Arlindo Machado on Sun, 22 Feb 1998 10:50:31 +0100 (MET)

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Arlindo Machado

After generalizing happenings, performances, and installations, after
questioning the white cube of the museum and jumping to the public space,
after borrowing from industry and employing all kinds of machines and
technological apparatuses to make images, texts, and sounds, after
discussing the tragedy of the human condition and laying bare the
embarrassment, the segregation, the unspoken differences of race, sex,
geographic origin, and socioeconomic contingency-after all of this, art
seems to orient itself now toward a discussion of the very biological
condition of the species.

For the past few years, artists like Orlan and Stelarc have brought forward
a cultural discussion of the possibility of surpassing the human through
radical surgical intervention, through the interface between flesh and
electronics, or with robotic prostheses to complement and expand the
potentiality of the biological body.  More than anticipate profound changes
in perception, in our conception of the world, and in the reorganization of
our sociopolitical systems, these pioneers foresee fundamental
transformations in our species.  These transformations could conceivably
alter our genetic code and reorient the linear Darwinian evolutionary

An important landmark of this current took place on November 11, 1997, at
the cultural center Casa das Rosas, Sao Paulo, Brazil.  On this day, the
artist Eduardo Kac implanted in his ankle an identification microchip with
nine digits and registered himself with a databank in the United States via
the Internet.  Replacing the traditional branding with hot iron, the
microchip--a transponder tag-- is used to identify and recover lost or
stolen animals.  The microchip is connected to a coil and a capacitor, all
hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass to prevent the organism from
rejecting it.  The number stored on the chip can be retrieved with a
tracker, a portable scanner that generates a radio signal and energizes a
microchip, making it transmit back its inalterable number.  The microchip
implant in the ankle has a precise symbolic meaning: it is an area of the
body that has traditionally been chained or branded.

The description sketched above is oversimplified and incomplete.  Kac's
work, entitled "Time Capsule," also included several other elements that
were directly or indirectly related to the implant.  The physical space at
Casa das Rosas was converted temporarily into something like a hospital
room, with surgical instruments, a doctor to assist with possible
complications, and an emergency ambulance (parked inside the premises by
the front door and visible from the street). There were also seven original
photographs on the wall--the only surviving mementoes of the artist's
grandmother's family, who were entirely annihilated in Poland during World
War II.  In the space we also saw computers that enabled access to the
database in the United States, allowed the artist's body to be scanned via
the Internet, and transmitted the event worldwide as a webcast.  The next
day an X-ray showing the position of the microchip inside the artist's body
was added to the site next to an enlargement of the database record.  There
was also a live broadcast of the whole event by a commercial television
station (Canal 21), two more taped broadcasts by other commercial
television stations (TV Cultura and TV Manchete), and great response in the
local press before and after the event.  The Argentinean daily newspaper
*La Nacion* published a full-page story and the New York magazine
*Intelligent Agent* covered the event with an extensive article.  The
artist himself may not have been able to anticipate and contemplate all of
the implications and consequences of his intervention.  Due to the
broadcasts and the press coverage, for example, the implant and netscanning
of the artist's body went beyond the intellectual ghetto and acquired a
public dimension: the next morning the strange story of the man who had
implanted a microchip in his own body was told and retold in cafes,
subways, and in corporate offices by people who do not even remotely follow
developments in the art world.

Kac's intervention touches on difficult and uncomfortable points in the
debate on the philosophic, scientific, and ethical future of mankind.  One
month before the realization of "Time Capsule" at Casa das Rosas, the event
was commissioned for the exhibition *Art and Technology* by the Instituto
Cultural Itau, also in Sao Paulo, and then cancelled by the same
institution under the pretext that a microchip implant in a human being
could bring serious legal problems for the sponsoring institution.  In the
United States, important research centers requested copies of the videotape
of the broadcast to analyze the experience while the Wearable Computing
list discussed the event on the Internet. The fact that the work became
polemical both inside and outside the country in which it was realized is a
clear indication that Kac's intervention touched something important.  As
the placement of a foreign body (Duchamp's urinal) in the sacred space of
the museum had unpredictable consequences for subsequent art, the
implantation of a microchip inside the body of an artist will intensify the
debate on the paths that both art and the human species will travel in the
next millennium.

Because Eduardo Kac is an artist and not a political activist, the event he
realized at Casa das Rosas remains open to multiple interpretations.  One
can read the implant as a warning about forms of human surveillance and
control that might be adopted in the near future. The Brazilian press
approached the event mostly from this point of view. The scenario evoked is
that a microchip implanted in our body from birth could become our only
form of identification.  Whenever we needed to be identified we would be
scanned, and immediately a databank would show records revealing who we
are, what we do, what kinds of products we consume, if we are in debt with
to Internal Revenue Service, if we are facing criminal charges, or if we
are hiding from the judicial system.

However, one can also read Kac's work from another perspective, as a sign
of a biological mutation that might eventually take place, when digital
memories will be implanted in our bodies to complement or substitute for
our own memories.  This reading is clearly authorized by the associations
the artist makes between the implant of a numerical memory in his own body
and the public exhibition of his familial memories, his external memories
materialized in the form of photographs of his ancestors. These images,
which strangely contextualize the event, allude to deceased individuals
whom the artist never had the chance to meet, but who were responsible for
the "implantation" in his body of the genetic traces he has carried from
childhood and that he will carry until his death.  Will we in the future
still carry these traces with us irreversibly or will we be able to replace
them with artificial genetic traces or implanted memories?  Will we still
be black, white, mulatto, Indian, Brazilian, Polish, Jewish, female, male,
or will we buy some of these traces at a shopping mall? In this case, will
it make any sense to speak of family, race, nationality? Will we have a
past, a history, an "identity" to be preserved?

Until recently humanity was understood, both philosophically and at the
level of common sense, as essentially opposed to machines and to prostheses
that simulate biological functions.  Human essence seemed to reside exactly
there, where the robot failed and revealed its limitations.  However, with
the development of robotics, the automaton has progressively acquired
competencies, talents, and even sensibilities we once considered unique to
our species, forcing us continually to redefine our notions of what
constitutes our own humanity.  More dramatic yet, the development of wet
and biocompatible interfaces are enabling the insertion of electronic
elements inside our own bodies. These elements then become part of what we
call ourselves.  Kac's emblematic event seems to suggest that in the future
the robot, so often presented in science fiction as an invader usurping
men's and women's places, might be inside us-might become ourselves.


Arlindo Machado is a critic, curator, and professor at the University of
Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has researched and published extensively on visual
arts and new technologies. His books include *The Specular Illusion: an
Essay on Photography*, *The Art of Video*, *Machine and Imaginary: the
Poetics of Technology*, and *Pre-cinemas and Post-cinemas* (in Portuguese).
A. Machado received the National Photo Award from the Brazilian Foundation
for the Arts (FUNARTE) in 1995.  He is the Chair of the Tenth International
Symposium on Electronic Art--ISEA99.

"A microchip inside the body" (Um microchip dentro do corpo), by Arlindo
Machado, was originally presented at the symposium "New Directions in Art,"
Paso das Artes, Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 18, 1997. Forthcoming in
Mediapolis (Buenos Aires).
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