The Human body in relation to the Heterotopia

Posted: May 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Modern and Postmodern world has been defined by the spaces that have been created mostly in the urban environment. Spaces are much like personas in that they are constructed. Our actions within a space is limited by the way in which that space is produced. In many cases that space is produced by large moneyed interests and the government. Persona is constructed similarly, which means that our spaces and identities are not always our own. Michel Foucault wrote an influential essay in 1967 titled Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. A Heterotopia unlike a Utopia is not all good and unlike a Dystopia it is not all bad. He described the Heterotopia as being a layered, dynamic and changing space. They are marginal spaces for the individual to construct a persona. They are both mental and physical in nature much like a phone call or a reflection in the mirror. Spaces are created by humans but humanity is made by its spaces so it is like an echo or a feedback loop. The dynamics of ourselves and the spaces we inhabit are interconnected. Heterotopias are impermanent in that they are not in a fixed state of being much like a boat, a tent or an airplane they are easily moveable. In such a dynamically changing environment memory, identity and humanity itself are all called into question. In this essay I plan on looking at three artists that play with the idea of Heterotopic space.

The first two of the three artists works that I am going to analyze is a piece called Solaris by Rachel Wilberforce a British photographer and installation artist. The name Solaris is most likely a reference to the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name. Solaris is a re-imagining of Britain’s oldest amusement park. It makes use of Neon lights from the original site re-configured into sculptural forms inside arcade style glass casing. The site had been abandoned and in decay for several years until Wilberforce decided to revive it. The identity or persona of the park has shifted due to this revival.

This is very similar to the plot of the Solaris film which deals with an astronaut named Kris Kelvin who leaves earth to visit a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet draws on the energy of the crew and makes a realistic conjuring of people from their past. For example the astronaut’s wife appears on the ship. Even though she looks real in every way, she is simply a product of his memory and not the real person. This is similar to what Wilberforce is doing with the amusement park. She is trying to conjure a nostalgic memory of the amusement park by using the original lights from the park to make the sculptures. This is ultimately a memory of a time gone by though. The artist is most likely too young to remember when the park was in operation. This installation then transforms and shifts the cultural identity and memory of what it once was. Although it may be similar in feeling and appearance it is not the same place it used to be. The park was also opened in 1880 originally which leaves a large span of time in which it was in operation. An amusement park is constantly going through changes and updates as it needs to constantly shift its appearance in order to draw in new audiences. What era the neon lights are actually from is not explained. Much like the subconscious mind the installation has no sense of time. There is just an awareness of a time gone by but the specific reference point is not actually there.

In the film Solaris Kelvin the astronaut becomes aware of the fact that the image of his wife is only a construct of his own memory and that it is not real in any way. The more time he spends with the image that Solaris creates for him the further he distances himself from the reality of who his wife actually was. Our memories of people and places may be realistic to us but they will never be totally accurate. There are two things at play: The first is that we create an idealized vision of that person. No matter how hard we try to be objective this is always in play. We can only pull one memory out into the conscious world at a time so we often tend to prioritize the good over the bad or the bad over the good. The other is that you can’t be with that person or place all of the time which means that you can never totally know a person or place simply because they do things or have done things that you’re not aware of and they will behave slightly different around different people and in different situations.

This plays into the effect that the amusement park creates. For those that were alive to remember it when it was functional will only have a vague memory of how it was at best. It is not possible to see every square inch of the place even if you’re a keenly observant person. There may have been changes and modifications that people might not be aware of. Events may have taken place at the park that not every person could possibly be aware of. The amusement park is not necessarily about providing an accurate vision of reality though and neither is the installation Solaris. In a sense it seems to trivialize the accuracy of what memory is. The lights are set up in such a way as to create a sense of jumbled confusion. A sort of bubbling up from the subconscious mind is the impression it appears to create. It is about nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia but is ultimately an empty experience.

The film Solaris reinforces this idea because at the beginning of the film Kelvin is seen embracing his father before his journey into space knowing that this is most likely the last time he will ever see him alive. The film concludes with the astronaut reuniting with his father but as the camera pans out the viewer is then made aware that he is actually on the planet Solaris. The astronaut chose to live in a fantasy of idealized memories instead of reality. Much like the amusement park reality becomes trivial. The accuracy of the memory is not important. The nostalgia that the installation creates is the point of the art.

Carnivals and amusement parks are very similar in nature. There is a temporality about them. They are constantly changing with the times in order to adapt to the demands of the changing landscape. Even though an amusement park is a permanent structure there is a temporary nature about them given that the parks are always being updated and the materials they are built out of are not meant to last for a long time. This is only emphasized with the idea of the traveling carnival. I doubt that many people in 1880 thought that the Dreamland park would still be in some kind of operational form. Amusement parks are not built to last. This is a symptom of a modern era. Things are made for temporary enjoyment and not meant to last. The amusement park is like a microcosm of this larger societal narrative. This is in stark contrast to notions in the past where a structure such as a church was built for a specific function and meant to last for decades and centauries. In the modern era things are often built for one reason but then the purpose shifts to something else depending on what the demands are for the particular time period. This is the case with the amusement park. Although the function is similar it is not the same. The original intent was to build rides for temporary enjoyment and now it serves not only as a place for rides and other things that are only temporary but it also feeds into a nostalgic aspect within people. It is like a museum of temporality. This obviously has a psychological effect on people as is demonstrated in the film Solaris where the astronaut wants to go live in a fantasy world rather than deal with the grief of losing his loved ones.

The space station featured in the film Solaris is like a Heterotopia in that it is very isolating even though everything is connected to the main body of the ship. When Kelvin first arrives on the ship the crew members don’t even great him. This is most likely a byproduct of the fact that each cabin of the crew members keeps them separated from one another. The affect that Solaris has on them is to create individualized spaces that are tailored to their personalities. This is like a microcosm of a large multi-cultural metropolis. The metropolis draws together people from multiple parts of the world from different social strata into one location. The irony in this is that a large city has a tendency to isolate people from each other because everything is hyper individualized. Everyone lives in their own separate apartment, has their own car, owns a television, a personal computer, a smart phone, and people often work desk jobs in cubicles. Every aspect of life is personalized to your particular lifestyle. Solaris is very similar in this way. People spend most of their time with their imaginary ghosts constructed for them by the planet Solaris rather than with each other. Watching the film gave me the eerie feeling that I was riding on the MBTA trying to make conversation with someone on their smart phone and getting a cold look from them as if to say “who are you and why are you trying to talk to me?”.

This seems to be a byproduct of modernist living. We are sold on the idea that all this technology is bringing us closer together through the internet, through multi-culturalism, through our cell phones and all the other modes of modernist living. But it actually has the opposite effect of pulling us apart and creating a narcissistic fantasy world in its place. It has actually disconnected us from the social fabric and replaced it with something artificial. The space station in Solaris is a perfect metaphor because the world in which they live is completely constructed artificially and has physically removed the astronauts from the natural world.

This feeling of dis-connectivity created by all of these modern modes of living obviously has psychological effects on people. The feeling of isolation and living in increasingly artificial environments changes the way that people think and relate to the other people around them. A lot of people have a hard time adjusting to these new environments and modes of living and often times develop mental disorders as a result. People abuse drugs, they develop strange phobias, and compulsive habits. Some people can’t handle all of these abrupt changes in living and cultural standards and become suicidal as a result. This is personified in the film Solaris when Kelvin arrives on the space station and learns that one of the astronauts had committed suicide.

The film makes use of the contrast between the natural world and the sterilized futuristic style of modernist cities and manmade landscapes. There is a section of the film where Tokyo is used as a backdrop for a futuristic city on earth. Some have criticized the film for this because it was a contemporary landscape at the time. But this was most likely Tarkovsky saying that the future is already here. Tarkovsky disliked large cities saying “I can say that I love nature. I don’t like big cities and feel perfectly happy when I’m away from the paraphernalia of modern civilization.” Tokyo is often the center of modern and postmodern ideals because of the high technology that is present in that particular city.

The word Solaris is derived from solar which refers to the sun. The sun is connected to the left brain in many ancient cultures. The left brain is where modern science is derived from. By calling the planet Solaris it means that the experiences of the astronauts are being controlled by an outside force which is a pure left brain ideology. Although the visions of the astronauts appear to be real they are ultimately synthetic just like the environment they are being immersed in on the space station. A Heterotopia is described by Foucault as being a place of otherness where norms of behavior are suspended. By suspending norms of behavior a new norm of behavior can then be brought about. This is where Transhumanist ideas can then be introduced. Transhumanism is the idea that the human body can be altered, changed, and ultimately upgraded through the use of modern technology. The first stage of Transhumanism is to alter the space in which we are immersed. This will eventually lead to the human body being the space which can be altered and changed. The driving idea behind Transhumanism is a similar idea to that of the Heterotopia: To break down the constructs of gender, race and class in the same way that a Heterotopia breaks down collective identity by blending man with machine.

This brings me to the third artist’s work that I am going to examine. This artist goes by the name of Stelarc. His work is Transhumanist in nature. Most of his art pieces center around the idea that the human body is obsolete. In 2007 he had a fully sized ear that was created with his own adult stem cells surgically transplanted onto his inner forearm. The name of the project was EAR ON ARM: Engineering Internet Organ. This was a project that he had worked on for 12 years. THE EAR ON ARM was not only an aesthetic design but one that was supposed to be an operational implant that is connected to the internet. The microphone would be on at all times which means that someone in any part of the world with an internet connection can log onto a website and stream the audio that this device picks up at any time. This aspect of having it connected to the internet was very important to him. On his website he writes “the biological body is not well organ-ized. The body needs to be Internet enabled in more intimate ways.” He also writes of the project: “This project has been about replicating a bodily structure, relocating it and now re-wiring it for alternate functions. It manifests both a desire to deconstruct our evolutionary architecture and to integrate microminiaturized electronics inside the body. We have evolved soft internal organs to better operate and interact with the world. Now we can engineer additional and external organs to better function in the technological and media terrain we now inhabit.”

The internet is like a virtual Heterotopia where everything is connected to the web and yet it is made up of separate spaces of ‘otherness’ known as websites. With this project Stelarc is incorporating the human body into this web thus making it a Heterotopic space. Much like a multicultural Heterotopic city the Human body becomes a landscape where things can be built upon and layered in an arbitrary way like you see in cities like New York or Hong Kong. This idea of becoming a cyborg connected to the internet is similar to seeing a McDonalds inside of a 400 year old church. In a large city as well as the internet you have many spaces of otherness within the Heterotopia but all are connected to the main body of the city or the web. With projects such as EAR ON ARM the human body becomes no different than any other space in the Heterotopia.

People have become fascinated with the idea of improving the functionality of the human body in a technical sense but it is somewhat arbitrary in that one has to stop and ask the question Why. Why is it important to ‘improve’ upon ourselves in a purely technical sense? This ignores all the other complex aspects of what it means to be human. It reduces us to being purely mechanical in nature. If we’re just simply machines then what is the point of being human in the first place? Is there any room for creativity in this environment or are we simply reduced to ones and zeros like a computer? The breakdown of gender, race and class is all celebrated in this type of environment but nobody seems to have a vision as to where all this will lead. There is just a vague notion that humans can evolve above and beyond what it means to be a human being. The Transhumanists have a logo of H+ but there is not a very concrete idea of what that means (at least in the public eye). The EAR ON ARM project ran into some complications as the original microphone that was inserted into Stelarc’s arm became infected. This can serve as an unintentional metaphor for the idea of Transhumanism and how their ideas on the human body is incompatible with nature and is completely unbalanced. The body’s reaction to the microphone is that of rejection and not one of integration.

The idea of the Heterotopia is sold to us as a place of non homogeneity but at the same time the idea of breaking down cultural norms is celebrated as a good thing. This starts to become a contradiction because if all different cultures are brought into one place those individual cultures then begin to break down simultaneously. Once these things break down a new homogenized world begins to emerge. In this world of hyper individuality the individual ironically becomes secondary. Bodies are just nodes in a network that serve a specific function. This goes against the original design of the human body which is capable of math and science as well as art music and literature. The idea of being a well rounded person who is proficient at all these things is thrown out the window in the world of the Heterotopia as the Heterotopia demands a proficiency in one specific function. This puts human beings at odds with the structuring that this type of society demands because of the highly compartmentalized nature of it.

The true nature of art is that it acts like the mannequins you see in a department store window with different clothes on. The owners of the department store want you to come inside, buy the clothes and ultimately wear the clothes. With this in mind the EAR ON ARM project is normalizing the idea of modifying the human body and integrating it into the internet which is a machine like environment. The ear on arm project is attempting to reinforce the idea that we as human beings are obsolete and that it is acceptable to build on top of the human form in order to improve its functionality. It also reinforces the idea that we need to adapt to this new emerging world of technology by increasing our connectivity to it. The fact that his arm became infected by the invasive microphone also normalizes this as being just part of the lifestyle of adapting to this highly technological world that is being built up.

The metaphor of the mannequins in the department store also applies to the other two works of art that I have examined. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris presents us with a model of a futuristic Heterotopia. Even though he is outspoken against the idea of a highly technological and compartmentalized world divorced from the natural world. He is showing us a working model both to normalize this in the minds of the average citizen and what to expect for the controllers of the society. Life on the space station is not much different than what it is like to live in a modern city. People are unfriendly and disconnected from one another. A simple ride on the MBTA will confirm this. When you see everyone’s head buried in a smart phone and not interacting with one another it is clear that most people do not want to live in reality. The world of the smart phone is not real but people choose that ‘reality’ over the real world much like Kris Kelvin chose to live on Solaris at the end of the movie. The Heterotopic compartmentalized spaces of the modern world are often idealized worlds that are ultimately an illusion as well as unbalanced.

This brings me back to the Rachel Wilberforce piece also titled Solaris. The amusement park becomes a place of refuge for many people. The nostalgia it brings is that of an idealized reality and the simplicity of childhood. Even though this nostalgia is ultimately fleeting and temporary, it is that fleeting and temporary nature of the nostalgia that the modern Heterotopic society feeds off of. The temporality of that reality makes it very easy to present new ideas to people that they would not normally accept if they lived in a more stable world that was not so dynamic and changing. The Transhumanists would most likely not be taken seriously, but in a dynamic and changing environment the idea of completely changing oneself becomes a natural progression. They do not realize that they are giving up their humanity or maybe they are aware of this but are being sold on the idea that it is perfectly appropriate to do so. The idea of the Heterotopia feels more like a shell game than anything else. The ones who are aware of this seem to either be outnumbered simply by marginalizing them and putting them into a Heterotopic compartmentalized space or they choose to bury their heads in the sand and embrace the fake reality even though they know it is not real. Either way the idea of the Heterotopia seems just as temporary as everything within it and it is simply a stepping stone to a new reality. What that new reality is seems rather dystopic unless people stop and think about where this is all leading and begin to reject it.


Michel Foucault, (1967) Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias [available at

Websites for images, essays, resources:

Rachel Wilberforce:

Dave Nostrand, (2014) Solaris (1972) Analysis- Cinema salor:


  1. John Adams says:

    Great Article! Sorry It took me so long to get to it. You should come on an Afternoon Commute sometime. Keep up the good work.

  2. […] The Human body in relation to the Heterotopia […]

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