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(Published in Computer Graphics, Feb 1997)

By Thecla Schiphorst

Disentangling our body's of knowledge

Today, as we find ourselves situated within the Technological Society it is becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle the concept and experience of our own bodies from the dominance of the Technological Ethos (1). It has become so popular to speak of disembodiment, nodding knowingly as we do so. Could it be possible to speak with equal resilience about the technology of embodiment? We have created our myth and now live so deeply within it, constructing a culture of the princess and the pea, sleeping for centuries in a dream of uploading our consciousness into the machine-mind. It would be best if we just stopped waiting for that damn prince, and simply pinched ourselves a few times. At least that would get the blood flowing. It seems to me that there are 'bodies of knowledge'; that have been forgotten, or perhaps simply missplaced?

In my own practice of dance, it is the language of embodiment which has provided the deepest technical knowledge and experience that I possess. Given that I have worked for years as a computer programmer and systems designer, and that I produce art and computer systems that are highly technical in both conception and implementation, this is not an insignificant statement. There must be a way for the language which is passed on in practices such as dance and somatics, to invoke a response and a re-production, within the realm of the technological society.

Defining ourselves

There are two seemingly disparate technical languages suggested by the words, computer and dance. The Thesaurus on my word processor provides me with the following synonyms for the word computer: device, instrument, implement, mechanism and machine. And for the word dance? shuffle, caper, hop, bobble and cavort. Bobble? I thought that was a tasteless ornament. By now, edging ever more closely to the end of the millennium, it is still painfully clear that our language not only valuates materiality over physical experience, but privileges its own definition of the technical in such a way as to eliminate physical experience from its language.

When we view body intelligence as a subcategory of technological production, the experience and knowledge of the body becomes determined, informed and molded by the Technological Ethos. What would happen if we inverted this viewpoint. Could it be possible that these same technological processes can be seen as subcategories of physical experience and consciousness, informed and transformed by kinesthesia, embodiment, and physical memory? Our cultural resistance to this approach uncovers a two-folded dilemma. On the one hand as Jeanne Randolph so aptly suggests, "the problem now is that technology's perception of culture is becoming our only perception of culture. Culture is losing the perception of itself that is apart from technology, and becoming unable to offer its own perception of technology, to interact with it, to influence its development and qualify society's assimilation of technological processes"(2), And, on the other hand our ability to read our own physical experiences is culturally deficient. Elizabeth Behnke, a well known somatics practitioner says: "there is a widespread impoverishment of the experience of our own body in our culture. As numerous writers have indicated, the ability of many people in Western society to experience their own bodily feelings and sensations is profoundly impaired" (3). The valuation of the experience of the body is shuffled outside the realm of serious technical consideration, a position it has held for centuries.

Implicated Ideologies

The co-existence of these cultural norms opens the way for the emergence of the neo-technocult behavior of men like R.U.Sirius, serving as techno-pimps, prostituting our notions of identity and possibility through a process of mystification of the techno-elite. R.U. 'Seriously' claims: "we're becoming disembodied.... creatures of media and communications technology. That's just an inevitable process that you can't really judge as good or bad. We're somehow just meant [my italics] to create this species brain and nervous system made of information and communications technology. All you can do is try and guide its development and make it interesting .... sexy and fun .... sex is the only good excuse for embodiment. People will try to get as much of it as they can before the body goes out of fashion" (4).

Let us temporarily overlook the fact that this hardly constitutes rigorous thinking; it is a nonetheless a brilliant example of the age-old his-teria suggesting body as Other, body as Abject, body as Shadow, and now in our post-industrial age, body as Commodity. Suggesting, not only that body is a fashion item but also that it is possible for the body to go out of fashion, while our minds (and presumably our consciousness) evolve (somehow somewhat vaguely) into communications technology. For the time being, let us not try to imagine the up-load time. Simon Penny has noted that this mind/body dualism "is a strong continuous thread in western philosophy, from Plato, through Christian theology, to Descartes and beyond"(5). Despite its hard sell as a 'new look', R.U's message is achingly old.

Body's of work

Compensating for this trend in our era of technological ethos is a growing body of work which counteracts the inclination to eliminate the dimensions of bodily involvement and attention. I recall a CNN reporter, covering Merce Cunningham's use of the choreographic software LifeForms , declaring "and now technology is finally coming to the rescue of choreographers". Antithetical to this notion, I would like to suggest that the knowledge of the body could radicalize and perhaps even 'come to the rescue' of current technological practice and implementation. What field has more counter knowledge and possibility of subverting and infiltrating the ideology of the Technologically Correct? Dance training and body knowledge includes notions of imaging the 'extraordinary' body, experiencing and knowing ones physical self in non-linguistic ways, linking or connecting relationships between ones own parts (limbs, sensory systems, proprioceptive systems, mind, imagination) to practice and rehearse our own highly technical physical body. My own interest lies in the recognition that I am dealing with two highly technical systems, that of the human body on the one hand, and that of computer technology on the other hand. And let us not forget which of the two is infinitely more technically complex.

Theory in Practice, Mapping the body

Amongst the earlier software interfaces designed from the perspective of body knowledge is the choreographic software Life Forms, originated by Dr. Tom Calvert of Simon Fraser University, and now distributed by Credo Multimedia, its development still incorporates working groups of movement literate designers and testers. Among other developmental interfaces that I have been involved with is the Virtual Body Project, developed in partnership with Sang Mah, which utilizes motion capture, gesture is sampled from the physical world and metaphorically treated through bodymapping techniques based on choreographic strategies.

A number of artists are working with system and interface design based on consciousness or the attention of physical awareness. Of particular note is the work of Canadian artist Char Davies whose VR piece, Osmose utilizes an interface based on breath and balance to navigate through a virtual environment. Kirk Woolford, probably most well known for his interactive work with Cybersex has continued to explore interfaces which utilize the subtleties of physical perception to trigger interactive responses. Catherine Richard's historical work in virtual reality questions how the body is read, the nature of the body as data source and the redesigning of female subjectives in relation to body construction. Diane Gromala, Marcos Novak and Yacov Sharir created a Virtual Reality piece using a head mounted display and data glove at the Banff Centre for the Arts, entitled Dancing with the Virtual Dervish in which the participant navigates within the body's space. Bill Seamen's Passage Sets: One Pulls Pivots At The Tip Of The Tongue, is an interactive installation which explores sensuality in cyberspace. The movement of dancing bodies, along with constructed and deconstructed textual phrases creates a poetic network under the interactive influence of the user. In Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming, the bed is used as a telepresent projection surface in which two 'users' exchange their tactile senses and "touch each other's image by replacing their hands with their eyes".

My own latest interactive art work, Bodymaps: artifacts of touch, employs a table surface covered in white velvet. The specially designed sensor surface is embedded with grids of Electromagnetic Field Sensors and Force Sensitive Resistor Sensors which can detect touch, pressure and the amount of force applied to the surface. Together these sensors lie beneath a white velvet surface upon which is projected images of tmy own body. The surface yearns for contact and touch. Its rule base is complex and subtle, impossible to decode. Its effect is disturbing, erotic, sensual and subjective. The intention of the work is to subvert the visual/objective relationship between the object and the eye, between click and drag, between analysis and power, to create a relationship between participant and technology that transgresses rules of ownership and objectivity and begs questions of experience, power, and being. This work invites relationship through an experience grounded in proprioceptive knowledge, skin sense feeling, listening through touching, seeing through hearing, together integrated through attention.

Perhaps this growing body of work can inject the much needed inverted viewpoint which counteracts the narcissism of the mind/body split that has plagued western culture since the time of Plato. As Sandy Stone says, "it all ultimately comes back to the physical body, these endless ramifications of virtual communities, come back to help, to assist, to increase the potential of, or to make better the physical body" (6). Computer technology, computer graphics and interface design need to be radicalized. Shall we bobble?


(1) Technological Ethos, a term coined by Jeanne Randolph in "Technology as Metaphor", Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming and other writings on art, Toronto, YYZ Books, 1991

(2) Jeanne Randolph, "Influencing Machines: The Relationship between Art & Technology", Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming and other writings on art, Toronto, YYZ Books, 1991

(3) Elizabeth Behnke "Matching", Somatics, Spring/Summer 1988. pp 24-32

(4) R.U.Sirius, "R.U. Sirius Interview", from, "Part 2: The Consequences of Untruth" Clicking In: Hot Links To a Digital Culture, Edited by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Bay Press, Seattle, 1996

(5) Simon Penny, "Artistic Practice, Body Knowledge, and the Engineering World View", Ars Electronica Festival 96 Memesis, Springer Wein New York, 1996

(6) Sandy Stone, "Sandy Stone: Interview", from, "Part 3: Colonizing Virtual Space" Clicking In: Hot Links To a Digital Culture, Edited by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Bay Press, Seattle, 1996

Thecla Schiphorst is an interactive media artist, computer designer and choreographer. She was a member of the original design team that developed the choreographic tool Life Forms. She continues to assist Merce Cunningham with his development of new dance, and lives in Vancouver BC Canada. She can be contacted at thecla@cs.sfu.ca. She co-curates an artist based Web Site, digital eARTh which can be accessed at http://www.digearth.bcit.bc.ca/dedocs/ .

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