Subtle Technologies Festival – Immortality – Toronto, June 8-9, 2013

Remember these?

hela cells

Last year, Subtle Technologies Festival ended with a talk on Henrietta Lacks: her life was cut short by a cancer of the cervix, yet her cancer cells were discovered to be immortal.  Today, these cells, known as HeLa Cells are widely used in biological and medical science. She died, but her cells helped other lives; she is gone, yet her legacy remained; the circumstances of her death and the treatments that had allowed the preservation of her cells (which she didn’t donate, but were taken) helped raise  ethical issues about privilege and consent in science, who gets to receive medical treatments, who gets to be credited for a discovery that implied the exploitation of a woman’s illness…(You can read it here)

This story inspired this year’s theme: IMMORTALITY…or should we rename it “ImmortalitieS”? In fact, there is no such thing as one definition of immortality. living forever? living longer? simply not dying (doesn’t mean being alive)? and what does it mean to live forever? what or who lives forever? the body? the soul? one’s legacy? the brain?  living forever intentionally? or by curse? what happens when we die? is it over? do we transcend our body? or do we keep living somewhere else? or in someone (something) else’s  body?

For centuries science, literature and the arts have tried to grapple with immortality and eternal life (and their perceived opposite, mortality and death), unleashing a never ending list of fiction, science and pseudoscience, art, myths, technology  (think Galbani, Frankenstein, the vampire, our obsession with conservation and archaeology, the very modern fear of aging, singularity, cryogenics, anti-aging etc..) The work to  be presented at this year’s festival is, of course, a fraction of what has been said on this topic. Its goal, as usual, is to encourage discussion.

While I get ready for my usual ST marathon starting on thursday with the ironic Retro-death-telegraphy  Workshop with Ryan Jordan here is a famous poem by John Donne that leaves room to some reflections (allow me to take this out of context, let’s assume that it was not written in the XVI century).

Death, be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go –
Rest of their bones, and souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.

— John Donne (1573-1631)