Although Socialist Man in the end fails to live up to an
admittedly faulty blueprint, his capitalist cousin Cyborg grows and flourishes
in 20th century consciousness. Bruce Grenville's presentation at the Vancouver
Art Gallery is an introduction to the idea of the Cyborg - its history,
its many layers of meaning and potential.
The exhibition, though not large, is comprehensive and contains a number of outstanding works, particularly Tony Oursler's Vanish, Fernand Leger's Le mechanicien (1920), Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-16), Kenji Yanobe's Yellow Suit (1991) as well as gorgeous early 20th century photographs by Lewis Hine. Video of Survival Research Laboratories subversive robot-performances mock and satirise the military-industrial complex. Concurrent performances and lectures by Stelarc and Perry Hobermann at the Western Front in mid-February complements the exhibition. Contextualising the art works are artefacts that span the art-popculture divide: a number of film and videos such as Chaplin's Modern Times critique of industrialisation, Verhoeven's ground-breaking Robocop and Cronenberg's Videodrome, as well as anime Ghost in the Shell and more, though Tetsuo the Iron Man is, unaccountably, missing.
The exhibition, its excellent catalogue, and series of gallery talks and debates provide much food for thought in treating the Cyborg as a historical, philosophical, psychological, social and technological phenomenon. The show raises many issues, among them the dichotomy of utopia/dystopia, feminist theory, post-colonial theory.
One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of significant art-works by Japanese and Korean artists, supplemented by essays in the catalogue by critics Toshio Ueno, Makiko Hara and Masamori Oda.. These works highlight the East-West problem of the "techno-Orientalist" gaze - challenging the pop-culture notion of Japanese as "geeks" and automatons, and of Japan as a futuristic Cyborg-nation inspiring both fascination and fear. (Toshio Ueno, "Japanimation and Technorientalism," The Uncanny 223)
The idea of unnaturally-created humanlike non-humans can be traced quite far back in Western culture, at least as far as the Jewish legend of the Golem, and comes into social consciousness at very the point when Enlightenment ideas converge with Romanticism to produce young Mary Shelley - and her novella Frankenstein. Since then, the advances of science have brought the possibilities of a Cyborg future ever closer, and the Cyborg, the man/machine, invests us with a visual metaphor for our anxiety at the growing presence and, more importantly, our growing dependence on technology. But, according to Donna Harraway:
>> The Cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a fusion of the organic and the technical forged in particular, historical, cultural practices. Cyborgs are not about the Machine and the Human, as if such Things and Subjects universally existed. Instead, Cyborgs are about specific historical machines and people in interaction that often turns out to be painfully counterintuitive for the analyst of technoscience. (Donna J. Harraway, "[email protected]_Millennium. FemaleManŠ_Meets_OncoMouse." p 51
)In "Cyborgology: Constructing the Knowledge of Cybernetic Organisms" -- the introduction to their Cyborg Handbook -- Chris Hables Gray, Steven Mentor, and Jennifer Figueroa-Sarriera describe four classes of Cyborg:
>> Cyborg technologies can be restorative, in that they restore lost functions and replace lost organs and limbs; they can be normalising, in that thev restore some creature to indistinguishable normality; they can be ambiguously reconfiguring, creating posthuman creatures equal to but different from humans, like what one is now when interacting with other creatures in cyberspace or, in the future, the type of modifications proto-humans will undergo to live in space or under the sea having given up the comforts of terrestrial existence; and they can be enhancing, the aim of most military and industrial research, and what those with Cyborg envy or even Cyborgphilia fantasize. (p. 3)
Drill, 1913 - 16