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The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture - exhibition catalogue
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The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture

Showing at: The Edmonton Art Gallery, 2 Sir Winston Churchill Square
Until: Feb. 23, 2003

by Gilbert Bouchard

Not only does Bruce Grenville see a clear connection between Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Sigmund Freud’s writings, The Terminator and Pablo Picasso, he thinks you should too.

The sprawling cross-cultural, multi-media exhibit he’s curated, The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture currently occupying most of the second story of the Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG), explores our society’s deep cultural fascination with machines and technology.

Grenville’s project pays special attention to the challenge presented by idea/image of the cyborg – beings that are part-human, part-machine – and uses a wide swath of visual artifacts to make his point.

From Pablo to Arnold

Objects on display range from mainstream, historic works of art you’d expect to see in an art gallery – more traditional than not artworks by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Lewis Hine, Jacob Epstein – to popular culture products. Non-traditional objects on display include: an iron lung, video clips and models from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Terminator, a playset and action figures from the TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man, avant-garde projects from North America and Asia, as well as examples of cartoon artwork plucked from Japanese manga and anime.

“This project started 10 years ago when I was at the Mendel Art Gallery (in Saskatoon) and there was a lot of interest in the subject in a variety of forms,” says Grenville, a former EAG senior curator. “At the time they had invested over a million dollars in a virtual reality lab at the Banff Centre not to mention all the games and movies there were coming out featuring cyborgs.”

(The Terminator, the memorable movie about the relentless cyborg from 2029 directed by Canadian-born James Cameron, was released in 1984, while the Paul Verhoeven-directed cyborg-cop-satire Robocop debuted in 1987.)

“I realized this was a huge discourse and that I’d have to move across all of this material and open up a dialog between it all.”

The fine intellectual and moral line between ourselves and increasingly intelligent objects

The end result is an eloquent, deeply narrative-based show that walks a viewer through 400 years of cultural obsession with machines and how we draw that fine intellectual and moral line between ourselves and our increasingly intelligent objects.

Starting with René Descartes’ 17th century meditation that human beings were akin to organic machines (man as machine), the exhibit documents various shifts in attitudes towards the mechanical from Lewis Hines photographs of men with “heroic machines” to cubist art which fragmented the human figure and “blurred the lines”, allowing for an artistic penetration of the geometric mechanical realm into the organic.

Moving deeper into the 20th century past the mechanically-fueled mayhem of World War I, we see a culture increasingly ill at ease with the horrific possibility of human/machine hybridization. With Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis and Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, the image of a menacing machines and horrific robots directly threatening humans emerge artistically.

By the time we reach the present day, images of cyborgs and robots are deeply polarized – killing machines like the Terminator or the deeply erotic like Star Trek’s sexy “Seven of Nine” – reflecting a deep ambiguity with the possibility of mechanical intelligence.

Western dualism and Japanese animism

Grenville’s show contrasts this deeply dualistic western discourse about the imaginary divide between soul-possessing humans and inanimate machines with incredibly divergent Japanese ideas of technology.

“They have a different relation to the machine and technology,” says the Vancouver-based curator.

Japan’s religious and philosophical history allows machines to share animistic spirits, moving their artistic robot/cyborgs beyond the limiting fear/fascination, good/evil, machine/human dualisms found in western culture. So, while America produces frightening entities like Star Trek’s Borg, Grenville underlines far more positive cyborg/robot entities from Asia like the cherubic Astro Boy who’s programmed to be helpful and protective.

Language is violence

Originally presented in Vancouver, several works of art couldn’t travel to the Edmonton showing. Grenville decided to fill this gap with Edmonton work built along the same theme, including Blair Brennan’s quirky branding iron typewriter – a huge, desk-sized Rube Goldberg-esk contraption that burns/writes three-inch high letters unto cow hides.

A “Junkyard Wars” fan, Brennan wanted to create a machine that was needlessly complex and also makes physical the relationship between the body and language.

In effect, says Grenville, Brennan has created a machine that ‘writes’ directly on the body (on skins) and underlines via its physical reality that “language is violence”.


Hara/Kobayashi Labs, Science University of Tokyo, Second-Generation Face Robot, (2001) [Peter Menzel Photography]

Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, James Cameron's The Terminator: menacing machines and horrific robots threaten humanity

Japan's history allows machines to share animistic spirits

Blair Brennan's branding iron typewriter: Language is violence







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