Art, Technology, and Frankenstein’s Legacy
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Two hundred years after Mary Shelley published her epochal novel Frankenstein (1818), the Frankenstein Syndrome as a code of the fear of contemporary technology running out of control has become symptomatic for (post)modern crises of the human condition in times of accelerated technological progress which might change and threaten the very basics of life. Such an existential fear is proven by various dystopian science fiction movies, such as the numerous Frankenstein adaptations. Nevertheless, inspired by post- and transhuman philosophy, there is also a trend in international fine arts seeking to reconcile with monstrous Frankenstein-like creations. The entry aims to analyze three selected examples of such reconciliations in the light of the artists’ intensions, their strategies of staging, and their receptions: The Australian artist Patricia Piccinini creates bio-fictional chimeras (The Young Family 2003) to arouse compassion with multiple life forms and to encourage pathocentric ethical discourses. Eduardo Kac, the inventor of Bio Art, cooperates with geneticists to induce public debates on genetic engineering. And other artists even turn their own bodies into cyborgs. To analyze these examples, we will take into account ideas from modern Monster theory and posthumanist philosophy, which portray Frankenstein-like creations no longer as enemies but as an inescapable presence and as helpful companions in our modern technocratic world.
Monster Theory and the Frankenstein Syndrome: An Introduction
Since ancient times, monstrous bodies have been common and frequently discussed figures in mythological texts as well as in images. In Hans Blumenbergs Arbeit am Mythos (2006), one of their major functions is the incorporation of “wild terror” (Wilder Schrecken), an existential fear caused by individual or group encounters with powerful phenomena from beyond one’s own familiar civilization, such as untamed wilderness or other cultures. These phenomena are often considered to be strange, overwhelming, and frightening, as their forces threaten not only human life but also the established order of the cultural system. Many myths portray monsters such as the Sphinx, which besieged the city of Thebes, or the tribe of equine centaurs, who frequently threatened the social order of Thessaly with their unrestrained drunkenness and lust, in the context of a contamination of the human with the inhuman as a destructive alterity. To protect or to restore the human order, the monster has traditionally been defeated and, therefore, banished by a hero.
In contrast to former cultures, contemporary industrial societies equipped with scientific knowledge and modern technology do not seem to be as vulnerable to the forces of nature and wilderness as our ancestors were. Nevertheless, technological progress does not come without a price, as its enormous power often tends to get out of control and deliver unforeseeable consequences, as was drastically evidenced by the Chernobyl incident in 1986. Therefore, technology as a device to obtain control over the threatening forces of nature can turn into an overwhelming and powerful threat itself, causing new fears in many people. In such a reading, modern technological creations did not free humans from “wild terror,” they just generated a new form of terror, one that emerges not from a strange realm outside but from within our own cultures. This new kind of “wild terror” is widely known as the Frankenstein syndrome. The term refers to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and describes the problem of a creation that was constructed for good reason but that becomes an autonomous force which turns against its creators and gains power over them. This problem is articulated in the novel with the phrase: “You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (Shelley 1982. See also Rollin 2003; Winner. Even so, the Frankenstein syndrome is a modern phenomenon, the problem of a creation turning against its creator is also articulated in myths that depict a breach of the divine order, which causes conflicts and punishment; consider, for instance, the story of Prometheus, which is referenced in the subtitle of Frankenstein. See Irrgang 2005) Today, 200 years after Shelley published her novel, such an attitude toward artificial creations is more actual than ever. In times of advanced genetic engineering, cyborg-, nuclear-, and nanotechnologies, the Frankenstein Syndrome reflects a (post)modern identity crises of the human condition induced by a technological progress which might threaten the very basics of life, order, and meaning. So – as it is part of present-day culture itself – the Frankenstein monster cannot be easily defeated by a hero, and mankind has to find another way to cope with it.
Thereby, monstrous concepts do not only provide a canvas for projections of fears but also of wishes and desires, given that monsters can be read in a destructive as well as in a creative way. Several scholars such as Jeffrey J. Cohen (Monster Theory 1996) have understood monstrous figures from ancient Greek beasts to the modern Frankenstein creature as liminal concepts, which discuss the construction of human order. Many deconstructivists, especially feminist and posthumanist philosophers since the late twentieth century, have started to rethink the idea of the monster in relation to the human condition in a similar way. As they reject traditional ideas of the human, most of all binary categories such as man and woman or human and nonhuman, they understand the liminal figure of the monster no longer as a menace, but as a way to rethink and overcome obsolete socially constructed boundaries. Donna J. Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1991), which is one of the most important sources of inspiration of modern post- and transhumanist philosophy (Braidotti 2001, Sorgner 2014), is an especially impressive example of a theory that uses the category of the monstrous in an attempt not only to improve the quality of individual human life but also to break free from traditional categories, such as gender, age, species, and other stereotypes of hegemony, for the purpose of deconstructing the discriminating hierarchies resulting from them.
Many artists worldwide seem to be inspired by these ideas and seek to reconcile with monstrous Frankenstein-like creations, too. Thereby they have developed diverse artistic strategies to associate with this problem.
The Australian artist Patricia Piccinini is especially interested in the social dimensions of the Frankenstein Syndrome as well as the technological debates surrounding them. To this end, she creates plastics of bizarre creatures often referring to the transgressions between man and beast in the age of genetic engineering and transplantation. Many of these works operate with a “Kippeffect”: On the one hand, Piccinini presents trans-species hybrids which’s strange appearances usually cause discomfort and disgust in the beholder. On the first glance, such a disturbing way of staging seems to refer to the traditional occidental iconography of the monster as a rather negatively connoted concept of liminality and alterity. Nevertheless, on the other hand, her works bear a second dimension, in which this negative connotation is turned into something positive and socially useful.
One of her most famous works is The Young Family portraying a female human-pig-hybrid with her offspring. This plastic melts the categories of the human and the animal into each other by fusing elements of different species. Such a synthesis becomes especially obvious in the face of the maternal creature portrayed with several humanlike features like the forward-facing eyes but also with animal parts like the ears of a pig.
Piccinini herself stated that The Young Family refers to modern scientific experiments such as attempts to use genetic engineering to create pigs, which can be used as the donators of transplant organs for human beings (See Piccinini 2003). Her Young Family is a visualized mental experiment exploring on how creatures resulting from such experiments might look and how they afflict their beholders. Therefore, she presents her creatures full-shaped and in a hyper-realistic manner. Each cutaneous fold, each vein, each mole, as well as each hair is emphasized. Such details generate an overwhelming haptic and naturalistic appearance culminating in an immediate presence – almost as if these creatures were real. But what if they would not only look real, but if they were real? How should human society deal with them? One of the main problems is the liminal status of such hybrids between the conceptions of man and animal making it hard to decide, which social status and rights they should have. Would it be ethically acceptable to breed such creatures as organ donators for humans, or are they already human enough to deserve (human) organ transplants themselves in case of need? Such questions can’t be answered easily, and the possible legal and moral status of Piccinini’s hybrids remains in an ambiguous “in-between.”
As Piccinini presents her creatures in a very affective manner, this ambiguity doesn’t only concern the reflections on their social status but also on their emotional dimensions. In contrast to the monstrous disturbing bodies of the members of The Young Family, their staging as a caring mother with her playful babies appears not scary at all but rather familiar and touching. Even so, their faces look disfigured and bizarre, and they express strong emotions becoming especially conspicuous in the features of the babies full of naive, childish curiosity. This in some places a little bit too exaggerated emotionality can’t be reduced to a bold sensationalism, as it is also a reference to actual ethical debates on pathocentrism. Since the rise of the animal protection movement, not only humans but also nonhuman beings are considered to be serious actors in socio-political contexts. An essential criterion for this – in the sense of pathocentric ethics – is their emotionality and, above all, their ability to suffer. On this basis, in the tradition of utopian posthumanism and transhumanism, it is believed that technological progress, by which trans-species hybrids might be created in a near future, could help to discuss and to deconstruct the conceptions of discriminatory species boundaries in behalf of the rights of nonhuman beings. Thereby, the inter-species confusion, Piccinini’s creatures cause, can also be read as a chance to discuss the anthropocentric perspective on a society mainly created by human beings but also including nonhuman animals and in the future maybe even hybrids between them.
Besides artists like Piccinini, who visualizes rather mental experiments to explore some conceivable consequences of modern technology and social encounters with the monstrous, there are also artists, who, indeed, cooperate with scientists to create trans-species chimeras.
In 2000, the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac presented a rabbit (called Alba or GFP Bunny) created by genetic engineering (Reichle 2005). The project has already become legend: Even so there is a huge amount of literature in the internet, it is hard to find reliable data, as many articles have been published by Kac himself or some scientists involved in the project often providing contradictious information and stories (See Cook 2000; Kac 2005). In one version, Kac commissioned a French laboratory to implant the genetic disposition of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), usually found in jellyfish into a rabbit’s DNA to make it fluoresce green. In other versions, he just “adopted” one of many already existing bunnies equipped with GFP, called it Alba, and declared it a work of art.
Anyway, in 2000, Kac presented Alba or at least some photos of her in Avignon. Another part of the art project was a large-scale media campaign. Thereby, Kac claimed he wanted to raise sympathy for Alba as she was a living and feeling being and not only a scientific guinea pig. The artist also intended to free Alba from the lab and made her live with his family, but the lab declined his demand for safety reasons. Thereby, Kac staged GFP artificially implanted into a mammal not only as a biological but also as a social marker which’s absence or presence defines if a creature is accepted by society as a cute bunny or rejected as an unnatural abomination. On his website the artist stated:
Alba is undoubtedly a very special animal, but I want to be clear that her formal and genetic uniqueness are but one component of the "GFP Bunny" artwork. The "GFP Bunny" project is a complex social event that starts with the creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature (i.e., "chimerical" in the sense of a cultural tradition of imaginary animals, not in the scientific connotation of an organism in which there is a mixture of cells in the body) and that also includes at its core: 1) ongoing dialogue between professionals of several disciplines (art, science, philosophy, law, communications, literature, social sciences) and the public on cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering; 2) contestation of the alleged supremacy of DNA in life creation in favor of a more complex understanding of the intertwined relationship between genetics, organism, and environment; 3) extension of the concepts of biodiversity and evolution to incorporate precise work at the genomic level; 4) interspecies communication between humans and a transgenic mammal; 5) integration and presentation of “GFP Bunny” in a social and interactive context; 6) examination of the notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness; 7) consideration of a non-semiotic notion of communication as the sharing of genetic material across traditional species barriers; 8) public respect and appreciation for the emotional and cognitive life of transgenic animals; 9) expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to incorporate life invention. (Eduardo Kac, http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html)
So Alba also raises questions about how our society constructs the “notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness” (Eduardo Kac, http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html)
Some artists go even further than Kac: They do not only stage biological chimeras as artworks, they even transform their own bodies into chimeras and cyborgs, such as the Australian artist Stelarc. His various performances often involve robotics, genetic engineering, and artificial organ transplants. In 2007, for example, he had a cell-cultivated ear surgically transplanted into his left arm.
Today there is also a larger international movement in the art scene called cyborg art. The protagonists of this art transform themselves into trans-species entities by using modern technology to turn their bodies into cyber organisms (cyborgs). The most famous promoter of cyborg art is Neil Harbisson. In 2003/2004, the color blind-born man was transplanted an antenna-like device (cyborgantenna or eyeborg) into his head, which can detect colors and “translate” them into acoustic signals for him, so he can literally hear colors (See Harbisson 2018). Meanwhile, his body holds several more technological devices enhancing his sensorial capacities. In numerous performances, he promotes cyborg technology not as the dystopian vision that many people know from the science fiction genre, but rather as something that can strongly contribute to humans’ advancement and welfare by presenting himself as an example of a trans-species being to whom modern technology has given new opportunities to perceive the world. In the international Cyborg Foundation that he founded together with Moon Ribas, they struggle for the acceptance of human enhancement and the rights of cyborgs. Thereby, Harbisson seems to be well aware that cyber technology and the grinding of human bodies still scare many people, which even becomes obvious when he walks along public streets and frequently catches the attention of bystanders. Thereby, the cyborgantenna on his head works as a conspicuous visual marker of his trans-species identity often causing social problems and remoteness, as well as interest. In order to fight the remoteness and increase the interest that many people still hold against trans-species technologies, Harbisson combines artworks that he created with the help of his antenna in his performances, which include the “translation” of colors into sounds and vice versa, scientific explanations of the functions of his antenna, as well as stories from his life often combined with elements from stand-up comedy shows. By doing so, he does not mock humans’ fears of cyber technology, but he rather makes fun of his own experiences as a cyborg to present himself as a person with a private life and problems like anybody else. The use of humoristic elements here does not mean that he does not take his performances serious; in contrast, he rather uses humor as an attempt to take away people’s fears by staging himself not as a distant clinical nerd but rather as a communicative social being who can make other people laugh. Thereby, humor works as a device to raise attention, sympathy, and interest in a technology barely known and often suspected by many people. Following the huge success of Harbisson, his enormous media presence as well as his sold-out stage shows, such a strategy seems to work and sell very well.
Although there are many more examples of visual artistic strategies to reconcile with Frankenstein-like creations and the Frankenstein syndrome, even the examples mentioned here have shown the complexity of the various associations in contemporary art with modern technology and the social, political, ethical, and philosophical discussions surrounding it. Thereby, especially the artists who conduct genetic engineering and human enhancement are in line with the ideas of utopian post- and transhumanism, which understands technology as a device to improve the quality of human and nonhuman life as well as to discuss and to deconstruct discriminating social structures. But besides their proclaimed good intensions, these artists perpetually have to struggle for acceptance, as proofed by the often highly emotional and disparaging discourses attending their artworks in several media (See European Molecular Biology Organization 2007). This rather negative reception is not surprising given that the utopian perspective is in opposition with the general reading of the historically grown and still widespread Frankenstein Syndrome as a rather dystopian perspective on modern technology. On that score, the reconciliation with Frankenstein as a collective social shift of paradigm in terms of the way people look at artificially created and advanced beings is not an easy thing to do. Time will show, if artworks may contribute to such a change. Until then post- and transhumanist artists have come far in a number of ways, but still have far to go.
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