Cosmetics for Cyborgs
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
We are living through a crisis of reality.
Today, ubiquitous screens mediate bodily experiences of the physical world. In turn, we are beginning to see digital content shaping material reality. At the same time, the material environment and physical bodies living within it are approaching a critical moment of climate-induced destabilization that can only be mitigated by collective action. If VR can create a situation in which the user's entire environment is determined by the creators of the virtual world, then it is imperative that the creators of virtual worlds take into account the collective needs of the physical one.
This presentation discusses three recent speculative design projects that address this need. Each unique fragrance Rhonda Holberton created for the series, FOIL, contains human scent that has been cold-distilled from T-shirts worn by anonymous volunteers using methods developed by the CIA in the design of "a device that would automatically detect the presence of an individual by [their] scent." The scents can be used by the wearer to create a hybrid chemical identity; a masking agent that protects individuals from undisclosed scent detection.
INDEX produces cosmetic formulations made for cyborgs. The marketing copy draws from language used in radical political resistance movements and climate change science and leans into aspects of ingredients that can be read from many lenses: underground mycelial communication and transgendered algae to name a few examples. The project is a vessel for collective distributed performance intended physicalize the collapse of the biological human body into geologic time scales.
The VR installation, ‘Again For the First Time’, houses a web server hosting a single site that stores energetic residue from every visitor. Periodically throughout the course of the exhibition, a reiki healer performs energetic alignment to rid the site of blocked and negative energy. Once updated, healthy energy is sent back out onto the network. Visitors to the installation can use VR headsets to experience virtually-embodied healing sessions created from the motion capture data of each healing session while they connect to the server. This call and response creates an electromagnetic connection between the user’s and healer’s devices. Rhonda contends that while there is potential for beauty and interpersonal connection in networked interaction, that biases coded into these platforms have resulted in fragmentation and trauma for the end users. Instead, she designs platforms that create gentle places of healing for the most vulnerable and traumatized bodies.
Rhonda is not suggesting that the crisis of reality/ anthropocene/capitalocene can be solved by speculative design alone. What she is arguing, is that the solutions to existential problems must come from existential analysis.
Her work asks users to meditate on the ways we are all physically connected through technology; how signals of digitally engineered worlds have physical ramifications; how the extraction of materials from the environment that support technology are destabilizing the plant, and how we might write better rules for digital platforms that consider the effects on all bodies and respect the most vulnerable ones.
Art and Art History
Rhonda Holberton. "Cosmetics for Cyborgs" Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (2019).