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
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.