For class today I’ve brought in images and videos of Zimoun’s sound installations. Our first unit this semester is a long extension of our last from the fall: on technology, human progress, and human identity. Zimoun’s work stands out as an innovative use of simple tech with great effect.
We’re continuing our ongoing discussion of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and this week we’ll re-examing Dick’s novel through theorist Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs. They’re quite familiar with Clark, having read him in the context of Nicholas Carr, Jamais Cascio, and Neal Postman. This is their first experience applying his writing to something so conceptual. It should be a great test of their ability to make that leap.
“There has been much written about our imminent “post-human” future, but if I am right, this is a dangerous and mistaken image. The very things that sometimes seem most post-human, the deepest and most profound of our potential biotechnological mergers, will reflect nothing so much as their thoroughly human source” (6).
Androids… is indeed post-human, apocalyptically so. Zimoun’s cotton balls, however, seem deeply human: simultaneously isolated and choral, like music, a seamless reach from the creator to their audience. While student responses expressed concern with aspects of our lives that are already dehumanizing, without reliance on Dick’s novel, they also recognized in Zimoun’s boxes the limitless empty apartments of Dick’s post-war suburbia. In the sound generated by the cotton balls they heard the isolated rumblings of anonymous apartment dwellers and a surprisingly effective meditation on the power of many where one would be silent.
This installation presents a wholly different experience for the students this far into the year. Some have been impressed at this installation’s accessibility for a larger audience (the blind for example), and others feel it’s rendered far less accessible by the lack of discernable context. Though students tend to be accustomed to the use of technology in art, here it surprised all of them. When asked how DC motors might compare to a paintbrush, they hesitated to respond. One student adamantly loved the conceptual nature of the piece—why create something representational, she asked, when a camera can do it better than you can?
Nicholas Carr believes we will adapt to our tools, Andy Clark that they will adapt to us. These technologies, Clark writes “will be less like tools and more like part of the mental apparatus of the person.” Art, like a laptop or a search engine, is a tool for communication and one radically altered by the last century. I’m not one to believe, however, that the changes of our generation eclipse those of the past. Technological change is now what it once was: new, bizarre, and unpredictable.
In my classes I can see a huge divide between those students who interact with technology passively (those who use) and actively (those who redesign and recreate to meet their own needs). Watching students react to Zimoun highlights this divide. Some see value (regardless of whether or not they like it) here in Zimoun’s concept. They see something thrilling in its potential for redesign. Others simply evaluate the final product for completed worth. Part of my hope is to move more students into the first camp, into a mental habit of seeing a component parts as well as a whole, and a greater tendency for interactivity.
Clark, Andy. Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.