WAITING FOR THE FUTURE: ON CRYONICS
Essay by Eirik Melstrøm. April 2019.
In the otherwise lively American city of Clinton Township, Michigan, lies a facility that offer cool housing for the people of tomorrow. For a mere $28.000, the Cryonics Institute will secure you safe passage into the future through what they call “patient care”; long term storage of human beings through cryopreservation, i.e. the freezing of your dead body.
Cryonics involves cooling a recently deceased person to liquid nitrogen temperatures, keeping the body preserved indefinitely. Stating that dying is a process rather than an event, the goal of the Cryonics Institute is to keep the patient preserved until future science can repair or replace vital tissues and ultimately revive the patient. By then the technology prophesized by Fedorov will hopefully be in place so that the clients from thereon can survive indefinitely – to give them that second chance at life they always wanted, one that will never expire.
The actual process is called vitrification. Immediately after a person is declared legally dead, its body is placed into the hands of the awaiting Cryonics Institute staff, who quickly place it in an icy bath. The body is then transported to the C.I. facility where the process begins of draining all blood from the body and replacing it with a kind of anti-freeze liquid that will prevent damage to the blood vessels during low temperatures. Over the next six days the body is then brought slowly down to freezing temperatures. At last it is placed in a large insulated fiber glass tank, functioning a lot like a giant thermos, that can withstand the freezing temperature of up to -196 degrees Celsius, held stable by continuous supply of liquid nitrogen, indefinitely.
The actual design and construction of the tank unit has undergone many changes since they first started long term cryopreservation in the 1960s. Today they make use of a fourth-generation tank that can hold up to six full bodies, in addition to eight heads and a few small pets. Some clients choose to preserve only their heads, believing that if the technology of the future will be able to bring them back to life it will also have advanced to such a degree in robotics that replacing the rest of the body should be a menial task.
Despite the morbid aura surrounding a container holding multiple dead bodies, I believe the reason people are doing this is based on a desire to survive. Or more precisely these tanks are rather physical testaments of our fear of dying. I recognize a similar motivation in other contemporary technological developments concerned with radical life extension, like genetic modification, where scientists are now able to locate and block components in our cells that cause age-related diseases, like Parkinson’s. Also, growing organ tissue from scratch using stem cells is an emerging science. Growing for example a full-size heart in a machine is now possible. Scientists call it a “Ghost heart”, and it works. So, if you got heart failure you could grow a new one designed just for you based on your own DNA. A third example of the pursuit of immortality is colonization of Mars, increasing in relevance parallel with the thermostat rising on Earth. The private space exploration agency SpaceX has from its infancy had its eyes on Mars as the target for commercial space travel. It represents an endeavor that one day might be the only alternative for the survival and prolonged life expectancy of Humanity. The first manned mission to the red planet is scheduled to take off from the old Apollo launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2024.
Beyond the phenomenal reach of all these incredible developments, what I find interesting is the way that the quest towards immortality in some ways blurs the boundaries between life and death, normally thought of as one of the absolute binaries of our existence: we are born – and then we die. Life in between is filled with ambiguity, chance and incertitude, as well as beauty and mystery. Alas, whatever the course of our lives, and because of the entropic nature of the biological vessels we inhabit, we are all bound to the inescapable fact of death. My point is that contemporary strives towards radical life extension and immortality represent an unprecedented surge that challenges the absoluteness of life and death. It can be argued that the spiritual idea of the soul is also blurring the boundary between life and death, as well as the belief in religious afterlife. The difference with this new paradigm is that its material and cerebral, rather than spiritual. Cryonics is about the possibility of resurrecting body and mind though a material process, not spirituality.
I am really drawn to the aspect of waiting. Somehow, these people are lying in wait, encapsulated, waiting for something to happen, for the future, waiting for technology, anticipating the future. They exist in the in-between – a temporal phase of unconsciously waiting for immortality, to be born again, to be reawaken. And at the end of the wait is a future that will never end. In many ways, it is pushing to the extreme Heideggers idea that human existence is experienced temporarily, in that we project ourselves through striving for a future objective – immortality, or more precisely, timelessness.
The painter Mark Rothko addressed the idea of the in-between by painting portals, windows, openings into where we, in his own words would make “unknown experiences into unknown space”. I believe there is a likeness between that speculative unknown space that Rothko is leading us, and the unknown state of wait that I want to project in my work – the inexperience-able nature of the beyond.
The project I am working on consists of three large crates, containers built after the proportions of a human body, covered with pitch black epoxy resin, and filled with a calm but circulating liquid. It was not until I began constructing the crates that I realized that I´ve been unconsciously influenced by Rothko’s series of paintings, especially the ones made for the Seagram Four Seasons restaurant in New York, and the chapel-series in Houston. The rectangular shapes, the lying formats, the tragic notion of the images, the need to communicate a heavy burden, the inexplicable nature of the dialogue that is opened to what can only be described as the unknown, of building on a wish that the viewer would enter a space and by the constructed environment be insisted upon to relate to a sentiment, exaggerated by the lowering of the lights, as if you were in a cinema – expectation in the dimness. Inviting you into an unspecified place. One that might trap you. The immortal afterlife as an inescapable trap, one where you are forever forced to live in the eternal recurring of the same, as Nietzsche would call it.