The idea that the human is a genetically perfectible artefact is eugenic.
There is a tension between the idea of the human body existing in a state of nature, which must be preserved at all costs, and the idea of the body as part of an ongoing technical evolution. The biological possibilities were spectacular, however my concerns were with context, who and what are defining this?
In 1972, when I was seven years old our family went to Poland for summer holidays. This was the first time my father had been back to his homeland since he was liberated from a concentration camp as a teenager just after the Second World War. Thirty-two years later he was told that his sister had also survived and this was to be their first re-union.
Part of that ‘holiday’ was visiting the remains of the Majdanek concentration camp. My father narrated this visit of the barracks, gas chamber and ovens. He spoke of sleeping 8 to a bunk and pushing out corpses from the bed in the mornings, of seeing a pregnant woman being left with her legs tied together as she was about to give birth and unwittingly many more gruesome details that were both fascinating; and have been lodged firmly in my psyche. This was also the first time that we had ever heard our father speak Polish. He wanted to be able to forget and I learned to remember.
In tourist terms this excursion was not considered morbid or extra-ordinary: up until 1989, the end of the Communist regime, all Polish citizens were required to go on government-sponsored group tours to the former Nazi concentration camps as part of their indoctrination in the hatred of the opponents of Communism.
Polish schools taught a censored version of history during the Communist rule, leaving out such details as the Russian invasion of Poland in and the pact between Stalin and Hitler, but emphasizing the crimes of the Nazi Fascists. Russian Soldiers killed my Dads parents; shot right there in front of him. German soldiers arrested his brothers and it is believed that they were later killed in one of the Nazi extermination camps.
I believe that this experience was the catalyst to my interest in human biology and evolution. I began questioning that good doesn’t equal truth and truth doesn’t always triumph and that the morality and truths I had been force fed through a catholic upbringing were constructs or invention. These influences have been developed and manifested through my artwork more directly since the early 90’s and further stimulated by scientific events such as the human genome-mapping project. The identification of the approximate 30,000 genes in human DNA began formally in 1990 coincided with my first experiments in digital photography.
The simultaneous development of digital imaging technologies, image analysis and mapping the human genome essentially enabled the deconstruction of the whole into the individual building blocks, both the pixel and the individual base pairs within a gene. There was a growing belief in genetic determinism and a growing disbelief in the authority of the photograph as the arbiter of the truth.
If one could reconstruct the illusion of authenticity by manipulating the individual units in digital imaging then what are the implications of this for human genetic engineering? If something can be identified and isolated then can it therefore be eliminated? And is it the elimination of defects as scientists would claim or for the elimination of the defected?
The Human Genome Mapping Project also ignited my imagination because of the potential for new, silent and allegedly accurate possibilities for eugenics that could sculpt the world population through invisible genocides and scientific and technological (economic) enslavement using medical research rather than religion as justification for politically or ethnically motivated mass-killing of civilians.
The idea that the human is a genetically perfectible artefact is eugenic. There is a tension between the idea of the human body existing in a state of nature, which must be preserved at all costs, and the idea of the body as part of an ongoing technical evolution. The biological possibilities were spectacular, however my concerns were with context, who and what are defining this?
In 1996 I started working on Versifier, an installation that directly addressed the parallels I drew between digital photography and genetic engineering. In Versifier 18 life-sized naked human forms are subtly changing yet retain the appearance of the authentic or untouched photograph. The viewer is confronted with this line up of specimens that have an un-nerving and imposing presence. There is a sense of entrapment, but with an ambiguity as to who is caged. The bodies take on an essence of divinity and allude to the vast reserves of unused potential that all of our bodies contain. It is a graphic statement about the similarities and differences between these people – of different sexes, nationalities, cultures – and us.
How does one define difference and normality?
Where does the line between natural end and the constructed begin?
By this time (1996) thousands of individual genes had already been identified as being responsible for specific diseases and characteristics – data organised into information and contextualised into knowledge. We had heard of the gay gene, the smart gene…. This was mediated to the public in sensational claims of single genes that effect specific traits. The thought that our lives being entirely genetically pre-determined both challenges and corroborates Christian / Humanist anthropocentrism. Whilst defining human as an animal/organism and individuals as only part of the human super-organism it elevates the human to a level of that which is in control of its biological fate – unlike other animals.
Ironically this seemingly condemns humans to a lifetime marked with our own deficiency.
“The authority of science comes from the power it gives humans over their environment. Now and then, perhaps science can cut loose from our practical needs, and serve the pursuit of truth. But to think that it can ever embody that quest is pre-scientific – it is to detach science from human needs, and make of it something that is not natural but transcendental. To think of science as a search for truth is to renew a mystical faith, the faith of Plato and Augustine, that truth rules the world, that truth is divine.”
Straw dogs John Gray Page 20
Technologically enabled human genetic manipulation and selection is an integral element of a newly emerging socio political ideology. Could germ line engineering and techno-eugenics driven by the global marketplace make health, appearance, personality, cognitive ability, sensory capacity, life – span all become artefacts? Of course anything can be commodified and within a market primed for eternity and youth, the demand is surely high enough for such products that cost is no object to those who can afford to aspire to be gods.
Moving away from an ideological position and increasingly working with people from different disciplines enabled me to access the actuality of some technologies and gain deeper knowledge overall. Collaboration also enabled me to draw parallels between my concerns as an artist and similar questions from other viewpoints. Enabling the evolution of ‘out of paradigm’, novel approaches and cross-disciplinary thinking. The investigation of how systems re-organise and react when new entities (players, mutants, infections, ‘synthetic’ genes, new species, for example), join has many wider applications than purely the technological and biological. How do communities evolve when new comers, for example asylum seekers or join them? Cultural issues such as gene patenting, population diversity, new reproductive technologies, nature/culture boundaries and more are implied.
I had always been concerned with pushing the boundaries of the performative process and digital representation to make virtual, ephemeral, representations and graphic expressions that challenge assumptions around the human body and its depiction. Now I became increasingly interested in enabling the (what had hitherto been termed audience), people playing the artwork to generate the artefact. Instituting a massive leap in my practice, historically being the sole maker and author of my linear works, to being part of a team of people collaborating. Engaging with positions I had not historically agreed with and opening up to an over riding value system pro or against repro-genics, resulted in wanting to make an installed artwork which allowed the players to make these decisions.