The Zoned Body

January 29th, 2012

Some questions linger, are mutagenic and multiplicative; their purpose is not clear, their possibilities not fully explored. The “Digital Surgeon” project from Œ No. 3 “Cyborgs and Monsters” addresses a cluster of such questions: how will men and women appear to each other in the future? Will virtual augmentations contribute to their freedom, or will they be used to entertain/soothe them into a kind of semi-conscious perceptual subjugation? Could the inner, autonomic processes of the body be interpreted to provide clinical information, or externalized as colorful communication tools—signifiers of moods, emotions, disease? And how will our real-time, real-world virtual doppelgängers (we might call them the “Internet of the body”) interact with the increasing ubiquitousness of the Internet of things? How will space and the body mutually and responsively change and adapt to each other?

To begin expounding on these questions—preliminarily laid out in the “Digital Surgeon’s User Manual”—I wrote a micro-essay/project description which, for now, focuses on body modifications as a means of expression and control (exercise of ownership?) over the body. Of course, the AR nature of the project excludes the incredibly interesting and ethically tortuous field of functional body modifications—increases in our functional range, from magnetic implants and exoskeletons to meat-and-blood wings. By merely looking at the body as perceived through the distorting lens of optoelectronic devices, however, we might realistically assume a leveled playing field, one where socially relevant technology keeps being within the reach of most. Anyway, here it is (and you can find more images in the issue or here):

If the ability to modify something is a mark of ownership (you re-model your own house, not your neighbor’s), when it comes to the human body things get complicated. Clearly, we can shave, tattoo or pierce it, but if more invasive or unorthodox modifications are desired—the surgical equivalent of tearing down walls or punching windows—our volition proves insufficient; we must seek the approval of experts—medical, legal and psychiatric—to ‘clear’ our desires into agency.

It turns out that, like buildings, our bodies too are ‘zoned,’ and the ‘master plan’ they adhere to is continually tested against public opinion and mainstream ideas of beauty, dignity and belonging. And it is precisely the arbitrary ethics of these shared efforts that stipulate that, for instance, breast augmentation is a more acceptable procedure than, say, growing a bump in the middle of the forehead.

In the physical world, the catalog of available elective surgeries is edited not by subjective wishes, or even medical constraints, but current fashions. But in the augmented city of the near future, where physical and virtual objects merge and are experienced as one, this need not be the case.

Digital Surgeon is a speculative Augmented Reality software set in this not-so-distant future, and aimed precisely at re-gaining control over the body as perceived in immersive environments. Firstly, the user’s body is scanned in great detail, generating a 3D baseline model for the mapping of surgeries. Secondly, the user selects a surgery or group of surgeries and tests it in front of the mirror. Lastly, the surgery is broadcasted to optoelectronic lenses activated by proximity, and computed in the viewer’s field of vision in real-time (beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder).

Surgeries can run under five distinct modalities: the cosmetic mode allows users to enhance their own appearance by modifying the 3D mesh associated with their bodies, uploading new digital parts, and overlaying filters. The plasticity mode curates a compilation of time-sensitive operations, challenging the permanence and irreversibility of traditional cosmetic surgery and providing users with a plastic, durational flesh. Metamorphic cycles run algorithms based on pre-defined time schedules, tagged to GPS coordinates—or cities, buildings, rooms—or activated by specific viewers. The controversial demiurge mode reverses the software’s aim by assigning digital surgeries to others. The invisibility cloak mode allows users to mask selected parts of their body with live video from other parts (grafting) or with images of the surroundings, thus seemingly disappearing. The translucent body mode translates electrophysiological information collected by sensors into colors and patterns, allowing users to visualize the complex, ecological dimension of the body and its autonomic biological processes.

Digital Surgeon promotes a flexible idea of beauty, proposes new electronic frontiers for the (perceived) body and generates a novel kind of real-time portraiture—one where painter and thing painted coalesce into one. It imagines men and women capable of (re)presenting their bodies with ever-growing plasticity—unbound by the prescriptive tastes of society.

Endogenous Fashion

September 20th, 2011


I have been meaning to post about Bart Hess‘s video “Grow on You” for a while now. The video conjures up an ambiguous dimension between chicken pox and high fashion, disease and design. It elicits thoughts about something we may call pharmaceutical or endogenous fashion: fashion that is swallowed as pills and surfaces to the skin from the inside, exuded, sweat out; fashion that emerges when you get goosebumps, or when you blush; fashion that itches and burns, tickles and  swells. It is not uninteresting trying to imagine a world without clothing, one without the words “skirt”, “trousers”, “hat” or “glove”; one where warmth, protection and comfort are not dependent on exterior, foreign agents, but grown within and through the body itself.

Metadress on Steroids

November 28th, 2010

A few days ago I came across Robert Hodgin’s amazing and strange videos. Hacking a Kinect with CinderBlock, Hodgin transforms the information gathered by the Kinect camera and sensor into unsettling and surreal digital augmentations. Beyond its weird beauty, this video strikes me as symptomatic of several important steps toward an immersive mixed reality.
(1) As much current experimentation demonstrates, the re-purposed full-body 3-D motion capture and facial/voice recognition capabilities of Kinect can reach far beyond gaming and will eventually replace control devices in most human-machine interactions. Johnny Mnemonic-style intuitive gestural interfaces begin here and now. (2) Kinect translates the real world into digital data maps that can be used for real time augmentations. It is a tool for recording, interpreting and digitally reshaping reality. (3) The colorful electronic fatsuit worn by Hodgin represents a germinal stage of personal augmentation in AR, a first instance of metadress – the digital dress extension theorized in Œ No.1 ‘Augmented Selves’.
If formulating metadress I predominantly focused on mapping digital garments onto the human body, these images suggest a more radical approach, one geared not at clothing the body but at transforming it: metadress as cosmetic surgery. The human flesh becomes a plastic medium digitally sculpted for the presentation of self. Subjects may enlarge their eyes and lips, smoothen their chins, erase moles and retouch noses, but also multiply eyes, magnify cheek bones, animate foreheads and so on. I am reminded of the work of French artist ORLAN. The surgical operations she performs on her body embed the skin with intentionality, thus defying the inadequateness of the flesh in embodying who we really are:

Skin is deceiving – in life, one only has one’s skin – there is a bad exchange in human relations because one never is what one has. I have the skin of an angel but I am a jackal… the skin of a crocodile but I am a poodle, the skin of a black person but I am white, the skin of a woman but I am a man; I never have the skin of what I am. There is no exception to the rule because I am never what I have.1

Like ORLAN, subjects in the Augmented City will perform digital surgeries on themselves in an attempt to bridge the gap between exterior and interior, between how they appear to the world and how they perceive themselves.  In this perspective, metadress isn’t just fashion; it is the very flesh of our digitally redesigned bodies.

1. Eugenie Lemoine Luccioni quoted in David Moos, Memories of Being: ORLAN’s Theater of the Self (1996), (accessed November 26th 2010).