Looking back in time to the year 2020: Imagining a posthuman future
Mars & Beyond merges two of the most critical ideas facing the 21st century: our shared climate crisis and the rebirth of the space race. It is a massive immersive art installation, taking place across five floors of a warehouse building close to London’s River Thames.
The exploration of the climate crisis is led by artists across the show; examining the catastrophic rise in global warming, deforestation, flooding, extinction and plastic pollution in our oceans.
The production is set in our galaxy, in a time period not exactly far far away. Imagined to be the end of the 21st century, Mars & Beyond looks back in time to the year 2020 through an artistic lens – thinkers, creatives and makers looking back through an artistic lens to consider solutions for the current state of the planet.
It is the brainchild of artist Oskar Krajewski founder of artrecyclism. Running until March 15th, It featured ideas and work from more than 40 artists and contributors including Greenpeace, Sci-Fi London, and Flux.
Fayann Smith is co-founder of The October! Collective, a conscious female-led group that is advocating for the advancement of human potential and creativity. The October! Collective produced a stand-out performance of art, music and dance as part of Mars & Beyond, exploring some of the big ideas around posthumanism.
It seems like the artists in Mars & Beyond see both the past and posthumanism setting clear boundaries on people. Your creative work is clearly pushing back on that. But what exactly do you think the old boundaries were? What did they mean to you?
FS: We are living in the debris of failed ideologies, grand schemes for humanity often based on nothing more than the personal preferences and prejudices of those who have seized power. The impulses behind those ideas can too often be the darker motivators of human behaviour: fear, greed, disgust. They are not determined by logic or tempered by evidence. Look at the many ethnic genocides of the 20th Century to see the extremity of such caprices of authoritarianism.
Many of our institutions are still run this way. Take, for example, the ample evidence that drug welfare information would decrease poor outcomes and accidental drug deaths for users. Despite numerous protestations by experts, a warped moral notion of prohibition prevails, resulting in needless suffering and harm. It is more important to uphold the idea and the concept of the self that it provides the body politic. In the age of big data, we have the real inside information on human habits and our political choices should reflect the best approach to a problem, not the biased adherence to antiquated beliefs.
That seem like ethics can’t be separated from art and technology, and they probably shouldn’t be. In fact, is it the case that instead of us advocating for more ethics in tech then actually what we really need to think about is: how is tech injecting itself into our existing ethics conversations? And can this dialogue around tech and ethics be separated from nature, the environment, and ethics? What do you think are the most compelling examples of tech being part of evolution? Are there good news stories around this too?
FS: It’s hard to pick one. We are on the cusp of a new paradigm of human-machine interaction. New applications in bio-hacking and nanotechnology are the next steps toward conquering disease and injury. Life extension technologies are of great interest and potential. Any increase or change to the human lifespan would bring a wealth of benefits and challenges. Like many of our new technological advances, the technology itself is neutral, but the intent of the creators will define the intensity of the outcome.
Perhaps the intent of these creators isn’t always crystal clear? Anyway, has working on Mars & Beyond illustrated any particularly worrying synergies of tech and evolution for you?
FS: The military have invasive and destructive innovations for warfare that are frankly terrifying. The television series Black Mirror has adroitly capitalised on the more shocking end of combat and information retrieval. The idea of privacy has become mutable, as we, as a culture, have been accustomed to constant surveillance. Indefatigable robots that can target and hunt human targets... mind wiping drugs. Yet again, this is all created by the human mind and will, a mind soon to be sharpened by A.I. We are the arbiters of how deadly the future will be, so let’s hope we make good choices.
Mars & Beyond is looking at post-humanism from a broad perspective across climate, science, art and space. Philosopher Donna Harraway looked at post-humanism as a time “when species meet” – humans making room and time for non-human things outside the usual scope of our moral concern. Post-human ethics inevitably encourage us to think of interests outside of our own species and somehow be less narcissistic. Is it time for us to imagine these things differently? What does post-humanism mean for The October! Collective?
FS: This is a time of great opportunity that demands the need for much stronger and clear minded ethical discourse to guide it. If humanity no longer sits at the centre of the global experience, if others types of subjectivity exist such as machine minds, then exactly what ethical pathways will emerge? For us, it is a real challenge, as we believe it is the function of artists such as ourselves to play at the boundaries and test the frontiers. To us, it is a personal invitation to expand and improve upon the human project.
Donna Harraway’s seminal Cyborg Manifesto began tackling the beginnings of these ideas in 1985. Her research looked into how tech and digital growth was changing what it really meant to be female. Her “cyborg” vision imagined a sort-of interchangeable gender, that speaks to this post-human world with new chains of affiliation. But, this also means new chains of exploitation of environment and people - explored in parts of Mars & Beyond. So, as well as the tech challenge to gender norms, how do you think these rapid changes are affecting sex and relationships?
FS: Prepare for a redux of desire and expectation. It’s hard to predict exactly what a brain interfaced directly to the entire sum of human knowledge may need or want. Sex will present an infinity of options; it is inevitable that some of our future partners may be part or entirely machine. We ourselves could find our bodies modified for added sensation or function.
Romance and kindness occupy a sphere that involves more nuanced processes. A blow job robot is one thing, a robot you can take to dinner is another. There is also a concern that, with the inequality of our age, there could be an underclass of human that does not have the modifications their peers will. This could leave you a loser in romance.
How is The October! Collective’s work getting under the skin of human kindness?
FS: For kindness, my concern is that the closer to objects we become, the more easily we are objectified. The interior experience of empathy might not function in quite the same way if we are not so dominated by our physical emotional responses.
As artificial intelligence starts to shape this post-human future in more distinct ways, perhaps this empathy can short-circuit? Psychology professor Paul Bloom recently made the case “against empathy”. He argued that empathy was often a poor guide for moral reasoning; that empathy could be exhausting, troubling and anxiety-making for people. Instead, he argued for more valuing of compassion – a way of valuing people’s pain, respecting their perspective and inspiring change.
These changes to human thinking appear complicated, and rapid too. Your work seems to be unpicking these ideas. Who do you think is behind these rapid changes? And why are they are happening so quickly?
FS: As with everything on the planet, the political class and the wealthy have the reigns in terms of where the research goes. The military are so well funded and war (unfortunately) generates a frenzy of innovation, so a lot comes from conflict. That said there are pockets of ingenuity everywhere, the rush to find the next big tech success story encourages a global surge to develop the next big thing.
From seeing your work previously, audiences have been struck by your deep desire to explore unchartered possibilities and advancing the human experience beyond anything known previously. Your shows have previously explored a new “crucible of identity” being constructed, something looking beyond consumerism and instead building a new framework of liberation, inclusivity and creativity. This is part of the work in Mars & Beyond too. So, what exactly will the new post-human experience look like?
FS: We don’t know! This is exhilarating, but in our current social conditions, concerning. We just don’t have enough real-world experience or data. If you look at the vast impact of something as relatively simple as the acceleration in social networking applications, that should signpost how significant these changes will be.
What will our shared post-human future feel like?
FS: If the forces at work in the world were completely benevolent, then we would say more confidently that our machine-enhanced evolution could resolve much suffering and vastly improve our quality of life and resources. The knock-on effect could be a time of transcendence; the human mind liberated from meaningless toil and physical malady.
Thank you to Oskar OK Krajewski - the vision and force behind Mars and Beyond and his team. Futurism can be a fairly dark topic to explore at times, but there is a lot of heart and hope in this exhibition and this is something I feel we all need.
Collaborators and artists involved in Mars & Beyond include: Oskar OK Krajewski, Lauren Baker, Aphra Shemza, Oliver Gingrich, Joana Palma, Wiktor Kuta, Paula Bernard-Groves, Wayne Chisnall, Arthur Rambo (and team members Ed Hicks, Barney Dunham and Jamal Peace), Mark Peachey (and the crew: Snoe, Kev, Seks and BRK192), Esther Rolinson, Andy Lomas, Rosso Art, Louise Beer, Karel Bata, Laura Dekker, Jasmine Pradissitto, Victoria Helena Mihatovic, Annalisa Mandia (Bubu), Tyre Furniture Skills, Liber Aguila & Carlos Ulloa, James Edward Marks, Nina Salomons, Nano Projections, Kristin Neidlinger, The October! Collective (Aleksandra Karpowicz, Isabella Steinsdotter & Fayann Smith), Liza Read, Dark Soul Dance Theatre (Zuza Tehanu), Dan Knight, Helen Twigge-Molecey, Erin Stephanie Ross, and Kirsten Reynolds.
Paul Drury-Bradey is a Yorkshire-based freelance writer, producer and publicist. He is currently Entrepreneur in Residence at Durham University's Arts & Humanities faculty and is also working for film, arts & culture clients around the UK. @thisisjukebox. The photographs from Mars & Beyond, which precede the article, are by Thomas Hensher.