Well, I can definitely say that this was one of the most unique days I've had in some time. I spent the first part of the afternoon at the Edmonton Art Gallery viewing an exhibit I had planned to see for a while — The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, which was curated by Bruce Grenville. After that, it was off to see the deciding game of the Canada West Mountain Division basketball finals, between the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, where the Bears prevailed 83-82 in overtime.
There's overlap between the two events, honest. But I'll come back to that later.
As the show noted, "The Uncanny provides a unique opportunity to explore and address the long history and complex nature of the cyborg image in the 20th century imagination. It shows how the image of the cyborg has provided our culture with a visual metaphor for the anxiety that accompanied the growing presence of the machine in western culture."
And so I found it interesting that the first piece to greet me as I hit the top of the stairs leading to the main gallery was an old iron lung that had been used at the Vancouver Pearson Hospital for the past fifty years to help polio patients with their breathing. I was reminded of Radiohead — a band that has always had a dark relationship with technology — and their song from The Bends, "My Iron Lung".
That set the tone, and Grenville's anxiety confronted me for most of my tour through the exhibit. Personally poignant moments follow, which are laid out in approximately chronological order (as was the exhibit):
Henri Maillardet, Automaton, 1810: This was a documentary video showing the operation of the automaton that Maillardet had created. According to the story, it had been taken apart, lost to its original owners, and eventually dropped off on the doorstep of a gallery, where nobody knew its purpose or origin. Eventually it was put together, cranked up, and the automaton wrote a poem that ended with the writing of the artist's name; in essence, the automaton came to life to tell its own story. Cool … and creepy.
Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion (Plates 46, 84, & 109), 1887: Muybridge was a photographer best known for his studies of human movement, which can best be described as an artist's interpretation/analysis of biomechanics. It reminded me of The Wormhole Laboratory.
Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936: Everyone has seen the clip of Chaplin riding through the gears of the machine, but I had never really known much else about this movie. Despite the dark message that Chaplin intended for his audience, this was a genuinely funny movie. It reminded me of a quote I once read from George Bernard Shaw: "If you tell people the truth, make them laugh or they'll kill you."
Survival Research Laboratories, clips from Virtues of Negative Fascination, 1979-82, and 7 Machine Performances, 1985-86: I was transfixed by this work the first time I strolled through the exhibit, and returned twice more during my stay. Survival Research Laboratories creates elaborate performance pieces where machines battle and otherwise interact in extremely violent fashion. Think Junkyard Wars meets Robot Wars, since SRL's work is basically the precursor to both shows.
Survival Research Laboratories was conceived of and founded by Mark Pauline in November 1978. Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators.
I haven't decided exactly what to take from this as of yet, but there is no doubt that it was compelling.
Gary Hill, Conundrum, 1995-98: In this piece, Hill gives us a horizontal bank of six black and white televisions, showing images of body parts floating through the screens, predominantly giving the illusion of being connected, as if the body were one whole. Strobe lighting during photography gave the illusion of motion, though in reality the body moved very little, and appeared as if trapped within the mediaspace. This kind of reminded me of playing basketball at the Panopticon.
George Bures Miller, Imbalance 2, Simple Experiments in Aerodynamics, 1995: Miller's piece is a television hanging within a metal frame, attached to a weight and a motor. On the television is a video showing a human from the shins down, trying to balance on their toes. At intervals, the motor will turn on, causing the weight to rise or fall, and causing the television to sway gently back and forth. Which is causing the imbalance: the human or the machine?
Mariko Mori, Play With Me, 1994: This is a large photograph of the artist dressed in a highly feminized robot/anime costume, standing next to a Sega videogame, looking expectantly at passers-by. The figure conveys a tragic sense of stillness in an otherwise busy Japanese shopping district.
Play With Me, 1994, 305 x 367cm, Fuji super gloss print
Lee Bul, Cyborg W5, 1999: Some feel that cyborg culture offers a chance to eliminate the patriarchal dominance that exists in the human world, and The Uncanny offers a room full of gendered interpretations of the relationship between humans and machines. Cyborg W5, a very aggressive female form replete with some sort of metallic exoskeleton. What's interesting to me is that the sculpture hangs from the ceiling and does not have a head or left leg. Yet you are definitely left with the impression that this female form is technical, competent, and could kick your ass for looking at her the wrong way — missing leg or no.
Other assorted artifacts of cyborg culture that stood out for me: clips from RoboCop, Terminator, and Videodrome; a Nintendo Virtual Boy and Power Glove; a copy of William Gibson's Neuromancer; and merchandise from Astro Boy.
In the resource room at the end of the exhibit hung a bulletin board for audience participation, which asked me: "What is human? What is cyborg?"
My response: Cyborg is about rejecting the limitations of the human body. But it is also about forgetting the magic, mystery, and miracle of human existence. It is positivism taken to its logical conclusion.
So, what of the purported overlap between a university basketball game and cyborg culture?
It became clear when a University of Alberta player was hurt early in the game and came out of the locker room after halftime on crutches. The crutches served as a walking aid for this player, which reminded me of The Uncanny, though this is certainly by no means the only way that athletes use technology to surpass the limitations of their own body — think, for example, of knee braces or steroids.
Anyway, it gave me pause to reflect on Andy Miah's work, which started out in a new media/virtual spaces vein, but has really taken off in the direction of genetic modification. If Grenville's exhibition were to include a room dedicated to cyborgs in sport, Miah would definitely have been tapped as a resource. I look forward to his upcoming book, Genetically Modified Athletes.
I personally don't think that cyborgism is the sole postmodern interpretation of sport, but given the alternatives I have proposed (prosumerism, virtual sport, the metagame) it could be argued that with the high degree of media involvement required for each, they are also in fact cyborgist interpretations.