“One of the most outstanding examples of an artist concerned with all art forms and with the problems of his time… a clear example of how it’s possible to change the world through art”: this is how composer Tomas Marco has described Jaime del Val, chosen by “El País” as one of the 100 Iberoamericas of the year in 2008.
Jaime is a Spanish transdisciplinary researcher and artist, whose interests span from affective and cognitive sciences, meta-humanist philosophy, performance art and post-queer activism.
His practice, located at the intersection of interactive dance, electro-acoustics, video, urban interventions and Internet Art, tightly intertwines with his writings on critical theories of the body, art and technology. In 2000 he edited “REVERSO”, the first academic journal of Queer Theory and LGTB studies in Spanish, and since then he has been coordinating several international projects and conferences.
In 2013 he initiated Metabody, a multi-layered project involving artists and academics from 16 European countries and aiming both at questioning the cultural homogenisation of Information Society and at proposing new technological paradigms that value diversity and bodily expression.
Vanessa Michielon: Could you introduce your background and trace the origins of Metabody in its several strands?
Jaime del Val: My background is very mixed and mostly self-taught, starting from classical music, which I studied in London, moving to abstract painting in Italy, and dance and architecture. My interest in theory comes more from my dedication to environmental and Queer activism, and the Occupy movement. Around 2000 I published what was the first academic journal of Queer theory in Spanish, then around 2001 I started to make media art projects that were integrating all my diverse interests: the musical, the kinetic, visual, spatial and theoretical and socially-preoccupied, activism-oriented aspect.
All these entangled interests can be considered as seeds for what Metabody became, a project where my activity is not only one of management, but also of artistic and philosophical research.
Maybe because of my background, I don’t think about myself as making works, but rather perfecting instruments, bodily extensions in long-term processes of development. So there are several specific projects that I have been working on for years and are directly connected with the origins of Metabody. For instance, I was interested in making a piece that emerges from movement, using photography where long exposure would create fluid traces, and in 2003 I integrated live video processing in Morphogenesis, my first interactive dance performance involving video. This was a direct antecedent of Metabody, because the current sketches of physical architecture are derived from screenshots of that older project, where the 3D meshes were projected on a translucent screen and deformed through movement captured by a camera on stage.
Around 2001 I was also working with close-ups photos and then movies, looking at the altered proprioception we can experience when we watch details of our body filmed live. I was noticing how the body was becoming aware of itself in a very different way with these images… So, in Microsexes, I would perform with small live surveillance cameras on the body, just focusing on how a transformation in perception can be experienced when the eyes are located on the skin landscape, something that I still do when performing in Metabody architecture, visualising the images through wearable projectors.
This was already going in the direction of exploring how movement can become a space that has a certain physicality and many of Metabody’s strands focus precisely on developing techniques for a physically dynamic space. For instance we are experimenting with techniques coming from the broad industry field of tent building, as these materials are incredibly dynamic, to build our own prototypes of Metakinespheres.
So in Metabody the challenge is how to take a step forward, starting from research strands initiated with Microsexes and Morphogenesis, and materialising them much more.
At the same time, my writings and the theoretical research have been constantly feeding back, making it difficult to say which ideas eventually derive from my bodily investigation. Much of the thinking has definitely emerged from practice but then it has also changed the practice itself.
Vanessa Michielon: One of your most significant writings is the so-called Metahumanist manifesto. Was it also a result of your combined theoretical research and bodily practice?
Jaime del Val: I wrote that Manifesto with the German philosopher Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, as I was participating in a conference about this intellectual thread known as Post-humanism. Post-humanism is different from Trans-humanist a-critical defence of the transformation of the human through technology, and I have actually invented the notion of comparative Post-humanism to distinguish these two strands. I have been employing the prefix meta- quite a lot in my writings to create a number of neologisms, starting from 2001 in a conference in Italy with a paper called Metacorpi.
So when in 2010 we came up with the idea of writing a manifesto about Post-humanism, I suggested to employ the prefix meta-, which in Greek involves not just the idea of coming after, like in post, but also in-between, which is for me even more important because it points to a relational ontology. This involves an understanding of the world in terms of relations in which we are embedded and that constitute us, so rather than consider ourselves as completely autonomous entities, we try to understand us as emerging from dynamic processes. Meta- for me was interesting to take Post-humanism in the direction of relational ontology, but also to add a transitional notion, an ontology of becoming and movement.
So all the neologisms used in the Manifesto have been actually developed and discussed previously. The notion of Amorphogenesis, for instance, which is in contrast with the established concept of Morphogenesis, the unavoidable emergence of form, tries to bypass the notion of form. In the project with small cameras on my skin, Microsexes, I was experiencing alternative perceptions because I was lacking the fixity and all the parameters of perspectival vision, which I think are foundational to the concept of form. And from this came also the idea of a post-anatomical amorphous body, which can see itself without keeping the distance of an abstract subject looking at itself as something external. Therefore, many of these concepts in the Manifesto come from my embodied artistic practice and experimentation.
Vanessa Michielon: Your artistic practice has also strong political connotations, and Metabody aims at redesigning digital technologies and networks to foster a positive transformation in society. Could you expand on this idea and present some of the strategies you are testing to achieve this goal?
Jaime del Val: I think that the established and normative paradigm for what Information Technologies are considered nowadays is somehow very narrow and anomalous if you look at all the possibilities that there could be.
The particular kind of critique that I like to elaborate around digital networks in general is multifaceted. Regarding the body, I find crucial the way in which digitalization in general implies certain steps that are sometimes ignored. My way of thinking about digital networks or Big Data is that they involve not just abstract algorithms, but also sensor devices that capture continuous movement and reduce it. Indeed, any quantification you make normally relies on fixed viewpoints, and you would eventually need infinite viewpoints on a single movement to get a more complete account of it, and even then it would be reductive…
For instance with Kinect, depending on the algorithms you use, some people try to neutralise the partiality of the perspective of the camera by establishing more general mathematical relations, therefore extracting general parameters of movement independently from the position of the camera. Still I think the essential micro-movements and the proprioceptive sensations in our body are missing out, something I play a lot with by employing what I call dis-alignment bodily techniques. I think these internal subtle perceptions are impossible to capture with an external device or point of measurement, and I am trying to act against this strong tradition of mechanical analysis of movement.
Digital networks rely extensively on quantifying movement, which always imply a reductionist approach. My point is that every interface as a mouse or keyboard is about sensing movement, so you have to reduce the richness of spectrum of movement to what that specific interface can capture. One way to approach the problems of digital networks is to understand how movement becomes a very narrowband and standardised thing. Also movement becomes traceable and possibly predictable, which is a foundation of Control Society. Big Data constitutes a new ontological revolution because when such a huge quantity of databases is processed with such a complexity, we are crossing a new boundary and undergoing a qualitative transformation. I even think a new life form is emerging from that, as a sophistication of autonomous algorithms.
This logic of prediction is also about modulating reality in a way it becomes predictable, in a way that even if it fails predicting it is still enacting a deep transformation. For instance, the more we have to align ourselves with an interface, the more we will behave as the interface demands us to behave. Take the emoticons: they are generating their own specific pattern of emotions and the more we use them to communicate, the more the affects align themselves and become emoticonic. This could be applied to many aspects of our media society, including networks such as Facebook, which in the coming years wants to encompass the whole humanity with projects such as Internet.org. The horizon of events seems to be in a black hole, it’s a moment when nothing seems to be able to escape all these capture and prediction devices.
So with Metabody I was asking myself, how could someone escape this horizon? One of my provisional answers is through illegible affects or by becoming illegible to algorithms of behaviour prediction. How can your movement become so subtle, unpredictable, sophisticated and ambiguous that it does not align itself with the reductive approach of computation? Of course it’s a very unconventional approach, because all the large scale academic and corporate projects that I know go exactly in the opposite direction.
Vanessa Michielon: Actually many of the projects inside Metabody use pre-existing reductive interfaces, such as Kinect. How does this combine with your vision and how would you employ the same systems in a more liberating way?
Jaime del Val:Of course this question is open and our interests in the team are not homogeneous. I personally don’t like using Kinect, as it brings back this mechanical approach, so for me it is important that Metabody works with a range of technologies, not only the digital ones, and that the approach is not only one of parametric design and mathematical abstraction but also of craftsmanship.
Furthermore, I try to incorporate sensors in a meaningful way: even if any sensor will be reductive, wearing it on the body is closer to proprioception, as it is not about absolute external coordinates of a Cartesian system, but it deals more with internal relations of tilting, acceleration, etc… Then, where to place the sensors is also an important issue. Since the Renaissance studies on perspective, the control tradition consists of a very specific way of coupling manual control with vision. I think the computer recreates this window with gaming interfaces, as the visual-manual relation tends to reproduce an established paradigm of control, which cuts off the rest of the body. So I disseminate sensing devices on the body avoiding the limitation of manual control and the visual-manual alignment.
Then, how to deal with the actual fact that it is still reductive? One way is not to work with representational environments, therefore when I adopt 3D I never try to generate navigation in a Cartesian space, like in a videogame. The digital meshes I use do not reproduce the established notion of a navigable physical space, they are amorphous in their original state and can be deformed by the movements I perform. They never acquire a stable tri-dimension, and the way the interaction is designed does not even allow you to walk in the space: rather than taking the data as something that represents your experience of reality, the sensors are generating something completely different. I see this as a shift from data as something “given” in Latin, to data as donum, a gift that establishes a new kind of reality. Rather asking me to mimic the movements I do in daily life, the digital generates an emergent and amorphous space, which does not resemble anything I know.
Another point is the open-endedness of the experience: you don’t have to learn any specific gestures to interact with environment, which in turn pushes you to discovery novel movements. As soon as you break with the established parameters of perception you find endless possibilities.
Vanessa Michielon: A strand of your research and artistic practice, Occupy 2.0, is more explicitly connected with your political involvement in the urban space. How has the audience responded so far to your interventions with the kinaespheres/tents?
Jaime del Val:What I found interesting when we brought out some prototypes of Metakinesphere in Madrid was that we didn’t have to invite people, but they would often just ask and join. The fact that the action is not quite legible perhaps stimulates curiosity and avoids creating a strong divide. It is difficult nowadays to create something in public spaces without making it become immediately a show, part of the media world. I feel public spaces in the sense of common spaces where new experiences can emerge have disappeared; they have become corporate, transport, and information spaces instead. So my challenge was to make something illegible enough so that people at least for one instant do not have a clue about what’s going on.
This of course relates to my experience with the Spanish Occupy movement, which I was involved in for a year and a half. In the beginning it was possible to introduce new questions such as, how do we deal politically with surveillance culture, how do we politically respond to the fact that affects are engineered by corporations or media. Of course affects are not traditional ideological topics discussed in politics, but I feel they are very important nowadays. In the beginning I proposed many experiments in this direction, but after a while it became no longer possible to discuss less conventional topics in the movement, so I left.
Therefore subtitling my recent interventions Occupy 2.0 is both an ironic and a very serious critical stance. It’s ironic because of course I don’t pretend to be promoting such a global movement, but it’s also critical because I believe the Occupy movement did not address many of the issues Politics should deal with today. Some of the things we are doing in their weirdness are a way to look at what the Occupy movement was missing.
There are resonances in the structure of the tents and also in the similar attempt to recover a sense of common space, but the difference is in the how: rather than doing assemblies with an ideological approach, we are focusing on very subtle aspects of affects and expression. I wanted to create this minoritarian movement, which is trying to “dis-occupy” or “decolonise” space from established perceptions and ways of relating to one another, to time and places.
My strategy is never about collapsing the existing structure, as the movements and power relations behind it will always come back. I rather try and find other trajectories, micro-deviations behind it, so that eventually the environment becomes a bit more open. Exploring complexity and degrees of indeterminacy through bodily gestures becomes crucial to identify possible new patterns and to become more ambiguous in the direction of a decolonisation of perception.