Work in progress on Aging
"I really didn`t push them to do it. But some people would get naked in front of me, they would take off their trousers in the middle of the street. It was always the same scene: I`d ask random people on the street if they could tell me about a sign of time on their body, how they felt about it – ashamed, proud, sad – and if I could take a picture of it. And in no time some piece of clothing was off. I don`t remember anybody saying No. Maybe one or two. And they would tell me marvelous stories about their flesh."
KMMN, Kunsthochschule Kassel, June 2017
Nanomedicine, life extension, AI, transhumanism are concepts thrown around a lot, but for now, in 2017 we still get older and, disappointingly, eventually die – many of the anti-ageing programs of our decade that present themselves as the spearheads of scientific research, may be seen as contemporary versions of the mythological Fountain of Youth. Scientists turn to phenomena like the Syndrome X or Negligible Senescence, in which organisms show no or almost no symptoms of ageing, ignoring the other fascinating side of the medal: Ageing and mortality of the individual became possible and necessary with the evolution of sexual reproduction. The genetic material of an organism could be passed to its descendants, turning itself disposable. Age and its attributed aesthetic repulsiveness are the very results and indispensable condition of sexual attraction and its mechanism.
The ongoing project Negligible Senescence invites viewers to share their most intimate „sign of time“ on their body and the stories related to them. It is of big interest to me if these signs of „living in time“ caused people feelings of shame, sadness or pride. The close-up pictures are now being posted once a day on the Instagram account NegligibleSenescence and to be published in a book, to be flicked through like a photo album of human body geology. For KMMN an interactive installation will be prepared and the testimonies will be collected during the stay in Kassel through interviews with voluntaries.
As self-evident as it may sound, age - the progressive deterioration of our physiological functions - is among the greatest known risk factors for most human diseases. In industrialized nations, about 90% of daily deaths have age-related causes. Until not so long ago ageing wasn ‘t a „big thing“, due to a much greater spread of mortality over the various age categories - in many respects death was much closer to people of all ages. Nowadays though, being the age-independent causes of death almost minimal in rich countries, and the life period in which one is considered „old“ having extended significantly, society has to cope with a new period of human life. One response is to treat it as a disease. An other is to aid in our acceptance of the apparent inevitability associated with the process with more entrepreneurial social constructs as successful ageing.
Now what exactly is so troubling about age? Probably the tendency to identify it with death or mortality. It reminds us of the finitude of all things, making us wonder about the cruelty of nature that can turn a slick face of a 20-year-old into a wrinkle crater of an 80-year-old. It is an omnipresent Vanitas motive, a memento mori written on our bodies that reminds us of the vulnerability and preciousness of living in time.
Who’s been particularly good at inducing in us the horror of decay through advertisement, is certainly the cosmetic industry with its unscrupulous profiteering from the sale of unproven anti-ageing supplements: People buy anti-ageing products to obtain a hoped-for self (e.g., keeping a youthful skin) or to avoid a feared-self (e.g., looking old).
Another aspect of ageing is the fear of dementia, the loss of rationality: For humans, self-declared rational beings, stopping age means to control nature, considered irrational. But as they are still deeply part of nature, consequently they get confused and caught in their own actions, reaching for primitive forms of magic and myth.
Actually, many of the anti-ageing programs of our decade that present themselves as the spearheads of scientific research, may be seen as contemporary versions of the mythological Fountain of Youth, associated with Ponce de Leon, who supposedly searched for it in the Carribeans during the 16th century:
Transhumanist theory describes death as a monstrous dragon who demands human sacrifices which needs to be defeated, extending human life to eternity. Scientists turn to phenomena like the Syndrome X or Negligible Senescence, in which organisms show no or almost no symptoms of ageing, to reduce the rate of aging damage, or envision complete remedy of effects of aging through medical nanorobotics inside our cells or even through cryopreservation, storing our bodies at low temperatures after death in order to allow resuscitation and repair in a technologically more advanced future. All these life extension phantasies are highly controversial due to fear of overpopulation and possible effects on society.
Another way of looking at the ageing process is to understand it as a basic reduction of biological complexity, equivalent to loss of information, result of the fundamental principle of Entropy that underlies our universe. Funnily enough this is exactly the opposite of what intuition would tell us: To us the appearing signs of age seem an accumulation of information (as f.i. heroic scar stories) rather than the dissipation of it.
Is ageing a necessary process in humans? An even more ironic paradox lies in the connection of the ageing process and sexuality. Ageing and mortality of the individual became possible and necessary with the evolution of sexual reproduction. The genetic material of an organism could be passed to its descendants, turning itself disposable. Age and its attributed aesthetic repulsiveness are the very results and indispensable condition of sexual attraction and its mechanism.
The work-in-progress consists in a collection of pictures taken during casual interviews with voluntaries. During these interviews the participants are asked to share one or several signs of age on their body. They can be traces of time that they have noticed lately or that have been accompanying them for a long time. It is of big interest to me if these signs of „living in time“ caused people feelings of shame, sadness or pride. The close-up pictures are now being posted once a day on the Instagram channel NegligibleSenescence and published in a book, to be flicked through like a photo album of human body geology.
In my understanding Instagram and other social networks represent a kind of Inverse Picture Of Dorian Gray (with its obvious connection to the Faust theme): A polished and maintained image of ourselves, so different from the degenerating real-world persona. I want to use such a channel and invert its rules by playing with the taboo that exists around ageing. Symptomatic for this taboo is the almost perverse voyeurism with which the yellow press publishes images of cellulite in celebrities and the fascination we experience when looking at before/after photoshop pictures of models.
When interviewing people, many times I feel in the role of a hangman, directing people’s attention on a process they would like to ignore. It is fascinating to observe a variety of reactions, from avoidance, horror, docile sadness to talkativeness. The fragility due to self-exposure of some participants is similar to rabbits who remain paralyzed when a strong light source is directed at them. From one side the project feels like twisting the knife in the wound, from the other side, strong bonds are created, as if we had gone through a collective experience.
The importance of using images in this project and analyzing the way we look at them became even clearer to me during an episode while „hunting“ for age signs: A lady who let me take a picture of her hand was horrified by the picture itself and by the „old“ aspect her hand had on that picture – without this filter, just looking at her real hand did not cause the same reaction in her.
Also do reactions differ between women and men: the first ones, probably suffering a bigger pressure through advertisement, are usually more aware of changes in their bodies, while men tend not to acknowledge them. This is interesting in a context where femininity is culturally coded as more frail and vulnerable than masculinity and where physical strength in women is not encouraged.
It is a very emotional mine field, and the sheer randomness of its definition makes it even more slippery: When does the moment of ageing start? From our birth on we get older, but only from a certain moment in life we are labeled aged or older. We create a division where there is actually just one continuous process.