The Life Fair

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By Amanda Dameron / Published by Dwell
Curators in Rotterdam present an exhibition that questions the often unsettling future of technology as a constant presence from cradle to grave.

At the intersection of politics, economics, ethics, design, and technology, the human body has become a battlefield of varied and often conflicting forces. With universal themes such as Birth, Work, Sex, Security, and Health, a recent exhibition at the Het Nieuwe Instituut titled "The Life Fair: New Body Products" explores how the quest for an optimal body has developed into a highly competitive market. We sat down with the co-curators, Agata Jaworska and Giovanni Innella, to discuss how they view technology’s relationship to how we navigate the modern world. 

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How did the two of you come to work on this project?  

We have been collaborating for a number of years. What brings us together is our interest in popular culture and politics, and a shared view that exhibitions can act as mirrors for societies today. Our approach to curating in some way reflects the mechanisms of social media in the sense that we try to flatten hierarchies of art, politics, and popular culture.  


It’s a pretty esoteric topic. What prompted the subject? 

 We wanted to explore the ways in which institutions and corporations have an impact on the most important and intimate aspects of our lives. We were intrigued by the idea of highlighting the conflicts between free will, social good, and profit-making. 


You cite popular culture as a major factor in your process. How do narratives from shows like Black Mirror and Westworld, where power and technology are inextricably linked, influence your view of the future? 

Are we becoming desensitized to a dystopian future in which free will is sublimated to the power of technology? There is a dark undertone to some of the products and services that visitors encounter at the fair simply because there is always more to a product than the sales pitch. When we buy something, we also buy into a belief system, an ideal of beauty, love, health, or security. In presenting an ideal, these technologies structure our ideas of ourselves—how we should live and who we should become—and they do this by tapping into our hopes and fears. 

 

Have you reconsidered any personal assumptions or beliefs as a result of this exhibition?  

For a long while we have been skeptical of institutions and their promise to serve the interest of "the people." Companies have their own interests in mind when they strive to gain followers, power, and money. But certainly not all institutions are equal, and the point of the exhibition is to manifest the complexity of these relations, as well as the instances in which institutions, public or private, are essential. Our personal lives are entangled with third-party interests, and the fair enables visitors to navigate that complexity.  

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Why is now the right moment to explore these issues? 

We are living in a time in which individual identities, governing institutions, and companies’ agendas create short-term alliances and generate constant frictions. The roles of popular figures, the financial elite, and political leaders are becoming interchangeable, and we are seeing unexpected individuals gain positions of power. 


In your view, is this shift toward technology as a constant companion to human beings, from cradle to grave, an exciting possibility or a troublesome one?  

The history of humanity has been shaped by technology. The fair highlights technological developments in order to question our entanglements with institutions, and how these relations play out when certain technologies are involved. For example, Apple and Facebook were among the first employers to offer egg-freezing coverage to their female employees. Where once there was a battle between peak work and peak fertility, the employer enables —nudges—us to work now and have kids later. The workplace is shaping our fertility options and our ideas about family, and such cultural shifts are ultimately responsible for the widespread adoption or rejection of new technological developments. The fair doesn’t take a stance per se on whether or not this is troublesome but rather highlights the controversies.  

 

What do you hope attendees of your exhibition will glean from their experience?  

We hope visitors will be confronted with their existential dilemmas—the products and services shown at the exhibition are in fact manifestations of our fears and dreams. At the same time, we hope visitors will understand that behind any choice they make, they are unavoidably joining a certain community, fostering a specific economy, and subjecting themselves to some agent of power. The implicit message that the fair conveys to its attendees is that you can choose any life you want, but there is a price to pay. And it’s not included in the price tag. 

 The Life Fair will be on view through August 2017 at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Museumpark 25, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The full exhibition catalog is available at thelifefair.hetnieuweinstituut.nl