A New Ecology of Human Identity: Art in the Age of Machine Awareness. Cells in a Time of Disassemblage

Elia Vargas

Independent Artist

Elia Vargas presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)

Elia Vargas presenting at NMC Lightning Talks, Bar Louie, 2014, ©Pat Badani. (Used with permission.)N

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I.”
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1988 [1]

Here we are at a moment in time with new levels of self-awareness. There are new ways of seeing, new sciences, and new technologies, available to more people than ever before. The tools that we use to shape our landscape and ourselves are constantly changing. As technologies evolve and access increases, we reveal new identities of ourselves. With each step further down our DNA strand and each new tool that gets us there, a new connection, a literal bond, is made between the pathway and ourselves. We are learning to what extent our identities affect and are affected by our cultural and ecological makeup.

But who is ‘us’?

Humans have been confronted with an existential dilemma – the more we learn about ourselves, the more we must question selfness. Where do ‘I’ end and the very real assemblages of influences on me begin? This essay is a brief moment to scratch the surface of this question: what is the difference between cities, cells, culture, and code?

Water, 2010, Elia Vargas, video. ©Elia Vargas.

In 2013 neuroscientists at Duke University successfully transmitted information from a rat in Natal, Brazil to a rat in North Carolina using Brain-to-Brain Interfaces. An encoder rat was taught a simple behavioral task: how to receive food by responding to a red light. A decoder rat was taught nothing. When the two rats were linked via electronic signals from the BTBIs the decoder rat successfully completed the same task as the encoder, without any previous exposure.

What is the difference between thought and data? What is the difference between a brain and a computer? The myths of telepathy imply access to some external ‘wave length.’ The BTBI signal and telepathy dialectic prompt questions about integrated bodies or ecosystems. If there is communication, then there is a connection. If that communication is happening within the brain, then there is some parallel to neuron activity.

What about our body? In “Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden,” the New York Times investigated the growing field of microbial medical research. “I would like to lose the language of warfare,” said Julie Segre, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute. “It does a disservice to all the bacteria that have co-evolved with us and are maintaining the health of our bodies.” [2]

There are enough foreign microbes in each of us, like mitochondria, to describe our bodies as ecosystems. Mycohrizal fungi are an intriguing example of microbial harmony, believed to live on 90% of the world’s root structures. By latching onto roots, they increase surface area so their host can absorb more water. The fungus in turn absorbs needed nutrients from the plant through photosynthesis. Every rhizosphere – the immediate area surrounding a plant’s root structure – has unique conditions. The fungi that grow in specific locations are a perfect representation of the conditions of that place at that moment. Imagine a similar description of us – different expressions of an ecology at particular moments in time.

Some new technologies are revealing the value of social cooperation – the very scaffolding of an ecosystem. Fog Design published its predictions of top 2014 trends. “The Uber-fication of Services” recognized San Francisco based startup, Uber, as a leader in crowd-sourced transportation. [3] The publication implies that the improvements are a result of technology innovations in connectedness. I question the impulse to give credit to the startups behind the trend. I was in Cuba in the mid-2000s and found a transportation system there particularly interesting. Cuba has a large informal economy, including transportation. There is an informal taxi infrastructure where people who drive the same route every day pick people up at specific locations. There is no database for routes or stops, only physical and verbal interactions. This is noteworthy because the system successfully leverages social habit, yet it does not rely on ‘technology’ in a contemporary sense.

Cuba, 2007, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

Cuba, 2007, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

Currency is a largely invisible yet profoundly important element of social habit. Daily transactions with currencies play a foundational role in the distribution of information. Bitcoin, the first digital currency, has the capacity to reshape fundamental capital based habits. It represents an integrative structure that binds physical activities (how we use our currency) to digital habits. As big data capitalizes on our aggregate digital habits, the commoditization of our web-use has slowly entered the cultural psyche. In market driven society, profit illuminates object-ness. Our every action in digital space generates a physical, sellable, thing.

I am sketching out a rough image of an integrated body whose digital, physical, and organic practices neither begins nor ends with the body itself. Culture has created objects out of extended nothingness – the physicality of code and DNA are transforming our lived experiences.

Digital, 2013, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

Digital, 2013, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

Culturally, we view the digital world as a world of things, maybe not consciously, but phenomenologically. In Brown University professor, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, she writes, “Understanding software as a thing… means engaging its odd materializations and visualizations closely and refusing to reduce software to codes and algorithms – readily readable objects – by grappling with its simultaneous ambiguity and specificity.” Rhizome.org had this to say about it: “Indeed, Chun spends a lot of time specifying computer terms. What’s the difference between hardware, software, firmware, and wetware? Source code, compiled code, and written instructions? What is a thing and how did software become one?” [4]

Richard Dawkins elaborated on this in his presentation and viral video at Cannes Film Festival 2013. The lecture focused on his idea that memes (which spread through human cultural) and genes (which spread through the gene-pool) share the same biological and evolutionary goal – to replicate themselves. Thus, the separation between the digital and the physical not only decreases, but takes on a nonlinear relationship with the stuffs that make up our lived experience – a fluid terrain amidst fungi and BTBIs that drift in temporary states, assembling, catalyzing, reassembling, digitizing, becoming strata, becoming capital, becoming culture.

Analog, 2014, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

Analog, 2014, Elia Vargas, photograph. ©Elia Vargas.

As artists, what can we do? We illuminate the signal flow. We are put in a position to rearrange and reconsider the narratives and landscapes before us. We take these new tools and technologies and we break them, reconfigure them, and embody them. Connectivity and information exchange occurs amidst rivers and strata much the same as it occurs between Facebook and computers. So whether the signal flow is control voltage in analog synthesis, bangs in digital software, neurons creating memory in the brain, the circuitry of a city, the rhizomial network of symbiotic mitochondria, the bandwidth of a river delivering sediment, we – the ecological identity – are the totality of it all. How quickly our physical-selves stop, yet our signal flow continues – and what is the difference, really?


1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), 3.
2. Carl Zimmer “Tending to the Body’s Microbial Garden,” New York Times, June 18 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/science/studies-of-human-microbiome-yield-new-insights.html?pagewanted=all (accessed February 10, 2014).
3. Michael Roberston “The Uber-fication of Services,” Frog Design, 2014, http://www.frogdesign.com/techtrends2014/ (accessed February 10, 2014).
4. Casey Gollan, “Book Review: Programmed visions: Software and Memory,” Rhizome, January 23, 2012 http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/jan/23/book-review-programmed-visions-software-and-memory/ (accessed February 10, 2014).


Elia Vargas is an Oakland based filmmaker and immersive media artist. His work aims to link signal flows between participation and video. Using projection and other means of reshaping the landscape Vargas explores new ecologies of human identity. He has shown internationally and received numerous awards. He was a collaborator on Bjork’s Biophilia project, has screened at the De Young Museum and most recently, his work has been featured in Vice Magazine and KQED.