The exhibition The Life Fair takes the form of a trade fair offering products and services connected with various aspects of life such as love, sex, birth, identity, health, security and death. Curators Agata Jaworska and Giovanni Innella give visitors the opportunity to explore possibilities for improving their own bodies and lives but also confront them with the interests behind the products and services on offer.
Giovanni Innella: ‘The Life Fair presents products and services of companies, governments and organisations that have an influence on our bodies and our lives. We realise that our bodies and lives are an arena for our free will - the idea of the freedom of the individual - and, for society’s collective interests, subject to government control and influence. At the same time, our bodies and our lives are a marketplace for companies, where they can offer the products and services that help us to improve ourselves and perform better. This leads to the essential question: how free are we?’
Agata Jaworska: ‘The exhibition explores the extent to which our bodies are entangled with technology. Technology has no agency, but the parties who develop it do. How are the interests of these organisations entangled in with our lives when we use their technologies to monitor, control or improve ourselves? How do they expand or limit the scope of our freedom? The exhibition tries to reveal the underlying political and financial interests of the actors who offer these products and services.’
How is this critical layer made visible or explained in the exhibition?
GI: ‘That was exactly why we decided to give the exhibition the form of a trade fair. We didn’t simply want to exhibit projects. We also wanted to make visitors aware of the fact that there are companies, governments or NGOs behind these products and services that are not always immediately apparent. The trade fair model allows us to show what lies behind the goods on offer.’
Are all the exhibited products real and available?
GI: ‘Some of them are speculative, but there are also real projects that speculate about their actual aim by trying to sell us something. You could say that the entire exhibition is speculative, but that’s primarily because the world we live in is speculative.’
AJ: ‘Some of the more speculative content comes from commercial companies. An example is SwanLuv, a startup that was offering to pay up to $10,000 for a wedding. The company would asses online data in order to decide which applicants receive funding. They would then calculate an interest rate based on the chance that the couple would separate in the future. In case of a divorce, the couple would have to pay back the sum plus interest. The service was due to be launched on Valentine’s Day, but the website is no longer online.
The exhibition weaves speculative and real content. They are meant to provoke one another.’
The Olympic Games are the reason why Het Nieuwe Instituut is focussing on the body. What role does the sportsperson’s body play in the exhibition?
GI: ‘Sport is about disciplining, monitoring and quantifying the body in order to enable it to perform better and make it more competitive. I think these terms are also applicable to how we live our lives. Many of the products in the exhibition help you to discipline and improve your body and thus promise you a successful life.’
AJ: ‘The next step after optimisation is commodification. Data generated while moving and living can be of value to other parties. In the exhibition we feature Bitwalking, a company that quantifies human movement and translates it into a global currency. Your movement can directly be translated into monetary value.’
‘But you can also see resistance to these kinds of developments. That resistance manifests itself on the one hand in strategies for evading forms of monitoring and identification and, on the other hand, in pushing the boundaries of social conventions. The exhibition includes a deadly rollercoaster. During the ride your body is submitted to such extreme forces that you cannot survive it. This project by the artist Julijonas Urbonas is about euthanasia, about whether we are free to choose our own death.’
How are the various themes such as love, work and death represented in the exhibition?
AJ: ‘The fair is divided into sections, which represent universal life themes. We try to emphasise the extent to which these domains are entangled. Take for example, the rising trend of corporate wellness programs. Corporations such as BP offer their employees fitness trackers along with rewards for behaviour that is good for their health. In an effort to attract more women, Apple and Facebook were the first employers to offer their female employees egg freezing as part of their benefit package. A woman’s peak fertility often overlaps with her prime working years. It’s an instance of an employer radically altering your fertility options.
One of the points we want to make is the fact that our employees are entangled with our health and our family lives, just as much as governments are.
So placing a product or service in a particular section ensures that it is given a certain significance or context?
GI: ‘The placement in a particular category or creating connections results in a critical discourse.’
AJ: ‘We make the tension between the body and its external forces visible. A central question in the exhibition is: what is the relationship between individual choice and collective control?’
GI: ‘Visitors will realise that they play three roles: individual, citizen and consumer.’
AJ: ‘We show fragments from our daily lives that exert an influence on who we are or could be, on how free we are to design our own lives. And we also focus attention on the role that technologies, legislation and human rights play in this. One of the organisations featured in the exhibition is Transgender Europe, which promotes the rights of individuals who want to change their identity. They make a plea for greater fluidity whereas governments, in the ‘interest’ of security, want to fix individuals with a rigid identity in order to be sure they know who they are dealing with. The Life Fair introduces several such polarising interests in our society.
What role does design play in The Life Fair?
GI: We don’t focus on the aesthetics of design, its user-friendliness or sustainability. We use design as a means to understand what all these objects and services tell us about the world: design as a manifestation of bigger questions and needs.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma