By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 January 1997

Review of Micz Flor and Florian Clausz's cyber tattooing website and machine

I remember reading an article in The Face a couple of years ago charting the demise of tattooing as the radical body marker of choice. As a physical rite of passage it just wasn't hardcore enough anymore; scarring and other even more permanent forms of body mutilation such as amputation had supposedly taken its place in the life-style firmament. Jane Campion's film The Piano, in which the heroine ends up covering her severed fingertip with a custom-made silver replacement and even the dismal Boxing Helena, whose leading lady has no limbs at all, had unwittingly provided the new icons of taste. Where the 'natural' experience of intense bodily sensation is on the wane, so the line of reasoning went, increasingly violent reaffirmations of its capacity to feel follow in its wake. And consequently, so do the hallmarks of that reaffirmation; the tattoos, the scars, the holes and cuts. So also is slash 'n burn analysed by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker - as a symptom of pockets of resistance (conscious or unconscious) to a fast accelerating cultural alienation from the body. The body is hurt, slashed, doused with gasoline and burnt to feel both intense pain and the body's healing processes that follow it. The last gasps of the flesh.

What is often ignored though is the complementary, representational function of tattooing. The tattoo as historical sign and skin-artefact. CyberTattoo, a website which works in tandem with a mechanical tattooing device, engages with both. This, 'the world's first virtual tattoo parlour' was constructed by Micz Flor and Florian Clausz and could be found at CyberTattoo self-consciously clothes itself using the pet protocols of the net. From its name, which is so generic as to be instantly forgettable, but somehow manages to stamp itself indelibly on your brain instead (in the same way that Planet Internet does, or Cyberia, or Microsoft for that matter) to its founding principles to TATTOO ALL, CyberTattoo resoundingly 'does the right thing'. It offers the net user a group of logo's and other 'finds' off the web to choose from and, once selected, the possibility to have this image tattooed onto his/her skin. The CyberTattoo website operates on a freeware basis; neither the hardware or software will be made available commercially. All the information necessary to construct a 'parlour maid' (the tattooing device) of your own has been posted up (there is currently only one digital engraving machine and, while it can tattoo perfectly on leather, it is still being tested for pressure sensitivity on human skin).

In CyberTattoo's webpages, computer interface and wired up tattooing machine, you can find a demonstration in miniature of the 20th century's movement from mechanical/industrial cultures to digital and information based ones. From the hissing, vibrating pen which, unmanned, blindly punches out images like some studious, demented stylus, through the connecting wires and the motherboard, where the control stencil files are translated into motor movements, and then to the website's window, the parlour's virtual front door, you can follow the steady, incremental steps of the abstraction/digitisation of information. Conversely, moving from the site, one mouseclick (the selection of a desired image) translates back into the irreversible, mechanical action of the digital engraving machine completing its latest contour. The tattooist's studio has been replaced by a 'parlour', which is like the vantage point of the high tech neo-Victorians of Stephenson's The Diamond Age who, uniquely, could combine the technologies, decor and social etiquette befitting their station and tastes. And, like in a mini-downsizing experiment the middleman, in this case the tattoo artist, has been cut out. The only thing required to complete this machinic loop is the user. With arm, leg or hand stretched out, and the other hand holding the mouse, s/he provides the seed of intentionality that brings it to life.

CyberTattoo calls upon religious symbolism at many levels. It sardonically pictures the net as a gigantic wishing machine, numinous by virtue of the psychological, sexual and commercial energy invested in it. Its myths of social, psychological and economic betterment an ersatz mass media testament. It is perfectly in keeping then, that the first group of images that are available to select your tattoo from, should be culled from the roster of corporate logo's that form the iconography of web navigation; Netscape's ship's wheel, Microsoft's digitised flag, the Mosaic globe etc..... Drawing the analogy of religious experience out further, the tattoos would thus become the new stigmata, proof not only of the fact that the user had suffered for his/her unwavering belief and loyalty, but also of being the object of divine favour. The first to bear these wounds would be marked (wo)men in the true sense of the word, apostles whose message should be heeded.

But CyberTattoo does not easily fall into the category of 'net art'. It is not a construct to be read for its intricate cultural or technological references and then left behind. More importantly, CyberTattoo has neither been made as some sort of puritanical castigating device, laid out like an obscure and sadistic trap to teach naive net users a lasting moral lesson about what their real motivations for browsing might be, or which global forces actually stand to possess their bodies' surfaces. CyberTattoo is a fully functional, but open-ended internet service and that is the only way in which it can have any meaning. Presenting it as a 'real' service, Flor and Clausz have come upon some, perhaps uncomfortable, parallels between its workings and those, for example, of Singer's computer mediated auto-euthanasia device. Here too, once the final decision has been made, the process is irreversible. It may seem a facile comparison, but the ensuing problematic of vouchsafing a (networked) machine with either an aspect of your identity or your life is not, in essence, dissimilar.

CyberTattoo seeks to map a territory that will expand rather than contract in human imagination, become new and more unknown the minute it seems known. The travellers and explorers of 17th, 18th and 19thc. Europe thought the territory they were navigating was, ultimately, knowable. Their maps could show their evolving conception of the world they explored. The more they travelled, the less they had to imagine and the more 'correct' and standardised their maps became. They (also) compulsively collected artefacts and tattoos, acting as very corporeal agents of information exchange, but in a wildly localised and heterogeneous sign system, rather than the arguably homogenous one that CyberTattoo draws on. Though, in many ways these travellers have found worthy followers in the web surfers of today, the zeal of us pioneers of the virtual realm may outstrip the space on our fragile and oh so finite human bodies.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>