Digitized Bodies - Virtual Spectacles ProjectBy Jennifer Leonard "We don't know what to make of ourselves," starts Mark Dery in his EscapeVelocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, "precisely because we are, morethan ever before, able to remake ourselves." Exploring notions, like Dery's, of the human body in this digital era is curator NinaCzegledy, with the interdisciplinary line-up she has choreographed, for the DigitizedBodies - Virtual Spectacles project, which has consisted of an online discussionforum, a public lecture series, an exhibition, a screening at the Goethe Institut, anda performance at the Glenn Gould Studio.
With a background in both medical research and creative pursuits such as ceramicsculpture and documentary filmmaking, Czegledy's approach for this project wasto bring together a wide variety of opinions to expose a greater number of people tonew perspectives on the theme. And rather than "conclude the discussion in theconventional manner of a summary," she says, she looked to "leading examples ofartistic statement" in relation to the social play of such technology.
The work of sound artist Atau Tanaka, for example. His Corporeal performanceNovember 24 illustrated lucidly Donna Haraway's insight about bio-medicaltechnological advancements giving birth to "couplings between organism andmachine" in A Cyborg Manifesto. On stage, Tanaka explored the gesturalarticulation of the body as an electronic musical instrument, with the help of hisBioMuse, a neural musical instrument controller that he has been performing withsince 1992, during his graduate work in computer music at Stanford's CCRMA(Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). An invention of medicalresearchers, the BioMuse was designed to pick up EMG and EEG signals from"sticky electrodes on the skin" and turn them into MIDI signals - "signals to controldigital synthesizers," explains Tanaka. While hooked up electronically to his ApplePowerBook, Tanaka clenched his fists and shaped things with his hands, as ifmolding clay, "but there is no clay, " he smiles. "I'm not holding on to anything. "It'sa process of discovery," he says, about the responses from and interplay betweenthe BioMuse and his body.
The Intimate Perceptions exhibit at InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre(showing until December 9) explores "the ways in which the rapidly developingtechnologies affect our perception of our bodies, our lives, our imaginations, and ourvery future," says Czegledy.
Playing on all of these levels is Jack Butler's video projection piece Genesis ofBreath, which speaks to his many years of scientific inquiry into breath andbreathing. The installation digitally dissolves medical research pictures onto afrosted glass screen (engraved with a geometrical pattern that connotes suchphenomena as an arctic lake, Islamic tile work, and bubble clusters), within ametal and fiberglass construction that is at once an imposing piece of medicalmachinery and the conceptual space of the breathing chambers of the humanlung. For Butler, Genesis of Breath "reifies the conflict present in both my working postures - as an artist producing science and as a scientific researcher producingart." Czegledy, with design and programming help from the C3 Centre of Culture andCommunication and Ars-Wonderland Studio (both based in Budapest), puttogether a CD-Rom for the exhibit that examines post-industrial society'sfascination with bio-medical technology. The opening narration offers a commentfrom Gandhi. When asked about Western civilization, he said he was mostfascinated with the ease in which the population would simply ". hand over thecustody of his body to the experts. as if it were an appendage. for which he boreno responsibility." As the interactive piece continues, over twenty scientists,clinicians, cultural theorists, and art historians from three countries (Canada,Hungary, and Slovenia) speak on the same topic. Czegledy's motivation for doingthis CD-Rom was the gap she noticed over the years between art and science. Shesays, "I thought it would be very important to close this gap, in a mini-way." The Wired Body/Mediated Body screening of international videos was organizedaround such themes as the objectification of the body, as in Joan Jonas's "VerticalRoll" (1972), where she depicts her own body as a collection of parts. Amesmerizing piece in black and white, it moves frame by frame to the rhythm of abanging spoon, so the theme of dismemberment is enhanced even further by theequally jarring viewing experience. With Piotr Wyrzykowski's "Watch Me" (1996),the body is dematerialized into binary code and blocks of sliding pastel colours.
Diane Nerwen's "Under the Skin Game" (1996) investigates the bodily ethics anddiscourses around clinical and experimental technologies; Nerwen juxtaposes clipsfrom Betty Davis movies and Ella Fitzgerald's "I've got you under my skin" withdisturbing statistics about governmental attempts to use Norplant as a means tocontrol the "underclass" population. Justine Cooper's "Rapt" (1998) examines newdigital and enhanced imaging technologies in medical science. Portraying her ownbody as transparent, using MRI scans, she renders herself "nakedly public," in thewords of Barbara Stafford, who continues to say, "These medical technologiesdestabilize the already precarious borders between the exterior and the interior asthey visualize the invisible." Which leads to the obvious conclusion that technology has advanced way beyondhuman sense limits into the realm of yet to be defined computer sense limits. And,as a result, we are beginning to abandon what is "naturally" ours: we have, forexample, electronic vision with electron microscopy and super-human strengthwith robotic arms and dismembered voices with telephone voicemail. We are ableto manipulate the human form on a computer screen with the click of a key, viewthe inner workings of the human body with surgical micro-cameras, and visualizeindividual genes on chromosomes. As Czegledy says, "The extensive use of thesetechnologies has contributed to a radical shift in bodily thinking. where before itwas just flesh and bone; now it is a mass of various readings, each one giving adifferent character to the whole." In addition, she continues, we're now able to seethe body in plural ways: via electronic pulses, magnetic cadences, and thermalsignatures, for example.
And as we continue to venture further along this path, we risk becomingincreasingly detached from our own bodily self-knowledge. Or do we? Haraway, for one, champions the notion of human as cyborg and encourages her readers to seizethis opportune time to re-imagine the body with ambiguous boundaries.
"Nobody has the answers," says Czegledy. "But more important than having theanswers is asking the questions." To keep abreast of this project, made possible bythe support of the Japan Foundation (in Canada and Tokyo) and The DanielLanglois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology (Montreal), log on to A Digitized Bodies - Virtual Spectacles book/CD-Rompackage will be available for sale in the Spring of 2001 and the Synapse Forum willcontinue online as the exhibit moves from Toronto to Budapest (Ludwig Museum,2001) to Ljubljana (City Gallery, 2002).


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