Synthetic Neoplasms

Marcos Cruz (2008)

Article published in AD – Neoplasmatic Design
(guest-eds Marcos Cruz; Steve Pike),

November/December 08, Vol. 78 No 6, John Wiley & Sons, London, pp. 36-43
Text © 2008 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

The material and functional hybridisation of biological and non-biological systems has been explored in an increasingly diverse manner in art and film, having its most extreme expression in a series of animal-like objects that are difficult to classify. This is due to their formal and material character, the complexion of skin, as well as their status as ‘object-beings’1 and the manner in which these establish a new relationship with the human body. David Cronenberg’s movie eXistenZ (1999)2 and the weird game-pods featured in it, are a pivotal example of such hybridisation, requiring a more careful examination.

The film revolves around an ambiguous real/virtual experience in which players of a game called eXistenZ connect themselves to pods that become physically plugged into their nervous system. Although referred to in the movie as creatures, it is not clear what the pods in actual fact are. Should they be considered as kinds of mutants or chimeras that share partly robotic, partly human features, calling to mind old mythologies of being cyclops or aliens? Or should they simply be understood in terms of what Greg Lynn has defined as ‘blobs’?
In a first analysis, Cronenberg’s game-pods have a topological complexity that is akin to Lynn’s blobs. But more than geometrically driven ‘proto-objects’,3 which are digitally generated from scaled-up analogies between biology and architecture, they are in fact biological formations that lack a clear and recognisable geometry. They seem to share features with what the French philosopher George Bataille considered ‘informe’; a sense of carnal ‘horizontality’, the use of a ‘base materialism’ of flesh that has a formless and even scatological dimension, the emergence of an internal biological ‘pulse’, and a potential to become entropic,4 as opposed to Lynn’s generative and constructive blob models.5 On the whole, Cronenberg’s game-pods possess a unique materiality due to their ‘semi-living’6 status, suggesting that they are neoplasms7 instead.
The term ‘neoplasm’ is borrowed from medicine where it stands for what in common language is called a tumour. Its medical definition describes it as ‘a mass of abnormal tissue that arises without obvious cause from pre-existing body cells, has no purposeful function, and is characterized by a tendency to independent and unrestrained growth’.8 In Cronenberg’s film, however, more than it being understood as a pathological occurrence it refers to the quality of being ‘plasmatic’;9 that is, the formal attribute of a strange-looking lump of autonomous flesh that proves to be somehow alive. Such characteristics are clearly not exclusive to Cronenberg’s propositions, and are also evident in the extraordinary and prolific artwork of Patricia Piccinini who creates a variety of mutant and hybrid organisms of an unprecedented formal character.

The product design of Droog/Frank Tjepkema, as well as architectural proposals by Samuel White, Stefanie Surjo and Tobias Klein also express such plasmatic features. Since these neoplasms are all artificially created and not grown out of the human body, it makes sense to call them ‘synthetic neoplasms’; and as the wording suggests, this does not just imply that they are man-made, but also that they are, in material terms, composites. In fact, Cronenberg’s pods are described in the movie as being hybrid creatures that crossbreed parts of different organisms, clearly pointing to what Kevin Kelly has defined as ‘neo-biological’.10

Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary depictions of hybrid creatures in the 16th century can be seen as an important precedent for such neoplasms. In a similar way, Pieter Bruegel, who borrowed and adapted a number of Bosch’s visions, produced paintings richly inhabited with bizarre half-man, half-animal, half-vegetable beings. Later, in the seventeenth century, the Amorphous Monster11 drawn by Fortunius Licetus became a formal predecessor of work that was to be carried out in the 20th century which, even though not always implying life, could be considered neoplasmatic. Artists such as Louise Bourgeois put forward a series of hybrid plasms12 that expressed a strong carnal eroticism of living flesh.

In fact, one of the most critical features of all synthetic neoplasms is flesh. To explore this, one has to understand flesh as an extended meaning of skin and, accordingly, skin not as a surface or membrane, but rather like ‘a place of minglings’,12 as the English theorist Steve Connor has put it. This implies a sense of three-dimensionality that is manifest through the nakedness and materiality of skin in which embedded matter, along with a variety of wrinkles, bulges and orifices mark their presence, in turn influencing the flesh’s texture and colour.
In the case of Cronenberg’s game-pods there is an undefined lightness and sense of transparency noticeable on the skin. Bearing in mind that the game-pods are assembled from genetically engineered amphibian organs and limbs, requiring an outer skin that ties them together, might help in explaining this feature. Their synthetic nature suggests that the skin is very likely to be artificially grown; and since pigmented skin is still difficult to produce in vitro – one is here deliberately comparing scientific evidence with fictional imagery – one could imagine that the game-pods most probably lack colour altogether. In other words, the absence of pigmentation stigmatises them with being albino, a phenomenon that detaches them from a long-standing racial argument of skin colour that has been so significant in our cultural history.
Another relevant physiological feature of the game-pods has to do with their unclear gender. In the movie they are presented with ambivalent sexual connotations13 that cannot be explained through the traditional feminist discourse on gender difference. If the recesses and nipple-like protrusions, as well as the colour and lack of muscular structure seem somehow female, the impenetrability and resistance of it is more likely to be male.14 Hence the game-pods give the impression of being multi-gendered, or perhaps something else that fits with Donna Haraway’s argument of a post-gendered world.15
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the game-pods’ highly sensitive skin in which sensations seem topologically and dermatologically determined. This is in a passive and involuntary way, as the pods just react to external pressures when players trigger the game to start. Without being touched they seem incapable of acting by themselves. In her book Skin, the German cultural historian Claudia Benthien pointed out a basic difference between the notion of feeling and touch,16 which indicates in this case the inherent separation between the player’s exploratory activity of touch and the pod’s inactivity of skin feelings. In the film this is repeatedly seen in the way Allegra Geller handles the game-pods. Her recurrent strokes imply much more than a simple demonstration of care or functional turning on and off; she is actually massaging, or better, kneading them. Symbolically, this represents an inclusive act that does not separate the pulp from body or skin; on the contrary, it merges the inner and outer side of neoplasms into a continuous intermingling of substance. Having in mind the earlier definition of synthetic neoplasms, it is right to say that the game-pods are synthetic in a double sense: through the man-made composition of different organic flesh, and the symbolic act of kneading where distinct matter is merged into a synthetic whole. Connor’s descriptions in The Book of Skin suggest that kneading also entails an energising process in which the vitality of the user’s body is passed on to what is being kneaded, turning it into a kind of ‘living flesh’.17 ‘It is not the final shape of the model, but the shapeliness, the torque or tension of contour in it, the power of being given and retaining shape of the material of which it has been formed, that contains its inner virtue. The skin is the medium and the aim for the formation of this imagery flesh, this worked and working transubstance.’18

The idea of a working ‘transubstance’ reinforces the notion of depth in the synthetic neoplasms’ three-dimensional flesh. Earlier, the transparent quality of the game-pods’ skin was highlighted when describing them as albino. But one wonders what kind of transparency this really is when, for instance, the underlying vascular system marks its presence on the skin in an indistinguishable manner. Flesh is in this case neither opaque nor transparent. Yet the physical condition of having in-corporated matter in the dermis that is visible through the trans-lucent epidermis makes such neoplasms become what one could define as ‘inlucent’ – a condition of embedded matter that goes beyond the Modernist dualism of opacity-transparency and the more contemporary notion of translucency. One could then argue that kneading the game-pods is a way to enhance the tactile perception of an inlucent transubstance of flesh.
Cronenberg’s neoplasms, however, denote another feature that distinguishes them mostly from any of their relatives: their networked condition, which is so vital for them to come alive. His pods are parasitic creatures that use the energy of human beings as their power supply, at the same time being biological prosthetics that extend the human body to the virtual realm. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr at SymbioticA have defined this as a state of ‘partial life’.19 Unlike other neoplasms, Cronenberg’s game-pods are ultimately connected, temporarily inhabiting the body of the player, as well as being inhabited by it. Two biological systems are intermingled here, crossbreeding organic and artificial life. They recall HR Giger’s Biomechanoids series, which shows organisms that are multi-linked, in this case to a non-biological apparatus. Perhaps what underlines this trend of physically connecting the human body to machines, artificial organisms, or even other human bodies, and extending the mind into a virtual world while giving-up the capacity to control the real body left behind, is the reflection of a wider and more profound condition that Jean Baudrillard called the ‘“proteinic” era of networks’, a circumstance in which ‘connections, contact, contiguity, feedback and generalized interface … [go] with the universe of communication’.20

Although Cronenberg’s game-pods are only networked with each other, their interfacial existence is dependent on precisely these factors; they imply a bio-technological hyper-connectivity bounded by flesh. The intra-networking of his synthetic neoplasms with the players blurs the traditional boundaries of corporeality in which the human body’s flesh becomes an extension of the neoplasm’s flesh and vice versa. This means that the players’ bodies do not just engage in a new sensory interplay with the flesh of other bodies, but also acquire a new sense of being and place. In a speculative manner, one could then assume that the players of eXistenZ experience the foreign body of the neoplasm with a new type of existential proximity that prompts an unavoidable strain between the feeling of having flesh (implying the physical body), being flesh (implying a sense of embodiment), and becoming flesh (implying the embodiment of the foreign body of the game-pod).21

In conclusion, it is worth restating the significance of Cronenberg’s almost 10-year-old movie eXistenZ as a still contemporary paradigm that exposes deep-rooted fears and fascinations in popular culture about the complete biologicalisation of our world. But by putting forward the game-pods, Cronenberg not just anticipated a new hybridism between biological and non-biological systems, but also a new experiential dimension and haptic relationship between the human body and its surrounding, which stands in opposition to the previous hegemony of vision that determined so much of the 20th-century built environment. The game-pods reflect, most of all, what is defined as synthetic neoplasms, instigating a completely new aesthetic argument in design in which grotesque, ugly and even disgusting conditions can be accepted as valid criteria. They also challenge traditional notions of programme and technology and raised fundamental questions of how, who and where such things can be created. Ultimately they launch a very important debate on how we will face the prospect of a semi-living architecture.

1. This is an expression originally used by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A). See\
2. Director: David Cronenberg; Production: Screenventures XXIV Production Ltd/Alliance Atlantis Company and Existence Productions Limited, 1999.
3. This is a definition that Lynn uses to describe the pre-objectual state of blobs. See Greg Lynn, ‘Blob tectonics, or why tectonics is square and topology is groovy’, in Folds, Bodies and Blobs: Collected Essays, La Lettre Volée (Brussels), 1998, pp 170–1.
4. This is evident in the film when the game-pods are featured being ill and infected.
5. For more on Bataille’s ‘informe’, see Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books (New York), 1997.
6. This is an expression originally used by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A). See
7. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the suffix ‘plasm’ forms ‘nouns denoting shapeless or mouldable substances, esp. (in biology) kinds of protoplasm or intracellular ground substance’.
8. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Deluxe Edition, CD, 2004.
9. The suffix ‘plasmatic’ is deliberately used instead of ‘plasmic’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary plasmatic denotes ‘the power of giving shape or form’, as well as ‘relating to the formation of tissue’, while plasmic refers specifically to ‘the nature of plasm or plasma’ in strictly biological terms.
10. See Kelly’s predictions of a post-biological civilisation in which almost everything will be infused with principles of bio-logic. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Fourth Estate (London), 1994, p 606.
11. For more on this see Ian McCormick’s ‘Encyclopedia of the Marvelous, the Monstrous, and the Grotesque’ atian.mccormick/encyclop.htm.
12. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the noun ‘plasm’ refers to ‘a mould or matrix in which something is cast of formed’.
13. Steve Connor, The Book of Skin, Reaktion Books (London), 2004, p 26.
14. Apart from the eroticism of touching the game-pods, which is evident when Allegra has to stimulate them in order to ‘turn them on’, the procedure of introducing their umbilical cord into the player’s bioports (an orifice on his spine) is relevant. There is a sense of penetration that particularly in Ted Pikul’s case can be seen as an inherently masculine attribute that feminises his male body.
15. I am here interpreting Claudia Benthien’s analysis about male and female skin. See the chapter ‘Armoured Skin and Birthmarks’ in Claudia Benthien, Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World, Columbia University Press (New York), 2002, pp 133–43.
16. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books Ltd (London), 1991, p 150.
17. Benthien op cit, pp 198–200.
18. Connor op cit, p 226.
19. Ibid.
20. This again is an expression originally used by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. See
21. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The ecstasy of communication’, in Hal Foster (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press (Seattle, WA), 1983, p 127.
22. This thought is based on ML Lyon’s and JM Barbalet’s argument on the implicit duality between ‘having and being a body’. For more see ML Lyon and JM Barbalch, ‘Society’s body: emotion and “somatization” of social theory’, in Thomas J Csordas (ed), Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), 2003, p 56.