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Diann Bauer – Scalar Xenobodies

by Patricia MacCormack

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Diann Bauer belongs to a movement which currently challenges some of the persistent humanist and essentialist approaches in posthumanism and also incorporates issues facing minoritarian bodies. This movement, known as xenofeminism, according to the manifesto ‘is a gender abolitionist, anti-naturalist, technomaterialist form of posthumanism, initiated by the working group Laboria Cuboniks. It is a world-building project working from the assumption that any society worth constructing would take feminism as a foundational principle. It is a project that aims to infect a wide range of fields, and operates on the assumption that any meaningful change will happen at a range of scales and across a range of disciplines.1’ Diann Bauer’s work with tenets of the posthuman and xenofeminism returns us to an ethical nuance in terms of abstract ideas surrounding the intimacy of real bodies of all organisms confronted with stretched and distorted scales of space and the demands these impose on the operations of organisms within the now seemingly increasingly inconsequential Earth.
Her work formed part of the XenoGenesis exhibition at Treignac Projet in July 2017. XenoGenesis is a research exhibition that explores the idea of emancipatory alienation as proposed by Bauer and the group Laboria Cuboniks (b. 2014), a polymorphous xenofeminist collective, whose members include Sophie Calle, Amy Ireland, Diann Bauer, Helen Hester, Katrina Burch, Lucca Fraser, and Patricia Reed. Starting from the work of science fiction writer Octavia E Butler (1947 - 2006), the exhibition draws parallels between the dilemmas of the lead characters in her novels, and the Xenomorph creature from the Alien series of films. This exhibition drew together some of the myths and aesthetic templates of human aspiration which had been seen in Bauer’s earlier work (such as Icarus, the descent of the Sabines and the motif of human hands in her drawing echoing Michaelangelo’s Creation) with the drive of alien and alienating manifesti and political abstraction from her previous installations especially with the A.S.T2 collective and her pop art such as NRAF (2011). In Xenogenesis, these drives co-emerge through images of abstract shapes, monoliths and aliens merged with humans to create new questions as to the concept of alien and alienating. The selection of the image of actor Bolaji Badejo by Bauer’s co-curator Sam Basu who played the alien in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film half in his costume, as a person of colour seems exhausted with being a specimen or object, posed to the side, never central and never an agent in spite of the fascination the human-alien hybridity elicits. And the alien creation is deeply suspicious of the human encounter, both images expressing that coming together with humans is always a dissymmetrical power encounter, and not a safe or pleasant one.  Disembodied words, videos of alien futures populated only by soothing yet directive voices, abstract shapes and infinitely black monoliths, posit the future of the human as entirely beyond flesh and thus, beyond caring for the flesh of the other, perhaps of the materiality of the organism, or demanding a new understanding of shape, scale and modes of apprehension. Bauer’s work, in this sense, manages to collate alienation with the alien other as antagonistic rather than reflective, opening a space for an ethical encounter with all others as alien as enriching, while emphasising encounters with monolithic future politics are where the real threat to individual, unique embodiment lies. While her work, especially with Xenofeminism, strives to go beyond gender and identity, her aim seems far from the dubious hyper-futurism of posthumanism, or the even worse impulses of transhumanism who fetishise the posthuman as an eternal – and thus eternally dominant – human. Bauer creates new geographies in both her work and curation of xenogenesis, to invite us to meander around alien paths, encounter hybrid others, in order to make connections with absolute alterity instead of evaluate the moral value of the other based on verisimilitude. Beyond gender, all are others, and each organism and its many facets an opportunity for a new, creative and material engagement. This makes her vision of the alien a deeply ecological and ethical one. Below I asked Bauer some questions inspired by my experience of her work and she kindly responded.

Patricia MacCormack: Xenogenesis virtualises time and its relationship with evolution by engaging both alien futurity, abstraction (seen in the triangle monolith), the bodies of minoritarians (women, people of colour) and alien bodies. How do you position the relations between these?

Diann Bauer: There are two main directions in my practice at the moment, work done in the context of Xenofeminism and work done with A.S.T. I am trying to better understand the links between these projects and my hunch at the moment is that the link has something to do with scalar oscillation. What I mean by this is that there are numerous demands on humans at the moment that necessitate an agility with regard to scale. We need to be able to think about how to act, be, think with regard to our immediate environment, being a particular body in a particular environment but also, there are global systemic structures that we also need to be able to think, be, act in the context of, and in relation to. There is a need to be able to think at a range of scales at the same time. This is a skill that was not necessary, evolutionarily speaking. We are far more adept at functioning within a local context and though one can not disregard this context, it isn't sufficient given the scale the species is not operating at. The idea that humans have become a force on a geological scale, for example, is both an abstract idea but also has very real concrete ramifications and we need to be able to think both. The fact that climate change will affect people disproportionately along painfully predictable lines is an example of global forces effecting things based on very local realities like race and economic standing; meaning that global climate change is of course, global, but to pretend that the effects of it will be egalitarian is a fantasy. When trying to think about constructing a future in this context, one needs to have this scalar agility of thought.

PM: Letters and words seem important in this project. How do you see the relationship with the images and art you create and the visual impact of the words within them? How do the words operate as their own artforms?

DB: Text for me began as a way to be clear about what exactly I was interested in or talking about by just saying it, with verbal language, though over time realized, of course, that verbal language is not necessarily any clearer than visual language, but it nonetheless allowed me to explain things in a particular way. The work  XF no. 5 (2017) which was in the show, was originally done for the Gerrit Rietveld Academie as a way to introduce XF to students. I intended as a relatively didactic work, explaining my position with XF. This also, of course, has an aesthetic, and choices are made with regard to the feel of the work, these are important too, but the text in this case, is in the form of a direct address, telling the person watching what I am talking about. I am actually trying now to get away from text (unsuccessfully to be honest) but I want to understand how to be clear without text. 

PM: Your attitude to posthumanism seems both abstract, critical and celebratory. How does your art understand the posthuman, technology, transhumanism, and the role of the human in these arenas?

DB: I am reluctant to get into debates with regards to post/transhumanism to be honest, because I know they are separate camps with important differences and animosities between them. I do think humans are becoming something else and access to this 'something else' is not even, and this is a problem; not just for the now but for what we will become as the code is now being written. There is a substantial risk of racist and sexist cultural norms being written into this code, being hard wired into our future. But, just as pressing are questions about what we understand intelligence to be. The shift to understand intelligence as something with a much broader ontology seems an essential move. It has been claimed by many that we are at the precipice of another Copernican revolution with regard to intelligence, and I would absolutely agree with this. This is really more where my interest is with regard to what is to become of the human.

PM: One of the most crucial things for me in your work is aligning the minoritarian body (women, p.o.c, collectives and the use of costumes in performances to become animal) with this alien future. I see this as a very positive aspect that challenges the privileging of the superhuman as a white hetero male made extreme. Could you discuss the place and role of women, people of colour, the other and the non-dominant in your art and visions of the future?

DB: I think this also somehow ties back to scale and the question of what are one's commitments. Are they to the Human? Are they to intelligence? Are they to sapience, sentience, ought there be a hierarchy there? Of course that gets into difficult and potentially dangerous territory as in who defines intelligence and where power is in the act of defining it. I think it is important to zoom out and speak/think about 'the human' and its capacities and what kind of intelligence 'the human' has access to in contrast to AI, or other forms of life, but, of course, zooming in, there are important power differences between forms of known life and between humans, so there is a constant need to oscillate between these scales. Both are essential for thinking/building a future.

Diann Bauer : http://diannbauer.net/

DIANN BAUER with Octavia E. Butler and Sophie Calle
Treignac Projet
Curator : Sam Basu
3 June > 9 July 2017


Diann Bauer Patricia Maccormack
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