Published 10 December 2019

A room with a private view by Jane Andrews

Rooms do not come more private than this one! On 7 November 2019 I arrive at The Lowry, Manchester grasping my personal invitation to the Private View of ‘The State of Us’ exhibition. With a little background knowledge of the work DC Labs is exhibiting, I am somewhat prepared for (my understanding of) the premise of the exhibition: a challenging look at how humans have distorted evolution through technical intervention, reshaping our perceptions and our understanding of what ‘human’ means.

A workshop of filthy creation

Emerging up the escalator to view the tagline of a Mary Shelly quote, “the body is a workshop of filthy creation” on the wall in front of me, I arm myself with a gin and an open mind to see what type of ‘filthy creations’ lie ahead.  The exhibition starts with a look at vintage Marvel comics which I interpret as the twentieth century juxtaposition of morphing humans into superhumans whilst at the same time pairing these qualities with flawed, freak and misfit personas. This definitely shapes my thinking for what’s to come.

Embodiments

The room is dark…  very dark, which puts me slightly off-balance.  Beautifully lit, in an even darker corner of the very dark room are exquisite glass blocks with strangely familiar, yet somewhat unfamiliar shapes within.  It is easy to admire the light and shade reflecting off the surfaces, the textures inside smooth and rough- hewn complimenting the flawless exteriors, and to physically move around them set in their space to experience the play of light. It all becomes clear. These shapes; erotic forms both male and female, positive and negative casts of the imtimate shapes where bodies couple together.  The piece is “Embodiments” by Charlie Murphy.

An uneasy perception

DC Labs is represented by Professor William Latham. I am familiar with William’s work. MVR is a VR experience of procedurally driven content generation.  I already know that the experience inside his virtual worlds can be disconcerting yet mesmerising. William has combined his artistic and computational skills with the mathematical work of Professor Reidun Twarock at the University of York, looking at representations of how viruses mutate and evolve. Here, I learn a lesson in the dangers of overconfidence as I am confronted with “Virus”, his latest installation using the Herpes virus as a model. Whilst I expect to experience the initial discomfiting lurch into the virtual world, where the notion of having a footing on solid ground and a definite sense of body are whisked away, what I’m not expecting is the overwhelming perception of total immersion contained by something that doesn’t feel ‘clean’.  Is this because I know this is Herpes? Something nobody chooses to get intimate with. And yet here I am; consumed within the centre of the virus manipulating my way around with ‘my’ disembodied ‘fingers’ that grab, push and pull the structure to break free. I am deeply affected by the visual sensation, pervading my mind with the uneasy perception of infection and that I have literally been playing with Herpes.

An inspirational encouter

The welcome address is given by artist, Amy Karle. In September 2019 Karle was announced in the BBC 100 Women which showcases the stories of inspirational women to a global audience. There is no question that I find Amy inspiring.  She talks of her work with passion and personal experience of her mother’s cancer, which influences a lot of her thinking. This resonates with me. My own family experiences of cancer and how it does not discriminate in tearing through everything; regardless of age and gender.

For me, the piece that Amy is exhibiting here; “Regenerative Reliquary” embodies the spirit of the entire exhibition, exploring what it means to be human through science, technology, art and design. Sited within a glass laboratory dome, the piece levers the intelligence of human stem cells that over time will adhere to a 3-dimensional bioprinted shape of a human hand that will eventually disintegrate, with the intention that the stem cells will seed onto the ‘hand’ and grow into tissue and mineralise into bone thus posing the question of whether this piece now becomes human?  Does it? I need more time - and possibly gin - to comprehend the enormity of this question. 

What next?

The human drive to conquer everything, including immortality, justified through calling it ‘science’ may end up just to be hubris, or it may be the thing that evolves humanity to its next level. The exhibition remains open until 23 February 2020 and there is so much more to explore and digest than I have written about here. Go and see it for yourself. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Mesmerised, provoked, challenged and even repulsed? -  maybe, but I think you’ll definitely be engaged and left thinking about it for a long time to come.