The Dusk of the Digital is the Dawn of the Virtual

Andrew Murphie

Enculturation, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 2000

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Is this not the definition of the percept itself--to make perceptible the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become?
--Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

The recent history of the currently fraught discussion of flesh and technology has understandably focussed on the digital (on computing, on genetic and other codes). The digital has been seen as a technology of access, a true technÎ, or way of revealing, for our times. What does it reveal? As never before it seems to give us the keys to the heterogeneity of the world. It gives us the means by which we can negotiate a world consisting of so very many dissimilar and divergent series of elements which nevertheless rub up against the world and recreate the world differently at each moment. I think that it is true that the digital does seem particularly active at the moment. It gives us the means to create new divergent series of flesh forms as never before. It mutates machines at an astonishing rate. I would also ask, however, whether this any longer astonishes us in the way it did even two or three years ago. Has the digital just become our new electricity--a major and efficient tool that we now use almost without thinking (Heidegger's great fear)? Do we need to look elsewhere to explain the enormity of the current shift within our understanding of the world? I think we do, and I think we need to look at the virtual, which has of late seemed like the digital's poor cousin (or perhaps eccentric uncle). Of course, I do not think they are the same.

To equate the digital with the virtual is perhaps to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon, as the saying goes. I will suggest here that the relations between flesh, machines and the virtual in many ways both pre-date and post-date the obsession with the digital. I will suggest that though the digital may help us 'negotiate' the heterogeneous world, this world itself is not digital and the digital does not explain it as fully as the virtual. It is true that the digital has been instrumental in finding a way through these complexities in new ways. On the one hand, the digital has forced us to confront the material complexity and the dynamism of the world as never before. On the other hand, it has given us some of the means to operate in this more complex world. It has thus opened the way to an understanding of the virtual as never before. Yet now the digital has become somewhat commonplace. Its stocks have quite literally fallen and the fortunes of biotechnologies once again place the digital within the context of world and body in an urgent manner. At the same time, I will suggest that we need to rethink this heterogenesis of flesh and machines in the light of the virtual that it seems given by.

As art has often been a major cultural form of experimentation with the virtual, I shall discuss the work of two artists which seems particularly apposite to these questions. One is the Australian performance artist Stelarc, who has long spoken about 'the obsolete body' and more recently quite willingly allowed his body to be colonised by all kinds of technologies (digital and analog). The other is German artist Rebecca Horn, whose enigmatic machines and installations seem more than any others' to live out this new relation to the virtual (and seem to have very little of the digital about them at all). In the process, I shall outline the theory of a virtual ecology drawn from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I shall also briefly summarise Deleuze's theory of the virtual and actual (as different aspects of the real in all its heterogeneity), along with the possible and real (as ultimately distracting means of representing the real as an arena of identity and neat correspondence).

Flesh becoming-virtual

As for many artists, for Stelarc the actual is never enough, not as a concept, not as somewhere to live, not as a way to understand what it is that a body can do. He uses the digital (and the analog) but his work is a call to the virtual by any means possible. In Stelarc's early work, a problematic heterogenesis of the flesh and technology newly receptive to the virtual is made very literal at one level, very abstract at another. In his work, we find the body hanging from butcher's hooks and suspended against gravity (suspended from hooks, suspended from the signaling of its actuality). Or he has presented a body with eyelids and mouth sewn shut and the body placed between two planks of wood (Overall); or a body's surface cracked open by mini-cameras and microphones.

His later work with robotic, prosthetic and VR technology enacts this same complex economy in which the body is re-situated as somewhere oscillating between virtual and actual (with digital and analog relays creating the circuits between them). In much of this work the body becomes "a kind of vision switcher" (Overall). Far from being obsolete, as Stelarc has sometimes claimed, the body is actually highly active in its interactivity, in changing what it might be within the process of interaction. What is contained in the work by which, for example, he draws in the air using his laser eyes, is the possibility that "perception is an active structuring of the world rather than a passive reflection" (Stelarc 388). Perception occurs in the middle and not at the end of the process. It is active, not just a passive process of reception. In this, Stelarc is not just concerned with the subject and object at either end of the art process but that which forms a consistency in-between, maybe even making such distinctions as subject/object side issues in the process. This has a lot in common with Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the 'percepts' and 'affects' that form the basis of art. They suggest that these are sensations or vibrations in the artwork which stand alone, gain their own consistency, in the process produced by the material of art. This is something that occurs despite our occasional subjective conversion of them into 'perceptions' and 'affections'. [1] They write that

Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensation, percepts and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceed any lived. They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught up in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself. (What Is Philosophy? 164)

In Stelarc's case, percepts and affects are created by the body in literal and immediate interaction with technologies. Stelarc amplifies sounds from the body's various systems and images from within the body. Electrical signals from the muscles of one part of the body are mediated by computers to produce movements in (normally) unconnected muscles in other parts of the body. These may also be used as triggers for various switches; to move a camera, or to move either his third mechanical arm or his virtual arm. Of course, in his Internet performances, the body's power as 'switch' is amplified even more, as it is manipulated by signals from the Internet, and sends signals back out to the Internet. Here what is important is "looking at redesigning the body and seeing the body not as a gendered, merely social construct but seeing it as a structure that largely contributes to the way it sees the world" (Stelarc 393).

In this, Stelarc's work explores what Massumi (1997) has discussed as a number of degree zeros for the body in its relation to sensation, perception and thought [2] and the potential of these made available by technology. For Massumi, Stelarc's work is directed towards "experiencing the body as a concept," but Massumi makes a substantial qualification of this as a "sensible concept" in which the "implications of the event are felt first, before being thought-out." As such, Stelarc's work is not as programmatic as it might seem. It is not a predestination of the body (which would edge towards what I would call here a digital understanding of the body). Rather, for Massumi, "Stelarc's art limits itself to being a science of indeterminate transmission" (which I would call here the science of the virtual).

Drawing on chaos and complexity theory, Massumi describes Stelarc's method as using technology to subtract utility and need from instrumental reason in order to convert it into "operative reason." Of course, it is important to note here the opposition between instrumentality and operation. Operative reason is intensive, the key not to instrumental measure or the numerical coordinates of the digital, but to the force of the difference-to-come of the virtual. So, for example, the apparent 'depths' of the body are salvaged by Stelarc's camera probes into his intestines and lungs and brought to the surface in order to operate as something else (as art for one thing). The unpredictable potential of the body--its virtuality--is here brought up front, literally on to the stage in an event which is literally different with each repetition (none of Stelarc's events are exactly the same). The body heads towards events in which the outcome is not predetermined, but in which many indeterminate outcomes coexist as potential. As such, it converts the impossible into reality by allowing its productive force an intensive space for existence. In short, rather than the analysis and programs of instrumentality so closely allied to much of the digital, operative reason "tweaks," brings the body, sensation, technologies and thought to a degree-zero so as to "tweak" our ability to respond openly to the future. It encourages "intuition" rather than "reflective thought."

Thus we understand, firstly, the importance of piercing the skin in Stelarc's early suspensions as a becoming-environment, a becoming-space of the body, suspended over rocks and ocean, amidst trees, porous to air. This is a body totally subjected to gravity in order to raise the possibility of other becomings away from gravity and subjection, to create the percepts and affects of a body in a world where the normative ideas of the body (subjective formations) are subtracted from it. Secondly, we understand the transformation of this becoming-body into a becoming-technological, again through interaction at the skin, when Stelarc is suspended hundreds of feet in the air from a crane over Copenhagen or wired into the Internet.

Some would argue that it is difficult, if not dangerous, to imagine what we would do without such notions as a standard subject in a relatively standard body, subject to certain standard relations to gravity. For some, the whole point of art is to affirm the subject against the backdrop of eternity. I could say that such art as Stelarc's, and such concepts as operative reason, are opposed to this affirmation and that we need alternatives to it (the standard avant-garde move) but that would be beside the point. The point instead here is precisely not to imagine alternative possibilities, to attempt to define the future before it happens as identity or contradiction with the present. In fact, the point here is more in the nature of a productive problem to be explored. This is the problem of keeping pace with all these processes, which are not necessarily exclusive, and tending to these processes. Art is about dealing with the specificities as they arise, not trying to pre-judge them.

There are, of course, critics of Stelarc's work (Virilio 147). Anne Marsh, for example, criticises Stelarc on the basis of gender, although interactive attitudes as Stelarc's could be positively construed as leading him beyond a simple presentation of gender (107-115). I do share some of these equivocations, however. Stelarc's becomings-technological, his subtraction of majoritarian forms of subjective identification from his work in favour of interactions with technology, do not necessarily interact with other 'becomings-minor', precisely perhaps because they ignore issues such as gender. In this, it could perhaps be said that in some ways the potential plane of consistency that Stelarc creates through his work generates closed borders rather too quickly. The problem is that there seems, particularly in his earlier statements, no set of relations that would accommodate such a technological becoming-minor to the socius. Perhaps Marsh is right and the danger is that the body could quickly be reterritorialised in Stelarc's scenario onto the highly gendered narrative of scientific progress and the determinations of the corporeal through the scientific. The body could be digitised in a move which would map it as the genome is mapped, turn it into a series of tables and figures. This could limit the body's engagement with the multiplicity of the virtual, not enhance it. At the very least, this perhaps means that the "highly problematic concept of the post-evolutionary body" (Goodall 142) remains territorialised within certain industrial and humanist frameworks where the subject expires with the body only in order to re-establish itself on the somewhat masculine line of instrumental reason. Although Massumi may well disagree with this reading, it is possible that the operative can be re-converted into the instrumental, the intuitive into the rationalist.

Perhaps this danger is unavoidable in any case and simply reiterates the fact of the constant engagement between the digital and the virtual in the contemporary world. The advantage here is that through Stelarc's work we can sense a general becoming-minor in relation to technology. Even Stelarc himself seems to have moved recently from his old disavowing of the 'obsolete body' to a more relational concept of the body. Is it possible, then, to say one thing about Stelarc's work? Is it necessary to maintain a suitable distance from which to critique or valorise it? Jane Goodall deflects this question in an interesting way, away from the "post-evolutionary body" to what she finds more acceptable, a "post-colonial body" which "is not a bounded territory but an interractive field subject to diverse forms of occupation which need not be viewed in terms of a power struggle" (142). In this, she suggests, Stelarc is providing ways out of cultural binds which always situate technology within an apocalyptic framework.

If Stelarc's, however, is an approach within industrial and evolutionary humanist narratives that ignores gender, what other approaches for becoming through interaction with technologies are there? It is perhaps time to ask an odd question that will lead us towards some of these approaches to becoming.

Do we believe in the world anymore?

Now that our fascination with being digital is almost finished, even as digital machines rule the world in an increasingly banal fashion, we can perhaps turn back to our becoming virtual. [3] Here I will suggest that we have become well acquainted with our digital engines (from computing to the boom in Internet stocks that it fuels). We are not, however, as well versed in the intensification of the virtual that these digital engines are powering. It is the digital that makes things certain but the virtual that raises a very productive doubt. And the two are obviously related. Technically speaking, we can only deal with the complexity and uncertainty of the virtual now because of the stability of digital processes (which do give us access to the complexity of the world as never before).

Fundamental to all this is the question of whether we still believe in the world and if so, how we do. After all, there are enough people around today suggesting that we are about to leave it, if we have not already abandoned the 'real' world for its simulations, our bodies for computer networks. It is out of this question, and perhaps out of the disappointment arising from our premature engagement with VR technologies over the last decade or so, that the virtual arises as a problem. Is the virtual in opposition to real? Is it instead real? What is its relation to the real?

It is true that we perhaps have the digital, once again, to thank for these questions. Although they have been asked in different forms for thousands of years, the digital gives them a more immanent, more material inflection than ever before. Believing in the abstraction of numbers, we have perhaps lost our belief in the world. In the process, we have perhaps over-determined the digitally modulated waves in which we currently bathe. So, for example, there has been much talk of 'uploading our minds' onto computers and so on. We have also perhaps under-determined the power of the virtual which is only just taking shape for us (even if it has always been around). It should be obvious by now that when I write of the virtual, I mean by this neither religion nor overarching transcendence but a complex immanence of particularities to be found in the intensive interactions of the material world. This calls for a new kind of belief in the world. Yet Deleuze has suggested that "belief in the world is what we lack most. We have totally lost the world: we have been dispossessed of it" (Pourparlers 239).

It is common these days, though this was certainly not Deleuze's assumption, to assume that this dispossession is the result of our supposedly recent discovery of the virtual in prosaic technologies such as Virtual Reality. According to these arguments, for better or worse, VR technologies are going to immerse us in simulation while our bodies whither. Science fiction is full of narratives celebrating or condemning this. Yet VR is of course no more or less virtual than any other series of machines or processes. As with any series of computer-based media it combines virtual and actual (and, like all digital media, it combines digital and analog). It may be a different way of negotiating the world, but this does not necessarily pit it against the world. A slightly different version of this 'dispossession of the world by the virtual narrative' assumes that this dispossession of the world will be the result of the supposedly new realm of a general virtuality's final assault on 'real' space and time (this seems to be Virilio's argument much of the time). Yet what if the virtual is not new? What if our new machines and concepts do not so much invent the virtual as re-discover it, find new means of exploring it?

Furthermore, what if, as philosophers from Deleuze and Guattari to Pierre LÈvy point out, the virtual is not opposed to the real? What if it inhabits, and has always inhabited, every body, every state of affairs? What if the virtual has always been a crucial part of the real, perhaps the crucial part of the real? We would then be in error when we assumed we had lost the world to the virtual. In fact, such mournings for the loss of the world to the virtual would be an expression of an illusion. Moreover, it might be precisely this illusion which causes us to misunderstand the world, which 'loses' the world in the first place. The attempt to reclaim the world with numbers, with measure, with the assumption that the world can be controlled through numbers, known once and for all, perhaps furthers the illusion, the loss of the world. Our current dispossession of the supposed 'real' world--our attempt to claim it back with numbers--would only seem to result from the rise of virtual spaces and times. Moreover, these virtual spaces and times would only seem opposed to real spaces and times. We would have to return, as Deleuze does, to the question of a politics of digital control to explain our dispossession of the world. We would have to ask what this politics of control has invested in the current discourses on the virtual as the unreal. We might, then, go with Deleuze in suggesting a more careful cultivation of the virtual aspects of the world as they operate through space and time. We might engage with the virtual as a way of rekindling belief in the world--in all its heterogeneity and complexity. We might engage in a politics, aesthetics and ecology that arouses, as Deleuze suggests, "even the smallest of events that escape control, or that create new space-times" (Pourparlers 239).

What is the virtual?

Yet what are these virtual aspects of the world? I have elsewhere given a more complete account of Deleuze's notion of the virtual (Murphie, "Putting the Virtual") and there have been many others (Salanskis, for example, who disagrees with the notion). I have gestured towards definitions in this paper so far: the virtual resides in events, heterogeneity and multiplicity, ideas, problems or anything else to do with difference in itself. Yet it is perhaps necessary to attempt a further brief account.

Deleuze sees the virtual as genetic, intensive difference. It is difference taken as primary rather than as the by-product of two immutable objects between which it just happens to fall. The virtual is the aspect of events, ideas, objects or problems that is activated by the inherent differences in each event, idea, object or problem. It is the embryonic potential for the new that lies within any object. It therefore makes any object "double" (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition 209). The virtual lies within the interactive components of any body, or collection of bodies, which amounts to the same thing as any body is a collection of bodies. More correctly, we should say that the virtual lies between at least two heterogeneous series--two series that are dissimilar and divergent but nevertheless form a consistency between them. This is to say that, virtually speaking, any events, ideas, objects or problems exist in the relation between these heterogeneous series. The virtual is inseparable from bodies (Deleuze is a materialist in this sense) but it is not equivalent to the body as extension in space (quantity). The latter is the realm of the digital. In the digital, extensive difference (quantity) posits measurable objects, spaces and so on first, and only then the differences between them. Deleuze is not rejecting extension, but for Deleuze the virtual is misunderstood if we relate it to the extensive, or to the digital--in any necessary sense at least. Instead, it is about the intensity of difference in itself and for itself (we could call it quality but only if quality is seen as the inside of a relation). Thus the virtual is not a question of 'difference from' as in extensive difference. In the virtual, intensive difference comes first, and is only then followed by what seem to be objects, space and so on.

Of course, in one sense this is a way of speaking about the world differently in order to understand it differently. Even if I was to accept this, however, it would have to be emphasised that there seems to be too much weight on difference in extension in much of the history of thought and not enough on the intricacies and power of the intensive virtual. I do not accept all this just as a manner of speaking, however. Deleuze thought everything that is of consequence happens in the virtual. This is a reconceptualisation of the world in which the virtual is both constantly replenishing its own heterogeneity and that of the virtual's other side, the actual (which we could take as the world as we are used to thinking of it, though this would be simplifying the problem).

In order to understand the relation between the virtual and actual, let us turn to Deleuze's discussion in Bergsonism (1988). Here he follows Proust in defining "states of virtuality" as "real without being actual, ideal without being abstract" (96). This is easier to understand when the virtual/actual relation is opposed to the possible/real relation. Let us deal with the latter first. The possible has no reality (we imagine it). If we own two cars, a red car and a green car, we could imagine driving one of them. Both of these alternatives would be possible but not real. Thus the possible must be realised. As Deleuze points out, this process of realisation has two rules which are to do with the correspondence of a representation of what will happen to what does happen. These two rules are "resemblance" and "limitation" for "the real is supposed to be in the image of the possible that it realises" (97). For Deleuze, here the possible "simply has existence added to it." Of course, some possibles are "supposed to be repulsed or thwarted" (97)--(I put a car alarm on my car because I represent it to myself as a possible candidate for theft).

None of this has much to do with how my little drive actually turns out. In fact, nothing ever turns out as we imagine it, never exactly, and often not at all as we imagine it. In fact, when we think about it, the relation between the possible and what is realised is somewhat illusory. Neither resemblance nor limitation make much sense in this context. The car is stolen despite the alarm. I do not know how my little drive will turn out. The extremity of this can be seen if I turn off the beaten track, though there is a sense in which I am always off the beaten track. The "possible," then, "is a false concept, the source of false problems" (98). It assumes, like the digital strangely enough, that "[e]verything is already completely given" (not that the digital corresponds to the possible).


The virtual, on the other hand, does not have to be realized, but rather actualized; the rules of actualization are not those of resemblance and limitation, but those of difference or divergence and of creation. . . . For, in order to be actualized, the virtual cannot proceed by elimination or limitation, but must create its own lines of actualization in positive acts. The reason for this is simple: While the real is in the image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the other hand does not resemble the virtuality that it embodies. It is difference that is primary in the process of actualizatio. . . . In short the characteristic of virtuality is to exist in such a way that it is actualized by being differentiated and is forced to differentiate itself, to create its lines of differentiation in order to be actualized. (97)

In short, the virtual is the realm of dynamic, unresolved and shifting complexity, but a complexity which constantly actualises itself. In another sense, the virtual is the gathering of the past into the present as a series of relations of transformation about to occur with complexity that we cannot predict. That which was different in the past is internalised as virtual difference in the present, to be actualised in the future.

Of these two process--the conversion of the 'possible' into the 'real' and the conversion of the virtual into the actual--it is the latter which is the more real, more consistent, more important. To some extent, the other is a banality at best, or, as I have suggested, a series of illusions at worst. In terms of the body, Deleuze is fond of following Spinoza in saying, 'we do not yet know what a body can do'. Why? Because we do not know how the virtual intensities of bodies will actualise at any given moment to come.

It is not, however, until we think through the reality of the virtual that we will once again be able to believe in the world and we have only just begun to do so. The lameness of the possible here, even aided by the more instrumental side of the digital 'revolution' when seen as a means of controlling the unpredictability of the world, has only ever been a distraction from the world. This may seem an odd thing to say and, indeed, Deleuze's direct political questioning of our belief in the world does seem strange after two centuries of sustained and now common materialism. We would, in fact, nearly all claim to 'believe in the world' in these hard-headed days. Yet I think it is true that many of us wonder which world it is that we believe in. Does this world really include the reality of the virtual or is the virtual that inhabits our spaces and times still a troubling stranger, at least to our belief systems? And if it is a stranger, why is it?

Perhaps it is because we are only just, with artists such as Stelarc, beginning to understand the virtual side of bodies, the way in which bodies are also immersed in events as they are immersed in virtuality. The virtual side of things is what Deleuze and Guattari also term the 'incorporeal' or indeed the 'event'. It is that which is actualised in bodies but which still eludes total capture and stasis within them [4] so that it can change them, or create other bodies out of them. I would also term the virtual the 'intercorporeal', as that which occurs between bodies. In short, events refer to bodies and to what happens between them at the virtual level (bodies here considered in the broadest possible sense).

Our refusal to think through the reality of the virtual, or resistance to it, can only therefore impede our belief in the world. Yet the refusal of the virtual is still undertaken by surprisingly many. Even by some we thought loved it. Even and especially those such as Paul Virilio [5] and Jean Baudrillard who seem to long for a time when we only had to think about bodies and states of affairs, about everything that was visible and pure and naked--and dare we say meaningful--in its visibility. Such thought likes to preserve a strangeness for the virtual and make it uncharted territory. It is, in such thinking, as if the virtual has descended down upon us from some unimaginable heaven or hell. It is as if it 'invades' our space, and not as if our space has always been deeply immersed in the virtual. We do not want to be part of the smoothness and fluidity of the space in which we exist.

Despite this, the intensification of the collaboration of virtual and actual, the increasing mutation of the world, forces us to inhabit this fluid space rather than solid ground (and we can now see that the digital is only one sign of this). We are forced to confront, not the strangeness of the virtual, but its familiarity, not the birth of the virtual, but the way in which it has haunted every birth, and every death. We are faced not with the dissolution of space but with the realisation that space has always dissolved and reformed.

I would further like to assert that our refusal of the reality of the virtual only assists the processes of colonisation by those who own the rights to the digital.

It could be otherwise. The virtual inhabits our world, the processes of creation in which we are involved, and the peoples who are involved in these creations. The virtual is the dynamic unpredictability of our world. And, it will continue to be the genesis of its diversity. If we accept the virtual as real (and the real as divergent and creative rather than resembling and limited), we can perhaps begin to think about that which Guattari has called 'virtual ecology' or 'ecosophy' (Les trois Ècologies, Chaosmosis 120). We can think about what it is that we might like to conserve, not only in terms of the actual, but in terms of the virtual.

3 x 2 ecologies

Is there, then, the beginning of an ethics in this many-edged situation? I will shortly seek this in aesthetics, but an aesthetics situated in contact with the everyday virtuality that subsists within the most banal of machines (digital or otherwise) in an entire virtually diverse eco-system.

As is well known by now, for Deleuze and Guattari this always involves what they term a 'becoming-minor'. This is the allowance of the minor to proliferate which is, of course, what a virtual ecology implies. The proliferation of the minor is crucial to the whole ecology of difference as there is, in a certain sense, more virtuality when there are more heterogeneous series. As Guattari has noted here "nothing is less marginal than the problem of the marginal" (Molecular Revolution 262). Yet the fostering of this proliferation is almost certainly not going to be a heroic quest. As Klaus Theweleit has noted:

Those who hear the machines that are ticking away within themselves, who open up and make the connection to their streams of desire, and who dream of a new human being at a time when the emergent class is busy exploiting the old one--these are the condemned, the damned. (265)

I would like to suggest here that the damned might like to think not in terms of one ecology, but in terms of 3 x 2 ecologies. [6]

Guattari, in Les trois Ècologies, has suggested that we could well think of our future in terms of three ecologies rather than in terms of 'new frontiers' and the colonisation of them. These are ecologies of the social, of the subject (a partial or mutating subject of course), and of the environment. Complicating this, there is a 'machinic heterogenesis' or series of mutually defining operations between these three. What is more, they are ecologies which are both actual ecologies, concerned with preserving certain dynamic bodies, certain dynamic states of affairs, and, on the other hand, virtual ecologies. That is to say that they are concerned with preserving a high degree of heterogenesis within the realm of the virtual. In effect, then, we have 3 times 2 ecologies: ecologies of the social, the individual and the environment, in both their actual and virtual aspects.

How, then, might we discuss the world in which space is not a new frontier to be colonised, but a plane for heterogenesis to be entered into, sustained or changed? There is, of course, no one answer to this. Unless it is found in the simple suggestion of John Cage that every morning when we get up, we look at yesterday's failures and realise what it is we do next. I should like now to look at the response of another contemporary artist to these problems--Rebecca Horn. I will suggest that no artwork could more epitomise the dynamism of, or, for those reading, explain, the new form of conservation I have just suggested. Her work explores through sensation the filigree transactions between Guattari's social, partial or mutating subject and environment in a manner that shows that what art conserves, it also immerses in the virtual. In short, her work is truly heterogenetic and truly open to the virtual.

Rebecca Horn and the Open Plan(e) of the Virtual

Rebecca Horn's work, in a series of interactions between the body, art and technology, makes no attempt to transcend such interactions (as Stelarc's does). It therefore provides different answers to the problems posed by Stelarc's work surrounding the body, machines, the virtual, the animal and the elemental. In Horn's work, as in Stelarc's, the body is often presented as dysfunctional or constrained. However, machines, far from being more perfect than the human, seem to become tired and worn out, or to have their own little idiosyncracies and desires. The virtual comes into the light here as we leave the question of the efficient digital behind. The virtual is highlighted not as digital, evolutionary possibility but as dream, myth, and as abstract machines such as the medical, or the cultural, or personal history, or even simply as electrical current or electrostatic charge. The 'animal', absent in Stelarc's work, is foregrounded in Horn's. It is sometimes presented as whole (for example, snakes are fed mice) but more often the animal is presented in pieces, such as in the fragmented form of wings and feathers. The elemental and cosmic operate not as future extra-terrestrial teleologies but as an existing and immanent landscape. This is a 'landscape' found in processes as diverse as vegetation or electricity (lightning rods, for example). Finally, in Horn's work there is nearly always the reduction of the whole (animal, subject, machine) to its parts so that these parts can conserve the percepts and affects of interaction. There is little attempt to freeze some unity or teleology into the whole process. Horn works with bits of the past, bits of machinery, bits of animals, all subtracted from their usual unifying discursive frameworks. To this, Horn also reintroduces a kind of fragmentary subject, or, at least, the percepts and affects of the human from which the subject has been subtracted so that they will begin to 'vibrate' by themselves. In short, through the subtraction of the stratifying pre-configurations in which the elements of her art are usually involved, she presents everything that appears in her work as a series of connecting "desiring-machines."

The "desiring-machine" is, of course, a/n (in)famous and crucial term in Deleuze and Guattari's writing, but it is one that may have had to be invented for Horn's art. In any case, the desiring-machine suggests a flow that is constant but in which interruptions and connections are constantly dynamic and transforming.

This is the case in Horn's work. In some pieces, she transfigures the body with various forms of wrapping, constriction and extensions. In Arm Extensions (1968), she has extended the arms so that they are grounded on the floor in the same binding that wraps and constricts the naked body, giving a stillness which induces a new relation to the ground. She has encased heads or bodies in layers of feathers in a manner which refers to flight but also suggests that a simple reference to flight would be too simple a way out of the new relations that are requiring consideration in such art. She has strapped very long unicorn-like extensions to the heads of performers as in, for example, Unicorn (1971). In Overflowing Blood Machine (1970), she made exterior clear tubes surround the naked body which were filled with red liquid. This emphasised the "mechanics of fluids" (Irigaray) that normally takes place hidden within the body. In all these works, inhibitions of the body's normal organisation enable the consideration of relations which are not prefigured.

Horn also transforms the qualities of space in general and of specific spaces, be they galleries, the open environment, controversial historical spaces or even spaces that have ramifications for Horn personally. Thus, her 1994 exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York utilised the whole of that museum's uniquely constructed space. At the centre of the space "every few seconds one drop of milky liquid" fell "through the building from two large breast-like funnels suspended in the building's cupola, onto the tip of the jet of water in the fountain below" (Horn 25). She even used the basement as a kind of 'inferno' for a further installation and says herself that her installations are often site specific. Her piece River of the Moon (1992) was installed in several rooms of a Barcelona hotel. Her films are often an exploration of particular spaces, such as the sanitarium in the film Buster's Bedroom (1990).

Probably the most remarkable transformation of a space, which involved a quite specific subtraction of the normal social figuring of a space as it had existed within the entire history and cultural life of the site involved, was her installation in M¸nster entitled Concert in Reverse (1987). Here she opened up a tower which had been closed up and left bombed out since the end of the Second World War, primarily because it had served as a place for the torture and execution of the victims of the Gestapo. Horn found that the interior of the tower was lushly vegetated. She installed, amongst other things, a cage with two live snakes that were each fed a M¸nster mouse each day. There was a scandal. Ostensibly at least, the scandal in the town became the feeding of the mice to the snakes. Of course, this 'scandal' only served as a distraction from other forced transformations that were occurring in relation to the tower's historical signification--its centrality to the town's history and its own repression thereof.

All of Horn's works exemplify the initial process of subtraction that is involved in becoming. If the digital is about addition, there is a certain manner in which sensing the virtual requires subtraction. As Massumi [7] suggests:

Stop the world. Becoming is about movement, but it begins with an inhibition. At least some of the automatic circuits between regularized stimuli and habitual responses must be disconnected, as if a crowbar had been inserted into the interlocking network of standardized actions and trajectories constituting the World As We Know It. (The User's Guide 103)

As Mathieson puts it, "What goes missing, what fails to return as recognition, is taken up by a repetition beyond the organism's economy of means" (97). Concert in Reverse subtracts the "automatic circuits between regularized stimuli and habitual responses" (97) to bring the tower to the point of becoming (mice enthusiasts may disagree!).

The new economies created by Horn embrace the technology she uses. In further acts of transformation, Horn constructs 'machines' that are arguably anthropomorphic (Krens, qtd. in Horn 8), or that seem to have subject-elements that relate to each other and to the other elements in performances and installations. They become, for example, tired or worn out. There is no doubt that they perform. In The Chinese FiancÈe (1976), participants approach a set of inviting looking doors only to be slowly enclosed within them in utter blackness. In Concert for Anarchy (1990), a grand piano is suspended upside down, high in the gallery. Without warning it drops slightly, its lids open and its keys spew out over the edge of the keyboard with a great noise. Any people directly under the piano run, frightened of being immediately sacrificed to Horn's art. After a while the keys retract, the lids close and those who have just witnessed what has happened retreat to become inconspicuous observers of the piano's next joke on unsuspecting passersby. In Kiss of the Rhinoceros (1989), two metal arcs, metres long, rise to meet each other. At their proximal tips are what look like real rhino horns. Sparks of electricity fly between them--after which they seem to collapse, passion spent, away from each other. Horn has made a machine which raises a tail in the manner of a peacock but this tail is made of steel spikes. In her film La Ferdinanda (1981), there is a dancing table. In her later film, Buster's Bedroom (1990) Horn's character is saved by Keaton's spirit, which intervenes in the form of a flying fork.

In Horn's artwork everything is transformed by everything else. Intensive difference is everywhere made to shimmer. Many of her machines animate animal parts, such as feathers, or butterfly wings, in a way that reveals the broader machinic, in the sense of desiring-machines, in both the machine and the animal. Other machines animate objects in ways that make them appear to possess animal characteristics. Thus two rows of paint brushes, or of sheets of music, become wings. Her works are nearly all performance as well as sculpture, in which the performance is as much a question of the dynamics of idiosyncratic machinery as it is the mythological allusions to human interaction with that machinery. Her machines even do abstract paintings and most of them can make you laugh, for example, in the comic way in which tiny little brushes at the end of very long steel tendons throw paint at a wall. In ways similar to Joseph Beuys' artwork, everything in Horn's work conserves its own transformations by something else, conserves an open-ness to transformation and relation. These transformations are given highly specific inflections which one could say were highly gendered if they did not become even more specific than that.

In this sense, Horn confronts an entire history of masculinity's complicity with modernity, technology and art, as revealed in the cult of modernity as alienated (male) artist, or more simply, flaneur or bachelor. Nancy Spector, in commenting on the extent to which Horn's machines are constituted by their hybridity, dates this problem in the visual arts to Michel Carrouges' derivation of the term 'bachelor machine' from Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) (Spector 58). Spector points out that this artistic world is a world of auto-eroticism and auto-despair, a "domain without women" (58). Spector claims that Horn displaces this not by simply reversing the gender roles and "fabricating specifically 'feminine' mechanisms" (59), but, in a way reminiscent of Donna Haraway's cyborgs, by "appropriating 'male' technology for [her] own emancipatory ends" (60). Giuliana Bruno (80), following Constance Penley and Michel de Certeau, points out that this 'bachelor-machine' is also at the heart of the cinema, the essence of which can be seen to be its functioning as a "mechanical scopophilic toy" (60). In this, it may be worth bearing in mind that the digitality of the cinema (the breaking of action into a predictable and manipulable number of frames per second) still inhabits all other forms of digitality and the forms of virtuality they provide the engines for. Horn re-inflects the machinic away from its bachelorhood with her creation of "Bride Machines" (60)--machines that open out rather than close down. This is not so much critique as transformation and a remembrance of how things can be otherwise.

In Horn's work, machines participate subversively in the subjective field to such an extent that they themselves seem to become invested with their own fragmentary subjective dynamic conserved through percepts and affects. Indeed, when subjectivity is exteriorised and mobilised to this extent one would have to say that it is perhaps not subjectivity per se (thus Deleuze and Guattari's insistence on the fact that percept and affect are not at all the same as subject based perception and affection). Or perhaps one could say that this new form of subjectivity is so changed that it is based primarily upon the fluidity of percept and affect as they escape from stratified structures. At this point, comedy and whimsy become dynamic, transformational, interactive machines.

Of course, all this shows us that the digital is only one way of working into the virtual. At the same time, the digital has been a gift to us in showing us how much we can work with the virtual. It does, in a certain sense, raise the question of the art in all of us. Yet, to repeat, the digital is not the virtual, just as the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. That is why I suggest that as we tire of looking at our fingers on keyboards and on all the other indexes of the digital that surround us (the hyperlinks, hypertexts and so on), we shall gradually awaken to the dawn of the virtual in all its sublime horror and all its beauty. For while the current digital conversion is exhaustive and reductive and, despite the abstraction, almost always ends in a re-extension of the known, the virtual is intensive and, though particular, always alive to something else. [8]


1. See Deleuze and Guattari's What Is Philosophy? for a comprehensive account of percepts and affects. See also O'Connell for a generous discussion of the area. I am skating through this here in a rather perfunctory fashion. The basic idea is of art as consisting, before anything else, of perceptions and affections minus the subject. In a sense, this means that the various vibrations of the artwork must form some kind of consistency that can interact with the world at large (not just with the subject but with the pre-, post- or a-subjective, not just with the individual but with the pack, and so on). (back)

2. Massumi has marked this article as a work in progress and not the final draft. This should no doubt be taken into account in reading it, although to my mind it is by far the most compelling and incisive piece of writing on Stelarc, or perhaps, on the nature of the post-human. (back)

3. Here I am obviously preferring the utopian speculations of Pierre LÈvy (Becoming Virtual) to Nicholas Negroponte's guide to the present (Being Digital). (back)

4. The virtual is also actualised in the digital engines which we can see now are nothing more than one set of machines for working the virtual, and which cannot capture the virtual for the same reason that no individual body exhausts the virtual. On the other hand, our glorification or mystification of the virtual in, for example, many of the discussions of VR systems, only confuses the issues. Everything has virtual and actual sides, including and especially such machines as those involved in VR systems. Of course, even the digital has its virtual and actual sides. (back)

5. For a particularly scathing critique of Virilio in this respect, see LÈvy, "La pensÈe 'crash' de Paul Virilio." (back)

6. I have written elsewhere on Guattari's notion of the three ecologies, particular as they pertain to popular music (Murphie, "Sound at the end of the world"). (back)

7. In "Kierkegaard's Leap," Mathieson by whom this quote was first made clear to me, makes this central to his argument. (back)

8. I am extremely grateful, as always, to Lone Bertelsen, who provided many very useful comments on this paper. (back)

Works Cited

Bruno, Giuliana. "Interiors: Anatomies of a Bride Machine." Rebecca Horn (exhibition catalogue). New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994. 79-95.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. New York: Zone, 1988.

- - - . Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. London: Athlone, 1994.

- - - . Pourparlers. Paris: Les Šditions de Minuit, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles and FÈlix Guattari. What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Goodall, Jane. "Endgames, Performance and the Fin de SiÈcle." Masks of Time: Drama and its Contexts. Ed. Anthony Gibbs. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1994. 131-143.

Guattari, FÈlix. Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis. Sydney: Power, 1995.

- - - . Les trois Ècologies. Paris: Šditions GalilÈe, 1989.

- - - . Molecular Revolution. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. Middlesex: Penguin, 1984.

Horn, Rebecca. Rebecca Horn (exhibition catalogue). New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994.

Irigaray, Luce. "The Mechanics of Fluids." This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985. 106-117.

LÈvy, Pierre. Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. New York: Plenum, 1997.

- - - . "La pensÈe 'crash' de Paul Virilio." Les Cahiers de mÈdiologie. Mai, 1999. ebat/Tribunes/01mai99.htm

Marsh, Anne. Body and Self: performance art in Australia: 1969-92. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Massumi, Brain. "The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason." 1997.

- - - . The User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992.

Mathieson, Tim. "Kierkegaard's Leap." Post: Photography Post Photography. Ed. Stuart Coop. Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1995. 91-116.

Murphie, Andrew. "Putting the Virtual back into VR." Canadian Journal of Comparative Literature: Revue Canadienne de LittÈrature ComparÈe Ed. Brian Massumi. 24.3 (September, 1997): 713-742.

- - - . "Sound at the end of the world as we know it: Nick Cave, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and a Deleuze-Guattarian ecology of popular music." Perfect Beat: the pacific journal of research into contemporary music and popular culture 2.4 (January, 1996): 18- 42. .

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.

O'Connell, Stephen. "Aesthetics: A Place I've Never Seen." Canadian Journal of Comparative Literature: Revue Canadienne de LittÈrature ComparÈe Ed. Brian Massumi. 24.3 (September, 1997): 473-499.

Overall, Mary Jane. Stelarc: an event (videorecording). Darwin: Northern Territory University, 1991.

Salanskis, Jean-Michel. "Idea and Destination." Deleuze: A Critical Reader. Ed. Paul Patton. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 57-80.

Spector, Nancy. "Neither Bachelors Nor Brides: The Hybrid Machines of Rebecca Horn." Rebecca Horn (exhibition catalogue). New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994. 55-67.

Stelarc. "Just beaut to have three hands." Electronic Arts in Australia special issue of Continuum: the Australian Journal of Media and Culture Ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg. 1 (1994): 376-393.

Stone, AlluquËre Roseanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies I: women, floods, bodies, history. Trans. Stephen Conway, Erica Turner and Chris Turner. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987.

Virilio, Paul. L'art du moteur. Paris: Šditions GalilÈe, 1993.

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