Cybernetics in Art and the Myth of the Cyborg Artist

by Tom Tenney on December 29, 2010

This is the final paper written for my ‘Media Studies: Ideas’ class at The New School, Fall 2010.


Today’s artist – like Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminist – moves beyond both traditional limitations and modernist ideas about art, and enters into a hypermediated relationship with society and technology in which technological methods and mediated collaboration across networks are common.  Art has always been a carrier of cultural information.  Cybernetics as a theory of communication has been influential in the arts, as both metaphor and model for the process of artistic creation. Understanding how art and artists are influenced by Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory and Haraway’s cyborg theory – and in some cases how certain artists are claiming to actually “become” cyborgs – requires us to look at how Wiener and Haraway’s theories differ, as well as to delve a bit into art’s long relationship with technology and the larger artistic traditions out of which today’s artists have emerged.

In this paper, I will argue that artists calling themselves “cyborg artists” represent only a small fraction of the ways in which cybernetics has infiltrated art and ideas about art. I also hope to demonstrate that, in fact, their work often isn’t cybernetic at all, if we adhere to Norbert Wiener’s definition.  The “artist as cyborg,” I will contend, can refer not only to the materiality of the forms used to create art (i.e. machines and/or new media technology) but also to an aesthetic which is modeled on the core principles of cybernetics: negative feedback used within a system to achieve a goal.  Soraya Murray calls this “Cybernated Aesthetics,” and in her analysis of Korean artist Lee Bul, explains that “while [Bul is] calling upon an array of technologies that include (but are not limited to) media arts, [her works] are nevertheless fully engaged with cybernated life.” (Murray 47) This is a perceptual shift away from thinking of “cyborg art” exclusively as those that utilize new media technology, and towards a more holistic theory that situates art in Wiener’s more inclusive theory of cybernetics.

To this end, I will first examine the epistemological meanings of the terms “cybernetics” and “cyborg” as defined by Wiener, Haraway, Katherine Hayles and others. I will then focus on the process of creating art and cybernetics’ role in its evolution.  I will conclude by focusing on several “cyborg artists” and the way they are using technology in performance and new media art, and examine whether or not they are truly cybernetic or “cyborg,” either within Wiener’s framework or Haraway’s.

Defining Cybernetics, Cyborgs and the Posthuman

Norbert Wiener

In order to discuss cybernetics in art or “cyborg artists,” it is first necessary to define what is meant by these terms.  In Wiener’s 1950 book, The Human Use of Human Beings, he defines cybernetics as classing “communications and control together,” (16) or, as Michael J. Apter has describes it, “the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine.” (257) For Wiener, the theory of cybernetics was meant to embody a complex of ideas that included communications theory (how messages are sent and received), systems theory (the complex entities in which those messages are sent and received), and well as control theory, i.e. the effects that those messages have in the system.  But Wiener’s theory was more than simply a sum of these parts; it meant to explain the relationships between them.  As Apter explains, “Underlying cybernetics is the idea that all control and communication systems, be they animal or machine, biological or technological, can be described and understood using the same language and concepts.” (257) Control theory is a cornerstone of Wiener’s theory and especially its two essential ingredients: feedback and goals.  “Negative feedback” is a process wherein a machine is controlled “on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance” (Wiener 24), or, as Apter explains, where “some part of the output of the system is fed back into the system again in a negative direction in order to control that system.” (258).  In order for this concept of feedback to be effective – or even relevant – it must have some sort of goal toward which this feedback, or corrective behavior, is applied. In homeostatic systems, this goal is often the maintenance of some desired state, such as a comfortable temperature in the case of the thermostat.  But whatever the goal is, the existence of one seems to be an essential component of control theory and therefore, by extension, of cybernetics as well.  In Wiener’s theory, feedback and goals work hand-in-hand.  As he says himself, “effective behavior must be informed by some sort of feedback process, telling it whether it has equaled its goal or fallen short.” (Wiener, 58-59)

Although the term “cyborg” didn’t appear until 1960 (Biro 2) the concept of a man-machine hybrid has been present in art and  sci-fi literature since at least the early 20th century. It’s use by the Dadaists in 1920’s Weimar Germany anticipated Wiener’s theory (Biro 2) by their use of photomontage as a technique of exploring and blurring the boundaries between man and machine.  For example, Dada artist Raoul Hausmann’s depictions of the cyborg as a militaristic other “anticipated the uneasy play between friend and enemy, self and other, characteristic of Wiener’s account of early cybernetics.” (Biro 120)

Donna Haraway

Perhaps because of the various cultural contexts in which the cyborg has appeared, it is difficult to settle on a single definition.  One of these difficulties lies in the fact that, as Katherine Hayles says, “cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living being and narrative constructions.” (Hayles 114)  Matthew Biro agrees, stating, “the cyborg has long possessed a duel life as both an image and a concept.” (2) In her 1991 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway posits a theory that the cyborg is both a “creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (Haraway 149)  She argues that the cyborg is a form of human identity that allows us to finally transcend gender, race and class and uses it as a model for contemporary feminism in a way that situates woman as an “other,” while at the same time operating “ beyond both the sex binary and the social realities that accompany it, [which] positions the cyborg as a possible metaphor for standing outside of phallocentric, rational thought.” (Murray 39)  Thus, by assuming the identity of cyborg – one empowers herself to transgress boundaries which may stand in the way of political work.  Compared to Wiener’s mechanistic definition of a system of communications and control, Haraway’s definition of the cyborg draws upon the cyborg’s presence in culture both before and after Wiener, and situates it in the realm of social theory.  While Wiener has been described as a liberal-humanist (Biro 2), Haraway’s cyborg theory is decidedly posthuman in that it “blurs several intermediary boundaries between the human and non-human.” (Garoian 336)  Katherine Hayles picks up on this idea of cyborg as posthuman and, in her 1999 book How we Became Posthuman, posits the characteristics of this posthuman condition that include thinking of the body “as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate,” and configuring the human being “so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.” (Hayles pp 2-3)

While it’s beyond the scope of this paper to indulge in an in depth comparison between Wiener’s humanist theory of cybernetics and Haraway and Hayles’ posthuman concept of the cyborg, it’s my hope that this somewhat cursory look at the different ways of perceiving cybernetics and cyborgs will be useful when we examine the ways in which art and artists have utilized these concepts.

Cybernetics as a Model for Artistic Creation

Both Wiener’s cybernetic theory and Haraway’s concept of cyborg as discussed above have had significant impact in the arts and artists of the 20th century.  Often, Wiener and Haraway’s concepts are both represented within a single artist or work.  For example, Apter’s comment that “the contemporary artist’s obsession with randomness may be seen as an attempt to increase the information he is conveying,” (258) could easily describe the composer John Cage and the way some of his works based on randomness utilized, intentionally or not, Wiener’s concept of information as “the negative logarithm of its probability […] the more probable the message, the less information it contains.” (Wiener 21)  At the same time, as Garoian points out, Cage was an artist who “[experimented] with the analog sounds and movements of machine culture” (334) which resonates with Haraway’s idea of the cyborg. Both of these concepts can be found in Cage’s 1952 composition Imaginary Landscape #4, a piece that calls for the “performers” to tune 12 radios to different random stations.   But cybernetics can be applied not only to experimental music, but to many, if not all, other forms as well.  Apter argues that, indeed, the whole process of art-making “is one which involves many feedback processes including those between the artist and the work of art he is in the act of creating, between the work of art and its audience, and between the audience and the artist through criticism in the short-term and, in the long term” (Apter 263) This is nowhere more evident than in the arts of theatre and live performance, which “functions as a closed-loop feedback system” whereby audience and performers provide an environment, or system, of stimulus-and-response that regulates itself via the feedback that an audience provides to performers and vice-versa. (Lichty 352)  Of course, this “system” of stimulus-and-response in the theatre existed well before the concept of cybernetics, but it’s just one example of the way in which Wiener’s ideas can be applied to the traditional arts.  It’s interesting to note that the rise in American theatre of theatrical improvisation – a form that further heightens and exploits the feedback loop between audience and performer, can be roughly mapped historically to just before the birth of Wiener’s theory.   Improvisational theatre as we know it today dates back to 1939 when Viola Spolin was at the Compass Theatre teaching what she was calling “Recreational Theatre,” or “Socio-Drama.” The forms she developed evolved into the improv theatre we know today, and is generally accepted as a viable art form. (Feldman)  This may serve as a reminder that, although we are trying to identify causal influences, every system exists within a still larger one, and similar ideas may be developed from the greater cultural zeitgeist.

While we’re able to establish that Wiener’s idea of feedback-and-response exists in a live performance space, what of other types of work wherein the artist and viewer are not together in physical or temporal space? Other types of art work – both static and interactive – are still conveyors of information, but the way the feedback loop works must be significantly different because the artist and viewer are not in the same space together at the same time.   In the case of interactive new media works, the feedback loop may exist, but there is a temporal disconnection between artist and audience.  In these cases, it may be the work itself that contributes to the cybernetic feedback loop. In Dan Graham’s installation, Time Delay Room, there are 2 rooms of equal size that viewers can move between, each is equipped with a surveillance camera at the point where the two rooms meet, and 2 monitors on the far wall.  As viewers move from one room to the other, the monitor they first encounter provides a live view of the room they just left, while the other provides a view of the room they just left, but with an 8-second delay. According to Gregor Stemmrich:

The time-lag of eight seconds is the outer limit of the neurophysiological short-term memory that forms an immediate part of our present perception and affects this (from within). If you see your behavior eight seconds ago presented on a video monitor (from outside) you will probably therefore not recognize the distance in time but tend to identify your current perception and current behavior with the state eight seconds earlier. Since this leads to inconsistent impressions which you then respond to, you get caught up in a feedback loop. You feel trapped in a state of observation, in which your self-observation is subject to some outside visible control.”  (qtd. in Media Art Net)

One may question whether this installation is a truly cybernetic system and ask whether the work itself is a participant responding/adjusting to viewer stimulus.  However, I would argue that it does, in the sense that the machine provides “feedback” in the form of live and delayed projections in response to the viewers very presence and movement, which in turn affects the behavior of the viewers.

Another phenomenon worth considering when examining the relationship of cybernetics to art is that of art-making machines, or the machine-as-artist as opposed to the artist-as-machine. In 2007 Perry Bard, a NYC-based visual artist and filmmaker, created a conceptual work entitled Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake.  The concept of the project was to solicit a global audience, via the Internet, to remake scenes from Dziga Vertov’s 1929 classic documentary, Man with a Movie Camera. The scenes are then uploaded to a database and matched to the corresponding timecode in the Vertov film. A software program then “constructs” each iteration of the film by randomly selecting one user-version of each scene. The resulting work is then screened side-by-side with Vertov’s original.   Examples like these clearly raise questions of authorship – who is the author in this case?  Is it the artist, the machine, or the audience?  Further, the very concept of a machine that makes art would seem to run directly counter to Dewey’s aesthetic theory, specifically his notion that an art object must be created using the artist’s “images, observations, memories and emotions.” (Dewey 74).  Certainly those human qualities were used by the artist and the participants, but not by the machine that actually constructed the piece. This is an example of where it may be helpful to turn our thinking from the notion of art-as-object towards one of art-as-process, and how that concept may relate to cybernetics.  Apter says,

The emphasis of cybernetics on process and change may have been one of the factors generating an increasing feeling among artists that art should be regarded as a process rather than as the production of static objects. This feeling has manifested itself in a number of ways including the production of works of art which are impermanent, the advent of the ‘happening’ as an art form and the deliberate and creative utilization in some works of kinetic art.” (263-4)

Bard’s project may not be a “happening” or kinetic art, but I think there are parallels in that the emphasis is placed on the process of collaboration itself.  Meaning is created not only by the art-object but also – but perhaps more importantly – by the way in which it’s created. It is this emphasis on process that Murray refers to when she writes, “this turn from discrete singularities into spaces of flows, information patterns and data clouds, this is the mark of a cybernated aesthetics.” (43)

In each of the cases mentioned in this section, artists have utilized the cybernetic concepts of feedback and response, and can be understood as a part of an integral system.

Cyborg Artists

Stelarc

We now come to the difficult question of cyborg artists and whether, in fact, the artists that make this claim are truly utilizing the principles of Wiener’s cybernetic theory of communication and control, or if they perhaps represent the cyborg as defined by Haraway and Hayles. To attempt to answer this, I will examine two artists who have identified themselves as “cyborg artists”: Stelarc, an Australian performance artist that uses his body connected to various forms of technology as a medium; and Orlan, a French performance artist who, through extensive use of plastic surgery, creates a ‘body’ that serves as both vehicle and medium.

When discussing Stelarc, Charles Garoian claims he “raises the issue of the history of our cyborg identity…. [Stelarc] argues that humans have always been cyborgs through their connections to technological devices and that a reconceptualization of technology in contemporary culture suggest that we interiorize technology rather than locate technology outside the body.” (340) In 1993, Stelarc created a piece entitled Stomach Sculpture, in which he lowered a small camera into his stomach that moved about, lit by tiny diodes. The image was then projected onto a video monitor.  In describing the piece, Stelarc said, “The idea was to insert an artwork into the body – to situate the sculpture in an internal space.  The body becomes hollow, with no meaningful distinctions between public, private, and the physiological spaces.” (qtd. in Asma).   While this piece certainly speaks to the way we relate our bodies to technology, and perhaps creates dialectic between the two, I question whether this can be considered cybernetic in the Wienerian sense strictly because he uses technology.  In order to be truly cybernetic, according to the definitions established at the start of this paper, the artist must enter into a relationship, either with his audience or with the technology used, which establishes a negative feedback loop to regulate behavior towards a desired goal.  Perhaps the piece could be better understood as “cyborg art” if we consider it vis-à-vis Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a transgressor of natural boundaries – after all, he is inserting an unnatural element into a natural, private space for public consumption. But I would argue that, unlike Haraway’s cyborg who transgresses physical and social boundaries as a way to move beyond gender and race, Stelarc’s insertion of a camera into his stomach does nothing to blur the boundaries between the human and non-human. The camera does not become part of him, so the question of identity – critical to Haraway’s metaphor – is not present.

One of Stelarc’s most well-known performances was a 1994 piece entitled Ping Body.  In this piece, an audience on the Internet was able to access a network of muscle-stimulation electrodes on the artist’s body.  A person participating on the Internet could activate a node on Stelarc’s body that would cause an involuntary muscle spasm.  As James Geary described the performance, “[Stelarc] wired himself to Internet. His body was dotted with electrodes – on his deltoids, biceps, flexors, hamstrings and calf muscles – that delivered gentle electric shocks, just enough to nudge the muscles into involuntary contractions.” Each time a node was activated, a photo of the artist was uploaded to the website. In this way, the audience did receive a measure of response correlating the stimulus they were providing.  While this performance comes closer to Wiener’s concept of cybernetics, there is a feedback loop, it still falls short of being truly cybernetic.  First, while the audience’s behavior does create a response from the artist, this response is not one that creates a corrective behavior from the artist, or vice versa. In other words, since there is no goal that is trying to be achieved through this system other than, perhaps, an aesthetic one, then it falls short of being truly cybernetic.  In considering this piece as “cyborg art” as it relates to Haraway’s definition of the cyborg, Stelarc does create a system in which human boundaries are transgressed but the performance still doesn’t manage to blur the boundaries between “natural” and “unnatural” technologies of the body which is an important component of Haraway’s manifesto: “Communications sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms.” (Haraway 165)

Orlan

Orlan is another single-name artist who has been characterized as a “cyborg artist” in that she utilizes medical technology as her method and her body as her medium. In other words, she uses plastic surgery as performance.  Her most famous work, officially entitled The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, was an ongoing performance piece in which she transformed herself, via plastic surgery, into a feminine “ideal” based on various art works.  For example, in one surgery she had a facial alteration so that her forehead would be exactly like the forehead of the Mona Lisa. In this way the artist makes a social commentary on transmutability of the human body; but the question arises, as it does for Stelarc, as to whether these performances are truly cybernetic, or cyborg, in nature. While the technologies and artificialities she employs (the implant in her forehead, for example) do arguably “become” her in ways that Stelarc’s stomach-camera do not, there is still the question of how, or whether, they are integrated into her bodily “system” in a way that utilizes Wiener’s negative feedback loop.  The surgeries are, after all, “cosmetic,” in that they don’t communicate with the organic elements of her body in a way that creates a system of communication and control.

On the other hand, I concede that Orlan’s work fits a bit more neatly into Haraway and Hayles’ concept of the posthuman cyborg. The very nature of plastic surgery does begin to blur the boundaries between “natural” and technological objects. In her article, “Orlan: Offensive Acts,” Carey Lovelace notes that “it was first assumed that Orlan’s plastic surgery epic was a feminist polemic dramatizing the unimaginable lengths women will go to achieve an ideal of beauty defined by men. However, after some contact with the piece, one began to realize, slowly, uneasily, that this was not the case. In fact, after hearing a few words from Orlan it became clear that not only is she not against surgical interventions to alter appearance, she seems veritably positive on the subject: [Orlan says]  ‘In future times we’ll change our bodies as easily as our hair color.’”(13-14) This seems to be right in line with Haraway’s rejection of the “natural” woman in favor of one that is empowered to transform herself at will.  Therefore, Orlan’s performance may not be truly “cybernetic” but aligns itself with cyborg theory from a feminist perspective.

Conclusion

We have seen that, while it can be problematic to define exactly what we mean by “cybernetics” or “cyborg,” undoubtedly Wiener’s 1948 theory of cybernetics has had an impact on not only new media art, but traditional arts as well.  The idea of art as self-regulating “system” of communication and control has influenced not only the way we create art, but how we think about it as well.

While this essay does not examine the entire body and breadth of work that the “cyborg artists” in the final section have created, the works I have presented raise important questions as to whether they can truly be considered cybernetic or cyborg at all.  Both Stelarc and Orlan fall short of Wiener’s definition of cybernetics, although it can be fairly stated that they come closer to Haraway’s concept of the cyborg. Neither, however, has transformed into a truly man-machine hybrid that exists as a holistic system wherein both technical and organic elements communicate with and regulate each other.

That isn’t to say that these artists are entirely devoid of a cybernetic sensibility. In this essay, we’ve hopefully seen that there are many ways to view cybernetics and its impact on art.  I don’t think that cybernetic art needs to necessarily be technological or digital.  I agree with Murray when she says that cybernated aesthetics are “in conversation with electronics and the digital, but not bounded by them.  Cybernated aesthetics reflect the impact of cybernated life, though they may not take digital or electronic form.”  (Murray 48)

Works Cited

Apter, Michael J. “Cybernetics and Art.” Leonardo. Vol. 2. Pergamon Press. 1969. pp. 257-262.

Asma, Stephen T. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Work in Progress.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 47, Issue 19. January 19, 2001.

Bard, Perry. “Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake.” Accessed 16 December 2010. <http://dziga.perrybard.net/>

Biro, Matthew. The Dada Cyborg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books. 1980.

Feldman, Lee Gallup. “A Brief History of Improvisational Theatre in the United States.” Yale-Theatre. 1974 Mar 01.  Vol. 5, Issue 2.  p.128

Garoian, Charles R., and Yvonne M. Gaudelius. “Cyborg Pedagogy: Performing Resistance in the Digital Age. Studies in Art Education. 2001. 42(4). p. 333-347.

Geary, James. “The Body Electric.” Time Europe. Vol. 159, Issue 10.  March 11, 2002.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. 1991.

Hayles, N.K. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago. 1999.

Lichty, Patrick. “The Cybernetics of Performance and New Media Art.” Leonardo. Vol. 33, No. 5. 2000. pp. 351-354.

Media Art Net. “Dan Graham Time-Delay Room” <http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/time-delay-room/> Accessed 15 Dec 2010.

Murray, Soraya. “Cybernated Aesthetics: Lee Bul and the Body Transfigured.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. PAJ 89. Vol. 30, No. 2. May 2008. pp. 38-50.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings. New York: Anchor Books. 1954.

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