Bodies on the Circuit


Bodies on the Circuit

The ‘orthosomatic rods’ appealed to him more, that is to say, two broomsticks bound by two cords, the first of which passes under the arm-pits, the second over the wrists; and for hours he would remain in this apparatus, with chin raised, chest expanded, and elbows close to the sides.

– Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, 1880

Recently a frantic woman chased a man wearing a sandwich-board ad – a running billboard – down Broadway. Did she want the man or the image? Did he/it take something from her? We will never know, since she ran out of steam – she wasn’t fit to catch up. I thought, to optimize this pursuit, she should head for ‘Better Bodies,’ which is one of the places where bodies are being made fit to catch up to the images.

Here the body sandwiches itself into a machine, pressed against a smooth contoured surface that has been molded to couple with it, holding it rigid. Securely in place, joints aligned, attention and orientation adjusted, it performs precise, prescribed movements along optimized ranges of motion, internalizing a rhythm of repetition that becomes nearly habitual. The goal is to ‘pump up’ and literally morph the body into some idealized image held in one’s mind like a carrot at the end of a stick. This image is a composite, patched together or collated from vast arrays of representations and self-reflections. Fragmentary and fleeting like a music video, these image-fragments beat to the pulses of the repetitions – 1!… 2!… 3!… – as one interpolates one’s body into them, while simultaneously pummeling them directly into the body substrate, as if plying it through sheer force of will. Regarding oneself in the mirror, one sees the idealized images superimposed, stacked up upon and within one’s reflection, shuffling, merging, and separating to the beat of the repetition scansion – 7!… 8!… 9!… – and its pulsatile ‘deep vision.’ Through the conduit of image, enforced temporality, body, and machine, one changes the very contour of the flesh, simultaneously downloading and internalizing the image while uploading the body into the realm of representation. Gasp!

And now a short rest between sets.

Sometimes these images are split into the ‘before’ (fat) and the ‘after’ (buff), into which one might interpolate one’s own condition: a sequential, filmic ‘reading.’ However it is nearly impossible to assess where one stands in the spectrum: the ‘real’ body is always shuffled into the deck. Image and corporeality, present and future, are enmeshed in an oscillation that beats to the rhythm of routine. This engages a ‘deep reading’ or deep vision, which, as it channels through the ‘stack,’ sees ‘through’ as much as scans the surface. The exercise chart, whose blank spaces between commands are filled in after enaction, becomes a calculus for the body on the road to fitness: a complex mesh of commands and movements that provides instructions and inscribes their results. This is what remains of ‘the image’ and ‘the text’: a deep stratified field, on the one hand, and on the other, an exercise manual (_ set x _ reps).

It seems that wherever there is an image there is an incomplete body running after it, endeavoring to catch it or interpolate itself into it.

And now, step onto the jogging treadmill for 20 minutes of CARDIOVASCULAR ACTIVITY. A television screen is projected directly ahead for motivation. Running on the rubber belt of the treadmill like a rat on a wheel, one runs toward images which one will never ‘get to’ or achieve, while the machine measures the rhythm and feeds it back continually on a readout, comparing it to the value optimized for one’s age and fitness level. To be under this value is to be inadequate to a cultural norm, encoded by and transmitted through the conduit of the machine; to be over it is to excel; to extricate oneself (or collapse) is to ‘give up.’ The machine is optimized according to certain values and norms, coupled with the body in the interest of fitness, performing readouts and analyses through its signal conduits, projected in the language of rhythm. The image makes the body fit to see it; it makes the body adequate to its frequencies. But the image is also a result, constituting itself in response to the patterns of the viewer it helps produce. This inseparable body-machine-image complex, as an apparatus of exercise, habituation, sedimentation, transformation, is inextricably involved in a ‘setting into motion’, instituting a compulsion to ‘run toward,’ often through the conduit of an optimization frequency.

Consider the commercially-fueled print or television image. This image produces a viewer and a viewing capacity adequate to its desire-producing demands; it mobilizes that viewer down the road to the store to ‘achieve the image’; it provides a shopping environment that is in many ways an extension of the magazine or television environment; it records the patterns in this circuit and employs them to optimize its continuance and effectiveness. But of course the reverse can occur: the viewer is held stationary, while the image runs toward it. The body sits parked in front of a television set or computer screen, nearly immobile, as vast worlds of images rush across the surface, overlaying upon one another in distance-construction. The body seems nearly zombified, dislodged from its condition only by momentary distractions or intrusions, as accelerating images channel directly into the captive mind. This is however a REST between SETS: a preparatory stage toward the institution of new mobilities. The viewer’s responses are couched in metaphors of travel, tiniest flicks of the finger institute vast changes that are often registered as movements across enormous distances, and powerful desires to move across real or constructed geographies are produced, either to get to a particular ‘place’ or nowhere in particular (as in surfing). Travel metaphors are channeled into the viewer’s language: one does not ‘say’ so much as one ‘goes’; speech and action are collapsed into the ‘I went.’ Does it lead to an all-out immersion, when the distance between symbol and referent seemingly collapse and the receptive body is ‘swallowed up’? No. A rigid viewer must to be constituted in order to channel mobilizing circuits into and through it, erupting, as if through wormholes, interior mobilizations that ‘open out’ elsewhere. The immobile body is a body being made fit for re-mobilization.

It is not a question of distance vs. immersion, or the aesthetics of the image: the image is at the service of the optimization frequency, registered in the conduits connected to the treadmill.

The space between the viewer and the image is a social space. The social actors are corporeal and representational, near and far, real and fictitious, as is the space in which they are situated. One moves through a stack of windowings on the computer screen or through the layered environments on the television, in complex, overlapping social formations. Newscasters make eye contact with the viewer in order to generate a bubble of intimacy and trust while both are transported through dynamic landscapes of crisis (a ‘transport’ that is as hybrid and contradictory as the space and social relationship that it marks); a subject is hailed in a networked environment and compelled to click, to ‘go there,’ moving through overlapping formations in which its own status shifts. Both visual and linguistic techniques are employed as mobilizing devices, driven like wedges into speech and space in order to catapult positions into motion, all the while smoothing over the disparities with a seemingly unified plane, a plane that houses flows and uniformly-formatted stacks shuffled in hierarchies of intimacy and distance, a plane that houses colonies of actors, for whom (and in place of whom) logos and icons stand as imploded frames, worlds, and personae. From one window or frame to the next, or between series of levels within frames, or through the wormholes provided by logos and icons, a language of travel is constituted, a language whose demands technology and reality hastily endeavor to meet (Virilio). It would seem this language emerges in terms of deep overlappings and varying degrees of ‘closeness’ to the viewer: a pushing-pulling visual and semiotic mechanism that is parlayed along the z-axis, generating various intimate or distant social relationships, between which a subject is compelled to travel, sliding into and out of various embodied forms in repertoires of segmentation, movement, and unification. The ‘here’ is fragmented; the desire for ‘there’ is created; the means of travel to get ‘there’ is provided; and the achievement of that goal is made temporary and incomplete. At work are procedures of unification and coherency, shuttled back and forth in conceptions of destination and arrival, or better yet, a movement between simply for the sake of mobility, a mobility equated with freedom.

What, exactly, is transported? The viewer adjusts within itself in order to respond to and incorporate the senses of movement and location portrayed on the screen and its accompanying communication forms. And so, too, does the screen representation adjust ‘within itself’ according to the changing norms of the viewer. The viewer-agency (as well as the representation, but that is another exercise) is ‘held’ together in temporarily stable condition inside a ‘coherency device’ as it is moved along a trajectory registered as travel, oriented through a complex of interlocking mechanisms that participate in producing bodily faculties and awarenesses. The figure of the ‘vehicle’ may help to articulate the operations of this coherency device and the constitution of its occupant.

The vehicle is embedded in, and constituted by, historically specific sets of communications technologies, code-structures, materials, and bodily capacities, ensconced in a type of transport. While the body that occupies the vehicle is often not visible, its patterns and forms can be interpolated through the vehicle’s signal conduits and morphology, which always generate and register a ‘fit’ between technological conditions and the conditions of the occupant. The vehicle couples with a subject, locks onto it and defines its parameters of movement through molded parts and arrays of components, which may involve ‘mobile peripherals’ or direct insertions into the body. But it is also produced through embodied practices (although increasingly annexed to market research) and its components bear the impressions of the use-patterns that inform them. Linked to the counter on the machine, it transports that which is counted. Its ‘interior’ is a model for a subjectivity, a bubble of interiority driven through a landscape, a landscape that sometimes configures on a ‘window’ as a function of the conditions of travel. Such a subjectivity might be elsewhere, accessed through various means, or constituted by overlapping vehicle formations. Instituting a ‘here’ against a ‘there,’ it generates a space; instituting a ‘now’ against a ‘later,’ it generates a timeline. The vehicle accompanies the body, the virtual body, or the about-to-be-embodied subject, registering its patterns and contours while helping to adjust those patterns and contours according to emerging requirements and optimization demands, often in the name of progress, self-improvement, and adequacy. It advances toward the surgical, the digestive, the interiorized routine. It endeavors to produce a fit occupant.

Time to re-fuel with MetaForm(tm) – ‘optimized food’ for the high-performance body!

Jordan Crandall is an artist and theorist whose work explores the cultural and political implications of new technologies. He is founder and director of the X Art Foundation, New York, and founding editor of Blast.