I have worked with Revital Cohen since she was at the RCA Design Interactions programme. She has since exhibited all over the place and her latest output is 'Genetic Heirloom', an inquiry into the 'increased availability of genetic information'. She has worked with me, Richard Ashcroft, Anthony Dunne and Ainsley Newson to develop ideas around this subject and the latest output is a beautiful art book, within which I have a chapter titled 'A Decade of Genetic (Mis)Information'. Here's an excerpt:
Respectively, GATTACA and the Genetic Heirlooms represent public understandings of genetics that are characteristic of their times. In the late 1990s, GATTACA was released at a point when genetic determinism was taken for granted and where applications of genetic information were considered likely to lead to a two-tier society, dystopian in character and relentless in its pursuit of transhuman goals. In such a world, the genetically privileged people have has complete disregard for the ‘in-valid’, characterising those who leave their genetic predispositions to chance as irresponsible. In contrast, the Genetic Heirlooms is informed by two decades of public debate and relatively few achievements in genetic science, which refocus the debate from the pursuit of perfection to practical issues regarding the management of information and how its existence may transform human relationships. To this end, the Genetic Heirlooms imagine a world where people find ways of coming to terms with their genetic risk and even endeavour to remove harm by altering their environment, rather than directly modifying their genes.
At the root of each creative work is a debate about kinship, specifically what will bond people together in a world where the biological connections are engineered, rather than given. These issues have immediate relevance for society today, as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis nears a point where it could be utilized to select for the kinds of characteristics that may be characterized as lifestyle preferences, rather than health needs. Already, we are able to select for sex and accept this to some extent when it is related to some inheritable disease. Moreover, some countries have begun to discuss - and in some cases rejected - the merit of selecting for sex on the basis of ‘family balancing,’ where parents may just want a boy or a girl on the basis of wanting to ensure that they have a balance of each. Society is still not at a point where it has found moral cause in permitting widespread acceptance in such decisions, but it may be around the corner.
To help guard against any possible loss of human goodness that may arise from such an era, kinship should be our starting point when trying to assess what is at stake. Would optimizing our genes be considered a form of human enhancement, if it leads to the collapse of family ties, or bonds across humanity more generally? Could we accept conferring narrowly defined genetic modifications in pursuit of a particular form of human excellence, or would this compromise the broader aspirations a person may have for their life where the modification may actually be a hindrance?
These questions are beautifully expressed by the Genetic Heirlooms, which propose the transformation of our engagement with genetic inheritance. They present alternative views of understanding the significance of genetics, where mutation may be seen as a valued part of identity, something perhaps even to celebrate, when it allows certain freedoms that normal people cannot access.
Miah, A. (2011) A Decade of Genetic (Mis)Information, in R. Cohen. Genetic Heirloom, MTA Digital, no pagination.