Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow ominvores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.
Science fiction is an art of prophecy, a process of historicizing the present, a reflection of an ongoing present as past, and a refraction of future permutations. The imaginary, symbolic, and real become interwoven through a process of cataclysmic and concomitant confrontation. Science fiction reveals that the systems of fantasy and reality are not as far apart as previously imagined. Traditional binary divides real/artificial, original/copy, Illusion, once a mirrored distance of the real, has become complete disillusion, an immediate concomitance of real and fantasy where virtual reality has rather become what Zizek describes as the ‘reality of the virtual.’
The science fiction noir film, Blade Runner (based off of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), prophesizes an imminent dystopian future where a class of near-human artificially manufactured beings, replicants (called androids in the original book), have become illegal on Earth. A special unit of investigator/bounty hunters, “blade runners,” is charged with the identification and elimination (retirement) of these simulated humans. One blade runner, Rick Deckard, is brought back out of his own retirement to assist in the difficult task of identifying a new breed of replicants from humans. The only tool to discern this difference is the Voight Kampff test, a series of questions that measure one’s emotional responses to find whether or not the being has empathy, a quality replicants lack. The blade runners must sublimate their own capacity for empathy as they destroy these beings that otherwise appear human, requiring that they regard the replicants as wholly objects. It seems that these replicants, with their artificial memories, are often not aware of their own status as fabrications, they are “more human than human” and exemplify a profound alterity. As Deckard confronts a replicant who believes herself to be human, he realizes that his own memories may be contrived. What results is a complete immersion in the simulacra.
Jean Baudrillard speaks of a twist in the relationship between the real and its reproduction. The process of reproducibility is pushed to the limit. As a result, "the real is not what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced . . . the hyperreal . . . which is entirely in simulation."
Simulation and simulacra
R for Replicant, a recent exhibition at the Wattis Insitute for Contemporary Arts, deploys a discussion of the replicants as a means to not only question notions of reality and simulation, but also to deconstruct the various ways artists extend, invert, and undermine these operations. Curated by Xiaoyu Weng, the exhibition is the first in a yearly series that reorganizes a selection of works from the 101 Collection, an inspired accumulation of artworks focusing on artists who live and work on the West Coast operated by the ArtNow Foundation. As Blade Runner is set in 2019 Los Angeles, it is appropriate that a show featuring West Coast artists would use the narrative as a starting point. There have been numerous texts and exhibitions that have explored the role fiction, simulation, projection, and utopia play in the cultural-consciousness of the Pacific frontier, and this show extends this dialogue. For the curator, the replicant is not merely a model of a simulacral world gone awry, but a means for understanding the ways epistemologies and subjectivities are formed:
“If the replicant is not merely a simulation of a human but rather a being that experiences an alternative reality, then perhaps images do not provide replicas of reality, or fake realities, but alternative realities that might or might not be experienced."
The objects presented therefore are not to be judged on their ability to access reality, nor of fiction, but to compromise these very boundaries. The curator offers the Voight Kampff test as a model for how to encounter the exhibition.
R for Replicant
The only works that explicitly address the curator’s source is Ron Terada’s Maiko series. Terada extracted a key image from the frenetic urban environment in Blade Runner’s L.A: a seductive image of a Japanese Maiko (an apprentice Geisha) that alternates with a Coca Cola logo on a billboard. In Terada’s images, the artist photographed a series of girls of European descent dressed as Maikos on a black background. In this show, the role of the image in Blade Runner is elaborated; the photos point not only to their source, but also to the entire cultural and visual climate featured in the movie. L.A. at this time is a dense and frenetic market place, a schizophrenic pastiche of different geographies, classes, times, cultures, signs, and symbols. The works serve as both a comment on orientalism in the West and the reciprocal and growing Asian cultural influence across the Pacific. The simulation of a specific cultural symbol paired with the unexpected dissonance in the features of the subjects creates an unnerving image, one of Masahiro Mori's "uncanny valley" where something is amiss. This is not a sarcastic comment on authenticity, but rather a critical reflection on the imaginary myths reproduced through cultural circulation (the Maiko is contrived, a fantasy, an image, to begin with). The works demonstrate a truly postmodern social condition, where all signs, drained of their original significance, can be exchanged, appropriated and commingled. As the curator reminds us, this exhibition has a Debordian critique: social relations are mediated by images within the spectacle, and the replicants serve as a model for this slippage. What comes into question is not necessarily where images and reality meet, but rather the social and cultural operations that efface and nullify this divide.
Another work that is critical of representative regimes is Ian Wallace’s Study for My Heroes In The Street (Stan), 1986-92. The work comes from a long-running series of works produced by Wallace that juxtapose factual urban and figurative photography with monochromatic painting, exposing not only the tension between abstract painting and representative photography, but also the limits of images to represent the real. Usually reconciled on one canvas, as photo-laminate juxtaposed with acrylic paint, the Study conversely features a photograph collaged with silkscreened canvas patches, offering the audience a rare opportunity to see Wallace’s procedure in action. His vernacular comes with a criticality of the urban environment and the role of modernity in the production of subjectivity. In this context, the hero (who is actually another Vancouver artist, Stan Douglas) becomes a noir-ish archetype, engaged as much in the re-examination of his individual will as in the investigation of the modern world. But for Wallace, the claims of truthful representation found in both painting and photography are long eroded, and the lapse in vision produced by the patches emphasize the role substitution and obscuration play in our perceptual and subjective processes.
Many works in the show play with cinematic themes to elaborate on questions of fantasy and reproduction, including Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, 1971 – 1973 (a series of 51 postcards of boots crossing the continent), James Welling’s Stowe, 2006 (a photo of an odd green stage curtain), Colter Jacobson’s Victory at Sea (Phenakistoscopes), 2007 (a duo of simple proto-cinematic optical illusion machines that agglomerate distinct drawings of sailors into one animated image), and Rodney Graham’s Dance!!!!!, 2008 (a massive lightbox diptych of a Western scene). Cinema derives its power through the duplicity of perceptual mechanisms: a persistence of vision that retains the trace of an image and then fills in the shadowy gaps between the frames, deciphering the communication. The replicants in Blade Runner construct their lives in a similar way: from disparate implanted memories they produce a cohesive life story through which to identify.
Graham’s Dance!!!!! flaunts the ability of technological simulation to invert the normal order of things. The image stages a cliché Western situation in a saloon where one man shoots at the foot of another, ordering him to dance. Upon closer inspection, however it is revealed that the humorous Graham himself is clicking his heels in midair, unaffected by the threat. The artist’s simulated levitation divulges the trickery involved in image production, reiterated in the subtle dissonance between the expected image and the one before us.
Bisecting the gallery space along an angled wall, Mark Soo’s That's That's Alright Alright Mama Mama, 2008, also plays with this doubling by presenting a large diptych of 3D images. A re-creation of the record studio that recorded Elvis’ first hit, the blue and red images stand out with the assistance of classic 3D glasses. Like Graham, Soo parodies the aims of Hollywood to replicate the real as spectacular novelty. Each of the prints overlay two similar, but subtly different images. Their displacement allows depth; stereoscopic visual parallax allows the image to become more real, almost ghostly. The experience of Soo’s work is both visual and bodily: through its faithful scale, the images take on a phenomenological quality, allowing the viewer immediate access to a moment distant in both time and location. 3D moviemakers purport that these goofy glasses give us a more real encounter of an image. Soo exaggerates this claim, charting the movement of things into images and back again, facilitating alternative historical re-encounter.
For the artists in R for Replicant, it is not so much that simulation allows new narratives to be formed out of an old story that is interesting, but that our understandings are themselves formed through interchangeable myths. Replication is a means of giving distance, of recognizing the contingent artificiality of knowledge itself. Replicants become more human as humans becomes less humane. Replicants, in a sense, become mobile monuments to humanity, mytho-poetic figures that replace a civilization lost. Daniel Joseph Martinez embellishes this procedure, extracting from history characters and circumstances to be reconfigured in a simulated critical encounter. In A MEDITATION ON THE POSSIBILITY OF ROMANTIC LOVE OR WHERE YOU GOIN’ WITH THAT GUN IN YOUR HAND, BOBBY SEALE AND HUEY NEWTON DISCUSS THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN EXPRESSIONISM AND SOCIAL REALITY PRESENT IN HITLER’S PAINTINGS, 2005, the artist renders two key radical Black Panther leaders as abstracted white Carrera marble silhouettes. Taken from their historical place, the simulated and shrunk Seale and Newton are granted maneuverability outside the fields one would expect them to reside (while still bringing with them their politics and own significations)[ii]. By sowing the seeds of a counter-narrative, Martinez questions the recitation of historical moments, the proper forums for historical remembrance, and the equanimity of all things in the postmodern era. Language itself is based upon simulation and transference.
Mario Garcia Torres’ 16 mm looped film, One Minute to Act a Title: Kim Jong-il’s Favorite Movies, 2005, features friends of the artists successively gesturing the titles of the North Korean dictator’s favorite Hollywood movies (like in a game of charades). As in Terada’s work, the work alludes to the globalization of culture. But these simulations are inadequate; they are only literal interpretations of the names, giving little information for the communications to be deciphered in the silence. In their development, movies go from text (script) to bodies (actors) to images, but Garcia Torres inverts this: the text of the title turns into mental images by the participants, who then enact these images through simple gestures.
Juan Capistran’s The Breaks, 2000, similarly intervenes into the flow of history with a bodily act, breakdancing upon a flat lead Carl Andre piece. While truly irreverent, Capistran’s gesture becomes a phenomenological conversation between the warm/cold, the ground/figure, the living/dead, past/present, active/static. Where these divides may be easily recognized in the work, in this context Capistran’s work opens up the ontological dimension in the reverse readymade (using a Rembrandt as an ironing board, a Carl Andre as a slick stage), calling into question the idea in Blade Runner that an object (replicant) can switch roles with the human.
Another art historical inversion is Tim Lee’s Untitled (Alexander Rodchenko, 1928), 2008. In this series of four black and white photographs, Lee used an optical device comprised of angled mirrors to allow his Leica I camera (a tool heavily associated with Rodchenko’s constructivist form of photography) to take images of itself. Tautologies akin to Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its Own Making, 1961, the photos are essentially self-portraits. Like the slave replicant, the camera is a tool, an objectified device used to perform tasks for others. Lee allows his camera a moment of self-reflection, self-awareness.
This is where the homophonic Deckard/Descartes comes into play for Zizek in regards to Blade Runner in his book, Tarrying With The Negative. If machines can be implanted with memories and can be unaware that they are not their own, then an apparent sense of self is no evidence of the reality of the self at all. When Deckard and the replicant Rachael begin to doubt their own status as human, they plunge into the old Descartes doubting of such a statement as “I think, therefore I am.” This is essential, says Zizek, as in the narrative the difference between real or implanted memories is effectively collapsed: “where is the cogito, the point of my self-consciousness, when everything that I actually am is an artifact - not only my body, my eyes, but even my most intimate memories and fantasies?” (tarrying 40) For Zizek, this undecided questioning actually makes them more human and by claiming replicant status, the subject acknowledges that their subjectivity is produced. The camera photographing itself is an elaboration of the camera’s aims to reproduce the real taken to its final stage.
The confusion of subjectivity is furthered in Raymond Pettibon’s No Title (Superman), 2005, one of five of his text/image works presented. It features images of Superman, an almost perfect supernatural being who must create a mediocre alter ego to fit in. Like the replicants, Superman has strength and abilities beyond the common man: at some times he longs to fit in with humans, and at other times, he pities them. Clark Kent is Superman’s pathetic doppelganger, an imperfect replicant of other humans that Superman uses to hide his true, perfect self. One of Pettibon’sscribblings, “the death of the body is more for him cessation of a mode of being, in virtue of this belief he becomes of a number of those who loftily do not fear to die,” suggests that Superman, as an already artifactual character, understands his indeterminate ontological status. Replicants are designed to become obsolete, to die after four years. Just as imminent retirement haunts the replicants’ sense of their identity, Superman is in a state of subjective doubt.
Kristen Morgin’s unfired clay sculptures of a comic and a toy (Jeep Comics and Donald of Doom Tank, both 2008) simulate with trompe l'oeil detail not only the objects they represent, but also their degradation over time. Where simulation often aspires to perfection, Morgin’s works emphasize the ruin of the source, denying her objects a pure origin to refer. Like the replicants, Morgin’s are objects without their own memories, artificially overlaid with the time and wear endured by another object. There is a collapsing of time: scars long forgotten turn out to be new. Morgin’s replicants demonstrate a profound operation of memory: rememberance involves both a time traveling, a bringing new the knowledge of the past, and a fabrication, an artificial filling in of the gaps that elude recollection.
Jennifer Bornstein’s gesture in her video Collector’s Favorites, 1994, where she appeared on TV presenting a carefully catalogued selection of quotidian refuse, likewise uses the reproductive capacity of media to construct a portrait of the self, using the traces and ephemera of daily life to certify her own existence. Allen Ruppersburg’s Untitled (City Limits), 1970, plays out this commingling of time and space by presenting 5 photographs where a magazine is held in front of a city limit sign, pointing to circulation and extension both cultural and physical. Additionally, Bruce Conner’s Easter Morning, 2008, accesses the memory of an 8 mm film work from 1966 by extending its duration, gauge, and frame-rate. What results is a hazy and hypnotic effect where the past can no longer be reconstituted, but rather is allowed to remain in misty obscurity.
One thing that must be accounted for is that the curator has provided the artworks with their own miniature replicants: photos were taken of the works in situ and are placed adjacent to the works they represent. In a sense, the reproductions operate as stand-ins for didactic labels, signifiers without signifieds. When one looks for further clarification, all that is left is the sign reiterated. One can remember when Baudrillard in “Simulacra and Simulation,” applies a short fable from Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” (derived from a situation in Lewis Carroll’s “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded”). In the story, an empire, seeking an empirical perfection, created a map so detailed that it was as large as the empire itself, a one to one ratio. In Carroll’s and Borges’ renditions the empire gives up on such an absurd solution to cartography, “We now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well," a character notes in Carroll’s story. In Borges’ telling, the map crumbles away from its loss of significance. But in Baudrillard’s description, it is the map that people live in, the simulated model, and it is reality that is crumbling away from disuse.11Through this radical divorce from the real within the simulation, we have been left with a haunting absence of a divide, a universal banality of informational equivalence.
While the black and white images are reiterative, they also can divulge information unseen in the original. The curator’s placement of Mark Soo’s work in the center of the gallery allows for the reproduced image to appear on the opposite side of the wall of the original. The flattened, black and white image of the 3-D red and blue prints denatures the original’s performative capacity. What is left is a perfectly inadequate replication, a mournful trace, a memory of loss. In works either projected or screened on monitors, the reproductions capture a moment in time the viewer may not catch in their casual encounter. Other images make the viewer fully aware that this is not a circulated reproduction, but photos of the works in the spaces they inhabit. Their diminutive nature compared to the original may be a detriment, as it allows us a clear boundary between original and copy. In a perfect world, one could imagine these photographic documents appearing in the documentation of the images themselves, like the old Quaker Oats cereal box, with a picture of a Quaker holding a cereal box with a picture of a Quaker holding a cereal box, ad infinitum (somewhat akin to Tim Lee’s project). The curatorial addition may come across as a novelty; one may say that the reproductions in the exhibition become invisible, too close to be of notice. This dissonance, however, serves the curator’s purpose, like the dying replicant says at the end of Blade Runner : “All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain…”
- Post Brothers
[i] See Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, 146 (July-August, 1984)
[ii] Catherine Opie’s Freeway series, 1994, also miniaturizes the monument, allowing a certain power. For the one of the best discussions of the gargantuan and the miniature, see Susan Stewart On Longing
All images, except the book cover and movie poster which are from Wikipedia, are courtesy the artists and the CCA Wattis:
Ron Terada, Maiko #3, 2008. Pigment ink print. 47 1/4 x 44 in.
Rodney Graham, Dance!!!!!, 2008. Backlit color transparency diptych. 110 x 145 x 7 in.
Colter Jacobson, Victory at Sea (Phenakistoscopes), 2007. Gouache on found card, wood, mirrors. Dimensions variable.
Daniel Joseph Martinez, Black Panthers, 2005. White Carrera marble. 12 x 5 x 1 and 10 x 4 x 1 in.
Juan Capistran, The Breaks, 2000. Giclee print. 40 x 40 in.
Jennifer Bornstein, Collector's Favorites, 1994. TV recording transferred to DVD. 21 minutes.
Mark Soo, That's That's Alright Alright Mama Mama, 2008. 2 c-prints, 3D glasses, angled wall. Each print 71 x 93 in., wall dimensions variable.
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