Article categories: Opinion
January 20th, 2008

A few years ago, I was of the view that collaborative art/science research and practice was moving away from a focus on the body and towards a larger canvas: life itself, the environment, the future. I was wrong.

Well, at least in part. Certainly, a key field of engagement between artists and scientists is around issues including sustainability, biology, climate and the like. But equally, there has been an increasingly tight focus on the body encouraged, in part, by the technological capacity to see ever smaller, to make visible the invisible.

The concept of the body so eloquently encapsulated in Deleuze’s Body Without Organs, is one that has made it possible to rethink the relationship between our bodies and the world around us, to conceptualise the myriad flows and forces that constitute and define us. By utilising this idea, we are able to sidestep the constricting confines of the “normative” and instead embrace the particularities of our bodies’ assemblages, with no one better than any other.

The concept of “Ground Truth” can also be usefully applied. Used primarily in geo-sensing and geographic information systems applications, it refers to information that is collected at the same site and at the same time as a remote sensing system is collecting data. Ground truth is considered more accurate and is used to interpret and calibrate remotely-sensed observations. Applied to the Super Human context, ground truth encourages the articulation of subjective experience as a test of external observation.

This is particularly usefully in discussions around augmentation, where the voices of those currently living augmented lives are often muted — if listened to at all — in favour of utopian narratives about human potentiality. All too often, when we look to the future, we do so without taking into account the experiences of those at the vanguard, of those of us living futuristic lives within the constraints of the present – and yet it is their truths that provide the most valuable test for our imagined futures.

More broadly, there is also a continuing and urgent need to review and challenge the various structures of meaning and value around what it means to be human: whether that is (as noted above) the concept of a normative body or, alternatively, the delineation between the real and the virtual, the organic and synthetic.

To address these issues and more (and inspired by the 150th publication anniversary of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s evolutionary treatise) Super Human: Revolution of the Species, took place in Melbourne in November 2009 as a three-part series of events focusing on collaborations between artists and scientists and the impact these have on what it means to be human, now and into the future.

Comprising an exhibition, symposium and masterclass, Super Human was thematically driven by a revisiting of the Cartesian body, through its focus on Cognition (Mind), Augmentation (Body) and Nanoscale Interventions (the Soul, the ‘not visible’).

The symposium, in particular, offered an opportunity to explore and articulate how scientific and artistic bodies of knowledge intersect with the human, social body. Questions raised included whether art serves simply as a representational tool for the sciences or whether there is more to the picture? Whether research into bodies and their systems offers an insight into aesthetics? Or whether instead it confines itself to the purely functional?|

The CRUMB list [], an online curatorial resource, engaged with this broader theme during its month-long discussion leading up to Super Human, which saw a broad international engagement with the symposium’s themes. In particular, UK-based Australian artist, Simeon Nelson, captured well the position elucidated so elegantly by many of the symposium presenters, with his comment, “I favour scientific approaches that take account of cognition and subjectivity [and that] see agency, value and meaning as emergent and irreducible properties of complex systems like humans and societies”.

Simeon’s comment also points to a primary motivation of ANAT in presenting the Super Human suite of events: if we don’t pay the requisite attention to agency, value and meaning in our discussions about short and long term futures, we risk realising scenarios that are as empty of meaning as they are irrelevant.

In closing, I would like to say how thrilled ANAT is to have the opportunity to present the Super Human symposium papers in this, the third issue of Second Nature journal. We would especially like to extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Shiralee Saul for her editorial work and to the School of Media and Communication for contributing the necessary resources.

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