Queering Quantum Physics – Interview with Johanna Bruckner
Isabella Maund: Your work is being shown in the current exhibition at HEK, the Pax Art Awards 2022. Could you give us some insights into the installation? It’s always nice to hear directly from the artist how they describe their work.
Johanna Bruckner: At HEK I am exhibiting both a seven channel, video installation, Metabolic Hardware, and another installation, Body Obfuscations, that consists of metal, latex and screens showing an existing work of mine, Atmospheric Drafts of Intimacy. The new work, Metabolic Hardware, explores a theme that I’ve been working on for a while, which is the training of a sexbot. In this piece, I’m questioning how technologies are shaping our bodies often in certain normative ways, the conditions under which the training takes place, and what transformations this can lead to. It reflects on the conditions of being trained, more specifically I focus on what it means to be trained as a sexbot from a marginalised perspective, for example as a sex worker or pornstar. I was interested in bringing different perspectives to this, for example with regards to sexually transmitted diseases. I question whether machine learning can be used to learn about diseases and viruses, as well as why there is resistance to exploring this possibility and how the virus itself speaks against the technology where biological glitches give birth to incalculable molecular algorithms. In the piece the bots speaks itself, it creates a language out of a scenario, in which it takes a position on current developments in a poetic, somewhat abstract way. This narration is very open to the audience so that they can make their own opinions on the context.
IM: When viewing the work there are these poetic, romantic and somewhat abstract texts overlayed with the videos, how did you develop this narrative?
JB: I like to take a multi-layered approach to research by reading poetry, academic texts, having dialogues with people, friends, and professionals around me. When I’m very inspired by writers whose text I think could be important for an artwork, I sometimes paraphrase or take this poetry as a starting point to write my own. It helps to bring a new perspective to where I am at that moment. The original poetry transforms, like a new beginning, creating new worlds and spaces. The texts then have a different authorship in the end, and they mutate into a form or object once in this new context – they are no longer just text.
IM: You’ve mentioned previously that you include a queer feminist approach to quantum physics in your artistic practice, can you expand on this?
JB: I think it’s important to challenge the ways we understand the world in these days where technology operates so heavily in life. Algorithmic systems penetrate our bodies and our environment and shape new systems without the citizens knowing what is happening, often without being able to take an opinion or position in these developments. It is important to me to confront these ideas by bringing in a feminist perspective to quantum physics, which allows for queering of binary regimes. From philosopher Barad’s quantum physical perspective, for example, matter is characterized by self-touch. Beyond fixed aggregate states it is in a permanent flow and a change of state. Thus, the world defines itself out of punctual situations and through performative influence a new state crystallizes, the world comes into motion. With this model of intra-activity, matter and the world and their permanent change can be thought queerly – beyond gender binaries and quasi also beyond any binary regimes. While researching sexbots I think current technological transformations can open up while questioning our access to technology, which can be informed by quantum physics. Let’s say, for example, a certain technology like our phones or tablets are stored heavily. The stories are full of affective experiences like emotions and images. Affection, which is central for the interaction with a sexbot, itself is something that is very important for my aesthetic arguments. It’s a resistant force in and of itself. It’s never going back and forth in the same way. I like to say it’s polymorphous – it goes in many directions and it’s never repetitive.
IM: In your work you’ve collaborated with dancers many times, how did this play into your newer work?
JB: So, the concept of the video work is that a sexbot is being trained while transforming itself into several beings – it’s not one, it’s many. Here I’m thinking of the body as more than itself. The concept of the body has been presented to us since we were students as a colonial product. Often today we have the focus on expanding our lifetimes, whether with prosthetics technology or with organ transplants, for example. So, what happens and what kind of agencies are being created through this metamorphosis? In a sense when we receive an organ, we are no longer human, we are in somewhat of a latent state of affairs. We don’t know how each body will take this organ, and often these are animal organs. In this moment of transplantation, it’s like we transgress the boundaries between human and animal. I like to think about what this means for us as citizens and how we can take a position or opinion on this to be able to participate in and politicise technological transformations. So, the bodies that you see in the work are escaping from the condition of being trained, of being appropriated and often exploited by technology, and of being penetrated by algorithmic systems. This is why dancers very often come into my work, as the indeterminacy of their body movements, their organic bodies as microorga(ni)smic beings, allows for glitches, of not being able to be appropriated entirely. The question of the concept of automation in relation to human labour today moreover occurs and what this means, especially for marginalised groups.
IM: In both installations you are working with latex and when walking into room of Body Obfuscations you can really notice this in terms of smell. Was this something you expected and what lead you to working with latex?
JB: I use latex in both installations, so in Metabolic Hardware there is a screen made from latex that is in the shape of brain or organism. In this piece, I wanted to bring something organic to the screening space since this material is organic itself. It’s porous and with time changes on a molecular scale. In Vienna, for example I showed a latex structure in an exhibition and over the eight weeks it was exhibited it changed. It’s interesting that the material performs as an incalculable performative reaction on a micro-scale. I’ve also worked with silicone before but it’s more expensive, so on larger scale works I must use latex. In Body Obfuscations the latex itself becomes figures and when installed on the metal structures, it acts like a prosthetic for the prosthetic body of the metal structures bringing in ideas around the politics of a body. I don’t want to say that the latex is skin because it’s a bit problematic. Or, right at this point, it problematizes the penetration of the body as skin from a decolonial perspective. It’s like the whole installation is a body that is turned inside out and that has been appropriated by technology. The smell I wasn’t so aware of before installing because, this is the first time I’ve worked with a large scale latex installation. But, I like that it creates a scenario where you also might feel uncomfortable at some point. You can get used to it, but it also allows you to dive into an atmosphere that allows you to better connect with the work on a sensitive way. Because of the latex smell, you might be reminded of sexual products, like toys or condoms. In a way it helps accommodate a better bodily central connection with the work.
IM: Since this was a new discovery, do you think you will play with this sensory component more in the future?
JB: I would love to play with the sensual aspects with regards to what extent you can challenge experience. In my work I play around the notions of touch, but more from a material perspective. Regarding smell, I’m very interested in working with this further because it influences your nervous- and metabolic system in a different way and expresses symbolically what is affective. Smell is also forced into my research around molecular agencies which I’m very curious about. Smell is something that plays a role in the commercial industry in order to attract people for something, but you can also play with it.
Thank you to Johanna Bruckner for taking the time to chat about their artistic process and works.