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Nicholas ZURBRUGG (Great Britain)

Nicholas Zurbrugg (1947 - 2001) – critic, essay writer, publisher, curator. Doctor of Philosophy, Professor of English and Cultural Studies, School of Humanities, De Montfort University, Leicester, England. Since 1998 has been Director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, De Montfort University, Leicester. Author of a number of books on the issues of contemporary art and culture, including the following ones: The Parameters of Postmodernism (Carbondale: S. Illinois U. Press; London: Routledge, 1993), Critical Vices: The Myths of Postmodern Theory (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2000). Editor and publisher of different magazines, books, catalogues on the contemporary art, among them are the following ones: Poesies Sonores (co-edited Vincent Barras) (Geneva: Contrechamps, 1993), The ABCs of Robert Lax (co-Edited David Miller) (Exeter: Stride, 1998) and many others. Curator of a number of exhibition projects, including the solo ones of Henri Chopin, Jean Baudrillard, John Giorno, Eugen Gomringer and others. Organizer and participant of numerous international conferences and symposiums on the issues of contemporary literature and art, of festivals of audio-art and sound poetry; on the issues mentioned he delivered lectures at different universities in the USA, Australia, Italy, France, Spain, Canada and others.

The material has been especially prepared by the author for the present edition based on the: Nicholas Zurbrugg. Marinetti, Chopin, Stelarc and the Auratic Intensities of the Postmodern Techno-Body (Body&Society, Vol.5 (2-3), London: SAGE Publications, 1999).
© 1999-2000 Nicholas Zurbrugg, Leicester.


Watching Henri Chopin perform I thought of a powerful vampire, a super-Dracula perhaps, and yet there was nothing malignant about him or his presence. Perhaps it was his power, the erotic vitality of his performing with the microphone, the curious abstraction of his sounds which transcended specific reference but always maintained their intensity.

Dick Higgins (1992a: 23)

“Anti-Auratic” Theory and Auratic Multimedia Practices

According to British cultural theorists such as Lash and Urry, we now inhabit an “emphatically anti-auratic” culture which “signals the demise of aesthetic ‘aura’ in a number of ways” (1987: 286). This reading of twentieth century multimedia culture is widely confirmed by many highly influential modernist and postmodern media theorists. But it is also significantly challenged by the successive ways in which the finest practices of the modernist and postmodern multimedia avant-gardes explore new kinds of techno-corporeal sensibility supplementing conventional textual poetics with what one might think of as suprisingly auratic modes of new electro-poetics.

Indeed, once one examines the century-long tensions between “anti-auratic” media theory and auratic multimedia practices (discussed here in terms of the increasingly apocalyptic hypotheses of Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, and in terms of the increasingly sophisticated research of poets and artists such as Marinetti, Henri Chopin and Stelarc), the most affirmative postmodern technological mutations of the body devastatingly discredit accounts of postmodern multimedia culture’s supposedly post-auratic register.

Put more plainly, new forms of techno-performance such as the French sound poet Henri Chopin’s “vampire”-like projections of pre-recorded and live vocalic “intensity” and the Australian cybernetic artist Stelarc’s equally disturbing explorations of “electronic voodoo” (1995: 48) compellingly justify the redefinition of postmodern multimedia culture as a chronologically, technologically and artistically distinct era, alive with inventive energy.

Brenda Hutchinson.
Giant Music Box, 1992

Judged in terms of its successive specific practices, postmodern media culture seems as well-served by visionary artists regenerating auratic creativity as it is ill-served by myopic theoretical generalization confusing the “postmodern condition” as a whole with the accumulative negative effects of:

1. the alleged discontinuity and decline between modernist and postmodern cultures (Jameson: 1991)

2. the alleged “death” of the postmodern avant-garde and “failure” of the modernist avant-garde (Burger: 1984)

3. the alleged eradication of “aura” by modernist and postmodern media culture (Benjamin: 1979)

As these pages will suggest, contemporary cultural theory’s and contemporary media theory’s most cherished, most seductive and most masochistic master narrative – the myth of postmodern multimedia culture’s terminal decay into an era in which “there are no more masterpieces” (Jameson, 1991: 78) – becomes untenable once one acknowledges that the chronologically distinct mentalities of “modern” and “postmodern” culture differ not so much in terms of postmodernism’s allegedly irreversible decline and fall, as in terms of the unprecedented ways in which postmodern multimedia practitioners may now both technologically trivialize and technologically revitalize corporeal symptoms of authorial singularity.

Successive techno-cultural avant-gardes repeatedly celebrate revitalized auratic creativity. According to Italian Futurist manifestoes such as Marinetti’s “Destruction of Syntax-Imagination without Strings-Words-in-Freedom” (1913), the early twentieth century heralded the age of “man multiplied by the machine”, ushering in a “New mechanical sense, a fusion of instinct with the efficiency of motors and conquered forces” (1973: 97).

For mid-century postmodern techno-poets such as Chopin, early tape-recording technologies inaugurated an “enormous expansion of human expression” (1982a: 74).

Likewise, for late postmodern performance artists such as Stelarc, “new sensor technology” and “computer software” allow artists to construct “virtual reality environments with intelligent interaction” in a way “which wasn’t really possible ... in the sixties” (1994: 377).

Constantly refining ever-more innovative techno-creativity, the modern and postmodern avant-gardes offer an unbroken lineage of precisely the kind of outstanding multimediated experimentation that Benjamin at his most lucid equates with this century’s “richest energies” (1979: 239). Ironically, modern and postmodern techno-cultural theory equally persistently overlooks and undervalues the originality and authenticity of techno-cultural creativity by repeatedly diagnosing new mass-mediated practices as symptoms of “anti-auratic” mass-cultural trivia.

Following Benjamin’s suggestion in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936, that “aura ... vanishes” (1979: 231) from commercial cinema (and by implication, from mass-media culture as a whole), postmodern cultural theorists such as Baudrillard, Virilio, Lash and Urry identify endless examples of what the French theorist Felix Guattari terms: “mass mediatic infantilisation” (1995: 133).

In much the same way, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Metamorphoses, Metaphors, Metastases” (1987), provocatively concludes that as “machine operators” rather than “actors”, we are ourselves new “kinds of automata”, living in an “artificial world” increasingly impoverished by “an exclusion of man, of the real world, of all referentiality” (1996: 217-18).

Other cultural theorists such as Guattari, by contrast, identify more subtle dichotomies between bankrupt “mechanic” mass-mediated culture and the salutary aesthetic potential of what he terms “machinic” production, “utterly foreign to mechanism” (1995: 108). Insisting that “Making yourself machinic ... can become a crucial instrument for subjective resingularisation”, and looking forward to new practices facilitating “the machinic return of orality” (p. 97) and “a reinvention of the subject” (p. 131), Guattari’s “Chaosmosis” (1992) argues that “the junction of informatics, telematics, and the audiovisual will perhaps allow ... us to escape ... from the erosion of meaning which is occurring everywhere” (1995: 97).

The alternating currents between Marinetti’s, Chopin’s, Stelarc’s, Baudrillard’s, Virilio’s and Guattari’s arguments succinctly identify the antithetical ways in which the modern/postmodern interface can be constructed. Viewed, for example, in terms of the discontinuity between Marinetti’s early celebration of technoculture, and Benjamin’s, Baudrillard’s and Virilio’s subsequent denigration of technoculture, the postmodern can be seen as an “anti-modern” era, increasingly distanced from cultural authenticity.

Alternatively, viewed in terms of the increasingly refined “machinic” creativity exemplified by the research of Futurists like Marinetti, sound poets like Chopin, performance artists like Stelarc and and video artists such as the American, Bill Viola, postmodern culture can be seen as a “past-modern” epoch, rich in technocultural revolutions and revelations.

As Viola and Chopin emphasize, such innovation is often both technologically discontinuous and aesthetically continuous with past cultural tradition. For Viola, “fascinating relationships between ancient and modern technologies become evident” (1995: 106), and for Chopin, technocultural practices permit an art of “synthesis”, advancing “towards the future, while at the same time remaining aware of everything that has been written” (1992b: 51).

Viewed from both of these perspectives, postmodern culture is most accurately defined as an epoch at once positively and negatively “past”-modern. At its poorest and richest extremes, postmodern media culture either desingularizes or resingularizes auratic subjectivity as never before. At their best, postmodern practices explore “something that no one else is doing, putting two ideas together that haven’t been put together before” (Viola, 1995: 179).

In turn, at its best, postmodern cultural theory similarly creates exceptions to its general rules. Tentatively conceding that explicit symptoms of mass-cultural malaise only partially exemplify the complexity of postmodern media culture, Benjamin’s, Baudrillard’s and Virilio’s most perceptive subtexts unexpectedly confirm many of the earlier insights of modern and postmodern avant-garde artists such as Marinetti, Chopin, Stelarc and Viola.

My central argument, then, is that analysis of the divergences between twentieth century media theory and media practice reveals how – across the decades – highly general cultural theory has consistently neglected the auratic intensities of modern and postmodern techno-performance. The second part of this essay will examine the modern and postmodern techno-avant-garde’s attempts to identify new dimensions of “tactile sense” (Marinetti, 1972b: 111-12) and new strategies for perpetuating “life in general, and intelligence in particular” (Stelarc, 1995: 49). But first, let us consider the ways in which successive European cultural theorists have claimed that media cultures require “no intelligence” (Benjamin, 1979: 240-41) and virtually impose the misfortunes of the “handicapped” (Baudrillard, 1988: 51) and the “spastic” (Virilio, 1997: 20).

Benjamin, Dulac and the “Richest Energies” of the Cinematic Body

Discussing the early postmodern media culture of the 30s, the German theorist Walter Benjamin introduced his general sense that performative “aura ... withers in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1979: 223) in terms of Pirandello’s claim that in silent film, the film actor’s body “loses its corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice” (1979: 231). Sound-film, Benjamin adds, increases this sense of exile by requiring the actor “to operate with his whole living person” while at the same time “forgoing” gestural and vocal interplay before a live audience. Accordingly, Benjamin claims, “the aura that envelops the actor vanishes” (1979: 231).

But are emanations of performative “aura” exclusive to live gestures before a live audience, or might one argue that new technologies generate their own new kinds of techno-aura?

Significantly, Benjamin also suggests that new technologies may well realize past, present and future performative aspirations far more effectively than any previous practices. Insisting that art has always created “a demand which could be fully satisfied only later”, Benjamin crucially observes: “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest energies. In recent years, such barbarisms were abundant in Dadaism. It is only now that its impulse becomes discernible: Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial – and literary – means – the effects which the public today seeks in the film”. (1979: 239)

Henri Chopin,
Acustica International – WDR, 1985

Ironically, these lines equate Dadaist innovation with the superficial “effects which the public today seeks in the film”, treating Hollywood’s and Dada’s agendas as one and the same. Rephrasing Benjamin’s argument, one might more accurately observe that, Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial – and literary – means – the vast array of potentially auratic multimediated visual, textual, sonic and performative artistic effects which the public today partially glimpses in commercially correct cinema’s predominantly post-auratic practices.

As the modernist film-maker Germaine Dulac points out in “The Essence of Cinema: The Visual Idea” (1925), commercial cinematic aesthetics differ considerably from the aspirations of those avant-garde artists who, if “drawn into making concessions to the taste of the public ... feel they have committed treason” (1987a: 37). Consequently, for Dulac, “We can use the term ‘avant-garde’ for any film whose technique, employed with a view to a renewed expressiveness of image and sound, breaks with established traditions to search out, in the strictly visual and auditory realm, new emotional chords. ... The sincere avant-garde film has this fundamental quality of containing, behind a sometimes inaccessible surface, the seeds of the discoveries which are capable of advancing film towards the cinematic form of the future”. (Dulac, 1987b: 43-4)

While Dulac suggests that avant-garde film is most notable for the auratic intensity of its “new emotional chords”, Benjamin rather differently reasons that the immediacy of Dadaist collages strike the spectator “like a bullet”, prohibiting “contemplation and evaluation” (1979: 240-41).

While Benjamin at times qualifies his argument, noting how slow motion film “extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives” and how enlarged snapshots reveal “entirely new structural formations of the subject” (1979: 238-9), his writings are usually interpreted as proof that early media culture culminates in post-contemplative Dadaist art, post-auratic commercial film, and the self-destructive impulses of those Italian Futurist artists anticipating mechanically multiplied destruction “as an aesthetic pleasure” (1979: 244).

Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto “War, the World’s Only Hygiene” (1911-15) certainly welcomes both “the first electric war” (1972a: 107) and the time when Italy will become “wholly vivified ... by ... new electric forces!” (1972a: 104). But as Marinetti adds, such utterance is literary rather than literal, and of necessity attacks Italy’s passeism and “chronic pessimism” with the rhetoric of “artificial optimism” (1972a: 108). The contemporary French cultural theorists Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio similarly explain that their texts are predominantly “suggestive” (Virilio, 1983: 39), rather than “realist” (Baudrillard, 1993a: 132). Significantly, however, whereas overstated artistic polemic is usually legitimated by subsequent innovative practice, “suggestive” theory frequently loses all contact with the of contemporary creativity.

Baudrillard and the “Metastatic” Body

According to Baudrillard’s essay “Metamorphoses, Metaphors, Metastases” (1987), for example, contemporary culture has lost all capacity to manifest the performative authenticity that he associates with The body of metamorphosis ... the ceremonial body brought to life by mythology, or the Peking Opera and Oriental theatre, as well as by dance: a non-individual body without desire, yet capable of all metamorphoses – a body... given over to all seduction”. (1988: 45)

For Baudrillard, the “power of metamorphosis” lies “at the root of all seduction”, and “freed from all subjectivity”, the body of “metamorphosis” transcends the realm of “metaphor” and resists “symbolic order” (1988: 46-7). For Baudrillard, “metaphoric” reality only emerges at an inferior level of existence, where “symbolic order appears” and the body becomes a “metaphor of the subject” (1988: 48). At a still lower level of reality, the body declines into what Baudrillard describes as a state of “metastasis”, or a kind of void where there is “no more soul, no more metaphor of the body” (1988: 50-51) and no trace of the poetry of metamorphosis.

In Baudrillard’s judgment, most of humanity have already declined into this kind of automatized, metastatic limbo where all “passions have disappeared”, and where we are all “mutants” (1988: 51).

Accordingly, for Baudrillard, late postmodern culture seems a dead-end in which irony’s last embers emerge only “in a disobedience to behavioural norms, in the failure of programs, in covert dysfunction, in the silence at the horizon of meaning”. “Transcendence”, he claims, “has drawn its last breath” (1988: 54-5), and our best strategy may well be to learn from the survival strategies of “the handicapped” who apparently “precede us on the path towards mutation and dehumanization” (1988: 51-2).

Nevertheless, having reconsidered the creative potential of postmodern technologies in the context of his recent experiences as a photographer Baudrillard argues that he is now “more interested in seeing technology as an instrument of magic” (1997: 38). Indeed, according to Baudrillard’s introduction to his collected photographs in “Car l’illusion ne s’oppose pas a la realite...” (1998), it is precisely by generating this kind of “magic and dangerous reality”, according to “a principle of condensation diametrically opposed to the principal of dilution and dispersion informing all our images today”, that “photography has refound the aura that it lost with cinema” (1998).

At such moments, Baudrillard suggests, one encounters the auratic presence of the “Silence of the photograph”; a quality of “true immobility” that he celebrates as being both “the kind of immobility that things dream about” and “the kind of immobility that we dream about” (1998).

Virilio and the “Terminal” Body

Like Baudrillard, Virilio predicates his most trenchant critiques of postmodern media culture upon a utopian concept of the authentic body, introduced in terms of “the wonderful biblical image of Jacob wrestling with the angel”. “Jacob met his God in the person of an angel and he wrestled with this angel for a whole night and at the end of the night he said to the angel, ‘Bless me, because I have fought all night.’ What does this symbolize? It means that Jacob did not want to sleep before God . ... He wanted to remain a man before God. ... he fought rather than just sleeping as though he was before an idol. Technology places us in the same situation. We have to fight against it rather than sleeping before it”. (1998)

According to Virilio’s “Polar Inertia,” the postmodern body has now entered a state of seemingly incurable metastasis. Here, apparently, animated activity gives way to static, screen-based, interactivity and collective “domestic inertia” increasingly assumes the “technical equivalent of the coma” (1994: 133, 135).

In turn, Virilio’s “Open Sky” (1995) posits that “radiotechnologies ... will shortly turn on their heads not only ... our territorial body, but most importantly, the nature of the individual and their animal body” (1997: 11). At this point, Virilio concludes, our situation is “no different from that experienced by any number of spastics” who seem to be “models of the new man” (1997: 17).

Arguing that “the super-equipped able-bodied person” now becomes “almost the exact equivalent of the motorized and wired disabled person” (1997: 11), Virilio suggests that “the urbanization of the actual body of the city dweller” increasingly introduces the “catastrophic figure” of the “citizen-terminal ... based on the pathological model of the ‘spastic’ wired to control his/her domestic environment without having physically to stir” (1997: 20).

Like Baudrillard however, Virilio occasionally identifies significant exceptions to his apocalyptic predictions. For example, while mercilessly denouncing the “publicity” mentality’s claim that “Multimedia are wonderful!” (1996: 123), Virilio acknowledges that certain kinds of media art may sometimes convey “a quality of truth ... that clearly corresponds to that of the great writers, the great painters” (1996: 120), and at his most positive, Virilio insists that his research “is not at all opposed to technology or technological performance” (1996: 122).

Clearly then, key cultural theorists such as Benjamin, Baudrillard and Virilio have very ambiguous responses to contemporary techno-culture. More often than not than not, they emphasize the worst aspects of mass-culture, rather than recognizing the best aspects of individual artists.

As the early modernist film-maker Germaine Dulac memorably insists, innovative art requires a far more positive response. “Occasionally, an idea with no precedent springs from a prophetic brain, with no preparation, and we are surprised. We do not understand it and we have difficulty accepting it. Should we not, then, contemplate this idea religiously ... with a fresh intelligence, stripped of all tradition, avoiding reducing it to our own level of understanding, in order, on the contrary, to raise ourselves up to it and expand our understanding with what it brings us?” (1987b: 36)

Marinetti at the radio station, 10s

Huysmans, Marinetti and the Modernist Body

Unlike Baudrillard’s and Virilio’s caricature of the contemporary body in terms of the “handicapped” and the “spastic”, the variously avant-garde experiments described in the early modernist French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans’ “Against Nature” (1884), planned and partially enacted by the Italian Futurst Marinetti, and consolidated and updated by the French sound poet Henri Chopin and the Australian performance artist Stelarc, all offer key examples of this kind of “fresh intelligence”.

For example, anticipating virtual reality, Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’ symbolist novel “Against Nature,” combines “ingenious mechanical fishes driven by clockwork”, the texture of “artificial seaweed” and “the smell of tar” in a domestic environment allowing him “to enjoy ... all the sensations of a long sea-voyage, without ever leaving home” (1968: 34-5). Here, he reflects, “One can enjoy, just as easily as on the material plane, imaginary pleasures similar in all respects to the pleasures of reality ... The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention ... sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself”. (1968: 35-6)

In turn, Marinetti’s “Tactilism” (1924) manifesto explains how his attempts to “educate my tactile sense” and discover “new ways to educate the handicapped” (1972b: 111-12) began with the undertakings: “1. to wear gloves for several days, during which time the brain will force the condensation into your hands of a desire for different tactile sensations; 2. to swim underwater in the sea, trying to distinguish interwoven currents and different temperatures tactilistically”. (1972b: 110)

Noting that these exercises revealed categories of “flat”, “soft” and “sensual” values, Marinetti describes his subsequent attempt to incorporate them into Sudan-Paris, an “abstract suggestive tactile table”, providing the first example of a “still-embryonic tactile art” (1972b: 110-11).

In its Sudan part this table has spongy material, sandpaper, wool, pig’s bristle, and wire bristle. (Crude, greasy, rough, sharp, burning tactile values, that evoke African visions in the mind of the toucher.) ... In the Paris part, the table has silk, watered silk, velvet, and large and small feather. (Soft, very delicate, warm and cool at once, artificial, civilized.) (1972b: 111)

Both Des Esseintes and Marinetti typify the way avant-garde research often begins by exploring unfamiliar realms of tactile sensation and deprivation. Des Esseintes, for example, surrounds himself with “colours which would appear stronger and clearer in artificial light” (1968: 28) and eats in a “hermetically sealed” room (1968: 33).

In turn, Marinetti’s “Tactilism” manifesto argues that technologically enhanced perceptions will “uncover ... many other senses” (1972b: 111), and describes describing how his experiments with gloved hands and underwater swimming (1972b: 110) prompt his subsequent his speculation that in an age of enhanced “X-ray vision” people will “see inside their bodies” (1972b: 112).

At this point, Marinetti anticipates the way in which the French performance artist Orlan’s “Carnal Art” manifesto describes the potential pleasure of seeing “my own body cut open without suffering” (1998: 98). As Orlan notes, her satellite-broadcast surgical-operation-performances attempt to extend our sensibility by working with corporeal images that may well initially “make us blind” (1998: 95-6).

In turn, Marinetti’s “Futurist Cinema” (1916) manifesto predicts that cinema encompassing “Painting + sculpture + plastic dynamism + words-in-freedom + composed noise + architecture + synthetic theater” (1972c: 134) will inaugurate “a new art, immensely vaster and lighter than all the existing arts” (1972c: 131), and his “La Radia” (1933) manifesto envisages “A pure organism of radio sensations”, allowing the “amplification and transfiguration” of both “the vibrations emitted by living beings” and “the vibrations emitted by matter” (1992: 267).

As Marinetti’s prophetic rhetoric suggests, such aspirations usually await comprehensive realization by more advanced technological practitioners. It is precisely such “advanced” technological postmodern practices as Henri Chopin’s and Stelarc’s research (rather than the nostalgic tattoos and body percings of California’s “modern primitives”), that most forcefully exemplify the auratic originality of what the American video artist Bill Viola calls the “research arm” (1995: 257) of late twentieth century multimedia performance.

Friedrich W. Block.
IO-poesis digitalis, 1996

Chopin and the Singularity of the Postmodern Techno-Body

The auratic energies of early postmodern techno-performance are best introduced in terms of the ways in which late twentieth century multimedia artists such as the Americans, Dick Higgins and Ellen Zweig and the Australian, Ania Walwicz , all emphasize the physical and sonic singularity of veteran French sound poet Henri Chopin’s performances.

For Higgins, Chopin’s presence evokes that of a “super-Dracula” (1992a: 23) performing what Walwicz calls a “ballet” or “theatre of sound” (1992: 23). As Zweig suggests, the live and pre-recorded vocalic gestures of Chopin’s orchestration of “the inner landscape of the inaccessible spaces” (1992: 39) manifest an unexpectedly intense partially-corporeal and partially-technological auratic energy, far outreaching the discourse of “specific reference” (Higgins, 1992a: 23).

Reflecting upon Chopin’s strangely phantasmagoric corporeality in more detail in his article “The Golem in the Text”, Higgins observes: “The poet uses complex vocal and non-figurative sounds, edited at several levels – electronically manipulating and broadcasting them at top volume – and adding to them in live performance with voice and microphone ... Despite his diminutive height, Henri Chopin radiates such an intensity that he seems to grow to a gigantic scale, the gravity of his expression suggesting some kind of vampire or evil spirit. The process by which this spirit emerges on stage can be really terrifying. ... Because the real process of the work is non-mimetic, deriving from what the artist – in this case Chopin – is actually doing. In other words, the emergence of this spirit is inherent in the live performance of the work”. (1992b: 25-6)

Like Higgins’ reflections on Chopin, the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes’ essay on “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) traces the auratic qualities emanating from “the body of the man or woman singing or playing”. According to Barthes, this kind of highly individual and highly authorial quality exists “outside of any law” (1977a: 188), challenging his earlier assertion, in “The Death of the Author” (1968), that, “a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested a variety of writings, none of them original”. (1977b: 146)

Claude Maillard.
Acte 20, 1993

Rephrasing Barthes’ argument, it seems more accurate to argue that the performative “grain” arising from the multimediated sonic and corporeal gestures of a techno-artist such as Chopin demonstrate how, “performance of this calibre reveals a singular ‘theological presence’ (the ‘techno-presence’ or ‘spirit’ of the Author-God), within a multi-dimensional multi-mediated space in which are married and contested a variety of performative energies, many of them profoundly original”.

Chopin himself at least partially encourages a spiritual – (if not theological) – reading of his techno-performances, when remarking: “With the Christian tradition the body was absolutely nothing, but for me the body is of primary importance. I remember that between 1948 and 1949 I studied theology in a seminary, and was furious when people said, ‘Only, Christ, Christ’. For me it was absolutely impossible, because the human body is very important. Without the body it is impossible to produce the spirit”. (1998)

“Does this mean that your art is a physical revelation of the spirit?”, I asked Chopin. “Of course, of course”, he replied, adding, “It’s a great surprise for you!” (1998).

Chopin’s comments certainly were a great surprise, given his customary suspicion of religious institutions. But in retrospect it seems clear that Chopin – like Stelarc – typifies the ways in which certain kinds of singular multimediated performance can at times offer an intensely individual quality of authorial “spirit”.

For Roland Barthes, this kind of performative energy seems most significant as a force reaching beyond “the law of culture” (1972a: 188), and occupying a zone where “articulated language is no longer more than approximative and where another language begins”. Such highly authorial realms of performance, Barthes suggests, are “theoretically locatable but not describable” (1972c: 65). Here, he concludes, innovative art is often “born technologically, occasionally even aesthetically”, long before it is “born theoretically” (1972c: 67).

Describing his technological discovery of his voice’s unusual abstract energies, Chopin explains, “I started in ‘55 with sound ... the diction with my voice was very bad ... but I listened to my voice on a tape recorder ... and my voice is very good ... the timbre is very good too ... so I put my finger between the head and the tape on the tape recorder ... and ... the sound was different! Distortion! After that I changed with my finger the speed of the tape on a very simple tape recorder and again the speed was different”. (1982b: 12)

Wolfgang Heisig.
Lokaltermin (sound
performance), 1994

Following earlier experience “with the theatre ... and singers”, Chopin’s first tape-recorded experiments attempted to synthesize familiar genres and “produce with one voice ten or fifteen or twenty voices”; a project culminating in his composition “Peche de Nuit” (1957), made up of “48 superimpositions”, recorded at “six speeds” (1970).

Subsequently sampling tactile sounds “with microphones ... in the mouth ... on the ear ... on the hair too” (1982b: 12), Chopin discovered that “When I put the microphone into the mouth I have simultaneously five sounds: the air and the liquid in the mouth, the respiration in the nose, the air between each tooth and the respiration in the lungs” (1992a).

Further internal explorations of Chopin’s body followed: “In 1974 I put into my stomach a very small microphone and it was a discovery – the body is always like a factory! It never stops – there’s no silence!” (1992a).

By the late sixties, Chopin’s definition of his explorations of “sound poetry, made for and by the tape-recorder”, composed of “vocal micro-particles rather than the Word as we know it”, identified a quintessentially technologically-born practice, “more easily codified by machines and electricity ... than by any means proper to writing” (1967: 11), and far removed from the assumptions of “basic literary ideas”.

We already have a geometric, computerizable language. But what we still haven’t discovered are the ways in which this language will evolve. This is firstly because technology is evolving so rapidly, and secondly, because whereas computers only have forty or so phonemes, we know that we possess thousands of sonic values. We know that the ear not only receives sounds, but also gives out sounds.

All these discoveries were completely unknown when I began working with sound poetry – I was starting from very basic literary ideas. It’s thanks to the new technologies that I’ve discovered all these new values. In the same way, future technologies will reveal the multiplicity of our auditory and visual cells – the eye, the ear and all our other senses. So while we cannot predict the future, it’s certain that new departures have already been made, and that we cannot live without them”. (1992b: 51)

A pioneer sound poet orchestrating live and pre-recorded sound; a multimedia theorist defining the mechanically modified body’s creative energies; and an internationally acknowledged multimedia auteur; Chopin typifies the ways in which first-generation postmodern techno-performance transforms the graphic multiplicity of the Futurist “running horse” with “not four legs, but twenty” (Boccioni, 1993: 49) into the sonic multiplicity of “48 superimpositions” recorded at “six speeds” (1970).

Klaus Peter Denker.
Untiled, 1989

In turn, the multimediated sonic multiplicity of Chopin’s compositions anticipates the ways in which the techno-corporeal gestures of second-generation postmodern artists such as the Australian performance artist Stelarc now enter “an electronic space that connects other limbs, other people, in other places” (1998: 178), identifying and orchestrating traces of the ambiguous “slippage”, “interface” and “anxiety” located “between biology and silicon-chip circuit” (1995: 49).

Stelarc and the “Split Physiology” of the Cyberbody

Like Marinetti and Dulac, postmodern multimedia artists such as Chopin and Stelarc insist that the most innovative aspects of their research reaches far beyond the poetics of established genres, rituals, ceremonies, fables and conventions. Marinetti stipulates that “Tactilism” has “nothing in common with painting or sculpture” (1972b: 111); Dulac defines avant-garde film as the research of artists who are “Neither writers nor dramatists nor painters nor sculptors nor architects nor musicians” (1987: 37); and Chopin emphasizes that his “new languages” have “nothing to do with Dickens or Balzac” (1992b: 50).

In turn, Stelarc describes his research as “a general strategy of extending performance parameters by plugging the body into cyber-systems, technological systems, networks, machines that in some way enable the body to function more precisely or more powerfully” (1995: 46). Tracing the origins of this research to his earlier discontent with available performative and artistic conventions, Stelarc explains: “It was not a matter of me reacting against theatre, but really coming from the visual arts and not being satisfied with traditional modes of expression like painting and sculpture. And remember that I came at the end of minimal and conceptual art ... Conceptual art had played itself out – so then what were you left with? Nothing but your body”. (1994: 379)

Explaining that his preoccupation with the “human/machine interface – the hybridizing of the body with its technologies” (1995: 46) arises from his wish to discover “alternate experiences” (1994: 380), and in many respects realizing Marinetti’s vision of a multimediated “tactile” (1972a: 112) art and a “radiophonic” art amplifying “vibrations emitted by living beings” (1992: 267), Stelarc recalls how his multimedia performances of the seventies attempted to simultaneously orchestrate dance, music and gesture. “When I went to Japan ... I became increasingly interested in connecting body gesture and posture with sound. The idea of amplifying a muscle signal came to mind. Now, if I make a movement, I twist my arm, flick my fingers, contract muscles and electrodes are stuck on the skin, I can pick up the signal, pre-amplify and process it”. (1994: 382)

Tina LaPorta.
Future_body version 1.0, 1998

Updating Huysmans’ fictional accounts of his hero’s experiments with sensory deprivation and Marinetti’s analyses of gloved and submerged sensations, Stelarc’s first performances systematically tested the basic “limits to the body – its genetic repertoire, its structural parameters” (1994: 384). “I occupied a gallery for a week in Japan. I sewed my lips and eye lids shut with surgical needle and thread. I was tethered to the gallery wall with a pair of cables which connected to two hooks in the back of my body”. (p. 383)

Significantly, having made such “primal” first steps, Stelarc’s work rapidly assumed a more futuristic register, projecting Marinetti’s modernist dream of “A visual sense ... born in the fingertips” (1972a: 112) into the postmodern technological reality of performance involving “laser beams ... reflected off small mirrors stuck on the eyes”.

In addition, Stelarc explains, “At the same time that I was doing laser projections with the eyes, I was making internal probes into the stomach, into the colon, into the lungs. I’ve filmed three metres of internal space” (1994: 388).

Like Chopin’s ingestion of “a very small microphone” (1992a), Stelarc’s cinematic body probes and his experiments with his “third arm” typify his fascination with the ways in which technological performance research both modifies the body’s sounds and images and suggests alternatives to dominant definitions of corporeal identity.

In turn, Stelarc’s recent Internet performances construct situations in which his body interacts with stimulation from a multiplicity of external sources, in order to explore what he calls those “cool spaces displaced from the cultural spaces ... of emotion and of personal experience?” (1988: 176).

Entering such spaces, Stelarc claims, “your realm of operation goes beyond your biological boundaries and the local space that you function within”, and explores a zone where “you become an agent that can extrude awareness and action into another body elsewhere”. At this point, he suggests, the artist enters “the realm of the open, of the divergent rather than the convergent, where what you’re creating are contestable futures, not utopian ideals” (1988: 178-9).

Here, one might add, Stelarc explores precisely the domain that Baudrillard associates with maximum performative freedom, where the body becomes “a non-individual body without desire, yet capable of all metamorphoses” (1998: 45)

Emphasizing that he is primarily interested in “alternate and possibly augmented experiences” made possible by “new physical interactions – new kinds of physical intimacies that don’t rely on proximity, that are augmented by other sorts of feedback loops” (1988: 186), Stelarc insists that his body is not so much “totally automatic in its operation”, as “a more complex entity with a split physiology, interfaced and engaged in a multiplicity of aesthetic tasks”. In such circumstances, the body is “aware of what’s going on during the performance, and it’s able to make small adjustments within the flow of activity and images that’s occurring” (1988: 193-4).

As Stelarc indicates, his interactive performances all attempt to modify and extend awareness beyond the familiar parameters of cultural convention and individual intention. “New technologies generate information”, he observes, and in consequence, “generate new models and paradigms that weren’t applicable or possible simply by the imagination alone”. In turn, “alternate operational possibilities ... create new desires and new ways of interfacing with the world” (1998: 201).

Aspiring to “redesign the body to function in this intense information realm of faster and more precise machines” (1995: 47), and arguing that the technologically modified body should be “conditioned to perform as an artist” rather than “as a bureaucrat”, and should produce “multiple possibilities” rather than “coercive solutions” (1995: 49), Stelarc’s explorations of cybernetic technologies evince an inspiringly affirmative logic.

While uncritical technomania may prove as indefensible as uncritical technophobia, the most significant techno-practices of the last decades make it increasingly obvious – as sound poets like Henri Chopin remind us – “that new departures have already been made, and that we cannot live without them” (1992b: 51).

Both anticipating and facilitating further “departures”, Stelarc surely carries conviction when he concludes that “if we’re really caring about life in general, and intelligence in particular”, it follows that, “any form of life, whether it be carbon chemistry or silicon-chip circuitry – any form of life that can perpetuate these values in a more durable or a more pervasive form – should be allowed to develop” (1995: 49).

Confronted by ever more momentous examples of the technological reorchestration and resingularision of corporeal performance, postmodern cultural theory should surely look beyond negative accounts of the allegedly “metastatic” body. Now, more than ever, we need more careful analyses of those truly innovative multimedia poetic and performative practices revealing the kind of auratic authorial individuality which – as Walter Benjamin lucidly observes – more often than not constitute a culture’s “richest energies” (1979: 239).

Barthes, Roland (1977a) “The Grain of the Voice” (1972), in “Image-Music-Text”, Edited and trans. by Stephen Heath. Glasgow: Collins.

Barthes, Roland (1977b) “The Death of the Author” (1968), in “Image-Music-Text”, Edited and trans. by Stephen Heath. Glasgow: Collins.

Barthes, Roland (1977c) “The Third Meaning” (1970), in “Image-Music-Text”, Edited and trans. by Stephen Heath. Glasgow: Collins.

Baudrillard, Jean (1988) “Metamorphoses, Metaphors, Metastases” (1987), in “The Ecstasy of Communication”, trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, Jean (1989) “The Anorexic Ruins”, trans. David Antal in “Looking Back on the End of the World”, edited by Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf. New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, Jean (1993a) “America as Fiction” (1986), Interview with J. Henric and G. Scarpetta, trans. Nicholas Zurbrugg, in “Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews”, edited by Mike Gane. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean (1993b) “The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena”, trans. James Benedict. London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (1996) “Endangered Species?” (1994), Interview with Paul Sutton, “Angelaki”, Vol.2, 3:217-24.

Baudrillard, Jean (1997) “The Ecastasy of Photography” (1993), Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, in Jean Baudrillard: “Art and Artefact”, edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg. London: Sage.

Baudrillard, Jean (1998) “Car l’illusion ne s’oppose pas a la realite...”, my trans., unpaginated. Paris: Descartes & Cie.

Benjamin, Walter (1979) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in “Illuminations”, trans. Harry Zohn. Glasgow: Collins.

Boccioni, Umberto (1973) “The Exhibitors to the Public” (1912), trans. anon, in “Futurist Manifestos”, edited by Umbro Apollonio. London: Thames and Hudson.

Burger, Peter (1984) “Theory of the Avant-Garde”, trans. Michael Shaw. Manchester: Manchester: University Press.

Chopin, Henri (1967) “Open Letter to Aphonic Musicians”, trans. Jean Ratcliffe-Chopin, “Revue-Disque OU”, 33: 11-23.

Chopin, Henri (1970) “Peche de Nuit” (1957), Notes for 45 rpm record in “Le Dernier Roman du Monde”. Wetteren: Editions Cyanuur.

Chopin, Henri (1982a) Letter of 17.7.79, “Stereo Headphones”, 8-9-10: 73-4.

Chopin, Henri (1982b) Interview with Lawrence Kucharz, Larry Wendt and Ellen Zweig (1978), “Stereo Headphones”, 8-9-10: 12-13.

Chopin Henri (1992a) Unpublished Interview, ABC Television, Sydney.

Chopin, Henri (1992b) Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, in “Henri Chopin” (Zurbrugg and Hall 1992).

Chopin, Henri (1998) Unpublished interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg.

Dulac, Germaine (1987a) “The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea” (1925), trans. Robert Lamberton, in “The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism”, edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York: Anthology Film Archives.

Dulac, Germaine (1987b) “The Avant-Garde Cinema” (1932), ibid.

Guattari, Felix (1995) “Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm” (1992), trans Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, Sydney: Power Publications.

Higgins, Dick (1992a) Untitled text, in “Henri Chopin” (Zurbrugg and Hall 1992).

Higgins, Dick (1992b) “Le golem dans le texte”, my trans., in “Poesies Sonores”, edited by Vincent Barras and Nicholas Zurbrugg. Geneva: Editions Contrechamps.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl (1968) “Against Nature” (1884), trans. Robert Baldick. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jameson, Fredric (1991) “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lash, Scott and Urry, J. (1987) “The End of Organized Capitalism”. Cambridge: Polity.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1972a) “War, the World’s Only Hygiene” (1911-1915), in “Marinetti: Selected Writings”, edited by R.W. Flint, trans. R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. London: Secker and Warburg.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1972b) “Tactilism” (1924), in “Marinetti: Selected Writings”, edited by R.W. Flint, trans. R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. London: Secker and Warburg.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1972c) “The Futurist Cinema” (1916), in “Marinetti: Selected Writings”, edited by R.W. Flint, trans. R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli. London: Secker and Warburg.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1973) “Destruction of Syntax-Imagination without Strings-Words-in-Freedom” (1913), trans. R. W. Flint, in “Futurist Manifestos”, edited by Umbro Apollonio. London: Thames and Hudson.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso (1992) “La Radia” (1933), in “Wireless Imagination: Sound Radio and the Avant-Garde”, edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, trans. Stephen Sartarelli. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Orlan (1998) “Carnal Art” Manifesto, website translation of “L’Art Charnel”, in “Surtout pas sage comme une image”, Quasimodo, 5: 95-101.

Stelarc (1994) “Just Beaut to Have Three Hands”, Interview with Martin Thomas, “Continuum”, 8 (1): 377-93.

Stelarc (1995) “Electronic Voodoo”, Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, 21.C, 2: 44-9.

Stelarc (1998) “Telematic Tremors, Telematic Pleasures: Stelarc’s Internet Performances”, Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, in “Carnal Pleasures: Desire, Public Space and Contemporary Art”, edited by Anna Novakov. Berkeley: Clamor.

Viola, Bill (1995) “Reasons For Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994”. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Virilio, Paul and Lotringer, Sylvere (1983) “Pure War”, trans. Mark Polizotti. New York: Semiotext(e).

Virilio, Paul (1994) “L’inertie polaire”, my translations. Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur.

Virilio, Paul (1996) “A century of hyper-violence” (1995), Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg “Economy and Society” Vol 25, 1: 111-26.

Virilio, Paul (1997) “Open Sky” (1995) trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.

Virilio, Paul (1998) Unpublished interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg.

Walwicz, Ania (1992) Untitled text, in “Henri Chopin” (Zurbrugg and Hall 1992).

Zweig, Ellen (1992) Untitled text, in “Henri Chopin” (Zurbrugg and Hall 1992).

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