Interview with Artist Zoë Hough on The Microbial Verdict : You Live Until You Die

This May Arebyte Gallery, London, opens a solo exhibition by artist Zoë Hough. With the thought-provoking title, The Microbial Verdict: You Live Until You Die, the show explores issues surrounding ageing in modern society and the desire for control over our bodies and our minds. Hough creates a speculative scenario where synthetic biology allows all citizens to live until they die; that is, they live only for as long as they remain “themselves”. The artist speaks to us about her background in economics and her approach to this unique project.

A: Your latest exhibition at Arebyte London, The Microbial Verdict : You Live Until You Die is an intriguing if not obscure title. Can you tell us a little more about your latest project, and what it means to you?
ZH: The project is a speculative design project, spanning the themes of dementia, synthetic biology and politics. The beginnings of the project came from talking to my mum about dementia or to be more specific, it came from watching her struggle to talk about the subject without getting really emotional, because she has this intense fear that she will get Alzheimers. Later, researching around the topic of the human brain I found that researchers from Harvard had discovered a protein which allows for nontoxic and noninvasive tracking of brain activity. So, based on this research, the idea for this speculative design project developed. For those unfamiliar with the term “speculative design”, I describe it as creating work (whether that be film, objects, photography or so on) which aims to encourage speculation, critical thought, and imaginative debate around an issue. In this project a UK-wide policy is introduced for all citizens over the age of 65 to swallow a pill to enable them to only live until they die that is, they live only for as long as they remain “themselves”. It is a speculative design project but also scientifically feasible; synthetic biology would be used to engineer the protein to track the brain activity which relates to the characteristics which that citizen believes makes them “them”. When the protein detects that the brain activity in those areas have dropped below a specified level, for a specified amount of time, it makes the verdict that the person is no longer themselves and releases a toxin to end their life; you live until you die. The project explores this scenario and its causes and consequences through film, objects and also workshops. The workshops, for people over 65, are being held in partnership with AgeUK East London; speculative design projects are intended to create debate, and I’m really looking forward to where the discussions during the workshops will lead.

A: This year’s Dementia Awareness Week will take place 17-23 May . The most terrifying aspect of degenerative, age-specific diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s is the loss of control and sense of self. How do you reflect this in your work?
ZH: These two points you mention, loss of control and the sense of self, are really at the centre of the project. In this speculative scenario, people who are over 65 choose the characteristics which define them as “them”, which the protein is then programmed to track, along with what levels activity in the brain in those areas can fall to, and for what length of time. With these decisions the person retains a sense of control, although ultimately they are shifting the control over their lifespan to a microbe. And there are consequences to this increase in the feeling of control; the person must stay the same person. Having defined themselves as x y & z, they then have to remain x y & z or else the protein will decide that they are no longer themselves and will release its toxin. So, in order to stay alive citizens have to stay the same person, which is obviously difficult because we all naturally change and develop, and I would say that change is really the essence of life.

A: Your exhibition presents a speculative scenario to explore new ways of dealing with a fate we are all condemned to: the process of aging. As a society, what are we currently getting wrong? How do we transcend the fear of aging and irrelevancy in a society so obsessed with youth?
ZH: That’s a pretty huge question, and I wouldn’t feel qualified to answer on behalf of society, but in a way that is one of the problems; that a lot of decisions and choices are made at the level of society rather than on a level of the individual. Through various systems (e.g. employment, tax, housing) many of us are striving to achieve the same goals, adhering to the same rules and laws, with the decisions influencing these behaviours getting made above us, for us, and not always in our best interest. In terms of action and decisions being taken on a society level, the project is presented as a UK-wide policy, and a compulsory one at that. On display in the exhibition are government leaflets from The Department for Self & Sanity which detail both the benefits to the individual free from fear of losing your identity, and a freedom from the fear of becoming a burden on friends and family and the benefits to society, in terms of reducing NHS costs, pension costs and meeting housing and environmental targets. This kind of tapping into people’s fears, and reassuring them of the positive, of nudging them towards a certain behaviour, is really interesting (and scary) to me and prevalent in many aspects of todays society. On a different, but related note to what society values and what changes may be needed, a big part of dementia care happening right now is the focus on music. Hearing a piece of music connects so many different parts of the brain that it is common to see that, even people in the later stages of dementia, if you play them music that they’ve had a connection to during their life, they’ll recognise it and “come alive” again. Such a simple
thing like music, which isn’t necessarily classed as being important to a successful functioning of society as indicated by funding cuts across the arts actually have a huge impact on our bodies and our minds. I find it a really interesting fact that a simple thing like music in the end brings people more joy and connection to their own being than very many of their so called “achievements” throughout their lives.

A: You have a background in Economics and Management. How, if at all, has this informed your aesthetic? What inspired your decision to change tack and become a professional artist?
ZH: Yes, my path to where I am now hasn’t been the most linear. As you say, I studied economics and I also worked in advertising, and those two elements have definitely informed my work today; economics, from the theoretical perspective of how to alter behaviour and influence change in the world, and advertising as a perhaps more direct method of manipulating and changing behaviour. It is frankly quite disturbing the power that advertising has, the money behind it, and the systems in place to persuade people to buy things that they really don’t want or need. Advertisers are hugely talented at tapping into people’s fears and desires in order to make people like their brand, and persuade people to buy something even if it’s detrimental to their health, or their income, or their well being. These elements of my previous careers definitely influence my work as an artist today, and I’m really grateful to the tutors of the Design Interactions MA at the Royal College of Art for giving me a place on the course, and for their teaching and encouragement that now allows me to explore the issues in society which trouble me, and express the work in a way which hopes to encourage debate.
A: Finally, your work overlaps themes of human emotion, politics, science and society. Can you tell us a little more about how you integrate these elements into your work, from a conceptual perspective?
Each project that I’ve done to date comes from a feeling. My graduation project ‘Smile,
ZH: The Fiction Has Already Begun’, which came from a reaction to the feeling that there is such a pressure to be happy, was a project about the politicisation and monetisation of happiness in the world today. This project, The Microbial Verdict : You Live Until You Die, came from the feelings associated with talking to my mum about her fears about dementia. I need a feeling to be there, an emotional connection, to make the work, but then it is really research into social, political, scientific and technological avenues which I think shifts the work from being merely self-reflective to hopefully communicating on a more critical, imaginative, wider level about issues in society today and society future.

Zoë Hough: The Microbial Verdict: You Live Until You Die 7 May – 6 June Arebyte Gallery, Unit 4, 49 White Post Lane, Queens Yard, London E9 5EN.

1. Film Still, Zoë Hough: The Microbial Verdict: You Live Until You Die, courtesy of the artist.