Erasure and Disembodiment

Essay by George Teyssot with Diller Scofidio, published in "Book for the Unstable Media," 1992.

Erasure and Disembodiment

Book for the Unstable Media

Voice Over: A collection of images creates for us a swift zoom. An introduction. The theme: beautiful weapons, like the Saxon armor from the latter part of the XVIth Century, kept in the Dresden Collection; or a view of the interior of the Statue of Liberty in New York, framing the wrinkles of the metallic skin, sculpted by Bartholdi, braced by the structure designed in Eiffel's work. Next, the tension the focus of interest, indeed the fervor, not to say the obsession, shifts to a photograph by David Bailey of the Bride in White Gazar designed by Cristobal Balenciaga in 1967. The starting point is not fashion, but the very nature of the mechanical array, the eroticism of the apparel, the message provided by any attire, the languages of the mask and the artificial skin. Then some libidinal machines, as in Barbarella (1967), by R. Vadim and J.-C. Forest, where a bound Jane Fonda is laid in the erotic machine. And other examples, from Jarry to Duchamp, to Roussel, analyzed in the seminal exhibition by Jean Clair and Harald Szeeman, The Bachelor Machines (1975), inspired by Michel Carrouges" book, Les machines celibataires (1954). The next step, towards the body conceived as an array of prostheses, was foreseen in the catalogue of Szeeman's exhibition.

Excerpt: "Having realized the incompleteness of bachelor machines, one now boasts the most flatly technocratic solution: to fix them up with prostheses. The Structure of Standard personality is fulfilled in all its splendor, a body without organs, a deactivated bachelor machine, flanked by diverse functional extensions."

A. Montesse, in: The Bachelor Machines, Venice/New York, 1975, p. 113.

V. O.: Whether one likes it or not, today, fifteen years after this exhibition, technocracy has extended its realm. The best emblem of the triumph of the "biological" over the "natural" is a photograph of a breast prosthesis, made of translucent silicone, wrapped in a thin-walled silicone envelope. (The occasional implant that ruptures within the body suggests a possible revenge of the natural ... the breakdown of the intruder. However, the effect of the substances released which attack the immunological system, perhaps asserts the ultimate conquest of the biological.)

Diller + Scofidio: Consider voluntary cuts ... surgical augmentations to and deletions from nature's body, or, rearrangements of gender, or ethnic e(race)sures. Consider the surgical deletion of difference from the body of Michael Jackson, a stepped progression toward the image of the perfect heterogeneous being, of indistinguishable race, sex and age. His sister La Toya's surgeries, following Michael's, are calculated to produce a family resemblance.

E.: "A Massachusetts company is developing a tiny electronic component that can be implanted in the body to release small amounts of drugs or other biologically active materials in response to a pulse of electrical current (...) The device is based on the discovery of conductive polymers - chemicals that intrinsically conduct electric current that can be chemically bound with drugs (...)

New York Times, June 20, 1990.

D + S: The body is a plastic form, molded to conform to the idealized normative body. Prostheses may be demechanized, sometimes camouflaged and in fluid exchange with steroids, silicone, spandex and skin. Its conventional program for the completion or extension of the "inadequate body" is expanded to include mutation.

E.: "Unfortunately, the dominant image of what Freud left behind remains an oversimplification: there is consciousness (an afterimage which only appears to exist in the "here and now"), and then there is that "andere Schauplatz" (the "other scene").(...)In short, it tends to be assumed, even in the psychoanalytically informed cultural theory, that the body is a kind of biological given, which can be canceled out of the equation or simply held constant; whereas the matter to be studied and understood is rather what society pumps into the body (or "writes" onto it)." Charles Levin, "Carnal Knowledge of Aesthetic States", in Body Invaders. Panic Sex in America, A. and M. Kroker ed., N.Y. 1987,p. 113.


V. O: The invasion of medical apparatus in popular film scenery shows how film-makers play on a spreading anxiety: the medicalization of life and death is often evoked with the images of intensive care units. Often, a situation of crisis begins in the setting of an emergency room. Consider the operating room in the Demon Seed (1977), directed by Donald Cammell, where a domestic computer forcefully impregnates the housewife (a movie realized with the collaboration of the University of Utah and Wang Laboratories); or the emergency rooms in The Andromeda Strain (1970) and Starman (1984); or the total conversion of an American suburban house into a small hospital, in Spielberg's ET. (1983). Since the second half of the XlXth Century, biology has been the leading science, and its technologies have altered the representation of life, replacing the ideas of "natural" birth and death with that of the "biological" status of our existence. During the XXth Century, with the total medicalization of body, medical technology informs the "arts". "I have found and purchased a base today (for the Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics), 1925) - at Ruppaley's, a dealer in apparatus of medical electricity" (in a letter to Jacques Doucet from Marcel Duchamp, March 7,1924).

E.: "To document the uneasy pleasures of living within (our) glaucous paradise has more and more become the role of science fiction. I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being an unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th Century, and certainly its oldest - a tradition of imaginative response to science and technology that runs in an intact line through HG. Wells, Aldous Huxley, the writers of modern American science fiction, to such present-day innovators as William Burroughs (...) Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute."

J. G. Ballard, Crash, introduction to the French edition, 1974, pp. 1-4.

V. O: After all, Aldous Huxley (Lalcham 1894-Los Angeles 1963), author of Brave New World (1932), was a grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), naturalist, friend of Charles Darwin, author of Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1864). And, as J. L. Borges, noted, the title of Adolfo Bioy Casares" The Invention of Morel (Buenos Aires, 1940) filially alludes to another island inventor, Moreau. About Morel's machine, it has been observed that:

E.: "From the earliest daguerreotypes and Edison's first recordings, up till the present holograms, the reproduction of phenomena that designate life has been so highly perfected that one may well wonder whether there will not be a time when the recording machine will have become so faithful to what it projects that it will end up by totally substituting what is submitted to it, while destroying it." J. Clair, "The Last Machine", The Bachelor Machines, cit., p. 182.

V. O: Space/time shifts created by deranged machinery, inaugurated by The Time Machine of H.G. Wells, are translated into popular movie versions, as in Westworld (1968), with Yul Brynner, where the film machine, incarnating its own myth, imagines "mechanisms capable of substituting the life they feed on". In David Cronenberg's film, Dead Ringers (1988), Eliot and Beverly are two identical twins, famous gynecologists who slowly drift towards a hallucinatory state in which they recognize the progressive and impelling mutation of the wombs on which they operate. The frightened Beverly tells his brother that he will design borderline surgical instruments, medical tools intended for operating on mutant women, which, fearfully enough, are also pieces of art:

E.: "You don"t know the kind of patient I"m getting now. Their insides are deformed. They look alright from the outside, but their insides are all wrong,"

Beverly, in Dead Ringers, 1988.

V. O.: The same compositional device - twinship and symmetry - is found in the film, A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Its director, Peter Greenaway, says: "The facts, fictions, mythology and apocrypha on twins is limitlessly rich - two of everything, the search for your other half, mistaken identities, mirror-imaging, substitution, the Doppelganger, the lateral line and cloning". The film hinges on the twin brothers Oliver and Oswald, the two letter Os, the two noughts, the two zeros of the film title. Obsessed by the decay of bodies, they both work in a zoo.

D + S: For the tragic cut, the complete body can only hope to be re stored through artifice the animal machine. Prostheses, however, can frustrate completion ... like Greenaway's character Alba (played by Andrea Ferreol), who, following her car crash, required the amputation of her right leg. After being fitted with a metal leg, she was unhappy with her feigned symmetry. Her aesthetic desire to restore perfect symmetry overwhelmed her desire to walk ... so she had her remaining leg cut off. Alba settled for a modified completion, her voluntary cut exchanged mobility for inertia, in perfect balance. She boasted that the adjustment made for easy penetration by each of her twin lovers.

V. O.: Another manipulator of language and context, Piero Manzoni, in an act of "appropriation through designation", made a prophetic gesture in 1961 by exhibiting a nude model on his sculpture base and signing her as his work. This act was just one step away from declaring the artist's own body as the irreducible site of intervention, finally collapsing the distance between the agent and the activity of art. At the "center" of body art, literature, cinema, chronobiology is a decentered body: from Kafka's Penal Colony to Chris Burden's performance (Shoot, November 19, 1971).

Inscribed on the flesh of the body, is the text of the law: the logos of a society that has "become flesh". Eventually and eventfully, this process of incarnation must be probed to the limit of its disincarnating. That limit is the vulnerability of the body itself. And, is it sustainable to say that the body, "being a body", is inescapable; that it cannot be deferred, lost in a chain of reference?In other words, is it possible to think tentatively of the "body" as irreducible to formalization, to textualization?

E.: "by 1999, the entire human genome will have been charted and mapped, this according to Nobel Prize winners Walter Gilbert and James Watson. It would be a vast undertaking, to be sure. Written out using its four-letter alphabet of A,G,T and C (standing for the bases that make up the DNA chain), the entire DNA sequence would take up the space of a thousand New York City telephone books. But when it is done, it would create a Rosetta stone, a vast library of information about Homo sapiens"

in K.J. Rose, The Body in Time, New York 1989, 202.

V. O.: From Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of The Human Figure in Motion to Vito Acconci's first photoworks: the shift leads from a "scientific" notational system which represents human "energy", or system of bodies, to the paging of body in space and space in body.

E.: "Where I am (my position when I take the photographs) - where I might be (the landscape photographed: where I am when I point in that direction), my body as a system of possible movements transmitted from my body to the environment (the environment as a system of possible movements transmitted from the environment to my body)" in "Notebook Excerpts" (1959), Vito Acconci. Photographic Works 1969-1970, New York 1988.


D + S: Consider the body stripped, stripped of cultural fixity, of gender codes, stripped of ethnic and political codes ... de-signed, the body as site: a primary surface for signification like the surface of the earth or a blank page. Chris Burden used his body as art's ultimate ground ... his private property, on which war was waged in the space of the public. The body is a surface vulnerable to a surplus of meanings, constantly being rewritten ... The body is a site for transient texts of the marketplace, for example, the advertisements projected across public spaces onto the heads of bald men, anticipated by H.G. Wells, or texts of the State, like Kafka's harrow, which carries out capital punishments while inscribing the sentence onto the skin of the condemned, or, more immediately, the proposal of William Buckley to tatoo the buttocks of homosexuals testing positive for the HIV virus, the buttocks considered the primary reading surface of the homosexual.

V. O.: Contemporary teratology (the study of animal and vegetal monstrosities) applied to mutant wombs and misshaped fetuses, leads to atrocious visions of fear. The offspring will emerge like a nightmarish body in perpetual metamorphosis, as in the goose-like creature in David Lynch's film, Eraser Head (1978), who literally "erases the head" of his parents by his unbearable, prolonged and plaintive wail; just like, in a magnetic tape-recorder, the erase head cancels the sounds recorded. The disembodiment of the half-feathered progeny provokes, in the end, the erasure of the embodied memory. The dramatization of such a deep apprehension, typical, one might suppose, of the new generation of dinks (dual income, no kids), becomes spectacular through the frequent scenes in which a monster bursts out of the abdomen of disemboweled bodies that unwillingly have been chosen to host an alien resident, as in Ridley Scott's popular sci-fi film, Alien (1979). Or, David Cronenberg's film, Videodrome (1982), where, after Max (actor James Wood) becomes part of the secret organization "Video Arena", or after "Cathode Ray Mission", directed by the deceased Doctor Brian O"Blivion, weird things start to happen, like dangerous video-cassettes implanted literally in the belly.

E.: "The patient in the next bed is an emaciated woman, a Filipino in the sixth month of pregnancy. There is a frost of ashes about her mouth. Each night she is swept clean by a fever that has burnt up every bit which is not essential - blood, saliva, tears, tissue, Only the mighty fetus, raving to be born, is not touched. Even as the child buds and splits and specializes, the woman grows daily less differentiated until she is something rudimentary, a finger of flesh, unfulfilled, unformed, which will surely die of its one achievement. She resembles a snake that has swallowed a rabbit and is exhausted by her digestion. Through the translucent, dark-veined belly, the legs of her meal, moving."

Richard Seizer, Letters to a Young Doctor, New York 1972.

D + S: Consider other transgressions of the body: implants of electronic surveillance devices, body trades such as organ transplants or surrogate mothering, or complete departures from the body like the alienation of the womb of in-vitro fertilization. The judicial system is not yet equipped to legislate the fate of the three embryos which, while awaiting implantation in a surrogate womb, were "orphaned" by the death of their donor parents in an airplane crash. The teenage son of the donor father may file legal action to prevent his could-be siblings from an entitlement to the inheritance. Body bag, body count, body odor, body guard, body politic, body snatcher, body English, EM-body, DIS-embody, ANTI-body. "The body is the body, all by itself, and has no need of organs, the body is never an organism. Organisms are enemies of the body". Artaud wants to establish an existence for the body in which all influence, all nature and all culture are torn away from it so that it is itself, honed down, bone and nerve, without family, God or internal organs. Deleuze qualifies, "the Body without Organs is not opposed to organs, as such, but to the organic organization of the organs called the organism; the organism being equated with fixed hierarchies and organized by an internal logic of function. The organism lacks the multiplicity of directives that are ignited by desire".

E.: "As Deleuze and Guattari show, it is to Lacan that one must turn to find a theory of passive desire, a completely denatured psychoanalysis. For Lacan, the body exists in biological fragments, it is a shattered tabula rasa which must be "granted an image". On this body of absence, Lacan superimposes a quasi-linguistic model of the adapted personality. It is a void (desire) waiting to be filled, a body-without-organs attending the phallic punctuations of signification, a gap subtending the marking operations of power. This discursively positioned subject is the perfect material for a neodisciplinary extremist society. It is precisely the "volume in perpetual disintegration" which Foucault so gingerly describes, that "inscribed surface of events ..., traced by language ...", a docile receptacle to be "totally imprinted by history" Charles Levin, op. cit., p. 100.

V. O.: The Rotary Notary and his Hot Plate is a collaborative theaterwork based on Duchamp's Large Glass by D+S and Susan Mosakowski, performed initially at La Mama Experimental Theater (New York) and then presented at the Painted Bride Art Center (Philadelphia), during Fall 1987, to commemorate the centennial of Duchamp's birth. A sort of staging strategy, it has a scopic principle, or rather, it attempts a deconstruction of classical and modernist scopophilia. The work is a complex, Duchampian and three dimensional Bachelor Machine, non-coupling, with two elements, the female, the Bride, and the male, the Bachelor. Each occupies one half of the stage. Within such a "scene", direct vision between audience and rear stage is interrupted and returned virtually. A vertical wall panel, dividing and pivoting, in combination with a mirror suspended at 45˚, allows the audience to see the Bachelor and the Bride concurrently, collapsed into a single but fragmented vision. One character is actually in front of the wall, while the other is virtually in the same plane, suspended in the reflective image.

D + S: The Bride lies prone on the floor behind the wall. She is reflected floating as the "object of desire". The wall can rotate on a pivot hinge to allow the characters to exchange position as well as sexual identity. They are never to consummate. The wall is a spatial prophylactic, and the hinge, a designing mechanism, offering both temptation and denial. The project probes the instability of gender and the fictive identities of male and female as social constructs. When the Bachelor's Bed replaces the wall, the head of the Bachelor penetrates the headboard, toward the audience; so the audience sees his head directly, and his body reflected, floating in plan above. The Bachelor's disembodied head recites a chain of commands to his beheaded body. His body responds.


V. O.: In The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) and Crash (1973), J. G. Ballard addresses a "conceptualized psychopathology" of the XXth Century machine age. One could say, a theoretical reversal that challenges the social-democratic ideals expressed by the Swiss historian Siegfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture (1941, revised four times prior to 1973, with six successive main editions and sixteen printings), and in Mechanization Takes Command (1948). Giedion, the most articulate disciple of Le Corbusier's theories of urbanism, praised Robert Moses" immense public works programs and his network of highways in, around, and through New York City. "Freedom", he proclaimed, "was given to both the driver and car". Contemporary with J.-L. Godard's film Week-end (1967), Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition focuses on different aspects of Giedion's positivistic and utilitarian postulates: "The automobile crash contains a crucial image of the machine as conceptualized psychopathology. Tests on a wide range of subjects indicate that the automobile, and in particular the automobile crash, provides a focus for the conceptualizing of a wide range of impulses involving the elements of psychopathology, sexuality and self-sacrifice."

E.: "No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the State's interest in radicating it. Media reports of alcohol-related death and mutilation on the nation's roads are legion. The anecdotal is confirmed by the statistical. "Drunk drivers cause an annual death toll of over 25,000 and in the same time span cause nearly one million personal injuries and more than five billion dollars in property damage" (...)." (Excerpt from Supreme Court's Decision Upholding Sobriety Checkpoints, June 14, 1990)

V. O.: J. G. Ballard, a British aircraft pilot and writer, who, in the sixties, was in touch with the architects and artists in Archigram's orbit, wishes "to explore inner space, that psychological domain (manifest, for example, in surrealist painting) where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse".

E.: "Around the deaths of James Dean and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate fantasies ... For each of them (he) had devised an optimum auto-death ... He saw Reagan in a complex rear-end collision, dying a stylized death which expressed (his) obsession with Reagan's genital organs, like his obsession with the exquisite transits of the screen actress" pubis across the vinyl seat cover of hired limousines" J. G. Ballard, Crash, pp. 15-16

V. O.: Ballard's fictional "atrocity exhibition", established in a mental hospital, offered documents and rare exhibits on world cataclysms. "The start of the show was J.F.K., victim of the first conceptual car crash." A unique record was frame 235 from the video of Abraham Zapruder on the assassination of J. F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) and photographs from the Report of the Warren Commission. Ballard's "museum also suggested an unconventional view of those grim events by submitting, as a lead for a renewed interpretation, a reading of Alfred Jarry's "The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race". Incidentally, an exhibition about the assassination of the late President has recently opened in Dallas, and "an authentic remake of the original JFK assassination" has been performed in Eternal Frame (1975), a video realized by two "guerrilla TV" groups, Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco, inspired by Jean Baudrillard's hype hypertheory of simulation and seduction.

D + S: The navel of Vitruvian man, revised by Leonardo da Vinci, is the mathematical center of his cosmic circle. His biological and geometrical points of origin are coincident. The nostalgic desire to retrieve order and stability, to find confirmation of man' unity with nature and a decipherable universe, can be found in Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition, in which the navel imagined by Travis, is a hinge point for the lost symmetry of the body.

E.: "Much of Travis" thought concerns what he terms "the lost symmetry of the bIastosphere" the primitive precursor of the embryo which is the last structure to preserve perfect symmetry in all planes. It occurred to Travis that our own body may conceal the rudiments of a symmetry not only about the vertical axis but also the horizontal. One recalls Goethe's notion that the skull is formed of modified vertebrae - similarly, the bones of the pelvis may constitute the remains of a lost sacral skull. The resemblance between histologies of lung and kidney has long been noted. Other similarities of respiratory and urinogenital function come to mind, enshrined both in popular mythology (the supposed equivalence in size of nose and penis) and in psychoanalytic symbolism (the "eyes" are a common code for testicles)." J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969, London 1985, p. 13.


V. O.: Herman von Helmholz (1847) presented the principle of energy conservation maintaining that matter and force could not conceptually be disentangled. He demonstrated that it is impossible to create force out of nothing. Thus, the theory of conservation of energy was formulated, which held that there was a single, indestructible, and infinitely transformable energy basic to all nature. [See Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor. Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York, 1 990)]. Helmholz extended a particular usage of the concept of "work", modeled on the machine, to a general principle of nature. Universalized as the demiurge present in all nature, the concept of labor power (Arbeitskraft) redefined the principle of motion in the universe in terms of its power to "perform work". As a physicist and physiologist, Helmholz contributed to the elaboration of the modern concept of labor power as the quantitative equivalent of work produced, regardless of the source of the energy transformed. All this will lead Helmholz to the theory of the animal body, which is not simply analogous, but identical to a thermodynamic machine. While the machine had been anthropomorphized through the automata of the 18th Century, now it is the metaphor of the motor-engine which is being anthropomorphized. But, as entropy, which describes the irreversibility of heat flow, revealed the "loss" of energy in conversion, so fatigue revealed the loss of energy in the conversion of Kraft to into production. The consequences were that in physiology the focus on muscular force oriented scientific research toward the problem of work, and led to a science of fatigue, to ergonomics, to scientific management. Marey's investigations into the dynamic laws of the body in motion created a new science of human "labor power" based on thermodynamics. Charting and representing the movement of the "animal machine", he invented photographic apparatus to record images of these movements. The movement of the "human motor", as Rabinbach aptly calls it, was captured by the photographic framing. In Marey's work, the body was the focal point of the scientific dissolution of the space-time continuum. The body is also the focal point of a transformation of architecture through a slow, but potent process of domestication of space, which Siegfried Giedion was the first to acknowledge in Mechanization Takes Command. A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948). This process will lead to the displacement of the body and to the disembodiment of the place. The body now tirelessly ascends and descends the staircase, from Duchamp's Nude to Bruno Taut's Die Neue Wohnung: Die Frau als Schöpferin ("The New Habitation. The Women as Creator". Berlin 1924), to Frank Gilbreth's chronocyclegraphs and to Le Corbusier and Ozenfant's "objets-types", objects typified as extensions of the human body.



© George Teyssot/V2_, 1992

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