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Synthetic Times
Almost too conveniently and ironically in time to “inaugurate” Synthetic Times, the exhibition to which this text is dedicated, in May 2008, a mammoth machinery of the future will usher in a new era of particle physics that may profoundly change the entire body of observed knowledge about what we know as nature and what we perceive as reality. The machine that will take us to the terascale is being built in a ring-shaped tunnel twenty-seven kilometers in circumference, 50 to 170 meters deep into the ground, on the outskirts of Geneva, halfway across the French border. It is baptized the Large Hadron Scientific American’s February 2008 issue so describes the significance of the descending of the Large Hadron Collider: “To ascend through the energy scales from electron volts to the terascale is to travel from the familiar world through a series of distinct landscapes: from the domains of chemistry and solid-state electronics (electron volts) to nuclear reactions (millions of electron volts) to the territory that particle physicists have been investigating for the past half a century (billions of electron volts). What lies in wait for us at the terascale? No one knows. But radically new phenomena of one kind or another are just about guaranteed to occur. Scientists hope to detect long-sought particles that could help complete our understanding of the nature of matter. More bizarre discoveries, such as signs of additional dimensions, may unfold as well…. At the end of this “journey” to the terascale and beyond, we will for the first time know what we are made of and how the place where we briefly live operates at bottom.” Since time immemorial, the human race has entertained nature with the devices of unnature – technology. Through this laborious and long endeavor, visions and imaginations guided the trajectory of civilization along the path of technological invention and intervention. From the magnificence of the Great Pyramid at Giza to the marvels of molecular motors, from the chariots of Mesopotamia to the formidable Aegis weapons system, since Plato’s cavemen we have overcome the Hegelian “Spirit” and arrived at “Body without Organs.” We have come of age with a sense of confidence and a feeling of apprehension. Until the dawn of twentieth century, technologies had always been the material extensions of our immediately perceivable physical world. The biblical epics singing the songs of David’s sling, the throbbing of the steam engine of seventeenth-century England, the fascinating art of capture in daguerreotype, the reconfiguration of land and rivers for hydraulic power, and drilling fields and oceans to bestow us with light and fuel, all denoting that the conversion of natural resources into tools and systems is the main lineage of the history of technology. Much of our perception of nature and henceforth the utilization of natural resources derive from sensory receptacles that directly interact with the environments surrounding us. Although philosophical contemplations and mathematical imaginations have augmented our intellect in abstract pondering and logical reasoning, we have remained in kinship with the earth and the sky, the sun and the moon, in familiarity and in awe. The inception of quantum mechanics at the turn of the twentieth century for the first time cleared the way for a plausible argument of how the world originated with the subatomic study of the structure and the formation of matter, substantiated the Greek phantom and its infinitesimal manifestations, made the Great Beyond that hitherto had been the subject of faith intelligible and accessible, not with religious ardor but in an earthly sober mind, and therefore foreshadowed how life might have come into being. While truth was almost near and hope was high for escaping from the shadows in the cave, we learnt from the pundits of the Copenhagen School that ultimately, truth is but déjà vu and a product of the beholder. The advent of modern physics made way for the fantastical many–worlds of nonmythological reality. The ironclad status of the notion of reality thus had to undergo constant fact checks and we no longer are self-indulgent in the assumed comfort of the grand narrative. The Uncertainty Principle postulated by Werner Heisenberg in the late 1920s not only shattered the old wisdom of the laws of physics, but also called into question the fundamental beliefs that until then had anchored the modern sciences and their philosophical basis. The Cartesian treatises of causality and the dualistic construct of the world no longer holds sway in the light of quantum physics. A tumultuous era of chance and randomness, in which the physical world may be described, and upon which complex systems that characterize the When Borges wrote the “Library of Babel” in 1936, he pictured a rumbling universe of semantic confusion which anticipated the information overload that would arrive some sixty years later and would mark the syndrome of contemporary life. Shortly after, in July 1945, though unaware of each other yet almost in a tacit response, the US military officer Vannevar Bush speculated about a machine that could “memorize” input data and churn out desired results at the disposal of the user. The “memex” would effectively organize information electronically and create trails making use the otherwise unintelligible amount of data. The futuristic machine adumbrated an age of information technology, one that eventually, along with the birth of cybernetics, irrevocably opened the Pandora’s box that would unleash the hitherto inconceivable might of artificial intelligence and the supremacy of virtuality. A synthetic device called Computer was built upon a new materiality, a materiality that breathes on the ferromagnetic surface of hard disk drives, unto which the binary world of multi- dimensionality is construed and from which the embryos of future hybrids are impregnated. The emergence of "spintronics" and an exponential growth far exceeding the prediction of Moore’s law, with computer hard disks miniaturizing on a twelve-month cycle, forecasts a futuristic molecular landscape in which the jigsaw of nature will be pieced together by means of nanotechnology, ( and we may be able to experience a new kind of life thanks to the laboratory vision of bio-nano “The hope is that, in not too may years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human Forty-eight years later, the triumph of electronic computing technologies has landed us in a world that entirely operates on bits and bytes. We hear the droning of microchips echo in tandem with the breath of network pulses. Cyberspace becomes ever more real than the real itself. A new class of denizens inhabits the already crowded homesteads of the Second Life, where Goldfarmers in the World of Warcraft scavenge for virtual gold that can be cashed on eBay. From the fictitious MUD of the early 90s to the SIM CITY of the new millennium, locales of the cyber downtown have been built and rebuilt numerous times: “Featuring an all-new, revolutionary feature set, SimCity Societies allows you to create your own kinds of cities and shape their cultures and environments. Make your cities green or polluted, contemporary or futuristic, rural or urban. Create an artistic society or a police state, an industrial city or a spiritual community— or any society you want!” The latest solicitation promises great excitement far more enticing than the crisis-laden day-to-day affair of the world proper. No longer simulacra, nor replicas, the spectacles of virtuality overshadow the glittering of Times Square and the thundering battlefields of the scorched soil of the Euphrates plain. Guy Debord weeps over his naivety and Baudrillard laments A global metabolism of computer networks that bears the sign of organic life is at work. George Dyson, son of the quantum / nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson, said in an interview during the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2003: “When we ‘send’ or ‘transmit’ code across the network, we actually replicate the code at a remote location, leaving the parent code resident in the original host” (On the Loose –Information is Alive, DEAF 2003). If what differentiates the animated from the inanimate is the ability of reproduction and self-regeneration, then computers have obtained the very gene of livelihood. For thousands of years, tools and artifacts of all sorts were inanimate objects in the service of human beings. For the first time in history, an entirely different kind of human invention, one that is first capable of calculating, then thinking and regenerating, is ready to burst into life. While the cold terrain of cyberspace encroaches upon the moist zones of the increasingly warming Earth, the organic sphere of the warm is equally oozing into the chilling plateau of the synthetic highlands. Ten years after the invention of Dolly the artificial sheep, cloning is already a thing of the past. The team that made history is now giving up the old-fashioned mode of creation, they are directly “transforming human skin cells into a form that was essentially equivalent to the embryonic kind” (“Potent Alternative”, Scientific American, When Frankenstein is no longer science fiction, when machines start to create machines, something fundamental is happening. Of course, the synthetic world has its rules of happiness: misery shall be eliminated and anxiety is not permissible, promising perfect moods of joyfulness and amiable behavior. The pharmaceutical industry conspires to regulate shyness and eradicate sadness, Prozac and ZOLOFT not only makes one happy 24/7 but also sedate cats and dogs with equal benevolence (“Talking back to Prozac” The New York Review of Books – December 2007). We are not becoming Cyborgs, we are already Cyborgs, of software and Synthetic power is not only manifest in the convergence of the real and the unreal, the material and the immaterial, psychology and biology, but also works its magic in the construction of cultural spaces. The 1960s saw the first major artistic intervention into the vernacular of the social domain, propagating the failed utopia of the prewar era’s avant-garde with manifest determination and obstinacy. If the 20s advanced aesthetic production was a flamboyant gesture to overthrow a rigid, outdated regime of taste, the 60s could be seen as the real coming of age of art’s descending the staircase of its adult self-awareness. At a high time of turbulent social change and political struggle, the Greenbergian perfectly squared sublime seemed superficially pale, not only plastically but also mentally, the calling for engagement, involvement, action and happenings engendered a generation of artists who could no longer afford the sterilized cocoon of art for arts’ sake. Precisely contrary to Greenberg’s autonomous notion that art should “explore its formal potential within the prescribed limits of painting and sculpture without any interference from economic, social or political reality,” (New Art in the 60s, p11) the artists of Fluxus and Happenings took to the street in search of a new sensibility, one that sabotaged the norms of the artist and spectator as disparate roles. Mail Art and Arte Povera declared that the ephemeral and the discarded were fundamental building blocks for a novel form and Intermedia further blended the medley of everything into what could be called art. Accompanying Luigi Nono’s outcry for justice was Nam June Paik’s resonance of John Cage’s nothingness albeit with a twist of electric disturbance (Zen for Film, Mediart net Umberto Eco’s “Open work” from 1963 reinforced the legitimacy of a non-linear approach to literature and art in which an expansive field of meanings could be explored. Henry Lefebvre further elucidated a constellation that stretched our notion of space beyond geometry by embracing the social dimension as an unstable variable, wherewith the optimism of a “differential space” could potentially transcend the “abstract space” which had homogenized contradictions and differences, enforcing uniformity and hierarchization, and had produced the stratification that artists declared war on and vowed to topple down. The 60s swam in the emancipating utopian waves. If the avant-garde of the 70s and the 80s evolved from radical social interaction to rejoicing over the potential of technical media that saw its first inkling in television and portable video apparatus and subsequently through satellite communications systems (Peter Weibel has contributed a valuable recount of formative years of media art in the following pages), then the advent of the internet as a mass medium in the 90s certainly seemed to have fulfilled artists’ long awaited desire to reach out to the masses and accomplish the age-old romance of the avant-garde for changing the world for real. Intoxicated with the newly found wonder of communications technologies in which a two-way dialogue was made possible at last, artists hailed the internet as the new holy grail for revolutionary possibilities. The netart movement of the mid-90s along with burgeoning forms of cross–bred artistic production in alliance with science and laboratory research rekindled the tradition of the E.A.T. (Experiments In Art and Technology), hoped again with an adolescent’s innocence to create a parallel experience alongside the established order of the art world and cultural fiefdoms, if not entirely doing away with the museum itself. A plethora of interdisciplinary practices emerged out of every branch of scientific and technological sectors as potential candidates for the label of art. It was a time of But with the burst of the net bubble at the turn of the twenty-first century and the evaporation of the overnight wealth, the utopia of the 90s turned suddenly into a dystopia. As the burgeoning startups of capital and art were both blown away by the whirlwind of economical dismay, Wall Street and bluechip giants proved their longevity and the museum world remained intact and immune. Instead of appropriating the cultural industry and the art establishment, the proselytizing young art of new media eventually became the proselytized. Late capitalism’s market force is the synthesizing antidote to the “death of art” and the elixir of regeneration. No more paradigm shifts, but assimilation and The first decade of the twenty-first century is witnessing a profound dilemma. As the unilateral world power is dismembered with pockets of regional forces erupting around the globe, technological convergence accelerates its reformation of life and play. The de-territorialized has been re-territorialized while the virtual world continues to march on with unprecedented velocity. With Deleuzean multiplicity losing its earnestness in culture and in nature, with signs of synthetication everywhere, where will the next stop be for humanity? The Exhibition
This exhibition is conceived with a sense of urgency to grapple with the new materiality and a new reality that is unfolding relentlessly before us. It is to call for a return to the imperative ontological question of how, in the technological construct of time and space, in the ubiquitous presence of otherness, we perceive reality and what it means to be human at the threshold of human- machine symbiosis and in the vortex of convergent media that blurs the boundary between the physical and the digital, the real and the unreal, and to probe the role of art in the high time of cultural determinism and how art as a social force may reactivate its dynamics to challenge the canonical norms and establish its skepticism amidst the pleasantry of technological euphoria and the reified multi-culturalist mode of art production accentuated with a pan-political The exhibition is organized around four distinctive yet interrelated themes that differentiate and corroborate artistic endeavors seeking interventions into, and engaging with media and communications technologies as well as bio-cultural spheres as a means of investigation and as hermeneutics of contemporary experience. Works in the exhibition explore the trajectory of uncanny visions from the desire to transcend the corporal to the construction of synthetic worlds, from telematic dreaming to transgenic hybrids, from whimsical apparatuses to the deadpan gaze of magnetic fields, revealing the tension between man and machine, between the animated and the inert (albeit with life- like familiarity) as a pivotal force that energizes social flux, thrusting open and rekindling the discourse about the relationship between nature and culture, the perceived and the imagined, beyond ideological pretensions. The exhibition calls for a re-thinking of the fundamental alienation manifested by the perpetual struggle in which control and submission, exploitation and revolt are the underlying dynamics that rubricate complex human conditions. Beyond Body
“Beyond Body” attempts to delineate the multiple routes of artistic endeavors in extending the physical body, raising questions of subjectivity and the norms of ethical codes. “Embodiment” as retuning to the full potential of the corporal body and the sensorial faculties under the aegis of rationalism as the emancipation of human beings has been the central thesis of humanism since the Renaissance. The late twentieth century however has witnessed a new constituent of the body, the body beyond the body, the body without organs, charged with the full intensity of electromagnetic forces, the body tunnel that is the passage to the immaterial, out of which the desire for virtuality leaps forward. It is a body of formlessness that subsumes all forms of design and the “plane of immanence” from which complex networks of forces, particles, connections, relations, affects and becomings forge and traverse (How do you make yourself a body without organs - A Thousand Plateaus, p149). The possibility of bodies of all types presents itself in a dangerous but grand gesture. “Beyond Body” is not only a testimony to the body beyond its embodiment of intellect and sensation and its origin in mythology (Last Judgment in Cyberspace), but also a pathological revelation of the viral behavior of machine metabolism (Perpetual Self) and a clinical examination of the invisible (The Path of Damastes); the diagnosis of the prosthetic symptom (Walking Head), the epiphany of the serendipitous birth of Frankenstein (You Came with the Wind 2), and the opening of the ephemeral odor that smells of fear real and near (Fear 9). The recurring dreams of transcendence still run high, for a remote touch (Intimate Transaction) or a narcissistic leave (TouchMe), not to mention the impossible mission of life eternity where future archaeologists will find traces of life not in fossil remains, but in bits and bytes of data residue (Mission Eternity). The body double is once again reenacted (Dr. Du Zhenjun’s Anatomy Lesson). While the “meat machine” of the body maybe a crucial component of consciousness itself (Caroline Jones), the body of electromagnetic polarity has its own “biological” sensorial agility and life cycle (Life Support, Verda) and “psychiatrical” moodiness (Karma). In the end, it is a body without organs and the body that has no genesis; the body that is non-existent will tell the story of the body and the embodiment of the body, not an ethnological one, nor maybe a cultural one, nonetheless, an essential and formidable body. It is a fantastical body and an ontological body. Emotive Digital
Once the digital has gained life, then the body of formlessness claims embodiment in everything, everything that breathes on the spinning of a microchip’s magnetic sediment, sucking nutrients from the fluids of the Call them responsive creatures, imbued with sensitivities that invigorate emotive and reciprocal understanding. It is fascinating and fearsome to imagine the titillating spider (AutoTelematic Spider Bots) or appliances with acquired consciousness (Living Kitchen). Clumsiness is often the result of human – machine contrived mating, but elegance can also shine through the flaps of pneumatic wings (Sixteen Birds). While the hums of magnetism (Zogodlocator version 2) resonate with squeaky paint brushes (Sound Drawing) and sythesthesia engendered by speed and motion (Beijing Accelerator), spasms of hand gestures invoke a candid note on the outlook of man’s servitude to digital supremacy (Hand gesture). It is at once sensuous and frightening to feel the sweat seeping out of an amorphous animal made of microcontrollers, sensors and plastic hoses (Alextimia). Yet, the battle between man and machine fights on in the ruthless exchange of fire (Object B VS), and who knows who is the winner? But the Book from the Ground promises an altogether different vista for the future, in which language will be obsolete and communications made possible among the victims of the Tower of Babel (The Book From the Ground). The moistness of humanism lies like dew on the dry surface of the PC screen. Recombinant Reality
René Descartes proposed a mathematical description of nature to give a precise and complete account of all natural phenomena with absolute mathematical certainty. The world therefore was described as a mechanical system made of separate objects functioning with precision and accuracy like clockwork. What we learned from quantum physics is that subatomic particles cannot be understood as isolated, separate entities, but must be seen as interconnections, relationships. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum theory wrote: “The World thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.” That reality is not what we might think it ought to be, according to the inherited old wisdom, and that reality is in fact ambiguous and possibly the byproduct of retinal overload suggests a possibility for multiplicity and augmentation. A recombinant reality is therefore the new paradigm that gives rise to the not-so implausible conjuration of many-worlds and the grand declaration of the sixteenth dimension, however indeterminate, beyond the empirical yet possessing credibility. But where are we indeed? In the vector world of matrices, or the landscape of past and future (Where Are You? 360 Panoramic)? The Greenlandic voodoo ritual performed in an utterly unlikely fashion with circuit fabricated instruments, phantom shadows dance a electrified folklore (The Telling Orchestra), reverberates with the sublime of light beams (You and I, Horizontal III). The fabricated reality can be garnished with a sprinkle of nationalistic pride, in an ironic vein (Citizen Comfort). Velocity is also an agency that conjures up space and time (Waves) while anagrams murmur into a solid hologram (Name Is an Anagram). As the intangible strings play to the rhythm of movement (OP_ERA:sonic dimension), a web of glue precipitates into a form over the passage of time (56L). The “possibility of an impossible touch renders a materiality that paradoxically sharpens senses while retaining its incomprehensibility” (The Subjectivisation of Repetition). “The Recombinant Reality” poses questions of epistemological urgency that characterize contemporary experience, in which a Cartesian worldview no longer ensures comfort and syllogistic reasoning finds no suitable dwelling. Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy and chance theory laid the foundation for an elusive actuality and make-believe tangibility. The notion of space not only is a pure production, but also a transient fluidity that oscillates between the familiar and the estranged. Mixed reality, virtual reality and acoustic environments reveal new types of reality that reshape our notion of existence. Here, There and Everywhere
From the inception of ARPA net to today’s network omnipresence, the internet has mutated into a pervasive, all-encompassing membrane of connected machines that operate on a planetary scale, from shuffling venture capital to Bluetoothed entertainment, from ever-present panopticons to self-regulated chat room jurisdiction. It is the network that bears the sign of the times, it is Signals of the electromagnetic fields, invisible and almighty, connecting and interrupting, hurtling across the ether that determines the world of the visible, are captured in snapshots, exposed and demystified (Wifi Camera), whereas rhythmical whispers of the hollow air intrigue an omnipresent field of force, strangely close and far (Pneumatic Sound Field). As an utopian universe is constructed by netizens worlds apart (Noplace), vortexes of information overload flush our already overtired sensorium, both audaciously spectacularly (Vortex) and significantly meticulous and entertaining (Urgently! Infosculpture) (Newscocoon). The future does not need context; the blue screened apartment will accommodate all wishes of men and women; transcendence becomes the synonym for simulacra through a mediated network society (Eternal Youth), in which privacy is but a farce of the Enlightenment. You are on record, here, there and everywhere (Taken)(Eye Contact, Shadow Box 2), you are protected and attacked, now and forever by a floating, almighty, nationless, borderless power, roaming the continents of files and data (Balloon Attack – Naked Bandit). Not a conclusion
“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing We are at the dawn of a new materiality that constitutes a new reality, which compresses us into microchips of flesh and transistors, compounds the visible with the invisible, the meat and the plastic, the distant and the near, the false and the true. Time has already collapsed, space bent, and culture became nature, nature became culture. This is the Synthetic Times, in which human struggles seem pale, post-doctrines appear trivial, elections but an entertainment and Disney subsumes daily experience. A new taxonomy is to be written and humanity shall be in deliberation, maybe the role of art is to ensure that the deliberation takes place not behind closed doors, but in the



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