Thousands of years ago, our predecessors looked up at stars in the sky and began to think about the essence of life.
There were Nuwa in the East and Adam and Eve in the West who created people. Initially, our predecessors tried to find answers from mythology and religion. The eternal desire for knowledge of the world and ego has prompted people to advance by a roundabout route towards a long exploration of history. In the 19th Century, Darwin’s theory of evolution turned out to completely subvert the comprehension of “God creates everything”, thus people thought they could begin to step on the soil of “science” and await more flowers of civilization.
Currently we can consult with the concept of “humanity” under the branches of various schools of thought and theory: Socrates defined man as a “being with rational answers to rational questions”; Aristotle believes mankind is “also a political animal” in nature; Mencius believed that “the reason that human beings are different from beasts lies in the fact that man is served by rationality”; Cassirer asserted that man should be defined as “symbolic animals”; Engels pointed out in his article The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man that human characteristics are as follows “understanding the use of language, having diversified and complicated social mutual organizations and liking the development of complex technology”…The development of science and technology originated from a human desire for self-knowledge as well as the control of Nature, meanwhile, ambitious human beings became more and more confident with the armed energy of various technologies and then further establish their dominance.
However, technology plays a controversial role to some extent today.
Nowadays when we discuss big data, cyborg, artificial intelligence, gene pairing, reproductive cloning and so on, the ethical confusion caused by technological development has become a new normal condition. This process involves an obvious paradox: as a means for human beings to expand the world and explore Nature, technology extends to human beings while it develops quickly. Briefly speaking, human beings have eventually become a part of human nature. As a result, the explosive development of modern science and technology has prompted human beings to re-examine the definition of life, especially the relationship between human beings as the “subject” and other species. At the moment, human beings seem to have “grasped” everything through science and technology but they become gradually confused and perplexed. We are once again asking the eternal proposition like our ancestors questioned thousands of years ago: what is the essence of life? Then what does it mean to be born as a human being?
Contemporary artists have tried to intervene in social propositions in their own way, while building a bridge of art between technology and cognition. We find there are quite a few art exhibitions centering on the topic across the world: The Second Beijing Media Art Biennale, held by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, themed on “Post Life” has conducted research on the profound social and ethical influences on human beings from the development of science and technology: in China, the Grey Cube at Goethe Institut presents Border Resonance focusing on how human beings could cross the boundary that has been concealed for thousands of years, and this gives identity to the coupling cyborg, and thus further explores the positioning of human beings; Yuz Museum launched the first exhibition of Random International in Asia, Everything and Nothing explored the completely new feelings brought about by technological intervention in the concept of simulation, decision-making, automation, etc.; The Ivy League Program, which aims to provide support for youth art which celebrated its fifth year with the exhibition themed on Immortal City which similarly focuses on the mixed ecology of technology and art…Internationally, I Was Raised on the Internet is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago which aims to focus on how the Internet has influenced the world and changed the way that people interact with each other since the millennium; another large-scale exhibition entitled Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today which has attracted much attention in May at the ICA, Boston explored the relationship between the current situation of human beings and the realistic & virtual…
Compared with “traditional technology” which “reconstructs and conquers Nature”, “an emerging technology” appeared in the twentieth century is aimed at human beings. Wang Min’an, renowned scholar and professor of the Capital Normal University once divided this “new technology” into three types in a lecture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts: artificial intelligence, biological genetic technology and a combination of organisms and inorganic bodies. The above exhibition can follow this clue: such as the Second Beijing Media Art Biennale, under the theme of “Post Life”, the main body is divided into three units: “Date Life”, “Mechanical Life” and “Synthesized Life”. The direction of the exhibition can be clearly seen from the definition of the unit name—from the virtual life existing in the algorithm, the bionic life based on the mechanical framework, and the synthetic life as a fuzzy boundary between life definitions.
The developments in new technologies such as biological genes, artificial intelligence, and robots have produced countless chain reactions which have led us to rethink what the body is, what human beings are and what life is. In the Second Beijing Media Art Biennale, we can see that the artist Tobias Gremmler’s NEUROSCAPES presents neurons in visual forms. The data is transformed into a fictional landscape by neurons, that contrasts the intangibility of the mind with its potential physical counterparts; the 35-minute robotic opera performed by eight semi-automatic robots is a project by Wade Marynowsky. Combining creative robotics, media performances, music and interactive media art, the artist’s algorithm/chore concept and audience-driven agent are combined in a 42 × 25 meter performance interaction space; bio artist Amy Karle’s REGENERATIVE RELIQUARY uses a 3D printing technique to create a human-shaped bio-printing stand. She refers to how people use the sacred box to display artifacts and meticulously skeletal sculpture is placed in a glass bioreactor with biodegradable hydrogel; According to the image of the Guatemalan Worry Doll, Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr cultivated a modern version of the Worry Doll in the artificial uterus and cultivated seven sculptures, SEMI-LIVING WORRY DOLLS, which uses special degradable polymers and surgical sutures, and is planted with semi-living cells, which were later hand-made.
The involvement of technology in human life has become more and more intertwined with human beings. The key power of new technology is to “reinvent the concept of human beings.” More and more people are convinced that now we are beginning to enter a new “post life” context that is different from the past. So, what is “Post Life” ?
In 1988, the novelist and futuristic philosopher F. M. Esfandiary changed his name to “FM-2030” : an identifier consisting entirely of letters and numbers. In his view, a name is a legacy of the history of the human tribes. Traditional names always label the individual with a “collective identity”, or gender, or state, thus becoming the basis of the thinking process in the human cultural structure. Elements, and these basic elements tend to degenerate into factionalism, discrimination, fixed prejudice, and so on. He expressed that, “this name reflects my belief that around 2030 will be a magical era. By 2030, we will be immortal, everyone has an excellent opportunity to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal.” In 2000, FM-2030 died of pancreatic cancer in New York. He froze his body to wait for a chance to resurrect in the future.
This sounds like a plot in a science fiction film, it is indeed a positive reaction of the Western academic circles in the 1970s and 1980s to the coming of the post-humanism era. Their theory is full of yearning for technological utopia. American postmodern scholar Donna Haraway published the A Cyborg Manifesto, and the discussion of cyborg also constitutes an important dimension of posthumanism. Like the FM-2030, Haraway is also opposed to defining groups by naming and identity. She believes that gender, race or class consciousness is imposed on us by the terrible historical experience of patriarchal, colonial, and capitalist contradictory social realities. In her opinion, each of us is “Cyborg”, because now we are all mixed with technology, science, labor, etc., no one can exist independently. Could the cyberspace that traverses the organism and the machine while travelling between the virtual and the reality become a new form of humanity? How could human beings become “human”? In September, 2018, the Goethe Institut celebrated its 30th anniversary with this issue, and curated the exhibition Border Resonance in the Grey Cube, showing the Syborg models of three artists: Han Han, Ye Xuan and Yu Jing. In the interactive audio and video device They 2.0, Han Han uses the sound made by the synthesizer, while using the uncertainty in its hardware to improvise the music; Ye Xuan uses the “Twitterbot” to randomly take the online words in the dictionary database as materials, and the information in the Syborg Declaration is reorganized using an algorithm based on the Analysis of Arbitrary Spelling by the Fluxus poet Jackson Mac Low to create a cyber outside the boundaries of English grammar. The poetry; Yu Jing creates the interactive sound device Drip(s) of the turnip using an algorithm to simulate the water droplet sound, and at the same time creates a permanent device that can automatically compose, so that the virtual water droplet can also generate a new “language”. The exhibition Border Resonance attempts to provide a sort of thinking: how to cross the borders of humans/human bodies for many years, how to confirm the position of cyborg, and further, how to look back at humans from such angles? “We hope that this relationship will enable people to continually weave their own knowledge networks based on the materials provided by the exhibition and find new solutions to these problems,” said the curator.
“Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end… man will be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea” This is the 2010 book published by Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? quotes the last paragraph of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. It seems that people gradually lose the dominant position of centralization, and the bioethical realm displayed by technological intervention makes the concept of the human being gradually become dissipated from the inside.
This technological revolution has aroused heated debates and worries about ethical change, such as sociologist Francis Fukuyama, in his book Consequences of Biotechnology Revolution, pointing out the greatest dangers of modern biotechnology production. It is possible to modify or even change the nature of human beings, such as in psychotropic drugs, stem cells, embryo modification, etc., “Humanity will eventually be hollowed out by biotechnology, thus introducing us into the historical era of post-humanity.” This anxiety also exists in artists’ works. In their works, we can also see a lot of discussions about the nature of human life and the elimination of human self-sufficiency: SNOWFLAKE discusses the proposition that “human cryopreservation technology makes immortality become possible” and criticizes it, it is a symbolic work by Boryana Rossa, Guy Ben-Ary, and Oleg Mavromatti. It examines, at the conceptual and material levels, the use of biotechnology to shape brain plasticity in order to create false memories; Helen Pyno and Peta Clancy’s large immersive device THE BODY IS A BIG PLACE with a multi-channel video projection and a fully-functioning cardiac infusion for live demonstrations equipment, soundscape and single-channel video that are combined to explore the fuzzy threshold between organ transplant as well as life and death; Dmitry Morozov uses a 7-liter mixture of his own blood and distilled water to create five “blood” batteries, which juxtapose and mix the human body and industrial technology. The name UNTIL I DIE seems to represent some kind of warning. Besides, we find that these artists are more diverse, and it is difficult for you to summarize their identity or interpret the meaning of their works in a fixed discipline. “I am an artist, musician and psychologist,” said Michaela Davies, who participated in the second Beijing Media Art Biennial, “My art practice aims to explore the role of the human body and mind in the creation and performance process.” Chen Xiaowen, Curator of the Beijing Media Art Biennale, believes that the practice of artists and scientists in the Beijing Media Art Biennale tries to tell us that “Post Life” does not mean the end of physical life, but means the only definition of the end of life with a traditional understanding.
Karl Theodor Jaspers, a German existentialist philosopher, has been worried that we are in a world that is increasingly in need of “leadership”, which is becoming more and becoming easily anxious with eyes “confused”. If we look at the inexhaustible innovation of technology and even the “nothing” or “non-thinking” signs of science, modern technology’s “leading” of the world is more like a “madman” leading the “blind” to walk. This reality appears everywhere around us: when you use your mobile phone to open a shopping site, ubiquitous big data will recommend things to you based on your buying habits; artificial intelligence tells you that the machine has tried to think like human beings: artificial organs such as artificial limbs, cochlear implants, artificial hearts, etc. are integrated into the human body; electronic machinery replaces more and more possibilities in work… technology completes tasks faster, no matter if you like it or not, they are thrown into a technological world that is rapidly spinning and accelerating.
We are living in the age of “best”, “worst”, of “wisdom” and “foolishness” as Charles Dickens described. By constructing the imagination on the future forms and providing warnings, these artists unveil a fierce and painful perspective in response to the ultimate question of “what is a human being?”
Text by Lin Jiabin, translated and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo Courtesy of the Organizer.