Cyborgs At The Whitney Museum

At New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibit Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016 which runs through February 5 is a not-to-be-missed display of films and film installations shaped by technology. Many of the most compelling pieces present images of cyborgs, hybrid figures which are part human, part digital or machine. These composite beings range from a 1970 recreation of the 1922 dance performance Triadic Ballet by German artist Oskar Schlemmer with its abstracted mechanistic figures to works by today's new media artists and filmmakers who explore how technologies have dramatically shifted our ideas about being human in a digital age.

A startling work is Serbian artist Ivana Bašić's sculptural SOMA (2013), a digital 3D model of her transformed body which hangs loosely and limply like meat dangling on a suspended metal rod. The model, done in collaboration with 3D artist Mohammed Modarres, was made by creating a 3D scan of Bašić's body. Copies of the scan could also be purchased on the internet, allowing "owners" to manipulate them any way they chose as long as they informed the artist. Also in the exhibit was the artist's digital animation of her own figure dancing or doing gymnastic contortions which slowly morph into surreal and shadowy shapes.

One of the most mesmerizing pieces is Andrea Crespo's dream-like digital video parabiosis, neurolibidinal induction complex 2.2 (2015). Sitting in a darkened room, viewers saw a sequence of images which were slowly displaced by the slow- moving vertical light of a scanner. Some of the images were hand drawn animated figures by the artist, and some looked like mysterious constellations and star-like specks of light in a digital galaxy. The texts were intriguing words and phrases--musings about how digital media are transforming us, our social world, and our universe: "you are multiplying" "diffusing," "replicating," "you are absorbed," "you are splitting," "replicating," "duplicating," "you are never alone," "always together."

One of the wittiest works is Lorna Mills' video Ways of Something, Episodes 1-4 (2014-15) . The artist had asked a group of artists to provide their own one-minute artworks as a response to British art historian John Berger's 1972 four-part BBC television series Ways of Seeing. Berger's Episode 2 in the series was largely about how men view women, women view themselves, and women watch themselves being looked at. In the original, Berger closely examined paintings in the Western tradition but in Mills' version (which retains the original audio track), new media artists recast Berger's view and used digital imagery and webcam videos. The mélange included fleeting images of women in Playboy, mannequins, and even clips from early horror films.

As part of the Dreamlands exhibit, the museum's program "Feelings Are Facts: A Neuro-Cinema" held on January 13 considered how the cyborg has become a "new paradigm for thinking about hybridity," and the ever-more blurred boundary the virtual and the real. California artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose work has featured cyborgian beings for over forty years, presented her short video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994). Though over twenty years old, it is still timely.

In it, a young woman who has lost her sight undergoes an operation and through the use of computers, she becomes transformed and is able to have a new type of vision: by touching a computer monitor, she now experiences a simulated world. She soon becomes addicted to the virtual world, and the outcome is bleak. Her hearing becomes impaired, her eyes drop tears with water rising, and, as the narrator tells us, she "succumbs" to "a battlefield of degraded privacy, loneliness, terror." The substitution of the simulated world for our "real" one, the artist suggests somberly, can be a devastating experience.