Art practices employing virtual reality technologies, artificial life systems and biotechnological research address significant representational and cultural issues.

Despite their deployment of very different kinds of technologies and representational strategies, artists working in these three fields negotiate Enlightenment and contemporary models of thought, as well as ideas prevalent in science and technology. In this paper, I consider how such conceptual models are addressed by four representative artists. The goal of this study is twofold: to examine the diverse stratifications of meanings lying within the models of thought cited by these artists; and to explore the conceptual shifts that take place when artists cross the boundary front virtual reality and artificial systems to real life.

One aspect of CyberAnthropology is to investigate how humans deal with the artificial worlds they have created and the socio-cultural phenomena occurring as a result of the interactions between the mind and the body and virtual realities and artificial tools such as robots. In this study I take, as a point of departure, an approach somewhat different in that I examine how artists negotiate given sociocultural constructs in the creation of their virtual environments, artificial systems and biotechnological artworks, and specifically the diverse ways they employ to challenge Enlightenment ideologies.

In art discourse, Enlightenment is often conceived as a conflation of the Cartesian mind-body dualism and Renaissance ocularcentric, perspectival traditions which privilege the visual and the rational. Acknowledged as the force underlying modern progress and technological advancement, Enlightenment is also perceived as positivistic, reductive and instrumental. In contrast, post-modern theories and poststructuralist strategies serve as conceptual models to counter Enlightenment ideologies. By deconstructing monolithic truth systems and universalizing discourses, post-structuralist theorists and artists reveal the ways in which unitary, dualistic and hierarchical modes of thought are constructed, aiming in the process to dismantle or challenge the cultural inscriptions that inform our thought systems.

The virtual reality environments of Char Davies and the robotics of Simon Penny explicitly address ocularcentric epistemologies and representational traditions by challenging the mind-body dualism embedded in Enlightenment ideologies. Even though their respective approaches on these issues differ, both artists strive to engage the body as a source of knowledge. But how do artists who create real life artworks deal with such issues? Some bio-tech artworks operate as tangible, living models of post-structuralist notions of difference and différance; as well, other live artworks display cyborgian notions of fluid boundaries and hybridity that dismantle age-old dualisms. But do such live artworks necessarily challenge reductive Enlightenment ideologies? Or do they repeat them in the guise of new utopias? A cloning project by Natalie Jeremijenko and the transgenic artworks of Eduardo Kac provide insights into these questions.

To begin this study, I would like to examine the ideas and artworks of artists who create virtual reality and artificial systems. Char Davies' work Osmose (1995) is an immersive interactive virtual-reality environment installation which the participant is able to experience through an expanded sensorium — hence not just visually. Wearing a head-mounted display and a jacket fitted with position detectors, the participant is immersed in a three-dimensional, visual and acoustic virtual space in real time: by inhaling or exhaling, one has the impression of floating upwards or falling; and by altering body positions, one can change directions. Thus, with very little effort, the immersant can float, fly, or jump through different virtual spaces: a clearing, a forest, a pond, a subterranean earth, and so on. These do not consist of analog images but rather, they are, according to Davies, metaphors of nature.

By entering this virtual environment, the immersant no longer assumes the traditional role of a distanced, disembodied eye contemplating a fixed object; instead the participant becomes totally immersed in a virtual world, resulting, the artist says, in the dissolution of the separation between mind and body: "Within this spatiality, there is no split between the observer and the observed. The withdrawal of the sense of sight, of visual acuity — which so dominates the human relationship with the world and is so tied to the Cartesian paradigm — allows another way of sensing to come forward, one in which the body feels space, very much like that of a body immersed in the sea."[1]

Although Davies' ideas reflect her desire to transcend Enlightenment ideologies and traditional ocularcentric epistemologies, she is aware that virtual reality technologies, developed by the military and industrial interests, are not neutral and that they remain embedded in Cartesian values. In this context, she cites several authors, including Henri Lefebvre: "[V]irtual reality can be read as a 'literal enactment of Cartesian ontology,' the product of the collective consciousness of Western culture issuing from 'a techno-utopian ideology ripe with subconscious perceptions and prejudices in which liberation is sought from the body [and Earth] by dissolving into the machine'."[1]

Taking her cue from Marshall McLuhan who wrote that the role of the artist was to create counter-environments in order to expand perceptions and correct "the unconscious bias of a given culture,"[1] Davies employs virtual reality technologies to challenge the ocularcentric mode by engaging the participant's body and expanding the immersant's sense of reality. Davies' ultimate aim is to expand the participant's perception of the real world through his/her experience of the virtual one: "I seek," she says, "to remind people of their connection to the natural (rather than man-made) environment not only biologically, but spiritually and psychologically, as regenerative source and mythological ground."[1]

But do her virtual reality environments effectively transcend Cartesian dualism? Not according to Simon Penny. Although he does not explicitly cite Davies' immersive environments as an example, Penny questions the claim that virtual reality transcends the mind-body duality. In his aptly entitled essays, Twenty centuries of Virtual Reality and Virtual Reality as the Completion the Enlightenment Project he argues that virtual reality is, in fact, a continuation of Renaissance representational traditions and Cartesian epistemologies.

Although engaging the body, total immersion does not, he says, acknowledge or stimulate all the senses. "Virtual Reality technology splits the body in two. The visual and auditory simulation presents a representation of a body to the eyes and ears, while the 'meat body' remains [behind]. VR replaces the body with two partial bodies: the corporeal body and an (incomplete) electronic 'body image'."[2] The immersant's experience is, therefore, one of dislocation and disassociation of the real body. For this reason, argues Penny, virtual reality reinforces a Cartesian mind-body dualism by replacing the flesh body with a body image which is "a creation of mind (for all 'objects' in VR are a product of mind)."[3] Virtual Reality thus represents for Penny, "a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of disembodied mind, part of the long Western tradition of the denial of the body."[3]

Penny acknowledges that a shift in paradigm has occurred with the emergence of post-modern and post-structuralist theory as well as in the sciences with the advent of nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory; however, virtual reality does not fall into this new conceptual mode. Although technically advanced, virtual reality is, he states, philosophically retrogressive. Despite the fact that immersive environments address the body in more complex ways, the relation of virtual reality to the body is "a relation of instrumentalization, of specialization of' parts, that shows it to be the technology at the end of the Enlightenment."[3] Indeed, for Penny, virtual reality not only fails to transcend the mind-body dualism, but remains, despite its rhetoric, embedded in Enlightenment notions of instrumental reason.

In his own artworks, Simon Penny also negotiates Enlightenment ideologies and ocularcentric epistemologies, including the mind-body dualism. However, unlike virtual reality environments, Penny's works are not screen-based. Rather his robots, as kinaesthetic intelligences, interact with participants in a real world setting: in the actual space of our body. Petit Mal, An Autonomous Robotic Artwork (1992-1995) is an example. This robot categorically transcends ocularcentric representational traditions as it is able to explore real architectural space and sense human presence, following participants around. "Its public function," says Penny "is to present visitors with the embodiment of a machine 'intelligence' which is substantially itself, not an automaton or simulation of some biological system."[5]

His autonomous robot's name is of interest in this respect. Petit Mal is a neurological name for an epileptic seizure, a temporary lapse of consciousness. Such a name implies therefore that this robot has a consciousness, a mind of its own. As Penny explains, "[t]he humour of this notion originates in the way in which it is contrary to the conventional idea of 'control' in robotics."[4] Not a goal-based robot, or one that executes predefined tasks like an industrial robot-tool does, Petit Mal is an anti-robot that serves to challenge Cartesian mind-body dualism.

Penny explains that conventional robots, like the universal machine, are conceived as "a formless form to be tilled with software. Implicit in this is the assumption that hardware is on a 'lower level' than software. Historically," he says, "this idea is directly descended from the Cartesian duality, the 'mind-body split'. I find that dualism problematic," he continues. and it follows that ideas modeled on it, such as the software/hardware split, must also be problematic."[4] For this reason. Petit Mal is constructed as an alternative to such a dualistic structure by considering both the hardware and software "as a seamless continuity [whereby its behavior arises from the dynamics of its 'body'."[5]

Of course, conferring mind-body problems onto an artificial intelligence is a kind of anthropomorphism which may, of itself, be problematic. This is not to say that Penny forgets the human factor. "It is important to me," he says, "that people interact bodily, sensually with my robot… Art is about sensuous engagement with matter, or at least with complex sensory experience, it is about learning through the process of physical realization, through the utilisation of kinesthetic and proprioceptive ways of knowing."[4]

Penny's autonomous robot does engage us in the space of our body, following our scent so to speak. But even though this artificial intelligence challenges ocularcentruc representation traditions, and the ideas underlying conventional goalbased robots, does it irrevocably subvert Enlightenment ideologies? To respond to this question. I would briefly like to examine the anti-robotic projects of Natalie Jeremijenko.

Her robotic works serve to deconstruct institutionalized knowledge in order to transform public perceptions. They also materialize Derridean conceptions of différance. In Derrida's deconstructive process, it is essential to make use of given cultural concepts so as to manifest their contrary. Like Derrida who employs hierarchical first principles in order to subvert them, so too does Jeremijenko, albeit ironically. She does this by altering the pre-programmed tasks of commercially available robotic toy dogs, transforming them from tame, domesticated robots, which perform inane acts, to entities that are totally feral. More specifically, packs of feral Sniffer robotic dogs have been upgraded to detect pollutants or chemical hazards in diverse communities.

What kind of havoc to information systems can these feral creatures wreak? Wild, undomesticated, marauding, the feral robotic dogs are able to roam public grounds uncovering concealed truths and invisible dangers. Turning a blind eye to official facts, they can operate outside the frame constructed by information groups who deny the presence of pollutants. Indeed, the feral robots have the capacity to sniff out so-called fact from fiction.

Significantly, some of Jeremijenko's robotic dogs have web cams installed on their rear ends. Rather than operating like a black box which contains preprogrammed intelligence, as anti-robots, these feral creatures can project their camera eyes backwards: out towards those watching from behind. Operating like moving frames of reference, continuously deferring fixed, stable and pre-defined official truths, the camera eyes of the dogs can project, Jeremijenko says, how communities become producers (not just receivers) of information: how heterogeneous perspectives of diverse communities become information.

Despite the intentions of Simon Penny and Natalie Jeremijenko to create antirobots that serve to challenge Enlightenment ideologies or undermine institutionalized information, one could reasonably argue that Simon Penny's robot, Petit Mal, like Jeremijenko's feral robotic Sniffer dogs could also be employed instrumentally. Sensing human presence, as does Petit Mal, or filming unsuspecting people through hidden webcams, as do the Sniffer dogs, such anti-robots could also effectively be employed as devious tracking devices. All to say that the real issue here is that the rationale underlying certain works can almost always be inverted and used against itself. The conceptual models upon which artworks are based are not absolute. They are totally contingent upon context. Such inversions of seemingly liberating and expansive ideas become more evident, one might argue, when artists work in the area of biotechnology, and most particularly when their mission is grounded in techno-utopian ideals. This is the case of Eduardo Kac whose ideas on his transgenic artworks can be challenging, problematic, but also enlightening.

To cast a light on these issues, I wish first to examine Natalie Jeremijenko's One Tree(s) project. Because it consists of cloned trees, first displayed as 100 seedlings in 1998. it is an artwork that has possibly brought her the most notoriety; yet this work is consistent with her desire to challenge institutionalized knowledge.

Jeremijenko's One Tree(s) is a paradox in both the figurative and literal sense. It is literally so because thousands of trees were cloned from a walnut tree called the Paradox. Planted in 1904, this particular Paradox tree, currently with a circumference of about 30 feet, grows in California, in front of a house owned by a Mr. Vlach. Exhibited in various stages of growth, Jeremijenko's Vlach clones may have disappointed those expecting to see science fiction versions of perfect replicas. As genetically identical clones, the trees paradoxically represent sameness (in their DNA) but also manifest physical differences. Even as young seedlings, the clones displayed unique properties: distinctive branching patterns, varied numbers of leaves, and diverse growth rates. What is significant is that the differences displayed in the cloned seedlings are not a result of variations in external or environmental factures. On the contrary, the One Tree(s) project serves to subvert the common notion that genes are "the Book of Life."

By being able to actually see sameness and difference in the cloned trees, one has the opportunity to visualize, in a material way, the complexity of life itself. This is particularly significant today. With the mapping of the human genome now complete, it is perhaps more important than ever to dispel reductive notions of genetics. Is a human being not more than the sum of his/her genes? Can one think of one's genomic makeup as one's self? In this post-human era, perhaps poststructuralist philosophies are more pertinent than ever to provide models of conceiving of the complexities inherent in all life forms.

One can take the myth of the origin as articulated by post-structuralist theorists as a case in point. Even though the cloned trees can be traced back to the undifferentiated tissue of the Paradox tree, can one actually identify this as their origin? Where, one might ask, did the parent Paradox tree itself originate? From a seed? From a cutting? And that particular seed or cutting? One can, in fact, regard the Paradox tree as a physical manifestation of that putative, irretrievable origin that could go back ad infinitum — to the beginning of life itself. Moreover, what can one observe in the repetitions (or clones) of this particular Paradox tree? Despite the fact they are genetically identical to the Paradox tree, they are most evidently not perfect replicas of the mature, century-old tree. Neither do any of the clones even replicate their clonal others. As such, they display difference and complexity. One Tree(s) challenges conventional discourse on genetics that perpetuates notions about loss of individuation and authenticity. Indeed, each distinctive cloned tree manifestly proves the opposite. Life (whether plant, animal or human) constitutes more than just genetic make-up. As such, Jeremijenko's cloned trees are indeed paradoxical, serving to materialize post-structuralist notions of repetition and difference.

This said, it should be noted that Jeremijenko's clones were produced in collaboration with scientists from the University of California. Davis, who are researching the Vlach clones as a genetic standard by which to compare the disease resistance of genetically diverse Paradox seedlings. Similarly, other cultivars like Granny Smith apples (clones which we eat) and genetically modified foods (currently a subject of controversy) are also objects of scientific projects which, according to many critics, remain firmly grounded in Enlightenment positions. What then is the relation between the ideas underlying scientific research and art projects such as Jeremijenko's? Is it simply the artist's intention and the context in which the real life works are created?

The transgenic artworks of Eduardo Kac can cast a certain light on these questions. Like Jeremijenko's clones, his transgenic artworks also display poststructuralist notions: specifically, the cyborgian notion of hybridity and slipping boundaries. However, where Jeremijenko, through her cloning project, aims to dispel reductive notions about genetics. Kac's transgenic artworks, based on techno-utopian perspectives, reveal that even the most progressive contemporary models of thought are not necessarily always redemptive or emancipatory.

Transgenic art has been defined by Kac as "a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings.[8] One such being. Alba, was introduced by Kac in 2000. The genes of this albino bunny were altered by the addition of an Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), taken from the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. Alba is now able to glow a bright green when subjected to ultraviolet light, transformed by art and science into an aesthetic entity. In another transgenic art exhibition, The Eighth Day, Kac presents uswith an array of green glowing creatures. These include GFP fish, GFP mice, GFP amoebas and GFP plants located in a closed environment under a ventilated, clear, plexiglas dome.

Assuming the role of genetic programmer, artists like Kac are able (with the assistance of scientists) to write and alter the genetic codes of different species, and by so doing, create hybrid creatures. Kac believes such interspecies creations will, in fact, produce a "generation of beautiful chimeras and fantastic new living systems, such as plantimals (plants with animal genetic material, or animals with plant genetic material) and animans (animals with human genetic material, or humans with animal genetic material)."[8] Clearly. Kac's transgenic projects are controversial, designed to persuade us, he says, to "critically reflect on the social and cultural implications of biotechnology."[8] This includes looking at the positive and beneficial side of creating new chimeras. By inventing new life forms, through the manipulation of genes, the artist can contribute, Kac argues, to "global biodiversity (at a time when] at least one endangered species becom[es] extinct every day."[8]

Certainly the ability to merge living organisms with the machine, and to transfer genes from one species to another, prompts one to completely rethink age-old notions about the stability of genetic identities and the solid generic boundaries between human, animal, plant, and machine.

In his transgenic artwork, Genesis (1998-2001), Kac blurs such boundaries even more, melding genetic and cultural codes, genes and genera, nature and culture. In this installation, Genesis, Kac set up a petri dish, its contents projected onto the central wall of the exhibition space, as well as onto our computer monitors via the Internet. The petri dish contains the "artist's gene" and we, as gallery or online visitors, are invited to partake in its modification.

The "artist's gene" was engendered from the biblical Words from Genesis, posted on the right wall of the gallery: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." The letters and spaces constituting the biblical sentence (the original code) are translated into the dots and dashes of the binary Morse code which, in win, are converted into the genetic alphabet, ACTG. The ensuing sequence of ACTGs constitutes the genetic code of the "artist's gene," now able to produce protein.

Placed into a petri dish next to another protein (ECFP), emitting cyan fluorescent light under ultraviolet radiation, the "artist's gene" becomes color-coded before it is inserted into a species of E. coli bacteria. The genetically engineered cyan bacteria are then introduced to another colony of E. coli, this time without the "artist's gene." Also color-coded, this particular strain of E. coli bacteria was inserted with an Enhanced Yellow Fluorescent Protein (EYFP) that emits yellow light when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. In the petri dish, the two strains of cyan and yellow bacteria naturally proliferate, and we are able to monitor how they either retain or lose their respective colors, or how they produce hybrid green colors. As participants in the gallery space or online, we are able to participate in what Kac calls "transgenic bacterial communication"[8] by switching the ultraviolet light on and off.

In this way, the participant, says Kac, is able, at least symbolically, to dismantle the biblical decree about dominion over nature. Further, Kac generates a process that breaks down not only the unitary biblical statement, but the binary structures of the Morse and genetic codes. Kac explains it this way: "Today the triple system of Genesis (natural language, DNA code, binary logic) is the key to understanding the future… The boundaries between carbon-based life and digital data are becoming as fragile as a cell membrane."[8]

Such hybrids of nature and culture prompt one to consider the post-structuralist writings of Donna Haraway. The cyborg, says Haraway, "does not seek unitary identity […]. The cyborg is: "[a]n ironic dream …a rhetorical strategy and a political method … that wages a border war upon dualistic structures such as nature and culture, organic and machine …." cyborg metaphor, like anti-Enlightenment modes of thought already discussed," is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions [that] suggest(s) a way out of the maze of dualisms […a means to bypass) the production of universal, totalizing theory …."

Even though one can agree that Kac's transgenic artworks, based on a cyborgian model, break down traditional (Cartesian) dualisms, as well as unitary thought systems, they also clearly manifest a Faustian dream of mastery over nature.

As genetic programmer, is the artist not assuming a godlike position that is authoritative, instrumental and firmly grounded in Enlightenment ideologues? Even so, the cyborgian dream of hybridity, of fusions and/or confusions of unitary and dualistic principles is the one elicited by Kac: a dream that, one can say, he has even given life to in his transgenic artwork.

In an era when nature (genetic identities) and culture (biotechnologics) increasingly meld together, producing a variety of chimeras, the cyborgian dream of slipping boundaries becomes increasingly an enchanting one, luring us into the seductive space of the amorphous 'in-between.' While situated in this ethereal, fluid space, however, is one capable of distinguishing the cyborg from an ominous hybrid creature? Is the cyborgian dream, by necessity, an anti-Enlightenment dream? Or can the cyborg also be engendered from suspect sources, continuing to breed unitary, binary and reductive models of thought.

What is significant is that Kac makes evident the diverse stratifications of meanings lying within ancient, modern and contemporary words, and particularly the power of language to inform, reform and deform genetic and cultural identities. By creating diverse contexts for biblical Words, binary thought patterns, biotechnological practices, he, in fact, invites its to critically reflect on how language, and the knowledge systems it engenders, can also have supremacy over us.

The three other artists, examined in this paper, also negotiate Enlightenment ideologies, and adopt contemporary models of thought in order to transcend ideas and traditions deemed problematic. A crucial question emerges from their diverse strategies and art practices. How is one to detect ancient reductive models of thought disguised as new utopias? Can one completely evacuate them? Is it, in fact, possible to divorce the respective (bio)technologies from their source in Enlightenment ideologies?


1. C. Davies. "Landscape, Earth, Body, Being, Space and Time In The lmmersive Virtual Environments Osmose And Ephémère".
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2. S. Penny, Twenty Centuries of Virtual Reality http:/www.ntticc.or.jp/pub/ic_mag/ic014/penny/t01
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3. S. Penny, Virtual Reality as the Completion the Enlightenment Project. In G. Bender e al (eds.), Culture on the Brink. ISBN: 0941920283. Bay Press, Seattle, 1994, pp. 231-248.
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4. S. Penny, Technology in the 90s, May 20, 1996- MoMA,
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5. S. Penny, http://www-art.cfa.cmu.edu/penny/index.html
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6. N. Jeremijenko, http:/www.onetrees.org or http://www.mucketymuck.org.
Unless otherwise specified, all references to the One Tree(s) project are from these sites.
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7. N. Jeremijenko, http://cat.nyu.edu/natalie/projectdatabase/#statement
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8. Eduardo Kac, www.ekac.org
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9. Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, Simians Cyborgs and Women The Reinvention of Nature. ISBN: 0 415 90386 6New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.
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Last verified: Nov 6th 2017.