12/18/2001 3:10:23 PM
Admit it: You'd upgrade your body if it were
possible. Creaks, pops groans -- and worse -- don't just come to
the inactive. Eventually, all our bodies give out. And before
they do, they wear out, leaving us exhausted and prone to
illness and injury.
As if it weren't bad enough, the scenario
gets more depressing as our inventions get more powerful, more
beautiful and more enduring. Hell, I can change a flat tire in
15 minutes, but must wait months for a sprained ankle to heal.
And if my computer crashes, I can retrieve files from a backup
disk while my brain offers no such safety procedure.
So with the advent of such advanced
technologies as cloning, genetic engineering and nanotechnology,
it's no surprise that everyone -- not just the editors of New
Scientist -- is seriously discussing the idea of body
part replacement and enhancement.
What may surprise you, however, is that
supplanting evolution's role in designing humans isn't new to
some people. Just ask Natasha Vita-More, a California artist
who's already designed a future human body, Primo
3M+ 2001. "Evolution exists for evolution's sake,"
she says. "The survival of our genes has been performed by
whichever way works regardless of aesthetics of mutation or
eloquence of design. It's a lot like problem solving to get the
job done with as little trim and tapestry as possible and not
for the experience of communicating beauty or emotion."
Primo, on the other hand, is undoubtedly
beautiful and undeniably elegant -- think Cindy Crawford in
glowing green neoprene. It's also easy to upgrade, has a brain
with a few quadrillion synapses, has turbocharged optimism, has
an unlimited lifespan and has such features as tone- and
Of course, it's not available in stores just
yet. Right now it's just an artist's rendering. But that's the
point. Vita-More practices transhumanist art, a form that blends
art, science and philosophy into statements related to human
progress. Laboratories produce great advances, but they're not
the most adventurous places. For a real glimpse of the
possibilities science offers, you need to speak with a
transhumanist artist -- someone who probably considers pessimism
a design flaw.
History of Transhumanist
Transhumanist art has been around a while,
but only recently got a name. Vita-More says people such as
Howard Cohen, the first artist to work with robotics, and
Francis Ford Coppola, whom she worked with on the first high
definition film, are some early practitioners.
Abstract art, performance art, Cubism, techno
art and science fiction have all influenced the movement. But
arguably its biggest influence isn't art at all. It's scientific
progress, which provides motivation, inspiration and, perhaps
most importantly, new materials -- from silicon to stem cells.
Vita-More first expressed this in her 1982 Transhumanist
Arts Statement. "Our aesthetics and expressions are
merging with science and technology," she wrote. She then
updated the art's philosophy with her 1997 Extropic
Art Manifesto. "We are exploring how current and future
technologies affect our senses, our cognition and our
lives," it states.
Like-minded people, including such well-knowns
as scientist and writer Verner Vinge, signed on. The Manifesto
has also become somewhat of an art form itself, as in October
1997 it became the first transhumanist writing to exit the
atmosphere, onboard the Cassini-Huygens
Philosophy of Transhumanist
In both outer space and cyberspace, one line
of the Extropic Art manifesto nicely sums up the philosophy of
transhumanist art: "We are shaping the image -- the design
and essence -- of what we are becoming."
Automorph, a form of transhumanist art,
should help you understand the movement's philosophy even
better. It's devoted to physical and mental self-creation and
self-recreation. If you ever thought that an extra hand could
come in handy or that your short temper could use tempering
through neural-tampering, you may be a closet automporpher.
But probably not if you doubted such things
were possible. Optimism about the possibility and success of
such changes is also key to transhumanist art. Vita-More
believes that, despite decades of artist negativity and the
popular image of the sullen artist, positive art isn't an
She doesn't feel, however, that being
positive allows transhumanist artists to be irrational. Besides
negative art, Vita-More also criticizes thoughtless art that
lacks analytical insight. She prefers art that combines positive
thinking with critical thinking.
Paired with transhumanist art's technological
ties, such rationalism might spur criticism that transhumanist
artists are really eccentric scientists. But to transhumanists,
Vita-More says, distinctions between scientist and artist aren't
"Extropic Art is concerned with the
ideas behind the genre of art and less concerned with what
university degree a creative person holds," she says.
"Thinkers crossing the information lines and closed-door
specializations have tremendous influence on our lives and our
Just look at people such as artificial
intelligence pioneer and pianist Marvin
Minsky, she points out, who has written such articles as
"Music, Mind, and Meaning" exploring both science and
Still, while Vita-More thinks scientists can
be artists, she doesn't think formal art education is
unnecessary or obsolete.
And with an Art Masters from Academia Bella
Artes in Italy, she practices what she preaches. Her education,
she says, helps her pick bits of information from the world,
transform them and give them back to society. "I learned
the 'skill' of 'art' to develop a keen awareness of the times in
which I live, to integrate what I value into whatever artistic
mode works best for me and to feed that synthesized and
nourished matter back into culture," she says.
You can snack on some of that nourished
matter at one of Vita-More's numerous Web
sites. She runs them from California, where she spends much
time either working in her studio, lifting weights to maintain
physique, mingling at film festivals and celebrity parties,
walking by the ocean or working in her garden.
She's also spent time considering becoming an
art exhibit herself. In the future, she believes, the body will
become a fashion item, allowing people to alter such things as
its texture, color, tone and luminosity. In a January 2000 Wired
magazine article called "Don't
Die, Stay Pretty," she even pondered looking like a pointillist
painting. But she realizes not everyone would want such an
Vita-More does, however, believe that by 2030
most people will be altering their external appearance as well
as getting what she calls an internal tune-up -- a psychological
Yet she doesn't want to throw this in your
face. She just wants to get you thinking. "It is my hope
that something in my work is so marvelous and intriguing or
unnerving that others prick up an ear." Anyone who is
interested, she says, can read more of her philosophy on the
Internet. They can also learn more in her book, Create/Recreate:
The 3rd Millenial Culture.
If the approach seems a soft sell for such
ideas as becoming pointillist, it's largely because
transhumanist art -- or at least Vita-More's brand -- is deeply
concerned with self-growth, not shock value.
Vita-More defines her art philosophy in one
word: Progress. And this doesn't just refer to societies and
species, but to individuals. Autmorphing, for example, which
involves altering the body and mind, is really just a physical
expression of self-actualization, she says.
"Self-manifestation happens incrementally and for the
purpose of improving and extending life."
So just adding
technology to the body doesn't necessarily make good art or
a futuristic statement, she believes. What's more important is
the mind and what informs its growth. "I'm talking about a
deeply understood sense of life," she says. "The
process of taking a gestalt look at the universe and recognizing
how our species has existed and for what purpose: To explore,
improve, create, love and evolve."
Addressing the critics
Despite this feel-good message, transhumanist
art attracts many critics -- and not just art critics. Being so
tied to a philosophy, transhumanist artists must defend more
than just their aesthetic sensibilities.
Criticisms mainly fall into three categories:
Those based on a fear of the future, those based on a fear of
selfishness and those based on a fear of philosophical weakness.
Fear of the future is the easiest to deal
with, as Vita-More doesn't isn't proposing we destroy the past.
"Preserving the pleasures of the past can only benefit the
future," she says. "Learning from the pitfalls of the
past can be beneficial in developing a positive future."
Fear of selfishness takes a bit more work, as
automorphing isn't exactly altruistic. But Vita-More doesn't
think the movement promotes selfishness. Since self-expression
involves being responsible for yourself and taking care of
yourself, she believes it makes people responsible and
compassionate. "If a person spends enough time learning
about himself, he just might be able to sympathize with someone
else's feelings," she says.
The hardest criticism to counter is the fear
of philosophical weakness, since transhumanist art does make
some assumptions. Some wonder, for example, if unlimited
creativity is possible. Are there limits on how creative we can
Vita-More says no, and that creativity is
limited only to the brain's capacity. "Experiencing
creativity stems from the ability of the mind's imagination and
the brain's engineering skills," she says. Some might see
this as conceding the point, but for those who believe the brain
is expandable -- another unproven assumption -- it's not.
"If the brain is augmented by chemicals or technological
enhancements to build new and unique neural connections,
heighten intelligence, increase memory, enhancing its
facilities, then such enhancements will directly affect thinking
and the ability to produce unusual creative experiences."
Evolution of beauty
Perhaps the biggest philosophical fear,
however, is that as humans evolve -- possibly into a
machine-enhanced intelligence -- their sense of beauty may
evolve to the point where they have none.
But Vita-More, ever optimistic, believes the
sense of beauty will get better, not worse. "The feeling of
beauty will probably remain an essence but also become more of a
meta-dimensional, full-sensorial mix of emotions," she
says. "Just as we delight by the design and elegance of an
object that appeals to us, combing all our senses as well as
enhancing sensations could be enormously mesmerizing."
Right or wrong, it's at least consistent. If
we can improve the body and mind, why not the emotions and
senses? In the world of transhumanist art, beauty knows no
boundaries, and the sense of beauty itself is open to upgrade.