NEWS

QUESTIONS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU SHOULD ASK

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So phase one of the project which began with the question “What difference would it make if we never died?” has come to an end. Meanwhile, the question has changed several times and has been joined by many more, during a process of searching for “answers you can’t find on your own” and “questions you didn’t know you should ask” – phrases used yesterday by Rosamund Scott at the LABTEC event in Brighton, to neatly describe the benefits of interdisciplinary research and collaboration. The ongoing challenge for me now is how to bring some of those questions to the surface by drawing together a collection of art and artists for The New Immortals exhibition at Phoenix Brighton next spring.

While reflecting on what has been achieved during the first phase of the project it seemed like a good idea to make a list. I like lists. Here are a few items from my list of good things which happened during phase one of the project:

I visited museums and galleries in Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, Folkestone, Sheffield, London and Cambridge, looking at places, spaces, art and artifacts and learning all the time.

I got to know so very many interesting people including (in no particular order) artists, scientists, ethicists, Transhumanists, Christians, students, gerontologists, doctors, philosophers and a mouse-keeper.

More than 80 people came along to four events and talked about everything from assisted dying and visions of the afterlife to the sad loss to the world of Freddie Mercury.

Over 170 artists submitted work to be considered for the exhibition and some of them will work with me towards production of The New Immortals exhibition.

Film-maker Sam Sharples worked with me to help me start to develop three new short films for the exhibition.

Five, yes FIVE sketchbook/workbooks are gradually filling up with names, ideas, mind-maps, lists, cuttings, notes, timetables, scribbled budgets, sums and even a few drawings.

The beginning of phase two is a time of slight anxiety, while I wait to hear news of funding applications for the exhibition and the events programme which will be such an important part of the project. Meanwhile, I’m making some new collage work and some New Immortals stickers, badges and booklets to sell as part of a crowdfunding campaign and sale of work next month. Look out for news of that coming soon…

…and in case you’re wondering about the pics at the top of the page, I’ve been enjoying Stephen Cave‘s book, Immortality, and have become interested in his theory that now, in the 21st century, human faith in a god is slowly being replaced by our faith in science, so I’m collecting images from churches, hospitals and labs and putting them together while I think about this.

EVENTS FOR MARCH

It’s been a busy few weeks for The New Immortals project. To all the artists who have sent proposals and submissions of work, thank you. I have received more than 170 applications which are interesting, poignant, personal, scientific, rigorous, crazy,  complex, imaginative and exciting. I can only apologise to everyone who is waiting patiently for a response. The curatorial process is going to be a long one, as I spend time reading everyone’s proposals, and think about dialogues that might develop between the works as they are put together in an exhibition. I promise that I will get back to you all eventually, but it is going to take some time.

Meanwhile, I’m planning two New Immortals events which will take place in the next two weeks. The first, a workshop for 6th form Ethics & Philosophy and Art scholars, will feature a presentation of works which demonstrate some of the intriguing ways which artists make work about complex and difficult subjects. We’ll be thinking about some of the questions prompted by The New Immortals project such as questions around population, sustainability, quality of life and euthanasia and we’ll be looking at a selection of artists’ work as well as watching videos like the one above of Julijonas Urbonas’ talking about his Euthanasia Coaster.

On the 12th March, I’ll be holding a public talk at Phoenix Brighton called, The New Immortals: Myths and Miracles. In this illustrated talk, I will present a selection of myths and miracles, from past and present, which can inform the way we think about human immortality. From tales of ancient civilisations, elixirs and rejuvenation machines to modern day resurrection stories and regenerative therapies, I’ll be talking about just a few of the multitude of myth and miracle stories which chart the progress of humanity’s sometimes bizarre attempts to outwit death.

The Myths and Miracles talk is one of several fundraising activities which I’ll be initiating for production of The New Immortals exhibition. Tickets for the talk are £5 each (+ 95p booking fee). Book via Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-immortals-myths-and-miracles-tickets-15860735888. All proceeds of ticket sales will go towards production costs of The New Immortals exhibition which will open at Phoenix Brighton in 2016.

CALL FOR ARTISTS

The New Immortals home pageProposals or submissions of work are invited for a curated exhibition, The New Immortals, to take place in 2016 at Phoenix Brighton.

Artists are invited to submit expressions of interest for inclusion in the exhibition, responding to or interpreting the themes outlined in the brief.

E-mail thenewimmortals@gmail.com with enquiries or to arrange a phone appointment if you want to talk about the project. To submit work for consideration please complete The New Immortals submission form at https://thenewimmortals.wufoo.com/forms/zipb0rh0wg5744/

INFORMATION FOR ARTISTS: The New Immortals is a research project exploring man’s quest for immortality, from the historic search for eternal life through spirituality, magic and medicine, to the modern miracles of contemporary biomedical science. We live in an age where scientists can create, manipulate, alter and sustain life to an extent once unimaginable, so could there be a time when indefinite lifespan might become a reality?

  • Author and theoretician on ageing, Aubrey De Grey speculates that the first 1000 year old man may have already been born
  • Renowned gerontologist Tom Kirkwood began his Reith Lecture series in 2001 by saying that we now know that ageing (the greatest cause of death) is “neither inevitable nor necessary”

In 2001 the BBC commissioned a Gallup poll which discovered that nearly 45% of people wanted to live to be 100; but what about a life of 200 years? Or 500? Or 1000? Assuming that science and medicine could “stretch” our middle years to give us a reasonably healthy long life, how would we feel about that? And what difference would super-longevity make to us as individuals and as a society? With life expectancy already almost double what it was 200 years ago, where will it all end?

Bioethicist and philosopher, Professor John Harris says, “…scientific advances could lead to significantly extended life-spans… The development of these technologies may be far in the future, but the moral and social issues raised by them should be discussed now… Scanning future horizons will enable us to choose and prepare for the futures that we want, or arm us against futures that, while undesired, we cannot prevent.”

The New Immortals exhibition will aim to open up some of these issues for further discussion and will be accompanied by a programme of events, discussions and talks.

DOWNLOAD THE BRIEF HERE: The New Immortals_Call for artists full brief

#LIVINGLONGER

Image from the BBC Reith Lectures 2001 - Professor Tom KirkwoodLast week I listened to the BBC’s Reith Lectures from 2001 by Professor Tom Kirkwood, Associate Dean for Ageing at The Institute for Ageing at Newcastle University. Nearly fourteen years ago, Professor Kirkwood began his lecture series with the words, “Never in human history has a population so wilfully and deliberately defied nature as has the present generation. How have we defied it? We have survived. Our unprecedented survival has produced a revolution in longevity which is shaking the foundations of societies around the world and profoundly altering our attitudes to life and death.” Ageing, he says, “is neither inevitable nor necessary… we are not programmed to die“.

Throughout the series of lectures he went on to talk about not only the science of ageing, of longer life and the implications of decreasing death rates, increased longevity and a changing population, but also the changes in attitude and direction which society needs to make to confront the challenges and reap the benefits of the longevity revolution.

This morning I was pleased to see and hear Professor Kirkwood again, this time talking on BBC Breakfast. Already feeling fairly overloaded with information and thoughts about this subject which seems to be a hot topic just at the moment, I’m now preparing myself for a further information onslaught as the Beeb’s Breakfast show focuses firmly on the subject of #livinglonger for the whole week this week.

Approaching the subject from a rather different direction, it was great to finally get round to reading Peter James’ Perfect People over the Christmas break. This 2011 novel adopts a very different take on ideas around “improving” human life and the potential side effects of bio-medical science on ageing.

With so much information available via the internet and media my head is spinning around scientific and bio-ethical texts, speculative and sci-fi novels and conversations with friends, colleagues and the public. Now is definitely the moment to spend some more time finding out how other artists are exploring the subject of super-longevity, ageing and our common futures so that I can begin to think about the sort of material I’ll be able to show in The New Immortals exhibition next year. I’m just finalising a call out for artists to get in touch and tell me about their work in this field, so Artists, watch this space…

IT’S A MIRACLE

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I’ve been listening to Atul Gawande’s Reith Lectures, The Future of Medicine. A couple of weeks ago, he talked about the complexities of modern medicine and the importance of setting in place systems to ensure that complex and sophisticated procedures which can save lives can be managed effectively. He told the story of a sustained and complicated set of processes which, over a period of days and weeks, resulted in the miraculous recovery of a child who had been lost in a frozen pond, under the ice for more than half an hour and showing no signs of life for 90 minutes until life support systems were put in place which eventually resulted in her being effectively brought back from the dead. I had heard a story like this before, about a skier who had “died”, trapped and super-cooled under the ice in a frozen river and who had, over days, weeks and months, slowly recovered, but now it seems that with the correct system of procedures in place, the prospects of success in these sort of cases are good.

Since preparing for The New Immortals Superheroes-themed discussion event in September, several phrases from movies (Brian Blessed’s “…he’s alive! Gordon’s alive!”), song lyrics and titles (Culture Club’s “It’s a miracle”) have lodged in my mind. I decided to use some of the words and phrases to make small souvenirs for participants at future events – a set of badges.

Today, in honour of the doctors and nurses who successfully carried out those procedures which saved that little girls life, I wore my “It’s a miracle” badge.

WHERE IS THE ART?

I had an interesting conversation earlier in the week about where the art is in this project. I’m going to be doing a talk and discussion event for A-level students in the new year – a mix of art students and ethics & philosophy scholars – and there were questions about how the art students could relate to the project. How could it enrich or influence them, engrossed as they are in developing relatively traditional artistic skills and techniques for their A-level projects? Where is the art?

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Although ultimately the project is to culminate in an exhibition which I’m curating, it is still important to me to be making my own work in relation to the research as well. Research has always been a central part of my working process, providing a focal point to keep returning to in the midst of the world of choices to be made in art-making. A feature of the way I work is that most often the work develops a bit behind the research – they are different parts of the art-making cycle, not simultaneous. First there’s a sort of gathering of ideas and information, followed by a sifting and settling of things in my mind – that’s not to say there is no art-making during this period, but it tends to have a rather scatter-gun approach and involve lots of mess and little to show for it in the end. Then (hopefully) follows a more focused time when the things that are important rise to the surface and begin to develop a life of their own.

An interesting development for me has been the idea of the event as artwork. I’ve been to a couple of “performative lectures” recently to try to understand what IS a performative lecture? I’ve come to the conclusion that all lectures are performative actually – so that hasn’t really helped me very much.

I’m really interested in the work Juneau Projects have been making recently based around an imagined future where an apocalyptic event has left people relatively undamaged but technology has been wiped out. I love the way the artists succeed in exploring this notion playfully, with a humorous take provided through the imagined misunderstanding and misinterpretation of  surviving “relics” of technology (e.g. CCTV = Circuit of Cameras for Theological Vision) which form the basis for a new sort of belief system. Here’s a little video about their event Welcome To Happy Redoubt at Somerset House last year.

 

DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

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One of my misgivings at the start of the project was whether the question I was asking, “What difference would it make if we never died?”, was something completely irrelevant in modern life, and whether the notion of immortality was one to be considered only in the traditional context of religious belief, science fiction and fantasy. It was important, I decided, to explore the science behind the notion, and to find out what those people involved in science and medicine believe.

A quick Google search asking “can humans live forever?” throws up a whole page of articles discussing this very question from various perspectives, reassuring me that I’m not the only person thinking about it, and further encouragement comes from the very serious consideration being given to questions around super-longevity and regenerative medicine by bio-ethicists, medics and philosophers. Alison Woollard in her 2013 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures titled her final lecture, “Could I live forever?“, Professor John Harris in his book “Enhancing Evolution” dedicates a whole chapter to immortality.

Naively, ignorantly perhaps, before I began to explore these ideas, I didn’t make the link between the quest for immortality and the science of ageing. I suppose I always thought of anti-ageing as being about cranky therapies, expensive beauty treatments and cosmetic surgery. How mistaken I was. An adviser quickly introduced me to gerontology – the study of ageing.

I’ve just started listening to a series from The Reith Lectures, presented by gerontologist Tom Kirkwood and entitled The End of Age. These lectures were recorded in 2001 – 13 years ago. I had no idea that this had been such a hot topic for so long. The introduction to the lectures spells out in no uncertain terms that “We know now that ageing is neither inevitable nor necessary. We now understand that our cells are not programmed with some unavoidable sell-by date; we are not programmed to die” and although Professor Kirkwood warns against the idea of a “fountain of youth” and indulging in “fanciful and unrealistic speculation”, he makes it very clear than in an age of ever-increasing life expectancy, “New scientific understanding means that we can never think of ageing in the same way again.” He goes on, “Our longer lives are carrying us into new territory for which we need to plan and prepare. We cannot afford to be complacent. If we ignore the implications of the longevity revolution …. If we fail to plan for the radically different world that will soon surround us, then crisis will be upon us and our bright dreams of a brave old world will surely fade and die.”

Yes, it matters.