On Seiko Mikami's World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body
Essay by Sabu Kosho about Seiko Mikami's installation "World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body".
Invited one by one into an anechoic chamber, a visitor's first sensation of Mikami's piece is likely to be fear, fear of being locked in. There is an extraordinary sense of claustrophobia rarely encountered anywhere else. One is cut off from the external environment both visually and acoustically--such is the initiation to the whole event. With no environmental sound and no echo--the ears feel clogged. The room is small (5 square meters) like the inside of a cell, prison or biological, with walls completely covered by a fimbria like material--geometrically shaped yet oddly organic, wildly indented, and of skin color. Waiting inside is a chair obviously meant for clinical use.
As soon as the connection with the external world is cut off, one's attention shifts inward. Gradually we begin to hear our own internal sounds, the sounds that we all make, inexorably, as long as we live: various growlings of the stomach and intestine, the gurgling of fluids flowing everywhere, surprisingly big rustlings of, perhaps, dried ear wax, and finally, the most dominant--the repetitious yet irregular pulse of the heartbeat. The orchestration of this amazingly rich range of sounds comes from somewhere strange--so close yet so far. There is a sensation of being suspended in the bottomless pit of a biological sound/environment; this is the music of the abyss, the groundlessness of one's own body.
By definition, anechoic (echoless) is different from soundless (which occurs in a vacuum, for example) and, of course, silence, that is a rhetorical rather than physical situation. Even in a busy urban space, silence can arrive whenever we pause to notice it, when we stop our conversations with others, or shift our attention from the normal routine. Our environment consists of layers of sound in which silence is a momentary act of shutting off certain layers in order to pay attention to the ambient. It is a technique of shifting our attention by what phenomenologists call subjective bracketing. Therefore, it is possible that, even while listening to street sounds, we can achieve silence in our consciousness by transposing whatever noise there is to the realm of inattention. In this sense, the production of silence, which is mainly concerned with dialogic structure or communication, is a cultural event par excellence. But being caged in an anechoic room deprives one of the context within which to perform such bracketing. One is thrown into a situation where the ground is decomposed, and a solitude that is abysmally rich opens its mouth. It is said that dogs and other animals can live only for a short while in anechoic rooms because of the disorientation, and there are records of anechoic rooms being used for torture.
This is the prelude to the main event. After being invited to sit on the chair and attach a stethoscopic device near the heart, one hears and sees an edifice built of one's internal sound/environment. This is the moment when the abyss organizes itself into a variety of spatial configurations. Having been compelled to oneself become a 'gigantic ear' of the abyss, attention now shifts to actively producing various forms and sound patterns. First, the repetitious sound--ba-bumph, ba-bumph, ba-bumph, ba-bumph--of one's own heart begins to come from outside instead of inside. Then, the room is darkened, to the surprise, fear, and perhaps expectation of the audience. Curiously, my own heartbeat comes from somewhere behind my ear, in the beginning from far away and then gradually near, then from everywhere at the same time. It comes and goes from various spots and toward various directions. Sometimes it sounds soft like a stream and sometimes shockingly aggressive like a gun shot. All of a sudden, it begins to rotate around my head, and it scatters all over the space. Then, along with the roving heartbeat, my own being feels like moving around the room and forming various spatial patterns, accompanied by my pulse as the breath of the world itself. Becoming sound, 'I' constructs a space/time architecture of another dimension. 'I' is totally dislocated, inside-out, losing the solid locus that keeps the daily identity. I(t) feels like becoming the space of the room itself--the gigantic ear. After eight minutes of this transformative spatio-temporal construction, the lights come back on and again the ba-bumph, ba-bumph lasts for a minute, as in the beginning. The denouément: one is escorted out of the room. A total of 15 minutes by the clock, but an immeasurable time that feels endlessly long and instantaneously short.
Less overwhelming but equally important is the visual component. During the eight minutes of darkness, a growing, transformative abstract net pattern is projected on the fimbrial wall. Looking at the biomorphic growth, it gradually becomes apparent that its movement is in synchronicity with the acoustic spatial pattern. The acoustic experience is being visualized into a transformative net scheme, and watching, one comes to be able to detect and measure the spatial form of one's own soundmaking and hearing experience. It might be said that because of the visual reference, one's consciousness manages to keep its integrity. By offering the spatial orientation, the visual can hook and sustain the body/soul integrity that is on the verge of falling apart. The subject, first thrown into the abyss, is reconstructed in the spatio-temporal architecture that autonomously grows in tandem with the visitor's biological condition.
For the past several years, Mikami has been asking audiences to lend their bodies to her work. In "Borderless Under the Skin", for example, the throb of our own pulse was borrowed, and in "Molecular Informatics", our gaze: in all of them, the data of our body was the program's interface. In "Molecular Informatics," the audience, which was invited "to see" the work, donates its own gaze to the program, where, as participants, they directly encounter the split moment between their existential passivity (reactive eye movement) and cognitive activity (the intention to see), always already existing at the core of their subjective formation. But the role of seeing in the current work, "World, Membrane, and the Dismembered Body" is the reverse, that is, instead of inducing the moment of split, "seeing" delivers a certain recovery of the split by way of construction. The differences, connections, and developments between the two projects seem to correspond to the nature of the hearing and seeing circuits in our bodies. According to Mikami, the function of the ear/hearing is more passive than that of the eye/gaze. "Unlike the eye, the ear does not have a double-fold, self-conscious expression. The ear does not express that it is hearing. The ear cannot move at the owner's will. While the eye can be shut off to intercept certain incoming information, the ear is totally passive. It simply receives, without being selective. The ear does not seek, either. Sound offers only its orientation and movement to our acoustic perceptor, the ear; we cannot easily detect the sound source solely by hearing if not for the support of visual perception."
"Molecular Informatics" and "World, Membrane, and the Dismembered Body" deal with the two major sensory data--visual and acoustic perceptions--that today's cultural institutions rely on most. These are the domains where today's culture most powerfully and actively produces phantasmagoric illusionism. Mikami's manifesto for her two projects is that "the ear is not a thing that merely hears, the eye is not a thing that merely sees." This offers an important clue to understanding their common denominator. They both address the discrepancy between the function of the fragmented sense-organs in our world of the techno-cultural network, and the way the cultura-lingual symbolic order customarily rhetoricizes it. We are the object of capital's agenda to sell the information commodity at the same time as being the subject who judges and buys it. At the same time, our Being or Subject is fragmented into the beings or subjects of different sensory organs: the thing that sees (i.e., ads, films, TV, art and so on), and the thing that hears (i.e., prayer, agitation, music and so on). Mikami's work makes us aware of the passivity of existence by emphatically decomposing an authentic human being--the body/soul integrity--into functional parts already implicated and inscribed within the network of the invisible whole we tentatively call the 'world.' Our subject thinks/says that "I see", "I hear," while it is also made to see and hear in the context of technology and scientific analysis. In this way, these works create an arena that hosts breathtaking struggles between our existential passivity and activity. The struggles present the way the 'world' is being constructed everywhere, day by day. In this sense, Mikami's work presents an anatomy of the contemporary Cogito, the thing that sees/hears but not always doubts.
What is at stake in "World, Membrane, and the Dismembered Body" (hereafter shortened to W.M.D) in particular is the passivity of acoustic perception, even more intense than that of visual perception. Mikami's statement, that the " pulse of the heart beat is the most base of self expressions," alludes to the limits of cultural production--from which it appears and to which it disappears--the status of our existence, simply being here, is already an "expression." As the work makes us realize so vividly, we have always been an instrument, even before listening to any sound. If our heart is not beating and our eardrums are not vibrating along with it, we cannot enjoy sound/music from the beginning.
The heart/ear circuit is extracted from the daily environment (or the body/soul integrity) and recomposed in a new context in a way that the Subject is toppled from the Imperial throne from which it observed, scrutinized, defined, and dominated the object of perception (as an audience of music or cultural products in general). In a situation when the sound source and the sound perceiver--or artist/player and audience--are not safely distanced but collapsed into a mutual nesting box, the subject of the audience is made to face a critical chasm that, in fact, always exists at its genesis. It so happens that, as Gilles Deleuze said, "'I think' and 'I am' do not correspond. The chasm is the motor of time." The chasm is the cruel moment at which the split of the Subject attacks, yet it is also the moment at which a new spatio-temporal production begins. At this instant, the pulse of the heartbeat strikes the hearing subject as a preemptive attack. Without any preparation, the Cogito is attacked by an accident, the accident of one's being in the world. Listening to one's being in W.M.D is equal to listening to the accident of the world or the world as an accident.
What "World, Membrane and the Disappearing Body" presents to us is that the heartbeat is the sound of sounds, or the music of musics. One might even say that the heartbeat subsumes all virtual sounds in the same way that, in the psychoanalytic sense, the phallus subsumes all virtual objects. But in W.M.D, what is at stake is not the heart per se but the hEARt circuit. Like a Klein bottle, a stream which comes from the heart is absorbed into the gigantic mouth of the ear, which is again connected to the heart. The "ear" interface, the place of exchange, stands on the meta-level to the unconscious, contingent "heart," at the same time they are collapsed into one continuity. In this scheme, it is not just a natural phenomenon of body that is reconstructed, but a moment of production--the human machine that is connected to other machines. In the whole of the productive machine, "the head [ear] is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition." (Deleuze)
With respect to the audience's experience of the work, Mikami observes: "It is a real time, double-fold, self-referential status: the sounds the audience's own bodies make--subtle internal sounds made by organs reverberating between tissues and membranes--are proliferated outside the body via the device and further reverberate in the room to affect the ear of the audience, which itself is a part of sound sources. In this work, nothing--neither body nor the device nor the environment--is the main objective to be experienced, except that the 'ear' stands out as a mediator between systems, expressing itself as a certain perceptive coding of topos." W.M.D is this "topos" rather than an image, for representation of a certain object--image, view, narrative, thematic system--is not the concern of the work. Rather, it produces and reveals the mechanism of representation itself--how the representing subject and the perceiving subject are part of the techno-cultural productive "machine." This points to the view of the world not as a "theater," but as a "factory" (Deleuze/Guattari): the world as a gigantic factory in which representations (theaters) of the world themselves are a part of the production.
In Mikami"s work everything is arranged around the body or the body senses. She produces work which employs "fragments of the body (sensory organs) by decomposing them into data" because she believes that "essential elements which compose interface for programs all exist inside our body." Then, what is the "body" the audience owns as well as experiences in W.M.D?
Paul Valéry once categorized the four kinds of body we have in modernity. The first one is the "body for the self." Valéry stipulates: "Each of us calls this body My Body; but we give it no name in ourselves, that is to say, in it. We speak of it to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it. . ." In W.M.D, what we experience so vividly is the very ambiguous mutual belongings of our subject and our body--the abyss. Valéry continues: "we can say that the world is based on it and exists in reference to it; or just as accurately, with a simple change in the adjustment of our intellectual vision, that the selfsame body is only an infinitely negligible, unstable event in the world." Or even more appropos to our problematic concerns, our body is the primary obstacle to our ideals. The resistance of our body to our thoughts is the primary sign of the trauma that the world does not belong to us; it is the alterity. To our Cogito, this life, this being, is nothing but an accident which we nevertheless have to believe to be self-affirming or even causa sui. The world of passion (passivity) begins from and is based upon our bodies for ourselves. To the Cogito, the social relations, including brutal conflicts, and our bodies, including illness, connect to form one and the same world of wars. The body of the first category, Valéry states, is "formless"; "it has no past." This amorphous present of the body is the premise of Mikami's work.
The second category of body we own is "the body for others." This is the one that is looked at and judged by others, the body that is thrown into the social world. For us to see, we have first to be seen by the other. For Jean Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Lacan, being gazed at by the other is the initiation of the subjective formation. The body touched by the other also offers the paradigm of love. Furthermore, this particular circuit produces the cultural code of narcissism. In this work, we are the other.
The third category is the body that appears as the object of scientific observation in the context of modernization. It is fragmented into objects of analysis, operation, and manipulation. Heidegger as well as Valéry had reservations about the fragmented and instrumentalized body--as a loss of Being or the wholeness of nature/spirit. In fact, all the fragmentations were concurrent. Thus the problematic of technology or techné in the modern is provoked by the advent of the third body. Mikami's maneuver is rather an affirmation of the fragmentations; it pushes them to their limits. The elaboration of her technology is a critique of or competition with the seduction of the "authenticity" that Heidegger evokes.
Finally, the fourth body is the most tricky. Using an untranslatable term, implexe, Valéry indicates the body that is both real and imaginary. In today's terminology, this is the virtual body: the totality of the body that we own/experience yet can never grasp at this or that moment, by this or that system of thought. This is the complex of all bodies we own/experience as a being-in-the world. According to the philosopher Hiroshi Ichikawa, the body as a realistic synthesis is possible only thanks to the potential of the implexe, though it is realized, in a sense, only by deterring and going beyond the implexe. For this reason, the body as a realistic synthesis is deemed both revealing and veiling. Upon the accomplishment of the synthesis, however, the implexe is buried under the subconscious. This fourth body--inasmuch as it is neither a realistically synthesized nor revealed object--is beyond phenomenological description.
W.M.D reveals and produces the topos wherein the four categories of body all intervene. The audience faces the first body as an abyss; s/he experiences a moment very close to narcissism when they enjoy their second body as if it is another's; the third body is engaged by the artist's sophisticated programming; and last, what we ultimately experience in the small room is the moment at which this indescribable thing--the implexe--constructs the spatio-temporal edifice, namely, the extension of body.
Employing the implexe, the invisible drive, this project constructs a unique environment by making the audience's internal environment external. This "inside-out" by implexe might be the essence of the architectonic. The way our body is both proprioceptive--receptive to it's self-produced stimuli--and exteroceptive--responsive to outside stimuli--or how it is autopoietic and allopoietic, can finally express itself. Perhaps human production of its own environment--what can be called Architecture--is always a way of externalizing the internal environment. Virtual space, the fourth body, the implexe, assumes the potential for structuring the "inside-out." If not for the inside-out, there wouldn't be any "here and now, or rather an Erewhon from which emerge inexhaustibly ever new, differently distributed 'heres' and 'nows.'" (Deleuze) Just as Samuel Butler's anagram "here and now" is essentially produced by "nowhere," the productive "nowhere" can become "now here" only by way of the jump of inside-out organized by the virtual body.
Mikami's work is not an art that expresses something, taking for
granted the authenticity of art or the world of representation. It is
not an art that employs technology and media for a certain effect of
It points to a situation where art and technology are not yet separated,
and stresses the precedence of technology. As we have seen, W.M.D
creates the circuit through which our body extends itself in the
techno-cultural network by an elaborate censor of perception. For this
mechanism, even a description of audience participatory/interactive art
is not sufficient.
Rather it is an art that constructs a particular way we make the world our own body and live in it--the productive force of technology. On another level, Mikami's work intensely and even cruelly presents the way we are fragmented and becoming part of a world that is constantly expanding in tandem with technology's brutal, accidental force. Making us directly experience the ambiguity of technology, Mikami's work presents the immanence. Yet it refuses to represent the whole world in which we are apart. Mikami composes interfaces of various body parts and connects them into a growing network which does not presuppose any existence of a whole. It is a production of different machinic arrangements. In this sense, it is engaged in an affirmation of chaos. Since the work itself radically persists in being ambiguous--an interface--a conclusion is hardly possible. But as a final thought without a final definition or a last instance, I would say that Mikami's work is a mediation between two philosophical plate-tectonics that have been shaking us for a very long time: those of Being and chaos. Which is to say that it is persistently a mediation and an interface which refuses any finality. Futhermore, being a patient, a guinea pig, an organ donor, and an audience in her work, I confess that I became totally dissected, disoriented, and lost in the sense of observing and speaking about it as an art work. Being in Mikami's work does not allow the audience to be a safe, unaffected observer, but forces us to begin to confront the work in the midst of a total breakdown and resurrection.
References: Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. by Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, 1994; Hiroshi Ichikawa, Seishin Toshiteno Shintai, Kodansha, 1992; Paul Valery, "Some Simple Reflections of Body", included in Aesthetics, trans.by Ralph Manheim, Pantheon Books, 1964.