I finally went to the Wellcome Collection to see Superhuman - An exhibition exploring human enhancement.
Glasses, lipstick, false teeth, the contraceptive pill and even your mobile phone - we take for granted how commonplace human enhancements are. Current scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health.
Superhuman takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be. Items on display range from an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to a packet of Viagra, alongside contributions from artists such as Matthew Barney and scientists, ethicists and commentators working at the cutting edge of this most exciting, and feared, area of modern science.
Yes! Superhuman is all of the above and much more. In fact, the exhibition gives visitors a lot to chew on. In no particular order, Super human discusses: The definition of enhancement (is the smart phone an enhancement of our body and brain?) Missing body parts that get replaced -even if their function is forever lost- in an attempt to 'normalize' a body. Man and Machine and the perspective of becoming cyborgs. The Superheroes that anticipate transhumanism. A future of humanity timeline. And of course a focus on Sport.
It's not all RoboCop and Spider-Man though. The exhibition opens on a warning: a statue of Icarus that reminds us that every attempt to improve our bodies and brains comes with its own set of pitfalls and ethical questions. High heel shoes elevate us but too high, they make walking a challenge. Tom Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon after having been doped with strychnine mixed with brandy (performance-enhancing drugs were allowed at the beginning of the 20th century.) He collapsed on the line.
Prosthetic limbs are a particularly striking case of the perils and advantages of enhancements.
Aimee Mullins, the double-amputee model and Paralympian, sees her condition as an opportunity. With each new set of legs comes new powers, new function and a new identity.
More questions arise if we look beyond the case of Pistorius: Will the distinction between Olympics and Paralympics be erased one day? Or will prosthetics become so advanced that they will be seen as an advantage over the 'natural' body?
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the prosthetic limbs whose sole function was cosmetic. They provided no relief nor aid. Such were the prostheses designed for the "Thalidomide babies", these artificial limbs were so bulky and unhelpful that many children eventually abandoned them.
Thalidomide was a sedative drug given to pregnant women to alleviate morning sickness. It was sold from 1957 until 1961, when it was withdrawn after being found that the drug interfered with the development of a baby's limbs. During that short period, 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide use.
The government funded the design of prostheses for children affected by thalidomide in order to make them look 'normal'. The experimental arm and leg prostheses had to be custom-made but they were clunky and uncomfortable. They replicated the aspect of the limb but were not able to reproduce its function. Many children refused to wear them.
Both Mullins' experience as well as the history of the Thalidomide babies makes us realize that the role of prostheses nowadays is not so much to give a sense of 'normality' (at the detriment sometimes of the wearer's comfort) but to accommodate a difference and allow the wearer to embrace a new identity.
Speaking of prosthetic limbs. I found these images of elegant women showing their wooden leg but not their face extremely moving. The legs were crafted by James Gillingham (1839-1924), a shoemaker based in Chard, Somerset. Gillingham first started making artificial limbs after a local man lost an arm firing a cannon for a celebratory salute in 1863.
One of the most pertinent points developed in the exhibition is the shift in perception: what was regarded as exceptional is now ordinary. IVF treatment which made the covers of newspapers not so long ago is now a relatively routine procedure (in 2009, 12 714 babies were born in the UK through IVF.) False teeth and contraceptive pills are now so common we don't see them as enhancements anymore.
Would someone from the 19th century regard us as superhuman? What will the 'normal' people of tomorrow be like? Look like? What will they be able to do better and faster than us?
Quick round-up of the stories, images and ideas i discovered in the exhibition:
The set of teeth above were known as Waterloo Teeth. Replacement teeth were traditionally made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus or elephant). However such teeth deteriorated faster than real teeth. The best set of dentures in the early 19th century were made with real human teeth set on an ivory base. Some of these teeth were scavenged from dead soldiers on battlefields.
The Whizzinator kit was originally marketed as a way to fraudulently defeat drug tests. The kit comes with dried urine and syringe, heater packs (to keep the urine at body temperature) and a false penis (available in several skin tones). The manufacturers were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the US government; the device is now sold as a sex toy. Should you be interested...
Artist Donald Rodney was born with sickle-cell anaemia, a debilitating disease of the blood. Psalms is a wheelchair programmed to explore the floor space of the gallery and symbolises the presence of the artist when he was too sick to attend the opening of his own exhibitions.
Legend has it that Charles Atlas used to be mocked for being skinny. He went on to change his body and develop a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program that, allegedly, enabled weaklings to turn themselves into fit, strong men. He advertised his method in comic books from the 1940s and the campaign is regarded as one of the most longest-lasting ad campaigns of all time.
The image above shows one page of a correspondence course sent out in early 1939 giving instructions in how "in just 7 days YOU can have a body like mine" by using his Dynamic Tension program. The leaflet includes numerous photographs of Charles Atlas posing in leopardskin trunks and flexing his muscles.
For Routine, the artist Francesca Steele transformed her physique over a year through adoption of bodybuilding training and diet.
This artificial toe is one of only a few examples found on or buried with Egyptian mummies. It was initially thought to complete the body after death, essential for successfully passing over to the afterlife. However, signs of wear and repair suggest it may also have been used in life. Tests using a replica found it was possible for a volunteer who had lost their right big toe to walk successfully while wearing it, with the toe itself withstanding the pressure of use.
Many comic-book heroes seem to anticipate 'transhumanism' - the application of technology to humans to enhance their abilities. Iron Man is a cyborg who will die without his artificial heart and whose power comes from his high-tech suit. Spider-Man's special abilities come from his artificially altered biology. And life imitates art: scientists are now developing powered exoskeleton suits to allow paraplegics to walk, while spider silk is providing the basis for new biomaterials used to repair knee cartilage.
Yves Gellie toured the scientific research laboratories dedicated to the development of humanoid robots.
Also in the exhibition: The Immortal, life-support machines keeping each other alive. The machines are turned on daily but only for one hour (from 12.30 to 1.30 if i remember correctly.)
Evening Standard has photos of the opening.
Superhuman is at the Wellcome Collection until October 16, 2012.
Question of the month: How often has that ugly toaster appeared on my homepage?
This week i'm talking to speculative designer Thomas Thwaites. We will discuss that toaster of course but we also look at some of his other projects. In particular, Unlikely Objects: Products of a Counterfactual History of Science, a work that explore what our scientific knowledge would have been like had the Darwinian revolution never happened.
The radio show is broadcast today Monday 9nd July at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!
One of the most curious, amusing and thought-provoking projects of the Design Interactions graduation show this year asks questions that range from 'What is more important in making us who we are: our genes or the experiences we go through in life?' to Can a mouse be Elvis? and Does buying a pre-owned item gives one the legal right to another individual's genetic data?
The first online stop is Ebay where the designer bought a hair from Elvis Presley for $22. He sent it to a gene sequencing lab that advertise its services online. The scientists working at the lab are able to identify different behavioural traits (such as sociability, athletic performance, obesity or addiction) from one speck of hair. Koby then sent the data collected about the genes to another lab which is able to produce transgenic mice clones with parallel traits. The result is a mouse that is a genetically cloned model of Elvis.
In parallel to the works performed by these laboratories, Koby has been studying the scientific mouse model environments that have been used on lab mice over the past 100 years. The cages have been designed to study and manipulate psychological aspects of mice.
Koby then made his own cages. But his were intended to reconstruct some of the most influential moments in the life of Elvis. Each of these cages offers a specific environment that is designed to influence the psychology of the mouse and make it closer to Elvis'.
Some of the main themes that the designer identified as being influential in making Elvis are: his close relationship with his mother (and so the mouse is given a mouse companion), being the victim of bullying when he was a child (in this cage, the mouse is submitted to external stimuli that frightens it), the discovery of his talents, becoming a star (features a distorted mirror that makes the mouse appear bigger), the Graceland period (in every place the mouse pokes nose, it gets a positive reaction in the shape of food or toys and keeps filling the cage to the point making it anxious), the army, the death of mum, the divorce from Priscilla are events that are represented by a cage that functions as an isolation chamber. The last cage embodies the last three years of the life of Elvis, when he worked himself to death, that period is represented by a little treadmill at the top of the cages. The mouse would run, run, run and eventually fall down.
Koby didn't push the project to the point of having a genetically engineered mouse go though all these cages, that would have been far too cruel for the animal but his project do make us wonder if one day it will be possible to enter a new kind of pet shop and ask for a dog, a fish or a cat that no only has the same genetic traits as a pop icon or a historical figure but also behaves like them.
I had many questions for Koby when i met him at the show, here are the two that i later submitted him via email:
Hi Koby! Did you think of the ethical aspects of manipulating a mouse through this series of experiences that reflect the life of a celebrity? Or more generally of having one day the possibility of 'creating' a dog through a series of experiences so that it will behave like Madonna or Lady Di?
I think that the distance between producing purebred animals like dogs and cats and a "Elvis mouse" is unfortunately not to far. In approximately 70 years of experiment - Dmitry K. Belyaev showed how we, by selection, made a domestic dog out of an aggressive wild fox. I think that the only different with making genetically modified pets to fill some human needs (loneliness, compassion, social class etc. or pure entertainment ) is the time it takes.
Of course to my perception both are distorted and equally unethical, but what is more interesting to me is that by creating something like a "Madonna dog" we might develop bigger problems. In a society that imitate it's celebrity models, having your own living model of Madonna might start blur the borders between the two. Madonna as a model vs. Madonna's model. And this is, for me, the most important ethical question that seats in the heart of this project: Do we become our models or do we make them to become ourselves?.
To develop your project, you contacted several scientific advisers. How did they react to your idea of making an Elvis mouse through genetic manipulation and a series of experiences that mirror the most significant moments of the life of Elvis?
All the scientists I was in touch with made a clear distinction between the scientific aspects of the project and the philosophical and entertaining qualities of it. For scientists, making an Elvis Presley mouse model is just a way to play or communicate some possibilities or processes but it has nothing to do with fixing a "serious" human problem. Some looked at the Elvis model and were amazed to see models that they have been working with, making them re-think and wonder for a short second...
The project takes advantage of different uncertainties to produce what seem to be a "fact", so all the answers were left open. In terms of the legal aspect of owning a DNA they didn't want to take any chance - In a lab you cannot use human DNA without his agreement. But as a lawful owner of one of Elvis Presley's hairs I would argue that I should make this decision. As for the Nature Nurture issue, It is an endless loop of debates that no one can give a clear and satisfying answer. For example, one of the scientists I worked with told me of a talk she had with a tennis instructor after our experiment showed that "Patient X" didn't have the ability to be an athlete (ACTN3 gene). The Tennis instructor insisted that anyone can be a great athlete if they'll make the effort, and she, looking at the molecular side of it said that he can try but the physiology would allow it. The work is a reflection of this never ending battle between genetic, epigenetic, psychology and circumstances.
And because i believe that no one will ever be as cool as Elvis...
For this episode, i went to Battersea to interview the new graduates of RCA's Design Interactions. The department has 16 graduates this year. Each graduate is showing 1, 2 or even 3 works in the exhibition. I selected only a handful of them which i introduce briefly before letting the graduates give more details about their project.
In order of appearance: Koby Barhad will talk gene sequencing and Elvis Presley (more about that project in the coming days), Rapahel Kim is still working with rotifers but this time he designed a farm for them, Ai Hasegawa talks about the next frontier for Japanese love hotels and Angela Bracco who is from Design Products (platform 13) is of course answering my questions about If You Can Smell It It Has Mass.
The radio show broadcasts today Monday 25 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!
As announced previously, i've started a programme about art and science for ResonanceFM. The third episode is broadcast today Monday 4 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)
Howard Boland is in the studio today. The artist and mathematician co-founded C-LAB, an interdisciplinary art platform that explores the meaning and idiosyncrasies of the organic and the synthetic life.
7 years ago, I interviewed them about cacti that grow human hair and interstellar plant species. The radio programme catches up with their current interests, mostly magnetic nanoparticles and bacteria that might or might not smell like bananas.
As i mentioned this morning, The Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh has recently opened The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an exhibition that takes the famous "Doomsday Vault" as its starting point.
Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) preserves seeds from nearly every nation on Earth in an underground cavern engineered to withstand catastrophe. It is located on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, on the arctic island of Spitsbergen, Svalbard Archipelago, halfway between the North Pole and Norway.
The seeds stored in this biological safety deposit box are duplicate samples held in seed banks worldwide. The facility is about 130 meters above sea level to protect it against any rise in sea level as a result of global warming, nuclear attack, and earth quakes. The vault itself has been tunnelled 120 meters into the mountain, in order to guarantee stable permafrost.
The exhibition currently on view at the Center for Postnatural History is a joint research and extrapolative project by artists Signe Lidén, Annesofie Norn, and Steve Rowell. Together, they examine the meaning and function of the world's largest and most well-protected collection of agricultural diversity.
The artists traveled to Longyearbyen in February, August, and September 2011 and came back with hundreds of photographs, videos, and audio recordings. The collaborative work also includes an experimental garden, field guide, and map from a survival kit designed to help future generations successfully locate this critical cache of seeds.
Steve Rowell: "The map above reveals the speculative geopolitics of the territory surrounding the vault, in a possible future-scenario in which China, Russia, and NATO have established military bases and industrial sites there. The document includes locations of navigation hazards, beacons, and other points of interest: emergency food/fuel caches, communication towers, weapons dump sites (radiological, chemical, even biological), wind turbine farms, ship wrecks, ruined oil platforms, undersea communication cables, etc. Since a treaty was signed in 1925, Svalbard has been officially demilitarized. But, WWII saw the sacking and burning of Longyearbyen by German troops and covert intelligence activities by both the US and USSR. Evidence of this can be found in historic photos and declassified documents and maps in the Cold Coast Archive exhibition."
The Cold Coast Archive project investigates and explores human beings' efforts to preserve civilization and defy the inevitability of its demise. We look at the vault as a whole: its practical, political, historical and symbolic structure, its arctic location, as well as its infrastructure and cultural nuances, with all the research concentrated at this site, as a backdrop to explore the human relationship to time between now and eternity.
I spent several hours yesterday clicking through the website of the project. It contains sound files that gives us a feeling of the atmosphere in the area as well as video interviews with the people who live there: from the world´s northernmost surfer to the miners working in the coal mine, from volunteers attempting to protect the coast from oil spills to experts in plant breeding and genetics. And of course there are dozens of stunning images. I've asked Steve Rowell to comment a couple of them for us:
Steve Rowell: "This is an artist's billboard mural (not sure who) on the road between the airport and the Sval Sat earthstation on the plataeu above the Seed Vault. The whole region is historic and active coal mine country. There's an active mine a few hundred meters down the road from this sign and the seed vault is situated between two closed mine shafts."
Steve Rowell: "We did drive these snowmobiles on a tour of the Advent valley and Temple Fjord / glacier. Typically we drove a 4x4 van (white one in one of the pics) or walked. There are no roads between the 3 active towns on Spitsbergen. Besides Longyearbyen, there are two mining towns: Barentsburg (Russian and Ukranian almost exclusively) and Svea Gruva (Norwegian). Remote Pyramiden was a Russian town, but now completely abandoned. The northernmost Lenin head is there as well as baby grand piano in an empty Russian hotel building. In the winter, when I went, travel outside of Longyearbyen was a pretty serious task and involved a mandatory guide who was licensed to carry a rifle, and trained to shoot and kill a polar bear if need-be. Anyone who leaves town MUST carry a rifle for self defense, along with a trailer (dog-sled or snowmobile) with enough supplies, food for 3 days."
Steve Rowell: "These are the doors to the inner vault where the seeds are being stored. There are three inner vaults. Only 1 of the 3 is being used now."
Steve Rowell: "Yeah, pretty amazing how wrong that one is. This is one of many that I found at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC in their maps collection. Did you notice the CIA map? There was no note of this being declassified, but I'm sure it is. The yellowish coloration in my photo isn't from a hi-lighter marker, but residual adhesive from tape that I removed. I noticed two white pieces of tape in both corners and peeled them back to reveal that the CIA had designed and printed this. All that Arctic strategizing is now coming to fruition. Russia was in the news this week about a deal that they just signed with Exxon-Mobil to explore the Russian Arctic for oil, incl the area to the East of Svalbard. "
Steve Rowell: "A peninsula on Spitsbergen between Longyearbyen (the vault) and Barentsburg. Incredible how many shades of blue exist up there in the winter, long blue spectrum wavelengths reflecting infinitely between atmosphere and snow. "
Steve Rowell: This one is an "Aerial view of the SvalSat facility."
Svalbard Satellite Station, aka SvalSat, is a large satellite earth station located on the island of Spitsbergen, above the Seed Vault. In a mountain nearby, the only remaining coal mine in operation provides power to the Seed Vault. On the mountain top above it, a research station monitors aurora borealis. As the website Cold Coast states, So here we have dramatically contrasting manifestations of space and time at an immense scale: on the mountain tops, instruments that reach deep into space and measure the present and predict relatively close future; deep underneath in the ground, two cavities - one harvesting the energy of fossilized rainforest created millions of years ago and the other protecting life into eternity.
And finally, Steve Rowell was kind enough to send me some views from the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History:
The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is on display at the Center for Postnatural History until August 15th, 2012.