by Rachel Clarke and Claudia Hart
The body has been the place within digital culture where the line between virtual and physical reality has been drawn, a contemporary version of the idea of a Cartesian mind-body split. In digital culture, the corporeal body is contrasted with the virtual/technological one, manifesting in the cyborg; the body/machine being first posited by Donna Haraway1
within the context of first wave feminism. The cyborgian idea was thought of in many ways as a liberation from the constraints of gender identification.
Akin to the cyborg is the post-human being, one that is beyond a single physical identity. Like the cyborg, the post-human is both physical being and machine, but a dystopic one not imagined as a liberation as Haraway thought of the cyborg. This hybrid human references the automaton. In post-photographic 3D cinema this means using stock digital bodies loaded with stock animation. Such generic, anatomically accurate humanoid bodies can be easily culled from digital libraries found online, or from popular low-cost character development software programs such as Poser™.
Preset naturalistic animation sequences - character walk cycles, stair climbing, dancing, exercising - can also be loaded into these generic bodies and then imported into a virtual environment, creating a 21st
century choreographic version of the synthesized animated collage prevalent in earlier experimental filmmaking. Virtual collaging permits bodies, objects, and spaces to be re-deployed, recontextualized and juxtaposed in infinitely recombinant variations, just as fragments of externally referenced meaning in clippings from newspapers and magazines were used by Picasso and Braque in the early 20th century. Choreographed motion scenarios made from found movements use techniques that permit the dissociated feeling of pasted-together collage, lending characters an erie unnatural / yet natural feeling.
This is only one way of animating a digital body. Real-world motions can also be captured by hacking popular 3D computer games. Tutorials widely distributed on the Internet teach users to adapt popular games like the x-Box Kinect, a motion sensing input device used to track the movement of objects and individuals in three dimensional space. This hack also allows individuals to capture motion, insert it into character models, and then edit it to create narratives or some other variety of digital performance. Naturalistic human motion can therefore be reformulated by using techniques native to the art of computerized choreographic collage: copying, pasting and repeating actions to create patterns, loops, and scratches, endowing motion sequences with a robotic, automated sense despite its using captured, naturalistic movement as its starting point. The result is a cinematic representation of the human that is somehow realistic and yet completely artificial, both real and unreal at the same time.
Both the cyborg and the post-human idea of a cinematic character have evolved in relation to the idea of an avatar. Avatars are virtual "costumes" worn on-line, personalized synthetic bodies often adopted on the internet. The rich manifestations of avatars in post-photographic simulations are the hyper-real beings that convince the viewer of their flesh and substance, obfuscating the corporeal/virtual body split, and blurring the edge between a representation and the real. They explore a plastic territory or "synthetic corporeality" that freely traverses between physical and virtual references to body, representing a fluidity of the self that reflects contemporary psychological paradigms.
This hybridization is not unique in the history of art. Both the cyborg and the post-human can be contextualized within the art history of the grotesque. Standing outside of known categories - of gender or otherwise - a digital body is monstrous, blending and merging things impossible in the real world outside the realm of high-tech surgery. It permits the hybridization of the animal or vegetable with the human, as well as the machine with the human, symbols of the unconscious and the imaginary which were actually first glimpsed in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts and Gothic architecture.
1. Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991)