“Marina Núñez”, catálog, Ed. Centro de Arte de Salamanca 2002.
Who is Marina Nunez? I find myself, despite myself, asking this question because of the juxtaposition between what Christopher Langton, originator of the Artificial Life project, terms ‘life-as-we-know-it’ and ‘life-as-it-could-be’ (1996). Artificial Life (ALife) is concerned precisely with the simulation and synthesis of life itself rather than the abstracted notion of intelligence which preoccupied classical Artificial Intelligence (AI). The idea is to evolve intelligent beings rather than intelligence, and these beings are poised ontologically between the familiar and the futuristic. I am captivated by this same tension in Nunez’s work where what appear to be autobiographical figures transmute, are transmuting into something else, something alien. Nunez, in tune with the traditions of both science studies and science fiction raises secular questions about creation and responsibility within which she, as an artist, is implicated (Doctor 2001). What she cannot and does not let herself avoid are the humanist, or rather posthumanist questions about the fate of human beings and notions of the soul in the era of biotechnology. By making herself both the creator and the created, Nunez intensifies (personalises and politicises) issues of both ancient and modern significance.
I was asked to write an essay for this catalogue because my interest in science, technology (or ‘technoscience’1) and the body clearly intersects with that of the artist who, on the strength of her published work appears to me now as an enigma. Perhaps not as the artist or author whose ownership of the text has long been denied (Barthes 1977), but as the possible double or doppelganger of the cyborgian, posthuman entities which populate her work. One of the most fundamental issues Nunez explores, and indeed, one of the most fundamental issues of our time concerns the relationship between humans and machines. No longer a relationship based on difference2 and the sovereignty of the human soul, this is increasingly a relationship based on symbiosis – which in discourse and in dystopic representation is often portrayed as sameness. In a relationship between humans and machines based on sameness, the sovereignty of the soul is lost and replaced with the sovereignty of information.3 Information makes clones of us all, duplicating the idea of an autonomous, self-organising agent evolving into an uncertain future. For me, a notable attribute of Nunez’s work is the extent to which it captures this process of evolution in often ungendered, sometimes explicitly sometimes implicitly female agents in the process of becoming posthuman. Nunez’s evolutionary time frame is ‘between’: between classical and contemporary imagery, between analogue and digital technology, between myth and technoscience, between fact and fiction, between present and future, between self and other. So my question (who is Marina Nunez?) is simultaneously her question (‘who am I as an individual, a subject?’) and our question (‘who are we as a species?’) and it cannot be answered philosophically but only explored through the menagerie of figurations which have emerged in ‘between’ time: cyborg (Haraway 1991), nomad (Braidotti 1994), FemaleMan (Haraway 1997), posthuman (Hayles 1999). By joining the artist in her exploration, what I most hope to show is that in the increasing symbiosis between human and machine, the elision of the soul by information is by no means a given. This soul is not, however, human but posthuman. It is not the property of God but rather the product of a co-evolutionary process.
Between biology and technology
TNG: Biology, woven in and through information technology and systems, along with information technology, is one of the great “representing machines” of the late twentieth century.
DH: There is almost nothing you can do these days that does not require literacy in biology.
(Haraway 2000: 26)
Biology, the new biology ‘woven in and through information technology and systems’, supersedes literature in the nineteenth century and film in the mid twentieth century as one of what Stephen Heath terms the great representing machines. For Haraway, it has become the Humanities, offering ‘narratives, theories, and technologies’ which ‘seem relevant to practically every aspect of human experience’ (1997: 117). It informs key industries (2000: 26), and may well direct the future of computing4 and of the global infrastructure5. This is not the biology of Nature versus Culture, but that of ‘natureculture’ which refuses the ‘violence’ of such categorical separation (Haraway 2000: 160). The biology of natureculture propels humans into a relationship of kinship with machines and other animals and it distributes agency and cognition amongst all entities within the global information network, which is itself semi-organic, semi-autonomous, almost alive.6 Nunez’s cyborgs with their fibre-optic neurones and bodies without organs (Braidotti 1994) inhabit, or rather constitute this network of distributed agents and intelligence. They are the cogs in the wheel which is more than the sum of its parts. The humanistic vision of the rational autonomous (masculine) self is displaced by the ontology of the cog or the cell. In science fictional visions which evoke The Matrix, eXistenZ, or The 6th Day, cloned heads and torsos receive and transmit the life blood of information via synthetic umbilical chords. If these are the visions of a dystopian anti-humanism and a soul-less future then they exist to be questioned. One of the ways in which Nunez does this is to juxtapose dystopias and utopias, anti-humanist and humanist visions in order to make a space for something new. Like Haraway, her cyborgology7 is at once a teratology – a vision of the creation of monsters which may be threatening and may also be promising (Haraway 1997), and like Mary Shelley there is a point at which the monster reaches from the imaginary to the symbolic realm and becomes real to her, becomes part of her, body and soul.
Between embodiment and disembodiment
Within the discourses of virtual reality, cybernetics and AI the cyborgian posthuman body is a body of information free from the constraints – both physical and historical – of the (female) flesh. The informatic body is purified, transcendent, masculine, immortal; the realisation of the secular-sacred goals of the Enlightenment (Penny 1994). If this body seeks to bring us nearer to God (in the masculine image of God) then many scientists, artists, feminists and philosophers at the turn of the twenty-first century have sought to bring us back to earth and to explore an alternative set of aspirations. The feminist philosophical figurations of Donna Haraway (1991) and Rosi Braidotti (1994, 1996) – the cyborg and the nomadic subject – re-embody technology and subjectivity, and strive to level the hierarchies of social division based on the gendered split between mind and body, subject and object, culture and nature. Haraway’s figuration is to some degree a parody of the original astro-military cybernetic organism, NASA’s technologically enhanced, impenetrable, invincible astronaut-pilots (Hables Gray 1995) reflected in the fighting figures of 80s popular culture (Springer 1996). Paul Edwards has marked the transition from cold-war to post cold-war cybernetics, from AI to ALife and from Terminator to Terminator 2 (1996). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 coincides with the inauguration, by Chris Langton, of the ALife project which stands, for Edwards, in the same relation to AI as T2 does to T1. In essence, technology becomes re-humanised, but without necessarily retaining the ‘notorious universality’ (Hayles 1999) of liberal humanism and with the potential to recognise difference. The re-embodiment of technology and subjectivity is perhaps the only means of realising this potential, and Nunez depicts this challenge in her own cyborg figurations – even those, perhaps especially those who appear to be literally tied down by the sinews, muscles and fibres of flesh. The process of social change as at least distinguishable from technological change is, as Braidotti reminds us, both slow and painful (1994).
Between cyborg and posthuman
The discourse of Artificial Life is more than a development of Artificial Intelligence which seeks similar goals (the creation of intelligent machines) by means of inverse methods (biological rather than psychological [Boden 1996]) and philosophies (anti-Cartesian rather than Cartesian [Risan 1996]). As a discourse and as a discipline, artificial life is both a descriptor of posthuman ‘life-as-we-know-it’ and a predictor of posthuman ‘life-as-it-could-be’ (Langton 1996). The posthuman is cyborgian in the sense of its enmeshment, at all levels of materiality and metaphor, with information, communication and biotechnologies and with other non-human agents. The two terms are, however, not synonymous and while they describe a similar ontology (a hybridisation of organic and inorganic forms and processes), and epistemology (a transgression of the boundaries sustaining modern western thought, principally those of nature and culture), they do not necessarily share a politics, history or ethics. The discourse of artificial life is informed if not contained by a discipline which developed exactly at the end of the cold-war and which rejected the militarist, top-down, command and control and the masculinist instrumental principles of AI. The cyborg which Donna Haraway so astutely parodied in her manifesto (1991) was the product of cold-war AI. Out of this comes a new discipline based on the principles of decentralised distributed control, bottom-up self-organisation and emergence. These are at once technical principles relating to the development of embodied intelligence and discursive principles governing the relation between humans and machines. The posthuman as I see it is the product of post cold-war ALife and it has at its heart (or rather soul) a fundamental anti-instrumentalism. The posthuman which the discourse of alife both describes and prescribes is, to a large extent, posthumanised, and as such demands a bioethics of posthumanism which is yet to be articulated. Chris Hables Gray has outlined a cyborg bill of rights (an amendment of the US constitution) in his suggestive exploration of cyborg citizenship (2002). But where this is based on a model of human agency, a posthumanist bioethics is emergent in the interactions of networked entities or artificial life forms manifested in software (as computer programmes), hardware (as robots) and wetware (as bio- and genetically engineered organisms including humans). Artificial Life is as much about biology as computer science, indeed, is a facet of the increasing hegemony of biological discourse within technoscientific culture (Haraway 2000). Embodied computer programmes, situated autonomous robots and transgenic organisms co-exist within the global network as kin, sharing the ‘bodily fluids’ (Haraway 1997) or the life-blood (Kember 1998) of information. Moreover, these entities or beings are provisional, experimental, in the process of becoming. They can only indicate, but they do indicate some key parameters of posthuman identity. They are both beings in themselves and a means of working out what may be, and who may be in the future. They are both current forms of materiality and myths in the making (Jimenez 2001).
If the cyborg is central to the mythology of the late twentieth century, then the posthuman is perhaps the ‘myth system waiting to become a political language’ (Haraway 1991) at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It heralds not only new kinds of identity and subjectivity but new challenges for ethics, economics, politics and philosophy. In Our Posthuman Future (2002), US academic Francis Fukuyama calls for new forms of state regulation to resist those challenges and to retain the status quo. In order to legitimise this conservatism, he constructs a dystopian vision of the future in which the advancing industries of biotechnology present a threat to democracy itself, where democracy is premised on the (long contested) association between human rights and human nature. It is the role of artists, writers, and other academics to counteract such conservatism and Nunez achieves this partly through the juxtaposition of utopian and dystopian visions, through finding a space for the future somewhere between Donna Haraway’s uptopian cyborg manifesto and Mary Shelley’s dystopian teratology. Her cyborgs, her monsters, her posthumans point toward an elsewhere of grounded possibilities.
Between heaven and hell
In the moral and moralistic discursive productions surrounding key sectors of the life sciences, purgatorial themes and tropes retain (or, better, once again attain) a certain actuality. These concerns include a chronic sense that the future is at stake… a heightened sense of tension between this worldly activities and (somehow) transcendent stakes and values.
(Rabinow 1999: 18)
Marina Nunez visualises science fiction as/in purgatorial time and space. Here, purgatory is a state of mind and matter which exists between heaven and hell and between the past and the future. Digital informatic bodies with biotechnological prostheses like wings (Tejeda 2001) soar and plummet like the favoured, fallen angel himself. We, the observers witness not the fall of man, not the expulsion from (technological) Eden (Davis 1999) but rather the failure of the idea of perfection enshrined within biotechnological cultures. These immaculate, sexless, fleshless, fluorescent beings once heavenly become hellish – discarded and distorted angels confined to a dark pit in the earth. Immortal undead, they menace us with Faustian urges and Faustian bargains. Nunez represents our existence between heaven and hell in the mirror which reflects human-machines changing and varying with perspective (Tejeda), and also in the surgical sheets which cover the altered flesh of the female form. In coffin-like cots these abject cloned figures bear their nightmare prostheses with equanimity, even ecstasy. If the idea of redemption through suffering is presented ironically then this is perhaps because there has been so much talk of good and evil, of salvation and damnation with respect to the life sciences (Rabinow 1999). The implications of modern genetics – of cloning, transgenesis and xenotransplantation – are so profound as to have become overwhelmed with mythology including, as Rabinow argues, Christian mythology re-articulated ‘by subjects who are (in the majority) forthrightly secular moderns’ (18). Salvation here, in a secular vision of purgatory is possible by means of worldly intervention.
Between Hal and David
In purgatory then, myths are instrumental; they are helping humanity work out where ‘it’ is going. For Brian Aldiss, author of the ‘Supertoys’ trilogy of science fiction short stories (2001 ) which inspired Kubrick to start, and Spielberg to finish AI (2001), 2001. A Space Odyssey (1968) is a ‘great modern myth’. The central character in Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. A Space Odyssey (2001 ) is of course the speaking computer Hal and, for a generation of ALife researchers, Hal has come to represent not just the failure of the Artificial Intelligence project but everything that is wrong with conventional ideas about the development of intelligent machines. Hal, like the chess computer Deep Blue, is an expert system, programmed to perform narrowly defined tasks to (near) perfection. Is this intelligence, and if so is it the intelligence of the computer or the programmer? If it is intelligence (and nobody is offering a definition of this term) then why can’t it be applied to other tasks – like cooking or creative writing? As UK ALife engineer Steve Grand puts it: ‘a computer will always beat a mouse at chess. But try throwing them both in a pond and see how they get on’ (2000). In other words, expert systems are too rigid and inflexible. They give a mere illusion of intelligence, the attributes of which are now associated with robustness and flexibility. And because of Hal, engineers like Grand are more inclined to try and make the distinction between friendly and unfriendly computers, soul-less and soul-full machines. Hal could speak in ‘perfect, idiomatic English’ (Clarke 2000: 9), recognise and simulate affect and up to a point pass as one of the boys. But he was also infamously defensive when challenged by chief astronaut Dave Bowman about the accuracy of his information processing – ‘I don’t want to insist on it Dave, but I am incapable of making an error’ (147) – and notoriously unemotional about having jettisoned Dave’s colleague into deep space – ‘Too bad about Frank, isn’t it?’ (156).
It is arguable whether Hal’s murderous act is the result of unfriendliness or limited intelligence (Grand 1999). Although, according to Clarke, he ‘could pass the Turing test with ease’8, he failed to deal with a conflict caused by simultaneously serving and astronauts and, on behalf of mission control, having to withhold information from them. Hal was not permitted to reveal the true purpose of the mission. He then stumbled over a task which was not clearly right or wrong, black or white, master or slave, binary. The ‘conflict between truth and concealment of truth’ (162) undermined his integrity and he could not affectively cope. Affect here, or what Rosalind Picard terms ‘affecting computing’ (2000) relates to the self-organisation of the kind of emotional intelligence which Hal lacked. The increasing concern with affect is being reflected in the design of both software and hardware ALife agents where Grand, for example, is concerned not merely with the synthesis of friendlier (flexible, robust, imaginative) intelligence but with ‘putting the soul back into the machine’ (2000). At MIT Rodney Brooks seeks to capture emotion if not spirituality through a distributed cognitive system comprised of human and non-human agents (Cog and Kismet)9 What this kind of work suggests to me is that, as a species, ‘we’ are re-negotiating the Faustian myth concerned with overreaching acts of creation. It may be that we are not longer selling our souls for technoscientific progress, but that we are rediscovering them, redefining them in emergent, affective co-evolving artificial agents. Hal could have been, should have been superseded by David. Brian Aldiss worked on the original screenplay of AI with Kubrick but was fired when ‘I tried to persuade Stanley that he should create a great modern myth to rival Dr Strangelove and 2001, and to avoid fairy tale’ (2001: xvi). David is a robot boy who is programmed to love where love signifies the magical, previously missing ingredient in robots – the emergent quality producing (un)consciousness, true symbiosis, real (a)life itself. Love gives David the soul he is missing as a living doll accused, along with a group of broken and discarded robots (‘mecha’) of being an ‘insult to human dignity’ (2001). The insult is compounded in a fraught encounter with his clones (in Manhattan, ‘the lost city in the sea at the end of the world’) which marks the beginning of the end of his quest to be a real boy. Although fairy tale sentiment – and in the words of one reviewer, having to know more about Spielberg’s relation with his mother than you ever wanted to know – effectively drowns the film, obscuring the promising technical-ethical exploration of the distinctions between AI and ALife, Hal and David, there is an important underlying narrative of posthumanism. Wholly lost in the ‘unwholesome’ romantic finale between mother and child, this narrative of poshumanism is strongest and most effective in the interactions between the mecha sub-class of robots, and between the robot boy and the alien life forms who make his dream come true.
The important questions for Aldiss were: ‘Does it matter that David is a machine? Should it matter?’ (xvii). Where David believes that it does matter, Henry, his errant creator and father comes to learn, in a moment of epiphany, that it doesn’t. Henry’s epiphany calls to mind the various individual epiphanies experienced by many key ALife researchers from the originator Chris Langton, who had his as his body seemed to reassemble itself after a hang glider accident, to Richard Dawkins watching his computer generated ‘biomorphs’ become life-like before his very eyes to Steve Grand’s declaration that von Neumann’s cellular automata and the transformation of digital cells into digital gliders had ‘changed his life’ (2000 and see Levy 1992). What these fictional and non-fictional characters are responding or reacting to is the self-organisational capacity of machines which had previously been believed in only as being organised (Grand 2000). Erik Davis argues that information networks attract a ‘host’ of spiritual meanings and images, and for me the most pertinent of these is captured in the concept of emergence. This is the secular soul of biotechnology, the neo-god in the neo-Darwinist machine. If this should be embraced it is arguably not in the name of Judaeo-Christian liberal humanism (which characterises a good deal of mainstream ALife) but in the secular spirit of posthumanism. It is clear from her many images of life in the making that Marina Nunez is herself captured by this same spirit.
1.Technoscience is a term which Haraway uses to deny the historical separation between science (as theory) and technology (as practice): ‘Technoscience extravagantly exceeds the distinction between science and technology as well as those between nature and society, subjects and objects, and the natural and the artifactual that structured the imaginary time called modernity’ (1997: 3).
2.The difference between humans and machines has been articulated in both technoscientific and popular culture through the master/slave dichotomy. In dystopian science fiction the conventional narrative is of the slave returning as master.
3.The redefinition of life as information is prevalent within the discipline of Artificial Life (Boden 1996) but derives from molecular biology and the conception of the gene as code, blueprint, and basic unit of life. UK and international anti-cloning policy (see for example the HFEA/HGAC report of 1998) demonstrates a clear elision between the gene and the soul in the constant recourse to rhetorics of uniqueness, individuality and dignity contingent on ‘genetic identity’.
4.The Wellcome Wing of the UK’s national Science Museum predicts the future of genetic computing which will succeed the era of digital computing and the exhaustion of the capacities of the silicon chip.
5.MIT’s Rodney Brooks has recently argued that we are moving towards a biologically based infrastructure replacing first coal and steel and then plastic and silicon (see Brooks 2002).
6.Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control. The New Biology of Machines, established the idea of the net as an organic entity, and more recently in more orthodox science journalism, an article appeared about the growth of the Internet as a ‘global brain’ (see M. Brooks 2000).
- See Chris Hables Gray Cyborg Citizen, Routledge 2001. For Hables Gray:
Cyborgology is a new multidisciplinary field that is concerned with looking at cyborgs and our cyborg society. It includes cyborg anthropologists, medical sociologists, philosophers and historians of science, technology, and medicine and many interdisciplinary scholars from lit crit cult studs (literary criticism/cultural studies) to science fiction writers and science fact journalists.
- British mathematician Alan Turing sought to establish the existence of thinking machines by devising the Turing Test: ‘Put a machine in one room, he suggested, and a human being in another. Give each a keyboard and a monitor, and connect these to a keyboard and a monitor in a third room. Put a human judge in the third room, and tell him or her that a machine and a human are in the other rooms, but not which is in which. Allow the judge a set amount of time to type questions through the computer to the two other rooms, and then ask the judge to guess which room houses the human. If a series of judges can do no better than chance at guessing correctly, the machine passes the test’ (Dylan Evans ‘It’s the thought that counts’, The Guardian Weekend October 6 2001). Evans also reports on the annual Loebner contest and the fact that just as no computer has yet passed the Turing Test, so no computer programmer has yet won first prize in the Loebner contest.
9.Cog and Kismet are humanised robots. Far from being an expert system, Cog was meant to learn, like a baby, from the beginning. Since the project began in 1993, the problems inherent in scaling up to human-like behaviours from animal-like behaviours have become all too apparent and this physically embodied machine is now being designed to co-evolve through human interaction. What this means in effect is that the distributed human machine cognitive system is increasingly dependent not merely on the ‘hardwired’ responses and counter responses indicated by the researchers, but on the co-evolution of a discourse of posthumanism which incorporates affect (as emotional intelligence). Cog has been booted up through Kismet, a friendly looking companion with large expressive eyes, ears and mouth. During a recent promotional tour of his book (2002), Brooks showed videos of lay people engaging with Kismet in an emotionally charged (frustrated, amused, aggressive, compassionate) exchange of sense and nonsense, articulate and inarticulate sounds and gestures. The users of Grand’s alife computer game Creatures experienced a similar dynamic despite the clear limitations of the virtual entities themselves. This is one of the characteristics of ALife agents as Katherine Hayles argues in her discussion of Karl Sim’s Co-Evolved Virtual Creatures (1999b): the meaning of ALife software/hardware stems from the dynamic interaction between human and non-human agents and is more than the sum of human projection and anthropomorphism.
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