Listen to this text
How do we come to be? “I think, therefore I am” doesn’t quite cut it as a theory of self. The thinking happens to a body, and a body happens in relation to other bodies. Even if, as in Kara Güt’s work, these are curious sorts of bodies. For the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, everything starts not from the certainty that “I am thinking,” but from the ambiguity of a body.
Through a process of encountering other bodies, my own comes into focus. My own body is always attempting to exceed itself. That excess is desire. In its exceeding, it encounters the bodies of others, or more particularly, the desiring bodies of others. A body is whatever becomes of such encounters, shaped by the reaching out toward another, by the other’s reaching out toward me, and by the accumulated history stored in these bodies as memory, which limits and shapes desire. Bodies emerge into visibility, out of ambiguity, in their encounters with others.
Yet in this phenomenology, there is only this body and another — which no longer seems adequate as a minimal diagram of the encounter. There is this body, and there is another body, and there is always something mediating them. There is always a third thing, usually a situation, architectural or technical, between one body and another. Even in Merleau-Ponty’s time, there was the mediation of cinema. The British film theorist Laura Mulvey elegantly showed how the pleasure of looking is at the same time a kind of misrecognition of my desire through what I see, one which can provoke all kinds of anxieties.
In Güt’s work, a body’s mediated relation is maybe not with another body. In the video Hurt/Comfort (2022), a body appears as ambiguous, not least to itself, never quite coming into focus. The other with which it engages might not be there at all, or might be an annihilating otherness beyond the human.
When one looks at another and sees oneself in relation to that other, this is always a misrecognition. In another video, Self Portrait as the Final Boss (2022), Güt appears as a sort of writhing, pulsating, tentacular mass — one that, being the final boss, is presumably the most powerful thing in the game. The desire in play here is this: rather than come into being in relation to the other, become the other. Only the other, in this case, is not another human body. It’s a digital body, which could be anything, unconstrained by flesh and time.
In cinema, the pleasure in looking yields to a narrative over which one has no agency. In a video game, one becomes the image and comes into being, as often as not, through a struggle with the other. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology was one of eros, whereas games are usually more like the Hegelian one: a battle to the death. Only death is no more real in this realm than love. Which is maybe why it’s hard to consolidate anything out of ambiguity, why it’s hard to even exist.
The Intimacy Mod series of videos and performances introduces a kind of love into the mechanics of the game, or perhaps its simulation. The mod allows characters to kiss. Güt likes to position the kissing characters in precarious positions, such as on mountaintops. When they kiss, they float and fall, obeying some weird other physics. It’s a kind of performance for a different kind of body, not exactly a representation of the human — maybe something that takes a surface of the human and wraps it around some other kind of being, or nonbeing.
Devotional to a Metaverse (2021) seems to be an encounter with this other kind of nonbeing: one that is not human, or even a surface of the human, but rather the timeless, formless ruleset of gamespace itself. (By gamespace, I mean the cast, globe-enclosing game we all seem now to be in.) It’s unclear in the video whether this nonbeing is trying to save or seduce the character — and the viewer, whom it addresses. Maybe it just wants us all to be trapped in the server room with it, cycling through a uniform, abstract, undifferentiated nontime, until the plug gets pulled.
Across much of Güt’s work, the viewer, usually through the point of view of a character, struggles to emerge out of ambiguity into any kind of form at all. The other isn’t another ambiguous body, motivated by the excess of its desire. What is ambiguous about the other in these encounters is whether it is any kind of “body” at all. Rather than providing the other desire against which the viewer can bring her own into visibility, these others infect the viewer with their own indeterminacies.
Contemporary ambiguity is as to whether one has a body at all, is human at all, is capable of relation at all. In Hurt/Comfort, the hurt is existential, and the comfort maybe no comfort at all. Like a lot of Güt’s work, it speaks to an experience of mass isolation, but not in some narrowly moralistic way. The contemporary phenomenology of the digital body has its weird edges and unexpected encounters. These are what Güt chooses to explore.
Fandom appears in Hurt/Comfort as a mode in which the ambiguity of being is resolved in another way. It doesn’t much matter if fandoms result from experiences of isolation or from people just liking stuff; in a way, these are two sides of the same experience. Fandom is maybe something like what media theorist Bernard Stiegler calls group narcissism. For him, there’s a failure to go through the kind of dialectic of an encounter with the other, which might generate what in his terms is a primary narcissism.
Counterintuitively, in Stiegler, this primary narcissism is a good thing. The ability to individuate, to perceive oneself as bounded, singular, finite, is the condition of possibility — of being able to relate again to others, to negotiate social life. But maybe that’s hard to pull off in the contemporary media environment, in which the ambiguity of the body doesn’t come into relation with another and find its contours, emerge into visibility, from the encounter.
Instead, we get forms of group narcissism, where there’s identification with pools of imaginary being. Group narcissism has its scary side. It loves to form around demagogic, fascist figures and adopt their colors, wear their hats. Maybe fandom is a better kind of outlet within this state: a coalescing around fantasy worlds that don’t demand the social world conform to their collective desires.
Gender rarely comes up directly in Güt’s work, but there is a passage in Hurt/Comfort where the other seems to me to be quoting from John Berger’s famous Ways of Seeing. Berger pioneered the study of the male gaze, made famous also by Mulvey. He observes that “men look, women appear”; hence, a woman is “always accompanied by an image of herself,” to quote the line that Hurt/Comfort also quotes. The narrator imagines there is always a camera, that they are always performing a self, or what they might imagine is a self.
Rather than a relation to another, it’s a curious kind of self-relation, formed by the split of the self between the observed and the observer. Might that not actually be the general condition now? Might our encounters mostly be not with another body, but with our own split-image self? It’s a doubling caused by the omnipresence, the omnipotence, of the camera, one that is far from only imaginary. In that sense, what for Berger and Mulvey was a gendered asymmetry of the gaze might now be one that applies to all bodies.
This work’s strength is that it is not about “representation.” So much of media making and media commentary turns on whether one can recognize oneself in the image. Güt’s work is crucially about misrecognition, about the formlessness of the body, of the self, in mediated relations. It is not looking for the comfort of seeing oneself mirrored back, as if the image could ever be adequate to the self. It’s looking instead for what’s not there in a mediated relation, and how what’s not there forms what’s not here, a different kind of “self.”
McKenzie Wark's most recent book is Raving, from Duke University Press.
Photo by Z. Walsh
Kara Güt is a multidisciplinary artist whose primary focus is image-based, digital media. Güt's work investigates the shape of human intimacy formed by internet lifestyle, constructed detachment from reality, and the power dynamics of the virtual. Her work has been shown at Hybrid Box, Hellerau European Centre for the Arts, Hesse Flatow, Las Cigarreras Cultural Centre, Azkuna Zentroa, Pioneer Works, and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. She received an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and is an alumni of Pioneer Works Tech Residency, SPACES residency, and Visual + Digital Arts residency at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Güt lives and works in Ohio.
Photo by Clare Gatto