Rhonda Holberton at Royal NoneSuch Gallery

Rhonda Holberton, in her exhibition The Italian Navigator has Landed in the New World at Royal NoneSuch Gallery, “imagines the body as seen by the machine on the other side of the screen.” Utilizing the hollowed out forms of casts, imagery of the silicon molding of the CPR dummy Resusci Anne, and body scans of herself animated into yoga practice, Holberton addresses mediations between body and mind, through technology and across time. Through material and technological reproductions of bodily forms, she problematizes how bodies are sensed—and known.

From the gallery window pristine white casts of limbs and other body sections are arranged like a collection displayed for emerging doctors, a display I imagine might be called “Best Practices in Osteopathic Medicine” in that context. Holberton titles the work Something of the Same Feeling to Everyone. The cast-encrusted body is echoed in a projection on the rear wall of the gallery, a single-channel video created using Microsoft’s Kinect technology, which uses infrared dots for position tracking and facial recognition. For The Italian Navigator has Landed in the New World, Holberton scanned her body to create a 3D model, later animated to recreate her yoga practice. It’s jarring to watch; no smooth Vinyasa, just halting and modulation on a loop. The incompletely rendered Holberton is headless, handless, and dons a cast that breaks open, revealing no body inside, when moved in positions that exceed the boundaries of the cast—a trick reserved solely for the realm of the virtual.

Adjacent in the gallery is a large photographic reproduction of a partial face, a stack of silicon molds, in fact, of a CPR dummy. Holberton tells us in the exhibition statement that Resusci Anne, the name of the training mannequin, has been in production and use since 1958. The face belongs, ironically, to L’Inconnue de la Seine, an unidentified woman who drowned in the River Seine near the end of the last century. In circulation and reproduction so long, she has the most kissed face of all time; she is known, and now belongs to all of us. Through the distance of reproduction and the intimacy of mouth-to-mouth, she has found a name but not an identity.

These medical technologies are not neutral in their masking of the unknown and broken aspects of our fragile bodies. Always striving for an ideal state of health—a set-up that denies a range of bodies, and death—the biomedical model in general, and it’s support technologies specifically, continue to study and train for medical health interventions through body reproductions and artifacts. The technologies to facilitate a functioning body as breathing, whole, unbroken also impart distance from actual bodies, from actual breath, skin, and bone. The armature can be described and articulated, but can it really be known?

Holberton cuts to the quick; the technology she uses is tellingly called PrimeSense, for Microsoft Kinect. “Sense” has taken on new connotations in new technology. It’s no longer the sole purview of people to perceive their worlds; the television show Shark Tank tells me that sensor technology is the future, and a good one to invest in. What does that mean for the primacy of our embodied sense experience? Or closer: who knows it better, your body or the machine? Historically, philosophical debates have privileged one or the other, sense knowing versus abstract or theoretical knowing. There is a gap between the two, one beautifully addressed by poet and software engineer Maged Zaher from his book If Reality Doesn’t Work Out: “In my fantasy, you are / In the distance between the mathematical model and the physical object / This accurate inadequacy this inadequate accuracy.” The reproductions made by a computer may be credible, but they can’t universally capture embodied experiences for the infinitely diverse set of humanity. There is a space between embodied sense knowledge and the sensor knowledge of medical technologies.

Flopped on the middle of the gallery floor is a normative white person BandAid flesh colored yoga mat. It is laid out with a twist in the middle of its flesh, and is the thickness, density, and texture of human skin. It is somehow quite disturbing to imagine touching it, in a way that actual skin-to-skin contact is not. It’s an alienated production of a part dissociated from the rest of its non-being. The visceral reaction to this oversized skin flap perfectly captures the tensions that Holberton explores: alienation from our bodies and loss of identity to reproductions of our physical selves.



Rhonda Holberton: The Italian Navigator has Landed in the New World is on view at Royal NoneSuch Gallery in Oakland, CA through December 14th, 2014.
Images courtesy of Royal NoneSuch Gallery. Photos: Rhonda Holberton

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