The Ideal and the Real: Contemporary Positions in Art Criticism, a symposium sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies program of Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art.
May 4, 2013, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Video Abstract:

The Perfect Human Application
Concept piece, 2012

“It used to be, I have a feeling, I want to make a call… now it’s I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

As our tools and methods of consuming media as well as communication with each other evolve, so does our ability to understand and construct ideas of identity and self. Inspired by Danish poet and film director Jorgen Leth, my 2012 proposal for “The Perfect Human Application” updates Leth’s 1967 short film The Perfect Human. By critically examining the ideal, or the measures of perfection apparent in contemporary society, both the film and the application question the existential nature of identity and the parameters of perfection. While the film acknowledges that the ideal and the real go hand in hand, the application takes that assumption farther and nods to a future dystopia.

THE PERFECT HUMAN 1967 Jorgen Leth
In The Perfect Human, Leth plays the role of a narrator and objective scientist examining the perfect human specimen. The film begins by stating his researchable question: “Here is the perfect human… How does such a number function? What kind of thing is it? … We will investigate that.” His test tube is the room from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: a room “boundless and radiant with light…. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing.” In this room, he uses the camera to explore a beautiful and well-dressed man and woman ‘walking, running, falling and making love.’ As the camera shows them ‘getting-ready’ and ‘dancing,’ Leth is describing the perfect human – the superficial and societal ideal of perfection in 1967.
During a ‘very delicious’ dinner, the woman mysteriously disappears. Her absence provokes the protagonist (by this point we realize that the man is the perfect human – not the woman) to reveal a layer of existential questioning. Leth asks, “What is the perfect human thinking? … About the food he eats, happiness, love, death?” And to answer, the young man, while chewing, contemplates: “Why is joy so quickly done? …Why did you leave me? Why are you gone?”
For Leth the ideals and appearances of perfection fall short without either the acknowledgement of confusion, fear and loneliness, or an admission of the human desire for companionship. Leth’s perfect human, according to the Danish standards of the time, is a well-groomed, smiling, lighthearted and handsome young man, but, regardless of place and time, he is also scared, lonely and sad. He has to ask questions, whose answers, if they even existed, would offer no comfort.
In the end, Leth isn’t examining the perfect human to define perfection but rather to better understand what makes him human – what universal, timeless, and existential themes make the human real. Leth articulates a relationship (and maybe, a tension) between the standards set by society to idealize and search for perfection and the reality of existence.
With these themes in mind, I have updated Leth’s concept in “The Perfect Human Application.” In this app, I explore, as a scientist, how the perfect human functions today – how he and she integrate fear of loneliness and the larger themes of existentialism in the 21st century.

Recently, I attended a yoga class with my sister. As we waited for class to begin, we lay extended on our mats. With our eyes still closed, suddenly she turned to me and stated in the quiet darkened room, “I hate it. I feel naked without my cell phone.” Later, we concluded our evening over dinner, our dishes sharing table space with our matching iPhones.
It is an all too familiar, if not an already trite feeling: the nudity of not having our cell phones by our sides, of not having our contacts in our pockets. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle’s recent book on contemporary society’s relationship with technology, she explores the repercussions of the intimacy we have with our mobile devices. Using the experience of sixteen-year-old Julia, Turkle explains how, for Julia, “things move from ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call’ to ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to make a call’ or in her case, send a text.” Julia even conflates her phone with her friends: “Even before I get upset and I know that I have that feeling… I’ll pull up my friend…uh, my phone...” According to Turkle, we used to reach out to each other for assistance and companionship in times of need or excitement, but today we can’t experience a feeling without sharing it with others. While Leth’s perfect human was defined by his loneliness, by his desire for companionship, today we need companionship in order to even feel loneliness.
However, while we can and do receive support and companionship through the vehicle of our cell phones, we cannot equate the quantity of those interactions (our increasing number of Facebook friends, for instance) with the quality of our experience. And I am struck by the quantity – quantity of interactions as well as quantity of time – that we spend connecting via the digital world. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people spend seven and a half hours online a day. Further, “And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.” I know that when I am working on my laptop, my cell phone takes up residence slightly to the left of the computer – this way I can see, from the corner of my eye, when it lights up, signaling that it needs my attention.
As we spend more and more time connected online, we are spending less time connecting with people offline (as there are only so many hours in a day). “The Perfect Human Application” is a proposal for an application that tracks and aggregates the quantity of all interactions a user makes on his or her smartphone in a 24-hour period, including SMSs, emails, updating his or her calendar, and using social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In contrast to applications like Klout (which tracks our ‘influence’ online, that is, how many times posts are shared or retweeted), my app aims for higher scores: a greater quantity than yesterday, and a greater quantity than other users. Through scoring the user, the application is metaphorically turning him or her into a set of dynamic data easily comparable to past scores and the scores of others.
This scoring is based on six Perfect Human Functions: popularity, communication skills, written skills, social life, looks, and success. These functions become a philosophical framework through which individuals can evaluate and compare their perfection, as well as a selection of ways to categorize goals toward which a user can strive in order to embody an unattainable ideal. In the short videos that explain each category, the functions are described as replacing outdated offline pastimes: texting replaces hugging; emailing is considered the “modern coffee break.” The application rewards online behaviors; the ideal here is defined in terms of quantity, not quality.
“The Perfect Human Application” examines the ways we develop self-awareness, evaluate success, and, most importantly, create meaningful relationships in a landscape evermore violently shaped by digital media. It reveals an ideal user whose focus is on quantity not quality, on scoring rather than experiencing, thereby conflating the ideal with the real.