When X-Ray Spex front woman Poly Styrene shrieked out the now-classic "Identity" in 1978, she nailed a "crisis" that would dominate art and politics through the 1980s and early 1990s. Otherwise known as the era of identity politics, it fostered artwork that focused on the political construction of identities, and challenged the social and sexual models they assert.
Almost forty-years after Poly sang, while the issues it addressed never went away, "identity art" has become an historic event; of interest to the art world as the subject of museum retrospectives, but considered stale as the focus of a contemporary practice. Except...there's something in the air...traces of an old perfume: "Identity" is back!
This is not, however, our (feminist) mothers' Identity Art, nor that of our (queer) dads, because it does not -- or does not only -- scrutinize the political construction and content of identity. Instead it considers its structure: the human "unit." By which I mean the liberal humanist subject: an autonomous individual with an essentially stable core. An ideal of the European Enlightenment, the humanist subject remains the keystone for our contemporary performance of what it is and means to be human.
The scent I'm interested in has been especially pungent recently in three L.A.-based projects: Robby Herbst's "I + We Collective Movement Workshop" (ongoing), a series of structured experiences that explore "collective identity, play, and movement." The recently concluded "Chloë Flores Facebook Sculpture" (2011-2013), for which the eponymous curator invited a new artist or artist group to operate 'her' Facebook page every month. And "Open Arms," a work by the Johns (Barlog and Burtle respectively) for which the rectangular tattoos that each John sports on his left arm are operated as "place(s) for other people to do things" (2007- ongoing/occasionally).
None of these projects manifests a heavy-handed desire to critique -- or even necessarily to describe -- the humanist subject. And none of them rejects what animal rights advocate Dr. Steve Best calls its "biases, prejudices, and myths" to venture into a post-humanist ethic of "humans and non-humans". But, by generating collaborative platforms that probe the experience of being "I," each one traces the aforementioned keystone and pokes at some of its mortar.
Like some kind of visual onomatopoeia, the letter "I" reproduces the subject it represents. Uniquely in the English alphabet, 'I' needs no additional letters or qualifying words to give it full meaning. Self-determining and self-sufficient, like the ideal humanist subject it represents, "I" stands alone.
Robby Herbst, who is also an Artbound contributor, began the I + We workshops I attended at Human Resources by asking participants to outline any previous experience with groups. Many of the responses went something like this:
"I kind of missed the language of group."
"I've always had a deep interest in working collectively but not really known how."
"I wasn't involved in a lot of team things."
It's hard to be collective, and especially hard to do so from inside an "I"-shaped box.
The bulk of the I + We Collective Movement Workshop comprised artist-led interactions with Herbst's sculptural objects. Cuffed ankle and wrist to the metal rods of one such object for example, participants recounted their experiences of working with others. Having written the name of something we opposed ("passive aggressiveness," "NSA") onto a chalkboard mask, pairs swapped masks and pushed, hand-to-hand, against the opposition. Boasting a balance board made for two, the "Social Movement Slide" required cooperation between a reform stance and a radical position before it would move. (Thus "legalize gay marriage" and "abolish the institution of marriage" found common cause enough to judder down the incline together.)
Influenced by, among others, social movement theory, New Age mind/body reintegration 'technologies', Adam Curtis's documentary "The Century of Self," and anti-capitalist philosopher/activist Brian Holmes, "I + We" combined sociological research with what Holmes calls "a feel for the ways that aesthetic form can influence collective process."
Moving from one "I + We" station to another, I was reminded of a long ago gym experience, when a trainer showed me how to use the machines to achieve my "best ever body." By inviting us to feel out the edges of our "I"-shaped selves, dip a metaphorical toe into the spaces between us, and perform some of the dynamics of change, Herbst's "gym" offered circuit training for collective action.
Can we develop mechanisms that pump up our capacity for collectivity? In a world dominated by the rampant individualism that Adam Curtis describes as "the all consuming self," this is not a rhetorical question.
Herbst's project is committed to opening up pathways for real change. The question is: will a "best ever self" -- with enhanced collectivist muscle and a leaner sense of self-entitlement -- facilitate real change?
Performance philosopher Shannon Bell thinks not. "Humanism," she writes, "is one of the soft and slimy virtues that underpin liberal capitalism... (it) has always been integrated into discourses of exploitation." Radical change, asserts Bell, will not be generated by the continuance of "liberal-human values," but by:
"attempting to develop through enactment new understandings of the self and other, essence, consciousness, intelligence, reason, agency, intimacy, life, embodiment, identity and the body."
Enter Chloë Flores: a "real" person in the liberal humanist sense -- a stable core of identity associated with one body -- and, simultaneously, an erratic personality: a Japanese-American fisherman with a passion for painting for example; a Bahamian-American focused on hair; and a grey tone that declined to fill Facebook's content confers.
Initiated to explore "how a public platform embedded with its own system for individual representation...can be used as an art space," "Chloë Flores Facebook Sculpture" ("CFFB") was not, says the curator, intended to "subvert issues of identity," but many of the participating artists -- who all posted as "Chloë Flores" -- "explored the topic."
Some took a forthright approach -- April Bey for example, addressed experiencing and resisting colonially constructed "blackness," while demarcating herself from the "CFFB" persona and "the real Chloë." Others blurred those distinctions -- Austin Young for instance, who plunged into being "Chloë," intent on enacting "changes I've always wanted for myself." And some gleefully multiplied identities -- was Chloë the woman having a hysterectomy, the one with bloody cysts, the one trying to conceive, or were these all Carrie Yury? Was she the 1000 Facebook friends to whom Corey Fogel granted admin privileges? Or was she perhaps, the "chaos, alarm, and merriment" that ensued?
"The proper state for a Western person is...to have and hold a core identity as if it were a possession," writes Donna Haraway in the "Cyborg Manifesto." Based on the axiomatic "Law of Identity" -- which says that "each thing is the same with itself and different from another" -- it's a propriety that's embedded in all of our systems of representation, including Facebook.
The "CFFB" artists collaborated with and transgressed that propriety, sometimes knowingly. They enacted "self" and "other", if not in entirely "new" ways as Bell proposed, then in ways that flouted the "Law." And significantly, they did so as cyborgs.
"We are all cyborgs now," says anthropologist Amber Case, conjuring Haraway's hybrid of organism and machine. The hybridity is both a literal product of material reality and a metaphorical "creature of fiction." Literal because human and machine do not exist in a static binary -- think medical implants, biometric tracking apps, the 250 million of us who log in to Facebook everyday, and the users for whom "sharing my life on this particular social media platform (is)...just like breathing and eating." And the hybridity is metaphorical because, if "the subject...is always in process, always disrupted" as Haraway contends, then the cyborg offers "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction."
Taking pleasure in the confusion of boundaries, John Barlog and John Birtle have been poking holes in shrink-wrapped binaries since 2006. Public leaked into private and sense into nonsense for example, when the Johns "put tether balls on streetlights" and released a loveliness of ladybugs into a store. With their matching "public space" tattoos, the Johns and their collaborators dance with particular gusto on the boundary of the self.
Before "Open Arms" went into hiatus (while one of the Johns goes to medical school) the project hosted numerous "exhibitions," including a tiny box of growing grass ("Yard," Lara Bank) and an egg ("Egg on Arm," Clay Chaplin). The "Arms" have served as projection screens ("Film Screening on Arms," Eric Medine), carried bon voyage wishes (Franka Hoernschemeyer), been bound together with black string (Fela Kim & Inger Koerselman), and connected by at least two bridges (Amy Blount Lay).
The liberal humanist subject is, first of all, a thinking mind. Its body is important as a kind of fleshy prosthetic, but it is, essentially, "meat." Scientists like Hans Moravec and Stephen Hawking take this dualism to a logical conclusion when they anticipate that one day we'll be able to upload human consciousness to data banks and live "meat-free."
If "CFFB"'s technologically-mediated self begs the question: where am "I," "Open Arms" plants an unequivocal flag at the site of the body. The human identity that this project asserts is adamantly embodied; and, as N. Katherine Hayles writes in "How We Became Posthuman:" "embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind."
The bodies of the John's are the one constant in "Open Arms," and there are two of them. Why?
For John Birtle: "participating in things that are larger than myself, creatively synergizing with other people, is very inspiring." Involved most collectively now with KCHUNG Radio, he describes the collaborative turn in contemporary art as: "different from the Modern tradition of an artist having a core identity -- doing the same paintings over and over again -- it's refusing a core identity...the project takes the place of the individual."
"What exactly is a single human being?" For Ezequiel Di Paolo, a researcher in neuroscience and robotics, the question is moot: "Does not the idea of a person already imply belonging to a social "tissue"?" Di Paolo's "human" is not the liberal humanist subject that Moravec wants to upload to eternity. Instead, far more "We" than "I," his subject arises out of its embodied interactions with other humans and the world in a process of "participatory sense-making."
According to Di Paolo, the idea "that we are islands" who "at most...build bridges with a few others," serves "a model of selfish freedom without commitment to others." I think he would have appreciated Amy Blount Lay's "Bridge #2" (2010). For which the John's were connected by a suspension bridge for remote controlled toys -- a small dog and a person. Two participants at a time operated the toys. "The goal," said John, "was to try to cross the bridge together, which required the four of us all working together to keep the toys from falling off. The performance lasted 3 hours."
Although none of the artworks I've mentioned here explicitly posed the question "what is a human being," each of them operated ways of being that deviated from the liberal humanist proposition. It's hardly surprising. The world is changing. Nanotechnology, genetic modification, digital communications, robotics, AI -- even the discovery that birds make and use tools -- all force us to consider the identity of the basic unit "human".
Are we the monadic unit on which human rights are bestowed, and on which, in fact, the very concept of human rights is predicated? Are we a fluid multiple product of our interactions with other humans and nonhumans? Or are we something else?
In 1950 Albert Einstein described the idea that each human is "something separate from the rest" of the universe as an "optical delusion," "a kind of prison" from we must "free ourselves." Author Steve Shaviro put it even more bluntly in 1997: "We are far too impressed by our own cleverness and self-consciousness," he wrote. "We need to stop telling ourselves the same old bedtime stories." And last week John Birtle said: "Where are those edges? They're not in the places we thought they were."
Top Image: "Chloe Flores Transforming," 2010 | Image by and courtesy of Austin Young.
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