Sylvie Parent : In cyberspace, we are present in a world without our real body. Your work Bodies INC. deals precisely with the loss of the body, the absence of the body in cyberspace. It puts into evidence our attachment to our body and relies on our desire to recreate one in this space. How and when did you become interested in these issues in your work?

Victoria Vesna : Although I could easily trace a constant fascination with the body, if I wanted to locate a moment when this particular trajectory began, it would be the Los Angeles Northridge earthquake in 1994. Residents and remote television audiences alike were horrified as freeways collapsed into large pieces of concrete within seconds. Communication moved into the "virtual" realm with the analog lines down as the Internet and cell phones became the established connection to the "real" world. I was also fascinated by the fact that the element silicon is in concrete, as well as in the augmented bodies in Hollywood and the chips that propel cyberspace. At the time The Visible Human Project was getting a lot of attention in the press as well.

Inspired by this, I began working on a piece called Virtual Concrete (1995). Images of a male and female (mine) bodies were captured in a photograph, converted into digits, manipulated, printed, and placed onto concrete. Once concretized, the bodies, granted a physicality, could be accepted by the art world and enter into the gallery or museum space, a space where the object is usually considered sacred and untouchable. I wanted the audience to walk on the bodies in pure irreverence, to trespass as they moved on the piece, that uncannily resembled the "sacred" fresco.

The interactivity with the physical piece was successful: people walked, crawled on the concrete, sparked off sounds and waved at the camera. On the Web, however, I felt that watching the activity of people in the gallery through the camera was not enough. Since the core idea of the project was to challenge the traditional Western concept of a 'real' and 'virtual' body in cyberspace, I decided that a good way to extend the interactivity would be for the audience at a distance to create their bodies. A simple CGI questionnaire was put up on the same page where the video of the installation could be seen. The participants were asked their name, gender and what the body meant to them. To my surprise, there were over a thousand bodies on 'order' in two weeks. Before long, people were asking to 'see' the bodies they had 'ordered'.

The persistent demand from the audience to 'see' their bodies baffled me and I was in a creative impasse for months. I was stunned by the need of people to see their projection in cyberspace and I wanted to have some insight into the meaning of this need before responding. I started researching ways that artists and theorists were addressing ideas of identity and, in particular, identity in relation to networked spaces. This led me to consider the emergence and meaning of 'avatars' and the background of 'cyborgs'.

Combining ideas of avatars, cyborgs and the Internet provides the stage for ideas of the 'posthuman' where information is privileged over flesh with all its limitations. It also presupposes the separation of the 'real' and 'virtual' that I addressed in Virtual Concrete. Human beings are perceived as information as evidenced in the Visible Human and human genome project or as information-processing entities -- it is abstracted.

S.P. : In cyberspace, we mainly affirm our presence through text, information, we become information. Bodies INC. gives the opportunity to revert to the body, to construct a body, even if illusory, or virtual. When the participant fills in the forms, he writes text that will be converted into a 3D image of his new body. I find the use of 3D Web technology quite convincing and exemplary in this work, which is not always the case... It expresses these ideas in a very appropriate way. What attracted you to VRML?

V.V. : Bodies INC was a response to audience's need to 'see' their bodies, informed by the research on MOOs, multi-user worlds, cyborgs and avatars. I did not want to simply send back what was demanded, but answer in a way that would prompt the audience to consider their relationship to the Internet and the meaning of online representation.

When I uploaded the questionnaire in Virtual Concrete asking the audience to 'order' their imaginary body it never crossed my mind to take it much further from the conceptual realm. But I was intrigued by the need to be represented graphically and further to have these bodies somehow enact a life of their own. This fantasy is one that could easily be manipulated into a convenient way to gather personal data for other purposes. This seemingly democratic space is in fact propelled by large corporations, and as we become incorporated into it, we also enter a collective state which could mean loss of identity. Ultimately, the 3D graphic worlds are a convenient way for data to be collected, stored and used. It is a marketplace; it is an imaginary space.

I wanted to objectify the body, to allow it to be handled and analyzed, so it had to be 3D. The body wireframes were donated by Viewpoint Datalabs. These are three-dimensional scans that are used for medical imaging. VRML was the best way to go at the time, not to mention that I collaborated with an amazing programmer, Nathan Freitas, who knew VRML inside out.

S.P. : The work can give rise to a lot of whim and relies on the tendency to project ourselves in cyberspace in new ways, to experiment and cheat with our identity. I am thinking not only of the possible gender swapping, but also of the choice given to the participant of possible textures for every part of the body. The resulting bodies can be quite strange, eerie. In that sense, the participant is frankly projected in a world of avatars, of surrogates whose existences are meant only for that space. So the construction of the body becomes not so much a matter of restoration but of creation. Why do you think the desire for fantasy is so strong and appealing in such a context?

V.V. : Upon entering the main site, participants are invited to create their own bodies and become "members." They have a choice of twelve textures with attached meanings, which are a combination of alchemical properties and marketing strategies. I am interested in amplifying the contradiction of our projection in cyberspace. The identity is located somewhere in between entrepreneurial instincts and utopian tendencies.

The title Bodies INCorporated is a play on words. 'Bodies' is accompanied by a copyright symbol and 'INCorporated' draws on the 'corpus' root while alluding to a corporation. It was really important for me to move away from the singular 'body' to the 'plural'. Bodies are incorporated into the Internet and their information is copyrighted. My goal was to create a controlling space where signing legal documents and inputting personal data becomes an emotional experience. The logo of the project is a bronze head with a copyright sign on its third eye, signifying the inherent contradiction of efforts to control information flow. Once the participants enter the project, they click through a series of legal notifications. These legal announcements were taken from the Disney Web site and changed around. The assumption is that people are not actually reading the documents which basically take away all their rights. This is meant to alert the participants to the legal issues attached to their navigation through information space.

S.P. : The choices given to the participant are multiple and yet, limited. They give the illusion of choice. However, the procedure becomes rapidly restrictive. There are just so many body pieces and textures to play with. As the participants get involved in this environment, he/she may also determine the destiny of the created body. Therefore, Bodies INC. refers to the desire to control our body, as well as its birth and death.

V.V. : My intent was to create a very restrictive, dictatorial space. Once you sign the legal documents, you have no rights left in the project. You are promised something throughout and given nothing in return, but your information remains and it is almost impossible to delete. The process of deletion is painful and long. You have to build a grave out of VRML chips, write an obituary and pick a method of death taken out of the crime archives. Deletion is real and painful.

S.P. : The work also suggests that the body has become something that is owned, a property, something you can shop for.

V.V. : Our bodies are reduced to information which is being passed around and collected through the networks. Who will own your genetic code?

S.P. : Again, the construction of the body is taking place within a context that looks very corporate. The participant has to read legal conditions, become a member, fill out forms. In that respect, Bodies INC. also refers to how the Web has become colonized by e-commerce.

V.V. : This was something that I anticipated when the project was set up in 1996. When it first came out, it stood out. Now, it almost seems to mirror a lot of the e-commerce sites, funnily enough.

S.P. : Bodies INC. is an enormous project, the result of previous works that were installed in real space. It is ongoing and acts as the base for many more projects. For instance, it led to ZKM Bodies, a work that is now being shown at ZKM in the exhibition Anagrammatic Body, conceived by Peter Weibel. Why do you feel the desire to go back to installation? How is Bodies INC. related to other projects?

V.V. : Showplace was devised to address exhibition, not only online but in privileged physical spaces such as galleries and museums. The invitations to exhibit were directly extended on the Web, and not through the usual art world channels. My problem was how to exhibit in a gallery space and not compromise the work that is devised to exist on the net. It is highly unsatisfying to simply put a computer with a connection and a projector in a gallery. I arrived at a solution for this problem during an early installation of Bodies INCorporated at the Santa Barbara Museum. Bodies created by local people who were also invited to the opening were projected on the museum ceiling. To my delight, I found that they treated this as a special event, bringing their friends and families to see 'their' bodies exhibited in a privileged cultural space. The audience was moved out of the background and became part of the exhibition. I realized that this could be a new form of portraiture and decided to further develop this approach. For the exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1997, I searched for e-mails with domains based in San Francisco of people who had created bodies and notified them of their participation in this event. I output the selected bodies onto slides and projected them on the walls and columns of the gallery along with the Web site being projected on the main wall. These bodies were privileged by their location and given more shares in the project as a reward.

This strategy proved to be successful and I decided to take it a step further while in residence at the Art House in Dublin the following year. I asked the curator to set up appointments with people he found important for his immediate environment. In the gallery, I would meet with the people, talk to them and help them build a body. At the end of my stay, these bodies were output to slides and projected on the outside of the building during the opening. As it happened, I was not present for this event and only heard later that this was successful. I liked the way that the show was focused on the participants and not on the artist. This approach became at once performative and participatory while localizing a medium that is inherently about distance and globality.

In addition to the four spaces, a chat was added as well as a newly emerging "Marketplace'. The chat was never meant to have people communicate with each other, but rather, has a simple bot that carries quotes from dead philosophers. Whatever one types in, there is an automatic response. It should be noted that these quotes emerged directly from my research. The Marketplace is a space that takes the idea of exchanging data and marketing 'products' such as Tee-shirts and caps emblazoned with a copyright logo. Here, participants can have an illusion of gathering more shares in the project.

When invited to participate in the mega net_condition show, I decided to do ZKM Bodies. I asked Peter Weibel, who curated the net_condition exhibition to compose a list of people that he considered important to his immediate environment. I came to Karlsruhe to meet with everyone in person, and help build their bodies. What is particularly important about this final piece is that these people are closely linked together and very busy. This is the beginning of the creation of a series of databases of interconnected people that I plan to use in my future project, Community of People with No Time. Anagrammatic Bodies followed net_condition, and was also curated by Peter Weibel whose incorporated body is called Anagram.

Two aspects continued to intrigue me about the work: the ever-growing database being generated on the Internet and the latest demand for "community." Both issues directly inform the conceptualization of Information Personae, as well as the project Datamining Bodies.

My approach to exhibition in physical spaces has always been site-specific and I find it particularly challenging to create installations that are connected in some way to the network and comment on the local space and people. To me, the Net is a very performative space and I am thinking up a performance too. I am interested in extending the idea of networks to social, cellular systems. The Internet is a great medium for exploration of this kind of work, but I am definitely not interested in being a flat 2D browser artist. My work is based on concept first.


See Victoria Vesna's Website.
Link to Bodies INC.
Review of Bodies INC. by Valérie Lamontagne published in the 8th issue of the Magazine.



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