At the borderline of technology and biology, bodyhacking pioneers are defying nature to redesign their own bodies. Is this really the future?
Earlier this year I went to an event in Austin, Texas, billed as a sneak preview of the evolution of our species. The #Bdyhax Conference, which took place in a downtown exhibition complex, promised a front-row insight into the coming “singularity” – that nirvana foretold by science fiction in which biology and technology would fuse and revolutionise human capability and experience.
The headline acts of the conference were mostly bodyhackers – DIY experimenters who, in their basements and garages, seek to enhance their own flesh and blood with biometric implants and cognitive enablers. These brave pioneers were extending their senses, overcoming physical limitation, Dan-Daring themselves and the rest of us into the future.
At least that was the idea. The reality of the convention was a little more mundane. It was overpriced and sparsely attended. Disparate and awkward groups of the pierced and the tattooed wandered between lectures about the ethics of body augmentation, and budget demonstrations of virtual worlds, past stalls flogging various kinds of neurotropic snake oil or enthusing over the transforming possibilities of magnets and LED lights inserted under the skin.
Occasionally, over a long couple of days, there was a genuine spark of wonder – the demonstration of a vest that converted sound into multiple vibrations felt across the back, promising a new way for deaf people to hear; a drummer who had lost an arm, and had customised his own prosthetic that could now play like Buddy Rich; a woman, Moon Ribas, who had wired herself to experience tiny shifts in tectonic plates, and was converting those tremors into choreography.
These latter experiments seemed to exist somewhere between art, medicine and counterculture. They shared a knowledge of the newly understood plasticity of the brain, and a utopian idea of technology, and were pushing that understanding in novel, homemade directions. They were, at least, the most convincing hints that this introverted subculture – which styles itself as “transhuman” – was sometimes knocking at the doors of perception just as determinedly as those early experimenters with hallucinogenic drugs in the last century.
David Vintiner, a British photographer, has been following this subculture for the past two years. He divides his pictures of transhumanists – some of which are reproduced here – into three groups: those who are working to extend life, those toying with implants as body art, and those attempting to make permanent changes to the human condition. The pictures capture precisely the ironies that were on display in Austin, Texas: the odd union between scientific innovators and garden-shed fantasists.
“We set out at the beginning to photograph people in a domestic environment as much as possible,” Vintiner’s collaborator Gem Fletcher tells me. “These things are mostly happening in people’s bedrooms.”
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