Photo Books

Fitter Happier: Mattheiu Gafsou Investigates Transhumanism in New Book and Exhibition

July 20, 2018

By Conor Risch

There is hubris in the idea that humans can improve upon Earth’s natural systems, which have evolved over the course of 4.5 billion years. Yet it’s also understandable that people want to cheat death by enhancing, or even escaping completely, the human body, that bag of bones and water that starts dying almost as soon as it’s created.

Transhumanists aim to do just that: to transcend the limits of the human body through the use of technology. Swiss photographer Matthieu Gafsou’s new book, H+ (Kehrer Verlag), documents Transhumanism through portraiture, still lifes and documentary photographs of Tranhumanist people, facilities, tools and technology. In photographing surgical procedures, laboratories, conferences and the like, Gafsou employed a hard flash to add a “clinical aspect” to his pictures. “This was important to me because I think [Transhumanism] is quite cold and [it] is about, not necessarily killing death but working on living longer,” he tells PDN. “But we are forgetting the body, we are forgetting the flesh, we are forgetting desire.”

In creating the still-life images, Gafsou also used the visual language of tech advertising—“the Apple esthetic,” as he calls it—and scientific imaging tools, to call attention to photography’s role in shaping the future envisioned by technologists, and selling that vision to consumers. Gafsou’s still-life compositions are simple, showing objects against monochromatic backgrounds, but the lighting is slick and vibrant. “In that [Apple] esthetic we have somewhere a message saying, ‘There is a bright and beautiful world that exists and we are giving it to you.’ I think that Transhumanism has the same kind of idea, you know. In Europe we are always talking about GAFA—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—all those four majors are spending a lot of money on biotechnology, Google mostly, but all of them are connected to Transhumanism in a way or another.”

© Matthieu Gafsou/Courtesy Galerie C/MAPS

Electrodes have been implanted into this rat’s injured spinal cord as part of an experiment at a lab in Geneva to find a way to treat people with incapacitating spinal cord injuries. © Matthieu Gafsou/Courtesy Galerie C/MAPS

The images in H+, which he is also exhibiting at Rencontres d’Arles photo festival this summer, are a continuation of Gafsou’s interest in “the strategies that we choose to face our fears.” His previous work looks at the Catholic Church and drug addicts in Lausanne. One might not make the connection between all these subjects, but for Gafsou these are different ways of coping with the human condition. “I’m thinking about death, I’m thinking about what we don’t understand. In French we say angoisse; anguish maybe is the English term.” After completing his project on drug addiction, “I wanted to work on something a bit less heavy,” he says. Transhumanism presented a different challenge—that of access. Gafsou was either turned down flat, or had to wait up to a year to photograph some people and facilities. “I had to fight a lot,” he says. Google’s head engineer Ray Kurzweil, who is well-known among Transhumanists, initially agreed to sit for a portrait, but then backed out. Instead, Gafsou photographed Kurzweil’s black-covered book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, on a black, reflective background so we see two of the books: one with the title reading forward, the other with the title reading backward.

Gafsou’s documentary photographs take viewers inside a Russian cryogenics lab, a “Brain Forum” conference, and an operating room during a surgery to implant a neurostimulator, a device that triggers brain activity to treat chronic pain. While waiting for access to these facilities, Gafsou made his still-life images. They depict technologies both old and new. In one image, we see a medieval-looking sixteenth-century corset meant to treat scoliosis; in another, the contemporary prototype for an artificial pancreas. “I think that the relationship to object is something very important in Transhumanism, because the idea is that objects inside our body will help us one way or another.” In one image, we see a Fitbit-style wristband, a tool of the “quantified-self movement,” which uses technology to measure physiological data. Gafsou’s image caption notes that companies are working on devices that will be implanted directly into the body.

As Gafsou researched Transhumanism, he came to realize that rather than a unified movement, Transhumanism is “fragmented.” “It’s a lot of ideologies and people do not agree. It’s not like [Transhumanists] are speaking with the same voice,” he says. There are bioengineers creating medical devices, defense contractors building exoskeletons that will turn humans into war machines, and “Grinders,” biohackers who operate on themselves in an effort to enhance their bodies. By applying a consistent visual style to a wide array of pursuits and objects, however, Gafsou emphasizes the underlying similarities between disparate efforts to improve on our lot as organic creatures by disconnecting the soul and the body.

Taken to its extreme, Transhumanism suggests we will be able to “keep the mind” and discard the body, Gafsou says. He asked a Russian Transhumanist, Danila Medvedev, who consumes only powdered food substitute for nourishment: “But what about the pleasure of eating?” Gafsou recalls. Medvedev replied that physical pleasure is “trivial” when compared to eternity.

“The idea that you often hear when you speak with Transhumanists is that the human is not accomplished yet,” Gafsou says. “He has to use technology to reach this potential.” Gafsou’s project asks us to consider whether or not reaching for that potential is natural, or if it robs us of our humanity.

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