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Transcribing the body

Nina Czegledy & André P.Czegledy

Orlan, Selfhybridation, 2010

Since the 17th century, understanding the human body as an operative, physiological mechanism has increasingly gained acceptance over its moral, religious and mythological interpretations. Among other dimensions of a socially salient nature, such shifts in the paradigm of the body expose a range of dichotomies that exist between received concepts of the physiologically-given body and the new artificialities of corporeality. In the discussion that follows, our intent is to interrogate the contemporary situation wherein the previously sharp division between organic and technological forms of existence has all but disappeared in the maw of scientific advance. This bodily disintegration – and reinvention – has strongly impacted upon and, in some cases, literally fragmented, contemporary perspectives on culture, scientific development, and the moralities of bodily composition. More specifically, with respect to the discussion at hand, it has influenced the differing ways in which artistic expression has embraced the changing realities of the human body as both artistic instrument and aesthetic canvas par excellence.

By preference (in the main title) for the term transcription rather than translation, we mean to highlight here the ability of Art to transfer meanings between and through a variety of social understandings linked to sensory experience. Such transcription may not only transcend culturally-grounded interpretations but, in a neo-Platonic fashion, often attempts to capture the essence of basic human values on a universal level. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most elementary frames of self-identity that so often provides the anchor for transcription: the human body itself. As the French artist Orlan quotes in prelude to her ‘surgical’ performances:

"Skin is deceiving… in life, one only has one's skin… there is a bad exchange in human relations because one never is what one has… I have the skin if an angel, but I am a jackal… the skin of a crocodile, but I am a puppy, the skin of a black person, but I am white, the skin of a woman, but I am a man; I never have the skin of what I am. There is no exception to the rule because I am never what I have."1

The Body & Science 

Early Body-Centred Art 

Multichannel, installation video

While the marginalisation of women is still apparent in technical industries such as computing, a major shift in gendered approaches to technology seems to be in progress. The familiar analogy that ‘female is to male as nature is to culture’ repudiated by anthropologists 3 – but only more recently being challenged in terms of everyday life – has been repeatedly undercut by the work of contemporary artists seeking to foreground the connections between technology and humanity. This direct response to the relationship between gender and technology can often be found in the work of artists who have decided to challenge established notions of the body (whether as aesthetic object or artistic canvas).

While the human body has long been a primary object of artistic expression, it was only in the immediate postwar period that artists liberated themselves from traditional conceptions of corporeality (in terms of its place in the artistic process) by way of experimentation with alternative approaches, techniques and aesthetic structures. For many of them, particularly those in the 1950s who began to appreciate the increasing impact of emerging technologies on society, body-centered performance art offered both an escape from studio confinement and the potential of integrating new realms of scientific achievement into their work.

By the 1960s, body-centered art became increasingly visible in the wider artistic community. Most of the artists were men, with the exception of a few early pioneers such as Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic. Among the first generation of body-centered performance artists, some went to calculated extremes in order to draw the attention of their audience – most notably the male artists associated with the Viennese Action Movement (who included bodily mutilation among their repertoire).

Women artists of the 1960s generally took a different tack; they might have used some shock-tactics of a visual nature but, on the whole, refrained from the more aggressive aspects of body-centered art. Although the practice of conceptual art generally prevailed over-body-based works in the ensuing years, the cultural climate of social liberation at the time ensured that the body became increasingly seen as a site for shifting identities and political struggle. Both of these concerns foreshadowed its central place in the next two decades of artistic expression. Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s, although artistic approaches to the body were marked by divergent considerations, the body quickly regained a focal role in contemporary art. To some it became into a chattel, a disposable possession, characterized by fake beauty while to others it represented an important, physical touchstone of "new" materiality.  Whichever opinion was expressed, it was clear that the body was being reinvented as an artistic battleground of social consideration:

"Feminist artists questioned the male-dominated litany of aesthetics values, or artistic criteria and of artistic historical practices.... they brought into the field of representation new views of gender and identity, of the body as subject matter, they created new forms of exploration such as body art.... in the wake of cultural deconstruction and the shifting consciousness of times, resistance to technology as an integral aspect of art-making and cultural development began to erode. Not only had new media invaded and changed the very fabric of public life by mid-seventies they also began to play an integral part in altering perceptions... "4

Video-based art had an especial impact upon women artists. It "grew out of prevailing philosophic and aesthetic currents, attracting women artists to this art form for the very reason that it had no constricting and defining history. [It is for this reason that] The work of many women artists continues to be an exploration of the mythologies and stereotypes, the economic and social realities that form the content and perception of the female experience" 5. The work of one of these artists, Valie Export, came to public attention in the late 1960s through her exploration of the connections between materiality and the body. Born Waltroud Holligen, she decided to change her name in 1967 and adopted the title and logo of an Austrian cigarette brand. Soon after this public reincarnation she began to harness a combination of photography, film, video and (later) computer processing and imaging technology to her work.

Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969)

Two of Export’s performances, Touch Cinema (1968) and Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) received wide attention and recognition at the time. Both characterize many of the major themes particular to her earlier works: the body, sexuality and corporeal modesty. In Touch Cinema, a street performance, Export walked around Vienna with a "little theater" box (complete with curtain) strapped to her chest and covering her from chin to waist. Peter Weibel, her partner, then invited passersby to open the curtains for 33 seconds each and touch her very real naked breasts. The performance emphasized not only ideas of body fetishism, but also highlighted the way in which the artist’s body may itself be(come) a part of the performance.

In Action Pants, Export again choose to use her body as a type of public canvas. She cut out the crotch from a pain of jeans and wore them to a popular art cinema, walking down the rows of seats in order to allow the audience a view of the ‘real thing’.  Over the years, Export became the most sought after multi-media art teacher in Germany. With respect to this multi-media orientation, von Braun reminds us that:

"Valie Export's works are trail-blazing also for the reason that very early on she appropriated 'control' of the visual instruments that define the female body".6

From the very beginning, Valie Export’s intent has been to investigate both the structures of symbolic systems and the machinery of the media; she has chosen to analyze institutionalized power from these two directions in order to define the dynamic processes that structure subjective perception, identification and, even, individual behaviour. When awarding the 1995 EA-Generali Foundation Prize to Export, the art historian Silvia Eiblmayr noted that:

"[She] has always joined a political dimension to her art. Linked to her artistic procedure was always the question as to power and the forms in which power is exerted. Her conceptual approach centered first and foremost on the following: With her analysis of the technical and apparatus-related functioning of these new media, she studied the effect that these media would have on human perception, their bodies, and social forms of behaviour. Her interest was the construction of representational systems, pictoral and/or linguistic systems, through which social realities and symbolic orders are produced and ideologically backed."7

Contemporary Performance Art & the Body 




1 From Orlan’s website:

2 D. J. Haraway, Modest_Witness @Second_Millenium  .FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience, New York Routledge 1997,  p.32.

3 See S. B. Ortner, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? in M. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (eds.) Women, Culture and Society, Stanford University Press 1974, pp. 67-88.

4 M. Lovejoy, Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media New Jersey Simon & Schuster 1997, p.81.

5 N. Czegledy, Shifting Paradigms/Modeles Mouvants, Contemporary Canadian Video Art (Exhibition catalogue) Toronto Vtape 1993, p.4.

6 C. Vo Braun, Split Reality (exhibition catalogue) Vienna: Ludwig Museum of Art, 1997.

7 Text of speech from:

8 Curiously, these invasive medical technologies have also contributed to the development of popularized "anatomical entertainment" films and television series that have lately been presented at the intersection of science and popular culture. Much of Hatoum's corporeal artwork engages the audience in exactly this very particular frame of voyeuristic intimacy – mixing familiarity with dread and thinly veiled discomfort.

9 From Orlan’s website:

10 N. Czegledy, & A. P. Czegledy, Mediated Bodies in M. Grzinic (ed.) The Body Caught in the Intestines of the Computer and Beyond: Women’s strategies in media, art, theory,  Ljubljana: MKC, Maribor & Maska, 2000 pp. 6-10.

11 Ibid.

12 Personal communication (to Nina Czegledy).

13 From Schiphort's website:

14 These connecting bodily images are stored on videodisk.

15 From Schiphort's website:

16 N. Czegledy, & A. P. Czegledy,, Digitized Bodies, virtual spectacles, in “Futures” 32/2 2000, pp. 103-120.

17 D. J. Haraway, Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s in  “SocialistReview” n.80 1985 pp.165-168.



Nina Czegledy, is an award winning media artist, curator and educator who works internationally on collaborative art and science/technology projects, as well as in education. She is has led, or been a key contributor to, an extraordinary number of workshops, forums and festivals around the world. Czegledy has published widely in books and journals and has presented at several international conferences and academic institutions. Current art projects include Aura/Aurora (2010) interactive audio-visual environment, Visual Collider (2009-) and Auerole (2009). Recent curatorial projects include: The Pleasure of Light, Ludwig Museum Budapest 2010, co-curator 3rd Quadrilateral Biennial (Rijeka Croatia 2009) Device Art in Budapest (Hungary 2009) co-curator e-mobile Art, the European Mobile Lab 2007-2009 (an EU project) and organizing team member for Eco Sapiens (New Plymouth, New Zealand 2011).

She is Senior Fellow at KMDI (Knowledge Media Design Institute) at the University of Toronto, Adjunct Associate Professor Concordia University, Montreal, Senior Fellow, Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest. She is actively involved in key international organizations including Leonardo, where she is a member of the governing board, contributing editor of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac and member of the Observatoire Leonardo des Arts et des Techno-Sciences OLATS scientific committee.

André Czeglédy is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wilfrid Laurier University. In addition to his diverse background in Business Anthropology and Urban Anthropology, he has writing interests in anthropological perspectives on Science and Technology, particularly with respect to the cultural impact of biomedical visualization technologies with relation to the human body. He has conducted field-based research in both Hungary and southern Africa, the latter mainly in South Africa. He holds degrees from the universities of Toronto, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Cambridge.


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Cette publication a été rendue possible grâce au soutien financier d'Hexagram, du groupe de recherche des arts médiatiques (GRAM), de la Faculté des arts de l'UQAM, de la Chaire du Canada en esthétique et poétique de l'UQÀM (CEP), ainsi qu'à une subvention, pour une quatorzième année consécutive, du Conseil des arts du Canada (CAC).