"If you forced Mary Shelley, Timothy Leary, Camille Paglia, and John Waters to collaborate on a film, you'd still fail to duplicate the witty and timely madness of Teknolust." -- Wired
Released in 2002 by acclaimed video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, is a comedy that addresses serious issues of love, reproduction, and technological identity. Because the film was made right after the turn of the century, it is vitally important to understand Teknolust within the context of technological anxieties burgeoning during this time period. Released in the wake of Y2K paranoia and the September 11th attacks, the film deals with many of the uncertainties born of an increasing awareness of biological and technological terrorism. This film particularly addresses the fears of bio-politics and their impact on the human body itself; fears that are rampant in the New Millennium, but appear in the film under the mask of comedy so as not to seem overly abrasive. In Teknolust, these issues of bio-politics appear in relation to themes of film technology, sex, gender & reproduction, and artificial intelligence.
The film puts a futuristic twist on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story and follows the scientist Rosetta Stone (played by Tilda Swinton) who uses her DNA to create three clones of herself (Ruby, Marianne and Olive). The clones survive in the real world by supplying their bodies with Y-chromosomes, which they acquire through male semen. Meanwhile, all the men they have sexual contact with are left infected with a strange computer virus.
The film poses various interesting questions such as: What does it mean to be human in the 21st century? What defines human sexuality and how is it prescribed on the body? How will our conception of humanity change as technology develops? And, how will computer-based life forms influence the fate of our species?
"I have always been attracted to digital tools and cinematic metaphors that reflect our time, such as privacy in an era of surveillance, personal identity in a time of pervasive manipulation, and despite this, the essential quest of all living things for loving interaction." -- , director of Teknolust
Teknolust was shot on high-definition (HD) video, as opposed to traditional film. While digital cinematography has gained increased prominence in recent years thanks to the success of digitally-produced pictures such as Slumdog Millionaire and Avatar, the majority of theatrically released movies are still shot on film, and in 2002 the technology was still largely untapped. Digital video had several advantages for Teknolust: it significantly reduced the cost of compositing images shot on greenscreens, which were used to create the many scenes in the film in which Tilda Swinton appears multiple times. Lynn Hershman Leeson stated in an interview that she hoped that the high definition cameras would provide the film with a "hyper-real" look: "we were able to push the colors and make it comic book-like, which was something I intended." The idea of technology creating a hyper-real world--one that appears more vivid than reality--is parallel to the plot in which technology is used to create beings who are, in some ways, improved versions of real human beings. The film's use of color emphasizes this point. Ruby, Olive, and Marine dress in primary colors, which match the walls of the rooms where they live. Ruby's car is also a vivid green. The combination of brightness and sterility provided by this color scheme heightens the viewer's impression that the replicants are both more than human and confined by the machine-like aspects of their personalities.
Sex, Gender, and Reproduction
Rosetta Stone’s clone Ruby needs to be sexually active in order for her and her “sister” clones to survive, raising many questions about both gender and reproduction. Because Ruby is a clone who has only recently entered the world and thus has experienced limited human interaction, Ruby learns how women and men interact romantically by studying stereotpical love scenes in old Hollywood movies. Ruby memorizes the pick-up lines she hears in the movies and then uses them on men when she goes out to gather sperm. Here, Hershman Leeson seems to be employing a Butlerian view of gender as performative that combats an essentialist view of sex. Ruby does not innately know how to act like a woman, but she is able to learn how to from society because, as Butler argues, all humans learn to perform their gender. Therefore, to convincingly act like a human, Ruby must accept the gender binary. Ruby thus blurs the boundary between humans and machines, while she simultaneously reinforces the gender boundary between men and women. As Balsamo points out, “it appears that even though the body has been recoded within discourses of technology and medicine as belonging to an order of culture rather than nature, gender remains a naturalized marker of human identity,” and in this case, clone identity.
Furthermore, when Ruby has sex with men she simultaneously renders the men impotent (a subject that their doctors can only talk about in whispers) and crashes their hard drives, thus demonstrating a clear link between percieved masculinity and technology. As the men lose their ability to use computers, they also lose their ability to perform sexually. Ruby, the computer/human hybrid with the power to clone herself, replaces both the male's role in reproduction and his stereoytypical role of being better than women at using computer technology. Though the virus finally disappears, this plot twist transforms the fear of female promiscuity and intellectual domination and combines it with the fear of the non-human entity. For this reason, and for its emphasis on female characters, the film is considered to be a feminist work by many. At the same time, Teknolust may reinforce some problematic stereotypes. For example, when Rosetta Stone kisses Crick in the kitchen Marianne exclaims “she does not need us anymore!” This comment seems to imply that women need either children (for Stone in the shape of clones) or a man for fulfillment. However, Hershman Leeson's reflects that "all the characters in Teknolust thrive on affection, and ultimately, reproduction." Thus, she appears to be endorsing not traditional romantic relationships as such, but rather any relationship which provides love and meaning for the individual.
Reproduction is also key to the film, with all the central characters reproducing in different ways: through sexual reproduction, technological reproduction, and cloning. By introducting various “non-traditional” methods of reproduction, Hershman Leeson directly manipulates fears of human degeneration. In 2002, anxiety surrounding human reproduction included issues raised by the imminent completion of the Human Genome Project. By highlighting new human reproductive capabilities, Teknolust raises questions such as how will sex transform when it is no longer necessary for the creation of new human beings? And, how will gender roles transform when women are no longer needed as the sole reproducers of the species? Hershman Leeson leaves her answers to these questions deliberately ambiguous. At the end of the film, Ruby's pregnancy seems to indicate that there is value in traditional means of reproduction, although its juxtaposition with images of Olive and Marine creating several new clones casts some doubt on this assumption. It may be that Hershman Leeson believes that the means of reproduction should be up to the individual, as long as the reproduction is accompanied by love. As for the act of sex, Rosetta Stone's sexual experience during the film's conclusion indicates that even without the end of goal of reproduction (which Rosetta had accomplished previously through cloning,) sex will remain a key element of human experience.
One crucial scene in Teknolust occurs when Rosetta Stone’s colleague urges her to patent her genetic code so that only she can clone herself. This scene raises the question, can one patent life? This question is especially important in the new millennium as issues dealing with human cloning and concerns about eugenics converge. If one can tamper with genetic code in an attempt to make a “perfect” human being and “improve” the human species, many skeptics fear that this would spur unsavory behavior in which powerful individuals may try to eradicate “undesirable” human groups such as minorities and people with disabilities. Technological advancement in the 21st century brings these issues to the surface and forces us to reconsider how we should define eugenic behavior as human cloning becomes an imminent possibility.
Another important issue raised in Teknolust is the link between artificial intelligence and human consciousness. Ruby is a clone, yet she forms feelings for another human named Sandy, and builds a romantic relationship with him. Ruby feels complimented when Sandy tells her she seems "human." Ruby's evolving ability to act more and more "real" suggests that imitation is not simply a human phenomenon, but also characterizes behavior between traditionally "non-human" beings; imitative behavior that may eventually allow artificially intelligent beings to pass for humans. Interestingly, Hershman Leeson created a site where you can interact with Ruby and ask her questions (). Though not highly developed, this site clearly demonstrates how machines are not benign and can respond to humans on a somewhat social level. Hershman Leeson’s concentration on the human/machine relationship is critical because just as fears of eugenics and genetic coding have a moral aspect, so too does the consciousness of the clone. Hershman Leeson gives the clones in Teknolust human feelings to demonstrate that artificial intelligence has become highly developed, and will only continue to improve as technology advances. As Stryker highlights, “whoever determines what technologies mean will control not merely the technology market but thought itself.” Hershman Leeson recognizes how scary this proposition is, and does her part to open up the discussion about our relationship to technology in order to demonstrate both its potential and its danger. The film warns us to be careful not to move towards eugenics in our own human population, but by bringing to light the complex issues of cloning, Hershman Leeson also urges us to think critically about the possible treatment of the virtual life forms of the future.
Balsamo, Anne. "Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture." Body Society 1.215 (1995): 215-37. Print.
Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
Stryker, Susan. "Sex and Death Among Cyborgs." Wired. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. Online.