LEILA JOHNSTON: HOW TO LIVE FOREVER
18 September 2015
Earlier this month, artist Leila Johnston, the creator of Brighton Digital Festival Commission, How to Live Forever, gave an interview to The Observer Tech Monthly. As they were only able to print a small section of it, Leila thought that you'd like to read the full version, and posted it on her blog, Final Bullet. We agreed, and posted it on ours, too.
How To Live Forever, a darkly comic, immersive exhibition exploring issues around life extension, is on at Lighthouse on 22 and 23 of September.
For more details and to sign up for a treatment, courtesy of M.O.R.T.Y Life Extension Technologies, visit How to Live Forever.
LEILA JOHNSTON: HOW TO LIVE FOREVER – THE FULL INTERVIEW
Questions by Kit Buchan from The Observer.
What kind of technology can the participants expect to encounter during How To Live Forever?
Spoiler alert. Our top secret M.O.R.T.Y consciousness digitisation technology is facilitated by Arduino, Raspberry Pi, an internet-enabled thermal printer, a video screen, speakers, flashing lights, a laser and possibly some biotech. Then there’s all the specialist software we’ve created, the specially-built booth structure, etc. It is all there to create a setting conducive to thinking about some important themes. The booth was designed and built by my very creative technologist friend Saul Cozens. We had software help from James Jefferies and James Wheare.
You’re interested in ‘fantasy technology’ – how much of the technology featured in the show is real, and how much is speculative?
Like life extension science itself, it is a mixture of the two. The actual tech involved is the sort of thing you’d find in any hackspace but the story world straddles real and imaginary concepts and celebrates the exciting notion of digitising a brain. If you can make a portal to another world out of technology, why would you ever use it for anything else? And of course it’s a bit meta too, because brain digitising and cryonics tech is extremely speculative and theoretical, so I’m making a speculation about a speculation. But that alone would be rather hollow and pointless, so the installation is about technology’s relationship to belief.
“Speculative technology is the window dressing but the show is really about belief.”
If you believe that, for example, exponential increases in technical progress are inevitable and we’ll all be holograms within 40 years, then it’s a short leap to a nano-technology tent that can read your mind. Currently there is a strong focus on the technology of the ‘future’, and perhaps these speculations all come from a similar place, it’s just that some are more socially-acceptable than others. Speculative technology is the window dressing but the show is really about belief.
Would you describe How To Live Forever as a piece of interactive theatre, as an experiment or something else?
The installation is a humorous, meditative, creative experience in a specially made booth/tent structure, allowing for peaceful self-reflection, but it is best experienced alongside as much of the accompanying film, a documentary that puts a lot of my choices for the tent experience into context. So I would recommend visitors budget for at least half an hour in the room.
The documentary will be shown in the ‘waiting room’ area next to the tent. There will be an immersive, playful element, of course, and participants will be invited to do things and play along, but they should be mindful that this piece was created in a matter of weeks on an extremely tight budget. It will work best for participants who come armed with their own ideas about life, death and the future, and who are prepared to think about how the issues involved might affect them, personally.
Do you find the idea of life extension thrilling or sinister?
I am always interested in the dark places – the ideas people find most frightening, most of them seem to boil down to common fears. And really, life extension is just a metaphor for talking about death. Some of the powers involved are definitely sinister: that there are people in influential positions preaching their beliefs to a technology audience as technical fact is cause for concern. On the other hand, defeating death has always been humanity’s project and I feel the weight of my own mortality very strongly and constantly, which is perhaps why I keep facing down catastrophes in my projects. It is a sort of obsession.
My instinct is that pursuing health and happiness anywhere other than one’s physicality in the present moment might be missing the point, but there is always part of you that thinks, “But wouldn’t that be awesome”. There’s a bit in the film where philosopher Eric Olsen says “To speak of uploading a brain doesn’t even mean anything, you might as well talk about ‘uploading a city’” and we all went wide-eyed at that idea.
Does How To Live Forever have a plot, so to speak? And a cast of characters?
There is a backstory: we at mysterious life extension organisation M.O.R.T.Y are beginning tests on public volunteers and will be digitising their brains in the booth over two days in September. The only character involved in the tent experience are the participant and the voice of M.O.R.T.Y, however there is certainly an unfolding sequence to the experience and a “reveal”.
It’s more like a ride, or a video game than a play, I suppose. The documentary film certainly has a cast and a sort of plot. All five of the people I managed to interview over our three filming sessions – a philosopher, a psychologist, a science fiction expert, a religious studies scholar and a magician are wonderfully interesting and have great presence and expertise.
Am I right in saying that How To Live Forever is only running for two days?
Yes, roll up for limited human trials! I couldn’t afford a venue for longer than that, let alone the time, people and overheads involved. However, the film will, I hope, have an ongoing life, and I already have some ideas about places we can take the tent to next.
Could you describe the ‘tent’, and how long each participant spends inside?
The tent is a light silver survival tent, draped over a specially-designed MDF frame with various hardware installed in it: speakers, lights, lasers, a screen and a small printer.
The participant relaxes on a fold-out bed and takes part in some simple psychological profiling, conveyed via a film on the screen in front of them. The film, Atmosfear-style, will sometimes allocate tasks, giving the ‘passenger’ a few minutes to complete them. Eventually the brain will be ready for digitisation and upload to the M.O.R.T.Y hive, and this occurs right at the end of the session. There will be various surprises. I’d rather not give everything away, of course.
At the moment it’s about 10 minutes inside, allowing about 5 minutes to watch the looped film in the waiting room and perhaps fill in a questionnaire. Participants can book themselves a slot on the website.
If participants are expected to leave with a ‘renewed gratitude for life’, are we to take it that the experience may be rather unsettling?
I think it will be mostly amusing and slightly wonky. You will get out what you put in, and it will be very interesting to see how people react to the tasks they’re given, some of which are quite introspective. It’s very gentle though, like a slightly spooky self-help workshop. The ideas laid out in accompanying film are more troubling.
In your experience as an artist, what are the benefits of taking a playful, artistic approach to discussing technology?
I’m far less interested in technology than I am in people: what the point of us is, what our limits are, how we can do better. I feel, as a human, these are the questions. But as the technology world explodes, so too do the issues around it, and tech‘s relationship with commerce has become a huge obstacle to originality. I’ve said before, trying to work out the purpose of art that uses tech in the current technology scene is like trying to read a compass in a magnet shop.
People are attracted to tech ultimately because it’s fun – it makes things easier and brighter, gives individuals massive amounts of autonomy and presents us with disembodied fantasy versions of ourselves. But the original excitement is getting lost in the gold rush. I want to connect people to the fun of creating and remind them of the feeling that anything is possible. I also always make new things that fit with themes I’ve detected emerging from the aether over a matter of weeks or months, and using reasonably new tech is one way to ensure newness.
Digital is still so new that we feel compelled to elect heroes to make sense of it, and I have to take a stand against unquestioned parroting of ideas of these demigods, which are almost always middle-aged white men. Nothing wrong with middle-aged white men, but unless you think there’s something about that constellation of characteristics that infers superiority, you’ve got to admit something’s up.
I also work on the edge of the digital community, which gives me a valuable outsider perspective: I have very little investment in that world, no one is sponsoring me and no one seriously credits my agenda as a digital culture one, so I have nothing to lose. People often dismiss my work as ‘slight’ but through the approachability of light, quick, humorous stuff like this installation, and decontextualised ideas from tech and science, I think I am able to disarm, and perhaps get away with more deep thinking than some artists who identify as great critical thinkers.
Visit Leila’s blog, Final Bullet, to see this article and more posts from the artist.
Book your session in the Rejuvenation Tent here: How To Live Forever
How to Live Forever is supported by the Brighton Digital Festival as one of their commissions. Find out more on the BDF15 website.
For information about the BDF15 Arts & Technology Commission being hosted at Lighthosue, see BDF15 AT LIGHTHOUSE: FAMILIARS
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