The Sublime 3.0: Fear & Awe is featured in The Wrong Biennale, pavilion 37, where we showcase how New Media artists are shaping and pushing the boundaries of the contemporary sublime. Divided into four categories: the (dis)embodied, the eerie, the technological and the natural sublime –  we invite you to explore our virtual realm of fear, awe and destabilising beauty. 

Gabriella Gasparini  | Ed. Peter Traynor  |  10 January 2022

The Disembodied Sublime

pacific institute of mathematical science -The Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Image courtesy of the Pacific Institute of Mathematical Sciences (2012)

As we spend more time inhabiting virtual realms, the curious among us have begun asking particularly perceptive and larger-than-life questions relating to the metaphysics of these newly colonised spaces. Questions like: “who on earth are we?” or “are virtual worlds actually existent, like for real?” Now, you might be pondering on the meaning of such musings, and whilst trying to grapple with their immensity, you might be plagued by a spiralling sense of inadequacy, and questions along the lines of: aren’t-we-just-mere-specks-of-dust-amidst-an-amoral-universe?  Or, you might be more grandiose, recognising the incredible ability our brains possess to imagine, theorise… and create! 

This conflicted feeling of grandeur mixed with a healthy dose of self-doubt is what we call an experience of the sublime – that which is, by nature, totally destabilising. Whether intentional or not, we are faced with this sublime dichotomy on a semi-regular basis now that our lives have been extended to the worldwide web. In fact, in a world where we happily exchange our physical bodies for avatars and birth names for usernames, we can easily understand why some of us might find this all terrifying. And conversely, why others find it incredibly enthralling. 

As we take a blind leap of faith from IRL to URL worlds, we will appeal to theories from evolutionary biology, philosophy and new media artists to shine some light on what we shall call the (dis)embodied sublime, the feeling of awe and displacement we feel when we let go of part of our corporeal self in exchange for something a little more unknown.

The Sublime Evolutionary Leap

To understand the sublime experience, we will use the evolutionary journey of two species as a metaphorical vehicle for our story – a story that started long before humans even existed and continues to teach and surprise us to this day. Here’s how it goes…

Algae live in the sea. But like Ariel in the Little Mermaid, the shores ahead looked like a promised new land. Yet, if something evolved to live in water, how could it possibly leap onto land? Do our genes determine behaviour, or do entities also possess a degree of freedom and an underlying drive to explore further, even at the expense of their identity? As the algae ventured closer to the shore, it met with fungi, and instead of fighting for one’s survival, the two embarked on a completely different evolutionary journey. 

lichen from Field Museum - The Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Lichens, courtesy of Field Museum (2020)

What happened here, probably 250 million years ago, was the process of disembodiment: the algae, tired of living in the primordial sludge that was the sea, let go of its identity in favour of merging – symbiotically – with another species to enter a completely different world. In such a way, a lichen was born, a composite organism made of both algae and fungi. Both species fundamentally destabilised their identity to explore a new facet of reality. It’s no wonder then, that evolutionary theorist and biologist Lynn Margulis looked at lichens with awe: lichens perfectly (dis)embodied and destabilised the common view of competition-oriented evolution, proving Margulis’ research into symbiosis correct. Her theory of endosymbiosis explained how independent organisms merged with other independent organisms to form symbiotic relationships, eventually resulting in the creation of complex cells, like the ones in our body, or complex systems, like those that keep our planet in synergy, as expounded in Margulis’ and Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. 

What lichens and Margulis have taught us, is that our concept of ‘individuals’ is not as firmly set as we’d like. The foundations of our bodies might not be entirely human after all, and scientific discoveries about the gut-brain axis and the role of bacteria within the last decade alone have proven that we might very well be more bacteria than anthropoids. Essentially, what the discovery of symbiosis radically transformed, was the common conception of an insular individuality, the idea that there is an essential identity separate and distinct from the outer world. 

(Dis)embodiment: Being Other and Oneself

In Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world, also known as dasein, the distinction between subject/object is also broken down. In his view, there is no ‘being’ without the ‘world’, in other words, our subjecthood or consciousness is forever woven within the lattice of the objects around us: the world of things. The world and its contents needn’t be seen as separate, but rather as extensions, each exerting their gravitational pull to influence one another. This lattice of existence whereby the individual, in its individuality, is never a whole, but merely part of a whole, was then echoed by Jean-Luc Nancy and his concept of ‘being singular plural’. 

But what on earth does ‘being singular plural’ even mean? If we look back at the mighty lichen, we might get some answers. The lichen, theoretically two separate organisms, is now a singular organism, it is – in its essence – a being both singular and plural. The lichen embodies Nancy’s idea of being self/other -–  where one state does not cancel the other out but rather reaffirms it. By coming together, the previously singular organisms didn’t just explore a new world, they completely forged a new state of being. Nancy’s philosophy encourages us all to open ourselves to events that extend beyond the subject/object axis, inviting us to create connections with seemingly alien or peculiar entities in a fervent symbiotic exchange. It is in this shared betweenness that new meanings can be produced, bringing the strangeness and uncanniness of being to the fore, and with it, experiences of a sublime nature.  

Donna Haraway, never one to shy away from liminal experiences, is also a fan of lichens. “We are all lichens now!” she ecstatically proclaims, echoing the words of biologist Scott Gilbert. According to Haraway, we’ve always been part self, part other, an indistinguishable blob of tangled networks made of both natural origins and the artificial – just like a cyborg. One important distinction Haraway makes is the deconstruction of the definition of ‘natural’. If we are part organic, part artificial, and within this amalgamation, we are inextricably bound, then what is artificial can – by de facto – become natural, and vice versa. Again, the algae’s ‘natural’ habitat was the sea. And yet, here it is enmeshed within the body of the fungi, happily coexisting on the ‘unnatural’ land!

Hvmani Victvs Instrvmenta, Giovanni da Monte Cremasco (1580), courtesy of Met Museum - The Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Hvmani Victvs Instrvmenta, Giovanni da Monte Cremasco (1580), courtesy of Met Museum

To think of ourselves as part ‘other’ requires a blind leap of faith and an open-minded disposition which Margulis, Nancy and Haraway all possess. Undoubtedly, the process is both scary and awe-inducing, which explains why Haraway appeals to Lovecraftian metaphors of strange multi-tentacular entities. But being, if you think about it, is absolutely frightening. Pandemics aside, the virulent force of nature and technology both hammer their way into our consciousness, leaving us feeling fearfully (dis)embodied and detached. Yet, in this constant flux, we appeal to the strangeness of being as a source of inspiration and meaning, a force that propels us to want to know more, feels more, is more. It is here, in this amorphous space in between self, other, nature and technology that the (dis)embodied sublime bubbles and ferments in the primordial soup of be-coming. 

The (Dis)embodied Sublime of New Media

Moving forward, perhaps we can ask ourselves the following metaphysical question: “what is it like to be a lichen?” Lichens spread, share, coexist and take the leap. Perhaps, not too dissimilarly to how the algae merged with the fungi, humans too have begun merging with entities to explore new worlds. If the world is to us, as the sea was to the algae, and the modem is to the world wide web as the fungus was to the land, then it could be speculated that our jump into the unknown world of virtuality already happened back in January 1st 1983 when an interconnected digital communication system first launched: the internet. The result of this exploration produced the human equivalent of a lichen – an entity both singular and plural – that of the (dis)embodied avatar. 

As (dis)embodied avatars, we can explore facets of reality previously obscured from us. When we log online and visit our Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit profiles, we are essentially behaving like lichens, multiplying our identity asexually, just like spores in a lichen. This disembodiment comes so naturally that we almost take it for granted, perhaps a symbol of just how well-adapted our new form is to this uncanny landscape. As shapeshifters, we spread and colonise the web, leaving residues of ourselves forever imprinted on its virtual surfaces – digital footprints that attest to our existence – yet condemn us to a life forever scrutinised. With the beauty and freedom of expansion into another world, comes the recognition that, as multiplied entities, we are now made more visible and thus vulnerable. 

If, on the one hand, we have the gloriousness of (dis)embodied freedom, on the other, we have the feeling of dislocation and alienation – navigating this new media world can make us feel exposed and lonely. As we adjust to replacing the carnal touch with simulated interactions, as we very much were forced to during the pandemic, new anxieties bubble up from the vast oceans of this metaphysical reality. Can we really be like lichens and effectively live inland in the nether regions of the darkest web, or are we still forever tied to the ocean of our human condition? It is in moments like these that theories need the support of the practice. New media artists try to grapple with questions like these and turn their anxieties and excitations into powerful objects of signification.

Multimedia digital artist Wes Viz’s contribution to the discourse on the (dis)embodied sublime comes in the form of LINEAR  INTERPOLATION I, a diffracted and dispersed version of herself, a self-portrait that expresses the anxieties, fears and rich fertile possibilities of our merging with technology. Bound within a shape-shifting metallic body, Viz’s artwork manifests as a collection of moments, perhaps all the moments we’ve spent online this year, a year where connections, even of the most intimate kind, were mediated via the webs of digital infrastructure. Viz’s (dis)embodied and to some extent (re)embodied self, lives through her constructed avatar, part human, part machine – singular, yet plural as encapsulated in Nancy’s philosophy – forever seeking to find new ways of inhabiting. 

“We are always between poses. We are always in motion, even standing still”, Viz remarks. The idea of stillness in a digital world is incongruous, even when offline, our virtual selves are constantly in fervent motion, being looked at, scrutinised, downloaded, repurposed… shared. This idea of our identity and body being pulled away from us by the magnetism of this other world is perfectly represented in Viz’s self-portrait. Like the lichen’s filaments, branching out to discover new land, Viz’s virtual body extends, curious, excited, in awe but perhaps also afraid of what’s beyond. 

The body is also deconstructed in Mária Júdová’s Everywhen I, II, III, where it floats, spectrally, through the scattered matter of serialised memories, events, historicities and subjects. Here, in this dark, seemingly unfathomable space, the anxieties of our age are contrasted by the playfulness of a dancer – Soňa Ferienčíková – as she pirouettes through the remnants of a hyper-digitalised world. As the viewer follows the movements of the dancer, they cannot help but notice the stark contrast between her organic, fluid, natural movements and the static-ness of her surrounding space. 

Here, the dancer embodies Margulis’ concept of the interconnected being of Gaia, taking its name from the ancient Greek goddess representing mother nature. Just like nature, she is beautiful, serene… powerful, and then within an instant, wrathful, unpredictable, forceful. As the reincarnation of the sublime natural forces of nature, the dancer represents life in all its exuberance and callousness. Júdová remarks that in this world, a woman can be “a loving mother who also promotes murder and slavery”, the dark and the light, the apollonian and dionysian – all wrapped up through the catharsis of dance – one of the most primitive and expressive art forms. As the natural forces of the dancer penetrate the new media world of digitalised space, the question we might ask ourselves is whether nature and its messy, chaotic and powerful forces, can infiltrate a world so binary, so regimented, so systematic as that of zeros and ones. 

Also exploring the depths of these ancient Greek concepts is New Media artist Valentina Ferrandes. The order, rigidity and rationality of the apollonian machines are contrasted with the disorder, turbulence and fallibility of the dionysian flesh. Ferrandes, in The Goddesses Series, merges the two, resulting in an uncannily bodily yet at the same time decidedly robotic amalgamation of the sublime forces of nature and technology. The disorder of the flesh, bursting from the rigidity of metal shields with the same fervour as a lichen colonising a rock or a seedling sprouting from cement, perfectly showcases the insatiable power of nature against all odds. 

Just like nature, humans also possess this need, which Freud would call the death-drive, a subconscious compulsion towards destruction even at the expense of our lives. It forms part of the idea that our being-in-the-world, as expounded by Heidegger, is inextricably also connected with death, destruction and a desire to go over the edge, leap forward, know more… explore. If our being-in-the-world extends to all the technologies and advances in the digital world, then we are already bursting, full-throttle, into the nooks and crannies of our metallic keyboards, resurfacing on the other side as Harawayian cyborgic (dis)embodied symbionts – part human, part other. Whether this is a forced cohabitation or a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, like that of lichens – is for us – and the rest of humankind to decode. 

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