by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
True to its intention as established at the outset, Human Is, at Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin, is a diverse meditation on the definition of a human. A perennial site of speculative research, the human is both a body and a concept. The exhibition adopts its title from Philip K. Dick’s short story, Human Is (1955), which wonders if the qualities of love and empathy are distinctive to humans, as opposed to their purported absence in the machinic and the monstrous. The exhibition explores this existential dichotomy (and its attendant ambiguities) through both retro-futurist technologies and modern tools such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). Imbued with the anticipatory excitement of a labyrinthine framework, the works on the ground floor bleed into each other through sinewy configurations while the first floor opens out to a smaller, tighter coterie against the surrounding cityscape. A range of artists thus come together to explore the human both within and beyond the frontier of the skin, with the space housing works across eras and media.
A copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein near the entrance (alongside a miniature portrait of the author) sets the historical and contextual tone of the exhibition. Its literary reference to a hybrid assemblage that turned into a monster from neglect establishes the ethical premise for the constitution of the “human”. As critic Pippa Goldschmidt points out1, around the time Frankenstein was published, industries were attacked by factory workers who protested the usurpation of their livelihood by automated devices. The main target of these protests were the Jacquard looms, which pioneered the use of punch cards to produce complex patterns on textiles (previously the prerogative of the skilled worker). Premised on a binary code, this technology pre-empted the way modern computers function in its unprecedented simulation of human agency. Around the 1940s (when the first programmable computers came into being), scientist Alan Turing developed a test to assess AI’s capacity to imitate human intelligence—another area of concern for this exhibition.
The story of Frankenstein’s monster is one of anthropocentric singularity—a bio-technical aberration that exceeded human control. This premise is re-interpreted by WangShui’s installation that uses an algorithm generated by AI to simulate organic pulses in a machine. Titled Fundamental Attribution Error, the work constitutes a tangled membrane of LED lights sprawled across the floor of a room, with the light changing location, brightness, and hue in coordinated patterns. Resembling a bioluminescent creature, the lights could also be read as neurons, animating a breathing body with neon blood flowing in synthetic rhythms. In its titled reference to the cognitive bias that attributes more weight to personal predispositions over situational factors in assessing human response to stimuli, I wonder if the work was responding to my live presence in the room.
The exhibition also houses work that accommodates the abject and confirms its disruptive potential in imaginations around hygiene. Nour Mobarak explores human reproductive logic through a set of installations titled Reproductive Logistics. One of the installations constitutes a series of vials and syringes documenting an erstwhile performance by the artist where she visited the host gallery to deposit her daily dose of medication while undergoing an egg-freezing process. They are placed in the same room as a range of cushions, spray bottles, and kitchen gloves—all of which are covered with an organic paste. The cushions have started growing saprophytic fungi, which continue to grow through the run of the exhibition. A tableau of reproductive care, the objects are colonised by mycelia that subtract the human body as a participant in this theatre. Does the growth of mushrooms on items of comfort also gesture to a world where the skin is absent, or fallen into disuse?
In the exhibition, the human body expands, shrivels, and changes shape and length across index and pixel. Ivana Bašić’s Belay My Light, The Ground Is Gone captures frailty in wax. Shaped like a human body but with exaggerated features, the skeletal constitution betrays the host’s lack of strength. This is further evidenced by a blown-glass contraption designed as a receptacle for occasional spurts of white liquid from the body—seemingly his breath (as residue). Stripped to the skin and curved in an almost foetal submission to form, the sculpture is a screaming reminder of perishability.
Joachim Bandau’s floor sculptures contest this vision by meditating on the recalcitrance of the human body as a consumer. Made out of industrial materials like fibreglass and resin, and punctuated with disembodied mannequin parts, the sculptures evoke expectations of efficiency while proving technically useless. Created during the 1970s, the cryptic contraptions mirror the biopolitical violence in postwar society (as visibilised by amputees), besides the emerging malleability of the body (and gender) with medical advances and industrial automation during the period. The use of black leather as an enveloping skin for the sculptures further works to fetishise these biomorphic shapes, making them both repulsive and tempting to touch. Fusing taxonomies, the sculptures reflect an epistemic disorientation as well as an invasive excitement around the human body.
Furthermore, these works could be seen in the context of Metropolis (1927), which is referenced through a framed still of the robot Maria from the film. Fritz Lang’s film is widely considered to be the prototype of the science fiction genre, which introduced the concept of an android in cinema besides indulging grand exhibitions of machinery. Lang combines the allure and terror of the machine in the body of a double (of a human referent), who comes to represent the disturbing implications of scientific progress. Recalling the enduring confusion in the popular imagination that attributes the name of “Frankenstein” to both the monster and its creator2, Metropolis also delves into the implications of copying the self, with the copy then assuming its own agency. This conceit is perhaps literalised in the exhibition in the form of two steel tentacles that protrude from the walls adjacent to Maria’s portrait. Created by Sandra Mujinga, the identical sculptures are, in both their likeness and ontological distinction, tectonic interruptions to definition. One is like the other, and therefore, not.
The “post-human” exists in an extension of, and in confirmation and resistance to, the image of the human—especially in its extra-corporeal entanglements with the air, its fumes, viruses, microplastics, and prostheses. Human Is explores 20th century anxieties around fascist reorderings of the body in the same breath as VR-enabled substitute sex, thereby creating a contemporaneous space in which to read these evolutions against each other. Embedded in a mimetic impulse while embodying an irreverent inversion, the definition of a “human” today perhaps lies somewhere in this approximation of violence and desire. But the exhibition does not attempt to answer its titular ellipsis; instead, it creates a mise-en-scene of speculative imaginations around the human and its many habitus.
1.Pippa Goldschmidt, “Why Can’t Sci-Fi Art Escape the Past?”, ArtReview, 10 May 2023. Link: https://artreview.com/why-cant-sci-fi-art-escape-the-past/
2. J.P. Telotte, “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Spring 1983), pp.44-51.