Health is not a topic that artists have traditionally been interested in – life, death, love, pain and humanity have all taken up a far greater proportion of canvases and plinths. Yet a new generation of artists is appropriating and developing the codes associated with products that optimise our bodies – smart drugs, sportswear and, at the more extreme end, plastic surgery.
But where does art’s current preoccupation with wellness, fitness and body-hacking come from? After all, artists are, as the cliché has it, more likely to be carousing dipsomaniacs, propping up the bar long after the clock has struck midnight. “The art industry looks more and more like a traditional business model,” says artist Grégoire Blunt (more on the show “eStamina”, co-created with Emmy Skensved, later). “Artists are following the traditional etiquette of business. It’s about your looks and being articulate, healthy, and competitive. At the same time you’re expected to party a lot but still look great the next day.” These social pressures are somewhat new to the artistic community, that obstinate bastion of hedonism. As these societal values continue to play themselves out across every echelon of the internet, discipline, ‘clean-eating’ and training have come to connote aspirational desirability. Indeed, this is one of the many cultural references used by Amalia Ulman, in her recent Instagram project, “Excellences and Perfections”. This artwork concocted an online persona on the image-sharing platform as a manifestation of a ‘Hot Babe’, complete with aspirations of wellbeing, is a good example of these new health-orientated aesthetics (one photo shows Ulman in a yoga meditation pose in a hotel room).
Health, or perhaps more specifically, the performance of health, is a status symbol that has entered even further into our image culture than the young women who are perhaps the most obvious targets of its pressures. In 2014, trendhoppers everywhere were suddenly sporting shiny black kicks, white mesh and Nike ticks on pulled up socks, as part of the fad known as Health Goth. The Health Goth aesthetic turns sportswear into something ominously technological – the Facebook page that kickstarted the movement recently posted a photo of what appeared to be a robot helmet, complete with corporate sports logos, swaddled in a stark white windbreaker. These images, often digitally manipulated, are reminiscent of corporate stock imagery, and are part of a wider conversation about how technology interacts with the body, both in terms of monitoring performance (mainly fitness or sleep) and the development of cyborgs and body hacking possibilities.
The theme of this year’s transmediale festival for digital art in Berlin was “Capture All”. “Track Sleep. Track Steps. Track Habits,” its website urges us. As we attempt to find out more about how we tick through self-monitoring, ever-more invasive ways to gauge information are created. In this sense, the futuristic and commercialised aesthetic in contemporary art often questions the naive complacency of a society that expects technology to solve all problems, including the ones it creates.
In the following section, we look at five artists whose work centres on the interstices of the body and technology to reveal something new about what it means to be inside the human anatomy.
Melted yoga mats, disfigured by burn marks to accentuate their manufactured nature, hang on walls beside photoshopped images of a young female beauty, homogenous and safe. This exhibition from Société, Berlin, “Infinite Surrender, Focused Control” by Timur Si-Qin (2013), questions where the idea of ‘natural’ enters into these motifs of health, attractiveness and aesthetics. Yoga mats may seem to be a clean and pure accoutrement to a healthy mind-body relationship – yet materially they are far from natural. In the context of the commercialised visual language of marketing, the objects, thus destroyed, give up on their attempt at a fetishised appeal for our attention.
Throughout Si-Qin’s practice, the artist investigates our impulses towards certain images over others, inevitably calling upon the value system of health to distinguish attractive from unattractive. Elsewhere in the same exhibition, leaflets in a LED-lit tray portray close-ups of fresh tomatoes, water beads sitting freshly on their surface and hands intertwined under running water, all of which raises some challenging questions. What is it about these images that make them so universally attractive? And as our concept of what is healthy develops in line with technology, how will our attitudes to stock imagery change? Perhaps the singularity of Si-Qin’s art lies in its ability to produce such critical assessments rather than arrive at any simplistic answers.
SYNERGIZE / ENERGIZE
Grégoire Blunt and Emmy Skensved
“Optimize performance, synergize your capabilities/ overcome the limitations of your human body.” So reads the description of Grégoire Blunt and Emmy Skensved’s current exhibition at Import Projects, Berlin, based around the theme of human enhancement technologies. An immersive exhibition to be styled as an e-cigarette, with a fog machine blasting out vapours containing nicotine and caffeine, “eStamina” consists of a 60-minute ambient audio track accompanied by CG visuals. The e-cigarette phenomenon is symptomatic of a new kind of intoxication, in which the ‘toxic’ is removed: the rise of smart drugs and ‘nootropics’ mean that we can be wilder, out later, and be more productive the next day. The ‘chapters’ of the audio are composed by 26 contributors, each of whom was asked by the artists to write and then narrate a piece of writing on the topic of the show, but each with a different letter of the alphabet. Skensved explains: “It’s a seemingly logical system, but it’s actually an absurd way of organising the information. In a similar way, a lot of technological developments are presented as rational and progressive, but often this is just a reflection of the advertising and imagery used to market these products.” Blunt elaborates: “We wanted to relay an element of humour – flipping back and forth between the seemingly logical and the erratic, the serious and the lighthearted. It reflects the variety of responses we received from contributors: an array of different voices.”
While the texts vacillate between anxiety and hope, visual aspects refer to the often utopian yet capitalist idealism of the dialogue around technology: “We’re working with a very commercial aesthetic, trying to make the imagery look like stock photography with glossy, glassy white surfaces and floating, flawless objects,” Blunt says.
Josh Kline’s work “Skittles” (2014), also plays with the commercialised and superficial aspects of a healthy lifestyle. In the art installation on New York’s High Line, a vending machine with a variety of multicoloured ‘juices’ is on display. Echoing the rapidly gentrifying surroundings of a redeveloped train line, the work includes bottles filled with poetically varied substances, often with questionable healthgiving potential. Each is named for a typical persona and their imaginary lifestyle: one entitled “mixed greens” contains a tennis ball, wheatgrass, olive oil and dollars. Another, “williamsburg”, contains a credit card, clothes from American Apparel, kale chips, kombucha, microbrew, quinoa and agave. Of course, it’s the journey through the blender’s blades that give these ‘smoothies’ their healthy glow, not their ingredients. The narratives and myths of health-giving properties are as much a part of the story as the reality of health – again, we are propelled by our need to analyse ourselves by standards that seem to be more objective than our intuitive rationale. In the language of productivity and performance enhancement, we want to say: if we know the input, we must know the output.
As well as technology becoming more and more intimately connected with our bodies, digital bodies are becoming seemingly more human. Kate Cooper’s recent show “Rigged”, at the KW Institute, Berlin, featured a speciallycreated CG model, created from scratch for the exhibition, complete with pores, traces of smile lines and freckles. The sterility of consumer culture as it relates to fitness and health appears on the surface of this work, which sees a young female model jogging in fitness clothing, while another gnashes and stretches her brace-constrained mouth, alone in an empty, hygienic white background. “This constructed image of the ‘working body’, particularly in relation to this health image in industry, favours a particular class and gender,” Cooper explains. The artist embraces the inauthentic nature of this imagery, particularly its lack of connection to human, bodily perfection. A CG model has a tenuous link to our own identities, while its link to our bodies is barely material.
Like many others working with these ideas, there are aspects of our tracking- focused culture in her work: “I’m interested in this idea of management or control of the body. Being healthy is something you must actively work at – health becomes an image of something.” Carrying out these processes of self-management, by our own volition, makes our bodies yet another battleground for commerce: “It’s the promise that we can be better – the capitalist dream. But actually it’s just eroding every part of daily lives – work and non-work have become blurred.”
“We are always looking for some external thing – for what we wish was an objective system, to tell us about ourselves,” Heather Dewey-Hagborg explains when asked about her thoughts on how humans measure their bodies, and could explain one reason behind the popularity of the ‘Quantified Self’ movement. Born out of the tech community, who represent our desire to accumulate as much data as possible about our bodies, it is exemplified by Apple’s new native “Health” app, or consumers measuring their sleep patterns to see how they perform even in resting mode.
Dewey-Hagborg’s work focuses on the idea of genetic surveillance, a tool that is becoming more significant in judicial systems, and is also under far less scrutiny than its digital counterpart: “It occurred to me that we were fixating on the electronic realm of surveillance but not even thinking about what was even more personal – our bodies themselves. We are constantly losing genetic info without thinking about it at all.” In “Stranger Visions” (2012–13), these scattered genetic markers (saliva, hair, nail clippings) are turned into portrait sculptures, showing the same impulses as a crime scene investigator towards forensic examination of evidence.
As the body-hackers and lifeloggers create more ways of measuring and analysing everything from our blood sugar levels to our respiratory rate, Dewey-Hagborg’s work intends to alert us to these unintentional data leaks, as well as creating strategies to mask them. “Invisible” (2014), is a product-as-art-project, composed of two serums; one designed to delete and the other to replace the genetic material that we leave behind. After all, in the post-Snowden era of hyper-surveillance, all data collected can be a threat to privacy – and as Dewey-Hagborg’s work implies, this could even include the DNA in a few discarded cells of skin.
Text by Josie Thaddeus-Johns