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Biotech at the Barricades|
November 11, 1998
Is there still such a thing as the artistic avant-garde? If you're like me, you're tempted to agree with recent assessments of the end of the radical in art and literature. But if the avant-garde is finished in painting and poetry, is there a chance that it will migrate to an entirely different context? Technoculture would seem to be the next logical place. The open-source operating system Linux, for instance, with its iconoclastic ethos and affection for conspiracy, shares some of the subversive, utopian spirit that animated Dada and Surrealism in the early part of the century.
The problem with a technocultural avant-garde, however, is that the art of code has already been thoroughly harnessed in the service of commerce. No self-respecting avant-gardist is going to submit to commonplace bourgeois concerns, much less to the whims of venture capitalists. And even technoculture, recent as it is, seems a little familiar, a little shopworn, insufficiently bizarre to merit comparison with such choice items as the Surrealist debate over whether orgasm preceded ejaculation or the Italian Futurists' campaign to replace pasta with dishes like "Veal Fuselage."
The twenty-first century is supposed to be the age of biotechnology, and the way things are going (if we stretch our conception of the avant-garde just a bit), this may be the new home of radical art and ideas.
If there is such a thing as a "biotech avant-garde," its supreme provocateurs are to be found in something called the transhumanism movement. Transhumanism's basic premise is that biotech will eventually enable us to shed the mortal coil and ascend to a higher evolutionary plane -- or, at the very least, make inhabiting a body significantly less agonizing and fleeting than it is now. Plenty of scientists, along with numerous science-fiction junkies and devotees of weirdness, have latched onto the movement's chestnuts, including molecular nanotechnology (submicroscopic machines that can "build" at the atomic level), cryonics, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence. The core assumption is that if enough biotech is thrown at human mortality, living forever will eventually become a realistic option. One day we may even lose the "bio" and become strictly "tech."
Most of transhumanism's blue-sky rhetoric is of the "just you wait" variety, but the movement has already produced some art -- and plenty of manifestos. The most feverish of these is from David Pearce, the movement's William S. Burroughs, whose The Hedonistic Imperative argues that the future's avant-garde will look back on our current level of cognitive awareness as a "zombified trance-state." More-rational musings can be found on transhumanism's philosophical front, where serious consideration is given to the probability of human extinction in the next century (and to the disturbing absence of interstellar species).
Unlike the images produced at the academic epicenter of the biotech revolution -- where surreal genetic mysteries and lush abstract mutations are treated less as art than as documentation -- transhumanism's Web sphere is crammed with pictures that seek to interpret the movement's dreamworld prognostications. One of the movement's gurus, Anders Sandberg, has crossed over into gallery spaces with art that recalls Dali and Magritte and Escher. Natasha Vita More, sponsor of several art-oriented sites and a transhumanist self-promoter extraordinaire, has set herself up as the movement's buffed-up femme fatale, a superhuman object of desire combining Madonna, Schwarzenegger, and Marcel Duchamp. Perhaps most striking is the degree to which transhumanist art takes itself very seriously indeed, expecting to function as the visual companion to the movement's avant-garde theorizing.
Of course, it's not hard to write off transhumanism's obsession with consciousness-uploads, interstellar voyages, and the "re-calibration of the pleasure centers" as the latest installment in the hunt for both the Fountain of Youth and UFOs. (At least they haven't got around -- yet -- to advocating time travel.) Science may have a long way to go before depositing a clone in every closet. But transhumanism's artistic impulses share the ideology outlined by the granddaddies of aesthetic provocation. "I have had a great desire," André Breton wrote in the Manifesto of Surrealism, "to show forbearance to scientific musing." The laboratories of the next avant-garde might turn out to be more literal than we could have guessed.
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Matthew DeBord is a contributing editor at FEED.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Helix image (top) by Anders Sandberg. "The Aesthetics of Memetic Evolution" (bottom), by Natasha Vita More, founder Transhumanist Art and Extropic Art Movement.