Digital Art and the Human Body

I think we are inevitably heading towards a melting together or human and machine. This notion is not new and it has been inspiring artists for more than a century. Many artists of the 1920s (especially Dada in Germany) were obsessed with the prosthetics and the transformation of humans into cyborgs due to the prevalence of mutilated and dismembered bodies after WWI. The cyborgs of the Weimar Republic predicted the development of the field of cybernetics, led by Norbert Wiener, which considered beneficial as well as harmful effects of technological augmentation [1]. Wiener and his colleagues argued that “Although it [cybernetics] would unleash undreamed-of productive power, it also had the potential to bring about a massive unemployment situation and to reduce the human labour force to the condition of slavery” [1, p.28].

Raoul Hausmann,Self-Portrait of the Dadasoph, 1920 (From Biro, M., 2007. Raoul Hausmann’s Revolutionary Media: Dada Performance, Photomontage and the Cyborg. Art History, 30(1), p.29)

A more recent and growing interest in prosthetics and cyborgs can be found in the Steampunk movement, a science fiction subgenre that is concerned with an alternative 19th century history in which steam power is the main energy provider and has enabled the development of half-human, half-machine creatures and other cyborgian technologies [2].

Steampunk outfit mask (from: Steampunk. In: Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Steampunk&oldid=885221279> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].)

Modern technology opens up a whole range of new possibilities of enhancing and improving the human body through computer assisted technologies and portable devices. In fact, we have long been living in the age of true cyborgs without noticing it if consider that our smartphones, which open up a world wide web of knowledge at the tap of a finger, are with us most of our time.

Hence, it is not surprising that the merging of technology and the human body is a subject of artists and critical minds, who reflect current trends in society. One particularly talented, if eerie, artist is Anastasia Alekhina. Especially “The criticism of violence” is a piece that makes me shudder. Alekhina created an object that responds to the loudness of its wearer’s voice and gives out electric shocks through a collar if it surpasses a certain value. On the website it says that “This wearable device is designed to help people with emotion control. The first time is due to the reflex, but eventually, the consciousness is immersed in a state of harmony and the need to cry disappears. A person with such a device should monitor not only their emotional state but also the emotions of others. The decision to use such a device can be taken voluntarily or compulsorily, if the person, for example, was seen in domestic violence or child abuse” [3]. This idea of technological control of and intervention in human behaviour makes me anxious and uncomfortable. Yet, thinking about it, there are already many instances in which we let technology control and influence us: think about the vibration of a phone on a push notification and our immediate reaction to it.

An artist who takes cyborgs to another level is Stelarc, who, again, makes me uncomfortable with his intrusive and manipulative performances. He shows mercilessly the insufficiencies of the human body and personifies the human desire for improvement and perfection of the body. Stelarc goes as far as to subordinate the body to the machine and the work of art by postulating that “The body is simply the host for a work of art” [4]. He painfully mirrors how much we are willing to pay for improvement of what nature has given us showing that “technology continues to radically interrogate the human condition” [4].

I don’t think I can answer the question of ethical and moral right or wrong regarding these projets, as this requires intensive discussion and review. Personally, I believe that everyone can do what they want with their body and I grant art a special “permit” to cross the lines of what is considered “correct” and “moral”. However, I think we, and especially artists and doctors who take part in such activities, have to accept the responsibility that comes with it. It is a responsibility to think about possible futures that such experiments can evoke and what we want and don’t want humans to be able to do with their bodies as well as how these technologies could be used to exploit other living beings – similar to the future projections and concerns of Norbert Wiener.

The question whether the purpose of the manipulation – medicinal necessity or artistic expression – should determine its morality is another difficult one to think about. Here, issues of funding and allocation of money, as well as philosophical discussions of mortality and suffering have to be raised. Stelarc mentions the potential use of his ambidextrous hand for people with limited abilities and it would be a great side effect of his work if it could be used to support good causes. However, as with many great medicinal and scientific inventions, the moral issue lies in the question where to draw the boundary. If we have the technology to create an ambidextrous hand to assist people with limited abilities, what keeps us from using this technology to improve well-abled bodies beyond the limitations of the natural human body? Stelarc addresses this question and forces us to ask it, which is why it is necessary that especially art utilizes new technologies to predict potential dystopias.


[1] Biro, M., 2007. Raoul Hausmann’s Revolutionary Media: Dada Performance, Photomontage and the Cyborg. Art History, 30(1), pp.26–56.

[2] Anon 2019. Steampunk. In: Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Steampunk&oldid=885221279> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

[3] Anon 2014. The Criticism of Violence – An Electronic Device which Reacts to a Shout with a Current Discharge. [online] Anastasia Alekhina. Available at: <https://alekhina.cc/en/the-criticism-of-violence-en/> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

[4] Alternate Anatomical Architectures | Stelarc. 2014. TEDx Talks Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cx0dOOIbQAI> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2019].

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