Notorious for being "the Frankenstein of design", transdisciplinary designer Agi Haines' work investigates the potential of our body as a raw material for our engineering fantasies and speculates on the impact of biomedical technologies on the human form. Through the production of realistic sculptures, Haines challenges the societal acceptance of technologically-driven bodies and questions "how our morbid curiosity for the viscera of life might affect the future of design, not only for the environment but also for us", as she puts it.We recently spoke with her about body modification, science fiction, medical futures and more.
Many modifications are natural, even those involving technological intervention
Your work appears to challenge the natural evolution through genetic modification, bringing about a transhumanist desire, where does this longing come from?
This is not necessarily a way to challenge the natural evolution, but rather I believe that many kinds of modification are inherently natural, even those that involve some kind of scientific or technological intervention. Perhaps it is a kind of pygmalion complex in humans that is always striving to push further or achieve more, but this is definitely something that has existed for a long time. I think the language we use to describe it or the methods to modify ourselves will change as new technologies develop. The longing for self-improvement is an ancient aspiration that may have been encouraged by people trying to discover where the boundaries between their body and the rest of the world lie. This is almost an impossible challenge, but definitely it fuels my work and makes this kind of research so interesting.
Your activity is somewhere between art, science and technology. How important is this grey zone for you?
I think these ‘inbetween’ spaces make amazingly fertile ground for new and innovative research. I feel extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work this way. Having the chance to share insights from different disciplines can open up ideas and concepts that you may have not discovered otherwise, or even help to find likeminded concerns that are perhaps worth researching. For me this cross fertilization of ideas beyond disciplinary departments is a fruitful way of working, and it seems there are many more groups of people now working in this transdisciplinary way.
The possibility of freedom of choice in your own biology is really important
What role does science fiction play in your work?
You can perhaps see I have been influenced by people like Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, or films like Alien. I also like to find crossovers where certain tools or designs in famous science fiction may have influenced scientific research and vice versa - as I am really interested in this idea that science develops facts or truths (Latour and Woolgar write about this). Yet many of the methods used to develop these truths are speculative themselves. We often learn about the body through representations and simulacra but it is extremely difficult to see processes clearly in the living body, so the truths are built on speculative ideas. There is a blurry line between fact and fiction, and between the material body and the rest of the world. The aspects of the famous sci-fi idols mentioned above that I really admire are the ones where you feel like the body as an object permeates into other things like robotics, other species or beings.
We could say that your project Transfigurations explores artificial selection through design, in which the goal would be to go forward to a next nature. How do you relate to this?
I think the possibility of freedom of choice in your own biology is really important, in this way I definitely believe in a kind of personal next nature that you propose. In a fast changing environment we should perhaps look to altering ourselves to prevent the impact on the world around us, altering ourselves to suit the needs of our environment rather than the other way around. This is because I often think we have a human centered view of the world. I worry that we may make decisions that affect the other species we share the planet with, yet their needs and intentions are still unknown to us. I think the next nature should encourage a movement away from the Anthropocene where the impact caused on our own personal world can be large, but the impact on the external world is small.
I am interested in making scenarios appear believable or realistic
Much of your work focuses on speculations on medical futures. Is technology the future of healthcare?
Although technology is an extremely important factor in furthering our future health - and I am definitely in favor of the introduction of new kinds of technologies and techniques that are currently being researched - I do think we are occasionally striving for technically driven healthcare at a cost for our bodies. Again I do think that some ideas are extremely important to develop further, but a major issue can be how they are represented and in turn misinterpreted. One aspect of this seems to be a result of the pressure put on some researchers to publish papers and deliver results, this sometimes appears to cause a negative affect on how their work is delivered to the public and this raises lots of problematic ethical questions. It is really important for researchers and practitioners to have time and support to step back and reflect on their practice, this could really encourage people to consider how decisions are made when technology gets incorporated into the healthcare system or even into society.
Would you augment your body?
I already have in a number of ways: I dye my hair and have piercings, I take certain medications and I wear glasses, these are all augmentations, even making decisions regarding diet or where you live can augment your body. But in terms of more invasive surgical alterations, I think I would have to feel really in need of something to do them. This has fortunately not happened yet, but perhaps in the future my needs might change. I would be much more likely to make an alteration if it was for health purposes, as opposed to desirable reasons such as a nip and tuck or a desire for larger brain capacity, or perhaps even wings!
In your latest work The Anatomy Lesson: Dissecting Medical Futures you invited the audience to interact with the project. How did people respond?
I was actually quite delightfully surprised about how open the public was to getting involved, many were disgusted by the sculptures, only a few people were appalled. I invited them to enter a quasi-simulation of future medicine, where they took the role of medical students to dissect four clusters of sculptures. Not only were they happy to get their hands dirty, they were also very involved in the discussion about what decisions should be made in funding certain research. We dissected liquid-filled cysts on silicone eyeballs with bionic implants and took apart transparent skulls. Many people offered personal stories that related to the objects or the procedures and I had some amazingly rich discussions with the attendees. For me this was a fascinating event in which I learnt a lot from the public, but it was also interesting to show the work in this alternative scenario in which the objects really were tools for discussion.
Can you tell us about the techniques you are using?
I am interested in making scenarios appear believable or somehow realistic and I enjoy making materials feel real in both a visual and tactile way. This often involves making pieces out of soft materials, such as silicones, and using lots of silicone oils and slimes. Often I incorporate a mixture of modeling and molding before casting out pieces and then I color them. Usually I make all the aspects of the sculpture myself, but in some projects I have worked with a team of people who have other skills. For example, a recent project Drones with Desires had a large group of people with different specializations: computational neuroscience, electronics, robotics and composition. This was a much more collaborative project which needed knowledge and expertise way beyond my understanding and it was really enjoyable to work in this way.
My aim is to encourage reflection on where we are headed
What would the consequences of your work be? Do you aim for your practice to influence body modification future developments, and if so, are we ready for this?
My aim is to encourage reflection on where we are headed, I would like to think that making this kind of work may help influence how we make decisions. I am not suggesting that it directly will, but I think this is where artists and designers can make really important interventions in how we think about technological changes.
Would you consider experimenting with something other than the human form in the future?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to be mentored by Toby Kiers, an ecologist based at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Her work is fascinating and looks at forming cooperative or deviant symbiotic relationships within plant and microbial life. I hope to work with her again in the future, as she has a history of art collaborations and is amazingly sensitive towards how her field is represented. Yet for now there are infinite possibilities with working with the human body, which is the main focus of my PhD research. Perhaps we may be able to amalgamate the two and form alternative symbiotic relationships not only between the body and plants, but also ecology and arts.
Thank you so much, Agi, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!
More interviews: Liam Young, Bruce Sterling, Jason Silva, Arne Hendriks, Rachel Armstrong, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Floris Kaayk, Chloé Rutzerveld, Nadine Bongaerts, Mike Thompson and Susana Cámara Leret, Pauline van Dongen, Leanne Wijnsma, Dave Hakkens.
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