my body: a wunderkramer
For my port-ject, I used Shelley Jackson’s My Body: A Wunderkammer. Jackson characterizes the piece as a “semi-autobiographical hypertext combining text and image in an exploration of the body.” Jackson uses hypertext and woodcut black and white images of the body to explore the connection “between human identity and the [body].” I took this broad exploration to be the central essence of the piece; through personal, intimate text reflections on the body, we can begin to explore how the body is integrally connected to how we construct our sense of self. Atop this, the element of “cyberspace” is layered: we experience My Body via a screen, clicking and scrolling, not via a physical, tangible product. How does electronic space – another locus where we construct sense of self – interact with the physicality of the body, and influence the self-body connection?
Jackson’s work explored the body and mind of a character that is simultaneously realistic and mythic. At times, the text is entirely familiar, dealing with the dissociation and confusion regarding the suddenly unfamiliar body that comes with puberty (on developing breasts: “I was filled with an objectless fury. My breasts were making me not me (it was not me to walk, or guard my chest, or keep myself covered up). My mother and I went to a department store to shop for bras. It was humiliating even to stand there.”) This is a familiar, realistic character of a middle-school tom-girl navigating her changing body, and questioning how changes in the body may (or may not) influences changes in her sense of overall self.
However, at other moments, the piece is more reminiscent of Patchwork Girl, one of Jackson’s other major works, which re-imagines Frankenstein with a female monster. We read text about scales, tails, oversized hands, hulking shoulders, or about her feet: “Feet are alien, like a hoof or a wing.” Throughout the piece, there are several of these instances that describe not just bodily dissonance, but push it into the realm of mythic and magical, that this body has truly monstrous moments a la the Patchwork Girl’s monstrous form.
I ported the hypertext and image based work into an interactive video format. I created separate video segments for several of the body parts explored in Jackson’s piece: body linked to arms, stomach, and back, which in turn were linked to hands, legs, and chest respectively. Using the online platform Treehouse from Interlude, I was able to link all of the videos so that users have the option to navigate between videos by clicking through the different nodes.
I chose to use an interactive video format because I wanted to further explore the cyberspace-body relationship. I deliberately tried to create visuals that had the illusion of skin but pushed it into the realm of unfamiliarity, this thing that is clearly a body (an arm, a breathing belly, legs) but ascended into the unfamiliar. I used several patterns (especially in stomach and legs) that evoked a pattern very similar to close up images of skin but manipulated them in a way that also pointed to the type of aesthetics we heavily associate with “cyberspace” – bright, oscillating “computer” colors. All of the source material is my own, including base images and video that were manipulated using After Effects. While this style of interposing images with the bodily form is a technique I use often, I always look forward to the chance to experiment with it and perfect it. For this, I shot new footage in the green screen room and put each green screen segment through a process of keying and track matting. Each body filler started as completely regular videos – a close-up video of lights flickering or close-up of tree branches – which I then manipulated with attention given to shape, speed, color, and movement.
My piece follows several lines of questioning regarding the body-self-cyberspace triangulation. How is the tangible body affected by the way we construct identity in non-tangible, online space? How does the way we think about the self – the kind of intense self-reflection on the body that happens in Jackson’s work – change when we spend more and more time in non-physical space? Are we continually dissociating ourselves further from the body due to use of online space – similar to the dissociated feeling Jackson’s main character feels? Or do we ascend past issues we may have with our monstrous forms when we construct identity primarily online?
What kind of self exists in the liminal space between our physical bodies and the web pages we are refract, examine, and explore our selves through?
In her work on the posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles explains “[i]n the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (7).
Through the use of these visuals exploring the space between familiar/unfamiliar, realistic/mythic, organic/cybernetic, I realized what I was really constructing was Donna Haraway’s cyborg: the “cybernetic organic, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (291). The cyborg, too, grapples with concepts of space: “[the] boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us.” (294).
Despite being a work that reside online, Jackson seems to heavily value the relationship between self and body. Many text sections go beyond visible body parts and muse on “constituent organs, fluids, connective tissues, and other parts.” During once section whose page is labeled “tie-in products,” she writes: “I am selling small vials of pee, female ejaculate and spit to libraries, collectors and speculative investors.” The secretions and fluids, the messy reality of the body, the often monstrous-feeling vessels we carry our self within – in Jackson’s work they were clearly integral to her storytelling and she clearly places value between that physical body/self connection.
However, in my port of the project, I did intend to challenge that connection. In my version of My Body, the majority of the text I ported from Jackson’s version is not actually legible. The ruminations of that physical body/self that she heavily explored are obstructed by the presences of the cyber-visuals.
Ultimately, we have to ask if the online spaces we use to explore and maintain our identities erode or enhance that physical body/self connection.
If Jackson’s work explored the woman, my work explores the cyborg.
Based on the thoughts laid out above, incorporating post-human and Haraway’s cyborg into the mix, we can also apply digital literature theories. If we refer back to Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s essay, the “Five Elements of Digital Literature”, there are 5 ways that we can interact with digital art: data, process, interaction, surface, and context.
The text data between the two pieces remained the same — however, I added visual data to achieve my ends of creating commentary on the self/cyberspace relationship. User interact with both pieces in a similar way by clicking through environments, however Jackson’s isreadwhile mine is watched. (This distinction itself is important: I associate reading more-so with analogue spaces, like codex books, and watching with cybernetic spaces, like video sharing platforms and social media environments).
My surface and context refer to what I believe to be salient identity issues of today regarding self/cyberspace, and how the physical body is often cut out of that connection. Jackson’s work was created in 1997 – a time when cyberspace was thought of, but not nearly as heavily integrated into daily life as it is today. My port is the extrapolation (/visualization, due to the video properties) of Jackson’s work into the body of modern issues.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. N.p.: n.p., 2009. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.