Redesigning Humans How Frankenstein might guide us through art and the technological future.

Guillermo del Toro's exhibit At Home With Monsters (Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2016). Sculpture by Mike Hill. Photo by Patricia Olynyk.

New advances in the medical sciences, transgenics, and biomechtronics have given rise to genetically-modified superhumans, cyborg fantasies, and new evolutionary futures in both the arts and the sciences. Artists, once separated from scientists by what art historian and visual studies critic Caroline Jones refers to as the epistemological divide, have transcended the two-culture debate of the twentieth century to explore modern monsters as flesh and as metaphor.

Such creatures are not new within the cultural imaginary: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an early work of science fiction, re-imagines the human body by way of technology. In her Gothic masterpiece, Shelley chronicles the mad experiments of Victor Frankenstein, who pieces together a living being from a range of cadavers and follows this creature as his desire for acceptance and eventual rejection turns him to violent anger and destruction. Shelley’s novel explores this dynamic while also investigating both the perils and potential of modern science. In fact, in the 1831 version of  Shelley’s masterwork, the author includes an account of the storytelling evenings that transpired at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet Lord Byron, and his personal doctor John William Polidori. There, Polidori shared his knowledge of experiments involving electricity, particularly those involving Galvanism and electrical resurrection.

Electrical experiments were common in the early nineteenth century and investigators knew that electrical shocks produced spasms in biological specimens. Physicist and anatomist Giovanni Aldini (whose uncle Luigi Galvani was a friend of Shelley’s father) performed experiments in bioelectromagnetism that captured the popular imagination. In one famous case that horrified his audience, Aldini seemingly managed to reanimate the corpse of an executed man. Electricity, its possible connection to a vitalist life-force, and the moral implications of such experiments were debated widely and helped inspire Shelley’s novel.

 

Influence and adaptation

Shelley’s Frankenstein has undeniably had a significant influence on modern art and film. Themes that often emerge from such works include electricity and the reanimation of life, the social and biological characteristics of hybrid life, and redesigning bodies through bio-elective enhancement. One filmic example is James Whale’s 1931 classic in which Frankenstein, upon reanimating his creature, cries “now I know what it’s like to be God.” Another cult classic is Andy Warhol’s and Paul Morrissey’s 1974 gem Flesh for Frankenstein, which is shrouded in both violence and sexuality. Though both films deviate from the book, they are faithful to Shelley’s novel insofar as they challenge the moral order of their time. Both films also treat the story’s narrative as a place to question the role of difference in society, how and where evil manifests, and whether science can simply go too far. To give one final example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) also explores the role of electricity in reawakening the dead. Moving beyond a conceptualization of the human body as a material entity that can be electromagnetically resurrected to one in which living entities can be transferred from one body to another, Lang raises uncomfortable questions about the power of science and a future mechanized world.

Still from film Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)

While Frankenstein and its adaptations have explored the negative potential of toying with nature, a growing community of contemporary artists instead have embraced the promise of our technological future by reimagining the productive capacities of Shelley’s narrative, particularly those related to hybridity and difference. In fact, the notion that self-realization and empowerment can be gained through new techno-hybrid bodies has powerful advocates such as Donna Haraway, a historian of science, who rejects the dualisms of mind/body, human/machine, nature/culture in favor of exploring the provisional status of cyborgs (as monsters) and their capacity to resist essentialization while building affinity between groups otherwise separated by difference.

While Frankenstein and its adaptations have explored the negative potential of toying with nature, a growing community of contemporary artists instead have embraced the promise of our technological future by reimagining the productive capacities of Shelley’s narrative, particularly those related to hybridity and difference.

Internationally known performance artists Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Orlan, and Stelarc generate theatrical displays of their surgically enhanced bodies. Their work, which involves a range of body modification practices, challenges our assumptions about gender, beauty, and the very stability of the body and its neural networks. In her installations, meanwhile, artist Patricia Piccinini further complicates the dialectic between normalcy and difference, human and “other,” and the biological and the technological by creating species-defying life forms that invoke Freud’s theory of the “unheimlich” or the “uncanny.” Finally, anatomist Gunther von Hagens,  creator of the notorious Bodyworlds exhibits, in which human bodies are plastinated and then spectacularly posed in thematic tableaus, pushes this phenomenon to the extreme.

 

Electricity and reanimation

Advancements in biotechnology, particularly those that involve redesigning humans, conjure visions of Huxley’s Brave New World, with its dystopian world state, Goethe’s Faust, whose central character surrenders moral integrity, and The Boys of Brazil, in which Dr. Mengele clones Hitler. Whether subjecting the body to electrical stimulation, altering the DNA of single-cell embryos, or experimenting with invasive gene editing, manipulations of the human form summon Shelley’s cautionary tale, which serves as a metaphor for our most acute fears involving tinkering with living matter.

Frankenstein re-imagines the body through the use of technology. What makes the narrative—the myth and the novel—so compelling is that the monster is both externally and internally manifested. Frankenstein imagines an electric undead—a human body compelled back into the world by outside forces. Through the novel, we experience the first portrayal of the prototypical mad scientist, who gives birth to his creation by sending electric currents through a body pieced together from human parts. However, it is debatable whether this patchworked creature truly “lives,” or whether it simply exists as a form of the undead. After all, it is only a matter of time before the monster goes on a killing rampage, which suggests that perhaps Frankenstein’s electrocuted hybrid may have only a limited form of sentience. Faced with the consequences of his actions, Frankenstein’s blind embrace of technology engenders sorrow and regret.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, produced over a century after Frankenstein, also features electricity as a central theme. It is critical to consider that this German Expressionist masterwork emerged in the 1920s, when the experience of total war and defeat led many to criticize technological rationalization. Electricity was not considered a utopian tool as it had been used as a torture device during the war. In the film, it is used to animate a demonic robot created by another mad scientist in order to wreak revenge on his enemies. While Frankenstein exemplifies science gone wrong on an individual scale, Metropolis plays on class conflict and questions the era’s techno-optimism.

Advancements in biotechnology, particularly those that involve redesigning humans, conjure visions of Huxley’s Brave New World, with its dystopian world state, Goethe’s Faust, whose central character surrenders moral integrity, and The Boys of Brazil, in which Dr. Mengele clones Hitler. Whether subjecting the body to electrical stimulation, altering the DNA of single-cell embryos, or experimenting with invasive gene editing, manipulations of the human form summon Shelley’s cautionary tale, which serves as a metaphor for our most acute fears involving tinkering with living matter.

In stark contrast to Lang, Stelarc has a much more positive view about electricity and technology. He believes that we have reached a point in our evolutionary development where the organic will begin to assimilate the mechanical. His performance-based works Ping Body, Involuntary Body, and Third Hand employ pneumatics and network aesthetics. Stelarc’s limbs are controlled with electric stimulation by an internet audience, while he simultaneously controls a prosthetic robotic third hand with muscles in his abdomen and leg. As he recently told me, one purpose of redesigning the body in this way is to shift ambulation and rewire neural networks in his brain.

Considering his work from this perspective, is it reasonable to classify Stelarc as a posthumanist. While no single definition of the term exists, within critical theory posthumanism expands the definition of the state of being human in part by rejecting any singular definition of the human condition. Consciousness is a by-product of brain activity and the body is a prosthesis that can and should be modified and even replaced. As literary critic Katherine Hayles posits in How We Became Posthuman, a subject can be “seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism, biological organism, robot technology and human goals.”1

Stelarc echoes that view in his comments about the remote control of his body via internet audience:

 

The involuntary body is a split body. Not a split mind and body but a body with a split physiology. Voltage-in, involuntary body, voltage-out actuating a third hand. The body is simultaneously a possessed and performing body. It becomes an end-effector for other bodies in other places and for machines elsewhere, generating interactive loops and recursive choreographies. The monster is no longer the outmoded stitched up meat body, but the system that sucks the self into virtuality. In the liminal spaces of proliferating Prosthetic Bodies, Partial Life and Artificial Life, the body has become a floating signifier.2

 

Redesigning humans

“Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other

beings encapsulated by skin?”3

     —Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto

 

Issues involving the body and the technologies that enhance or augment it lie at the heart of how we frame what it means to be human. Stelarc’s work disrupts the conventional order of embodiment and thereby invokes not only Haraway, but also gender theorists Judith Butler and Margrit Shildrik, who have questioned normativity. As Shildrik puts it, “the lived experience of disability—with its embodied absences, displacements, and prosthetic additions generates, at the very least, its own specific possibilities that both limit and extend the performativity of the self.”4

Frankenstein re-imagines the body through the use of technology. What makes the narrative—the myth and the novel—so compelling is that the monster is both externally and internally manifested. Frankenstein imagines an electric undead—a human body compelled back into the world by outside forces. Through the novel, we experience the first portrayal of the prototypical mad scientist, who gives birth to his creation by sending electric currents through a body pieced together from human parts. However, it is debatable whether this patchworked creature truly “lives,” or whether it simply exists as a form of the undead.

Stelarc’s Ear on Arm project, perhaps his most infamous work, is a bio-elective body modification piece that has garnered international attention, claiming top prize at Ars Electronica 2010 in the Hybrid Art category. It took the artist over ten years to track down three surgeons willing to embark on the “wildly experimental project,” which began in 2006.

After several successive surgeries and a six-month bout with a cocktail of hard-core antibiotics to fight off infection, the project has become a labor of love, as Stelarc’s own words make clear:

 

The correct way of describing the ear on my arm is that it’s partly surgically constructed, partly cell-grown. And this year—it’s been confirmed now—we’ll be doing the augmentation of the helical part of the ear to make it more prominent, and we’ll also grow a soft earlobe using my extracted adult stem cells.5

 

Stelarc will pursue further surgeries to install a Wi-Fi connected microphone that will allow people anywhere in the world to listen to what he hears. The ear might also function as a distributed Bluetooth system. If you call him on your cellphone, he will be able to speak to you through his ear.

But because the small speaker and the receiver will be implanted in a gap between his teeth, he will hear your voice in his head. If he keeps his mouth closed, he will only hear your voice. If he opens his mouth and someone else is close by, they will hear a disembodied voice coming from his mouth.

Stelarc, Third Hand (1908) Photograph by Simon Hunter

Bio-elective manipulation is likewise the trademark of Orlan, who stages theatrical performance surgeries that challenge societal perceptions of beauty and otherness. In the mid-nineties, the artist underwent nine surgeries, staged as theatrical performances, to rewrite the history of western art on her body. One operation altered her mouth to resemble Europa’s, from François Boucher’s eighteenth-century masterpiece, while another modified her chin to mimic Botticelli’s Venus. Whereas in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein works in isolation to conceal his gruesome work, Orlan’s vibrant surgical performances include a variety of performers and surgeons, who don designer regalia. As theorist Jennifer Cognard-Black comments:

 

To theatricalize plastic surgery is to turn beauty’s body into a kind of ‘fact fantasy’—or a ‘flesh fiction.’ For much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, this flesh fiction has been focused on iterating conventional attractiveness … And yet … there is now the rise of another kind of flesh fiction, one that celebrates the surgical monster not as a Gothic embodiment of cultural anxiety but as a new articulation—and celebration—of horrific gorgeousness.

 

Disturbed by the historic role that women have played in the art world—naked and consumed by the male gaze—Orlan was prompted to surgically redesign her own body as a work of art as a means to confront the impossible standards of beauty against which women are measured. Eventually, her surgeries strayed from such conventional standards in favor of designing a  visage and persona that was more provocative. In the early nineties, Orlan had cheek implants inserted above her eyebrows in order to produce the effect of tiny horns that are about to erupt. In so doing, Orlan represents what one critic has called a “‘monstrous iconicity’ in which beauty and monstrosity are overlaid within a single body as an object of new desire.” 6

Likewise, musician and performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge hovers in a perpetual state of becoming. Inspired by the philosophy that the world is in constant flux and identifying as third gender, P-Orridge rejects the binaries of male and female through the surgical redesign of his/her body, transcending boundaries even by posthuman standards. After marrying in 1993, P-Orridge and spouse Jacqueline Mary Breyer embarked on the Pandrogeny Project, whose goal was to merge into a “pandrogyne,” or hybrid single entity, through surgeries to make the two look like each other.7 Though variable notions of gender exist in posthumanism in general, P-Orridge is perhaps the most infamous artist exploring the pandrogyne theme. As theorist Sharrona Pearl notes, P-Orridge is different from Orlan because “P-Orridge uses surgery to overcome bodily limitation and [ideally] achieve a better state. For P-Orridge, surgery is a means to an end. For Orlan, the surgery itself is the point. And there is no end.” 8

 

Hybrid life

“We should also consider the notion of Artificial Intelligence as

hybridized life.”

     —Rupert Goldsworthy, Sensing Terrains

 

Henrik Olesen’s 2007 exhibition at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark, entitled How Do I Make Myself a Body, explores prejudice against queer culture. The exhibition included prints of Alan Turing, a founder of modern computer science. In thinking about Turing’s ambitions, Rupert Goldsworthy, a New York-based artist and curator, calls forth philosopher Avital Ronell, who notes that “Alan Turing’s ‘scientific drive was put in gear at an early age, when he was hit by devastation.

Chris, the boy he adored and idolized, dies suddenly from tuberculosis on Thursday 13th February 1930. Suddenly. […] Little Turing begins to set up his future lab and labor on the fringes of an unaccountable loss […] he  wonders whether Chris’ mind can exist without his body.’ Ronell implies here that Turing’s childhood loss was key in encouraging him to develop the prototype computer, that his drive to create artificial intelligence came from a desire to maintain the existence of Chris’s mind after his physical passing. One can see Turing’s drive as an attempt to supplant his mourning through storing this hybrid life through technology. In a repetition of Shelley’s morality tale, Turing dreams of the interspecial body.”

In keeping with Turing’s deep-seated desire to preserve Chris in an alternative physical form, a hybrid life through technology, it is interesting to consider how Shelley’s Frankenstein and other works of science fiction predict the technological developments of our own era. Goldsworthy concludes that “[a]rtificial Intelligence is no longer just a sci-fi fantasy but tangibly present in our lives. We are surrounded by hybridized human existence.” 9

 

Spectacular bodies

“… our bodies have an amazing plasticity and polymorphism that is

often brought out precisely in our relations with technology.” 10

     —Margrit Shildrick, Hypatia

 

Patricia Piccinini lampoons the monstrous in sculptural forms that resemble a mash-up of Frankenstein’s monster, hybrid creatures, and comical characters. “I like 19th century social realism,” she says. “[It depicted] how the Industrial Revolution had an effect on the everyday people. I’m interested in the same thing that’s happening now, in how technological innovation is changing the way that we see the body.”11

Piccinini is also driven by concerns over the destruction of the environment and new advances in biotechnology, including in vitro fertilization, animal-human organ transplantation, and genetic modification. Her work ponders the post-human era, especially the question of whether we will be able to humanize technology rather than technologize people.12

Piccinini’s immersive installations present us with fantastic, hybridhuman creatures that one might expect to emerge from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Yet the artist’s work transcends shock and awe by prompting sympathetic viewing that may even verge on affection. Pink fleshy  featureless blobs lie scattered around a seated young girl, who lovingly cuddles one of them, which slumps contentedly in her arms. We cross the uncanny valley—that perceptual space where eerie human resemblances do not seem quite right—to discover that these unusual characters appear to be intimately related.

We Are Family, exhibited at the 50th Venice Biennale, involved in the words of Donna Haraway “a colony of humanoid, transgenic African meerkat-like beings […] What arrests me in this more than natural colony is not the pink-suited blond human toddler face-to-face with a fabulated playmate living on soft white leather in the museum space. Rather, I am struck by the four-breasted female sitting peaceably on the next level up of the pyramidal habitat, with her milk-lust babies nestled between her legs ready to attach to her alluring array of ventral teats.”13

Though the artist does not typically invoke God or religious themes, as Frankenstein so rapturously does in Whale’s film, Piccinini created one spectacular work: an ape-like Madonna composed of an amalgamation of silicone, fiberglass, and hair, which seamlessly appears to reconcile the ageold battle of creation versus evolution in one biological entity. Clutching a suckling child to her breast, the human-anthropoid demonstrates that family bonds run deep. Piccinini distinguishes herself from Frankenstein, alleging that he was a bad parent and that by contrast, she is invested in the well-being of her works, which she considers her children. Moving from fabrication into the realm of dissection, preservation, and transmutation, Gunther von Hagens preserves and poses human bodies to depict a variety of historical or contemporary narratives. Founder and creator of the controversial Body Worlds exhibitions and Plastinarium, where bodies are treated for display with acetone and liquid polymers, von Hagens has performed public autopsies in the U.K., founded an anatomical institute in Germany, and popularized anatomy as art worldwide.

One of von Hagens’ more controversial projects from 2003 involves a plan to freeze, prepare, and then redesign a donor’s body. The whole process was to be broadcast on British television in the documentary Futurehuman. The donor, von Hagens hoped, would be “a landmark human being…[who would] pave the way for a future life with a more healthy, capable and longer lasting body.” “This is a serious, scientific and educational exercise, albeit a provocative one,” stated Nick Curwin, executive producer of the team that planned to film the project. 14

The subject would have been a terminally ill patient who would be interviewed on the ways in which their body served and also failed them, and their redesign would presumably have taken into account this testimonial. This new ideal human might also possess features, von Hagens predicted, such as spare vital organs, an increased number of ribs to give better protection to those organs, backward-bending knees to lessen wear and tear on the joints, and a trachea and esophagus that are switched (to avoid choking), and a back-up heart. “Our donor [would] go down in history, preserved forever as what might have been if evolution had got us right.”15 After sparking considerable controversy, however, von Hagens’ ambitious body modification project was canceled shortly after it was launched when the body donor withdrew consent.

 

Conclusion

Remarkably, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein prophesized technological developments of a future era and inspired new hybrid life forms. Though they may not bear the token scars of Frankenstein, these artists nonetheless challenge us to transcend conventional notions of what it means to be human. As cultures evolve and scientists and artists alike embrace innovative technologies as a means to redefine consciousness and life itself, hybridity may no longer be considered negative. Considering that the parameters that define and separate us are ever-evolving, perhaps one day consenting to such boundaries and naming their dangerous border crossings will no longer be necessary.

1. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 203-204.

2. Stelarc, E-mail message to the author, October 9, 2017.

3. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181.

4. Margrit Shildrick, “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’: Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics,” Hypatia 30, no. 1 (2015), 15.

5. Geeta Dayal, “For Extreme Artist Stelarc, Body Mods Hint at Humans’ Possible Future,” Wired, May 2, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/05/stelarc-performance-art/.

6. Tracy Adams and Christine Adams, eds., Female Beauty Systems: Beauty as Social Capital in Western Europe and the United States, Middle Ages to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 242-243.

7. “Posthumanism and Contemporary Art,” Widewalls, October 6, 2016, https://www.widewalls.ch/posthumanism-contemporary-art/.

8. Sharrona Pearl, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 172.

9. Rupert Goldsworthy, Patricia Olynyk: Sensing Terrains (Bruno David Gallery, 2008), 4-5, https://issuu.com/brunodavidgallery/docs/patricia-olynyk_catalog_v3_2009_issuu.

10. Shildrick, “‘Why Should,” 16.

11. Van Badham, “From Graham to the Skywhale: The Unsettling Mutations of Patricia Piccinini,” The Guardian, October 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/07/from-graham-to-the-skywhale-the-unsettling-mutations-ofpatricia-piccinini.

12. Another Life,” La Mois de La Photo, September 1, 2015, http://moisdelaphoto.com/en/artistes/patricia-piccinini/.

13. Donna J. Haraway, “Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture’s Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country” in The Multispecies Salon, ed. Eben Kirksey (Duke University Press, 2014), 249-250.

14. “Body sought to make ‘new human,’” Dawn, September 26, 2002, https://www.dawn.com/news/58872

15. Goldsworthy, Patricia Olynyk, 5.

Patricia Olynyk

Patricia Olynyk is an artist, writer and Director of the Graduate School of Art and Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis. Formerly appointed in Art & Design and the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan, her work appropriates medical imaging technologies and scientific tropes to address the cultural instability of interpretation. Olynyk co-directs NY LASERs, art and science salons for Leonardo/ISAST with Ellen K. Levy in New York to promote dialogue at the highest level among artists, scientists, scholars, and historians. Her works have been exhibited internationally at venues including the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., the Saitama Modern Art Museum, Japan, and the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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