Frankenstein has sparked new life in a contemporary debate on what makes us human.
While scientists have nearly completed mapping the human genome, opening the door to cloning Homo sapiens, some artists have dabbled in creations that meld man with machine.
Twenty-six artists, each with a fresh, critical perspective on technology and its function in our daily lives, will bring their inventions to the table in "Cyborg Manifesto, or the Joy of Artifice," an exhibition opening Sunday at the Laguna Art Museum.
Through photographs, room-size installations, video, sculptures and drawings, the 70 eclectic works explore changes in a tech-driven age and address issues ranging from identity to gender to death.
"Frankenstein," an assemblage of stuffed toys by Mike Kelley, and "Mary Shelley's Daughter" by S.E. Barnet, an eight-video installation arranged in a shape vaguely resembling a human body, are featured in the show. Other works, such as Chris Wilder's "A Copy of My TV Remote Control" and Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz's wall sculpture "Wisdom," are from the permanent collection.
Cyborgs or man-like machines are not new. The creature born in Shelley's 1835 novel "Frankenstein" was assembled from disparate body parts. The cyborg--an abbreviated term for cybernetic organism--was conceived by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960, a time when scientists began to look to space as the next frontier for human habitation. The idea was to create super humans who could survive in extraterrestrial environments.
Writers have since penned short stories, novels and screenplays that have heightened public awareness of sentient devices and machines.
In fact, the exhibition title "Cyborg Manifesto" was coined by author Donna Haraway. Although Haraway focused her writing on technology and women's issues, museum exhibition curator Tyler Stallings broadens the scope.
Like Haraway, Stallings interprets the cyborg as a metaphor to introduce the idea of hybrids, a new entity formed from the fusion of two individuals of unlike genetic makeup. That idea often focuses on issues of gender or multiculturalism.
"When people think of a cyborg, they think of a robot or humanoid," Stallings said. "I think of it as an image of how we are always changing ourselves. So the question of purity and identity comes into question. I think in pop culture there tends to be this dystopic attitude in which these machines of our own making are going to take us over."
Stallings suggests this isn't a high-tech gadgets show that celebrates technology. The works, in fact, use traditional media as a lens into the high-tech world.
Jon Haddock's "Screenshots" is a series of drawings done in the style of a computer game. The images are of a historical event, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Evan Holloway's "Double Projector" satirizes a high-tech object by making his version out of solid wood. Amy Myers' "Virtual Underground, Red Phase" is a mural-sized ink-and-graphite drawing of scientific subjects such as a futuristic machine or magnified human organs and cells.
The artists in the show, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, have long explored themes related to technology.
"Back in Black" by Ed Giardina of Huntington Beach is a playful look at architectural structures and personal space. The central piece is a yellow platform with a fulcrum underneath that enables it to rock back and forth. In use, two helmet-clad participants stand on each end of the platform and hold handlebars. As the platform teeters, one is bound to invade the other's space. Four photographs document the device.
"There are overbearing safety-type laws from bicycles to motorcycles that to some extent seem absurd. So in some ways, I'm acting out that type of mentality where this is my space or structure, so I'm providing the necessary precautions," Giardina, 28, said.
"Peter" by Carlee Fernandez is a stuffed rabbit mounted on bark. A viewing lens is connected to its forehead, and the viewer must lean close to the rabbit's head--so close you can feel its whiskers--in order to see into a peephole where a video narrative of Peter's life unfolds up until his death. The three-minute video plays on a tiny, 1-inch-by-1-inch TV screen in Peter's head.
"Peter is given new life through this video," said Fernandez, 27, a Santa Ana native and Los Angeles resident. This piece represents her museum debut.
"I think so many people are removed from nature," she said. "Through my work, you take these animals with tragic endings and the video is something of a shrine to them. It's dark humor, but I wanted to give this animal a name and story."
To continue the theme of technology, the museum will produce an online exhibition catalog for the first time. The eclectic exhibition marks a trend at art museums to examine the effect of computers and advancing technology in our daily lives.
The Laguna show runs concurrently with shows of similar themes at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ("010101: Art in Technological Times" produced in collaboration with Intel Corp.) and the New York's Whitney Museum ("Bitstream").
"The exhibition does acknowledge that we live in a high-tech, technologically driven society that is advancing more so," Stallings said. "I think that these artists attempt to restore our sense of place in an ever-changing technological world."
"Cyborg Manifesto, or the Joy of Artifice," Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Museum hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. including Monday holidays. Closed Wednesday. $4 to $5. Free Tuesdays. Artist talks: 11 a.m. Sunday and May 20. Ends July 8. (949) 494-8971.