- Insects, Sex, and Biodigitality in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust
The article analyzes the Lynn Hershman Leeson’s film Teknolust (2002) as an alternative take on the visual creation of biodigitality. Arguing that Teknolust can be read as a probe into the infiltration of biodigital creatures in contemporary networks of communication, the article suggests that in the film the figures of sexuality, agency and technology are understood as non-human affects. Here, the idea of “insectoid” modes of agency underlines the tension between the three Self-Reproducing Automata (SRA) of the film: between human DNA and technological networks, and between heterosexual mating rites and viral biodigital forms of reproduction.
They are everywhere you look, bodiless brains breathing down your neck and controlling your desires. Where do they come from, how do they replicate, how can I get one, why do they look human?—Lynn Hershman Leeson, “Living Blog”
Introduction: Cinematics of Biodigital Life
From the nineteenth century sciences of life have had a special relationship with imaging techniques. The cinematic eye as a specific mode of knowledge opened up a new moving microworld that coupled biological entities with the world. During the 1880s and 1890s, the cinema of astonishment was elementally connected to the “bacteriological revolution.” Later Walter Benjamin valorized the new world of technological photographic vision as especially fit to dig into biological life; the vision of the camera is more relevant to cellular tissue than to landscapes or human portraits (Benjamin; Ostherr; Landecker). Early on, it seems, biological life became visually organized.
Since the 1990s, a new mode of networked databases has emerged with public digital archives. For instance, The Visible Human Project proposes easy-access to the human body and a view of the high-tech imaging of bodily functions. The project is defined as a complete archive of detailed, three-dimensional images of “normal” male and female human bodies. “The long-term goal of the Visible Human Project is to produce a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats such as the names of body parts.” Genomic databases such as Genbank (USA), EMBL (Europe), and the DNA Database (Japan) also function as peculiar kinds of distributions of information on life. The current archival logic of the network age—contact a remote server and search/browse with a search engine—is traversing not only the human body, but also increasingly the information entities of which life is often seen to consist. Such projects offer an interesting and concrete mode of intertwining biology with technology in the form of software applications that organize and distribute genomic data (Thacker, “Redefining Bioinformatics”).1 These archives, which all have some direct practical use, are continuously refashioned on a popular cultural level by the production of images and animations that take us inside cells. The recently awarded Biomedical Image Awards of 2006 show how microbiology work produces visually alluring images. Similarly The Inner Life of a Cell (<multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/media.html>), designed for the Harvard University Molecular and Cellular Biology program, is a good example of a glamorous animation of microbiological life. These “Biovisions”—a “computer-based learning environment for undergraduate students that will allow them to delve into the science of cellular study with more depth and opportunities to enhance their understanding” (see XVIVO Scientific Animation)—represent and fashion the biological sphere with attractive animations and graphics and kitschy sublime-leaning soundtracks of synthetic classical music.
Figures of life and technological vision are similarly entangled in a complex biosoftware assemblage in the film Teknolust (2002) by media artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. In this article, I propose Teknolust as an assemblage of art, science, and technology that addresses the creation of digital culture as a visual artifact. In Teknolust, the high-tech and high-profile science of biodigitality is rescaled because of concern about human-machine interactions, and because the human stance towards technology seems to rely either on fear, suspicion, or on the capitalist need for profit. Instead of (re)producing sublimated images of genetic technology, Teknolust translates technology into kinds of intimacy, desire, and sexuality beyond the human condition. Here visuality is a tool for complexification...