- Rylie Goodchild
Bodies©INcorporated is an online platform, created in 1996 by Victoria Vesna. The user is invited to create an avatar and explore the virtual space. When you enter the site, you are faced with the icon of a marbled skull that could be likened to the images used to display neuroscience thesis. There is a strict colour scheme of orange and black, and the user must agree to extensive terms and conditions before entering the program. You are reminded that you will regret it, if you do not read the information being offered to you.
Vesna’s work acts as a research resource on the relationship between Art and Science. She has collaborated with intellectuals from technologic fields, and places her artistic practice as educational. Though steeped in fact, and extremely well engaged with the advancement of human development; I feel there is also a highly spiritual feeling to much of her work, marrying the binary of technology and humanity.
Once arrived in the program; there is a heaven, hell and purgatory structure the site. Your body is welcome to move between the three, but there are rules and regulations to each. Across the whole platform there is a feeling of intentional unease placed on the viewer, due to how rigorous and confined the rules are. Furthermore, framing the creation of an avatar within a corporation construct brings to light ideas of Surveillance Capitalism; the tailored bodies become products to be bought, sold, killed, used and thrown away. The purgatory zone is named Marketplace, and heaven: Show World. In the age of Big Data, Vesna could be seen to be making evident the ways corporations view those interacting with their services.
Rules and policies such as: “meeting with the approval of the board of directors” mirror that of art organisations and the pressures, as an Artist, to gain critical acclaim in an industry that can feel weighted in Consumerism. Vesna’s use of this structure could be seen as a modern illustration of how classical belief systems (steeped in Capitalist values,) have transformed to survive in the digital age. By agreeing to all terms and conditions, one relinquishes all rights and ownership to their body within the corporation. This raises to light the normalised objectification of employees in problematic power structures driven by financial profit.
The concept of creating an alter ego self within a web program went on to shape many digital platforms throughout the 1990’s, and 2000’s. Websites such as LambadMOO, The Palace and Second Life offered a place to escape to, and be more than ones anatomy. These platforms then gave way to apps and websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and later, Instagram. The difference with such services was that now your own face, and Selfhood, was to be used as a digital persona.
It could be argued that this software, and artworks such as this, simply perpetuate viewing identity as a commercial good to be thought of as property. From this view point, humanitarian issues such as minority inequalities (Racism, Genderism, Classism…) issues arise in the digital world, just as they do in the real one.
In a LambadMOO chat room there were a series of “Virtual rapes”, where user “Mr Bungle” wrote into his narratives that he was sexually assaulting other user’s avatars. In line with the Dungeons and Dragons roots of this software, such users were then “Toaded”, which effetely kills their avatar. Instances like this draw links to Dark Web activities such as the creation and disruption of child pornography and modern day slavery, which can occur due to the abuse of power and privilege without guidelines or policing. All such examples show how the digital world mimes the real world in all its bad qualities, as well as its advances. Surface to say, Vesna is bringing to light this negativity in technology by representing it honestly in her work.
Such parallels can be seen to support the simulation hypothesis: a concept that our reality is but a world within another reality, which forms part of a pyramid structure. Video games like The Sims display smaller worlds within our own, and virtual reality programming has begun to reach public accessibility. Such thought lines also align with many religious beliefs of creator theory, and bring under the lense why humanity feels an awareness of a higher state of being. To believe we are the most advanced beings within space and time seems extremely autocratic, and reflecting on current advancements; it is forecast that virtual reality indistinguishable from real life is not far from our current position in technological abilities.
Jean Baudrillard explored this theory in his study; Simulacra and Simulation, where he poses the argument that to simulate is beyond that of performativity. He suggests that a subject can truly be other by simulating their behaviour, like a self administered placebo. Baring reference to this with regards to Bodies©INcorporated takes the work from artistic software to a public neurological test of whether the self can differentiate from its digital presences, and superficial representation within a virtual environment.
Contemporary Vanessa Beecorft has also explored this theme in her use of models to display beauty and the indifferent human condition. She draws links to popular culture, and how administers of the fashion and beauty industry’s become archetypes for ‘the many’ to emulate. This is not a new idea; that popular culture informs the aesthetics of society, but when brought into relation with the topic shows this how flawed human originality and creativity can be. Furthermore, the immense power of such figures becomes problematic when their influence can be seen as promoting tokenised selfhood as a commercial product.
In Beecroft’s earlier work Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, which was featured in the 2007 Venice Biennale, she created a performative ‘live painting’ with Sudanese woman lying face down simulating corpses of the Darfur genocide. As the conflict in Sudan continues, this humanitarian disaster has become known as the first genocide of the 21st century. During the performance Beecroft walked among the models pouring red liquid (blood) onto the bodies scattered across the space. Akin to Vesna, she is representing the human condition in its most raw anatomy, however Beecroft communicates the ephemeral humanness in her works that Vesna could be seen to ignore, or looses due the medium of web art.
Not to be forgotten here is the context of Cornavirus at my time of writing. The world and Art have moved into the digital sphere to maintain communication and connection. While the death numbers are announced every evening on the British daily news, the world feels like a dystopian reality where the value of human life lessens as the numbers rise and leaders fail to take action. At such times I feel it is important to not become desensitised to these events and see each number as a human, a life, and a real person.
With this in mind, Bodies©INcorporated illustrates the darkness and sterility that the digital age brings to humanity. Our relationship to selfhood has become such where Being is one with Technology. As excessively progressive as this research could be seen to be, when married with Capitalist values, and the already out of hand objectification of humanity in Marxist structures, one cannot help but feel the service also is also normalising seeing bodies as capital product.
As time has transformed, the Bourgeois elite no longer sit in castles at Versailles eating cake and studying ways to lock the gates of class division, but now reside in Silicone Valley driving Teslas and viewing ‘the many’ as simply a number, on a screen, in an algorithm of population by square metre of land. Needless to mention the problems with one of the world greatest powers being ruled by a titan of industry who objectifies all those around him for personal pleasure.
To conclude, I feel Vesna’s work exemplifies a moment in the history of digital Art and Media where the human stepped into the program. Her comment on bodies within a corporate structure mirrors that of realities in Western societies since business became the sole focus of man after the Great wars. The work captures glimpses of an Orwellian bureaucratic future ahead of the 1990’s, that I feel one can confirm we feel well on our way to in the current affairs of 2020.
As a final thought I would like to raise to light that Vesna wishes for you to “realize that your total autonomy is itself anything but an exclusive fiction”, which feels like a direct quote from O’Brien before proposing that ‘2+2=5’. With such directions in this service I feel that the work is bringing forth a transgressive type of change steeped in dystopian fantasy, which loses emotion and Being to the use of technology in a digitally literate world. This is a world I do not feel is inevitable to man, but must be given equal importance to that of ‘Formalism, Voluntarism, Emotionalism, Intellectualism, Intuitionism, Organicism’ forms of art, as proposed by Weitz in Neill and Ridley.