With advances in medicine leading to prolonged life and with age-related diseases such as dementia becoming a more and more common phenomenon in family life, the onus is upon us to discuss possible solutions to aid individuals, families and society. Art can help us to explore our ethical dilemmas through Speculative Design, where elements of technology and design concepts are employed to enable us to investigate future possibilities.
Zoë Hough has taken on this mantel in her latest exhibition, The Microbial Verdict: You Live Until You Die, just closed at London’s Arebyte and curated by Nimrod Vardi. In this installation, she has simulated a hypothetical reality whereby the fictitious government institution The Department of Self and Sanity obliges citizens, on reaching 65, to ingest a tablet containing a brain activity-tracking protein: one that will induce death once you stop being yourself.
The Microbial Verdict is a melange of film, design and theatre allowing the public the chance to get up close and personal with this concept – that you die when the characteristics that make you “you” are no longer present, or significantly decreased. Visitors engage in the scenario by undergoing an interview with the “Consultant” to determine their ten most important personal attributes that would, in theory, be used to engineer their unique protein tablet. Each detail of the exhibition is meticulously executed with objects present such as government literature, business cards and product packaging.
The journey culminates in The Ceremony, a short film showing how it will be the day one finally receives their tablet.
Having recently graduated with a Masters in Design Interactions from the Royal College of Art and successfully exhibited in Arebyte with Smile, the Fiction has Already Begun (Arebyte, 2014) in which she questions the pursuit of happiness, Hough endeavours to explore areas of human emotion linked to the idea of control. In her work, there is a tension between the choice of the individual and the influence and manipulation of the State.
Hough’s concept is demonstrative of the positive application of Speculative Design to construct a platform for thought, discussion, philosophy, ethics and even political debate, allowing for art to inform our everyday existence, thus moving it beyond clinical art gallery walls and into the world.
Kirsten Hawkins: You question the aspect of “control” in our everyday lives, and in this scenario, citizens can control their death to some extent. I think it is interesting that I would be able to decide my own unique characteristics and it wouldn’t be up to someone else. Are we in effect able to control our identity?
Zoë Hough: Identity is an interesting thing, and we could talk for a long time about the different elements which influence how we class our identity – which is both relational and contextual. And of course the words we choose to sum up our identity, which is no easy task, change over time. In this scenario each citizen has until the age of 65 to define the ten characteristics or traits which they think make them “them”. The trade-off being that in identifying themselves as X, Y and Z, they then have to stay X, Y and Z or the protein tracking the activity in their brain will decide they are no longer “themselves” and will release its toxin for a quick and painless death. So the citizen is in control over what characteristics are tracked, but they then hand over the control as to whether they are still that person to a protein.
Kirsten Hawkins: In your eyes, would such a practice as ingesting a protein that can trigger death be tantamount to legalising enforced euthanasia?
Zoë Hough: If euthanasia is to relieve someone of suffering when that person doesn’t want to suffer anymore, then parallels can be drawn, but with the control being decided in advance so that no “suffering” would occur. The narrative of the project is set in the context of aging and dementia, but in doing so it hopes to raise other questions too – about our desire for control and where this may lead, our concepts of identity in this “I” driven society, and to question what the motivations are behind policies introduced “in our best interest”.
Kirsten Hawkins: The exhibition brought elements of film, graphic design and acting together. Why did you choose to use a real actor to play the Consultant and what new elements did this bring to the installation?
Zoë Hough: The actors, who play consultants from The Department of Self & Sanity, talk with visitors to the exhibition about what characteristics the visitor would choose to define themselves; I hope that these conversations help visitors relate to the scenario more fully as it makes it a more personal experience.
Kirsten Hawkins: You have thought about every detail in your exhibition, including product design with the protein packaging, and even copywriting. What made you go to the lengths of designing business cards and even government leaflets to create such a plausible stage set?
Zoë Hough: As you say the details help make the scenario plausible, and by making a scenario plausible it makes it easier to consider it, and the issues around it. Although there are deliberate elements in the work which point to the fact that the scenario is fictional, and I like this balance between fact and fiction.
Kirsten Hawkins: You started out studying Economics and Management, then went on to work as an economist and later, in advertising. How has working in other areas fed into your creative process, and is it important to have this extra world knowledge as a speculative designer?
Zoë Hough: It just so happens that my path to where I am now appears to be rather non-linear, and for me my background of working in other fields inevitably feeds into my current work, but I don’t think there is any perfect formula, just whatever works for each person.
Kirsten Hawkins: What inspired you to make such a dramatic career switch?
Zoë Hough: It doesn’t really feel like a dramatic switch, although the fall in income is a bit dramatic. My projects today come from an interest in politics, control, emotion, ethics and human behaviour, which are things I’ve always been interested in, and which my previous careers also dealt with – just in different ways.
Kirsten Hawkins: To what extent do you believe that your role as a speculative designer and artist in the modern world is to educate and encourage critical thinking?
Zoë Hough: To encourage critical thinking is definitely a goal – in myself and in others.
Kirsten Hawkins: Do you believe that The Microbial Verdict: You Live Until You Die could one day be our reality?
Zoë Hough: I obviously don’t know where the future will lead, but I think it’s good to think about the possibilities, be they strange/ideal/unideal/seemingly bizarre/intelligent or naive, as they hopefully all help us decide what kind of future we do want to head towards.