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Who Am I? / 6 July 2015

As I enter the Who Am I? gallery in the Science Museum I am struck by the scale and futuristic quality of the space. Space age style pods investigate human character traits and row upon row of large glass cases filled with a multiplicity of objects all explore our understanding of identity. The curator Suzy Antoniw explains to me that this gallery is one of the most popular areas of the Museum and is particularly popular with teenagers. Perhaps this is because this gallery is very interactive; or perhaps it is because it seeks to explain the very essence of what makes us who we are.

We are fascinated in finding out more about how our bodies work and in particular how our biology informs our identity. But there is something more profound that intrigues us, more than merely explaining the Science. Perhaps this is why we invented philosophy and art, to compliment the scientific discourse. It is this collaborative probing into questions about our identity that interests me as an artist. 

Suzy talks with me about their artist commissions in the gallery, one of which is an Antony Gormley bronze baby, lying helpless on the floor as if escaped from the confines of one of the glass shrines. She also discusses their commitment to sharing different perspectives of how we understand identity and is particularly interested in my ideas about creating a dialogue about genetic screening. 

Suzy explains that they have one particular case that they use for temporary exhibitions and it is this space that I could potentially use to show a new piece of work. Currently they are displaying a 3D print of King Richard III skeleton and an explanation of how they have uncovered his genetic heritage. It seemed somewhat poignant to me, as I looked at what could clearly be seen as the curvature of his spine, that I was looking at a disabled man.

It seems more and more likely that some disabled people will also become relics like the skeleton lying in the case.

As I move from case to case reading about how memory, genetics, language and gender are all profound in shaping our identity, I begin to question what the fundamental components are that make us human.

These underlying questions resonated for me later that week when watching the film Ex Machina, where a young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in Artificial Intelligence, by evaluating the human qualities of a female A.I.  In the end we are left to contemplate that without empathy, love, forgiveness and compassion then can we really be human. 

In fact it seems a current trend that we are preoccupied with the quest to discover the difference between man and machine. The latest Channel 4 series Humans is an exploration of this. But there is also a more sinister commentary about the very infrastructure of our daily lives and the value we place on human beings.  In this series “synths” provide roles that are currently filled by people; nannies, carers etc. So is this where we are heading? Towards a future which is in danger of de-valuing the essence of what it in fact means to be human; care, love, compassion, empathy. 

Perhaps there is only a tenuous connection between advances in AI and genetic screening, which was the starting point of this reflection. However I believe if we are pursuing an excavation into what makes us who we are then these things are intrinsically linked.  If we continue our journey towards eradicating difference and imperfections in the bid to homogenise then we are potentially on the cusp of destroying the human spirit.

Comments

Esther Fox

/
8 July 2015

The Antony Gormley baby was stylistically very similar to his other work. Featureless and more about a generic form than detail. However I think that's what made it all the more poignant. As it represented any baby rather than the specific identity of one baby. It could also almost be embryonic. It seemed more powerful that it was just lying on the floor, like it had been forgotten and it emphasised it's vulnerability. In fact it sums up much of the discussion here - about the need to show compassion and protect the vulnerable. I agree Colin that the more we try to control what it is to be human, the more we destroy ourselves. Perhaps there is a lot to be said for not always being in control and not making decisions which appear on face value to be logical and pragmatic..

Colin Hambrook

/
7 July 2015

What did you think of the Antony Gormley bronze baby, Esther? Was it in the style of sculptural figure that we've come to identify Gormley with? Or was it more sophisticated? How did it engage with the theme of the gallery?

Colin Hambrook

/
7 July 2015

I think it is the homogeneity of the world that we are moving towards that is so disturbing. It goes hand in hand with the neglect of compassion and empathy. We are becoming more and more like robots. I don't think we are heading there. We've already got there. It's the impact of a rampant capitalist system that has no rules moderating the exchange of commerce on moral grounds. It's the addiction to 'screens', which somehow filter out that sense of genuine acknowledgment of another human being. It's lots of things. It's as if the more we try to control what it is to be human, the more we destroy ourselves and the things which nurture us.

Gini

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7 July 2015

Much as genetic screening disturbs me, I believe a far more immediate threat to our humanity is the gross neglect of compassion, empathy and vulnerability. These essential qualities of human life are being voluntarily ditched by people desiring power, imitating and competing with technology and synthetic life as if it were some form of superior existence.

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