As I enter the Who Am I? gallery in the Science Museum I am struck by the scale and futuristic quality of the space. Space age style pods investigate human character traits and row upon row of large glass cases filled with a multiplicity of objects all explore our understanding of identity.
The curator Suzy Antoniw explains to me that this gallery is one of the most popular areas of the Museum and is particularly popular with teenagers. Perhaps this is because this gallery is very interactive; or perhaps it is because it seeks to explain the very essence of what makes us who we are.
We are fascinated in finding out more about how our bodies work and in particular how our biology informs our identity. But there is something more profound that intrigues us, more than merely explaining the Science. Perhaps this is why we invented philosophy and art, to compliment the scientific discourse. It is this collaborative probing into questions about our identity that interests me as an artist.
Suzy talks with me about their artist commissions in the gallery, one of which is an Antony Gormley bronze baby, lying helpless on the floor as if escaped from the confines of one of the glass shrines. She also discusses their commitment to sharing different perspectives of how we understand identity and is particularly interested in my ideas about creating a dialogue about genetic screening.
Suzy explains that they have one particular case that they use for temporary exhibitions and it is this space that I could potentially use to show a new piece of work. Currently they are displaying a 3D print of King Richard III skeleton and an explanation of how they have uncovered his genetic heritage. It seemed somewhat poignant to me, as I looked at what could clearly be seen as the curvature of his spine, that I was looking at a disabled man.
It seems more and more likely that some disabled people will also become relics like the skeleton lying in the case.
As I move from case to case reading about how memory, genetics, language and gender are all profound in shaping our identity, I begin to question what the fundamental components are that make us human.
These underlying questions resonated for me later that week when watching the film Ex Machina, where a young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in Artificial Intelligence, by evaluating the human qualities of a female A.I. In the end we are left to contemplate that without empathy, love, forgiveness and compassion then can we really be human.
In fact it seems a current trend that we are preoccupied with the quest to discover the difference between man and machine. The latest Channel 4 series Humans is an exploration of this. But there is also a more sinister commentary about the very infrastructure of our daily lives and the value we place on human beings. In this series “synths” provide roles that are currently filled by people; nannies, carers etc. So is this where we are heading? Towards a future which is in danger of de-valuing the essence of what it in fact means to be human; care, love, compassion, empathy.
Perhaps there is only a tenuous connection between advances in AI and genetic screening, which was the starting point of this reflection. However I believe if we are pursuing an excavation into what makes us who we are then these things are intrinsically linked. If we continue our journey towards eradicating difference and imperfections in the bid to homogenise then we are potentially on the cusp of destroying the human spirit.