Bad futures: performing the obsolete body.

by Professor Anne Marsh

The end of this century is before us like an empty beach.11

The grand picture of the bad future unfolds.2 Boundary riders of the cosmos inscribe imperialistic lines of force across the universe and biocompatible technology colonizes the body's surface and interior. Before us is the impinging doom of a society of surveillance, monitored and controlled electronically and biologically; the prospects of a society without subjectivity; an inhuman world populated by robots and cyborgs. Another image of the future pictures a catastrophic end which leaves a fiery damnation on earth and sees man revert to an animalistic state. Many of these representations duplicate the major paradigms of the present. Fears about social disintegration are fed by 'bad future' representations set after the apocalypse. Fred Glass argues that sci-fi films such as Robocop, Bladerunner, and Mad Max are sign systems with:

At the same time that these pictures of the future are evidence of turmoil and unrest in the popular psyche and a rejection of prevailing power structures, they also appear to necessitate a return to order, an imposition of a rationalizing code that will save the post­‐holocaust subject from total destruction and serve the interests of the dominant belief system.

The techno‐presence of the future can be seen everywhere, the exhibition arena for images and experiences of the future is vast. Technology must be the fastest growing commodity on western capitalist markets. Throughout social institutions and academic disciplines technology has become an integral part of life. In medicine it supports, sustains and creates life. In financial markets technology is money but money itself is only techno-­currency circulating in virtual reality.

Technology is life, it has invaded the body. Medical technology can create life organically (in vitro fertilization) and reproduce human‐techno interfaces to improve the efficiency of the body. Artificial limbs and organs assist mobility and longevity; artificial reality and virtual heads provide digestible material for the inferior organic brian.4

Stelarc's robotic performances present the audience with a spectacle of techno-­‐body interfaces. His computerized third hand, triggered by muscle movements, is used to extend the body's capabilities. The body is recomposed, its surface and interior becomes a bio‐electronic triggering device. Muscle movement, blood flow, heart beat, are amplified like the instruments of an orchestra played inside the body. The body is exteriorized.

As we enter the twenty first century, the relationship between the mind and technology leaves the abstract world of rhetoric. At the turn of the millennium, man becomes just one receptacle for intelligence (an organic body). Artificial intelligence represents a paradigm shift: man is no longer the superior intellect. The old mind body split which occupied philosophy for centuries has been compounded by the 'exteriorization of mind'.6

Stelarc's performances, where the body becomes a host for technology, place the body at the mercy of the mind. Although the body amplification works which transmit the sounds of the inside of the body into the outside world are not as torturous as his earlier body suspensions, where hooks were inserted into the skin to support the weight of the body, they still require a considerable amount of bodily restraint and discomfort. Stelarc is wired for performances; some of the sounds are 'controlled', produced by deliberate contractions of the body, others are involuntary or stimulated electronically. Stelarc's body becomes a site for the interaction between biology and technology.

The artist argues that the biological body has become obsolete because technology mediates more successfully between the body and the world: "DISTRAUGHT AND DISCONNECTED, THE BODY CAN ONLY RESORT TO INTERFACE AND SYMBIOSIS".7 It is the body­‐species split which should concern us, not the mind‐body distinction.8

The body's structure is changing and will change even further in the future. Stelarc embraces this idea and says the skin is the new ink face, "we are clothed with technology", it becomes our new membrane, the site of interface with the world.10 This is different from the idea of the skin as a screen proposed by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard's subject is a switching centre for different external codes, 'networks of influence'.11 For Baudrillard the subject is saturated by the exchange of information and becomes part of the inert mass emitting only: the "silent power of indifference" brought on by the "hyper­‐density of the city, of merchandise, of messages, of circuits".12

Stelarc's post evolutionary subject is also a kind of vessel within which different forces intercept: "The body plugged into a machine network needs to be pacified. In fact, to function in the future and to truly achieve a hybrid symbiosis the body will need to be increasingly anaesthetized".13 Stelarc's vision is of the cyborg, he says: "The first signs of alien intelligence may well come from this planet".14 The inertia of Baudrillard's 'mass' is replaced by the anaesthetized body in Stelarc's interpretation. Although both positions appear to involve some sort of death, in Baudrillard's scheme the 'indifference' seems mortifying, indicating the death of mind, whereas in Stelarc's view the cyborg represents a re­‐birth of man and machine.

Technology itself is inscribed by and inscribes a particular ideological future. Bodies and technologies collide and intersect in a bio-­‐technology which causes the subject as we know it to disappear. The body is reborn in a technified form,15 transforming human existence and "standardizing human sexuality".16 In the new robotic future there will be no birth or death, Stelarc argues that:

According to some feminists, technology is gendered from the beginning, it takes from the cultural baggage of the past: from patriarchy and its heralding of rationality and progress. This is particularly relevant in reproductive and destructive technologies: birth and death machines. The language used during the production and representation of the war machine exemplifies conventional masculine virtues. The phallic nature of the strategic missile, an intelligent weapon sent to penetrate distant targets and reap destruction, is familiar. This has best been described by Brian Easlea, who applies a feminist analysis and sees science as a form of domination over nature and women. According to Easlie the nuclear war machine is a form of womb envy: "men give birth to science and weapons to compensate for their lack of the magical power of giving birth to babies".18 However, now science and technology have the capacity to produce life as well. Reproductive technologies have the power to take over the maternal body, casting the female body into biological uselessness and fulfilling a male fantasy of control over reproduction.

Technology is surrounded by masculine and feminine metaphors, machines inscribed by sex. The idea of technology as woman, the feminine machine, is present in the male phantasm and his desire to control the maternal body.

Throughout the techno-­debate one witnesses a language steeped in gender. This language is double-­coded: on one hand woman is nature, on the other culture (technology) is described as the 'dark continent'; a phrase originally used by Freud to describe female sexuality. It was also the name given to Africa to denote a primitive and unknown power. Whether nature or technology, woman is to be dominated and controlled, but there is always the fear that she will get out of control (the hysterical machine which reaps havoc on mankind). Woman's bestial sexuality (the sexual vamp) and her terrifying phallic power (the mother-­monster) are aligned with the unknown force of technology. The 'dark continent' must be colonized and controlled, the abject body arrested to resist the 'return of the repressed' .

The dualistic structure nature/culture is dominant throughout visions of the techno-­future. In mainstream representations the warrior myth is prevalent. In the headquarters of the military and on the big screen physical strength, heroism and patriotism are dominant tropes. In many performed representations of the body in the future we clearly see the devastation of society and its social codes. However, the answer to the crisis invariably involves evoking conventional social myths, an example of history reliving itself as a simulacrum (the techno-­cowboys of the future).

In this way technology is aligned with masculine virtues: heroism, patriotism. Although one might think that a technological war machine would break down the gender codes of war since it is cleaner and less physically taxing than the medieval hand to body combat of conventional war, the orbit of the destructive phallic missile is predicated upon a mythological manhood. A fraternity surrounds the war machine. Technology and war are seen as masculine pursuits; the male as master of the hardware.19

The reading of technology as masculine, in Easlea's account, is full of birth and rape metaphors.20 Rape and violence become the identifying marks of masculinity, an inherently violent creation giving birth to monsters. Everywhere the techno­‐discourse collides with the body, inscribing itself upon it like a psychological tattoo, a register of ideology. New techniques of discipline and surveillance first evident in the 17th century develop as sophisticated techno­‐bodies in the late 20th century as the flesh merges with the machine to produce the cyborg.

Laurie Anderson plugs her body into technology to produce a cyborg‐like character. Here sexuality is blurred in an androgynous figure, however, this is not the bachelor machine body of an earlier modernist practice. Although Anderson announces that her body is a machine: "I am in my body the way most people drive their cars", her autobiographical scripts are allegories. The car becomes the metaphor for the unconscious. The female body-­‐ machine is commodified in a familiar way, alienated from its own subjectivity. The car as feminine subject and extended (phallic) ego is analogous with the body as vehicle.

Jean Baudrillard interprets the post modern subject in a similar way when he writes about television as if it were a projectile extending the parameters of the body:

As a white android figure in Home of the Brave Anderson deconstructs her own telephone number as a way of unveiling the 0­‐1 code of structural linguistics. In scenes from Americans on the Move (parts I and II) she speaks of the sign language used by man in outer space, pointing to the phallocentric signing of the masculine on the side of the Apollo 10 spacecraft where a naked man and woman stand side by side, the male with his arm raised. Anderson, tongue in cheek, mocks the visual representation: "They are speaking our sign language in these pictures. Do you think they will think his hand is permanently attached that way?...In our country, good-­bye looks just like hello"22. Craig Owens notes, in a second reading of this performance, that the raised hand of the male figure is like a phallic erection; a clear sign that the male is master, the female behind him appears as mute subject. Masculine and feminine difference is thus inscribed in the universe. Extraterrestrial communication is flawed before it begins by the coding of existing languages.

Anderson's techno­‐speech allows her to cross genders, to penetrate corporate space as she unveils phallocentric power. Anderson uses technology to talk about the present as much as the future, her techno-­‐ sound scapes and performances embrace technology as a signifying tool used to deconstruct dominant paradigms. Anderson wears technology on her skin, she represents an alienated present, one which is enhanced by technology like so much telephone sex.

Her vision of the future where mind and body are enmeshed in technology is like Baudrillard's idea of the subject as switching device. However, Anderson can switch radio frequency and gender identities indiscriminately; subject position is a matter of choice. Anderson's performances are critiques of social codes; she uses technology to interrogate different identities. Anderson's multiple personae problematize strict identity codes, they are active, speaking subjects capable of unsettling dominant tropes. Anderson's extraterrestrial communications are fictions and allegories which address the structure of language. A language with trans‐planetary ambitions, a language which assumes a position as conqueror.

In Stelarc's new world the body is an object not a subject. An object‐body which can be redesigned for lives in the future. He says: "It is time to transcend human achieve post­‐human status...IT IS TIME TO VANISH. To be forgotten in the immensity of extraterrestrial space".23 The speaking subject, the subject of history, is lost in this prediction: it is the end of history. Stelarc rejoices in the end, plotting alternate trajectories through the bio­‐technological universe.

Many artists in the late twentieth century have focussed on the apocalyptic end of the earth and mankind. At the end of the millennium the species awaits its last judgement. Images of decay and devastation are prevalent.

In Rachel Rosenthals's performance Future Fax the telecommunication network operates as the voice of the future.24 Rosenthal argues that the future will be bad as a result of "an aberration in our thinking, not because of technological proliferation".25 She says: "The concept of progress is one of the biggest lies we've concocted. It's based on an erroneous premise."26

Rosenthal blames patriachy, cursing Einstein, Locke and Bacon and the institutions of science and presents a holocaustic version of the future. In a monologue over an hour long, Rosenthal sets out a 'bad future' story set in circa 2012 after the 'calamity'.27 Rosenthal's 'bad future' is the result of the abuse of the earth, an eco‐feminist interpretation of the fall. On stage Rosenthal is an outcast, existing after the holocaust in a contaminated zone, surrounded by the sounds of a violent horde.

Rosenthal exists in a twilight zone, trying to hang onto some sense of meaning after the end of history.

She does this by enacting rituals of domestic life: eating, drinking, cleaning, bathing. Rosenthal heralds feminine virtues: the home, domesticity, nurturing, a feeling for nature over and above culture and peace rather than war. She holds onto the message of survival that comes from her future via the FAX.

The dialogue between Rosenthal and machine is gendered in a particular way. The other world tells of the demise of Rosenthal's world (our future). In this world technology fails to take over from the maternal body; the FAX explains that the infertility of the women from the future was responsible for the extinction of the human species. Interestingly, it is biological woman who is blamed, yet again, for the final downfall of the human race.

Myths surround constructions of the future where technology has increased powers and humanity appears to be taken off the agenda. Those speaking to Rosenthal from the future have no subjective experience, they are artificial intelligences from another time zone. Stelarc's obsolete body is replaced by the sophisticated cyborg who can change parts like humans change clothes. In this scheme immortality is a reality but the subject as we know it has disappeared; the promise of an everlasting 'life' is predicated on the death of the psycho‐biological body.

Like so much structural film making, in Laurie Anderson's words: "it's a closed circuit, baby".

1. Baudrillard, J., "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened", in Kroker, A. and M., (eds), Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, St Martin's Press, New York, 1987, p.44.

2. Fred Glass analyses the 'new bad future' in his article "The'New Bad Future' Robocop and 1980s' Sci-Fi Films", Science and Culture, no. 5, 1989, pp. 7-49, where he considers the Left critique of society represented in the films through the depiction of 'the liberal bourgeois ideal of progress'.

3. Glass, F., "The New Bad Future", p. 11.

4. Kroker, A and M., "Thesis on the Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition", in Kroker (eds), Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, St Martins Press, New York, 1987 p. 32. Designers have created virtual heads for jet fighter pilots which: "feed the pilot at a slowed-down and selective pace specific, strategic information about his aerial environment: altitude, presence of other aircraft, speed, target, range." 5. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire Post Evolutionary Strategies", Remote Stelarc, exh. cat., Ballarat, 1990, no pagination.

6. Kroker, A and M, "Theses on the Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition", in Kroker (eds), Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, St Martins Press, New York, 1987, p. 31.

7. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire".

8. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire".

9. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire".

10. Stelarc, taped interview, August 26th, 1989.

11. Baudrillard, J., "The Ecstasy of Communication", in Hal Foster (ed), Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London and Sydney, 1985, p. 133.

12. Baudrillard, J., "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened", in Kroker (eds), Body Invaders, p. 37.

13. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire..."

14. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire"

15. Kroker, A and M., "Thesis on the Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition", in Kroker (eds), Body Invaders, p. 31.

16. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Desire".

17. Stelarc, "Enhanced Gesture/Obsolete Body".

18. Wajcman, J., Feminism Confronts Technology, Polity Press/Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, 1991, p. 139.

19. Wajcman, p. 149.

20. Wajcman, p. 139.

21. J. Baudrillard, 'The ecstasy of communication' in Hal Foster, ed, Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London and Sydney, 1985, p.127

22. As quoted by Craig Owens in "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism", Brain Wallis (ed), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p.219.

23. Stelarc, "Post-Evolutionary Desires: Attaining Planetary Escape Velocity", unpublished paper.

24. Performed at Performance Space, Sydney, 1993; the Whitney in New York and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut in 1992.

25. Meola, D., "Interview: Rachael Rosenthal", Omni, vol. 14, no. 11, August 1992, p.74.

26. Meola, D., "Interview: Rachael Rosenthal", p.74.

27. The calamity is Rosenthal's description used during the performance.


About Anne Marsh

Professor Anne Marsh's research areas include: photography, performance art, feminism, postmodernism and psychoanalysis. Anne is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts.

About Anne Marsh

Anne is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts. Professor Anne Marsh's research areas include:

Photography, Performance Art, Feminism and Postmodernism.

Latest Projects

Doing Feminism / Sharing the WorldUpdate Updated 31 Jul 2017


Professor Anne Marsh
Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts & Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
The University of Melbourne
234 St Kilda Road