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Elektra XX – Transcending the Machinic Body

Gliding lugubriously through a series of disjunct labyrinthine corridors the walls throb with olive-gray moiré patterns. They hang precariously in the endless void of the screen, where there is no up or down forwards or backwards not into or out of, only deeper and through. A beige teeming mass appears briefly, a vaguely corporeal yet alien nebulous shape. As if a threshold has been crossed, a pallid abyss floods the void and the mass returns more prominently to fill the screen. If it was not apparent then, it is now, that it is comprised of a puddle of gesticulating bodies in thrall of the mass yet one with it.

Suddenly, the audience, sitting in rows of fold-up chairs in the darkened warehouse space beholding the eldritch horror, is blasted with plumes of smoke as though the screen is seething out to enshroud them. All visibility is lost. Churning drones punctuate the smoke, heightening the omniscience—a scrambled signal of what is to come.

↑ In Kurt Hentschläger’s FEED.X, smoke fills the room and transports audiences to another dimension

Kurt Hentschläger’s FEED.X, an adaptation of his earlier work, FEED, dissolves the difference between reality and hallucination. With no immediate way to discern what is outside of the smoke the mind starts playing tricks on your perception. While each person presumably experiences it differently, one begins to wonder if there are still visuals unfolding on the screen puncturing the thick smoke with colors and shapes. A membrane of flashing red synapses pulsed in front of my eyes before diffusing into more amorphous visuals that strove towards but never cohered into anything identifiable. The vortex de-materializes the carapace of the body and lifts the conscious into a virtual space as if thrusting the mind through a never-ending wormhole. The effect is intensified by just how long it lasts.

↑ Matthew Biederman’s Morphogerador (above) and Edwin van Der Heide’s Last Sound Performance

A centerpiece to Elektra’s 20th year as a media art festival, it was performed for three nights at Montreal’s Usine C and ties many of the works in the show together. If only on a purely superficial level and to clarify the visuals that appeared in FEED.X by way of analogy, one could argue Matthew Biederman’s Morphogerador, on view along with other neon-tinged works by the artist at the Elektra Gallery, or Edwin van der Heide’s Laser Sound Performance, performed in the same room the last night of the festival, are what the smoke canvas could look like if it were slowed down several orders of magnitude and rendered in much starker detail: synesthetic conduits receding into an apparent horizon. More than that, though, by unleashing the perception of the mind from its integument it contrasted physical experience with that of transcendence speculating upon what could exist if only our faculties were less embodied. When it ends, unsure of where or how to leave, we are slowly guided out by ushers in reflective orange vests through the still impenetrable fog until suddenly we arrive back in the lobby, lithe and disoriented by the return to our bodies.

↑ Avedon glides seamlessly across the stage flanked by eye-popping visuals performing Myriam Bleau’s saccharine techno-pop reverie

“The difference between the actual and the artificial is very thin” beams a digitally-inflected Scottish voice (a Scottish-inflected digital voice?) in the darkness. “My render place and yours are interwoven, a dream slowly revealing its nature,” continues LaTurbo Avedon, an avatar-artist whom exists solely in the virtual realm, in the prelude to her performance. On the first night of the festival she performed Myriam Bleau’s Eternity Be Kind, a techno-pop reverie reminiscent of the experimental pop of PC Music label recording artists such as SOPHIE and Hannah Diamond. The screen upon which Avedon appears shifts continuously, her appearance and the background fluctuating with the mood of the music. She contorts her body unnaturally across the stage an astral projection unencumbered by the mortal coil free to move her body with an inhuman vigor.

Mobile devices, strangely, mostly iPads, held up by audience members instructed to connect to a WiFi network before the performance, flickered with Kōan-like bursts of texts: “Exist long after your body stops,” “Maybe our bodies can be blurred,” “I am real,” “The simulated candle in the wind never extinguishes,” and “what happens on your devices is already more real than you,” spliced with landscape and rendered humanoid figures engaged in a collective incantation disseminating her presence into the audience. In one series, she muses on the lyrics to the song: “Authorship in the internet age is a funny concept / The lyrics of this song don’t make sense / They’ve been generated with machine learning. / I trained a neural network on Rihanna’s full discography / mixed with some William Gibson.”

Formerly beholden to the limitations of the individual mind, a nascent grammar emerges rhizomatically from the plastic vernacular of pop sincerity and hyperreality, conjuring a future that promises transcendence as long as you jack in and leave your body behind. Eternity be kind, then, is both a mantra and a prayer.

↑iPads and iPhones held up by the audience depicted messages transmitted by Avedon musing upon the nature of the virtual and the real

Porting the classic Walt Whitman quote into the 21st century, she intones: “There are multitudes of me, there are multitudes in all of you. Please, share them.” If FEED.X simulated a release from the body, Avedon represents how refracted identity can become through the kaleidoscopic lens of the screen, once we complete the passage from the physical realm into the digital matrix. Our bodies have functional limitations that can only extend so far. The multitudes, no longer contained within the restrictive ‘I’ of the body, are free to proliferate, mingle, and evolve.

It is interesting to think, then, that as the body becomes more machinic, the more freedom the mind has to expand and evolve. A woman, dressed as if she is about to explain the safety procedures on a commercial flight speaks placidly,

From an evolutionary point of view our brain has developed through physical exercise. Walking, climbing, running … We are not made to sit in the office 8 hours a day, even though we’ve been locked up in classrooms and offices for decades. It has been scientifically demonstrated that individuals who exercise have better long-term memory, reasoning ability, attention, and problem-solving skills than those who do not.

(Sourced from an English version of the script provided by the artist. The performance was conducted in French.)

↑ Ergonomics performative presentation felt like a TED Talk blended with modern dance

Rocio Berenguer’s Ergonomics, a so-called “participative danse conference,” is like a corporate instructional video brought to life through tightly choreographed live performance. The host, along with a man and a woman dressed in analogous black and white outfits, describes their mission to adapt the human body to our modern era through a series of services, products and “Smart Training Protocols.” In this regard, self-improvement means catching up with the evolution of a technological landscape that has already outpaced us.

In addition to showing a brief video portraying a disheveled down-on-his-luck man transformed by their services, they invite audience members to participate in collective rituals such as taking photos of those nearest to them or of themselves and to upload them via their Ergolive Conference portal (somewhat perversely, there is a CAPTCHA that requires you to check a box to prove “I am not a terrorist”), before sharing them on the screen behind them, emphasizing that “sharing is caring. privacy is theft.” These prosaic, yet humorous activities belie a much more profound intent, however:

We have conquered the world and nature, but today nature is conquering us. To preserve our supremacy and to go even further, we must also modify our primitive nature. Our urban environment and current urban lifestyles are no longer in sync with our biology. [O]ur genetics and biological evolution advances less rapidly than innovations and changes in our society. It’s time to disrupt our biological evolution!

The intent, then, is the acceleration of human evolution veiled in corporate dressage. This isn’t just about making us more efficient but also something-more-than-human as governed by the current rate of technological progress. Whereas humans, up until this point, have chosen to become smarter over becoming stronger to battle illness, pollution, even AI, those same issues have also been the consequences of our aspirational intelligence. So, they ask, “what would the Homo Urbanis Erectus that we have become, choose? Would it create a third option?” concluding, open-endedly, “The answer is in your hands.”

↑ The workers, despite being “enhanced” hardly seem human in their monotonous labor

What does this mean for the evolution of the body, however? Disabused of its dependence on the mind its limitations are constrained and exploited in service of boundless productivity. In Louis-Philippe Demers’ Repeat humans are reduced to living portmanteaus of flesh and exoskeleton making them much more efficient at performing monotonous tasks for longer periods of time. A rail-cart endlessly rounds a circular track which surrounds the performance space filled with stacked boxes. A single individual in a nondescript black jumpsuit squats holding a single box, the exoskeleton parasitically fixed to his back, its pneumatic sinews worming down his arms.

As the performance begins he is joined by three other similarly outfitted workers and they begin stacking and re-stacking the cardboard boxes in different areas of the ring. This ostensibly Sisyphean task evokes a subterranean Amazon warehouse where already precarious labor has reached its most dehumanizing extreme.

Although it feels like it could go on forever the progress is halted when the original worker slumps down on the rail-cart motionlessly. Another of the drones approaches expressionless and begins to prod at the body before despoiling it of its exoskeleton. Suddenly, she begins flopping it around the ring like a dead fish becoming increasingly violent in how they contort and fling the body. Subsequently, the liberated human awakens, proceeding to grab the worker, who then shoves them away over and over again in a tenuous duet between human and cyborg.

It breaks down further until finally there is just one worker left fighting with her own suit, one of the arms coming loose yet still attached to a box that she begins swinging forcefully in concentric circles over her head in the middle of the space. The dehumanizing struggle against the slavish labor doesn’t end in either side reasserting itself but rather in a breakdown of the entire system into chaos.

Since 2007, MIAN, or the International Marketplace For Digital Art has been host to a variety of digital art professionals ranging from curators, producers, artists and beyond. In observance of the 20th anniversary of the festival, many of the panel topics touched upon the current state of digital art, its evolution and its popular and artistic appeal questioning how exactly it is defined. While these are important questions to be asked, especially in an already hyper-networked society, much of the discussion fell back on cliches of digital arts’ supposed marginalization, or how it was often referred, perhaps problematically, its “ghetto-ization” in the art world, strategies to secure funding for more “difficult” works especially when distinguishing between “entertainment” and capital-A art proper. What is unfortunate was less that these were the featured topics of the discussion more than it was that these are still discussions that need to be had after decades of screen-based, interactive, installation, algorithmic art and more.

While many of the panelists considered the framing as entertainment less as a boon than a monkey on their back, at least beyond its use as a rhetorical strategy to secure funding, it should be stated, at least in such a post-digital world that the aesthetic of media / digital / internet has both wide appeal beyond the art world while still remaining intellectually robust. Take, for example LaTurbo Avedon’s performance of Myriam Bleau’s Eternity Be Kind that asks rather profound questions about the nature of reality but with an explicit pop sensibility.

↑ (clockwise left to right) Nien Tzu Weng performing SPIEL, NDOS’s Sending Movement 2.0, FALSAIES by Alexis Langevin-Tétrault, Guillaume Côté & Dave Gagnon

Among other performances, the festival was rounded out with several gallery openings as well as performances by susy.technology, monocolor and Mene Savasta & Andrés Colubriat the Society of Art & Technology dome each night. Alexis Langevin-Tétrault, Guillaume Côté & Dave Gagnon performed an update of FALAISES that had previously been shown at the 2018 installment of Elektra in the Phi Centre. Syntax performed microark which explored the relationship between human perception and micro-acoustic phenomenon. In Sending Movement 2.0, NSDOS generated in real-time atonal effects and sounds through bodily contortions and staccato dance movements. This paired well with Peter Van Haaften and Michael Montanaro’s SPIEL as performed by Nien Tzu Weng in the lobby of SAT and USINE C which entreated people to whisper into a device in her ear that translated their speech into expressive noises and dance moves.

In the lobby of Usine C, Gridspace, a multimedia studio that also photographs the event every year shared greatest hits photos through the years of the festival. Sabrina Ratte and Samuel Arsenault-Brassard exhibited works at Ellephant and Justine Ermad presented the video work CO(AI)XISTENCE at Cinematheque Quebecoise, to name just a couple of the satellite exhibitions occurring in conjunction with the festival.

For the duration of the video prelude of FEED.X, I could not help but to recall Annihilation, the novella by weird-fiction author Jeff VanDerMeer. The abyssal corridors and the amorphous human blob conjured in my mind the journey through the Shimmer into Area X, an alien landscape of refracted DNA, the Biologist’s subsequent descent into the sunken tower and her confrontation with the Crawler, a shapeless horror of unknown origin and impossible description. In Alex Garland’s adaptation of the book, when her party is struck with tragedy, the Biologist, named Lena in the film, explains that it would be fruitless to turn back before reaching their destination of the lighthouse if they really wanted to leave. Prompted with the rejoinder, “You’re saying we get out by going deeper in?” she replies calmly, “if you like, yes.”

If Ergonomics and FEED.X represent the most radical evolutionary conclusions of our body and mind, then, like the DNA remix the Shimmer stimulates in whatever passes through it, Avedon’s invocation of a future that sets our minds free into the expanse of the matrix is infinitely more preferable to one where we are relegated to the perfunctory mechanics of our physical bodies. Yet, if these are the inevitable trajectories upon which we are concomitantly moving then there is no point in turning back now, we must go deeper if we wish to escape.

ELEKTRA
photos: Gridspace

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