19.01 - 23.02.2013
Galerie Weingrüll, Karlsruhe, Germany

By Tina Schulz

GYM - The Machines Look at Us

The flipside of anthropomorphism is the machine-likeness of the human body. Both concepts have proved to be not only fit for use, but also economical: the ancient imagination of the world as a souled object finds contemporary expression in the anthropomorphisation of the technology that surrounds us on a daily basis, as when, for example, objects show a childlike design, or when we come to realize that we don’t just communicate through but also with technical devices like laptops, smartphones, cars and household appliances. Also, the handling of complex technology is increasingly being targeted at an intuitive, and therefore generally easy use, which means that the learning process takes place in an atmosphere of childhood versatility, regardless of the user's age. Cognitive processes and emotions are subliminally but inextricably linked to the functionality and design of specific branded goods: we as users are coined as pieces of an immaterial currency.  
But in circumstances that have to be further examined here, the perspective is reversed; it is no longer the surrounding world and its objects that become magically, metaphysically or emotionally charged – no, in light of the overpowering superiority of artificial objects, we are equally caught under the spell of the machines and we are expected to adjust to them. In the field of fitness, object design and consumer culture have turned the tables on this evident logic as follows: if you want to be like a machine, you just turn into one.
Whereas in the 1980s this topic still developed a subersive-trashy potential in the Cyberpunk movement (think, for instance, of Cyberpunk splatter movies such as Tetsuo, the Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer by Shinya Tsukamoto, or also Schwarzenegger's popular Terminator movies), the obvious horror of the mechanically permeated human being had to give way in the present to the model of the self-made, superficially perfect and happily exercised body. Skin and flesh stand no longer in contrast, but rather in a mimetic-symbiotic relation to iron, chrome and synthetic polymer compounds. In the fitness centre  the delivery room of this new body  the anthropomorphisation of technology is out of place; in fact the focus lies on the hyper-technoid aesthetics of the exercise equipment and its surroundings and goes all the way to clothing and nutrition of the users. This design emphasises the artificial, the factitious and the inhumane and paves the way into a terrain of apparently unlimited personal fulfilment by overcoming the inner weak nature. To get there the only thing that has to be done is entering the mechanical apparatus: the machine becomes a mould that takes in the body of the user and puts it into its dynamic overall shape like a missing work piece. In a way, the body becomes the battery that drives the machine. As the product of this symbiotic connection between a human being and a machine, the work, however, does not get externalised as a commodity, but stays within the body of the consumer as loss of body fat or gain of muscle mass. The consumer has perfect control over contour and consistency of the work piece he is working on: he is producing himself. Therefore, in the training room of a fitness centre, the engine of a hedonistic society can be viewed during its own reproduction process, when, during a work-out, the paradigmatic image of the perfect body is collectively re-produced and individually produced in one go. 
If we now return to the image of the gym as factory and dare to bridge the gap from "work-out" to "work", we can think of the training person as producing kinetic energy. So why not use it? Could it, for example, contribute to the power supply of the building? This scenario underpins a common critique of the gym, that describes it as a rather inhuman, almost alienating place, where the work-out has more in common with heavy physical labour than with relaxation: a distorted image of slavishly working bodies in the hull of a galley. Yet this both obvious and absurd scenario makes clear that a criticism of this kind falls short; it has nothing to do with the reality and the goal of self-determined perspiration. It furthermore reveals a critical potential of the current body concept as a nostalgic phantasm; instead it becomes clear how precise and minute the working process towards the satisfaction of the needs created by our society is. The gym fulfills needs and desires produced by the society  it is a closed circle, in which the body is the missing part that closes the circle. It's the tool to make the machine work and the product all in one. In this symbiotic cycle there is, however, a moment of lavish abundance in favour of the users: animated by the movement the body chemistry releases dopamine and endorphins, which affect the physical mechanism and produce a positive self-image. This is supported by the light-minded certainty that the person who is training has done something for himself by his own body's work in the training room. But if you want to have an even less illusionary or positive perspective on it, you would say that even the body chemistry, the feel-good-aspect, is the core of this circle, because it makes us go on and on and on. Stephanie Kiwitt's photo work Gym presents us these endorphins in their sheerest form: they are the precious substance that keep the engine running.