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.

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.