Published: 15 December 2015

Exhibition: What does it mean to be human?

Being Human

The Being Human Festival has taken centre stage this semester, with a string of events that have explored the problems associated with defining what it means to be human.

An exhibition, which sheds light on how we can understand our humanity, is taking place in Abercromby Square until the end of the week. It is the final instalment in series of shows that began at FACT, and toured galleries around South America.

Claire Taylor, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, was involved with The Latin American Digital Art project.

Here she talks to School of the Arts student, Heather Christian, about the exhibition and what being human means to her:

There is a definite focus on body parts within the display, from casts of a human skeleton foot to images of robotic eyes; what proportion of being human do you think is dependent on the physicality of the human body? Or do you think it is our mental capacity that defines our humanness?

“I think the exhibition as a whole deals with our anxieties about what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, and many of these anxieties do, indeed, centre around our view of the human body, and how its integrity may be under threat. This isn’t necessarily something new – as the Bisclavaret play that Sarah Peverley put on shows, anxieties about the human form, and its possible mutation, have been with us for centuries. But what perhaps is brought to the fore in this exhibition is how these anxieties are nowadays tied up with anxieties around technology, particularly digital technologies, and how they may challenge the integrity of the human body.

“Often, the ways in which popular culture presents new or futuristic technologies is a way of helping us to think through some of these new possibilities. For example, looking at the display of science fiction books in the exhibition, it’s a truism that science fiction as a genre is often a way of dealing with our anxieties about the present, projected into a futuristic scenario. Some of my own work on science fiction in a Latin American context has looked at how novels, when they are talking about futuristic cyborg bodies, are in fact discussing our present-day anxieties with technology, and with what happens when bodily limits are not what we expect them to be.”

The exhibition explores how we imagine ourselves in the future. How do you think technology will affect our humanity in years to come?

“That follows on quite nicely from what I was saying about science fiction. It’s certainly true that many of the exhibits within the Being Human exhibition we’ve got here in Liverpool are about imagining how humanity might be different in the future – or about what ‘being human’ might be in the future. And new technologies are clearly a part of that; many of the pieces here explore how new technologies may encourage us to rethink how to be human – new ways of communicating, for instance, or new ways of mapping our place in the world through technology.

“At the same time, I think it’s important to avoid technological determinism – in other words, we should avoid saying that technological advances per se change the way we are as humans. Rather, it’s our interaction with these technologies, our human engagement with technologies, the discourses that we as humans develop in our relationship with technologies – it’s this that matters.”

What is your favourite piece from the exhibition and what does it say about “Being Human” to you?

“There’s one particular work that I was closely involved in, but I obviously can’t select my own piece as favourite! From all the other pieces in the exhibit – and whilst it’s really difficult to choose –  I’d probably go for the Mutoscope machines, which are a version of the ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines – one of early moving picture devices, and the precursors of what has now become cinema. One thing I really love about the Mutoscopes is that they foreground their materiality – you can really see the craft that has gone into their making. Also, what I think is really clever is the juxtaposition of the low-tech animation technology with contemporary artworks by Angel Martin that we see within them: Angel’s works are very futuristic, displaying cyborg bodies, so I think their presentation in this crafted platform works very well. And finally, I really like the playful way that the Mutoscopes work – they were originally conceived as features for amusement arcades or seaside piers, and that playfulness still remains, I think, as you interact with them in this exhibition.”

Regarding the piece you personally were involved in – can you say a little more about that one?

“The piece in question is This Too Shall Pass// Affective Cartographies,  which is a multimedia art work developed by Uruguayan artist, Brian Mackern, who was artist in residence  in Liverpool in 2014, as part of the Cities in Dialogue series of interventions. Brian is one of the leading digital artists in Latin America, and he works a lot with mapping – not as a straightforward way of finding your way through a place, but as an artist representation of a city.

“What you see in the work we’ve exhibited here is a really rich cityscape of Liverpool, presented artistically. It’s based on footage that Brian took during his journeys across Liverpool whilst he was here in residence, and these recordings of sound and visual material are remixed in the artwork. Brian created what he termed Liverpool’s ‘socio economic historic curve’ of the twentieth century, based on interview with people here, and then used that curve to control the way in which the recordings are mixed in the artwork. For instance, this curve in some sections of the artwork controls the volume levels, in others it controls the crossfading’s, in others it controls the speeds, and so forth. So, as you play on the artwork, you are hearing and seeing the history of Liverpool in the twentieth century enacted in the art.

“As well as Brian’s artwork, we’ve also provided printed postcards, and we’re encouraging the public to take away one of the postcards and send it to another city, or to post it into our low-tech post-box to provide feedback on the project and communicate with the artist.”

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