Is forming a trusting, intimate relationship with artificial intelligence possible, or is software necessarily a context for control? As technology increasingly becomes a conduit for human affection, new forms of intimacy evolve around digital socialization, customization, production, and user rituals. In her latest video work, Hygiena, Amanda Vincelli, LA-based Québécoise artist, depicts a seemingly pleasurable relationship between a human and an android, forecasting a future filled with potential intimacies.
Vincelli’s piece, along with the sculptures by Hayden Dunham and Don Edler, on view until December 7 at Hunter Shaw Fine Art in Corpus Alienum, a show that frames itself as an examination of “power dynamics within the Corporation/consumer relationship and explores the body’s mutable nature, presenting it as a site of transformation and control.”
Taking place in an alternate reality, virtual space, or near future, the film’s human protagonist cleans her passive partner before changing their physical features. Executed with high-key lighting and commercial production values, Hygiena is reminiscent of an advertisement, music video, or porn clip. “I’m really interested in constructing these orderly, eerie worlds, defined on the surface by a commercial style and clinical visual language,” Vincelli explains. “But beneath that harmonious surface, there’s an underlying network of messy, irrational, passionate, and contradictory impulses.” Both the manufactured ambience and peculiarities within the couple’s interaction hint at contradictions — paradoxes that make the viewer evaluate agency in the future of AI.
One of Hygiena’s focal moments is the cleaning of the humanoid AI, a hygienic ritual with subtle indication of strange affection. This friction within the intimacy suggests the film’s underlying paranoias about AI, and its potential to replace humanity. Layered on top of this paranoia is the novelty of an intimate relationship with someone with mutable characteristics. With a finger’s swipe on the corresponding app, the protagonist transforms the AI’s physique with parameter controls assigned to adjust muscle mass, skin color, sexual organs, etc. This transference of subjugation onto the AI blurs the distinction of who is being cared for, who is receiving pleasure, and who is being used. “I thought a lot about the rituals of care, the pleasure of giving and receiving care,” recalls Vincelli. “This was in relation to androids in the film, but also connects with some of my own experiences. Sometimes when someone cares for me, pampers me, I feel both loved and manipulated.”
The work’s title sounds like a fantasy world or a third sex organ while creating a parallel between hygiene and technological interactions. It also tells of Vincelli’s attention to how people (and androids) practice health and its nested socio-political implications. “In all of my work,” she notes, “I’m interested in how the locus of control and power manifests in everyday actions, habits, and rituals. Hygiene is a good example of that. It exemplifies how biopower operates through a perceived sense of agency; and literally, germs and other undesirable specimens are eliminated to preserve a certain kind of ‘clean’ life, one which presumably makes us human.” Hygiene, as a scientific and medical ideology, has a loaded history tied to eugenics, which deemed non-white bodies as unsanitary, infectious, and undesirable. This method of othering has mutating implications; cultural bias and racism are encoded in algorithms.
Vincelli’s work studies overarching power structures streamlined into technological advancement. Although her constructed environment is aesthetically “futuristic,” her concepts and characters are pulled from contemporary social and cultural shifts: “A year or so ago, I became very interested in a trend among young professional women in Japan who have no desire for romantic partnerships or even sex. The articles I read portrayed the situation as an outgrowth of a neoliberal, individualistic mindset, but also a feminist one. I remembered a woman quoted in one of the articles talking about sex as too bothersome. I found it disturbing but also became fascinated by what other affective and erotic possibilities this shift from human-to-human partnerships could produce. This connected with a lot of my other interests: AI and its recent use in the sex doll industry; ASMR culture and generally the concept of ‘digital care;’ the ways in which media is used to care for one another and for strangers through the internet; and the field of affective computing. In making Hygiena, I wondered how these innovations could reshape desires, human-to-human relations, and human-tech interactions, but mostly what it means to be human in this context.”
Hygiena confronts fears of a society without romantic unions between humans and depicts rituals of technological intimacy to call for free sexual exercise, at once within and liberated from social and political constraints. It projects the future of female desire as filled with the agency of choice through an acute prudence and clear-sightedness about the power structures and economies producing such freedoms. Hygiena could be a parody of how a corporation might try to brand sex dolls as fashionable and unproblematic — as liberatory and domestically acceptable. But there is an alternative interpretation: humanity, like software or AI, is an open source shell, ready for change, ready to be rewired.