In physics, transduction refers to the transformation of one form of energy to another—for example, speakers transduce audio signal into sound—however, in Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed (2002), the sociologist Adrian Mackenzie uses the term to describe an abstract transformation between machines and humans: technology becomes human-like and the body, machine-like. Madeleine Stack and Pauline Batista’s exhibition, Fatal Softness, subverts distinctions between virtual and physical, artificial and organic, inert and animate, and examines the largely unsettling social implications of the present collapse between technology and the body.
As visitors descend the stairs to the basement gallery, they hear a faint zuzzing. It’s not clear where the sound comes from until you stand under one of the strange, transparent plastic domes hanging from the ceiling—soon recognisable as speakers. What started as a muffled humming turns into a piercing beating noise, effecting a Mackenzian transduction between ear and speaker. It’s a kind of inverse ambient intelligence where, instead of technology responding to a human presence (like a light that switches on when a person steps into a room), the body becomes a receiver for nearby machines.
Koppel Project Baker Street sits in a decommissioned bank vault. As visitors move from the introductory installation to the main exhibition, they pass through two 15 inch-thick steel doors, between which runs a channel of space circumventing a central vault. Red spotlights suggest a breach of security and yet there’s no alarm, as if the vault has been ransacked and long-since abandoned; not so much a remote fiction but a reflection of the present, when sophisticated e-banking software has rendered the traditional high-street bank and heavy-duty vaults all but redundant.
As Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin argue in Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (2011), financial software has made money “more mobile” but also dangerously “footloose”, clearly illustrated, they contend, by the 2008 global banking crisis. Billions in currency can be sold and transferred from country to country in seconds, but by the same token, as 2008 showed, market downturns can escalate rapidly and reverberate around the planet.
Outside the vault, ‘LUTTE DE GLACE’ (2017) comprises around fifty resin casts of cobblestones torn up from the streets of Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in 2011. The sculpture forms a record of the protests, while also echoing Dodge and Kitchin’s account of a “footloose” virtual economy. Perhaps a better description would be metastable: stable until slightly disturbed, at which point it becomes volatile. The resin casts are stacked in a precarious pyramid—seemingly on the brink of collapse. The transparent blocks resemble ice—indeed, ‘glace’ is the French for ‘ice’— and similarly, for another of Stack’s installations, ‘Portable Monument’ (2017), the artist coated one of the gallery’s pillars in melted wax, left it to cool and harden. Such structures are only provisionally stable.
Both works parallel physical and financial meltdown, but also describe the despair felt during the subsequent recession. Shocked to find the banks had been gambling with their housing loans, people were then forced to look on as their savings drained away. As the title of the exhibition suggests, digital capitalism makes sponges of us. Bodies become senseless, porous blobs through which money flows in and out. Humans and capital become disturbingly permeable through software; human is transducted into capital, and vice versa.
Similarly, Batista’s ‘Genetic Jenga as a Zero-Sum Game’ (2017) implies that capital is engrained in the body’s DNA through genetic engineering. The sculpture comprises a series of Perspex prisms, stacked in twos to form a Jenga-like tower. One piece features an illustration of eyes taken from the report of a home genetic test Batista completed called ‘23 & me’. You spit into a tube and send it to the lab to be analysed; the company then returns a document detailing—among other things—your risk of passing on hereditary conditions to the next generation (in order, it must be assumed, to modify the decision to reproduce). Although this type of DNA profiling entails procreative choice, the line between eugenics and what in the 1980s was dubbed ‘transhumanism’ is not totally clear. Both seek to produce healthier, smarter, longer living, more athletic, beautiful humans through science and technology but, whereas pre-WWII eugenics involved state enforced sterilisations and class-race discrimination, transhumanism advocates complete reproductive liberty; nevertheless, both have the potential to produce social inequality.
Batista’s installation ‘Prototype for Future Requirements’ (2017) examines the ethically murky waters of genetic engineering. The series of test tubes, fixed perpendicular to the wall, filled with a black bile suggest the baleful potential of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Instead of helping those biologically incapable of conceiving, we may one day be sold the opportunity to select our children’s genes, allowing the richest to become the smartest, healthiest, etc. As Nick Bostrom imagines in Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014), even if countries did offer cheap inducements to encourage the poor to take advantage of genetic selection, they may attempt to increase social stability by selecting traits like docility, obedience and submissiveness, further entrenching social division. As suggested by title of the first of Batista’s works discussed, inequality is a ‘zero-sum game’. The poor are made comparatively poorer if the rich get richer, a gap that genetic engineering might encode in the body’s DNA, subject to generational increase.
If ‘Genetic Jenga’ and ‘LUTTE DE GLACE’ critique science and technology’s evils, conversely, other areas of the exhibition point toward a female sexual liberation. Batista’s ‘The Algorithm Will See You Now V’ (2017), a black-and-white photograph, features a portrait of the sort of genderless, half-machine, half-organism that Donna Haraway imagines in A Cyborg Manifesto (1985). Framed from the shoulder up, Batista pictures an unclothed, eroticised, androgynous subject. A bionic hand seductively pries open the figure’s lower lip, presenting modes of gender and desire not bound by binary anatomical essentialisms.
In the interior vault, ‘Fatal Softness’ (2017) explores the feminist possibilities of post-humanism, the idea that science and technology might completely eliminate the body. Humans—as we understand them—only feature in the 9-minute film as dead bodies. In a damp forest, a series of lifeless, naked women fall from a tree to the woodland floor, rotting into the leafy undergrowth, presenting a world in which bodies—and sexual distinctions—have become redundant. In this post-human scenario, women would no longer be subject to reproductive labour, but, paradoxically, this emancipation would simultaneously signal the end of the human race. The works in Fatal Softness suggest we are not so far off the point at which flesh and blood will be replaced by silicon; IVF, for example, substitutes the uterus for inanimate glass. It is, as Haraway says: “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”
Henry Broome is a writer based in London, interested in technology and the slippage between objecthood and subjecthood