How to have sex with a network: The Moldy Strategy, is a series of art experiments using mold as a model for interacting with a digital network. These prototypes have been made public through a dedicated website and an art installation. At the same time, this project is an exploration of domestic ecology and an exercise in applying a material understanding to online sex.
This research-creation project, The Moldy Strategy, can be understood as a meditation on domestic ecology through screen-mediated relationships. With the aim to grasp what Lynn Spigel calls the mediated home, sex through computer screens has been analyzed as a domestic event, with home as its medium.
This research-creation project has two principal outcomes. One is a theoretical framework that presents online sex in material terms. The other, a series of art experiments that have been exhibited recently and are documented in a website. The relation between these two different expressions is by no means tautological. Rather, it should be understood as an ongoing conversation, perhaps a digression, certainly a permanent back and forth.
This research is in part product of a personal pursuit in relation with domestic space, an arena for cultural, social, economic and gender issues. The research has shown me domestic space as built upon domination, especially female. However, the weekly cleaning process exposed to me the artificiality of the human-centered organization of the home. This order appeared not only as one of several possibles but one which requires a constant battle against decay, through repeated normative acts. As I learned, this decay involves entropy–or the tendency of things to go into disorder–and the action of microorganisms such as bacteria or mold. Fascinated by the rotten food found in my refrigerator, I wondered if there lay a pattern for an alternative domesticity. That was the beginning of my research about domestic ecologies.
Later, I realized that home can be interpreted as a temporary system or assemblage of elements and forces in an energetic environment. As any other system, it endures while it is able to consume negative entropy, or order, returning disorder to the environment. Along with the concept of entropy, affect, in Deleuze and Guattari’s account of the term, was used in this research-creation project to grasp general and internal dynamics that operate at home. Affect, as it was applied here, recognizes the interconnected nature of bodies of diverse kinds, explaining both the ability of things to affect others and to be affected by. However, these new assumptions produced new questions, and I wondered how cybersex was part of this intensity and its role in the entropic dynamic of the home.
Online sex is still, after twenty years of erotic engagement through computer screens, a slippery issue, able to incarnate a wide range of contradictory positions at one time. This research proposes to understand online sex as a domestic event where two common domestic dynamics–the interaction with media and sexual activity–collapse. This conceptual relocation requires the consideration of the elements involved in material terms. Entropy can also explain online sex because Lynn Margulis understands sex as driven by a desire for energetic dissipation and cybersex only as another stage in an already technological process devised by bacteria. While non-reproductive and technological are terms that can be applied to most of human sex, what is distinctive about cybersex is its implication with a network, element that this research project emphasizes. At that time, I was amazed by ChatRoulette, a video-roulette website that connects people randomly in real time through webcams. Through ChatRoulette, people are able to interact with presumed humans and even to engage in so called sexual relations, or online sex. With questions about the nature of those relations, I followed a framework proposed by Luciana Parisi, where online sex can be understood as a biodigital interaction. I tried to grasp what a biodigital entity is with an experiment that aimed to biologize the digital images of people that I saw on the screen. I recorded some ChatRoulette sessions from the computer and transferred them to magnetic tapes, back and forth through different mediums, engaging manually with the material until it manifested glitches that could give me a clue about its inner nature. Although I cannot be sure if the errors were magnetic or digital, with some screen captures I produced an exercise called P0R7RAI75.
Through my research I discovered that, despite the promised possibilities of an interaction without the usual constraints that the offline world imposes, the sexual experiences were surprisingly predictable. Moreover, they showed limitations clearly inherited from mainstream pornography and common biases related to gender, age and beauty standards. Through time I understood that this frustration involves the collapse between the possible and the virtual, where the real has been constrained to an arbitrary set of options. Although cybersex is often described as a virtual experience, my observations showed me a phenomenon limited by an array of features of what has been pre-defined as possible. But if the problem was a product of human constraints, maybe it can be overcome through non-human agents. With that promise I came back to the domestic ecology. By examining what I collect while cleaning my house (a ball of hair from the broom, a dead centipede) I realized that mold was present everywhere, waiting for an opportunity to grow. I envisioned there a possible alternative model for domestic organization and decided to study mold in depth. The first discovery was embarrassingly obvious: I didn’t know that what we called mold is actually fungi. And that fungi grows in a networked way, with creative ways to have sex, including asexual ones. If in a sexual experience through computer screens different environments are put in contact, then these microfungi are also part of the experience and probably the clue to a better approach due their networked behavior. The new challenge of the project was to work with this exciting discovery. I cultivated mold, or domestic fungi in different mediums and from varied sources at home. Then, working with the Fluxmedia lab microscope, I recorded through video these cultures at different stages of development. Most of the movement in the video was the product of changes in the focus or relocations of the object in the microscope by hand. From several hours of recording, I made a film 40’ in length. The soundtrack comes from a recording of a sexual encounter, magnified in time as the images are magnified by the microscope. Trying to share this new knowledge I streamed the video through Chatroulette instead of my own image, recording the reactions of their unknown partners. This piece is entitled The Fungal Seduction.
In order to communicate the sense of be part of this medium, and becoming an agent there, I projected this video in a large scale in a humid building, arranged as a domestic space, where people were invited to watch the video without specific instructions, trying to create a feeling of being involved in this fungal network and to experience media as a medium. I was looking for an awareness about the affective relation with the environment, assuming that this awareness can be experienced when someone is linked in new ways with her/his surrounding.
The other piece exhibited the same day was entitled Karaoke Fungi: a speculative work about the ability to speak in a networked language, following the fungal example. I modified a filter in the software called Processing to make it able to read each pixel from a video and transform it following the pattern of growth of fungi, while each pixel reacted to the environmental sound. A small room in the same building was arranged as a Karaoke box. There was a microphone and a video projection, made of images from ChatRoulette users, using the aforementioned filter. When people intended to sing through this microphone, instead of their own voice they triggered sounds also captured from ChatRoulette, due to a filter made by Gabriel Vigliensoni.
The moldy strategy has been an exercise in thinking through the imagined but possible encounter of mold and digital sex. The conceptual relocation of cybersex that this research proposes, as a domestic event, means an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing embodiment of media in the everyday life from a privileged–or at least visceral–perspective. By stressing the importance of non-humans elements, an erotic consideration of the ecology of domestic space shows how bits from different sorts can be mixed by means of a blind desire, a desire able to recombine any kind of elements. Mold appears here not as a metaphor for a network but as a vehicle that allows the activation of some virtualities discarded in a human-based model. A close examination of fungi has the potential to allow one to understand the intricate behavior of a decentralized network, knowledge that can be used to grasp, model or predict other kinds of networks, such as social ones–which in their turn cannot be untangled from nature. While I am finishing this research with more questions than I had at the beginning, questions that grew up in a fungal way, The Moldy Strategy has provided me an opportunity to reflect on and work through some concepts that I envisioned only on an abstract level before. The fungal model has given insights to the nature and behavior of a network, some clues about posthuman domesticity and how media is a realm of affects and densities. Despite human power dynamics related to social classes, age or gender, by thinking through nonhuman elements such as fungi, it is possible to consider reality beyond what has been already defined as possible.
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