In 2002, the world was introduced to a new kind of artist, one neither machinic nor precisely human, neither eligible for canonization by way of being dead nor present for observation by virtue of being alive. The artist was called MEART, a “semi-living artist” assembled out of component parts–some living, others not quite living, others vital, but biologically dead–that spanned the globe. In more proximate terms, MEART was an installation: a video camera set up in a gallery in Melbourne captured images of human passers-by. The image data was then transmitted through digital networks to a genetics and bioengineering lab in Atlanta, where it would stimulate (and help to grow) a small dish of neural cells extracted from a rat. The effects of the stimulation were then be captured by a sensory array positioned below the dish, and transmitted back to the gallery, where the neural impulses stimulated a robotic arm to produce a series of chaotic, spidery sketches.
The sketches, the “product” of MEART’s process, are ambiguous and in many senses unremarkable. Divorced from their elaborate “contraptionist” (Munster, 2012) emergence, they appear to the viewer as nothing more than crude scribbles. But this is, of course, the point. Or one of the points. MEART deploys the ‘artwork’ against itself, operating precisely in the service of decentering the ‘artwork’ as a meaningful aesthetic category. The sketches appear as coherent, completed ‘artworks’ only insofar as they compel us to look backward, to acknowledge the incoherence, the (mis)translations, and the instabilities immanent to its distributed production; to consider the processual conditions of its becoming.
At every point of inflection, ambivalence enters into the MEART assemblage. The whole system, elaborate as it might be, equivocates. It shudders between multiple registers, some parallel, others meeting each other at curious angles, others fully opposed. When the gallery goer is first captured by the camera, for instance, we find a primary moment of abstraction: some sentient biological creature is translated into its own image or trace, its biologically dead but still recognizable and vital analogue. As if to redouble this equivocation between the living and the not-quite-living, MEART casts this moment of translation within a matrix defined by two other seemingly opposed registers, in the negative space between the automation of the digital camera and the contingent, unpredictable motion of human bodies in space.
As the image data travels through the MEART system, similar moments of (mis)translation accumulate around and through it. Upon entering the network, it is, like all data, disassembled; broken apart into pieces and relayed through a series of almost infinitely variable network pathways. Yet this chaotic navigation is not totally unstructured. It is guided by the automated protocols and commands of code, servers, and ports, once again pushing variability and automation into provisional accord. When the image reassembles in Atlanta, it is translated once again, reduced from image data proper to bare electrical impulse. At this point, it returns to the biological register from whence it came, but at a different angle, shirking any messianic promise of organic reunification: it departs from the human altogether and encounters the animal via the neural. The entire process, translations and all, is then reversed as the stimulated rat neural cultures transmit signals back over the network to the (machinic) arm in Melbourne, where the pen apparatus produces the sketches.
Though the project’s creators refer to the sketches as portraits, it’s hard to know exactly who or what, if any ‘thing,’ they capture. Responding to the mimetic precision of the digital camera with bemused indifference, they are accented by the ambivalent relation between machinic automation and biological contingency (itself split between the human and the animal), immanent to the MEART system. Not wholly unstructured, but hardly indexical. Bordering on ordered, but in what direction, we can never be certain. They are somewhere between an ink blot, a spirograph and a chromosome diagram; neither portraits of the human by way of the animal and machine, nor portraits of the animal by way of machine and human. And neither are they portraits in which the media of transmission and representation are confined to the role of substrate. In this sense, the portraits capture not so much the actor/nodes that constitute the system as the relations between them. They capture (spectrally, as a trace) the variable movement of cyborg impulses–those that cannot be said to belong strictly to the human, the machinic, or the animal–across those domains, insisting that we understand them as, at the very least, entangled. More accurately: mutually constitutive.
MEART, in short, asks us to engage with aesthetic and artistic thought, with affect and perception, in a way that decentres the thinking, apprehending human subject. In such a system, the acts of seeing, being seen, feeling, and being felt do not move cleanly between the sensing human body and the sempiternal artwork. Rather they propagate outward from domains that are not necessarily human toward to those that are necessarily not human, and recursively turn back upon themselves. They spread and unfold across component parts not so alike they could be mistaken for one another, but not so different that they are incapable of occupying the same networked environment. In this sense, MEART, for all its elaborate trappings, ultimately makes a quiet claim for the possibilities of cohabitation, for equivocations that bind and translations-in-concert.
But there is a problem here. Or an omission. As Anna Munster writes in her latest, An Aesthesia of Networks, contraptionist artworks (we need more words for artworks that aren’t) like MEART rely on historically-situated network architectures subtended by the the imperatives of capital and the military-industrial complex. The forms of cohabitation towards which MEART gestures, those that cross and challenge discrete ontological categories, thus cannot be too quickly idealized. Speculative capital and its neoimperialist proxies would like nothing more than to cross, to propagate, and to traverse without end. As such, these assemblages also demand that we consider the influence of corporate research funding upon the independence university laboratories–the kind that fuel MEART, the structures of ownership and control that such funding arrangements might engender (in particular, the ownership of neural, genetic, and other biological materials) and the ways in which the ethically promising relation of human to machine to animal might be recuperated by capital and redeployed in militarized forms.
Munster writes that when it comes to art that explores how it feels to be digital, “the point is not to bring everything together so that it smoothly pulses, transmits, and glows informatically. Instead, contraptionist approaches both interrogate the conjunctions presumed to be there and furnish new pathways for moving from one thing to the next.” But as I’ve written elsewhere, it is precisely these points of conjuncture on which the forces of capital tend to seize, attenuating the ethical and relational possibilities of emergent technical assemblages. What is required, then, in addition to works such as MEART that approximate or diagram potential futures of cohabitation, is work that directly engages and refuses those forces that would foreclose them.
In his exquisite new film Upstream Color, director Shane Carruth assumes this necessary line of critique. While certainly not as radically experimental as MEART, Upstream Color nonetheless trades in the same registers and probes the same questions, challenging the (ethico-political and aesthetic) limits of touch and sensation, complicating the nature of distance and proximity, and refusing the ossification of relationality by both capital and discourses of organic totality.
Color opens with an asynchronous, elliptical montage that introduces the film’s two ostensible villains: a parasitic maggot-like creature that lives amongst the roots of a rare breed of purple orchid, and “the thief,” an otherwise nameless figure who harvests the parasite and uses it to take control of his victims’ lives. When ingested by humans, the pest divests its host of all thought and agency, allowing them to come under the control of anyone who cares to issue them commands. We then meet the thief’s newest target: Kris, a successful production designer. As she leaves a restaurant one night, the thief ambushes and tazes her, forcing her to swallow the parasite in the process. Immediately, she is under his control. He puppets Kris for days, forcing her to empty her bank accounts into his name and distracting her with elaborate busy work schemes: playing games of checkers against herself, copying–by hand–the entire text of Walden and folding the pages into an enormous paper chain. But with his work complete and the course of the parasite coming to an end, the thief abandons Kris in her home. She eventually awakens, horrified to find the insects crawling under her skin. The sight sends her into a fit and she attempts, to no avail, to extract the creatures with a kitchen knife.
It is here that Carruth introduces a third key figure: an unassuming pig farmer and hobby field recorder who has discovered that the parasite is drawn to particular frequencies–something akin to the sound of water sloshing through a buried pipe. Following Kris’ frantic efforts to remove the parasite, Carruth cuts to the farmer as he methodically sets out an array of speakers in a small clearing in the woods and begins playing his recordings into the dirt. The low, steady pulses draw Kris to the clearing, where the farmer slowly extracts the parasite from her body, transfusing it (as is his custom) into one of his young pigs. After the procedure, Kris awakens once again, disoriented, cut and bruised, parked on the side of a highway. With no memory of what’s happened, she discovers that her savings have disappeared, that she’s lost her job, and that she must start again with nothing.
And so where most contagion/virus films fail to move beyond the infection-as-terror trope–often deploying and fixating on “the infected” as a thinly veiled stand-in for the menacing (and usually racialized) Other within a predictable salvation narrative–Carruth goes further. The “transmission” narrative is over by the end of the film’s first act. There is no outbreak, no quarantines, no evacuations. Instead, Carruth pushes us toward the question of what happens beyond infection, of what it means–and how it feels–to be related to others in the shadow of contagion, how we contend with the experience of unwilled dispossession (Butler & Athanasiou, 2012), with the perhaps miserable and difficult, but inescapable, condition of being without and “needy for connection” (Haraway, 1991).
In kind, the remainder of the film centres on sensation and cognition as social processes, probing the ways we feel together and apart, and how the condition of being together or apart complicates the work of sensing, perceiving, and remembering. For instance, as the thief’s victims re-establish themselves in the world–earning a wage, developing friendships, even falling in love–the pigs to whom they are connected via transfusion exhibit subtle behavioural changes, and vice versa. Likewise as the farmer interferes in the lives of the pigs, he appears as a kind of trace or spectre in the lives of the human victims.
Similarly, when Kris begins to develop a relationship with Jeff (played by Carruth) after meeting him several times on the subway, not knowing that he too is one of the thief’s victims, they begin to impinge upon one another’s lives in ways that both exceed and precede intelligible speech. As they spend more time together and eventually fall in love (whether out of affection or necessity, it isn’t quite clear; but it never is), they start to mistake each other’s childhood memories for their own, struggling and often quarrelling over the ownership of their respective pasts. The effect is compounded by the film’s elliptical edits–neither fully out-of-order nor strictly chronological. Scraps of dialogue loop back upon themselves and repeat in unstable circuits, accumulating excessive and contradictory meanings. Words, sensations, locations and images return to themselves changed, not unlike the impulses that pass through the MEART assemblage–not so alike that they could ever be mapped onto one another, but not so different that we can consider them discrete in any abiding way. Returning at angles, never complete. Always memory, never narration.
Such is the relationship between Jeff, Kris, and the pigs to whom they are connected. More than mere mimes, they do not attach to one another in a clean, indexical fashion. At one point, for example, Kris and Jeff’s porcine analogues begin to mimic their budding affection, yet the two relationships are not strictly the same (an important departure from the relation between the thief and his victims, which appears fully indexical, completely mimetic, a kind of puppetry). Where the pigs eventually breed and produce a litter of piglets, Kris, after a bout of severe abdominal pain that lands her in hospital, discovers that she has apparently undergone a complete endometrial ablation, making her unable to bear children whatsoever. In this sense, Carruth, while insisting that experience and sensation are not (or need not be) restricted to any particular ontological category such as “the human” or “the animal,” and that affects and kinships do indeed traverse these boundaries, also keeps the two at a certain distance. He sketches the relation between the two as a kind of oscillation. A vibration, perhaps, that matches the pulse of the farmer’s recordings.
Color, then, trades heavily in the experience of relationality under contemporary conditions: where the movement of viruses, bacteria and parasites between species has become an intense social anxiety, and where experiments in genetic engineering and in vitro tissue growth continue to trouble the barrier between the animal and the human. But Carruth, even as he offers something of an alternative to these often reactionary narratives, wisely strips his film of romance and utopia. For in Color, there is no question that the experience of relationality–the hopeful kernel at the heart of MEART–is closely tied to dispossession and exploitation at the hands of capital.
To draw on a Marxian lexicon, there are in Carruth’s narrative two key moments of alienation worth considering. The first is the moment of “primitive accumulation” operative in the figure of the thief. In the first volume of Capital, Marx describes primitive accumulation as the necessary antecedent to capitalistic accumulation, the moment of primary extraction that precedes and grounds the structural exploitation of large-c Capitalism. It is the founding separation of “the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.” As Marx points out in the same passage, and as others such as Sylvia Federici have powerfully demonstrated, the moment of primitive accumulation is historically one of theft and violent dispossession; it is the uprooting and displacement of people from their lands, the forcible confiscation and devaluation of whatever forms of wealth they might have amassed, the conscription of human bodies into slavery; the moment at which the human body is pulled out of its relation with its own means of (re)production and tied to a structure of alienated, waged, commodified labour. To paraphrase Federici in Caliban and the Witch, primitive accumulation is the point at which an incipient capitalism produces its first machine: the human body.
The analogy isn’t perfect, as Kris and Jeff are both bourgeois figures to begin with, but all the same, the thief embodies the logic of primitive accumulation–the reduction of a human life to a bare life, the stripping down of a complex sociality to only is most economically expedient components, to what can be extracted. At the thief’s hands, as at the hands of the early capitalist, all forms of creativity are pared back to blunt distractions: literature is reduced to the endless reproduction of meaningless copies (copies that quite literally become a chain that binds Kris to a process of unwilled and violent expropriation)*, games are evacuated of strategy and contingency. Even the parasite, the thief’s weapon of choice, recalls the Marxian account of primitive accumulation, fixated as it is on the vampiric nature of early capitalism, on its emergence out of the dirt and blood of dispossessed peoples, the rubble of their relations. In Upstream Color, the force of capital appears in a most unflattering light: it emerges out of what it destroys, where the parasite meets the thief.
And just as the complex structural relations of Capitalism develop out of this initial moment of dispossession–generalizing, obfuscating, and mystifying their operation in the process–in Color, we find a second, more complicated moment of dispossession in the actions of the pig farmer. In addition to using his recordings to attract those under the influence of the parasite, the farmer also packages and sells them under his own small label, Quinoa Valley Recording Company. As Nicholas Rombes writes of the film in the Los Angeles Review of Books, this process is tantamount to the “pilfering and selling back” of experience. It constitutes a second moment of extraction, wherein the sensory is ossified as a commodity and sold back to those from whom it was extracted. And it’s all done via a socially-sanctioned, structurally-obfuscatory system of exchange. One cannot help but recall the Marxian account of the wage relation: a worker’s labour power is alienated from the body, quantified in the abstract, parcelled off into units of time, and sold back for a wage.
The violence of this abstraction redoubled if we accept, as I suggested above, that the relation between the thief’s victims and the pigs can be thought of on sonic terms, something analogous to an oscillation or vibration. If it is sound (or the sonorous) that opens the boundaries of discrete ontological categories to the transgressions of affect and kinship, then the farmer’s business of capturing, commodifying, and reselling sound is tantamount to the foreclosure of the relations towards which this opening turns us. It is an effort to rationalize the points of inflection within a system that both bind and separate, that relate without unifying.
To return to where we started: if MEART can be thought of as a speculative model for new forms of cohabitation that relate the human, the animal, and the machnic even as it acknowledges the impossibility of separating those domains, then Upstream Color suggests that the relations presupposed by such a cohabitation are precisely where capital turns in an effort to recuperate the affective and the sensate.
And so without giving too much away (the film is outstanding–see it), it’s appropriate that Upstream Color ends not with some speculative future where all species difference is eradicated, but with a present where they persist ethically, sensuously. It is a present where self-governance and care emerge, but only through a direct confrontation with those agents of structural violence that would appropriate such faculties for private gain and profit.
*Carruth’s choice of Walden as an instrument of control is significant. It is telling that Walden‘s bourgeois “return to nature” narrative, which wistfully longs for the recovery of some organic totality (even, hypocritically, as it extols the virtues of liberal self-reliance and autonomy), should fall so easily into the hands of those who would strip others of their autonomy. Complete unification (indexicality, mimetic action), for Carruth, seems to reek of control; the kind of control that would eradicate the incomplete, but sensually and ethically rich, relations at issue throughout the film.