Ars Electronica 2013, Neuromancer and Physical Theatre

As my postings have become less regular and rather fragmented in their content, this reflects something of a struggle that I will try to describe in this post.

To start with I will describe some things that I have actually been doing, and thinking about, instead of writing this blog.

I’ve been trying to read the book  Total Recall : The Evolution of Memory – Ars Electronica 2013 for several months /weeks. It’s a book about the annual Ars Electronic festival held in Austria. The blurb on the back of the book states that total recall is the theme of the 2013 Festival and that it is a quest for perfection in recollection. It features the work of neuroscientists and computer engineers, artists and philosophers about research insights interpretations and vision of future where everything is still able to memory. It aims to analyse what memory actually is and the relevant remembrance plays to individuals and society.

I was excited when I discovered this book because it aims to demonstrate all the areas that I claimed to be interested in in my research proposal. It’s a huge book with a correspondingly large website which covers an enormous number of wide-ranging works which address the topic of memory and technology.

I’ve really struggled with trying to make notes from the book, but I have, and some of them I will post on the blog separately for my own reference in the future. Many of the works are also accessible on the website and this does tend, through video documentation, to bring them alive a little bit.

Instead of making the topic more exciting to me reading the book has contributed to a feeling of confusion, indecision and disorientation that has grown in the last few weeks since we stopped having our regular Skype chat with the group.

Many of the works featured include using biotechnology to create works of art. This is taken me back to my original profession rooted in biology, now over 30 years ago.

When I worked in plant breeding, plant tissue culture and genetic engineering were in their infancy and the company I worked for had the rather dubious accolade of appearing on the TV programme “Tomorrow’s World ” for its groundbreaking and innovative work. Part of me feels that I should be excited by the way that the use of biotechnology is described in these works and the imaginative ways in which it is used to make “Artwork”. Many of the works I read about have struck me as being very clever, very innovative, and often quite exciting. I would like to see them for real, and hope that this might have made a difference to the way that they made me feel.  The concepts covered in many of the works are sensitive and touch upon the personal. Some of them involve interactivity and collaboration bringing human contact to the work.

But still they mostly leave me cold.

References to Walter Benjamin are used in one of the papers “Book burning, Surveillance and Interaction” by Wir sind heir, on page 125. He states that

“Benjamin describes direct physical experiences being replaced by information”

I think this is why I feel that, at least on reading the of documentation of, rather than having the direct experience of Total Recall, cold and distanced from the work produced.

I am not sure if I feel uninspired to return to my “biological and botanical roots” because of this or because I feel overwhelmed by and distanced from the technology that now exists to make this work possible.

It is ironic that having chosen originally to leave that professional world behind, I now encounter it again in a different form. This example of recurrence and reiteration is something that, funnily enough happens over and over again certainly in my life. Maybe it is this aspect of repetition, re-iteration and memory experience that could serve as a focus for my work.  

Alongside reading ” The Evolution Of Memory”, I have also been reading “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, the seminal cyberpunk novel written in 1984. This is a fascinating novel telling the story of a computer hacker in a dystopian future.


As Ed Cumming in the Guardian Monday 28th July. states

In Neuromancer, published 30 years ago this month, Gibson popularised the idea of cyberspace: a “consensual hallucination” created by millions of connected computers. This network can be “jacked” into, while in the real world characters flit from Tokyo to the Sprawl, an urban agglomeration running down the east coast of the US. Gritty urban clinics carry out horrendous sounding plastic surgery. A junkie-hacker, Case, is coaxed into hacking the system of a major corporation. What once seemed impossibly futuristic is now eerily familiar.”

Reading this amazing book has been quite a challenge as Gibson’s vision, and the vocabulary he uses, needed some  persistence until the world he has created gradually emerges.

There are several concepts which I’m enjoying and which are helping me to see cyberspace, whatever that has come to mean now, as a geographical location which I access still very tentatively. For me the “virtual” world of cyberspace and the real world are still separate entities. In Gibson’s world there is continuous constant merging and separations.

The role of the physical body and its purpose is not really evident except as an agent to employ the technology which exists. Neurology is the overriding physiological function which Gibson describes and even then the human body is simply used as a tool for a machine to use whereby the sensations of others and artificially created sensations are experienced  by characters in the book.

Eventually, in chapter 12 there is a reference to emotion, at which point the protagonist, Case feels at first rage, then an emotion which is ‘warm’. He tries to deny this

“Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat is talking, ignore it.”

P 181.

This separation of neurological sensation described during the book, felt in response to location, visual stimuli provided by holograms and other virtual and unreal phenomena, and emotion is very interesting. The characters are physically human but have been altered through extensive and creative plastic surgery, organ transplants and other interferences with biological agents to their nervous systems.

They operate, function and think in ways which are intrinsically “human” and are contrasted in the book to artificial intelligences which function as CD-ROM or RAM. But the qualities of their interactions are always mediated by some form of technology which has become part of their bodies or minds. The boundaries are blurred and the interface is blurry.

The book constantly plays with the real and the not real, the physical and metaphysical, the interfaces

Whilst reading the book my son told me of a friend of his who has had recent heart surgery implanting a part created from 3-D modelling as a replacement of the original section.

As my son constantly “jacks in” to cyberspace, and explores the geography of various matrices, oceans, continents and Archipelago that I can barely imagine, his universe let alone his world, is very different from mine.

The geography of the world in Neuromancer and cyberspace have extended my thoughts beyond the universal which is almost visible on a starry night! It really does alter concepts of dimension and space which, maybe are accessible through mind-altering drugs and I have experienced once, briefly in deep meditation, but otherwise are only tentatively accessible in dreams.

Interestingly I have had increasingly vivid and bizarre dreams since reading the book, the most disturbing was one where my brain had become infected with not one, but two tapeworms , which had taken up most of the space occupied by neurological tissue.The symptoms I experience were due to their presence and surgery required to remove them!

I was actually quite relieved and happy to have this explanation of some of the more bizarre sensations I experience almost daily as the surgery would relieve me of them!

I will have to read more about digital geography and the Aborigine and other cultures of time and memory following this reading. Reading  Neuromancer has developed my understanding of the impact of ‘cyberspace’ and digital technology in a way that the works in the book of Ars Elecrtronica did not.

Maybe this is because, and not despite, the fact that it is a work of fiction written three decades ago. It provides more of an insight into the way the digital and the human interface than most of the artworks describe.

To me there is a feeling in Ars Electronica of observation, analysis, detached exploration and in some ways categorisation similar to they demonstrated during the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. Voyages over the sea to unknown continents, explorers bringing back of artefacts, the heads of slaughtered creatures, and the attitude of needing command over the unknown.

As a work of fiction Gibson’s Neuromancer is free from this control, with the ‘ hyperspace’  we have created existing in its own right and without separation from the physical world we experience. This providea different type of ‘absorbed’  and in the case of Neuromancer, corrupt and distorted exploration.

In stark and distinct contrast to both these works, last night I went to see The National Theatre Live Production of “John” at my local cinema. This production is by DV8, a physical theatre company, and even reproduced digitally streamed from the Southbank demonstrated such raw emotional and physical human sensation and experience that I left exhausted, muscles aching, as if I had been making the movements I witnessed.


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