Post-humanism in conversation with Victorine Van Alphen.
By Rachel Foran as part of her research for Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam.
Discussions of posthumanism echo throughout the humanities and I have been contributing and listening to these discussions with pronounced interest. The cyborg that Donna Haraway describes as being intimately coupled “between organism and machine” (117) has proliferated extensively and we are called to live with (or alongside) technology as a part of contemporary living. This tangible interplay between human and machine relies on a vocabulary of science fiction and the uncanny, and it materialises in a vast range of popular media, from mainstream movies to intimate art installations. In October 2020 I went to such an installation in the Amsterdam cinema Lab III, it was created by Victorine Van Alphen and named IVF-X: Posthuman Parenting in Hybrid Reality. During this exhibition, the birth of a cyborg baby is rendered by means of human control, destruction of binaries and virtual reality. This installation immediately became a personal source of intrigue and reconciliation, in part, due it’s practical framing of the posthuman and the interesting questions of efficacy, ethics, maternity and artistic practice that it conjures. The enduring influence of this installation led me to contact the creator of this piece to discuss the themes and genres of the posthuman that are present in her Golden Calf winning exhibition.
In the promotional video for this experience a participant exclaims “Oh my god, this is really scary” when looking at the cyborg baby that he helped create, even the tagline accompanying IVF-X reads like a line from a monster movie or the plot of a sci-fi novel- “Breed and Meet you Cyborg Baby”. When I first saw my cyborg baby it reminded me of Henry’s baby in Eraserhead and in the installation itself I saw echoes of David Cronenberg films. Was it intentional to promote unease in the audience members? You’ve spoken about how responses to your work filter through different modes of being, do you think that discomfort is a surprising aspect of the response to this experience or is it an essential mode for reflection and reconciliation?
“A surprising discomfort is definitely an essential mode for reflection on one’s own position in the experience as well as on the meaning of and relation to the cyborg itself, but not necessarily for reconciliation, or perhaps only on a longer term as I sometimes received letters long after people experienced IVF-X. To explain this more deeply: I came to believe through experiment that promoting a certain unease or rather an uneasy yet ambiguous response, allows for some ‘constructive confusion’ which disrupts or postpones the process of making meaning, or making sense of something. But why would you need such unease and confusion? I have myself been very inspired by works that create an unease that arrives from an
uneasy‘openness’: something is not clear, not defined, not definable in words or expected social behaviours or labels. If it is not defined it is open, and that is where I as experiencer get an uneasy agency: the meaning of what I see still has to be created, there is no given responses or interpretations: It is a baby so I should think it is cute but it is also alien in many senses so now in this ambiguity I float to find meaning. What I make of it is an uneasy freedom I have to navigate quickly through personal memories, association and expectations as I stand eye to eye with a digital cyborg. To generalise me – as guinea-pig-stand-in for my audience – I suspect during this floating the audience explores his/her/thems own fields of meaning connected to one’s own relationship to and image of giving birth, creating life, and what (human) life itself should or could look like. This fascinates me completely because in this mode of ‘floating-to-find-meaning’, not only the meaning of this unique cyborg is at stake, but also the meaning of babies and making reproductional choices and all things related is at stake, or at least possibly shifting. No meaning is an Island, all meaning is interrelated, so when a cyborg opens you up to experience a certain new possible meaning of (post)’human’ and ‘baby’ the meaning of the life that it relates to is renegotiated as well. An intriguing question that often arises is: What is still human about this process of breeding and meeting the cyborgs babies? Perhaps the answer is everything and nothing at the same time.
Practically this meant that I needed to find strategies for ámbiguity; I needed to research, experiment and tweak tremendously to achieve ambiguous creatures that exist on a fine line between cute and uncanny, between system and organism, between natural and artificial. For this I developed a ‘cyborg matrix’ in which we would point out were on those gliding scales we thought our models, materials, movements, behaviours and eventually cyborgs were: tweaking to arrive at hopefully essentially ambiguous beings that question dominant dichotomies through their existence, an aim inspired by Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, who’s relevance became more and more contemporary since the reality of reproductive technologies and consumer life points towards cyborg making or at least some posthuman cyborgs through evermore drastically combining technology and human life.
Another important element to create uneasy ambiguity were the guides. The guides in IVF-X prove a very crucial element in creating suspension of criticality that allows for ambiguous feelings, because the guides – being friendly and understanding – make everything seem fine, safe and perfectly normal. After this some constructive confusion may arises a bit more unexpectedly as experiencers finally see the cyborg baby, that they have been seduced into, as if meeting their new iphone, baby and unwanted alien in one, which is never an expected cocktail, yet the mixing of these strange ambiguous expectations is – as you already remarked from the subtitle – intentionally constructed from PR to post experience.”
The participants can choose between three registers of living for their cyborg baby- Animal, Human and Posthuman. When I visited the experience I was familiar with the term posthuman and the notion of cyborgs, my curiosity compelled me to choose the options which would least resemble a ‘typical’ human child. My cyborg baby was pink, posthuman and genderfluid. Did you notice hesitations within participants to modify their own baby in normally unnatural ways and if so, was there a commonality behind this reluctance? For example, if people wanted to see how lifelike the cyborg could be or were unfamiliar with posthumanism etc.
“I think you rightly and perhaps unconsciously point out two strands of the audience that we also observed from the over 300 couples and singles that came breeding cyborgs with us. Some were of the curious type who went as far as possible to find out about the posthuman types, although almost never did they move the sliders all the way to 100% posthuman or fluid, always some reluctance still present in these curious types of audience to stay between 80-95% not to be to extreme into their area of curiosity (with a few exceptions). And then you mostly had people who despite the curiosity that had obviously led them to IVF-X would not go more then 75% into the posthuman areas, always remaining close to the known categories of humans, gender and characteristics. While the reluctance kept them from going too far into the postmodern zone, even fewer really stuck to conventional human options, only one participant did not use any of our funky posthuman options and tried to stay on the ‘human as it is’ side. This was one of the observations that made me realise a very important ‘rule’ to use as a director/artist: (unlike me who has had an perhaps abnormal interest in everything alien) most people/audience will almost never explore something unknown unless it is combined with the familiar. It reminds me of how I would wrap my dogs medicine in bacon…. Audiences can’t handle the unfamiliar unless it is packed in some familiar circumstances and forms, and as a director I am exploring the boundaries of the familiar, that allow us to imagine the unfamiliar. The human guides really help with that, because they constantly apply socially familiar forms of interaction,or to quote one of the experiencers: “as if you are in a shop-therapy-clinic-immersive experience thing”, a combination of familiars that allows for the unfamiliar.”
I ask this because the act of giving birth and the practices of parenthood are embodied actions. In your piece you create affective sensations, do you find that rationality and notions of the natural are in total opposition to the sensuality of the IVF-X experience or are they necessary counterparts to affect?
“Well this one is a deep one, because to me your question raises another intriguing question: Is swiping your choices for your cyborg with your fingers while lying on a freudian sofa in front of a digital womb projection – wobbling algorithmically yet quasi naturally in shades of grey pixels – , not an embodied action? All my work is inspired by phenomenology, the philosophy to which the idea of embodiment is essential. If we take the idea of embodiment seriously, every action is embodied, even every thought is embodied, in other words: since we are embodied beings, there is no me without my body, no action is not embodied. But then I do completely get your question intuitively, it is a meaningful question because you point to how extremely intensely physical and perhaps even spiritual the experience of giving birth and being a parent is compared to the experience of swiping some options on an Ipad. At the Master of Film where we started exploring what was driving all our works, I realised what was driving me was exactly to explore that impossible opposition of rationality and sensuality: some things feels more rational and other things feel more sensual, but essentially we are all necessarily rational and sensual, those very human characteristics seem to counter each other but at the same time completely interweave in our lives. I play with what we think/feel is rational, and counter that what we think/feel is sensual but the question is how and if those distinctions actually exist and how we as rational sensual embodied beings live with the idea that we can somehow separate those modes of being rational, versus our modes of being sensual.
Then you also mentioned the word ‘natural’…. Well that is the most inexplicable notion of all, that I am trying to explore with my unnatural artistic strategies;)”
During a short film you made about the IVF-X project a computer-generated voice states: “As I turned 30 I felt I had to decide between an artistic career and motherhood, until I discovered procedural visual simulation to design, or rather grow, my own cyborg babies.” I found that in your piece the boundaries of maternity were stretched to include bodies which aren’t usually afforded the capacity to be maternal or to receive maternity. In what ways was maternity a guiding force of this project? Were you working on a personal “desire to create digital offspring” in order to explore this maternity or to problematize it?
“To be honest, it is true that originally my own maternal desires and dilemmas pulled me into making an essayistic film about these themes, But through the process of making it became my desire to transfer the more universal desires and dilemmas to “bodies which aren’t usually afforded the capacity to be maternal or to receive maternity”. To universally explore the themes of control and reproduction led me to create this futuristic clinic in which all bodies (and robots are welcome too of course) may breed and meet cyborg babies. I noticed that the male teachers and evaluators didn’t get the full philosophical and experiential depth of what I was trying to put forward with my film at that time, although many of my female colleagues and more sensitive men could explore these desires and dilemmas with me through this essayistic experimental film (“Two is game over”), I realised I would be crucial to explore this subject with all human beings on another perhaps more abstract and futuristic yet similarly sensual level, womb or no working womb and problematize all involved feelings and notions. While.exploring the theme and my own relationship to reproduction, reproductional technologies in & through IVF-X I unexpectedly learned two things: It is easier to love or to be attached to digital beings than most people including me would have thought. Second is that I would go for a human version because I came to love the real human parents for their ability to accept the uncontrollable in their lives. Ultimately this IVF-X clinic explores what a position of (limited yet far reaching) control means to us as human beings, which lies in but also exceeds the theme of maternity, and reaches into more universal human dilemmas. Dilemmas which many parents experientially came to understand since they went through quite a process of surrender while making someone they themselves never fully controlled or chose. (even if or especially if the making of a child appeared impossible for them, disastrous or traumatic) (this was before the non binary option became widespread, so Ill describe this past situation in these binary terms)”
At the end of the experience me and my partner asked for a photo of our baby, we wanted a way to capture this special piece of technology and ourselves. We were told that our baby had slipped into cyberspace and no material record could be made of them. In your Golden Calf acceptance speech you said that “every medium demands something else from us”, do you think the uncanniness and inability to grasp the cyborg offspring calls for the medium of virtual reality? Was it important for you that the cyborg remained immaterial and intangible?
“The intangibility of the cyborgs is definitely extremely important, and even though we adapt every experience to our experiencers, we allow no one to capture it in any way, because it is about the experience of meeting it, being with it. (Especially in these times of representations going viral with no one aware of their contexts or underlying presences presented.) Virtual Reality is great for this ‘first encounter as an immersive medium, in which you are alone in a vacuum only with your cyborg. Imagine you are in a shopping street with thousands of people passing you by and lot of distractions, you would hardly notice how special the presence of each person, like you would when you are alone in a vacuum with no one else but that one person whose presence then becomes highlighted and perhaps a bit magical or intimate, exciting or even appalling or awkward. So this minimalistic vacuum- situation in VR is already quite intriguing and then being with a digital creature that has a form so ambiguous people have to look for minutes to ‘get what they see’ and still feel some of the mystery of it is left… well I think that would never work on an image, and that is not only indebted to the virtuality aspect as well as the three-dimensional mystery that arises because of the actual constructed darkness and play with light and the impossibility to see the cyborg very well in its incubator. More over the experiencer who just sees a picture, would miss the expectations and attachment that one brings from the phases before the ‘encounter-phase’ in which one makes the choices: Ït’s so weird but it is definitely my one” exclaimed a girl in IVF-X. This type of connection is only possible through the building up of the process and the anticipation and actually all different media involved that probe you into a kind of sensitivity: or ‘mode of being’ as I would call it.”
In Donna Haraway’s conception of a cyborg they are described as being post-gender, without an origin story and they work to destabilise “the givenness of the differential categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’” (Barad, 2003, p.808). Your cyborg negotiates the binaries of gender and human/nonhuman but its origin story is foregrounded as a space of reciprocal action between the human/nonhuman. The origin story of the cyborg is familiar but defamiliarized, participants have an intimate intake where they decide the characteristics of their own baby, they participate in a surreal sonogram and then meet their cyborg in an incubator. Do you think the function of this origin story is to (re)emphasise the living together with technology that Haraway underscores or is this focus on non-biological reproduction responding to a different cultural phenomenon?
“As a person I find the idea of cyborgs alienating, as a philosopher inspired by Donna Harraway I find them emancipating yet ethically dubious, and as an artistic researcher I find them fascinating since adding evermore advanced technology to complex human beings and designs has unpredictable and completely unimaginable results that I am eager to explore, and that allow to negotiate (beyond) any binary distinction. (Something that is made tangibly intangible by the IVF-X fingersliders in the cyborg making interface through which the experiencers navigate between and beyond known binary distinctions until with new unexplored combinations as result. But to truly answer this I will have to go to the experimental origin of my cyborgs ‘origin story’.
From the ground onwards, I had wanted to explore cyborgs – hybrids of natural and unnatural, of human and non-human, organism and system. But to do so I made a radical research step: to look freely for possibly ‘fitting’ technologies without knowing what I was exactly looking for (for me the ‘looking for something yet unknown’ is an important element of my Artistic research, because it allows me to discover something from the actual material of our contemporary technological fabric of society, which then directs my project beyond what I can imagine in advance).
For 6 months I went to infiltrate the VFX and Immersive Media (CGI) department of the Filmacademy in Amsterdam to look for appropriate technologies. I started without any knowledge of the technologies available but then slowly after practising with all softwares and hardwares, I discovered procedural visual simulation. For me this program, appeared in itself already some kind of hybrid of natural and unnatural, since it was completely based on natural physics, and could as such simulate millions of particles, and then calculate the ‘natural’ play of light in that situation which lead to impressively and uncannily real results that showed the naturalness of complex ‘organic’ imperfections: materials, or skin that seemed to have been through something, that seemed to have lived and seemed alive, because they were a result of simulation, a complex digital interplay of elements, of time, of process, of ‘living’. The idea of using simulation in which we could even allow randomness and complex interplay of (digital) materials appealed to me since instead of designing the cyborgs, we could design a complex process from which the cyborgs could grow (be simulated) in a way that was beyond our control. We – technology and human designers together – grew cyborgs from certain conditions and procedures: in that sense the maker of the cyborgs was already a hybrid of technology and human beings. For me it is crucial to make in a way that reflects something of society and technology, to employ the logic of certain programs in new ways that allow to show something beyond my own imagination, but rather something that shows the imagination of the technology at hand: what does it allow to exist, to grow?”
In current university spaces there is a lot of discussion centred around the supposed emancipatory claims of posthumanism. Jovanovic in From Posthuman to Posthumous and Back says that “Post-human-ism suggests not what comes after the human being, but what comes after the ethical and philosophical suppositions of humanism.” (139) The anthropocentric, western subject of knowledge in humanism is displaced in posthumanism and conservative binaries of machine/organic, mind/body, public/private are supposed to be disrupted. The efficacy of this term has been questioned between my peers, as in some instances it seems to reinstate western, anthropocentric subjects and the binaries which follow. The “post” in posthuman can seem to resemble the “post” in postcolonial. Some philosophers have offered terms such as “alien feminisms” (Jelaca, 2018) and “technohumanism” (Haraway, 2007), do you think there is a need to decolonize the language of the posthuman, or do you think that it already facilitates emancipation?
“I think the problem is even deeper, to me emancipation in itself is highly problematic since we are physical embodied ‘biological’ creatures at least from origin: as a not so conventional woman I completely endorse emancipation in the sense of equality and freedom for all humans to become what they want to be, but our very biologies are perhaps fundamentally not emancipated and no matter how many surgeries or upgrades or revolutions we would ever go through, there is still major biological differences that sustain and grow in complex ways into the fabric of our cultures and identities. There is an unfairness even just in the choices we have to make or not make, the actions we have to take or not take in order to emancipate, creates whole new strands of differences, because for everyone of us emancipation takes a different form, needs different actions, choices, allows different transformations. I remember the first day I had my period, as a day that I was look up to the sky and started screaming to god how unfair he was (despite me being agnostic), being biological means being something not by choice but by evolution and posthuman beings will always be inspired by this evolution because as human beings we cannot even think truly beyond it yet can start to co-evolve with the technologies we make, and that might start to make us in many ways. There is also something so grandly advanced, complex and intriguing about the way we evolved and evolve, about the beauty of the biological, that we might despise at the same time.
Later as a woman I started appreciating my biology as well, but only when I felt the cultural freedom to play with certain aspects of it, and discover my own relationship to it. There is hope & freedom in playing with the existing, in re-imagining and in re-designing everything that is, and for me the true freedom is in the non-fixed, which is the essence of a playing that can transform: there may be rules, but the rules can change, because it is about us playing it, not about the rules nor the game. To me being an artist is the most emancipating thing I can do or be, since it is one of the few professions in which you are allowed to play with meaning and matter. Similarly, using different words such as ‘posthumanism’, ‘techno-humanism’ and ‘alien feminism’, is a form of playing too, a form that many philosophers love doing, because it is playing with meaning, with history and interpretation. All post words reinstate the familiar, and then try to go beyond, like with emancipation, the blade cuts on two sides.”
Your work transcends disciplinary boundaries and plays with a myriad of mediums, what do you think the benefits of interdisciplinary work are?
“Perhaps I don’t understand why anyone would not employ all media and disciplines, I transcend disciplinary boundaries simply because life transcends disciplinary boundaries and my aim is to try to create little universes or constructed contexts that merge with and reimagine (elements of) life. If your inspired by art then I understand you make art, but I am inspired by life, and educated very broadly (technically, artistically, scientifically) so I don’t even try to make art, I try to make something inspired on life and reimagine it while playing with its elements and social contexts and rules. Of course there is the practical side that it’s impossible to create something as nuanced, complex and layered as life itself, and that it is hard to think beyond the perspective of the discipline that we are trained in. So my strategy is to ‘compose modes of being’ through focussing very phenomenologically on what I experience as a human being, to stay very close to that experience, observe it/me in various contexts: how do I feel holding an Ipad? How do I behave while watching a woman in labour? How do I think when lying down on a sofa? What does it allow me to feel to be able to slide on a gradual scale between mind and body on an ipad interface. Slowly, through trial and tweaking, closely observing my own and then other peoples experiences, I choreograph the experiencer through different kinds of media and contexts, which I believe condition their mode of perceiving, thinking and doing: their mode of being. Through this experience focussed way of making combined with researching not only various technologies but also (cultural) aspects of life, I hope to transcend disciplines. For me there is nothing I cannot use to attain and tweak, resemble and redesign to construct new ‘mediated realities’. The benefits of this is the layeredness of the experience that not only refers to various aspects of life, but also employs different ways of you being in the experience: You are not only a ‘someone watching a video’ or a ‘someone making cyborg choices on an ipad’ or a ‘someone meeting a cyborg in VR’: you are all of them successively, and in all of them I belief you are a little different. So I create from the assumption that the mediated context conditions asked different parts of you to come out, perhaps more rational and reflective at one part, perhaps more sensual and active in another. That is the biggest benefit of all, for you to then negotiate your different selves in all those phases of the experience. Like in life, what I feel about something may be very different from how I would act on something, I would not think of mixing a gender of 73% female with 27% male , but then as I navigate the slider with my finger suddenly I do (In fact most experiencers made almost exactly this mix but would never have said they would desire such mix when asked verbally). The different mediated contexts allow for different experiences of myself in relation to these topics. I think because of disciplinary education, such subtle but meaningful differences are not often choreographed into one experience while I hope my transdisciplinary way of making hopefully allows for these intriguing experiential differences to come to the fore.”
Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects that you can share?
It is still very much in an embryotic phase, but my next project might even be more radical since I will research how to connect internal and external experiences in an entirely new way, carving out a new sense of reality from internal sensations rather than from external factors such as gravity and time. From the assumption that our inner experiences allow – like in dreams – for fundamentally different realities in which time and space are redefined or perhaps even in some sense irrelevant. Using immersive media and in depth research on hyper-personal sensation and internal experiences I hope to create new connections between the internal and external experience: In simpler words, you could imagine a hyper-synaesthetic environment or audio visually and physically induced ‘trip’, where not only sound and colour and meaning collide in an abstract yet sensual way, but all experiential qualities. But this is still a rough idea that might take me ages, (YES I LOVE THE IMPOSSIBLE) so perhaps there will be a smaller project in between: a more semi-personal essayistic experimental film using various footages – from youtube diaries to 3d renders and intimate documentary footage of my own life – to follow my 21 st century non-conventional journey into motherhood/makerhood as a follow up to “Two is Game Over”. Because even though it was a great and rewarding step to make a futuristic clinic in which all bodies could procreate, to focus on the subtle complexity of the intimate, the limited and the personal might be rewarding as well. IVF-X showed me many of these intimate stories and dilemma’s of my audience, so they in fact inspired me to create a ‘hyper-me’, a version of me inspired by my audience, that will make this autobiographical multi-footage film. And I will make the one who makes the film who is another version of me. Different from the version of me that made IVF-X. For every project, first I create its maker…”
Travelling through issues of audience discomfort, maternity, tangibility and Donna Haraway the purpose of this interview was to negotiate and generate a discussion of posthumanism that is nuanced and embodied. This dialogical exercise emphasised the technological behind the organic bodies, the biological behind the cultural and the potentiality behind the philosophy.
Rachel Foran is a final year Bachelor’s student of Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam.