“Without any meaning, we’re just skin and bone, like beautiful robots dancing alone”
- Untouchable, Girls Aloud, 2008
In the film, Transamerica, a transsexual person appears to be part machine. Like clockwork, the body must be tuned, appendages added and subtracted. Like fuel, hormones must not run out. The mechanized body at work defines the functionality of sexual transformation. Doctors use the term “gender dysphoria” to scientifically intimidate the legitimacy of this mechanization. In the transgender glossary, a trans man distinguishes himself from what he calls “bio” boy, short for biological male or what is explained as the “dialectical slang for a factory equipped male (one born with penis)”. It is in the privileged intersection of gendered body parts that plastic surgery becomes a technology of both body and gender. However, plastic surgery for gender reassignment, or GRS as it is called, does not create the stable spaces of body or of mind that popular rhetoric, even at times in Transamerica, suggests. Further from simply altering the physical body (machine) to correspond with the desired sex (mind/soul), plastic surgery interrupts the borders so that there is in fact no stable distinction between machine and biology, or between body and soul. What I mean to suggest is that the transsexual body offers a way out of the false centering of human according to the idea of being “alive” and “biologically existing”. In its place, human can then be considered in terms of the non-human or of the artifact, the mechanized, or the robot.
We can see the primacy of the conditions of “alive” or “biological” in the common assumption made about transsexuals: they are born into the wrong body. This suggests that things would have been fine if their bodies matched their trapped souls. Felicity Huffman’s character, Bree Osbourne, is trans female in that she is a woman born with male anatomy. She cries to her mother “Mom, you never had a son”. Like other forms of cinematic transsexuality, such as Boys Don’t Cry, such films offer the “born into the wrong body” mantra as the overall narrative arc while teasing out the social and emotional tensions within finer narrative detail. One need not elaborate on how these may function to reassert hetero-normativity; transgender groups already resist this by providing the idea of “gender fuck”, where they combine in their appearances and behavior, both female and male traits. To the effect that it interrupts the conventional forms of gender, perhaps gender fucking does its job; but it remains that the grammar of gender-fucking – dress, emotion, behavior – draws from the heteronormative. In order to really move beyond hetero-normativity the body cannot simply be fought in terms of gender because gender, whether activist groups will admit or not, can never be divorced from biological conditions.
This is where the impasse must take a more productive turn. The question is not whether he or she, but one of “it” and “its”, between that of machine and cognition.
Whether male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM), the transsexual body, by being the central focus of transformativity or change, already provides a language for a mechanical register of human. The transsexual body is broadly described as pre-op or post-op. Bree Osbourne, is a pre-op transwoman, meaning she is waiting to undergo gender reassignment surgery to acquire female genitalia. The importance of the ‘op’, or the surgery is suggested by it being the key driving force of Bree’s actions and relationships with people around her. It suggests that until Bree’s male anatomy is cosmetically altered to mimic the female genitalia, Bree’s identity and social being are things that cannot engage with the world. She needs, in other words, the necessary prosthetic, to plug into the hetero-normative world. However, GRS never realizes its goal because no gender is actually re-assigned; rather, a completely different mode of existence is produced wherein the privilege of the biological is mechanized. In this mode, neither the biological nor the mechanical takes complete hold of the human: as automaton, machine and human are mutually enabling and mutually destroying.
The automaton is a mode of perpetual failure, since GRS must be sustained by a lifetime of hormone treatment – a bi to tri-monthly dosage of hormones to ensure that the rest of the body looks the part: for the FTM, this includes a lower voice, facial hair, coarser skin texture and special dietary needs to counter the side effects of hormone treatment on health. The failure of the machine is induced by the failure of the body to mimic the biological functions of a “bio boy” or a “real girl”. Indeed this is an uphill task. Even in these terms bio boy and real girl, one can see that the historical advantage of biology: it is worth noting that the term “bio boy” does not invert itself accordingly. MTFs refer to “factory equipped” females as “real girls” rather than bio girls, highlighting the central importance of the penis as originary progenitor of Biology whilst the female genitalia may only be consigned as “real”: truthful according to Father Biology. Yet it is in the failure of the automaton to be either total machine or a bio boy or real girl, that we may also invoke the failure of the privileged human. What is produced, the automaton, allows us to dictate a failed human; in this way the automaton may be said to be an idiom of productive failure to de-naturalize the mythic, biological components of the privileged human.
One sees this play out in the idea of failed happiness. “Real” happiness is assigned as one register of “real” human. UK’s National Health Service (NHS) advises that pre-ops must undergo what is known as “Real Life Experience” (RLE) where by pre-ops must live as their desired gender for 12-24 months to ensure that “permanent surgery is the right decision”. The idea of the RLE is based on the belief that the pre-op transsexual body and external social stimuli of the hetero-normative world intersect in error unless confirmed otherwise.This is based on a notion of happiness where happiness is non-error, or no-mistake; it is centered on the idea that the automaton’s lived – cognitive – experience, or RLE, must also be a matter of social ritual and habituation. For Bree this involves, as her therapist instructs, integrating and assimilating Stanley (her male past) into her life as woman. In order for the transsexual to be happy transsexual, i.e. a happy human, the machine must be ritualized and habituated in a socially and historically determinate way so that the machine is ideally invisible. In the UK, to qualify for the Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), one must produce evidence of a suitable continuity in past, present and future in order to be certified a happy transsexual: prove that one has lived as their “preferred gender for the last two years, and that you intend to live permanently in your preferred gender”. Yet regardless of the classifications awarded by the body politic, the automaton remains in a state of flux.
The degree of flux depends on the amount of stealth possessed by the automaton’s form. When a post-op is living in stealth, it means the automaton “passes” as a biological male or female all time. The automaton with stealth is able to move and act as lifelike gender without being detected. Obviously the automaton’s stealth does not fail as long as the mechanical genitalia – prosthetic – are not placed in situations where they are expected to work. Without stealth, the automaton must confront the risk of mechanical failure at every turn, even after GRS.
It is precisely the failure of the machine that allows the automaton to confront the failures of human; it is in this machine-human reflection that one sees specific discriminatory denomination of human and machine, kept separate by the body politic. There is a great debate around the validity of GRS. It revolves around the question of whether this mechanical intervention offers transsexuals the proverbial “happiness”. This means that “gender dysphoria” is not incompatible with the belief that transsexuals are simply unhappy men or women born with the wrong body. However, by invalidating the mechanical, using as evidence unhappy post-ops, the body politic attempts to restore the privileged notion of human – genetic, biological, and natural.
The transsexual body aligns with the promise of mechanical happiness for after all, the automaton wants to retain the choice of flicking the switch. The body politic is uncomfortable with this. The argument, if automatons were to retain their choice, cannot be narrated in terms of options – this is wasteful in the eyes of the body politic – but in terms of absolute success. For this purpose, the (failed) work of GRS falls into false absolutes so that even the automatons must appear to comply with such absolutes. The transsexual body requires the technology provided by the body politic to make them part machines. Paradoxically, the automaton’s happiness is really only constituted in terms of failure, since it is a biologically/mechanically failed mode of human. What we then get is a double negated success: we do not assert the happy transsexual body rather, we say, the automaton is not unhappy. On the 30th of July 2004, UK newspaper Guardian, commented on the research around this debate. Itquotes an employee at the NHS gender identity clinic as saying “There’s no other treatment that works. You either have an operation or suffer a miserable life. A fifth of those who don’t get treatment commit suicide”.
At the end of Transamerica, Bree finally gains the approval and acceptance of her family before embarking on surgery. Right after the operation, she merely grimaces at the pain of her wounds but sobs hard while gesturing to her chest saying “it hurts”, wherein her therapist goes “Oh, honey, that’s what hearts do”. At this point, Bree Osbourne finally confronts her motherly anguish at losing her son, whom she has grown to love as her own throughout the film. This is the money moment for the film where Bree’s internal universe may now become external because her emotions have acquired a pronoun. It is in this moment that Bree’s tribulations through the story are restored as arising out of issues of self and of soul, and the conflicts of familial affection and kinship as a result of her desire to remove Stanley’s penis. Bree is spared “a miserable life” because she successfully completed the customary pre-op “Real Life Experience”. As the film closes, we see the automaton fade into invisibility: Bree’s estranged son comes back to visit her in a new home and new life, where she is taking a course to become a teacher.
Clearly, the film eventually falls back on the most pliant character device: human emotion. It is disappointing to see that Transamerica falls into the shadow of human emotion just as cinematic transsexuality often do. Even though the film does well initially to figure the transsexual body as automaton, it never really carries this notion far enough, far enough so that the failure of machine reveals the failure of the human.
I picked these up at the Self Publish Be Happy fair at the ICA this year.
Clod Magasine #24 – A5, B&W photocopy, £1
This one had me cackling like a loon. Clod was created in 1987 – back when zines were still called fanzines – by the now split Luton-based, DIY indie band, Thrilled Skinny. Clod mag is the unofficial publication for fans of medium-sized towns and ‘ham sambucas’. They also write haikus about Luton and have since formed other bands such as The Knockouts. A ‘proper’ zine brought to you via stapler, scissors, glue and £1 price tag, Clod is a neater incarnation of that lo-fi tradition of 70s punk fanzines. It’s driven by satirical and often very funny content rather than aesthetics (although its cover page looks artfully put together), which means spilling your ale on the mag probably only improves it. The readers’ letters page is my favorite - a conversational element of small press that I often miss in newer zines. Read it whilst sat in a pub; plus more about their other publications at www.hightown.org.uk
Photograph Converted into Base64 Code - A5, B&W print, £5
In theory, you can only see the images in this photo zine by Matthew Birchall, winner of the Café Royal Award 2012, by scanning the pages of this zine, do a text-scan to extract the code and run it through a piece of software that will decode (or encode??) it for you. Too much hassle? That’s precisely the point. I’m no programmer but I can do a pop-media explanation: I think Birchall wants to make us aware that any photograph is a thing that is an aggregation of smaller bits (Base64 binary data), which can be re-combined into other things that will relate back to this thing. In philosophy, they use this approach to study objects. Very future-thinking zine. Definitely one for the OOOs.Pricey for a single-idea experiment though (£5), I would count it more artist booklet than zine. Available also at Good Press Gallery.
Can’t remember the last time I sweated so much in one cycle - hottest Sunday of 2011 so far!
Took Shelby II to Kensington to see the RCA show today. Few bits of work really stood out for me from the MA Communication Art & Design. First, Joseph Pochodzaj’s Language-Analysis: he analyzed speeches made during the financial crisis by government and/or trade unions, using discourse analysis from micro (e.g. most frequently used words) to macro levels to comment on the communications strategies used for the purpose of social and political power.
Another: The Red Tape Series was also a very satisfying exhibit for me. It was a nice combination of audio, video and print to create a sort of ‘learning corner’ in which visitors can listen to recordings, browse books and pamphlets and view the graduate design work that came out of the series. From March to May this year, students organized a series of lectures and talks to instigate inter-departmental conversations about salient topics in art and design practice such as ownership, protest, performance, fiction, and curating. Speakers in the series include The Yes Men, Mark Fisher, Nina Power and Neville Brody.
[However, listening to Brody speak in one of the Red Tape Series audios was extremely frustrating. (Yet again!) He talks about ‘warfare’, ‘foot soldiers’ and ‘battleground’ without any real reflection on the protest events he is referring to. His ideas seem permanently couched in simplistic military metaphors and circular reasoning. He seems to be recycling - without edit! - to the same schemes of cultural resistance he used in the 80s.]
On a more pretty note, I enjoyed Cat Roissetter’s bleak and evocative etchings - on the wall, these weren’t very big but seemed wonderfully portentous in their fine detail and texture.
Last week, Vinay Gupta came to WSA and gave an interesting guest lecture about Open Hardware Shelter Technology. He showed us Hexayurts, these geometric, six-sided, plywood shelters he reckons could help solve housing challenges for the world’s climate refugees. I thought they look super:
I think it’s a great design solution and idea for a pretty complex humanitarian issue.
What’s more, they look so cool I want to build one and stick it in my garden. Problem is, I don’t think my garden is big enough for a metallic Hexayurt (and a silver space-sphere thingamagig).
This got me interested in yurt-living. And I can most definitely imagine myself living in this:
I am no hippie by any means but this is soooo much better than the cramped up, measly “charming studio flat” estate agents try to flog to you for stupid hundred thousands of money. Apparently you can buy a yurt in the US for anything between USD4000 - USD10,000. And you can make it yourself - the Mongolians make it look extremely doable. Forget fleur-de-lis wallpaper, Georgian fireplaces and Kevin McCloud’s shit hosting; I think yurts are the way forward, plywood ones for humanitarian purposes and lux ones for us to rid the world of evil estate agents.
Just watched Source Code at the cinema - entertaining and pretty exciting. Bit cheesy at times, but the hotness of Jake made up for it. However, I didn’t get the ending. It wasn’t as complicated as Inception. In fact, it was pretty straightforward until the end. Looked it up on wikipedia and apparently it has to do with something called quantum immortality where by if one dies in a reality, it is possible to live in another reality and this process is triggered by a shift in space-time continuum.
I’ve never been very good at working out time travel related sci-fi - something like the Time Traveller’s Wife stumped me for a while after the 1st read - so I am a little tedious in working it out. My understanding of time continuum is similar to the one Doc explains to Marty in Back to the Future: time as this river flow with us swept in it; i.e. reality is explored as something linked to our actions but as an objective externality shared by many.
In SC, things are a bit different. Reality is expressed as memory/consciousness. One dead guy’s 8min residual consciousness produces a reality that is parallel and distinct to another dead guy’s 8 min residual consciousness. So there is no objective reality since you cannot prove that your reality is exactly the same as your mate’s reality. In other words, reality - the sum of space + time - is less of a space-time continuum and more of a continuum amongst many other continuums; a kind of simultaneous, cotemporaneous, plural, multi-dimensional mish-mash of the result of many people’s consciousnesses producing realities that will never meet.
Erm, it’s something like this. I’m not really sure. I did read a New Scientist article about the problem with the question of whether artificial intelligence - robots - have consciousness is that it is impossible to prove one is not the only conscious being amongst a world of zombies.
So SC is not the traditional kind of time travel like in Back to the Future - however, Jake was kind of travelling across time because he was travelling across different consciousnesses. He was going from one continuum to the next. Or that he created a whole new time-space continuum - reality - that emerged from the sum of his consciousness + another guy’s consciousness?
Bowie’s kid is damn clever.
Went to Comica at the Royal National Hotel this afternoon with O and J. We were greeted by a 70s hotel made of textured concrete, grey marbling and wood-panelled walls. The festival sprawled over three conference rooms of carpet that follows the same design principles as public transport upholstery. Odd place, you think, for a comic/zine fest …
As we entered, I was immediately struck by the crowd and the stall holders. No double-denim trendies, but sort of middle-aged (mostly) men standing behind heaving boxes of graphic novels from as early as the 1950s to early runs of Penguin books and Doctor Who. Yellowed pages flanked by collectors in fleecy jumpers. Bearded men in canvas gilets and check shirts who had lovingly kept every comic in plastic pockets and some enshrined their copies of Spiderman and Walking Dead in pyrex slides. I loved the atmosphere - I’ve never seen so many over-40s in one room so animated about science-fiction, marvel comics and zines! I wanted to speak to everyone of these collectors whose boxes must be full of stories of marvellous childhood passions.
Without the rare privilege of their oral history, I must be content with some of their printed souvenirs. I bought a 1978 copy of Pizzazz - a magazine published by Marvel Comics from 1977 to 1979 - which seemed like a early forerunner to Grazia+Private Eye. Also bumped into Hugh at Landfill Editions who had some larger tabloid-size format publications that looked really amazing! In the zine room, I bought this lovely book with a screenprinted cover by Jonathon Rosen called “Intestinal Fortitude: Depictions of Anatomical Blasphemy”. Rosen’s drawings of macabre creatures with all manner of medical / surgical instruments joining up limbs and bodies; looked like an homage to nineteenth-century science and H R Giger.
(sorry, I know my photos are crap - I’m working on it, promise)
41 Televisions is a zine-ic exploration of technology. It’s made by the good folks at The Newspaper Club - which is a rather fabulous website that helps people create their own newspapers - and Conway + Young, a design collaboration based in Leeds. They are both lecturers in Graphic Arts, and do loads of projects that “combines education, art and community engagement, and [working]
within local areas, engaging with creativity and art in many forms and contexts”. Working with students in workshops at Warren Primary School in Nottingham, the result is 41 Televisions, a newspaper supplement which also works as a standalone zine.
41 Televisions is a series of visual takes on various inventions such as the vinyl record, the abacus, the computer, the wireless radio and all the machines that has expanded our ability to create. The aim was to get students “to challenge and question their relationship with technology”. The end result, made of found-images and hand-drawings, works really well and is more provocative for its purpose than using a ‘proper’ format because 41 Televisions, I think, aims to capture the emotive rather than impressive impact of technology on our lives. It is more involved with ideas rather than polished layouts and images; 41 Televisions is funny, engaging and er, impressive. More projects can be found on their page here.