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Are We All Cyborgs?

From biohacking to vitamins, photographer Matthieu Gafsou’s latest series questions the relationship between human bodies and technology.

By Annika Klein

Matthieu Gafsou, Businessman Igor Trapeznikov, a member of Russia’s transhumanist movement, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

What does it mean to improve human life? Does improvement mean to be as healthy as possible, as productive as possible, to live as long as possible? For adherents of transhumanism (often abbreviated H+), these are some of the main goals. Or, as philosopher Max More wrote in 1990, it is “a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form.” Eight years later, More, along with an international cohort, wrote the Transhumanist Declaration and founded an organization now known as Humanity+. But in the quest to evade or delay death, what gets lost along the way? Swiss photographer Matthieu Gafsou, whose previous series have focused on religion, drug abuse, and the meeting of technology and nature, explores these questions in his book H+, which eerily catalogues the spectacle of body modification and optimization. Recently, I sat down with Gafsou to discuss how these threads coalesce, and how his newest work weaves an exciting, and often disturbing, web of what our future may hold. 

Annika Klein: Many of the technologies you show in H+ are so ubiquitous—such as contact lenses or protein bars—that few people would think of them as biohacking in the sense that one would think of, say, someone like Kevin Warwick, who has a computer chip implanted in his arm. Yet the main difference here is really just how long these technologies have existed. Why is getting a pacemaker seen as “normal,” while having a computer voluntarily connected to your nervous system is extremely eccentric? How did you determine the scope of your project?

Matthieu Gafsou: For me, this was one of the interesting topics about transhumanism. Is it an extension of actual medicine becoming more extreme, or is something changing in our relationship with technology, or even changing human nature? Even after working on this project for four years, I’m not sure that I have an answer to give, but we are already used to using technologies and having technology related to the body. It’s not something new. It’s a long process and now we are arriving at this moment called transhumanism, which is an old dream resurfacing about eternity, about humanity. It was important for me to have this historical dimension in the project.

Matthieu Gafsou, The intra-uterine device (IUD) is a contraceptive invented in 1928 by Ernst Gräfenberg, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Klein: And that’s why you included things like contact lenses, or an IUD, right?

Gafsou: Yes, exactly. They’re very banal, we see them every day, but in these cases, the objects are directly related to the body. It’s not about science; it’s more about technics and technology. Maybe transhumanism is a new word for something that is not that new. The perfect transhumanist object is the smartphone: even if it isn’t (yet) inside the body, it is always near the flesh and it creates a relationship of dependency. It gives many abilities, but it also steals from us: we lose memory or space orientation.

Klein: One of the scariest—or most exciting, depending on your viewpoint—parts of this project is realizing how we are already changing our bodies without thinking about what that means philosophically. This embrace of medical technology—take orthodontic braces, for example—is an interesting contrast with, say, the natural food movement. I can imagine many parents having no qualms with putting their child in braces, but not wanting them to eat GMOs.

Matthieu Gafsou, Classic orthodontic treatment using braces, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Gafsou: The food chapter of this project was more about how food can become a prosthesis for the body. Transhumanist food is generally vegan and non-GMO, but what was really important to me is the lack of pleasure related to this kind of food. For me, the body should remain the place of pleasure and feelings. Transhumanism is a way to live longer, but also sometimes means forgetting what makes us human beings. I was reading a French anthropologist, David Le Breton, who also wrote a text for H+, about how food and nootropics are chemical prostheses. To answer your question, our society can be seen as techno-progressivist: it connects technology and social improvement, and this is something I was also curious to dispute.

Klein: It’s unusual to have a body of work that is cohesive, and yet spans portraiture, documentary, and studio photography. The light, too, changes between a dark background with an illuminated scene or object and a strong, sometimes overexposed flash. Why did you vacillate between these different techniques and modes?

Matthieu Gafsou, Mice that have received a gene responsible for bioluminescence glow when exposed to UV rays, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Gafsou: I like the idea of nonnarrative and fragmented language because it resonates with how we are connected to data or information today. I am also passionate about the notion of rhythm inside a book or exhibition, and I believe that different typologies of photographs really help to create meaning. Seen alone, some of my pictures might not mean much, but when you connect those together in a network, they make sense in a complex way. I also knew that my project was going to be incomplete, because there are too many topics related to transhumanism—too many new objects, experiments, people emerging every day.

Regarding the variation between darkness and light in this series, I can say many things. It is a mystical way of showing things and it refers to a religious idea. I wanted to have this connection with religion in H+, as my belief is that transhumanism is a new religion. Finally, this alternation of white and black reveals some anxiety. The bright light leaves nowhere to escape, and the dark could engulf us. Many of the philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, such as death, eugenics, or an increase of social disparities, are disturbing and can cause anguish.

Matthieu Gafsou, “Total” foods are not dietary supplements but food substitutes, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Klein: You also borrow a lot from the language of product photography, which isn’t usually mixed with documentary.

Gafsou: Yes—this was to contaminate my body of work with an aesthetic coming from the business world, as transhumanism is also a very big business. Most of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) are already involved. I think it is interesting because art photography language also has stereotypes. Being contaminated by a commercial language makes the work a bit more ambiguous. Am I doing publicity for those products or thinking about them as an artist? Am I an activist or a critic?

Klein: You have a master’s degree in philosophy and literature. Which authors and books were you reading and thinking of while working on this body of work?

Gafsou: I’ve been reading the cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Then there’s Douglas Coupland and Donna Haraway, the American intellectual. Le Breton, who I mentioned earlier, and his book called L’adieu au corps (2013), which translates roughly to “forgetting the body.” An American reference for me is Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. He’s not a transhumanist at all, but his book Industrial Society and Its Future (1995) is really interesting as a way to question our dependency on technology—even if the guy was extreme. Then there’s Philip K. Dick, who speaks a lot about how living beings look more and more like the inanimate, and how the inanimate looks more and more lifelike. Some philosophers, too—Peter Sloterdijk, Jürgen Habermas. What was really difficult with this project was to deal with this huge amount of information available. It took me a long time to process the data, to classify it and to forget about what seemed nonrelevant.

Matthieu Gafsou, Incubator, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Klein: The part of this project that relates to reinventing the self via reinventing the physical body makes me think of this very American, Enlightenment-era idea of anything being achievable through work and progress. Was this something you had in mind?

Gafsou: Yes. Transhumanism fits completely into this kind of ideology, along with Silicon Valley, and libertarianism. Transhumanism fits our society of information, of neoliberalism, of start-ups, of business. This is a bit frightening, too. You think of transhumanism as a philosophical or intellectual movement, and you discover that it perfectly fits into business. Ayn Rand’s idea of yourself against the world, doing what you are able to do—it totally matches with transhumanism.

Klein: Besides life expectancy, how does health play into this?

Gafsou: I was surprised that, for some people I met, what we would consider a healthy body is for them a sick body. The line between healthy people and sick people is not that easy to draw.

Matthieu Gafsou, STIMO (Epidural Electrical Simulation with Robot-assisted Rehabilitation in Patients with Spinal Cord Injury) aims to improve the motor skills of people with injured or diseased spinal cords, 2017
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Klein: Do you mean that people who subscribe to transhumanism think that a body that’s not augmented with technology is a sick body, even if medically it’s not a sick body?

Gafsou: Yes. And this idea is really fascinating, because it helps us to understand how transhumanism can be seen as a prosthesis for the soul! I believe we all have weaknesses, and the biggest of those is our common fear of death. It makes us look fragile, pathetic, and beautiful at the same time. If you consider transhumanism, it anesthetizes the fear but prevents us from learning to live by facing the inescapable. We can see this movement as a new opium for the people.

Matthieu Gafsou, Laboratory designed by French architect Dominique Perrault on the campus of EPFL, 2015
© the artist and courtesy Galerie C, Switzerland, and MAPS

Klein: On the other hand, someone who does not adhere to transhumanism might think that someone who implants a device that is not deemed medically necessary into their body has a sick body. It goes both ways. With all this on your mind, what’s keeping you up at night? What are you most concerned about?

Gafsou: Just after the end of the project, a few months ago, I started thinking about how transhumanism is just a way to accelerate the process of consuming too much, not thinking about the way we are using resources, and is also about individualism. I started working on this project because I’m going to die, of course, and I was fascinated by transhumanism because I am fragile (as maybe we all are). I still am. But the more I worked on it, the more I wanted to be free from it. I’m not saying I’ll refuse to have a pacemaker; I’m saying that choosing life extension or immortality as a goal in life seems presumptuous and perhaps even immature.

Annika Klein is assistant editor of Aperture.

H+: Transhumanisms was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2018.

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