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Your Future in Art

Who gets to redesign the human body? If experience and enthusiasm count, transhumanist artist Natasha Vita-More's a good candidate

By Simon Smith


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 texture-alterable skin.

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 Arts

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 spacecraft.

Philosophy of Transhumanist Arts

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 oxymoron.

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.

Artists or scientists?

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 clear cut.

"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 future."

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 art.

Natasha Vita-More

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 her amateur-bodybuilder 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 enhancement.

Manifestation of a philosophy

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 overhaul.

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 be?

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.

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