You’ll Die With All the Animals

Who Wants to Live Forever? at Kunsthall Trondheim is a morality play that urges us to reconcile with our impermanence.

Solveig Bergene, Untitled, 2020, detail. Watercolour on paper, 70 x 100 cm. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Epicurus said of death that it was nothing to worry about, because where we exist, death is not, and where death exists, we do not. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius entertained similar thoughts: as life is just a chain of present moments, it does not really matter when death occurs. One lives now, and now, and now, and then no longer. However, philosophising about death in mathematical terms like this fails to do it justice as experience, what it feels like to disappear from the world, from all that matters. Few want to die. Transhumanists believe that for this very reason, death is morally intolerable, something we must fight by modifying the species through technological means.

Curated by Stefanie Hessler and Katrine Elise Pedersen, the exhibition Who Wants to Live Forever? at Kunsthall Trondheim conveys a sense of indignation that could easily be attributed to the transhumanists even before you enter. A neon text work by Adrian Piper beams from the window: “Everything will be taken away” (Everything, 2020). The message is clear: death is robbery. Still, the rest of the exhibition does not affirm the sentiment, conjured by Piper’s text, of death as total cessation and a criminal transgression. The works’ attitude to the end of life can be arranged on an axis ranging from the soothing to the reconciliatory. Given its theme of immortality, strikingly little attention is devoted to modern medical technology. The title’s rhetorical question is presumably meant to signal scepticism towards futuristic predictions of eternal life, attesting to a general distrust, founded in humanistic and ecological concerns, of technology’s emancipatory promises.

The exhibition most overtly engages with current technology in Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis (2016), which centres on the commercialisation of the digital afterlife. The work is presented both as a web series on the venue’s website and as a film projection inside the exhibition. Mixing documentary and staged material, it follows several characters who need to decide how their digital lives are to be managed after they have passed. Should they hire a company to send personal messages to loved ones on their behalf at agreed times? Rig out their tombstone with playlists and slideshows? Keep their Facebook account active? When asking whether grief is not a private matter, the character Bambi is told that a digital space in which relatives can meet and share has a proven therapeutic value. This prosocial rationale distracts from how the investment in a digital afterlife obscures the ownership of the self. Intimate gestures, communications, and emotions are assets in the digital economy, in principle detached from the organism that generates them. The social network finds death intolerable, but not for reasons of human suffering; it is the disruption of activity that must be prevented. Expressions of grief are as good as any content.

Oreet Ashery, Revisiting Genesis, 2016, still frame. Film projection and 12 episodes web series, 95’21”.

Ashery’s film hints at the sundering of body and subjectivity by means of simple effects: semi-transparent, superimposed sequences; a meandering, tight camera that moves independently of the action and sometimes settles on peculiar parts of the image; and hurried dialogues where the actor’s voices take on lives of their own. Human interaction with digital systems has a negative effect on our perceived and observed autonomy. If we are little more than data mines for synthetic intelligences, on what grounds do you argue for the preservation value of individual humans? In order to smooth over the cognitive dissonance caused by technology’s concurrent liberation and undermining of the individual, an image of a harmonious synthesis must be created. In one scene, Bambi is shown a video of a woman talking to an eerie robot copy of herself, who stresses the importance of saving humans from the delusion that they need to die.

A latent critique of technology underpins the exhibition, even when it is not spelled out. Humankind is constantly re-inscribed in the morbid and natural cycles it strives to break from. In Solveig Bergene’s delicate and ornate watercolours, animal and plant life are entangled in symmetrical, geometric grids, manifesting a kind of soothing, organic cybernetics. Jessica Harvey’s Universe (family portrait of my aunt and her children) (2019) merges beauty and morbidity; the ashes of the artist’s aunt’s cremated brother and her pets have been fashioned into crystals displayed in a small glass case along with the names of the departed. On the wall hangs a series of photographs of swarms of luminous dots against a black background, reminiscent of nebulae. Harvey too stresses our entanglement in a larger system by indexing the chemical processes that break down and transform the organism. At the same time, the dead are kept intact as discrete entities as these processes settle into the attractive shape of crystals.

Mercedes Mühleisen’s animated video triptych Dead Cat (2017) replaces Harvey’s cosmic sentimentality with macabre comedy. Some amorphous hybrid beings which represent microorganisms roaming a cat’s carcass converse incoherently across three vertical screens. Mühleisen’s animation shtick, in which a filmed human face is mounted or projected onto a non-human body, is familiar by now. She stages the disintegration of the higher organism as an anthropomorphic drama. Making the organism’s decomposition processes relatable, Mühleisen invites a hallucinatory reconciliation with the instability of organic life. Like Mühleisen, Moa Israelsson’s Go, Gone (2020) uses scale to provide sensory and dramatic access to a material realm we usually overlook, but adds immersive and haptic qualities to the encounter. The cocoon-like silk, leather, and latex structures dangling from the low ceiling of the venue’s bottom floor resemble B-movie props; one senses the presence of the giant insects that have crawled out of them

Moa Israelsson, Go, Gone, 2020. Silk, latex, upholstery, and raw leather, 200 x 40 x 30 cm, 280 x 55 x 30 cm. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Israelsson’s cocoons are also reminiscent of mummies. Historically, the efforts to preserve human remains have focused on making the body inhospitable to microorganisms after death has occurred, for example through embalming. Nature has its own preservation techniques: in 1950, the so-called Tollund Man was fished up from the bog where he had lain for several thousand years, so well preserved that the body was initially believed to be of much more recent date. The image of his peaceful countenance has become an icon for the naturally preserved body. Portraits of his face and feat are included in the exhibition, and he is referenced in Gideonsson/Londré’s Tanned Head, Pickled Feet (2020), an installation comprising a number of therapeutic foot swings fitted with small bathtubs filled with preservative liquids. The footbaths are made of an exquisite light-coloured oak, their insides inlaid with a shiny brass-like metal that scatters delicate reflections of light onto the wall. The spa-like atmosphere, combined with the circular composition of the tubs, gives the installation a sense of being a ritual arena dedicated to the contemporary cult of body maintenance.

When speaking about the struggle for immortality today, bodily upkeep tends to be subordinated to the preservation and continuation of subjective experience. This concern drives the development of the kind of vulgar medical technologies which the exhibition seems reluctant to engage. One example is cryonics, where one freezes the dead with a view to restarting the body’s systems at some point in the future. Cryonics is briefly mentioned in the exhibition brochure, in the presentation of Time Machines (2020) by The Deep Field Project (Diann Bauer, Jol Thoms, and Neal White). The work consists of a pentagram-inspired mural of bold white lines on blue, which incorporates a crooked shelf carrying a number of objects that are said to “communicate different forms of time.” Clearly, however, this display of fragmentary iPad videos, colour-inverted prints, and found objects is not meant to be an exposition of specific identifiable technologies. Rather, the work’s cryptographic leanings do the opposite, merging the disparate elements into a general occult thing. If one reads the exhibition as a morality play about reconciling with entropy, Time Machines represents technology in the role of a slippery prop, an alien other. This admonition curbs recognition of how deeply intertwined the alliance of egoism and technological hubris is with history’s emancipatory processes.

The closest the exhibition comes to expressing sympathy with a techno-assisted longing for immortality is Anton Vidokle’s ambiguous Citizens of the Cosmos (2019), the fourth in a series of films about Cosmism, a relatively obscure philosophical movement that first emerged in Russia during the 19th century. Its founder, the philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829–1903), believed that death was a flaw in the design of the human. His enterprise even surpasses that of transhumanism, in that Cosmists want to focus society’s political and technological capacity on a single goal: immortality for all people, including everyone who has ever lived. Nothing less. Only in this way can we reconcile the conflict between individual and community. In preparation for this ultimate goal, we must conquer space to make room for all the resurrected people. Fedorov emerged out of an orthodox Christian tradition, and his motivation was to give material form to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Even so, Cosmism decidedly feels like Communism’s version of transhumanism; indeed, after the October Revolution, Fedorov’s ideas were carried on in a more secular variant by anarchist and Marxist thinkers under the name of Biocosmism.

The Deep Field Project (Diann Bauer, Jol Thoms, and Neal White), Time Machines, 2020, detail. Mixed technique, variable dimensions. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Vidokle’s film is based on a manifesto written by the founder of this successor group, Alexander Agienko, better known as “Svyatogor.” A parade of people carrying posters moves through the streets in utter silence as if it were a funeral or a ritual procession; a group dressed as skeletons performs a synchronous dance in a forest; a sacred cremation session takes place in a futuristic-looking chapel; people listen to walls with stethoscopes. The scenes replace one another in a steady stream while Svyatogor’s visions are read aloud. The film has a blissful pastoral tone that ironically invokes the religious connotations which Biocosmists wanted to purge from Cosmism. Is the social function of the Biocosmists’ delirious materialism much different from christian belief in the migration of the soul? Both conjure an equilibrial state meant to ensure permanence for the human form.

Bearing in mind the exhibition’s cynical title, one could turn Cosmism on its head and ask whether the resurrection of all of mankind would not constitute an absolute act of transgression: to condemn all human life to continue indefinitely as museum objects (Fedorov used the museum as a model for the state). The state becomes a biopower of divine reach. Britta Marakatt-Labba comments with casual and precise surrealism on this drive to adapt the frame of biological existence to the special needs of man. Her small embroidery Sametinget (Sami Parliament, 1993) is soberly executed, with simple figures made of dense clusters of tiny stitches. Its depiction of a lecture taking place inside a fish suggests human control systems hollowing out the forms of nature. This image of a bureaucratised nature recalls Cosmism’s ambitions to turn the galaxy into a vast state-run incubator. Universal justice requires that life’s natural conditions are replaced with technopolitical design.

In the art institution and academia, the epistemologies of Indigenous Peoples are increasingly taken seriously as contenders to scientific materialism. The argument tends to be that their holistic outlook acknowledges a co-dependence with other life forms that modern secular society has supplanted with its one-sided focus on the technological subjection of its environment. However, where these practices involve an animistic approach to matter, a problem arises for aesthetic mediation. In a conversation with curator Jennifer Teets published on the venue’s website, Kim TallBear, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, observes how academia lacks a language that recognises the potential for agency in things and non-human organisms. This lack parallels the art institution’s presentation schema, where an isolating display, emphasis on authorship, and use of paratexts – such as lists of included materials and the names of the technologies used to manipulate them – impose what you could call a de-animating framing of the object, which emphasises strictly materialist and economic concerns.

Gideonsson/Londré, Tanned head, pickled feet, 2020. Mixed technique, variable dimensions. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Tabita Rezaire’s video installation Mamelles Ancestrales (2019) consists of a dramatically lit stone circle inside which a film, based on field footage taken during the artist’s expedition to an area in West Africa to investigate ancient stone circles, is projected onto the floor. Rezaire interviewed people, ranging from mystics to archaeologists, who are interested in the significance of these stones; she also shares her own thoughts. The wide-ranging montage of perspectives intersects scientific hypotheses about the original function of the circles with spiritual conjecture. Rezaire makes rapid cuts between the interview scenes. The constant alternations have an equalising effect on the various languages and registers in which the meaning of the stones is discussed. Her generous use of science-fictiony visual effects is a stylistic signal that Rezaire is looking to not only restore a repressed worldview, but also attach it to a progressive concept of technology. One might see her Afrofuturist model as a radical heir to Cosmism: instead of Christianity, she allies technoculture with an archaic metaphysics more open to individual impermanence.

The concern with metaphysics that runs through the exhibition makes pertinent aestheticism’s challenge to the (somewhat vague, but surely animistic) alternative to scientific materialism that viewers are being offered. Aestheticism is integral to institutions, so it is understandably hard not to reproduce. Nevertheless, the syncretism of ancient and modern beliefs emerging as a new ideology for art institutions requires a different relationship with the audience. At present, institutional incorporation of archaic impulses tends to be relegated exclusively to the origin narrative framing the object, where it chiefly functions as a gesture of inclusivity. Anything more would require divesting the viewers of their critical attitude towards the object. So the institution continues to train an audience of cynical aesthetic connoisseurs, who at the same time are encouraged to signal sympathy with the ‘irrationalisms’ of an ‘unenlightened’ past. Ironically, this essentially ecstatic opportunity demands, in practice, a cognitive masochism: a reluctant assertion of belief in something not experienced.

A related complaint has to do with what I perceive as scepticism towards future technology which fuels the antagonism between, on the one hand, the trending moral injunction to renew symbiosis with earth’s ecosystems and on the other, modern society’s technological subjection of nature – a subjection that now, with the aid of social networks (cf. Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis) is in the process of expropriating the human self for profit. Such contemporary and future technologies are rarely treated as tangible objects in the exhibition, but hover in the room as Faustian alternatives to the redemptive reconnection with the holism of the past. Though likely not intended, this banishment somewhat rashly posits technology as primarily an instrument for the realisation of the egocentric desires that viewers are urged to reject.

Tabita Rezaire, Mamelles Ancestrales, 2019, still frame. 12 stones supplied by Oppdal Sten with film projection, 61’ 55”.

The article is translated from Norwegian.