Last 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…
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.
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?
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.
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.”
Yesterday the Philae lander touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, hurtling through space at imponderable speed more than 500,000,000 km from earth and after a journey which has lasted more than 10 years – nothing short of a scientific and technological miracle. Modern life is full of miracles – and monsters. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise the miraculous from the monstrous and often opinions are divided, especially in situations where science and technology offer radical change or deviation from what we know as the norm. Of course it’s easier for us to accept radical change when the benefits are miraculous, obvious and direct, but often scientific development is met with hostility and fear of the monstrous, with the benefits and drawbacks not fully understood by a suspicious public.
1. an extraordinary occurrence that surpasses all known human powers or natural forces and is ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause, esp. to God.
2. a superb or surpassing example of something; wonder; marvel.
Like immortality, miracles are usually associated with religion and the gods; now though, it seems that scientists working across all areas of science, medicine and technology are our modern day miracle-workers.
Here’s a chance to wonder and marvel at some 1980s pop frivolity.
Immortality, eternal life, has been a preoccupation with people since history began and the search for the fountain of youth or an elixir of life is the subject of myth and legend. In the 19th century, respected scientist Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, injected himself with a rejuvenating elixir prepared from the testicles of guinea pigs, which, the papers said, made “old men as frisky as the friskiest young boys”.
I’ve always had an interest in the resilience of nature and the incredible ability of plants to survive and adapt to the most inhospitable conditions on earth. For a while I was fascinated by lichen – a unique organism, a combination of fungus and algae, so common in our environment that we don’t even notice it most of the time, growing on almost all surfaces from walls and pavements to trees and fences. This fascination led me, at around the same time as the Wilko interview, to read John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen. The novel tells the story of the discovery of a lichen with life-extending properties, kept secret for many years by its discoverers who recognised the revolutionary nature of their discovery and its shattering implications. The potential effects of greatly extended life expectancy on society and individuals, from personal relationships (til death us do part… or fixed term contracts?) to the potential for a higher level of human wisdom acquired through super-longevity are discussed in some detail in the novel, sowing the seeds for my own questions to form.
More than a year ago a succession of experiences triggered the question from which The New Immortals project was born. The first thing that set me thinking was an interview I heard on the radio with musician Wilko Johnson who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was embarking on a grand farewell tour. Impending death apparently intensified his experience of life; Wilko said, “I’ve never felt more alive, it’s one of the most intense years I’ve had. The things that used to matter … don’t matter to me any more. I’m embracing the present.”
Wilko has given a number of quite inspirational interviews in which he has talked at length about how the knowledge of impending death has changed his attitude to life. In an interview with Rick Fulton he said, “Dying doesn’t half make you feel alive. You walk down the street and you are looking at everything with new eyes. It’s not just a mundane world you are used to – you are thinking how marvellous it is to be alive. I’ve reached levels of serenity and happiness that I’ve never known in my life. You think, ‘Why didn’t I think of this 20 years ago?’”.
This then put a question in my mind: what difference would it make if we never died?
But now Wilko has been cured! An 11 hour operation earlier this year to remove a 3kg tumour, along with part of Wilko’s stomach, pancreas and spleen has resulted in Wilko being declared free of cancer. It’s a miracle. So, I wonder, what difference does this make to Wilko’s life now?