As part of The Life Fair. New Body Products, on Thursday 8 September Het Nieuwe Instituut organised an evening with the title The Body is a Battlefield. Following a tour of the exhibition, philosopher Jos de Mul and Het Nieuwe Instituut fellow Simone C. Niquille discussed issues relating to the manipulation of the human body. The evening was moderated by Philippine Hoegen.
To get them in the mood before the discussion, visitors were invited to a special dinner, conceived and designed by design collective Sulsolsal. The dinner presented six different diets, each based on its own food pyramid, including the ‘brain booster pyramid’, the ‘silicon valley pyramid’ and the ‘prison pyramid’. These diets demonstrate our attempts to influence the body from the inside out.
During the tour of the exhibition, visitors could listen to an introduction by co-curator Agata Jaworska on a headset. The Life Fair comprises an arsenal of products, techniques and methods for controlling, optimising, exploiting, protecting and beautifying the human body. These speculative designs and existing technologies raise numerous ethical, legal, philosophical and technical questions. Walking around the fair and listening to the discussion between the speakers without seeing them created an awareness of the schism between the physical body and our thought processes: a fitting format for an evening devoted to the questions: what is the body today? Who or what forms it? And how does it relate to the ‘spirit’ or the person?
The ‘person’ is a relational phenomenon and exists only in interaction with others. In the Western context, liberalism teaches us that you are the master of your own person: you own your person. But to what extent is this true of our bodies? Do they really belong to us? There are various legal limitations on what you may do with your own body. There are laws that govern what you may do with parts of your body, such as organs, ovaries and sperm and there are rules and procedures regarding dead bodies. But the living body as an entity is not dealt with within legal structures. As if the body as an entity were too holy or inviolable.
The question whether or not we own our bodies is made all the more difficult by the ‘biohacking’ phenomenon. The pacemaker is a familiar example of aan implant used to regulate the heart’s rhythm. But what about more advanced biohacks such as implanting a so-called RFID-chip the size of a grain of rice under the skin of your hand? Such chips can be programmed with codes allowing you to open doors or identify yourself. An intervention of this kind is not normally carried out by a doctor because it is not a medically essential operation (in contrast to implanting a pacemaker). The insertion of such a chip therefore has to happen in a so-called ‘body modification shop’. Biohacking raises the question who our bodies, or parts of our bodies, belong too. Niquille speaks of ‘colonisation’ of the body.
And if your body is hacked, how easy is it for others to hack your body?
Jos de Mul posits that we can file these kinds of questions under biopolitics or the struggle for power and control over the body. He believes that having or not having a perfect body can lead to a new social class. According to him, in biopolitics it is not so much a struggle between people or a struggle on a social scale but is a matter of the conflicting relationships we have with our own bodies.
De Mul believes we may distinguish three different perspectives in terms of experiencing our bodies. The first-person perspective is an ‘embodied’ I perspective: you are your body and you experience your body. The Goat Project by speculative designer Thomas Thwaites asks what it would be like to take a break from being a person: to take a holiday as a goat. Although we can never fully experience another person’s perspective, let alone that of an animal, this project illustrates the I perspective in which the experience of the body and ‘being’ come together. You can see through the eyes of someone else’s I perspective with the aid of virtual reality or gaming, but you can never be someone else’s body (or ‘internal world’).
The second-person perspective is about the interaction between people. This perspective is easiest to understand as a shared interaction, such as those during sex. This interaction consists of a constant mediation or shifting between your own body and person and the body and person of another. Total control is – usually – impossible unless you use virtual reality to create a fantasy world. On the stand in the fair devoted to sex, for example, there is a project in which the bodies of existing models have been scanned in great detail, models who can fulfil your fantasies as a virtual partner. However, their ‘person’ is detached from the virtual, physical representation of their body, so that a true second-person perspective is out of the question.
As the Health section of the exhibition shows, we now have numerous instruments with which to monitor our bodies. The third-person perspective, according to De Mul, is the ‘contemplation’ of our bodies. We can measure and quantify the body’s accomplishments, often via a screen. We view ourselves from the outside, thus objectifying the body. According to De Mul ‘we experience our experience’. In this case, it is not that we are our bodies, but we have a body: we have control over that body. Viewed from this perspective, the body is a sort of instrument or machine for delivering a particular performance.
Many of the new technologies on view in The Life Fair raise questions about these different perspectives on the body and spirit. Niquille’s design and research practice focuses on identity constructions around visual aspects of the body. Your appearance forms an interface between the external and internal worlds: your appearance is the first thing you are judged on and is one of the most important factors in identifying someone. In order to confuse autotagging face-recognition software (such as that used by Facebook and Google) and so promote greater privacy, she designed ‘RealFace Camouflage’ T-shirts bearing the faces of famous people.
During the second part of the evening, Niquille read out an email conversation with a Hillary Clinton impersonator. Because of her appearance, her person is so linked to Hillary Clinton that sometimes she doesn’t know who she is anymore. While in the 1990s it was funny to be the doppelgänger of the then president’s wife, her appearance now elicits much stronger reactions.
Niquille sees the voodoo doll as a metaphor for thinking about the ways in which we can influence or control someone’s body and person at a distance, usually through the internet. A project that rethinks the potential power of data and our understanding of place-specific citizenship and civil rights is Algorithmic Citizenship.
Instead of ascribing civil rights on the basis of birthplace or bloodline, as is currently the case, your rights are determined by your search behaviour on the internet.
Your rights are constantly reviewed in accordance with the websites you visit and the countries related to them.
De Mul brought the evening to a close with a comparison of plants, animals and humans based on the writings of the German philosopher and biologist Helmuth Plessner. Because humans – in contrast to plants and animals – can reflect upon their own experiences, we never reach a state of completeness. So-called eccentric positionality – the capability of external reflection on our own position – ensures that we are always in search of a new form for our bodies. We are permanently ‘Heimatlos’, or in a state of ‘constitutive homelessness’. The longing for completion results in the development of culture and technology in order to fill the void. And that is why mankind is artificial by nature and our bodies are a battlefield.
Report by Rosa te Velde