Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Cyborg Film Making by Dr. Rachel Armstrong (MA , BMBCh)

Cyborg Film Making

Hans Scheirl's "Dandy Dust" is a horror story without resolution, where even the planets have organs and where the notion of the family itself is ripped apart in an eternal cinematic conflict where the audiences preconceptions of family roles are fragmented by naturally unnatural forces.

Cyniborg, the predatory mother figure, stalks an alien cybernetic universe seeking the remains of her ancestors so that she can sew them back together and form her own matriarchal regime.

Dandy Dust is at the centre of her search, her child and murderer who has dissociated his selves into fragments at the realisation of this precocious trauma. In this multiple-identity the immaterial Dust roams the digital vacuum between planets whilst its other incarnations flame and Dandy enact their own sentences of deviant sexuality in the hope of reconciliation.

From a universe that defies definition by any mainstream convention, dialogue narrative, character, or conclusion there is only one possible vehicle that can embrace the extra-ordinary transformations and subversive actions that take place. That of the Cyborg.

The term 'Cyborg' broadly refers to the emerging symbiotic relationship between humans and machines and has been particularly useful to the discussion of avante garde arts practice. Cyborg is an inspiring term from a creative and practical perspective, symbolising a range of aesthetic, social, political and cultural issues. Cyborg identity' may be expressed in its purest form in the arts community in a way that is perhaps more subversive as a device for radical art practice than the mere relationship that has been caused by the approximation of man and machine.

Donna Haraway's discourse on the cyborg perhaps offers the most poignant allusion to radical fine arts practice than any mainstream notion that a deterministic union or fusion between the human and machine has occurred, causing an identity shift in the individual. As portrayed by mainstream filmmakers the resultant organism has been irreversibly created in the image of the maker [often man] but, although derived from a human precursor, is no longer recognisably 'naturally human'. Once touched by technology, these super-beings, have transgressed their ancestral species identity, and may be thought of as 'transhuman' beings.

"Extropians recognize the unique place of our species and our opportunity to advance nature's evolution to new peaks ... With the advent of the conceptual awareness of humankind, the rate of advancement sharply accelerated as intelligence, technology, and the scientific method were applied to our condition. We seek to sustain and quicken this evolutionary process of expanding extropy, transcending biological and psychological limits through transhumanity into posthumanity." (From The Extropian Principles, (July 1993) (c) 1993 Max More, President, Extropy Institute)

In Donna Haraway's 'Cyborg Manifesto' the relationship of the cyborg organism is a more ephemeral being that belongs to the human race but has a unique, 'fluid' identity when in the presence of artefacts.

"By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time ... all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs ... a condensed image of both imagination and material reality..." (From: 'A Cyborg Manifesto', Donna Haraway p 150, Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books 1995)

Cyborgs have become fashionable at a time where the perception of the relationship between the natural body and 'artificial' one has been accelerated by developments in medicine and technology. New devices have woven their way into human identity so seamlessly that they are integrated into our daily functioning. Moreover, the fluidity of people's relationships and emotional commitments is radically changing. Using new media and communications technologies, we are able to have more relationships than ever before. Combined with a greater individual mobility, the average person is require to adopt a variety of different societal roles and can perform these seamlessly, without contradiction.

In the post-Thatcher years, British society and its artistic communities are experiencing new social freedoms that are located in the 'self'. Consequently, the body directly reflects the value of an individual. The body and its aesthetics have been culturally given a new social importance signifying a person's 'worth'. Despite the anticipation of new techniques in human evolution by scientific and technological advances, the selection pressures that future bodies will ultimately face are social, economic and political. The concept of 'natural selection' first described by Charles Darwin as 'survival of the fittest' where animals are in conflict with nature and the environment has been replaced by 'unnatural selection' where the body can be manipulated to secure an economic advantage.

The resources to bring about these changes are currently under the control of the medical profession.

Modern medicine has concurrently embarked upon the cybernetic reconstruction of bodies from a variety of established sources of organic banks of human tissues and mechanical devices. By handling the sale and replacement of body parts and having integrated them into patients, they are able to prescribe aesthetics. The body has become a medical commodity and a variety of replacement components are routinely available for purchase on the boom market in the human body: blood, semen, ova, foetal tissue, cell lines, biochemical and genes are harvested and sold at escalating prices. The most desirable and healthy components are the most sought after. Health and beauty are now equivalent disciplines within medical practice.

" Presently, when we reconstruct somebody, we're repairing some injury. In plastic surgery ... we repair defects of nature or acquired defects. In cosmetic or aesthetic surgery, we change the way [a normal patient] looks. To go to the next step and implant ... devices in normal people so that they can improve their skills is something we [wouldn't] do right now, but I wouldn't rule out something like that for the future..." (Joseph M. Rosen M.D. from Cyberpunk (VHS, 60 minutes, available from ATA/Cyberpunk, P.O. Box 12, Massapequa Park, N.Y. 11762).

There is a look good, feel good, live well doctrine in the United Kingdom that is prevalent in the whole of Western Culture and most extravagant in the United States of America. Tycoon Alec Wildenstein's divorcee Jocelyn has captured the pubic imagination in her radical cosmetic surgery that, at the age of 54 has produced such an intimidating appearance that it has earned her titles 'The Bride of Wildenstein' or 'Lion Woman'. Body image and the way that it is interpreted by contemporary culture, have a profound effect on our social, economic and personal experience of the world. People are judged on their appearance and it seems that beautiful people even surgically altered ones, have better lives and more fun than the rest of us.

Cosmetically constructed personalities who appear in the gossip columns of the tabloids Elizabeth Taylor, Cliff Richards, Cher or Elton John are greatly empowered through their acquisition of near-physical perfection or 'unnatural' age regeneration. More and more of them are coming out of the designer-body closet. In order to achieve this enviable state, one British based celebrity, Cindy Jackson ( illustrates the most remarkable rags to riches story. She has undergone more than twenty operations to resemble a Barbie doll believing that men 'are really drawn to women for their looks' and has embarked on a crusade to assist other women in reaching this ideal. She is currently recruiting a Barbie Army and working as a beauty counsellor at the Hillingdon Hospital in London, advising women on the variety and benefits of cosmetic operations. [Editor Note: Cindy Jackson wrote in April 2000 to say that, "I am not and have never been working at Hillingdon Hospital. I run a mail order information service..."]

Since the early 1990s, there has been an increasing trend in arts practice to use the artist's image or their body as a performative canvas or space for producing arts narratives. Unlike the performance art of the 1970s, where body interventions such as those enacted by the Viennese Acktionists and Valie Export who performed public self-mutilations in the late 1960s, suffered in their relationship to the existing technology contemporary artists often use technology to suppress corporeal pain.

Taking advantage of the new technologies, radical statements are being expressed directly on the body in o rder to challenge the accepted aesthetics of conventional 'beauty'. The cyborg phenomenon captures the imagination of these avante garde artists who regard the capacity to self-mutate or mutilate as being essential to their work. Performances of self-(re)creation are happening in experimental social spaces. Franko-B, Zed Le Hed, and Ron Athey are producing work that challenges the construction of an acceptable configuration of human 'normality' or its celebration of a 'naturalised' sexuality. These images of a 'New Primitive' man, or a man stigmatised with the human condition made possible by technology, are being taken up into popular culture through cultural movements such as the New Primitives and fetish clubs. Fetishists incorporate the various elements of body-play, tattooing and new technologies following the examples set by the artists and sometimes to even greater but safer degrees of self-exploration, removing the element of risk by having their manipulation performed in parlours and clinics rather than in club arenas and theatres. The tools used to make the new statements are aesthetically borrowed from primitive cultures but others, such as the public surgical cosmetic operations of Orlan, use new interventions made possible with developments in medicine and technology.

Orlan's disturbing public operations employed techniques of 'local' surgery and anaesthesia allowing the skin to be broken and the flesh probed and controlled without the 'natural' limitations of pain. During these operation-performances, Orlan remains awake, directing the theatrical performance around her in the surgical theatre. The very first rite of passage of Orlan took place at the Edge festival in Newcastle-upon Tyne in England. Here Orlan, acting as mistress of ceremonies prepared herself for the series of nine, extra-ordinary operations that she is currently in the process of completing and which will end with a radically different face and identity in the year 2,000 AD.

Access to these new tools of self-modification has provoked a general increasing awareness of the relationship between arts, science, and new technologies. Moreover, these provocations are reversible and unstable. Orlan for example has declared that she will work with the aesthetics of rejection, scarring and failure of her 'artificial' aesthetic as part of the process of making the artwork itself.

Society is more aware and interested in the new potential possibilities open to them by innovative use of these 'unnatural' strategies to modify their personal life-styles. Science and technology are considered as an indispensable means to the evolution and achievement of new values, ideals, and visions to challenge the globally entrenched dehumanizing capitalist system. Artists are making new allegiances with these conventional bodies of knowledge, and are directing them toward eradicating the barriers to their artistic objectives, in the attempt to radically transform both the internal and external conditions of existence.

Despite its curiosity in scientific progress, the public at large cannot help but be shocked by the cultural implications of some of the medical and technological developments that are threatening to shake the aesthetics and practice of acceptable general medical practice.

These new body artists challenge more than just the physical boundaries of identity and all of them exhibit their work at film and video festivals organised by queer filmmakers and artists. Although they do not strictly declare their sexual identity as being part of their 'Otherness' this part of their individuality is underrated and artificially separated from the 'queer' body.

The cyborg does not consider its difference or 'queer' identity to be a social disability but rather utilities its unique qualities as cyber-social abilities. From this attitude of empowerment through sexual difference, another British movement of comparable transgressive nature has been evolving in a comparable way to these 'new body' performance artists. Their work is only just reaching the consciousness of the arts mainstream and it this group of cultural innovators that I would describe as the 'cyborg artist' movement.

This grass root culture is emerging as a community based in the city o f London. The bodies of works produced by these artists are reflective of a highly unstable and satirical view of dis-functional social and physical bodies. The cyborg artists are making a significant contribution to the assimilation of art, science, and new technology into popular culture and will be the most radical British movement determining the nature of artistic expression and street fashion for the next millennium.

The cyborg artists originate from a culture of sexual/radical body/proud perversions associated with identity politics and inspired by the writings of Foucault, De Sade, Bataillle, and Pat Califia.

British-based Sue Golding's book, 'The Eight Technologies of Otherness' is perhaps the most complete evidence of this new wave of arts practice and theory. In the thirty-three essays, the cultural, political and ethical values of 'Identity' and 'Otherness' are re-evaluated in the advent of eight new technologies: curiosity, noise, cruelty, appetite, skin, nomadism, contamination and dwelling. The contributors have been compiled from an unusual diversity of geographical origins, academic and intellectual practices being poly media, poly gendered and polymathic. Golding illustrates in a textual context, the re-imagining, and resynthesis of issues that have been deconstructed by post-modern thinking and reassembled by emergent cyborg intellectual re-unions.

These unlikely inter-disciplinary consummations are embodied in the lives of a number of avante garde British based artists. These creatives are in the process of trans-individual fluxus whose contribution is not depicted in the work that is produced but is more directly encapsulated by the lifestyle that they lead. As suggested by sue Golding's publication, these cyborg personalities are not pedigree descendants from an established ancestral lineage in arts history but are the mongrel children of a multitude of interdisciplinary influences such as, academia, new technology, medicine, club movements, street fashion, and popular culture.

Despite their complexity and plurality, the cyborg artists are inspired by the Donna Haraway manifesto, modifying its statements to complement their individual conception and playful pathway of cyborg 'becoming' and being.

The trans-identity cyborg influences are perhaps inspired by avante garde 'queer' culture. H arawa y describes the cyborg as being inherently schizophrenic and the most explicit social 'switching' is based on sexual and gender difference. The cyborg entity precipitates change on many fronts but the sexual masquerade is still tremendously important in sexually repressed patriarchal societies, especially in England.

These 'queer' groups emerged in the early 1990s, from a number of centres of sexual avant-garde fluxus life and art. Artists and filmmakers such as Del La Grace, a documenter of the sexual avant-garde dyke-scene and underground dyke-culture frequented these, and who were actively collaborating to produce their radical anti-gender narratives. Some of the original centres of this sexual avant-garde fluxus life and art arose from underground fetish dyke play-spaces. Suzie Kruegers 'Clit-Club', Sophie Moorcock and Lulu Belliveau's 'Quim' magazine, and Club Naive the first London drag-king club, opened up the possibility of these artists enacting variations to the bipolarity of masculine and feminine identities already endorsed by mainstream dyke culture.

Clit-Club was a fetish dyke club. Its primary focus was mainly leatherwear with occasional theme nights. As these became more popular its agenda moved towards sexual fantasy in a wider sense where the crowd wore uniforms, dressed as schoolgirls and boys, became whores or even mad doctors. Each night there would be an alternative 'cabaret'. This was a short, very intense, sexual performance where the artists would use hard-core techniques like real blood, real piss, real fisting, shaved pussies, s/m gear, babies in nappies and raping soldiers, to embody their fantasies. Occasionally there were 'switch nights' where femmes dressed butch and vice-versa enabling some of the more adventurous to cross-cruise. 'Quim' the magazine 'for dykes of all sexual persuasions' produced by Sophie Moorcock and Lulu Belliveau was a forum for the artists of this avant-garde scene. This was the first time that lesbians and female sex-adventurers could experiment and play freely without being exposed to the straight gaze where the performers in the Clit-Club were not hired 'professionals' but came to do it because they were part of the scene.

Hans Scheirl is one of the transgendered artists whose metamorphosis has arisen from this alternative 'queer' culture and who qualifies as a cyborg artist. His latest work is the 1998 feature film 'Dandy Dust'. This creation, a transgendered/noize/splatter/sci-fi/horror-comix plot set in a planetary system with organs and inhabited by a dysfunctional family, is of cyborg origin. The film's hypercylic narrative can be read from any point and gives play space to a number of combative personalities that mutate and evolve using non-linear strategies. The film appears to have an independent existence like a soap opera, that may be explained by the fact that the cast members are real-life artists from the original alternative dyke cabarets. In the film they are re-enacting their fantasies as if 'live' from the club performance spaces. These cabarets and performers inspire Hans Scheirl's script, inventing the domineering, and vengeful matriarchal character of Cyniborg with Suzie Krueger in mind. The whole film was actually cast with real personalities from this queer radical underground and recycled their real erotic fantasises into the fictional narrative.













IN TIMES OF LEAPING TRANSFORMATION art, theory, documentation, and fiction are inseparable as are: production, pre-&post-; production&PR; reproduction&production, networking, play...

(From Hans Scheirl's summarized+updated cyborg manifesto 1998)

The potential for a soap-operatic reading of "Dandy Dust" is an outcome of the naturally unnatural couplings of the many identities and narrative permutations of the characters. the characters themselves are real and fictional, there is no finality in 'death' and that each character may transgress an identity from one planetary ecosystem into another implies that the metaphysical and real outcomes of coincidental sexual and power relationships within the family are infinitely multiple, reversible and un-resolvable.

As in the case of the cyborg artists the relationship of the "Dandy Dust" cast members to physicality is fluid. They are poly-morphous hybrids in constant transition with bodies that are quite unlike the Christian/scientific body that is conceptualised in a fixed and stable form. Human convention considers the 'natural' body as being created in the image of 'God' or built from a DNA blueprint. In contrast, these thespian cyborgs are not defined by their physical relationship to a conceptual point of reference, undergo perpetual p hysical, social or cultural change, and cannot possess an inappropriate body or sexuality. Their trans-mutant existence evades conventional value judgements, social expectations and resists permanence, or absolute definition.

Cyborg artist Svar Simpson, who plays Spider Cunt girl/boy, describes himself as having a minimalist body to which his sense of identity is loosely attached. He has had a disposition for out of body experiences since childhood, where his [INNER CONSCIOUS SELF] is separated from his body during astral travelling, near death experiences, meditation, and alien abduction.

" For as long as I can remember, I have always had a desire to explore other dimensions of existence and so have become aware of life as a transitional process." (From an internet interview with Svar 1998)

His sculptural work with cast phallic bronzes gives mass to his identity. Influences from extreme elemental forces from within alchemy have so far prevented him detaching permanently from his corporeal substance.

The "Dandy Dust" film entity relates to and reflects the lives of its thespian artists so that it has become part of them and their own individual work beyond "Dandy Dust" is connected to the substance of the original.

Svar's latest movie 'Late Date' materialises this identity trans-location. In the movie, the protagonist 'Neu bouy' signifies somet hing of Svar's understanding of otherness. 'Neu bouy' is apparently 'other' than human both sculpturally and characteristically. The monochromatic computer video is reminiscent of memory flash backs, retrieved by an imaginary, futuristic brain-scanner. The film features the androgynous artist in a weightless physical encounter with a skeletal, anthropomorphic creature to which a voyeur is compelled to return.

The cyborg film is integral to the whole process of creation and destruction that it is not merely a metaphor to describe the complex process of its coming into being but is the nature of the work itself.

The cast members of "Dandy Dust" are not playing at being cyborgs, they ARE cyborgs and are STILL BECOMING cyborg.

The cyborg artists in "Dandy Dust" actually embodies a new way of life, as opposed to simply inscribing a skin-deep sign of 'Otherness' in their flesh, that perm its individ ual expression and poly-media cross fertilisation. The dialogues that they have and the stories that they tell are more important than the media, technological sophistication, or artistry of these narratives. Many of the stories are re-invented and re-performed to mixed interest audiences and give his baby an independent life.

Hans Scheirl is already ensuring that the film narrative will have a further technological and media life of its own that can be carried by other agents than the human body. He is already hoping to inspire fanzines, websites, and club shows based around the cyborg characters to be exploited in a playful way that encourages integration and participation by any art or culture seeking audience.

This inclusive and entertaining approach to addressing the 'queer' perspective on identity politics is seductive and infectious. The loss of highbrow representations and stifling gallery incarceration of practising, living artists will not be missed. Perhaps the most significant contribution that the cyborg artists will make is in the empowerment of artists to represent themselves and engage directly with contemporary culture.

In relationship to the prevailing pre-millennial fear of annihilation, shape-shifting cyborg identities have much to offer society. They physically demonstrate that it is possible to defeat obliteration, annihilation, or replacement by the encroachment of the domina nt patriarchal, social, technological or medical pressures on the body and interpret them as survival techniques. The cyborg artist is the new inspiration for the possibility of human survival and perhaps immortality, by becoming the artwork narrative themselves.

The all-inclusive and playful trans-corporeality expressed in "Dandy Dust," inscribed in the flesh and technologies of the cyborg artists is the ultimate human configuration for the new millennia. "Dandy Dust" persuades and perhaps infects us with the desire to adopt our own strategies and trans-mutate to identify with a community of trans-identity beings.


Extropy: The work is a measure of intelligence, information, energy, vitality, experience, diversity, opportunity, and growth.

Extropianism: The philosophy that seeks to increase extropy.



 Rachel Armstrong Picture
Dr. Rachel Armstrong MA (Cantab) BMBCh (Oxon), ([email protected]) is the author of Sci Fi Aesth etics, television presenter for 'The Frame' on BBC's UK Arena channel, Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, a multimedia producer and medical doctor specialising in the evolution of humankind through 'unnatural interventions'. Forthcoming fiction book for Serpents Tail 'A Gray's Anatomy'.

Cybersociology Magazine Contents | This Issue: Five | Respond to this Article