Reconceptualizing Body, Space and Place: Telepresence in Art* | MARISA GÓMEZ

Introduction

The body is, in common terms, the physical and material structure of human being. It’s the framework of cells and tissues that articulates our complex biological system. The body is organic matter that, as such, gets corrupted, aged and finally dies.

However, the body is much more: it is the means through which we relate to the environment, the material form of our way of being-in-the-world and the place where subjectivity, feeling or identity meet.

Although the body has been a central topic along the history of occidental thought, the duality mind-body and the predominance of idealism – within the dichotomy between nature and culture – relegated the body, for centuries, to the condition of mere container of the soul and the mind.

The progressive recognition of the social and cultural dimensions of the body gave a new direction to this debate, turning it into a central object of study for history, anthropology or sociology and leading to the redefinition of its nature in phenomenological terms that overcame duality in favor of integration.

Coinciding with the deep socio-cultural transformations caused by Postmodernity, new approaches to the body – such as the questioning of its determinism by feminist theories, the exaltation of consumerist culture within which the body becomes a good and the main production and distribution means of the consumer society or the generalized population aging and the advances of modern medicine – turned it into the target of several attentions, but also into a notion in transformation, whose nature should be rethought in the light of the new cultural situation. [1]

Probably, the main effect over the redefinition of the body comes from the quick techno-scientific development in the second half of the 20th century, occurred especially in its last decades. That traditional division between nature and culture, now focused on the distinction between nature and technology, begins to blow into the air as technologies become increasingly important for our ways of doing and thinking and as they are incorporated to the body, contributing – together with science and medicine – to overcome its physical and biological limitations. The technologies become a rich set of conditions of possibility to explore the limits of the body and the mind, to experiment with its very nature and to reconfigure its relationships with the environment. However, as pointed out by Domingo Hernández,

“the body has found an enemy (or a friend, depending on the point of view) to its own measure. It is none other than its possible disappearance, at least as we knew it. Opposite to the body cult, now the body is obsolete. And that’s why it has been modified, dissected, metamorphosed”. [2]

Thus, in Cyberculture the body no longer is what it used to be and, therefore, needs to be re-interpreted within the new paradigms of the new Cyborg ontology, posthumanism or transhumanism.

The aim of this text is to reflect about two opposed dynamics regarding to body transformations in Cybercultre: the body’s obsolescence linked to virtualization and the reappraisal of corporeal experience. To this scope, we will analyze these issues regarding to the very transformations of the notions of space and place, considering their intrinsic relationship with the body. Then, we will try to put forward these different ways of conceiving and constructing space, place and body from the point of view of the artistic practices, considering the artistic uses of telepresence technologies, which are a material basis of the above-mentioned dynamics. I consider this approach essential because artistic practices, as symbolic constructions of society, are – and have always been – regulators of the world conceptions, as they propose critical points of view and practical and aesthetic experiences that, straying from the everyday life, allow new glances at reality. This becomes evident in our current technologically mediated environment, as the artistic practices using ICTs as creative means denaturalize our interactions with them. In this way they open new possibilities for reflection about their impact over culture and, in this case, over our conceptions of the body, the space, the place and their relationships.

Space, Place, Body and Technology

In her text Reconceptualizing Time and Space in the Era of Electronic Media and Communications, Panayiota Tsatsou gives an interesting definition of the notions of space and place according to certain approaches by authors as Yi-Fu Tuan or Edward Relph. Tsatsou says:

“(Space) is “amorphous and intangible and not an entity that can be directly described and analyzed”. In relation to the often intermingled concept of place, “there is nearly always some associated sense or concept of place” in a way that “it seems that space provides the context for places but derives its meaning from particular places”. In this sense, place “is a concretion of value… it is an object in which one can dwell” whilst “space… is given by the ability to move”.[3]

We usually define space as ‘the three-dimensional expanse in which all objects exist’ or as ‘an interval of distance or time between two points, objects or events’. [4] Therefore, space is a dimension of reality to which we are linked trough the materiality of our own bodies. When space acquires symbolic meaning and concrete definition, it becomes place, marking up the whole spectrum of identity and sense of belonging.

However, we must consider also that space is not only the physical expanse that contains objects and subjects. This conception of space – based on a notion of absolute space as an entity that is external to human being and that merges from Newtonian physics – was widely accepted during the modernity. But, in the context of postmodernism and regarding to what Fredric Jameson called the ‘Spatial Turn’, this idea of space was replaced by a vision that considered it as a social construction that depends on experience and action, on how space and place are occupied and inhabited through action and mobility and, therefore, on the body as a field of experience.

This reconfiguration of the notion of space was first advocated, among others, by Henri Lefebvre, who set forward the idea of space both as a social product and a social producer in relation to the spatial practices (experience, lived space), representation of space (perceived, conceived) and space of representation (imagination).[5] Pierre Bourdieu also developed this spatial vision of reality based on the concept of habitus. As we are inscribed in space due to the materiality of our own body, according to him, through the habitus – defined as the practice of everyday life that is written on the body – we determine our placement and generate spaces in social frameworks (gender or class).[6] In this way, the habitus is embodied in the body’s own spatial condition, while simultaneously, the social construction of space exerts an influence on the habitus.

From these points of view, we can say that the reconfiguration of physical and social space implies a whole reconceptualización of the body, while the redefinition of the physical relations between space, place and body entails a new experience of space.
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telegarden

Ken Golberg, Telegarden,
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1995-2004

This is exactly what happens in the case of Cybercultre, a context in which ICTs have simultaneously altered both the dimensions of our bodies and of the spaces within we operate, radically transforming how we conceive the body, the space and the place.

Marshall McLuhan, for instance, considers that technologies and media are extensions of the senses or of any physical or psychic human faculty. Thus, according to him, ‘the wheel… is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye… Clothing, an extension of the skin… Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system’. [7]

In this sense, he stated:

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies into space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned”.[8]

If we go back to our previous considerations about how the redefinition of space entails redefining the body and vice versa, we can understand in which ways the extension of the body annihilates the space. But we can also understand how the annihilation of the space entails a virtual annihilation of the body. In fact, and paradoxically, the main consequence of the virtual extension of human capacities over space and time has led to a disembodiment and a dematerialization of the physical body and, therefore, to a loss of our sense of place.

But let’s go deeper into this issue: ¿What does it mean annihilation in this context and how is carried out this process of disembodiment, of ‘Virtualization of the Body’ in Pierre Levy’s terms?

The transformation of our spatial perception was the result of the acceleration of communication processes. The mobility possibilities offered by mechanical means of transport, as well as the virtual mobility – linked to physical immobility – offered by remote communications, outlined a new spatial and corporal landscape.

As pointed out by Anthony Giddens, before the emergence of remote communications, space and place – understood through the notion of local, referring to the physical settlements of geographically located social activity – almost always coincided together, since social relations were ruled by physical presence. By fostering ‘relations between the absentees set at a distance from any face-to-face interaction’,[9] the ICTs provoked a separation between space and place. This process results from the communications’ conquest of spatio-temporal barriers:  ICTs eliminate the need to cover physical space, which – as suggested by different marxist theorists – is virtually annihilated in favour of real time; a fact that produced what Harvey calls the ‘time-space compression’. [10]

Besides this compression and anihilation of phisical space, ICTs have given rise to the emergence of a new space, the Cyberspace, the virtual space of communication emerging from the global interconnection of computers.

If, as pointed out by Castells, the importance of Cyberspace in our culture is rooted in the way that the Network absorbs all our cultural logics, including the spatial one, it seems natural that the emergence of Cyberspace had created a new sense of space, founded in the same logics of mobility that the information flows. That is how a ‘space of flows’ has replaced the traditional ‘space of places’, the physical settlement of social activity located geographically. [11]

Thus, going back to the relation between the virtualization of the space and the virtualization of the body, if the former, as the material extension where our bodies exist, is virtually annihilated to become a virtual space, then the body should also have become a virtual body, which acts as a double of the physical one and that inhabits Cyberspace. Therefore, we become ubiquitous subjects, capable of being here and there (in the virtual space) at the same time. As Cyberspace gained more importance as a socializing sphere, we have also become deterritorialized subjects: given that subjects are no longer where they are, their social relationships in and with the physical space are weakened.

In this context of virtualization, where – as highlighted by Negroponte – bits have replaced atoms,[12] apparently the body has become just a mind. The physical part of the body – the Cartesian res extensa – has remained obsolete, has been replaced by the virtual one, just as the physical space has been replaced by the virtual space.

These ideas of obsolescence of all physical matters of life were very important in the social imaginaries of the 90s. Practices such as Virtual Reality – nowadays increasingly replaced by Augmented Reality – considerably helped to reinforce this images and ideas associated to the notions of space and body. We just need to think about Cyberpunk classics as Neuromancer or films as ExistenZ (1999) or The Matrix (1999) to become aware of the deep links between the idea of the obsolescence of the physical body and the notion of Cyberspace.

However, these ideas, of course, can be discussed. We know that physical spaces and places have not disappeared, as we still have physical bodies that allow us to be in those physical spaces and places. Castells himself pointed out the importance of materiality, both for the configuration of the ‘space of flows’ and for the access to Cyberspace, which is executed through an interface located in physical space.

I consider that Telepresence is precisely one of the practices of Cyberculture that better reflects not only the new conceptions of body, space and place raising from technological transforamtions, but also – and especially –  these tensions between physical and virtual bodies, places and spaces. Therefore, from this point, my purpose is to account for these new conceptions and tensions by analyzing some examples of artistic practices of telepresence

Telepresence: Virtualized Space… Obsolete Body?

Telepresence seems to be the maximum expression of the possibility of annihilating body and space. Literally, the term telepresence means presenceat a distance (Tele), where presence refers ‘not to one’s surroundings as they exist in the physical world, but to the perception of those surroundings as mediated by both automatic and controlled mental processes’.[13]

Thus by telepresence we understand not only the virtual presence in Cyberspace, but also the virtual presence in other physical spaces, with which we can interact and where our actions have visible and practical effects on subjects, objects and places geographically located far away from us.[14]

Precisely, Jonathan Steuer has defined telepresence as ‘the experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium’; it is the mediated perception of a ‘temporally or spatially distant real environment’ through the means of some sort of telecommunications technology. [15]

According to Levy, Telepresence is mainly linked to the projection of the body image. But in fact, he says, it’s more. Thus

“The telephone, for instance, works as a tele-presence device, because it does not carry and image or a representation of the voices: it carries the voices themselves. The telephone detaches the voices (or sonorous bodies) from the tangible body and delivers it at a distance. My tangible body is here, my sonorous body, split, is here and there. The telephone actualizes a partial form of ubiquity, and the same split also affects the sonorous body of my interlocutor. Although both of us are respectively here and there, a cross in the distribution of our tangible bodies takes place”. [16]

And he continues:

“Virtual Reality systems also carry more that just pictures: an almost presence, as the clones, visible agents, or virtual puppets can affect and modify other virtual puppets and visible agents, or even activate real devices at a distance and act in the ordinary world. Certain functions of the body, as the capacity of manipulation, linked to the sensory-motor connection in real time, are transferred, thus, at a distance, throughout a complex technical string used better and better in certain industrial environments”.[17]

During the 1990’s, coinciding with the expansion of new visions of space and place provoked by the emergence of Cyberspace, many artistic practices tried to explore the possibilities of interacting with remote spaces, setting out certain reflections on its consequences and even on its ethical connotations.

One of the best-known and pioneering projects in this field was Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden (1995-2004, University of Southern California). It was a cooperative on-line gardening initiative that allowed users of the entire world to control trough the Internet a robotic arm that grew seeds or watered plants in a real garden situated, since 1996, in the Ars Electronica Center, Linz (Austria). The members of this gardening community could monitor all their actions, executed by the tender movements of the industrial robotic arm, trough a camera.[18] This is a good example of a virtually extended body, where sight and touch can arrive to remote places; where our action barely depends on physical movement; were virtualized body annihilates the space and where the virtual elimination of space makes body action obsolete.

Mexican artist Lozano-Hemmer’s projects in public spaces are also very representative of this kind of telepresence artistic practices. Vectorial Elevation was created to celebrate the year 2000 at the Zocalo Square of Mexico. The work consisted of a series of light beams that could be controlled trough the Internet by users from all over the world. Thus, the work reflected on the aesthetic possibilities of telepresence itself, but at the same time, it allowed an aesthetic re-definition and the transformation of the real place through the different combinations of the light beams and its movements.[19] For this reason, in a certain way, this project was also challenging the idea of deterritorialization: we, who interact with the work, are virtually ubiquitous  – we are able to alter a distant space in real time but we cannot physically experience the effects of our action. However, other subjects inhabit that other physical space. And, by aesthetically reshaping it through our actions, we transform the practices of its inhabitants and we alter their perception of that space, generating a new sense of place and locality related with their embodied physical experience.

Antunez. Epizoo

Antúnez, Epizoo_2

Marcel·lí Antúnez, Epizoo, 2005
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Although telepresence itself is a form of relation with the environment that highlights the obsolescence of the body in terms of communication, it has been also used by artists to reflect right on this phenomena for a critical point of view.

This is the case of the project Epizoo, by the Spanish artist Marcel·lí Antúnez, conceived as a ‘Mechatronic performance’ and presented for the first time in 1994. Following other artistic experiments related with the Cyborg – as objetictification of the body ­– as those developed by Stelarc,[20] Antúnez connected several mechanic devices to his body. These mechatronic devices – comprising a body robot, which is an exoskeleton worn by the performer, a computer and a mechanical body control device – were remotely controlled by the users, who could manipulate artist’s flesh and skin in their own way. The orthopaedic robot mechanism was held to the body by two metal moulds, a belt and a helmet, into which the pneumatic mechanisms were fitted. These mechanisms could move Marcel.lí’s nose, buttocks, pectorals, mouth and ears while the artist remained standing upright on a rotating circular platform during the performance. The pneumatic devices were in turn connected to a system of computer controlled electro-valves and relays. The computer run an exclusive application with an interface similar to a videogame, with eleven interactive scenes of computer generated animated sequences that recreated the figure of the artist and indicated the position and movement of the mechanisms. In this way the user could control the artist’s body by using the mouse. In this performance, the main idea was to explore the artist’s pain threshold, raising the question of the ethical consequences of our remote actions, but also stressing the idea that despite all kind of virtualizations or cyborgizations, our body is still a battlefield, in fact, a bloody battlefield.

Conclusions

To sum up, we can say that the transformations of the notions of place, space and body are an empirically verifiable fact nowadays, and one of the most important effects of ICTs over social and cultural life. Regarding the nature of the body and space itself, these transformations involve complex processes that critically engage virtualization and actualization;  dematerialization and rematerialisation; mind, flesh and technology.

Although in science fiction or in social imaginaries the more extended idea was that we could, someday, leave behind our bodies to free our minds – an idea that is still based on the conception of the body as a container of the mind –, we could consider – as suggested by Hernandez and reflected by artists as Antúnez or Stelarc – that what the obsolescence of the body means, and has always meant, is just that the body is obsolete as we knew it.

*This article is a fragment of my original text “Reconceptualizing Body, Space and Place: Telepresence and Mobile Media in Art”, originally published in Honey, Tania (Ed), Imachine: There is No I in Meme, Oxford: Inter-disciplinay Press, 2014. 

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Notes

[1] About the cultural conceptions of the body and its evolution see, among others: Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, Bryan S. Turner, ed., The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (London: sage, 1991) or Michael Feher, Ramona Naddaff, Nadia Tazi, ed., Fragments for a History of the Human Body (New York: Zone, 1989).

[2] Domingo Hernández Sánchez, ed., Arte, Cuerpo y Tecnología (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2003), 10.

[3] Panagiota Tsatsou, “Reconceptualizing Time and Space in the Era of Electronic Media and Communications,” Platform: Journal of Media and Communication 1 (July 2009): 12

[4] Collins Dictionary Online, s.v. “space”

[5] Henry Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1991).

[6] Peter Hubbard, ed., Key Thinkers of Space and Place (London: Sage, 2009).

[7] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, An Inventory of Effects, trans. Quentin Fiore (New York: Random House, 1989), 31.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994 (1964), 3

[9] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, (California: Standford University Press, 1990), 29-30.

[10] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Blackwell, 1991).

[11] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2000). See also Gómez, Marisa The “Space of Flows” as Social Imaginary: Interpretation and Representation in Digital Artistic Practices (Part I)

[12] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[13] James J. Gibson, The ecological approach to visual perception. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), quoted in Jonathan Steuer, “Defining virtual reality: Dimensions determining Telepresence”, in Frank Biocca, Mark R. Levy, ed., Communication in the age of virtual reality (Hillsdale, NJ : Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1995), 35.

[14]  Eduardo Kac, “Ornitorrinco y Rara Avis. El Arte de la Telepresencia en Internet”, in Claudia Gianetti, ed., Ars Telemática. Telecomunicación, Internet y Ciberespacio (Barcelona: L’Angelot, 1998), 119-127.

[15] Steuer, “Defining Virtual Reality”, 36

[16] [17] Pierre Levy, ¿Qué es lo Virtual? (Becoming Virtual) (Barcelona: Paidós, 1999), 28.

[18] For more information about the work click here

[19] More information about this work see

[20] See, for example, his Exoskeletons