The three terms trespass the boundaries of the schemes of cultural categorization:
…Freaks are human beings existing on the margins of the structures of the binary opposites that rule our basic concepts and the way in which we define ourselves…
…occupying a borderline place between identity and difference, they mark and articulate this limit while at the same time they disarticulate and confuse the distinctions that the boundary establishes… …The monster, constituting a mixed category, resists all classification built on hierarchy or on a purely binary opposition, demands on the contrary a system that allows a complex, polyphonic response … and a resistance to integration…
Weinstock concludes that the construction of the other is always a complex play of negation and identification, and as a projection of otherness generated in one’s interior, the figure of the alien gives form to that which a determined culture considers as different, aberrant, strange and monstrous. The vehemence with which aliens, freaks and similar are rejected and degraded, whether in the side-show of a fun fair or in science fiction movies, indicates the existence of a corresponding level of anxiety in the collective psyche. Billed as freaks, curiosities destined to be exhibited and contemplated in open-mouthed awe, the alien questions the human being. Living with the alien, with the freak, with the monster, is to put ourselves at peace with ourselves.
As Estrella de Diego suggested in a catalogue including some of the works presented in this exhibition 16, it would be necessary to recover the cabinets of natural science where death is hot just placed alongside life, but it is put on show … Or recover them at least as a territory of representation. We must recover objects, events as antipology or at the very least reconstruct the thorny subjects that the Illustration, probably with the best of intentions, eliminated and which are necessary, as there is nothing more frightening than that which is hidden. Marina Núñez’ work is clearly opposed to this hiding and for this exhibition she has taken on the former use of this building – La Gallera (originally built for staging cock fights) – to make a specific work for the third floor: a circle of about thirty silhouettes of the faces of women of all ages, looking down from above with great intensity. Placed all around the upper balcony their faces show all possible gestures and signs against the violence (of which we are not only aware from the high content of the same in contemporary urban life but also from the history of art and especially from the visionary scenes of Hieronymus Bosch) of the bloody and traditional spectacle of cock fights: shock, hate, impatience, pain, fear, terror, rage, pride…
In Marina Núñez’ work there exists a tension between the inside and outside, the I and the other, the soul and the body. Like the images of spectres and androids from science fiction films or literature, or like the vague and surreal characters from our dreams, the figures she represents are of a symbolic order, carriers of voices (those that feminists have reclaimed as opposed to silence), in which duration is opposed to the dramaticity of the moment, because the unconscious is not aware of chronological time nor the dimensional space of the real. The unforeseen could appear at any moment; the figures, more than being present, are prepared as resuscitated bodies for the liberation of the repressed, to procure the satisfaction of desire.
1 Exhibition held in the Grand Palais, París 1993, with a magnificent catalogue of the same title, organized by Jean Clair.
2 Julia Kristeva in Orden y Caos. Un estudio cultural sobre lo monstruo en el arte, José Miguel Cortés, Anagram, Barcelona 1998.
3 Donna J. Haraway. “Género para un diccionario marxista: la política sexual de una palabra” in Ciencia, cyborgs y mujeres. La reinvención de la naturaleza. Ediciones Cátedra, Universitat de Valencia, Instituto de la Mujer 1995
4 Héléne Cixous. Le rire de la Medusa.
5 Donna J. Haraway. Op. cit.
6 Bakhtin. Teoría y estética de la novela. Editorial Taurus.
7 Peter Stallybrass & Allon White. “Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque” in The Politics and Poetks of Transgression, Cornell University Press. Ithaca-New York 1986.
8 Peter Stallybrass & Allon White. Op, cit.
9 Donna J. Haraway. Op. cit.
10 Donna J. Haraway. Op. cit.
II Zoé Sofoulis in Donna J. Haraway. Op. cit.
12 Rodney Sappington “Introduction” in Uncontrollable Bodies. Testimonies of Identity and Culture. Ed. R.Sappington and Tyler Stalli Bay Press, Seattle, 1994.
13 Edward Said. El orientalismo…
14 Ramón Mayrata. La sangre del turco. Editorial Frakson, Madrid, 1990.
15 Jefírey A. Weiiistock. “Freaks en el espacio’’ in La hora de los monstruos: imágenes de lo prohibido en el arte actual. Revista de Occidente no. 201. Madrid, February 1998
16 Estrella de Diego. “Gabinete de ciencias naturales” in catalogue Marina Núñez, Junta de Castilla y León, 1997.