This article was crowdfunded by our readers
Tokyo, 1956. During the second Gutai art exhibition, Atsuko Tanaka used a kimono made of light bulbs, fluorescent lights, neon lights and electric cables painted in primary colours. Tanaka’s set up followed the ritual of the traditional Japanese marriage ceremony. The astonishment of the audience was more than evident, not only because of the use she made of electronics, but also because her work was a breakthrough in a society in which women had to be placed in the background without departure from traditional roles. In all senses, ‘Electric dress’ was a pioneering performance, not only for the use of technology, but also for her way of understanding fashion, gender and tradition.
Although visually the Atsuko suit (a clear example of expanded sculpture) was imposing due to the amalgamation of light bulbs and cables, it was quite heavy since it was made of a metal frame, and somewhat dangerous (at that time the bulbs were still incandescent and very fragile, which could cause burns and wounds if worn for a long time). All this caused that the artist’s movements were quite limited and robotic. However, this work was germinal for a whole series of artists that mix performance and technology; And this today, due to the advances in the field, is in full boom and development.
What would Atsuko Kanaka have been able to do if she had known systems like the LilyPad plates by Arduino that allow sewing a last generation computer in socks? Or had systems such as mapping and laser beams developed at the time? We cannot know, but there are artists who have taken over and surprise us with innovative actions that certainly mark a now in the history of art.
Alexander Whitley, for example, surprises us with innovative choreographies where (sometimes prosthetic) bodies move with light. The same light that emerged from Atsuko, now appears without the artifice of the light bulb that produces it. In this case, the lighting goes from being a complement that highlights the artist, to be an additional protagonist. The performers chase, dance and are crossed by a solid light that happens to be an extension of their own bodies, creating a unique and intoxicating ecosystem.
Mona Hatoum, has taken this technology a step further, showing us not only the exterior of the body, but also the bowels. From the hand of science, she used medical instruments with which she could directly observe the interior of the body. In Corps étranger, (1994) using the technique of endoscopy, the artist allows the observation of the interior of her digestive tract, her reproductive and excretory apparatus. When one enters this white cylinder in which the work is projected on the floor, as it was displayed in at the Tate Modern’s retrospective last year, it feels invasive of the artist’s intimacy to a limit that has not been trespassed before. The boundaries of the unknown, the sheer scale of the piece and the feeling that something so intimate should not be shown, disturbs the viewer, engulfs it and permanently removes it from other, friendlier visions of the inner body to which we are accustomed.
Perhaps the one who has brought the relationship between performance and art to its extreme has been the Australian-Cypriot artist Sterlac. In 1976 he had himself installed a third robotic hand, which he carried for several months until he was able to develop the ability to write with three hands at a time. Subsequently, he decided to place a functional ear on his arm, through cosmetic surgery. In this hand-to-hand between performance and technology, Sterlac was transformed into a half man, half cyborg hybrid. Sterlac, like other artists, use technology as an element of a dystopian society, where the obsolescence of the body itself must be redesigned by the advances provided by science.
Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca’s work, one of ‘Fura Del Baus’ founders, is a mixture between the work of Sterlac and Whitley. He creates mechatronic performances where robotics, theatre and art go hand in hand. In this case, technology is used as an exoskeleton that puts the artist’s body fully at the viewers disposal. Previously, the audience could engage with the act, not just as a mere spectator (as in the case of the famous ‘Rhythm 0’ by Marina Abramovic) but not be inside it. In this case all the muscles and bones and, therefore, the movements of the artist are controlled by the public. The artist is shown as someone who is vulnerable due to technology.
Basically, the work of Antúnez Roca is not very different from the work that Atsuko presented in Tokyo. In both cases, an electronic exoskeleton serves as a barrier between the artist and the public. This one at the same time presents and dramatises it. In both cases technology warns us of the possibility of a dystopia in which bodies are vulnerable to light, wires and the desires of someone external who has decided our future. Atsuko Tanaka imagined in the fifties how the future would be through technology; Sixty years later, contemporary performers continue to visualise a similar future and, despite the latest advances, the essence is the same.