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We sit down with artist Desirée Holman to talk about her current project, Sophont, which explores ideas of science fiction, aliens, new-age ideology, mysticism, and tech culture. Her assignment asks you to become a science fiction character by creating and wearing some kind of psionics hardware that enhances your character's abilities.

Sarah Green was able to connect this assignment with art history through Rebecca Horn, who created "body sculptures" as she was sick in a hospital with lung poisoning.

INSTRUCTIONS - Become a Sci-Fi Character
1. Become a science fiction character who wears some sort of psionics hardware that enables this character to enhance their extra sensory abilities in some way
2. Upload your assignment using #theartassignment
3. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
(PBS Digital Intro plays)

Sarah: Today we're at the Headlands Center for the Arts, just north of San Francisco, where we're meeting with Oakland-based artist, Desirée Holman, who's currently in residence here.  Her works into a variety of communities, which she thoroughly researches and tackles through thematic projects.  Like her 2005 series, Troglodyte, considered human behavior through chimpanzee role play, and her 2009 series, Reborn, explored the community of women who play-act motherhood with life-like, infant dolls.  And in her current series, Sophont, Desirée shows her interest in science fiction, aliens, new age ideology, mysticism, and tech culture. 

In much of her work, she involves props that are activated by performers, and here at Headlands, she's been at work on a video project called Sophont in Action which involves participants wearing psionic helmets like this one, made to enhance the abilities of its wearer.

Desirée: I'm Desirée Holman, and this is your art assignment.

(TAA Intro)

Desirée: I call it a psionics helmet, and this is a helmet that one of my characters that I've created wears in a project that I've been working on since 2012 called Sophont.  The idea behind this psionics helmet and all of them that I've created is that they are for these characters to enhance their extrasensory abilities and these hats, I position them as being somewhere in between tinfoil conspiracy  theorist type hats and Google Glass.  The tinfoil hat classically has been used to either transmit signals or block signals, so it is actually a technical device that Google Glass also does something to enhance the wearer's capabilities.  Extrasensory capabilities, so I think in looking at it in that way, they're very connected. 

In general, I'm really interested in cultural fantasm, so you know, as a culture, what kind of--what kind of fantasies do we have about ourselves, and what do those fantasies mean?  So some of them, I think more dominant, themes that we may be working out as a broader culture, kind of our relationship to technology, and even perhaps our relationship to equality, not perhaps, actually, definitely.  Our relationship to equality and other people, equality among human beings and I would think of that in an expanded sense as well, like our relationship to the natural world, our relationship to other species. 

So your assignment is to become a science fiction character who wears some sort of psionics hardware that enables this character to enhance their extrasensory abilities in some way, so that could mean this character can time travel or this character can communicate with the beyond, or this character can communicate telepathically across species, I don't know, you choose.  I'd really like for you to make an actual character, to become the character with physical objects.  In lieu of that, if you cannot do that or choose not to, I invite you to make a drawing or animation, but if you do make a fantastic physical psionics helmet or what have you, I'd love to include potentially some of that work in future performances.

John: So, Sarah, I recently lost my phone for about 24 hours, and during that period, I realized that without noticing, I have become a cyborg. 

Sarah: Yeah.

John: I have become a person who is part machine, and I don't feel like myself if I don't have access to the machine.

Sarah: Yeah, I think a lot of us are these days.  We have this technology that's become so entrenched in our lives and ingrained that we don't even realize that we're holding these things, we're wearing them around our wrists--

John: Yeah, like, the MT Anderson novel, Feed, has kind of become real life, and that's one of the things I find fascinating about this assignment, like, uh, I'm already on the path to becoming a sci-fi character.

Sarah: So what's different about this is that it's not just about received technology.  Like, somebody else designed that iPhone, somebody else designed the iWatch, actually, the same people, but--or the Google Glass, but this is about you coming up with your own technology, what do you need to enhance your own capabilities? 

John: Right, yeah, but here's my question.  Unless Claude Monet had some secret period where he was a sci-fi character, what is the possible art historical precedence for this?

Sarah: I did have a little trouble with this one, but I polled my friends, I thought about it, and I came up with a good one. 

In 1964, German artist Rebecca Horn was 20 years old and living in Barcelona, making polyester and fiberglass sculptures without using a mask.  She had no idea of the dangers of the material, got very sick with lung poisoning, and had to stay in a sanatorium for a year.  Completely isolated, Horn began to make drawings, and so, what she called, body sculptures, which she could make while confined to her bed.  One of the first of these was arm extensions, which used the material language of the sanatorium, bandages and prostheses, to extend the reach of her own body beyond its confines.  Finger gloves, in 1972, put faraway objects within reach, and scratching both walls at once in 1974 allowed her to well, scratch both walls at once.  Horn described wearing the gloves, "The lever action of the lengthened fingers intensifies the various sense data of the hand.  I feel me touching, I see me grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects."  Desirée is also asking us to consider the way we relate to our environment, to acknowledge our body's strengths and shortcomings, and imagine the ways material and technology might enhance our abilities. 

Desirée: The helmets are symbolic, right, so, I may like to step into the fantasy and pretend that they're actually doing something, but right there, they are props.  So, they are meant to symbolize or discuss our use of technology to enhance our perception.  So this one happens to be made out of a pan and a teaballer and some electronics, but other ones I have are made out of bent spoons, psychically created, of course, and other just, found odds and ends. 

In my process in making the psionics, I started by going to the flea market and gathering pieces so I could tinker.  I wanted to tinker physically and think about, like, what could this do?  So, it really started with the physicality of the object, but simultaneously and actually, maybe before that, there was research and the kind of inspiration that was coming through Google searches and looking at, you know, various hardware that was directed by the body, and from there, I actually, you know, once I had an array of things to play with, and ideas were beginning to form, I actually worked with a programmer and someone to do the electronics, and, so he came on board and then we were in the studio together going back and forth.


Desirée: Pretend, right, that it's a functioning device, I mean, 'cause who knows?  Maybe it is. 

(The Assignment)