The Art of Cyborgs: A Techno-Social Approach to Contemporary Culture


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • MoBen BENAYOUN (Supervisor)
Award date8 Nov 2019


A number of frameworks have been forwarded to discuss Fine Art in our contemporary age. While some of these outline era-defining (totalizing) narratives, others are based on the recent adoption or proliferation of specific technologies. Both are ultimately flawed in that each cannot capture the majority of artistic work that is being created today and in that each becomes too specific to this era -- cannot be applied historically and/or will likely be supplanted by new technological adoption in the future. The project of this thesis is to suggest another approach that can be applied across temporalities, based on the understanding of humanity’s cyborg nature. The cyborg, by defining individuals as techno-organic hybrids engaged in a process of mutual co-evolution, is a techno-social cultural theory. It is drawn from both individuals’ social relationship to their technological apparatuses as well as technology’s relationship to society’s evolution.

Analyzed in three parts, this thesis outlines technology’s historic relationship to society and culture, defines cyborg theory at the level of the individual, and then applies that theory to an analysis of contemporary art practices. The first part (Chapters 1 and 2)establishes a history of philosophy and art that reveals the cyborg nature of society as a whole as well as of artistic practitioners. This history founded in the mid-twentieth century shift away from the mechanism and towards informational systems -- as witnessed through the rise of cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century. The second part (Chapters 3 and 4) includes a thorough investigation of the history and evolution of the cyborg as an object of scientific inquiry, a subject of science fiction, an ironic literary myth, and a material reality. Through this process, an understanding of the human individual as a cyborg subject is outlined.

The final two chapters apply this understanding to two contemporary art practices. First, online performance art is read through an understanding of early performance art as the emergence of the body as a site of artistic practice. This section investigates how technology historically and in the contemporary has been used to extend and reform the body. Ultimately, this chapter draws parallels between the physical body, altered through the use of prosthetics and the virtual (extended) cyborg body, altered through the use of software in contemporary online performance. Finally, in the sixth chapter, hands on practices of media art, are read as critical engagement with technology for the purpose of social, political, or personal growth. The works analyzed in this chapter are seen to disrupt the cyborgian continuity between individuals and their technologies in order to draw attention to and push back against the political economy of technology in the current age. These readings are not meant to be all inclusive. Instead, they are meant to illustrate the usefulness and applicability of the cyborg as a tool for understanding artistic production in the contemporary age.