How can we find performances of desire and designs of pleasures in the economics of nanotech? In the interview with Sandra Oehy, Johanna Bruckner talks about her project Molecular Sex & Synthetic Love that she developed for the web residency call »Engineering Care« by Solitude & ZKM, curated by Daphne Dragona. A project that aims at queering normative world views of intimate relations and individual-driven forms of care.
Sandra Oehy: Johanna, your body of work consists of a complex of forms of practices, in which the production of one work often leads – in some form or another – directly into the next, in which traditional work frames are shot, unblast, and intertwined. Always working with the body of performers and spatial settings, most of your previous work projects are usually not put into the category of what is commonly called »digital art,« though some of its subjects matters have been a constant in of your research practice. So, let’s start with the simplest of all questions: What brought you to apply to the unique (as patented) web residency program by Solitude & ZKM? Were there any incentives as part of the offered setting that made it particularly appealing to you, perhaps regarding a potential extension of your modes of production?
Johanna Bruckner: »Engineering Care« clearly relates to the themes that I have recently been working on. These are for example a critical reflection on how the world, human and nonhuman existence, is increasingly produced in chemical laboratories. That means, nanotechnologies and synthetic biology play a central role in creating the realities that we move in. Bacteria produce our existence through code, while erasing labor forces around the globe. This includes the production of our sexual bodies, the performance of desire and the design of pleasures. Our future is one of sex/design. Through our interaction with technology, molecular research has discovered that the future of sex determination involves an array of sexual variations and practices rather than a binary structure. I find it of utmost importance to find languages in the arts that politicize our access and our use of technologies and the fabrication of our world by nanotech. And how these determine our existence as social beings in the world.
Algorithms increasingly penetrate the micro- and nanostructures of our physical, artificial and sexual bodies, to provide data sets for the economic and political engineering of the world. To politicize these processes I have been inventing speculative sex robots in my artwork. These aim at queering our understanding of intimacy and desire. I use the concept “queer” here as one that describes the transgression of pleasure principles, and boundaries, beyond the binary system that our interaction with technologies brings about. I refer to the ways our social and digital performances are shaped as multiplicities and monstrous masses. As those impulsive poetic forces that result from the entanglements between technology, body, nonhuman existence, and atmosphere. I refer to the queerness of material itself. Reading quantum physics, the material condition is generated by self-touch within matter. That means particles regenerate themselves by reproducing and destroying each other through mutual contact. Observing these micro-agencies of particles assembling within matter, we may speak of micro-revolutionary crystallizations that are shaped in interaction with its electromagnetic environment, and ourselves.
»To care, I believe, means to establish formats and infrastructures of online encounters that give voice to those narratives that have given a presence in today’s regulated internet.«
Corporate authorities, political stakeholders, and governments have for decades left »care« to one’s individual responsibility, to reproduce the body as the technology of creative responsibility toward regulating life. Against the transformation of the world, my web project Molecular Sex & Synthetic Love proposes to think about sex robots as BOTS OF TECHNO-SEX. These bots perform means of care that I have called techno-care. For me, this term means the ability to use technology as a support system to mutually respond, while, most importantly, providing the conditions for response-ability on a larger scale. More precisely, techno-care is understood by caring for the sum of the social implications that the technological transformations do on and with our bodies. In my understanding, care is always an action that requires more than a concept of betweens. To care is to be and act from in-between. It involves shaping these agencies that reach beyond a reciprocal relation, to install a multiplicity of relations. Emerging meshworks of affinities may affect micro-political temporalities. To care in a technology-saturated world, can also be directionless and formless, as long as it takes the responsibility to care for many others in polymorphic processes. To care, I believe, means to establish formats and infrastructures of online encounters that give voice to those narratives that have given a presence in today’s regulated internet.
Regarding the format of the call, I find it extremely important that critical practices enter the internet, and reprogram its content with the indeterminate and political languages of arts. Thus, a web residency could be a catalyzing form to feed it with various and differentiated knowledge. Web residencies could also be a project to support the decolonization and hegemonic discourse of the internet itself. If we conceive web residencies as a new format, which reproduces itself as a rhizome spanning thousands of micro-assemblages around the globe, the internet could, speculatively spoken, become more equal. Web-based practices should increasingly be seen as an infrastructure for the production of art, and get visibility in the contemporary art world, its institutions and markets. Moreover, if the physical bodies with whom I usually work within reality, are performing in the virtual space of the internet, they speak against those on the web that are fabricated for the market- and surveillance reasons.
SO: Can you elaborate on the starting principle for this specific work Molecular Sex & Synthetic Love?
JB: The mobility of pleasure and knowledge as capital, logistical computing, and planetary sharing economies, all have implications for human relations within the world’s political configurations. These new economic and social orders have largely benefited from advances in molecular research, hormonal and libidinal biology, virology, and sex/design. They enhance the human body, the molecular body, and employ it as biochemical material, as I mentioned. For example, our molecular bodily material is used to explore the genetic engineering of sex and form a basis for the design of new physical and artificial bodies, and notions of how their sexualities perform. Furthermore, nanotechnologies and artificial intelligence shape the human experience of pleasure through technical and biomedical interventions, such as robots acting as erotic partners. Or through pharmaceutical experimentation, where the feeling is converted into a techno-sensory product. The chemical industries have situated the desires of bodies within an ensemble of social relations, in which the libidinal economy serves the sex/design of bio-capitalism. In contemporary aesthetic economies, pleasure is increasingly experienced as a fragile and virtual realm. Given this techno-sensual modification of human feeling, the body is continuously subjected to speculative alteration. How, then, might these scenarios, in which the body is thrown into a chaotic and unpredictable molecular world, allow for the reordering of contemporary sex/design regimes to make way for a micropolitics of care?
The web project activates the practices by QTS, a queer toy assemblage working between China and California. The corporation produces the Qbotix App, through which the fem- and trans-bots are equipped with tools to learn the languages of intimate encounters. On the website of my project, these languages are elaborated through both sound and voice. One sees the heads of sexbots and its dissolved body parts merged into monstrous plastic composites. The bots act as a prosthesis for the disconnecting and reconnecting body parts that circulate systemically in the virtual world. Through the heads’ jellyfish-like movements, and the plastic layer that it performs on, it interacts with the atmospheres that surround it, using its body parts to inhale and exhale to create new life. The latter happens through the sound files that are attached to the bots’ heads. Pressing the code of a file under its head, you can share the sound and thus disseminate it on the internet. The sounds for sex robots aim to provoke the experiences of intimacy with artificial intelligence: the bot sings into the atmosphere by evoking and receiving pleasure from and towards many others and, when shared, adopts queer languages of interaction. In the videos that you see in the second section of the site, the techno bot performs both as and with a brittle star, a deep-sea brainless animal whose body is a metamorphosing optical and sensual system; a living nano-technology. Moreover, it performs both as and as a host of the Wolbachia bacterium, which distorts lovemaking and sex, its bodily fluids accumulating into something like smart bombs for aleatory speciation.
As a plastic object of sexual pleasure, the bot is chemically linked to the very plastics that, in their molecular texture, make sexual indifferences possible, thus, carry their queerness into sex. When getting in touch with the plastics, complex bacterial meshworks infiltrate its synthetic surfaces, reproducing and destroying each other and the texture of plastics itself, mutating and developing into new organisms dependent on the sources of energy unlocked by carbon. The plastics of the sex bot becomes organic living nano-tech.
SO: What do you mean when you talk about »molecular joy«?
JB: I am reading about molecular joy not only with Paul Preciado (a writer, philosopher, curator, and one of the leading thinkers in the study of gender and sexual politics), who sees the capacity of this concept in the bodies overcoming their status as the raw material of cognitive capitalism. Techno-driven joy, in my reading, refers here to the affinities of particles on a molecular level, which bring to the surface the underlying micro-agencies that are enhanced in the techno-affective machinic relationship between body, desire, and material. Let me elaborate on these thoughts a little further. Stimulated by the dissolution of labor, life and leisure, neoliberal victories over aesthetic value led to the valorization of desire as semiotics. Today’s post-Fordist regimes of cognitive labor depend on technologies as machines of desire, producing affective experiences as systems of labor.  Considering these machines of desire in their molecular operational processes — as microphysics of the unconscious  — they seem to exist as affective molecular aggregates. Dependent on their cognitive laborer, their viral host, they stimulate the constitution of social formations and abstract connectivities. So, if we view the process of affection/being affected by technology not as an appropriative strategy but rather as a metamorphic virus, the machine (the bot) as well as our relationship to it, may be a catalyzing motor to break away from capital’s extraction and exploitation of our desires through affect’s potential indeterminacy.
SO: What role do spatial and bodily affectives play in your work in general and in this new work specifically?
JB: I usually work with a number of performers in temporary social settings, in which the bodies perform in relation to one other, whose affective forces create a physical language that remains temporarily indeterminate because the scores, in their emerging structure, are temporarily foreign to the capitalist abstraction.
The integration of artificial intelligence into sexbots stores information in the bot’s body, through which it learns to perform as an aleatory, intraparticipatory sexual species. This code and the bot’s subsequent actions are based on training, which makes modifications in intra-action with its environment. This training is based on datascapes of pleasure, here through sound, which is again linked to and placed within the existing infrastructures of computing. These may also redefine access and connection within computing. Rather than encouraging data’s permanence, these emerging intra-active data-scapes promotes polymorphism and polygamy. The code opens up networks of as-yet-unknown sensual knowledge: an eternal nexus of feedback toward polyrhythmic cyberspace. As a micropolitical virus, the artificial body infiltrates the configuration and performance of other technical machines and their relations. Its agency should be recognized not only by its appearance as virtual pleasure, but by its ability to redistribute and contest the processes of transmission, streaming, downloading, storage and sharing.
»The bot, which performs with brittle star and Wolbachia, as well as the plastification of the world provide examples in which the revolutionary immediacy of molecular agency can be observed as intrinsic to the non/human domain of cells and bodies and help elaborate our understanding of techno-care.«
SO: How do you relate to the »post-humanity debate« in the arts specifically and/or on the »post-human condition« in a broader field of cultural discourse?
JB: I think these questions become clear through what I have formulated above. The bots, who during the work learn its existence as a technoid trans/material being aim to bring to the surface, as mentioned, the underlying micro-agencies that are enhanced in the techno-affective machinic relationship between body, care, and material. In doing so, this work proposes that we urgently refine our politics of techno- and cyber-care, and acknowledge our responsibility in confusing the boundaries of pleasure. Quantum theory’s concept of the performativity of the matter is essential in understanding care as a polymorphic operation. Put differently, our relation to our affective machines, the bots, crystallizes densification of the ability to react and to respond.
The bot, which performs with brittle star and Wolbachia, as well as the plastification of the world, provide examples in which the revolutionary immediacy of molecular agency can be observed as intrinsic to the non/human domain of cells and bodies and help elaborate our understanding of techno-care. That means the multitude of molecular bodily materials, as sensible relationalities, provide space for the proliferation of alternative body knowledge. These may catalyze the emergence of new demands on state and corporate bodies, through the collectivization of semiotic-sensible minds. The molecules of desire become the occasion for polymorphic anticipation and embodied micro-agencies of the sensible. This process of disaffected labor, through which molecules create, cut, separate, and re-entangle their agencies, is again an assemblage of micro-revolutionary crystallization, whose intensifications conceive of techno-human bodies as complex particles of possibility. Our technological machines constitute us in relation to the matter that surrounds us. The politics of care essentially concern these assemblages of particles of possibility constituted by abstract machines.
SO: One could say, especially under the impression of your work, that we all live in a permanent (dissociative) state of detachment – a maybe all too common notion – of panic disenfranchising experiences and eradicating entanglements. So how and where do we go from here?
JB: Even if the molecular is used as raw material for numerous economic, technological, and political applications, it can be an effective resource for confrontation and change. The point is not only to react to one another and accept mutual responsibility. It is more advantageous to learn how to develop contra-poetic practices and languages within a multi-species technology-led world, because the transformations through the molecular call for systems that include political-ethical and techno-queer forms of care and encounter.
The interview was conducted by Sandra Oehy.