New York

“The Final Frontier”

The frontier examined in this exhibition is both an internal and external one: that of the body as it meets and dissolves into the technological. It is becoming clear that the things we have thought of as integral and unique to the body no longer are, as technological prostheses continue to amplify and distend its properties. Genetic and cosmetic selection can turn out legions of identically desirable chickens, tomatoes, and pectorals; true love can be found in the virtual meeting places of the Net.

To renegotiate what counts as human is not just to accept technological innovation; it also involves reconsidering the distance between humans and other living things. Part of what was disquieting about “The Final Frontier” was that it marked both the emptiness of places once sacred to the “human” and its obverse—the unexpected places in which these sacred qualities now appear. In the show’s controversial centerpiece, San Guinefort, 1991, by José Antonio Hernández-Diez, the preserved carcass of a dog lay inside a glass case, apparently sleeping. You could touch the dog by reaching inside the case, your hands encased in black rubber gloves like those used by biological researchers to avoid contagion. In seeming contrast to this scientificity, a text of the lore of a Medieval dog saint gave the piece the feel of a reliquary. Rather than simplemindedly protesting the dumb sacrifice of laboratory animals, San Guinefort seems to invest technology with the odor of sanctity, and the animal with sacrificial power.

This and other works in “The Final Frontier” allow us to contemplate death through our commerce with machines. Do we die to our own bodies to the extent that we live through prosthetics and virtual extensions, or do we now simply inhabit a different place? David Kelleran’s Dialectic of Desire, Series #31, 1993, poignantly captures this quandary in photographs of a passionate E-mail romance carried out via the feeble glow of the p.c. Fred Tomaselli’s Spatial Drive, 1993, a stellar panorama made of white pills embedded in resin, evokes another sort of cosmic travel that can be achieved without even leaving home. An interactive “world” by Softworlds, Inc. (Janine Cirincione, Brian D’Amato, Michael Ferraro, and Michael Spertus), The Sacrifice Game, 1992–93, tests the human fascination with death and transformation, using the same principle that underlies destructive/reconstructive video games and toys. The game, based on Mayan Popol Vuh mythology, advises, “Your goal is to die as often and as nobly as possible.” To negotiate the many deaths with dignity, a player must efface his or her own impulses to preserve life and human form.

Oddly, the longer the participant in The Sacrifice Game plays at death, the closer he or she actually comes to being disembodied, as each incarnation is more abstract than the previous one. As such it might be a metaphor for one of the issues this show raises. “The Final Frontier” suggests that as our selves become more diffused in the technosocial world, we will discover new “material” incarnations in surprising places.

Laura U. Marks