Dietary supplements that supposedly slow down aging. A 100-year-old woman’s espresso-drinking habit. A pacemaker that keeps a heart-rate steady. A rat with a spinal cord injury, hooked up to electrodes that might stimulate it to walk again. All of these are in the service of improving the human condition. And all have been captured in H+: Transhumanism, a photography collection, published in July, that Swiss photographer Matthieu Gafsou has been amassing for the past three years.
Transhumanism (sometimes abbreviated H+) is a patchwork of ideas and practices dedicated to enhancing human minds and bodies. It also seeks to expand the boundaries of sensory experiences, with fascinating implications for artistic representations. One example is the prosthesis implanted into the skull of Neil Harbisson, who refers to himself as a cyborg and is photographed with a tranquil expression and a microphone-like device hanging over his head. This “Eyeborg” turns colors into sound, allowing the color-blind Harbisson to experience colors in a unique way.
Divorced from their context, these images would be mystifying. For instance, Gafsou photographs gloved and bloodied hands inserting a smartphone-like device into an incision wrapped in tent-like material. The text explains that these hands belong to a doctor who has implanted a neurostimulator into a patient’s spinal cord. The doctor is now embedding a battery into a different part of the patient’s body. Together these objects will generate electric pulses that create numbness in the patient, manipulating how (and whether) pain is experienced. The visceral violence of the image is at odds with the medical procedure’s aim to eliminate pain.
H+ also contains several eye-popping images of biohacking. A photographer could easily focus only on the more outlandish of body modification experiments associated with transhumanism, such as radio-frequency ID chips or magnets implanted into the skin; transhumanism has proven fertile ground for other photographers.
But transhumanism isn’t just about cultivating a futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic, and H+ doesn’t limit itself to the more startling, and occasionally grotesque, images. There are abundant photos of seemingly mundane objects, like braces, IUDs, meal replacement products, and smartphones — which Gafsou calls memory prostheses. By placing these commonplace objects on an equal footing with the more future-forward items, he is positioning them on a long continuum of scientific development. He draws a line between orthotics (e.g., corsets for people with scoliosis) and modern exoskeletons, which are being developed for both civilians with disabilities and soldiers with ambitions for invincibility. The juxtaposition of the familiar and the Black Mirror-esque can seem sinister. Yet given the rapid acceptance of several of the products photographed here, it may not be long before many of us are, say, using the microchips in our hands to store credit card information.
Gasfou’s images are stark and the descriptions, though helpful, are minimal. Most photos focus on a single object, centered against a plain background. They show no clutter, no distractions. The overall effect can seem cold and relentless, as each item demands the viewer’s attention. There’s nowhere else for the eye to go.
This emphasizes how narrow the transhumanist subjects are. Only certain people — all white, mostly male — are displayed as cyborgs or transhumanist innovators. To some extent this reflects the preponderance of white European and American men in the transhumanist movement. But the uniformity of the skin color palette also suggests a missed opportunity to explore why some bodies are more likely to benefit, physically and financially, from these innovations. As people of color have historically been portrayed by white power structures as less than human, and transhumanist pioneers see themselves as more than human, exploring these disparities as a counterpoint to transhumanism’s depoliticized techno-optimism could have provided the book with an insightful sociopolitical dimension.
But what H+ does, it does well. Usefully, Gasfou adopts a neutral tone in his text and imagery, rather than explicitly venerating or criticizing transhumanists. This dispassionate attitude helps to highlight the intriguing contradictions in the transhumanist movement: a focus on rationality that takes on an almost mystical fervor; a devotion to scientific advancement that also sees beauty in design. Showcasing transformational changes in the ways we view our bodies and the possibilities for hybridizing them, H+: Transhumanism(s) is both a historical document and a possible warning for the future.