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Superhuman? Maybe just human is weird enough…

Posted Sep 11 2012 6:57am

Last Friday I visited Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition Superhuman: Exploring Human Enhancement from 600 BCE to 2050 . Feeling rather less than superhuman after a sweaty bike ride from Tooting, I entered the delightfully air-conditioned exhibition space and an absorbing – if at times gut-wrenching – mosaic of objects, films, and texts, providing glimpses into the prismatic set of phenomena falling under the umbrella of human enhancement.

Arguments abound about how enhancement should be defined and judged – amongst philosophers, doctors, American presidents, and this summer, a murmuring multitude of Paralympics viewers. One of the core conundrums is what enhancement is relative to: is it improving function past ‘normal’? If so, is ‘normal’ defined relative to the individual’s potential, to their state prior to an injury or ageing, or relative to a population average? Or does enhancement always involve pushing the limits of human capability? How can we handle the distinction between enhancement and treatment when what counts as medicine varies? Flitting insistently in and out of these definitional quandaries are ethical and deeply political debates about the creation, distribution, and safety of the things involved in almost all enhancements.

This kind of uncertainty is both a gift and a challenge for an exhibition. Superhuman handles the challenge with a calm selectivity, utilizing far fewer objects than could have been squeezed in, and selecting a subset of enhancement phenomena rather than aiming at comprehensiveness. Whilst the exhibition is clearly organized in numbered sections, after an initial ‘what is enhancement?’ section (to make sure you get the fuzziness of the topic straight!), there’s no clear narrative route through the space.

Widely angled dividing screens and subtle occlusion allow you to glimpse films and objects throughout the room, and almost require a meandering approach, further encouraged by the scattered, movable stools. This layout discourages the feeling that there’s a resolution to the questions raised by the exhibition, further supported by the wall texts, which continually pose questions rather than stating positions.

Most of the questions posed in the texts reflect the structuring myth of Icarus, which greets you as you enter the exhibition in the form of a small, Ancient Greek figurine with its winged shadow cast large against the wall. We can be better, bigger, fly even, but you gotta watch out for the sun. This Icarus-logic is repeated in texts describing  phenomena as diverse as fluoridation of water, prosthetics for children born with shortened limbs, cutting-edge bodily implants, cosmetic surgery, and sporting enhancements. A series of statements by eight high-profile participants in contemporary enhancement debates is represented in the exhibition guide and as a bank of film screens, and most are positive about the future of enhancement, though often sharing to some degree in Daedalus-style caution.

This could result in a sense of endorsement of the overall project of enhancement, embodying the “oh well, the horse has bolted and technology can’t be stopped, so let’s just maximize benefits and minimize the damage” perspective that has been challenged by some critics of contemporary bioethics debate. But within the exhibition’s cool container nestles a series of intensely evocative objects, moving archival material, and fierce artistic engagements that smoulder away, challenging a calm acceptance of technology’s future-facing march, and igniting more existential and emotive responses.

I think the evocativeness of Superhuman’s objects derives partly from their immediate bodily connection, combined with the universality of the desires for recovery, improvement, achievement, or acceptance they embody. Glasses, hearing aids, fake penises for delivering clean urine samples, Prozac pills, early Adidas shoes, and prosthetics ranging from an ancient Egyptian false toe to electronic hands and heartbreakingly small corsets for children affected by Thalidomide. You can readily imagine taking, wearing, using, or having these things clatter against the soft fragilities of your own body. You can sense the feel of the enhancement, often layered with the alteration to the senses (or sense of self) it is meant to provide.

These empathic, embodied responses supplement cooler, rational questions such as ‘will this change what it is to be human?’ or ‘how far should we go given the risks?’, encouraging contemplation about what an enhancement might actually be like, and how we might feel about it. As we’re hoping to investigate in an upcoming workshop  It’s Not What You Think: Communicating Medical Materialities , I think these kind of responses are crucial to engagement with medicine as (part of) culture: they’re intrinsic to what medicine is, not something to be disqualified from public engagement as irrational, or simply exploited as enthusiasm-generating decoration.

In addition to the object-driven injection of embodied responses, artworks also play a crucial role in acknowledging the darker, wilder aspects of our feelings toward enhancement. They can express a polemical, extreme, personal, whimsical, or even confused position, and when presented as a diverse set and in the diluting context of artifact and archive, seem to escape the potential distractions of controversy.

Wellcome Collection often employs artworks to this end, but I think they are particularly valuable when dealing with the future. Projections into medical futures are notoriously difficult to manage, as Ken Arnold, Director of Wellcome Collection, raised in his recent seminar at Medical Museion (video here ). Again resonating with debates in bioethics, it’s difficult, delicate work to tread the line between utopic and dystopic whilst acknowledging the uncertainty of that line, and indeed the reflexive effect of drawing the line itself: presenting possible scenarios makes them seem, well, possible. Artworks that explicitly author their future imaginaries, particularly when presented alongside works about the present and archival past, hook the passage of time into an acknowledgement of its contingency and continuities.

For instance, in SuperHuman, a haunting film by Floris Kaayk depicts a future medical information video about a disease in which metal implants take over and grow through the skeleton, displacing the ‘real’ human tissue. Another upsetting piece by Charlotte Jervis presents a fictional interview with a contestant in a future reality TV show undergoing amputation and implantation to become a ‘superhero’. But around the corner is a film of a contemporary artist having her naked body covered by a cosmetic surgeon’s felt-tipped vision of perfection, excerpts from 60s documentaries about children affected by Thalidomide, and a scene from the film Kandahar showing Afghans chasing a helicopter-drop of prosthetic legs.

Projecting dystopian imaginaries against contemporary anxieties and experiences blurs their supposed temporal distance. Of course enhancements get better, and people’s lives are saved and often immeasurably improved. Enhancements change over time, and new humanistic and cultural work is needed to understand their shifting meanings. But strands of the messy, dark heart of enhancement and its mechanics endure across time and culture, and require little explanation.

The exhibition left me with a strong feeling of this temporal continuity: it’s strange and exciting to contemplate a superhuman future, but it’s plenty weird to be human now, like me, wearing glasses, metal bar in my chin, riding a bicycle-extended body, fretting about future memory loss, waking the next day from dreams of cyborgs and war wounds.

All images taken from the exhibition website .

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