Within the vast array of phraseology being coined to describe use of the Internet are the names that designate its promise of new kinds of sexual adventure, among them virtual sex, net porn, teledildonics. What is the “new” in these neologisms?
Neonudism is a hypermedia project conceived as a response to this query. It is designed to place viewers, or users in electronic parlance, into a conceptual and aesthetic environment in which they experience a “live” on-line sex scene. The philosophy of Neonudism is premised on eliciting in the user a desire to risk self-exposure, and at the same time it is much concerned with stripping away technological novelty to expose conventions. Neonudism is directed toward cutting through layers of technological mediation in parallel with revealing personal desires – but ironically, through the use of technology.
In Le Grand Verre, Marcel Duchamp showed us La Mariee Mise a Nu par ses celibataires, meme, the ultimate feminine erotic essence without clothes, without a “tool.” She is the key to the desire apparatus of the chocolate-grinding masculine masturbation machine, the fuel for its autoerotic engine. Today people are intensely interested in how the Net might reconfigure or enhance the desiring apparatus, as we see in “teledildonics.” There are two aspects of this that are particularly interesting. One is the constant flow of sex images on the Net ranging from familiar nudie porn pictures to the most specialized fetishes, indicating the unquenchable onanistic desire of the bachelor machine. The other is the adoption of disguises by Net-cruisers, intended to enhance their sense of freedom as they connect with each other in cyberspace. Neonudism purposes that ultimately these features of desire on the Net are apparati that conceal rather than reveal, that clothe rather than denude. (1)
To participate in Neonudism, the user first engages with a constructed audio and visual environment whose underlying premise is “artistic teledelegation.” This refers to a conceptual, visual and auditory strategy that links a viewer of the work to a denuding or self-revealing experience, which here involves a connection to CUSeeMe live two-way erotic video. (2) Teledelegation is the key to penetrating the cloaking layers that block self-disclosure on the Net. It is a representational strategy based on several layers of surrogacy. The top layer of imagery is the point of identification or entry for the viewer — a digital video “self-portrait of the artist,” or at least, a portrait of a self-involved artistic temperament. This portrait is merged into the next layer of teledelegation, an “eye candy” program of self-generating imagery which portrays the inner workings of the machine as having a quasi-organic and visually pleasurable life of its own. (3) The composite of these two elements responds visually and audibly to the moment of self-disclosure, that is, the feeding in of a CUSeeMe image. This recognition transforms the “amateur porn” participants who are present via CUSeeMe into “art nudes,” thus pushing the viewer through the boundary of distinction between experience and art, and between nudity and sexuality.
The first problem in materializing these ideas in a digital image environment is how to portray concealment and, consequently, denuding. Although my work as an artist has always been subjective, personal presence tends to be couched in metaphor and abstraction. There is a longstanding biological metaphor in my visual art practice that links representation itself to the production of subjectivity, to self-reproduction one could say. This metaphor is also a way to have a vicarious and playful participation in species reproduction, which I have not otherwise engaged in. For Neonudism, I wanted to develop an image on screen of a self-absorbed female character who would be my proxy in self-production. She should both hide and reveal my presence as she speaks for me, leading viewers into a CUSeeMe episode with the same mix of curiosity and awkwardness that I feel myself. She is the viewer’s delegate.
In her exploration of a new sex technology, this proxy is engaged in a process of self-knowledge through sex, a search for meaning about sexuality. In fact she should exhibit an excessive attempt to make sense of sexual experience, as an ironic strategy that points to the limits of a Net sex environment. To represent such an excess in thinking and place it into the mouth of my delegate, I couch my own experience in the discursive framework of three well-known philosophers. This is intended to serve a double purpose. These are thinkers whose ideas I have long admired and identified with, and so I want to use Neonudism as a vehicle for their thoughts as they have influenced my thoughts.
But at the same time, the strategy is to be tongue-in-cheek, as if the quotes from their texts are merely footnotes to my own tales of sexual adventure. Through the absorption of ideas from Nietzsche, Bataille and Irigaray as well as quotes from their writings, I want to address what I see as a paradox of Net space, or cyberspace. Immersion in cyberspace entails both a loss of self and an enhancement of self, akin to an intense sex experience. These three writers have each taken up the theme of a complicated interplay between ego fortification and loss, Irigaray and Bataille explicitly in relation to sexuality.
This theoretical level of eroticization is to work in parallel with a loss and gain of identity in the immersive experience of CUSeeMe, which in certain ways results in seeing oneself anew, in a sexualized self-knowledge. The cyber-helmsman that generates the immersive feedback loop is sexual curiosity, directing the experience and keeping it tied to body experience. The theorists’ presence is mitigated by other voices speaking over and around the surrogate’s voice, which is already composed of different personae vying for authenticity. In this layering of identity, the assumption of a voice of intellectual authority by the speaker serves as a layer of concealment covering over the rawness of sexual curiosity. When the surrogate tells stories that ring of firsthand and lived experience, they are therefore enhanced and intensified for the viewer.
Another level of irony and of humour comes forward in imagining participants in a CUSeeMe session discussing dense theory as part of the chat window experience. (4) Although this is not entirely out of the bounds of possibility it certainly is not part of the usual format. The voice of my own script, as it unfolds toward contact with a video feed, overtly admits curosity and anticipation, countering the oblique highbrow talk that opens the session and speaking more directly to potential video participants. And that, after all, is the point. In an environment of live exchange and exposure, two-way contact is what counters paranoid space. In the CUSeeMe clubs, there is a generous acknowledgment and even acceptance of lurkers, those who want to remain invisible to watch and listen. But the idea is to enter, and to engage.
As live images of the “friends” who participate come in, you watch your own involvement, see yourself on screen as seen by the others present. The effect is not the much discussed disembodiment or virtuality of cyberspace, but a sense of recourse to familiar conventions and thus of a kind of alienation. The conventions are hard to see precisely because of their familiarity and the cloaking effect of a new and, in this case, cumbersome medium. My own response feels both obsessive and distant, alienated desire cut off from its object by the very slow rate of information transmission, or by the reluctance that follows from a surfeit of analytical overlay. It’s hard to say which, but then, I’m a newbie.
Defamiliarization is a key issue. This is a term from the Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovskii, and it means presenting familiar things in such a way that they are experienced again as if for the first time. We are thinking of Duchamp’s subtle insertion of explicitness in his reworking of art nudes, especially his Lovers series of etchings which culminate in an interpretation of Courbet’s Femme a bas blanc (his painting of a woman peeling off her stockings, displaying her sex). Duchamp alerted the viewer to Courbet’s coy voyeuristic intentions by adding a watching bird to the scene. We propose that the unfamiliarity of the Net as an artistic medium can also defamiliarize conventions that appear under its protection.
The Neonude surrogate’s presence on screen also invokes a biological metaphor, as a way to merge the human and machine aspects of the environment. She should be seen as a kind of engulfing female monster who lives in the recesses of electronic space, a swallowing machine. She swallows the video images as they feed in, melts and merges, bursts in a spew of pixels. Biology here implies involvement with human drives, it is biology in the sense that Freud perceived an as yet unexplained bridge between the needs and wants of the body, and those of the psyche. My way of addressing this area is to inhabit an ultra feminine persona who allows me to explore the familiar terrain of my femininity in an unfamiliar way and to portray it as simultaneously very evident and completely elusive. For instance, it permits me to play the role of the submissive, to be disguised by submission so as to penetrate a new surround.
In developing the neonudist delegate, working from my own experience, I wanted to expose more than I usually do about myself while avoiding the simply confessional. Considering aspects of myself that I conceal behind various kinds of masks is like considering experiences forgotten, through time or through more elaborate processes of submerging in the psyche. In assuming the task as an artist to access these recesses of the psyche, there should be no deterrents to following the compulsions of desire and will wherever they lead. I think of French artist Sophie Calle as a preeminent practitioner of such self-exposure. Reading about her video work Double Bind, I experience a shock of recognition. (5) I don’t want Neonudism to be a painful experience for myself or anyone else, frankly admitting desperation and brutalization as Calle does. But her drive to lay bare her psychosexual vulnerability by means of a scenario that she herself has staged is like my own impetus to understand the switching mechanisms between abjection and control, two extreme psychic conditions operating within the same subjectivity, and intimately tied to personal sexual history.
Calle’s work investigates conceptions of the subject that are key to feminist theories and have often been contentious within them. My own long-standing interest in this area has been especially influenced by the French feminist psychoanalyst and philosopher Luce Irigaray, resulting in a scenarization for Neonudism that is an attempt to articulate the place where there is no text — the negative, absence, a place without representation, the lack-of-having (the phallus, and thus subjectivity). At the core of my strategy is the idea of representational surrogacy, or, of representation as surrogacy. Psychoanalytic theory, in the form that it infused the study of representation in the 1980s and shaped the feminist point of view, proposes a subjectivity that is both overdetermined from its earliest stages and yet always in process. This paradox allows the surrogate to be the self that is never solved, and even more importantly, to be a signifier not just for self (presence), but also for not-self (absence). Such a notion is crucial to any project that involves the emergence of dimensions of the self not yet experienced.
This approach to the study of subjectivity enriched enormously the conceptualization of intersubjectivity, the everyday and intimate exchanges that continuously shape the human psyche. At the same time that it examines subjectivity, Neonudism is about the banality that the Net can inflict on intersubjectivity, or let’s say, its imposition of mediated affect compared to the real-life drama that Calle’s work is engaged with and pulls the viewer into. Here I’m referring to the exaggerated promise of electronic erotic connection in a medium such as CUSeeMe, with no intention to deny the new forms of communication that the Net permits. (6) Voyeurism remains voyeurism, in whatever medium. Cyberspace is portrayed as a space of perceptual revolution, especially when it is linked to technological hype such as the Virtual Reality fad. Neonudism seeks to strip bare that apparatus.
Neonudism is an attitude toward technology that is premised on “low tech.” In technoculture we use advanced tools to try to regain a state of nature. VR would be the most visible example: its goal is to make of itself a transparent medium so as to try and simulate consciousness itself. As a potential art form, VR could be seen as the current technolimit of the attempt to reveal the inner self in a linkup between psyches. But VR is more of an imagined than an actual tech; and unless it addresses the massive differences between actual and imagined virtuality, it conceals more than it reveals. We like the idea of wanting to reveal, wanting to access the innermost reaches of the psyche and especially its apparatus of desire. The premise of neonudism is to divest ourselves of the clothing of elaborate tools with a view toward disclosing ourselves as fully as possible. The contradiction is that we require technology to do this, we require teledelegation to link ourselves to the revealing potential of Net sexuality. Our solution is simple technology that exposes itself as a prosthesis of the imagination: the desiring machine itself stripped bare.
The surrogate is sexually charged through the image of her face alone, incessantly verbalizing, suggesting an absorption of the viewer through a hypnotic drone of text into the dematerialized space of the machine. As she speaks an intense, dense and self-involved monologue, she is interrupted and countered by the entry of a CUSeeMe expose. The intention is to suggest that the CUSeeMe encounter is more with self than with others: you don’t really contact anyone else in this medium, rather you experience yourself in a new way, in simulated erotic exchange with others. As pleasure it is a familiar fantasy construction because it circles back into you, the user. But it can entail a metaphoric experience as well, that of splitting off part of yourself and projecting it elsewhere, a sensation of being manipulated electronically and then reabsorbed back into yourself. This could be considered a new territory of fantasy generated within electronic space, into which we thrust the exploratory probe of Neonudism.