Notorious for being “the Frankenstein of design”, transdisciplinary designer Agi Haines‘ work investigates the potential of our body as a raw material for our engineering fantasies and speculates on the impact of biomedical technologies on the human form. Through the production of realistic sculptures, Haines challenges the societal acceptance of technologically-driven bodies and questions “how our morbid curiosity for the viscera of life might affect the future of design, not only for the environment but also for us”, as she puts it. We recently spoke with her about body modification, science fiction, medical futures and more.
Many modifications are natural, even those involving technological intervention
Your work appears to challenge the natural evolution through genetic modification, bringing about a transhumanist desire, where does this longing come from?
This is not necessarily a way to challenge the natural evolution, but rather I believe that many kinds of modification are inherently natural, even those that involve some kind of scientific or technological intervention. Perhaps it is a kind of pygmalion complex in humans that is always striving to push further or achieve more, but this is definitely something that has existed for a long time. I think the language we use to describe it or the methods to modify ourselves will change as new technologies develop. The longing for self-improvement is an ancient aspiration that may have been encouraged by people trying to discover where the boundaries between their body and the rest of the world lie. This is almost an impossible challenge, but definitely it fuels my work and makes this kind of research so interesting.
Your activity is somewhere between art, science and technology. How important is this grey zone for you?
I think these ‘inbetween’ spaces make amazingly fertile ground for new and innovative research. I feel extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work this way. Having the chance to share insights from different disciplines can open up ideas and concepts that you may have not discovered otherwise, or even help to find likeminded concerns that are perhaps worth researching. For me this cross fertilization of ideas beyond disciplinary departments is a fruitful way of working, and it seems there are many more groups of people now working in this transdisciplinary way.
The possibility of freedom of choice in your own biology is really important
What role does science fiction play in your work?
You can perhaps see I have been influenced by people like Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, or films like Alien. I also like to find crossovers where certain tools or designs in famous science fiction may have influenced scientific research and vice versa – as I am really interested in this idea that science develops facts or truths (Latour and Woolgar write about this). Yet many of the methods used to develop these truths are speculative themselves. We often learn about the body through representations and simulacra but it is extremely difficult to see processes clearly in the living body, so the truths are built on speculative ideas. There is a blurry line between fact and fiction, and between the material body and the rest of the world. The aspects of the famous sci-fi idols mentioned above that I really admire are the ones where you feel like the body as an object permeates into other things like robotics, other species or beings.
We could say that your project Transfigurations explores artificial selection through design, in which the goal would be to go forward to a next nature. How do you relate to this?
I think the possibility of freedom of choice in your own biology is really important, in this way I definitely believe in a kind of personal next nature that you propose. In a fast changing environment we should perhaps look to altering ourselves to prevent the impact on the world around us, altering ourselves to suit the needs of our environment rather than the other way around. This is because I often think we have a human centered view of the world. I worry that we may make decisions that affect the other species we share the planet with, yet their needs and intentions are still unknown to us. I think the next nature should encourage a movement away from the Anthropocene where the impact caused on our own personal world can be large, but the impact on the external world is small.
I am interested in making scenarios appear believable or realistic
Much of your work focuses on speculations on medical futures. Is technology the future of healthcare?
Although technology is an extremely important factor in furthering our future health – and I am definitely in favor of the introduction of new kinds of technologies and techniques that are currently being researched – I do think we are occasionally striving for technically driven healthcare at a cost for our bodies. Again I do think that some ideas are extremely important to develop further, but a major issue can be how they are represented and in turn misinterpreted. One aspect of this seems to be a result of the pressure put on some researchers to publish papers and deliver results, this sometimes appears to cause a negative affect on how their work is delivered to the public and this raises lots of problematic ethical questions. It is really important for researchers and practitioners to have time and support to step back and reflect on their practice, this could really encourage people to consider how decisions are made when technology gets incorporated into the healthcare system or even into society.