Your Body as An Art Project

Your Body as An Art Project

How one young British artist is pushing the boundaries of bodily design
Ed White
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Agi Haines’ artwork isn’t easy on the eyes. But to her, it looks just like home. As the daughter of two South East London artists who met while working at Madame Tussauds wax museum, her childhood home was populated with wax heads, antique surgical tools, and sculpture scaffolds. Viewing the human body as raw material for design interventions wasn’t the stuff of some sci-fi future—it started as a family affair (her sister, Beatrice Haines caught the bug, too) and Haines has been working and speaking about it ever since.

Imagine, for example, using parts from an eel to shock the human heart with current when it’s having a heart attack? In an exhibit called Domestic Futures at Nationalmuseum of design, Stockholm Haines showed exactly such a “product”. Goodbye defibrillating paddles, hello electric eel!

More recently, IDEO’s London studio collaborated with Haines for New Old, an exhibit at the Design Museum London. The result was “Spirit,” an AI assistant for the elderly. After working alongside Haines, we found ourselves intrigued, so we caught up with her to ask a few questions about what it means to be a budding biodesigner.

When did you first think about getting into design, and why?

When I was younger, I had many misconceptions about design that I think are still problematic today. You rarely get to see the messy, exhausting, and all-consuming guts of design work, but I think it is an incredibly engaging discipline. I got my masters in the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art, and am now undertaking PhD research at Transtechnology Research at Plymouth University.

Who are the designers, artists, writers, and thinkers that have influenced your work?

Noam Toran, my tutor on my MA course, offered many fascinating and unnerving threads of research, along with Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who promoted alternative ways of thinking. I also like Floris Kaayk (a bit of enjoyable grossness there!), who always seems to have something fascinating in progress; my close friend designer Soomi Park, who is highlighting sensitivity to emotion in artificially intelligent objects; and recently, I saw a great talk by Hyphen-labs, which probes some really important questions about design.

Tell us what you produced for the “New Old” Design Museum exhibit

For “Spirit,” I made some sculptures of potential body modifications—visualizing how a fictional company might improve sociability in the elderly. The IDEO team, including Ed White, Daniel Tauber, and Javier Soto Morras, had researched alterations that could be made to the body to send biological notifications. The work made me aware of the pressures and expectations on the elderly.

Tell us about three of your favorite projects

In 2013, I produced “Transfigurations”, which depicted babies with structural modifications. The work encouraged people to consider whether surgical procedures might offer solutions to future social and environmental problems. I think the cuteness of these sculptures made the work both disturbing and delightful. Another project, involved dissecting sculptures of anatomical parts, suggesting potential future procedures such as the removal of a cyst from a bionic eye implant. The tactile element helped this work to become a lightning rod for discussion regarding scientific research. Currently, I am developing “if you prick us do we not bleed?” about how we interact with humanoid robots by including bodily fluids. I was, of course, inspired by the famous Shylock monologue in the Merchant of Venice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” .It's still a very powerful message about the mistreatment of those perceived as different.

What does it mean to use the body as a design medium?

All of my work is, of course, speculative. I don’t spend much time actually moving human material around, although I did once spend a very interesting day at a cadaver research laboratory! Instead I research the tools and materials that may have an impact on the body, or how we perceive the body. There are already disciplines that have to view the body as editable, and moving this way of thinking from a surgical or dental domain to a design or engineering one is where there is space for interesting interventions. There seems to be lots of interest in nanotechnology, and like many biotechnologies, this means there will be interactions with designs we can not see, but can perhaps feel, and maybe also artificial intelligence that may make design decisions for us.

Want to see more of Haines’ work? Find her current exhibits and talks here.

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Ed White
I help companies unlock design’s superpower—its ability to paint a compelling vision and strategy of what the future could look like—and prototype the first steps to concretely move them toward that place.
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