Lynn Hershman Leeson, E. Jane, and Haraway’s Cyborg
Explorations of the shifting borders between humanity and technology, between virtual and physical modes of being, feature heavily throughout the GI 2018 programme. These themes are highly concentrated in GoMA’s ‘Cellular World: Cyborg-Human-Avatar-Horror’ group show. Here, Imogen Harland looks at two works from the show through the lens of Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’.
The term cyborg was coined in the 1960’s to describe a ‘cyber-organism’, a combination of human and machine. The term took on a new significance with Donna Haraway’s seminal 1984 text ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’. Haraway’s imagining of the Cyborg is a ‘cyber-organism’ figure who rejects binary terms such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, and ‘male’ and ‘female.’
The group exhibition ‘Cellular World: Cyborg-Human-Avatar-Horror’ showing at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art throughout GI 2018, features two video works which both depict women who are one with technology. Here, the boundaries between nature and machine are blurred.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, ‘Seduction of a Cyborg’, 1994
From 1994 is American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Seduction of a Cyborg’. The film shows a smiling white woman undergoing a series of medical treatments, which allow her to become one with online images. The voiceover speaks of the “immense pleasure” felt by this woman at viewing images of African villages. In the final scenes, she stares at a computer monitor, crying tears that contain the image of Rodney King, the African-American man beaten in the street by L.A.P.D officers in 1991. These tears then fill up the screen, submerging the woman.
‘Seduction of a Cyborg’ is an allegorical work about the dangers of technology. We watch the symbols of technology invade the smiling woman’s body, her eyes fixed on her monitor, unable to look away from the stream of images as tears surge up over the screen. It seems like the technology portrayed, that chunky 1990’s computer monitor, has a power over the woman.
E. Jane, ‘The Avatar’, 2015
Then there is the seven-video series ‘E. The Avatar’ (2015) by E. Jane, also an American artist. E. The Avatar is a persona devised to ‘live’ in ‘cyberspace’, to hang out with humans. Sitting at an empty desk in a blank white room, E. The Avatar talks to the viewer about net neutrality and using Google Maps to travel the world: “Whenever I’m really bored here, which is really hard, y’know, because it’s cyberspace. There is tons to do. But whenever I do get bored, I love to go on Google Maps.”
Dryly delivering their lines, E. The Avatar nevertheless seems to be tempting us to join them: “Why doesn’t anyone pioneer here? We could all hang out together.”
E. Jane’s work is more ambivalent than Lynn Hershman Leeson’s in the picture it paints of technology. The character of E. The Avatar cannot be invaded by technology, as they exist inside that technology, inside cyberspace. Despite E. The Avatar’s promise that there’s “tons to do”, their bored tone makes it clear that E. The Avatar does not live in a technological utopia. Additionally, their use of the word ‘pioneer’ hints at digital colonialism and the power inequalities, including racial and gender inequalities, that persist within online spaces.
Both of these works illustrate the complicated nature of our relationship with technology. For Haraway, this ambivalence is central to her imagining of the Cyborg. As the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism”, the Cyborg is not entirely ‘innocent’, but still is something of a ‘utopian’ figure.
Similarly, our close relationship with technologies is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ Despite coming with dangers, our entanglement with technology has the potential for, in Haraway’s words, the “subtle understanding of emerging pleasures, experiences, and powers with serious potential for changing the rules of the game.”