Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future Fictions Salon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist Stelarc

Stelarc took part in the original Virtual Futures conferences at Warwick University in the 90s. His work explores alternative anatomical architectures, interrogating issues of agency, identity and the post-human. He has performed with a mechanical third hand, a stomach sculpture and a six-legged walking robot; while Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite are internet performances that explore remote and involuntary choreography. Most recently, he has harnessed surgery and stem-cell technology to grow an ear on his arm.

thumbnail_Andrew Wallace & Stelarc
Stelarc and Andrew Wallace

Stelarc’s presentation at Tuesday’s Virtual Futures made clear that he does not see virtual reality as a world of abstract, disembodied avatars; indeed, for him, the physical is intrinsic to any digital identity. A proponent of body-hacking, in which people radically alter their physical selves through extreme procedures such as skull piercing, surgery to change ear shape or eyeball tattooing, Stelarc has gone further with the ear he has grown on his arm.

The ear was created through stem-cell growth and manipulation of med-pore, a six-month process that enabled skin-growth and vascularisation. A mic has been inserted into the ear; it will eventually be internet-enabled so that other people can become remote listeners.

This project reflects earlier works, like Parasite, in which Stelarc’s body was controlled by impulses determined by a computer that used electric shocks to manipulate the artist’s muscles, removing his decisions from the performance. In both pieces, Stelarc invites us to imagine what is left when consciousness is taken away; whether into cyberspace, or with the body as an end-effector that reflects the desires of everyone else.

Stelarc’s work balances the body’s possible obsolescence with its potential as a private psychological space beyond the brain. In 1993’s Stomach Sculpture, he inserted a crab-like robotic object into his own stomach, recording the event through an endoscopic camera fed into his oesophagus to suggest the creation of a hidden conceptual realm away from public space.

The piece also foreshadowed the invisibility of future augmentation, with emerging techniques like nanotechnology changing human bodies at the molecular level. In his presentation, Stelarc stated that we will look the same because tomorrow’s technology will be invisible.

Nonetheless, he insists that the very existence of the virtual requires vast physical change. This position hints at a possible solution to some intersectional crises, in that the changes required will remove the need for the body to be an object of desire. However, there is risk that the current tendency to outsource senses and agency to others via virtual reality will mean the body ultimately experiences itself via its own phantom; that people will become mere genetic algorithms.

There is a political dimension implied in Stelarc’s ontological position and works like Third Hand, in which the performer interacted with an extra mechanical limb. In his Virtual Futures presentation, Stelarc explained how the mechanical and software additions were a comment on excess. He elaborated on this theme with observations on the evolution of artificial skins into one fluid, interactive surface. These extraordinary artefacts will gift us with the potential to become amplified, but also emptied.

Virtuality, Stelarc says, is an outcome; to optimise it we must fully understand the interaction between the biological, technological and virtual.

The storytellers

Nine authors presented specially written short works on Tuesday; interestingly, some were performed by other people, which was a fitting expression of the evening’s theme.

Britte Schulte’s short, funny and timely piece iDentity took the form of that most insufferable of virtual communication: the tailored ‘on-hold’ message, in which companies take advantage of a captive audience (the caller) to sell them things they didn’t phone about. This one was spot on: the message offers a product that will provide the convenience of ‘liking’ online baby and holiday photos so that subscribers can get on with their lives. Meanwhile, the ‘Politics Pro’ option will present an opinion; presumably distilled from other online interactions.

thumbnail_Britte Schulte
Britte Schulte

AC Tyger’s haunting, poetic Aldebaran (read by Andrew Wallace) was narrated by a post-human virtual entity, who no longer has time for death. This being is still all-too recognisable, however, as it muses on its multiple selves in Aldebaran, a mysterious realm that preserves and refines identity. Still subject to virtual fates as powerful as those in the analogue universe, the narrator considers the various positions that have led to its current state, including the unreasonable expectation of others that it exists once again as a physical being.

The stories included some great questions. One such ontological query lay at the heart of Concrete Genocide, by Sophie Sparham, in which two players bicker about the right strategy to win an online game. Gradually, we become aware that in this world the games have become the players and the people are disposable characters – or ‘meatsacks’ – who can be destroyed either through incompetence or at whim. The question at the dark heart of the story is ‘Are meatsacks sentient?’

thumbnail_Sophie Sparham
Sophie Sparham

The idea of our virtual selves controlling us is also explored in Beautiful Mirror Beings by Jane Norris. In this tale, an idealised digital entity doesn’t play games with a person; it operates her, as if it is a pilot who is endlessly frustrated at the inadequacies of her vehicle. ‘I am tethered to Jane like an early internet connection’ bitches the narrator, who turns out to be ‘driving’ the author as she reads Beautiful Mirror Beings at Virtual Futures’ Near World Fictions on Tuesday. It’s one of several brilliant ideas in the story; another is the concept of going ‘reverse Pinocchio’, whereby the Beautiful Mirror Beings aspire to be less human.

thumbnail_Jane Norris
Jane Norris

In Conjugal Frape, by Jamie Watt, there’s another inventive narrative form and a question no less outrageous for lying beneath many current online interactions: ‘Is your private life worth showing off? If not, then follow me’. However, everything has gone wrong for this mediator, who is being tried for sedition. She is ‘responsible’ for an online post in which she appears to challenge the fiction that the 99% can have what the 1% have if they work hard and buy the correct products. The title suggests she didn’t write the offending article; although in this story’s reality, truth appears to make little difference.

thumbnail_Jamie Watt
Jamie Watt

CR Dudley’s The Test (read by Dan Coxon) looks at how authenticity has become such a powerful concept it is almost a virtual currency. The narrative posits a world in which people are required, seemingly by law, to be authentic; which is to say they must match their virtual personae. If they fail, they are not ‘backed’, which sounds like an entire economic hierarchy based on the principles of Kickstarter. The problem for our protagonist is that she is 59% more neurotic in person than she appears online. No one will back her, but there are always opportunities; perhaps she will be tempted by a new product that will make her as agreeable and extroverted as she pretends.

The beautifully-titled With a Robot on the Last Day, by Marc Böhlen, dramatizes the interactions between a comfort robot who has been assigned to ease a patient’s final moments and the patient himself, who is known only as X. The robot is not seen; it is a protean entity that appears as a disembodied arm and a voice that is so soothing it freaks the patient out. In the author’s reading, the robot then adopts a tone that sounds like a helpful Terminator, which felt unexpectedly appropriate. When challenged on the small print about his care home contract, Patient X says he doesn’t remember, to which the robot replies, “You opened the door to robots and the end of forgetting.” Everything is remembered now, for better or worse.

thumbnail_Marc Bohlen
Marc Böhlen

The theme of remembering also features in Anne McKinnon’s Memories Inc, with the titular company providing a service in which people frantically ‘back up’ their daily existence, as we do our photos. The panicked protagonist seems to carry out this metaphysical admin more from habit than reasoned decision. We wonder how many of his memories are about backing up memories, or memories of worrying about memories being hacked or falling prey to some other online catastrophe. Then again, how much the narrative is ‘real’, and how much is a – possibly degraded – digital memory?

 

thumbnail_Anne McKinnon
Anne McKinnon

 

Many of the evening’s narratives explored obsolescence. From Dust to Digital and Back by Stephen Oram, curator of Near Future Fiction, movingly flips the concept. This plaintive short monologue features another virtual entity; however, this one is lonely. Whether due to upgrade or existence on a platform that is no longer fashionable, the online self is now as disregarded as those who created it. “I need you,” it says. “I need people. I will enjoy you. Please enjoy me.” Sadly, these entreaties feel much too late…

thumbnail_Stephen Oram

Other 2018 Near Future Fiction Themed Events:

  • 17 April: Tomorrow’s Battles
  • 15 May: Post Brain

Both events are from 6:30pm to 9:00pm

LIBRARY London, 112 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BD

Follow the conversation online using #VFFiction and by following @VirtualFutures

http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk

thumbnail_Luke Robert Mason
Luke Robert Mason the director of  Virtual Futures

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