time capsule

it is under the skin that this digital time capsule projects itself into the future
a site-specific art work by eduardo kac http://www.ekac.org/timec.html

The "Time Capsule" event -- the implant, the webscanning of the artist's ankle from Chicago, and the subsequent registration in the animal identification database -- was broadcast live on Brazilian television (Canal 21).

Memory is experiencing a revival... but the discussions evolving around the topic aren't necessarily focusing on collective or personal recollections. Today's much-discussed memory is artificial, the storage unit of a machine, the information contained on a microchip--it is learned, not lived memory.

The relationship between memory, the body, and technology has undergone profound changes. Technology has contributed to the continuous extrapolation of memory and at the same time has been invading our bodies. Early imaging technologies such as photography and film promised to be tools for preserving the moment--a time capsule containing memories that were once human-only. Yet, every choice of perspective implies a form of manipulation and mediation of "reality"--by nature, images were never the most trustworthy agent in the preservation of memory. Today, the representational era of the image is definitely gone. Not only have contemporary media created a global inflation of the image, digital technologies have multiplied the possibilities of altering it.

Technological development also has a profound impact on our bodies and notions of identity. Memory and identity were once understood as inextricably interconnected, and skin, face, and body were imprinted with experiences and memories. Now plastic surgery and bioengineering have turned the body into a modifiable sculpture. Memories can be chemically peeled off. Identity has become a matter of identification.

In terms of memory, the body has been one of the last frontiers of technology invasion--a "site" hosting human-only instead of artificial memory.

Eduardo Kac's "Time Capsule" crosses this frontier. Kac's radical approach to the creation and presentation of the body as a wet host for artificial memory and "site-specific" work raises a variety of important questions that range from the status of memory in digital culture to the ethical dilemmas we are facing in the age of bioengineering and tracking technology. By now we are used to thinking of objects as containers of memory--what are the ethical implications of turning the human body into a host for artificial memory?

"Time Capsule" is an "intracorporeal" art work that combines a local event-installation with a site-specific work--in which the site itself is both the artist's body and a remote database--and a simultaneous broadcast on TV and the Web.

Special needle and microchip used in "Time Capsule." The chip is 15mm long and has a diameter of 2mm.

The event took place on November 11 at Casa das Rosas Cultural Center in So Paulo, Brazil: using a special needle, Kac subcutaneously inserted a microchip with a programmed identification number into his left leg. The microchip--a transponder with no power supply to replace or moving parts to wear out--is integrated with a coil and a capacitor, all hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass. After implantation, a thin layer of connective tissue forms around the microchip preventing migration. The scanning of the implant generates a low-energy radio signal (125 KHz) that energizes the microchip and causes it to transmit its unique and inalterable numerical code, which is shown on the scanner's 16-character Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).

At the event, Kac placed his leg into a scanning apparatus, and his ankle was then webscanned from Chicago (the scanner's button was pushed via a telerobotic finger). Kac subsequently registered himself in a Web-based animal identification database, originally designed for the recovery of lost animals. It was the first time a human being was added to the database--Kac registered himself both as animal and owner. The event was shown live on national television in Brazil and on the Web.

The exhibition at the gallery where the event took place comprised seven sepia-toned photographs--shot in Eastern Europe in the 1930s--resonating personal recollections; a hospital bed; a computer wired to the Net and hooked up to the telerobotic finger, which was left pressing the scanner button (the scanner's LCD display still shows the number retrieved from the artist's ankle). Also exhibited was a diptych combining an X-ray of Kac's ankle with an enlargement of the identification and recovery database interface.

X-ray of Eduardo Kac's left leg made the morning after the implant.
The microchip is seen on the upper left corner of the picture.

Walking on the edge of dystopian surveillance and liberation from the machine, Eduardo Kac's work perfectly captures the ethical dilemma of fusing body and technology. "Time Capsule" might be considered an Orwellian dystopia come true. By now, video surveillance, tagging, tracking, and identification technologies are forming a body of data--a "body double"--that threatens to slowly take over our identities. "Security" has become the major justification for surveillance systems but the constant need for identification isn't compatible with the idea of individual autonomy: we witness an invasion of technology into the most private spheres of the individual; autonomy surrenders to personal security. The conversion of personal traits--such as iris patterns and fingerprint contours--into digital data for the sake of identification doesn't exclusively belong to the realm of science fiction anymore. Implanted microchips might as well become the passports of the future, allowing the identification and tracking of the individual and offering the ultimate protection from crimes such as abduction.

Detail of the webscanning apparatus, webscan at the gallery.

Yet there are medical uses of intrabody microchips that seem to be perfectly acceptable. As Kac points out, the current successful use of microchips in spinal injury surgery has opened up an as yet uncharted areas of inquiry; bodily functions are stimulated externally and controlled via microchips. Experimental medical research using microchips that enable the blind to see by creating artificial retinas would be yet another example of the liberating effects of technology. Computers are now commonly seen as extensions of the human mind--"tools to think with." However, this approach distracts from the question in how far the human body has already become an extension of the machine.

As Kac explains, "the passage into a digital culture--with its standard interfaces that require us to pound a keyboard and sit behind a desk while staring at a screen--creates a physical trauma that amplifies the psychological shock generated by ever-faster cycles of technological invention, development, and obsolescence."

According to Kac, current interface standardization has led to an overall restraining mechanism for the human body, which is forced to conform to the boxy shape of the computer setup (monitor and CPU). In this context, "Time Capsule" might as well be seen as a radical liberation of the body from the machine--a reconciliation of aspects still generally regarded as antagonistic, such as freedom of movement, data storage and processing. As Kac puts it: "The living body wants to get out of the uncomfortable box and have unrestricted motion."

The Web component of "Time Capsule" offers yet another perspective by making the body accessible to the machine. One of the major attractions of the Internet is that it has taken the detachment or flight from the body to new levels--it allows us to create virtual identities, to impersonate characters and construct multiple selves beyond physical limitations. This disembodiment has caused a shift in the awareness of the "other," which no longer can be sensed as a corporeal entity. The webscanning and identification of a body over the Net reinstates a temporary coincidence between body and cyberbody; the temporal scale of the work comprises the ephemeral (identification through webscanning) and the permanent (the implant itself). In a clash of the tangible and the virtual, "Time Capsule" frees the body from the machine and at the same time makes it permeable and readable to the Internet.

Photo Credits:Yugo Tanaka

© Hyperactive Co. 1998