STELARCStickMan, 2017, video installation: 3 min 42 sec; original performance at Chrissie Parrot Arts, Perth, for The Daedalus Project at the Fringe World festival; sound by Petros Vouris; assisted by Tim Jewell, Steve Berrick, Alwyn Nixon-Llyod, Steven Aaron Hugues, Rodney Parsons and Paul Caporn. Photo by Steve Berrick. Courtesy the artist.

Human+: The Future of Our Species

ArtScience Museum

In How We Became Posthuman (1999), Katherine Hayles uses the term “posthuman” to refer to developments within contemporary society in which truth and values are being challenged and made untenable by progress in technology and the sciences. As humans and intelligent technology become increasingly intertwined, Hayles espouses a “posthuman” or cyborg whose essence is information, with bodies being mere carriers of such critical information.  

“Human+: The Future of Our Species,” an expansive exhibition co-produced by Singapore’s ArtScience Museum, Science Gallery Dublin and Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, dealt directly with the posthuman’s existence in addition to exploring related social, ethical and environmental questions. Featuring the creations of more than 40 international artists, scientists, technologists and designers, the show forged an alliance between art and science, body and machine while highlighting how corporeality is a fundamental concern for contemporary art.

AIMEE MULLINSCheetah Legs, 2001, installation with prosthetic leg, photographic print and video, dimensions variable. Photo by Howard Schatz Beverly Ornstein. Courtesy the artist.

CYBORG ARTS, NEIL HARBISSON AND MOON RIBAS, Sonochromatic Head and Seismic Arm, 2015, installation with sculptures and video, dimensions variable. Photo by CCCB. Courtesy the artists.

The show opened with a chapter titled “Augmented Abilities,” pulling crowds to aesthetically pleasing displays of Oriental Leg with Ivory Looking Sculpture and Secret Drawers, as well as a set of feathered armor and shiny prosthetic limbs embellished with beads, rhinestones, studs and chains. Aimee Mullins’s sexualization of the body—extending the application of the idea from the human body to artificial additions or replacements—is shown in the form of a pair of cheetah prostheses frozen in time and space, striking “action poses” as if for a life-drawing class or fashion magazine spread.

In the adjacent room, leading performance artist Stelarc followed up on a thought-provoking statement he made in a conference in May: “In this age of body hacking, gene mapping, prosthetic augmentation, organ swapping, face transplants, synthetic skin, AI [artificial intelligence] and AL [artificial life], what it means to be other and what generates aliveness and affect needs to be examined and interrogated.” In his performances Rewired / Remixed: Event for Dismembered Body (2016) and StickMan (2017), Stelarc employed prosthetics, robotics, virtual reality systems and the internet to subject his body to involuntary movement and control. Elsewhere, French artist Orlan underwent plastic surgeries to investigate notions of beauty whilst cyborg artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas employed body implants to perceive colors via sound waves and detect earthquakes in real time, respectively.

LOUIS-PHILIPPE DEMERSArea V5: Interative Social Robotics, 2009–10, kinetic sculpture and participatory installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

CAO FEI, Whose Utopia?, 2006, video installation: 19 min 58 sec. Courtesy the artist.

As one began to question the nature of the artists’ creative process while feeling increasingly unsure of what the body is, the next section “Encountering Others” upped the ante by inviting viewers to touch, feel and interact with life-like humanoid robots and dolls that were not quite real enough, eliciting a mixture of delight and unease during the exchanges. For instance, Area V5 (2009–10) by Singapore-based artist Louis-Philippe Demers is a wall of disembodied robotic eyes that follow visitors as they walk by. The show’s most striking and ironic juxtaposition was French artist Yves Gellie’s chore-performing robots in Human Version (2007–17), directing their lifeless eyes at the deadpan faces of Chinese factory workers toiling away on the assembly line in Cao Fei’s video installation Whose Utopia? (2006). The latter explores the individual and personal dreams that existed within utopian ambitions of an industrialized China a decade ago.

Diverse and eclectic, the works on display illustrated “the postmodern condition,” defying convention and presenting alternate realities offered in the posthuman era. In the “Authoring Environments” section, Singapore artist Robert Zhao Renhui uses humor, irony and fiction in striking close-up photographs of curious creatures and life forms, including mice fed with jellyfish fluorescent protein and cockroaches inserted with remote-control electrodes, to explore the natural sciences and human intervention. Elsewhere, the broader environment was brought into the picture. Most poignant was Austrian artist Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film titled Homo Sapiens (2016), which explored abandoned spaces conspicuously devoid of human presence. Man’s vision of utopia is turned upon itself as we manipulate the environment to satisfy our needs and desires.

AGATHA HAINES, Transfigurations, 2013, multimedia installation with soft foam and mechanics, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
AGATHA HAINES, Transfigurations, 2013, multimedia installation with soft foam and mechanics, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

The genetics and biology of the posthuman was also scrutinized. The final section “Life at the Edges” dealt with the limits and changing definitions of human life and longevity. Transfigurations (2013) by British artist and designer Agatha Haines is an eye-catching work comprising five sculptures of infants, each with a surgically implemented body modification designed to solve a potential future problem for the baby. My thoughts were interrupted by children’s shrieks of laughter when a shy six-year-old approached Nadine (2015), a female robot modeled on a real person, with a question. The android came back with an answer, causing the little girl to flinch and laugh nervously with her sisters. The idea of merging humans and machines may be difficult to fathom, but “Human+” nudged us to probe further and confront a future that is not too far-fetched.

Human+: The Future of Our Species” is on view at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore, until October 15, 2017.

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