Amber Scoon's recent art works freak me out. Sheer terror, viscerally felt.
The year is 1972, three months after I was born. As the corona of the sun rises over the crest of the Earth's surface, the astronauts of the Apollo 17 lunar module look back to take a photo. The space travelers responsible for the image are barely tethered to the planet by the just-perceptible pull of its gravity and an even less perceptible umbilicus of electromagnetic spectrum and machinic communication protocol. Beyond lies nothing but cosmology and its sense of the void. Simultaneously colossal and microscopic, the "Blue Marble" image inspires great awe across Earth and hints at the emergence of a new regime of scopic perception.
It is poised on the precipice of detachment and sheer terror, then, that the crew of the Apollo 17 produces an image of unspeakable beauty, a work of and for the imagination.
I meet Amber nearly four decades later in the spring of 2008. At first she is an image as well, all blue jeans and fitted black jacket and checked scarf standing against a painted Hollywood backdrop of impossible Swiss mountains and sunshine. But, almost inversely to the "Blue Marble" photo, the amber-image begins to decompress, expand its data, unfold. Figure emerges from ground, fibrous, to give birth to a new instance of relationality. Might we suggest that these fibres grew in a moebius form, not unlike with Apollo 17, the gravitational pull between two bodies twisting or flipping into an umbilicus of communication and protocol?
We are each constituted by more than one of these relational moebius strips, each of us several in our singularity. These relational fibres grow at rates different for each unique relation, to different thicknesses or densities of weave. Each one may be shorter or longer in total surface and decay at a different rate, despite being woven of essentially the same stuff.
This is because the "stuff" of which they are woven is both organic and technic, born of flesh, gesture and linguistic interface. And as these relations move to fibre optic communication networks there emerges a doubling or higher degree of complexity to the assemblage, with the moebius relations themselves becoming subject to a new moebius topology bounded by the here of local presence and the now of (nearly) instantaneous electronic transmission. These fibres, too, become subject to the rationality of industrial agriculture, this time in the form of social networking.
Each of us forms a node in a broader network of these moebius relations. The web weaves through spaces and places both material and informational, mappings and tracings alike left in the wake of its continual emergence. But we must remember that this web emerges first and foremost from the moving body. The larger one's node in the network becomes, the greater potential for this moving body to form knots in these relations, knots somatically registered with a particular sense of anxiety.
The moving body finds itself bound in a relational tango, to borrow the abstract diagram of intersubjective micropolitics suggested by Erin Manning. Or, already being several, it finds itself in a series of moebius part-dances with other individuals that attempt not to cross footsteps: as one body releases from the other in tango, given the space from which it may choose to return (anxiety), a differential space is opened in which other part-dances and their relational fibres may intersect or form knots and entanglements.
The body thus finds itself in dances of relation, yes, but also in separate dances of disentanglement — the unweaving of knotty potentials and their somatic consequences.
"I hear it feels like you escape gravity."
So breathlessly whispers the awed female reporter to Dan Davis, the elite American sprinter and protagonist of "World Record," one of the animated short films featured in the Animatrix anthology. Davis is returning to top form after having been stripped of a previous world record race time and is poised to run in the finals of a major competition the following day. Though he faces a private battle of self-doubt concerning his comeback, Davis is all bravado and sexuality as he crosses the hotel lobby toward the elevator, reporter in tow.
"It's like nothing in this world."
Of course Dan Davis — like everyone else in this cast of characters — lives in the Matrix, the Wachowski-inspired simulation of reality born of statistical method and synthetic perception. This matrixial alter-reality serves to keep docile an entire breed of domesticated humans that provide bioelectrical power to the machines that have supplanted Homo sapiens on the evolutionary ladder. As Paul Virilio notes in Open Sky, escape velocity on a world scale of bodies — or space colonization — has proven to be an empty dream. Empire thus turns inward to endocolonize its subjects, not least through those information technologies that interface directly with the human body. Not only does Dan Davis' performance at the stadium produce gravitational resonance with the others who run with him, but the race video and timing systems also produce information that is then fed back into the simulation.
The narrator reminds us at the beginning of the film that only the most exceptional people — through intuition, sensitivity, and a questioning nature — become aware of the Matrix. Under certain circumstances, however, others may gain this insight as well. Our protagonist is hampered by an injured quadriceps muscle as he steps into the starting blocks for the finals, but Agents from the Matrix are on hand to monitor his performance. The gun fires, the runners blast from the blocks and accelerate down the track. With his huge elegant strides, Davis edges into the lead as the pack approaches the finish line. All of a sudden the muscle fibres of Davis' quadriceps are pushed to rupture; he nearly breaks stride. With time slowing down, Davis redoubles his determination and pushes through the pain that screams from this fleshy biomechanical lever responsible solely for producing speed.
The Agents are alerted to a possible security breach in the network. They attempt to capture him.
Suddenly time stops, or more precisely, folds in upon itself. The pain is unbearable, but for a split-second goes unnoticed. The floating numerical linguistics of time, space and athletic performance envelop his body, immanently, revealing themselves as part of the broader weave of mathematics and image that creates the simulation. He is beyond the grasp of the Agents. Dan Davis has become aware of the Matrix.
For the rest of us still stuck here, however, a few questions are in order. Is it simply the pursuit of raw, unadulterated speed that makes one aware of its existence? After all, Davis had already broken the world record before, abetted by pharmaceuticals or no. Why hadn't he become aware already? Did he reach an objective switch point with his new world record time of 8.33 seconds, which propelled him into a different channel on the network or granted him passage beyond?
No. Dan Davis became aware of the Matrix when his moving athletic body reached a strategic nexus of speed, poiesis and pain.
In Growth and AutoImmune Wall, Amber displays a similar awareness of the matrixial web in which we exist. The pain is of a different sort, however. With each work, one imagines the countless hours invested, the permutations and combinations of the weave, all felt in the supple yet dull ache of the artist's fingers. In this familiarity with the fibres one perceives time folded and compressed into a static artwork that strains at the very seams of its emergent process.
Amber is decidedly ambivalent about the connective fibres that form our relations. Though each work exhibits a lushness in its sinewy fabric, each also embodies the accidents of tangle, rupture and decay. In other words, they possess organic qualities that complement the technical elements of the fibre's production. Since each is made of the same "stuff" — namely, twine and string — this ambivalence becomes even more apparent when the pieces are taken together in an assemblage that includes her earlier Wool Boxes, the more recent Falling and Skin Series, and the collaborative work Cancer, Crack and Chinese Shoes.
twine, wool, string
Curiously, this proposition makes more sense in resonance with a recent quote by Garrick Barr, CEO of Synergy Sports Technology, a company that provides a real-time video-indexing statistical engine and online retrieval system for professional sports teams: "So we have 11 generic play types. In '98 when I designed the first report, I had to sort of examine and figure out, if you will, the oncology of the sport so that we could log it accurately and consistently to satisfy professionals, and having been one I was in a pretty good position to try to do that" (italics added).
Generally speaking, ontology is the philosophical means of describing our very being in the world or what it means to exist, while oncology concerns the medical study and treatment of cancer. It seems that the typo in Barr's quote exists as noise in a signal system, no? Though such interference patterns appear increasingly normative, one supposes certain errors are worse than others.
In this case, however, the typo may be illustrative. The word ontology assumes a different meaning in the information sciences, understood instead as the study of rationally-determined relationships that govern a particular data set within a particular domain. This sort of attempt to develop an ontology of relationships present during the production of a professional sporting event, with ever-more minute striations of the athletic body yielding ever-less notable differences, is precisely such a mutation in process one would consider an oncological risk factor. When one examines the contemporary economics and politics of professional sport, one perceives an exponential accumulation of database entries and self-referential linguistic production in the service of vectoral capital, which is turning back in on itself to form what was first referred to by Jean Baudrillard as the cancer produced by the society of simulation.
These relations of athletic bodies emerge during the event, for they are moving bodies, and as such should be considered ontogenetic, to use the term proposed by Brian Massumi. But considering the attempt to capture this relational emergence in the service of self-referential capital, as with Synergy Sports Technology and its ilk, we might also consider them oncogenetic, or possessing the potential under certain conditions to spawn exponentially cancerous growths. One weaves and weaves and weaves, fingers supple and aching, only to find cancer and death.
One of the lessons we may learn from Antony Gormley's career of autobiographical study in sculpting the human form is a progressive dematerialization of the body as it integrates with networks of data. Indeed, in works such as the Feeling Material series, this dematerialization is felt in his "least material necessary" strategy, with the body beginning to orbit and shed its fixity in space and time.
While Gormley seems primarily concerned with studies of the body proper, however, Amber inquires after the relations between bodies. As such, process becomes ever more evident and the body is less represented than it is invested: how much fibre is required for the relation to be woven thick and sturdy?
Or, to follow the minimalism of Gormley's Feeling Material one might rather ask: how little?
Can a shared train ride to Paris or an espresso under the warm gaze of coastal sunshine be sufficient? Can eye contact, the original scopic regime of relation, provide sufficient resonance in relief from the backdrop of spectacle? Can one's degree of exposure provide a basis for understanding these emerging fibres of relation?
Though each of us certainly possesses multiple relations that condition the possibilities of our everyday, it behooves us to imagine for a moment being the astronaut photographer mentioned earlier, having only the singular weave of fibres maintaining one's tether to the Earth. Would you risk that organic and technic are in fact discrete categories of relation and chance the oncological consequences that might dynamically emerge in either? Or, if the moebius strip thesis resonates as false, would you wager that the gravitational pull of the planet and the communication link with ground control were distinct entities? If so, which would you choose to sever in order to excise a potentially cancerous tumour: that which maintains the presence of the other body, or that which allows for language to exist?
Which gives birth to unspeakable beauty?
Perhaps in this last question lie the strands of my own sheer terror.