In “Identity, Sexuality and the Abstraction of the Digital and Physical,” critic Karen Archey addresses the lack of “artistic discourse surrounding identity, the body and sexuality” in “Post-Internet” art.1 The term “Post-Internet” is an antithesis to the optimism in the ’90s that imagined the Internet as a utopian space for identity formation thinking, rather naively, that digital space could break down gender barriers.2 In this initial phase, the Internet’s radical anonymity promised a site of potential liberation for non-normative explorations of gender, sexuality and identity (as evidenced by the development of queer communities online), freed from fleshy constraints.3 Archey outlines how this optimism stemmed from “the emancipation of our identities and sexual lives from the body and ‘meat-space’ interaction.”4 However, in our contemporary era of surveillance, with the advent of spectacular advanced technology like virtual reality, and invisible corporate networks that profit from each click as we update our Facebook profiles, we’ve lost any sense of a separate or original, physical “meat-space.” Thus early humanist readings of digital space have now morphed into a terminal pessimism of posthumanist works that Archey believes have not “address[ed] our lived experience” of the body and the construction of identity in digital space.5
This pessimism is not as much melancholia—over the Internet’s undeniably formative part in producing one’s daily performance of identity —as it is a bleak acknowledgement of how the digital is forming identity for us underneath the centrality of invisible surveillance and networks. However, do surveillance and the loss of physicality in the Post-Internet era really foreclose upon the potential to re-think the body and identity in digital space?
Re-addressing the body in digital space might first be a question of challenging the analytical terms we use to frame our discussion. Rather than employ reductive binaries, it’s necessary to evaluate the claim that there exists—or that we’ve been alienated from—any physical or original “meat-space” when there’s no longer any active divide between reality and virtual reality in our digital age.6 The very idea of “meat-space” itself pre-supposes an original sexual, erotic and social conception of identity that is grounded in a physical and biological human body. British feminist artist Hannah Black’s video My Bodies7 (2014) and queer multimedia artist Andrea Crespo’s sculpture Plurisism (Incubator) (2015) are works that not only re-evaluate the reductive use of terms like “meat-space,” but also find new terms to explore the potential for identity formation in digital space. More significantly, each artist emphasizes the (potentially dangerous) implications of exploring identity formation in the Post-Internet era. My Bodies and Plurisism (Incubator) not only question the relevance of the digital and meat-space divide, but also pose a way to rethink identity politics in “post-humanism pessimism.”
Hannah Black responds to Archey’s call first by interrogating the consequences of holding onto an identity politics tied to meat-space. Her work primarily concerns the condition of being bodied in technology and asks what it means to have or not to have something called a “human body.”8 In My Bodies, she imagines the total abolition of the physical body in digital space.9 The video begins by juxtaposing fragmented pop song lyrics from female African Americans singing the words “my body” against a backdrop of pixilated images of Caucasian businessmen’s faces, which she culled by Googling terms like “CEO” and “executive.” As the sensual lyrics of Ciara and Rihanna play against eerie close-ups of white males’ facial pores, any sense or cohesive image of a physical or organic, collective, social body is dissipated as the gendered and sexed voices in the background are denied representation as visual “embodied” human figures.10 Through this initial segment, Black exposes digital space to be just as rife with gendered, raced, and sexed oppression as that of “meat-space.” It is only through gendered and raced power relations that a physical “body” in the virtual and “real” is allowed materialize as a symbolic presence within a larger social body, be it virtual or “real.” By juxtaposing the representation of Caucasian, masculine, visual “embodiment” against the immaterial, rapid fragments of raced-gendered voices, she highlights the physical body as a site of radical vulnerability and oppression where flesh only serves to perpetuate racist and sexist ideologies.
Following this traditional feminist critique of representation, Black responds by presenting us with another trope of clichés that surround the pre-Post-Internet era’s predilection towards post-humanism. In the second half of the video, she reconsiders the radical utopia of a “post-gender” cyberspace where our identity is no longer connected to any sense of human identity and is “free” of conventional gender boundaries. The frame cuts sharply to a dark cave where the boundaries of the physical body are abolished and dematerialized into cyberspace. Disembodied death in the digital is represented by death with “phone still in hand… scrolling without end through remembered attachments.” In an apocalyptic nowhere land, images of caves, rocks, and water alternate between flashes of light and a textual proposition appears on the bottom of the screen. However, this is not just “digital Hell” but instead a sort of “digital purgatory,”: a textual proposition appears on the bottom of the screen, offering the chance for bodily reincarnation. Narrative captions serve as an invitation, back to fleshy Earth once again:
you will wake in the guise of your left behind form / beside the water of forgetting / you must pass through this dead place / you must keep hold of what it means to have hands eyes teeth / feel for the sweat of your armpits the press of your sole on the ground / remember as headache early mornings for work here is where you will be translated back / […] into yourself…you will pass through into the light / […] / you will hesitate at the gate of the world / asking “what will become of me”11
The captions prompt two questions that trouble traditional conceptions of “identity politics” rooted in a humanist notion of a physical, fleshy body. In this space of indefinite possibilities, why return in the body of a woman, or a person of color? Why become a physical body at all in a world where flesh serves as a sign of gendered domination and raced inequality? Informed by the first phase of the video’s critique of human flesh and representation, these questions represent an ethical decision to return to an embodied materiality while conscious of the inevitable social domination that a physical body will inhabit.
But rather than just critique the oppressive domination of sex, gender and race on the internet and in physical flesh, Black opens up the digital to become once again a seemingly democratic, but also antagonistic space through her direct imperative. Direct imperatives command or issue requests to the second-person subject, “you.” “You” is always understood as the addressed of the imperative mood and is implicated to give a response. The response, however, is a conscious ethical choice informed by the first half of the video’s radical critique of flesh as a site of vulnerable raced and gendered inequality. Thus, despite the temptation to relapse into naïve posthumanist fantasies of utopian genderless and disembodied space, Black directs the viewer back to material Earth, with its inescapable historical norms constructing “meat-space” identity. Post-human re-incarnation involves conscious realization that gender, sexuality and race exists in the choice to acknowledge the invisible boundaries of the flesh that society codes as a part of an “identity.” We, the “you” implicated here, must respond to the despondent claim to return to flesh without any compromising decision to opt out of inevitable oppression through the physical body.
However, the further abstracted we become from our humanity, the more we realize that there may not be any “original body” from which we can be freed. Rather, in this uncompromising liminal space, we must force ourselves to rethink the notions of the body, sexuality, race and gender as not tied to any biological notion of their formation. The potential of post-human digital abstraction is productive in rethinking gender beyond identity politics. Black’s total abolition of the human body begs us to reconceive a “body” beyond flesh. The perspective of cyberspace purgatory challenges us to reconsider how liberatory posthumanism might be in reimagining the boundaries of gender, no longer rooting the body, gender or sexuality in politics of identification. For in this pluralistic zone of infinite possibility where we’re dead (yet still conscious of a remembered meat-space of fleshy inequality), Black creates a similar space to Chantal Mouffe’s theorization of antagonistic democracy—a space which “reveals the very limit of any rational consensus” by “bringing to the fore the incapable moment of decision” and inducing a strong sense of having to decide in an undecidable terrain.”12 The limits on rational consensus that Black highlights include any concept of gender, race, sexuality, or identity based in traditional biological flesh and physical human bodies.
Beyond exposing the limitations of identity politics, Black’s video formally visualizes a space of antagonistic democracy. While she projects these questions that pressure our return to the material world, the background images alternate between scenes of chlorine blue water and solid brown rocks with an almost glue-like shine and textured patterns that recall reptile skin. With these stills of anthropomorphic and animalistic rocks, we experience a desire for territorialization of identity, as the rock’s skin-like appearance connotes a maintenance of cemented identity in pre-established forms. Yet de-territorialization of stable, fleshy identity is simultaneously imposed as images of fluid water suggest a dissipation of anchored identity from solid forms. Each wave propels a continuous force, unfixing and remodeling form and the self. A second set of barely-visible text is superimposed against each of these watery scenes. As letters are typed out, the invisible author continues to delete them, almost as if this subject is incapable of stitching itself back into a coherent, stable narrative of autobiographical identity.
These images and texts transition formally between territorialization and de-territorialization, I believe, in order to emphasize transitions of fluid, multiplying and constant states of an incorporeal identity that both create and dissolve any stable sense of selfhood. Thus, even though Black’s narrative content pressures us to return to an embodied identity, her video aesthetically and structurally seems to insist on changing immaterialized states and constantly shifting identities that cannot be grounded in any recognizable, singular, social or physical “body.”
Our decision to enter back into the inequality of embodied identity on Earth is inevitable, but realizing the fluidity between identity and flesh is necessary in order to acknowledge invisible human boundaries. Rather than let the self become bodied, we might defer the physical body’s social domination by choosing to perform a constantly shifting subjectivity, switching constantly between different roles of gender and race that have no tie to our biology. In shedding our hard reptile skins day by day, we mimic the changing states of digital space, which constantly registers new subject roles. If there is one thing a digital, post-human reconceptualization of the body can aid us in doing, it might be initiating the conscious potential of a self who remains forever partial, acknowledging the arbitrary limitations tied to humanist identities.
Andrea Crespo, too, addresses the radical potential for reconstructing identity and the dangerous limitations of posthumanism in the Post-Internet. For her 2015 exhibition “Polymorphoses,” Crespo featured a series of anthropomorphic sculptures that depicted various fragments of the human body. In Plurisism (Incubator), Nintendo game link cables are threaded throughout mesh fabric and placed inside metal minimalist boxes labeled as “Data Security Boxes.” Juxtaposed against the mesh fabric interior are miniature Manga art characters of mutant double-headed fictional bodies sourced from Deviant Art, an international site for creating fictional avatar bodies online. The mesh fabric protrudes outwards from the cords and frame like a bulging human belly, recalling the organic post-minimalist sculptures of Eva Hesse. The Nintendo cables, sporadically threaded like veins in and out of the mesh, are ultimately connected to a central square energy source of “connectivity” power, like that of a human heart. The cube becomes further animated with human qualities as the game cords (used once for interactive dual Nintendo gaming) and globally sourced fan art figures seem to connote the possibility for communicative connection and communal creation between gamers and online designers. Finally, the sculpture’s status as an “incubator” points towards the reproduction and development of human life through machines that nurture and care for struggling infants during early stages of birth.
Despite this disturbingly emphatic intertwinement of body and its life-sustaining digital portals, Crespo highlights how the multiple opportunities for communication, self-creation, and social reproduction in digital space only take place within the context of inescapable cultural and social networks that profit off each formative click. The ironic juxtaposition of the label “Data Security Box” with flagrant anthropomorphism suggests how any form of creation of identity, life, or language will be further channeled into invisible networks of profit and storage over which we have no control. Suddenly, these monstrous Manga art characters, representative of a global community of online producers creating fictional avatar bodies outside of normative flesh conventions, take on a darker tone. Precious “non-normative” fictional avatar bodies are to be stored and used for data profit online, re-absorbed into the dynamic spirit of capitalism. These “protective” incubators become moreover a reminder of how, from our very birth, the idea of a separate “private sphere” of self-preservation is always exposed to the public. Controlled environments to foster infant life and gamers’ communal “energy” generators are always hooked up to a source that continues to profit from them without material return. Thus, by juxtaposing the seeming innocence of gamers’ social connections with a title that suggests the dangers of surveillance, Crespo, like Black, frames a space of paradoxical decision. Digital space has literally become enmeshed in our development, communication, and sense of self. The question is not how to disavow our digital lifelines, but rather what to do with that knowledge when we see the boundaries of our internalized surveillance.
Rather than ignore the undeniably formative aspect of technology in materializing our sense of our body and subjectivity, we have to confront the fact that we’re not so different from this anthropomorphic sculpture: technology is simultaneously the life source feeding our reproduction and the extensive portal for our communication and creation of digital selves. Flesh and the digital are intertwined throughout a maze of mesh, Nintendo links, and avatars. There’s no escaping our terminal confinement in the individual Data Security boxes. Rather than retreat into disavowal or reappraise meat-space, we must recognize these invisible boundaries within which we unconsciously create our selves. Making the limitations on identity creation and performance visible, Crespo highlights the naïve potential of the online creation of fictive bodies while preaching not a politics of disavowal of the digital, but rather a sphere of conscious acknowledgement of our contemporary conditions. We are dared to continue communicating.
Crespo and Black then pose a productive twofold question: if we accept our digital abstract bodies as highly regulated and circulated commodities trapped inside Crespo’s data boxes, our flesh as an oppressive societal confine, what follows? How can we disavow the inevitable fact that technology is forming our reality and notions of self, gender and race? Rather than simply critique, Crespo and Black model a conscious mode of becoming that asks spectators to work through the failings of humanism and the overarching social determinations of capitalism. These works celebrate the potential for rethinking post-human identity through the digital while acknowledging the complex issues that arise in the Post-Internet era. Black’s topic vision may be playful and utopic while Crespo’s informed anthropomorphism is bleak, but both point to the potential for conscious rediscovery of the limitations of an identity politics based in biology. Posthumanist digital abstraction not only challenges perceived boundaries of human identity but also prompts their redefinition.
1Karen Archey, “Bodies in Space: Identity, Sexuality, and the Abstraction of the Digital and Physical” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty First Century, ed. Lauren Cornell; Ed Halter, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 454.
2This chronological term is often used in discourse on “net art” or art produced, exhibited, or displayed on the Internet. A 2014 exhibition at the UCCLA “Post Internet Art” sums it up nicely: “post-internet, which is to say, consciously created in a milieu that assumes the centrality of the network, and that often takes everything from the physical bits to the social ramifications of the internet as fodder.” http://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/art-post-internet/. Additionally for a discussion on the development of this term see “Post-Net Aesthetics Conversation,” in Mass Effect. 413-19.
3See for example Gary Harper; Douglas Bruce; Pedro Serrano; Omar Jamil’s discussion of the internet’s instrumental role in developing queer online communities in “The Role of the Internet in the Sexual Identity Development of Gay and Bisexual Male Adolescents,” from The Story of Sexual Identity (Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009).
6For example Slavoj Zizek discusses the irrelevance of virtual and physical reality in ‘From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality’, in Designing for a Digital World, ed. Neil Leach (Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2002). Similarly Elizabeth Groz discusses this in Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2001).
7Hannah Black, My Bodies, 2014, 3:30 minutes, vimeo.com. https://vimeo.com/85791107
8See bio in Hannah Black, “Artist Profile: Hannah Black” interview by Jesse Darling, Rhizome.org (February 17th 2015). https://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/feb/17/artist-profile-hannah-black/
10“Embodied” is deliberately framed within quotations as the term is vague and problematic in itself. My Bodies is a piece rather that challenges our notions of what it is to be “bodied” and forces us to put “embodiment” into quotations.
11Black, My Bodies, 1:14 -2:24m.
12Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agnostic Spaces,” Art & Research, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2007): http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html.
Archey, Karen. “Bodies in Space: Identity, Sexuality, and the Abstraction of the Digital and Physical” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty First Century, ed. Lauren Cornell; Ed Halter, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 454.
Black, Hannah. My Bodies, 2014, 3:30 minutes, vimeo.com. https://vimeo.com/85791107
Darling, Jessie. “Artist Profile: Hannah Black” interview by Jesse Darling, Rhizome.org (February 17th 2015). https://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/feb/17/artist-profile-hannah-black.
Groz, Elizabeth. Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2001).
Harper, Gary; et al.“The Role of the Internet in the Sexual Identity Development of Gay and Bisexual Male Adolescents,” from The Story of Sexual Identity (Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009).
Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agnostic Spaces,” Art & Research, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2007): http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html.
Slater, Josephine; et al. “Post-Net Aesthetics Conversation, London 2013 Part 3 of 3” in Mass Effect. 413-19
Zizek, Slajov. “From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality,” in Designing for a Digital World, ed. Neil Leach (Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2002).