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The Epistemological Force of Art

The development and constant reinforcement of biotech industries and the process of technologisation of life in contemporary western societies raise important questions for our human futures: to what extend technologies shape our lives, where is the line between natural and artificial, what would be the consequences of these practices for the individual, and finally what is human nature today.

By redesigning natural biological systems and commodifying life and nature, humans’ habitat and their ways of relating to it and themselves, become a tool for control and power over society. The preoccupation about contemporary life and the power implicated social relationality in result of technoligisation of life is outlined in Krzysztof Ziarek’s theory and his concept of technicity. In his terms technicity is a modality that determines the value of relations between beings and phenomena in relation to production and manipulation, which, consequently, accounts this relationality with intensification of power (Ziarek 2004: 61).He also sees the recent ‘personification’ of technicity in digitality, as it allows global control over individuals in an operative societal system, in which being becomes digitalisable and thus calculable and programmable. In his view the freedom that one has the feeling to possess in one’s access to the internet and virtual world finds itself in strong relation to power, which controls life and social practice.

To contest this modality of control over social relations and practice, there is a need for a space, in which power becomes disarticulated, and which can challenge the hegemonic regulations of society enabling a turn within. Ziarek promotes the view that art is that space, as it is able to redispose the modality of relations in a manner that questions the technicity of the world in its production, commodification and manipulation. Hence, here, I will look at two art projects in order to address the issue of how is art practice accountable in regards to technicity of power – how does it inscribe within and how does it contest it; does it dispute manipulation and programmability, mobilised by power, or is it another instantiation of technicity itself.

The Modular Body by the Dutch filmmaker Floris Kaayk is an online science fiction storytelling project, composed of 56 interconnected documentary clips that share the story of Oscar – a modular lifeform created from three-dimensional printed organs of human cells and an electric brain. It shares the process of designing Oscar, a scientific project led by a fictional biologist – Cornelis Vlasman, who, together with a team of supporters, aims to create a modular organism, refashioning the human body into an open life system. Experimenting with organic material, and utilising cells from his body, the researcher succeeds in creating the first living organism with a modular system – Oscar, who is the size of a human hand, and consists of clickable organ modules: interchangeable limbs, spare lungs and electronic brain. By using replaceable modules, the biologist Vlasman keeps Oscar’s body functioning until the moment he decides to end his life, a reminder of the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The complexity of the human-machine mode of existence involves the admittance of technologisation of human life, where human and the constructed ‘other’ collide into the creation of hybrid life initiation. The Modular Body investigates the ‘nature’ of human through the process of cultural articulation and questions the concept of human life in the contemporary world, pointing us towards the need for a re-examination of the notion of life and human nature itself. In her philosophical work, Joanna Zylinska promotes the idea that the human has always been technical. This concept of ‘originary technicity’ implies that the human becomes such only in its differentiation from or confrontation with nature; therefore one has always been technological and is constituted by one’s technical condition. In this sense, ‘pure nature’ is impossible, as the nature of the human is produced only as and through technicity.

Such perception allows the possibility of revision of the relationship between human-nonhuman, viz., human being and technological environment, enabling different human-nonhuman relationality in which tekhne comes into existence as part of the human essence rather than a constructed ‘human other’. The theoretical assumption aims at overcoming the dichotomy of nature/culture, since such identification of the ‘essence’ of human nature can unveil new possible modes for response and living in the technically modelled power relationality of the modern world. Along with the ‘originary’ existent role of technicity, the human body encounters the process of constant obsolescence, which becomes its condition for change and turns into the impetus for its transformation. This perpetual metamorphosis might be as well reflected in the modularity of Oscar’s body and his open system, which is available for constant reconfiguration and becoming with tekhne.

In this sense, tekhne can be seen as a key concept for understanding the potentiality for resistance to technicity and a simultaneous preservation of tekhne as human ability. Boyan Manchev’s theory draws upon the idea that the human is a biologically insufficient creature – a creature whose inadaptability to the environment generates its development, as it comes to be detached from the immediate, with which action the ‘nonorganic enters the world’. Thus, the contemporary condition of the human should not be described as a transformation of the human nature, as its transformation is the same ‘nature’ of the human. Recognising tekhne as human essence and revealing its originary existence provides a solution for resistance of the technologisation of the human while preserving the originary potential for transformation of tekhne. This process of identification requires new forms of actualisation, such as creativity and imagination.

Further, in the process of revealing a world that is technical in essence before science and technology grasp and manipulate it, tekhne becomes the point of immediacy between artistic and technological, reflected in Heidegger’s discussion about two related meanings of tekhne – as craft/art and as technics/technology. Here, the technological is understood in relation to Ziarek’s term of technicity of power. In this perspective, the question about art and The Modular Body in this case comes to be raised in terms of how it is accountable in regard to the technicity of power.

As a web-based project the story of Oscar is a computer-mediated technology, which takes place on the Internet and is reflected by different media – social media and TV programmes. It can be argued that the project about Oscar is integrated within the operative system of power-dominated relationality, as, being online-based, it is using ways of communication already implicated within domination.

On the other hand, the story it narrates is imaginary. The plausibility of various events within the process of creation of the new lifeform is rendered at the border of fiction and reality, and it comes to be constructed by the ambiguity of perceptions accorded to a belief in or a refusal of what is seen, which positions the work itself on the borderline between the ‘technological’ and the ‘artistic’. The ‘self-reflection’ of the artwork in which the credibility and fictionality of the story is considered, brings into play the notion of communication, permeated by power domination and resulting in manipulation. By its position between ‘real’ and ‘fictional’, it generates a play with the mechanisms in which audiences and society come to be manipulated by media, and raises the question of functionality of media itself – how it works and how the ‘being’ comes to be manipulated in its existence in the world of technicity and power. With this ‘play’ it reveals the power at work in technicity, expressed by the inverted value of digital realms and their impact in the social world.

In the blurring of the boundaries of ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’, The Modular Body performs a manipulation of the manipulative power of social media and internet through their channels of communication, as its ‘fictional-real hybridity’ reveals different disposition of forces, which come to be disposed artistically, rather than technologically, and, in this way, it disrupts the power-dominated societal system by using a medium – technology – which is part of this system. In this sense, the work of Kaayk can be perceived as a turn in technicity in which technical relationality comes to reflect upon itself and calls itself into question. It is not a matter of expansion of technicity but a way of disarticulating technicity from within. The turn is not a withdrawal negating the technological organisation of power but rather an inscription within the mechanisms of programmability, mobilised by power, aiming for its disclosure. This, in turn, raises our awareness about the existence of the human in the climate of the 21st century’s biotechnological developments and the channels of value making and manipulation generated by the technicity of power.

The speculation proposed by the analysed work grants us a vision for an alternative way to reimagine the future in the Anthropocene. The speculative narratives of art practices combining reality and fiction, the stories of encounter of human and machines or their hybridisation, allow the space for the emergence of different future possibilities and for the exploration of ethical, ontological and epistemological becomings in a post-human world. By experiencing art and its different modality of relations where power is disarticulated, and technicity revealed, we are challenged to respond, think, and reflect upon our futures, which lead us to act and create our world.


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