When skin, as an interface with the world, is rendered as a contact area with others, it suddenly becomes filled with sensuality. In interactive works that demand the subjective participation of the viewer, there are countless things that can be seen as intermediaries for the skin, but the sensuality of direct contact with the skin in particular gives rise to the skin's function as an interface.
The Body Malleable, an installation by Philip Brophy, who is active in a wide range of fields as a sound artist, performer, film director, curator, and critic, is an interactive multimedia work that involves directly caressing the skin. Viewers put their fingers in holes that have been drilled in a spherical module, and by moving them back and forth to rub the interior, sound and animated images on a screen change accordingly. Our fingers, as they caress a mechanical partner, begin to heat up like substitute sex organs. The ever-changing shapes that appear on the screen are sometimes reminiscent of male sex organs, and at other times, female organs, but the images aren't simply erotic. We also have the strange feeling that we are carving out an unknown lifeform with our finger.
It is refreshing that we are confronted here with questions of bioethics beyond that of the limits of our ability to fashion ourselves through plastic surgery (...). One piece in the nave of the church (in the exhibition All That Is Solid Melts Into Air) marks the great divide that separates man from machine. In The Body Malleable by Philip Brophy, the visitor is prompted to stick his finger into what looks like a large webcam, and thus perform an act of ‘digital penetration’. In reaction to the movement of the visitor’s finger inside this unfamiliar orifice, a computer generates orgasmic sounds and fluctuating anthropomorphic shapes on a screen. Under the great vaults of the former church the comical quality of Brophy’s truly profane contraption points to the fact that even man’s most basic act is about more than mere mechanics.
The mark of a truly memorable artist is that they dare their audience to not be squeamish. Philip Brophy's inquisitions into the body, sexploitation and consumption never allow us the expedience of discomfiture or offence. His work is like an open wound or orifice: compelling and repulsive, enticing and horrible. You want to turn away, but you can't resist the temptation to look. His extensive and varied body of work spans three decades,ranging from graphics, short films, mixed media performance, sound design, music and writing. How to sum it up as a corpus? Perhaps the artist himself gives us a clue when he suggests that he works inside, rather than outside, the medium specific to a particular project. In other words, he becomes the medium. This continuous becoming reveals Brophy's approach to the practice of art as an act of embodiment, or aesthetic body-snatching.
But not just any body. Here is the grotesque body of Franqois Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, of David Cronenberg, of Japanese anime and glam. Exaggeration, distortion and transformation are common features here and are designed to make the body strange, alien, as if we are looking at it, hearing, smelling and feeling it, for the first time. Think of the hyper self-conscious, tumescent and narcissistic body of rock in Fluorescent (2004), or the hollowed out, vacuous sonic body of muzak in Evaporated Music 1 (2000-04). Brophy is not averse to straying into areas of monstrosity and gore in films such as Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat (1987) and Body Melt (1993), but he never sensationalises or celebrates the spectacle of viscera, blood or excrement for its own sake. Exploitation and voyeurism are codes that are certainly gestured to in his work. But their presence always packs a critical punch, reminding us of the things we have totally forgotten about ourselves, our icons and our media. This amnesia is called culture and Brophy's chameleon-like invasion of its forms works like the saliva secreted by a vampire bat, preventing it from congealing into familiarity.
The Body Malleable (2002-04) condenses Brophy's ongoing fascination with the body as less an object than a circuit of forces and energies, an irruptive tissue of process and transgression, insertion and excretion, swelling and contraction. It is described as 'a small-scale interactive work comprised of digital animation projected into a private darkened space. The user controls the animation and its synchronized audio via a custom-built physical interface'. This sounds straightforward enough, until we notice the absence of any of the trappings associated with digital or interactive media. Instead we encounter a pod or orb that could have been designed by Eero Saarinen or Arne Jacobsen. This object is a weird inversion, a computer squeezed and moulded into a plasticine blob then turned inside out. Like the various typewriterchimera in Cronenberg's 1991 film Naked Lunch, the orb is familiar and unrecognisable, mechanical and atavistic. Its inner workings are concealed from view, but not in any wilful act to mystify the technology. Brophy holds no truck with praising the machine, or getting overly excited about what computers can do. He has referred to the role of the computer in contemporary art as being like that of a carburettor, a pump that makes things happen, no more, no less.
The installation space is reminiscent of a peep show booth in a porn cinema, promising a private show for your eyes and ears only. The orb is excitingly chunky and invites you in by way of a rubber sphincter. It holds our attention like the complacent display of some haughty rutting animal, emitting a pheromone that we can' t resist (as Brophy suggests 'you want to stick your finger in'). But this is not an enclosed space and other passers-by can come and go, eavesdropping on the work in which you now have become a performer. The scene comes together as an uncanny tableau vivant, a visual conceit in which someone is witness, for the nth time in cultural history, to the consumer spectacle of the old 'in-out, in-out'.
As we do the work, a synaesthetic explosion overwhelms the installation space. The penetration of the sphincter with our finger excites a blob-like image on the screen into a paroxysm of transformation. It morphs through a seizure of sexual iconography, a meiotic orgy of penile, vaginal and anal forms, continuously dividing and reproducing. Simultaneously we are enveloped in a riot of sound, raucous abstractions of the human voice in states of carnal distraction. It quickly becomes apparent that the audiovisual body metamorphosing around us is not responding to our interaction but is a manifestation of it. Whether caressing, squeezing or poking the orifice, our input agitates a polyphonic membrane of sound, vision and tactile sensation. We notice that we are sitting on the subwoofer of the surround-sound matrix. Force-feedback at the bottom end never sounded so good.
While Brophy is at pains to avoid any suggestion that The Body Malleable is a commentary on interactivity, interface design or digital art, he can't control the ways in which this work will be approached. Nor can he control the inflection of such a loaded word as 'digital'. The work is literally and metaphorically promiscuous, totally indifferent to who is sticking their fingers into it (male, female, child, adult, bi, straight, etc) or sitting on it. Is the orifice being penetrated or the finger enclosed? Such binary thinking hopelessly misses the point. The gratuitous douhle entendre is more helpful conceptually by drawing attention not to the choice between two states or conditions of meaning but to their unavoidable and unassailable co-existence (think of Joe Orton's biography Prick Up Your Ears or Benny Hill's punchline "Stick your finger in your ear and go tinga-linga-loo"). And this is precisely the experience of the work we encounter. The malleable body is plastic, transitive and perverse. Remember that next time you scratch your rear.
With The Body Malleable Brophy has given us the metaphor we should have had all along for engaging with media art. Forget interaction, think speculation.
(...) Continuing with established themes (sexuality, animation, surround-sound and the body) The Body Malleable introduced interactivity to Brophy’s oeuvre in the form of the penetration of a single finger into a pod-shaped ball. This cheeky interactive quadraphonic digital animation was first exhibited in 2004: Australian Culture Now at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne and most recently in the Anne Landa Award. Part ultra suggestive Japanese anime, part sexually biomorphic digital pun, The Body Malleable consisted of a user manipulated digital animation and synchronised audio installed in a small private darkened space. In that Brophy’s proposal was concerned with producing an experience that did not specifically reference the subject of interactivity, a simple pod-shaped interface was placed on a table in front of a suspended screen, with speakers both surrounding the viewer and beneath the seat. A series of simple animated, yet highly sexualised images with an accompanying synchronised soundtrack could be manipulated by moving one’s finger in and out of the hole. Tracey Clement, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, likened it to “a giant sex toy from the sci-fi classic Barbarella”.7 The animated images themselves comprised a series of morphing yet stylised possible body parts, orifices, protrusions and organs, whilst the soundtrack was constructed from digitally manipulated fragments of the human voice. This orgy of penile, vaginal and anal shapes was also strangely flattened and depersonalised, a cartoonesque celebration of the endlessly replicated surface of our primal priorities. (...)
(...) Philip Brophy’s The Body Malleable is the first work of media art to finally and emphatically tell it like it is: interacting with computers is a completely embodied experience. With its penetrative and very literal digital interface, The Body Malleable is an ironic and playful exploration of the human-computer interface that dares us to be squeamish (“The colon and its polysexual route to infinite Otherness beckons you”). The theme of the body malleable is a familiar one in Brophy’s work, only here the transformations of vaginal and penile forms and sounds are in the hand, or rather finger, of the beholder. The Body Malleable is the kind of work many people, including myself, have been waiting for at ACMI. It is striking and memorable, pushing the possibilities of interaction beyond the familiar point and click interface associated with computer-based works. It is welcome and important in that it extends ACMI’s curatorial history of presenting relatively safe and non-threatening work.
Whether we like it or not, we are required to physically relate to the work in a totally unprecedented, unfamiliar way: “You want to stick your finger in, but once you do, it gets messy.” The more rigorous your attack on the beautifully sculptural, yet organically ambiguous interface (is this a vagina or a colon I see before me?), the more suggestive and palpable the transformations on screen, and the more stimulated the surround sound becomes. But make no mistake, Brophy isn’t out to offend public taste, to shock or dramatically blot the contemporary arts map with a memorable success de scandale. It is the total indifference to either appeasing or transgressing aesthetic or moral codes that makes The Body Malleable stand out as an engaging and thoroughly worked over experience. When I went back to check it out prior to the closing of the show, that sphincter was well and truly spent. Another ruptured membrane in the 2004 experience. Spectacular. (...)
(...) Philip Brophy’s The Body Malleable, in contrast, demands that we use our bodies, or rather our fingers, in a far more active way. The interface consists of an orb about the size of a bowling bowl in front of a screen. Putting your fingers into the orifice of the orb produces changes in the animation on the screen in front of you. The faster you move your fingers in and out of the orifice, the greater the changes produced (there was a term for it when I was in high school but I won’t use it here). The animation itself is a playful commentary on the mutability of gender. Some finger thrusts produce a mutating penile form while others a similarly mobile vagina. In Brophy’s words, “The penile and the vaginal roll and flutter like a series of hot flushes but they are degendered by their incessant drive to become the other...The colon and its polysexual route to infinite Otherness beckons you. There is no turning back once the body becomes malleable.” (...)