The Super Genetic Market

Franco Angeloni

Introduction to this project

At the beginning of the new Millennium the mapping of the human genome was completed: every individual genetic characteristic is recognizable inside every chromosome and can be modified. The possibility to 'build' a man, a man-made-man endowed with the qualities society requests, raises dramatic ethical, political, and economical problems. Do we have to set limits to the exploitation and modification of nature? What remains of the man's identity and freedom if every aspect of his character can be modified and predetermined? The nightmare of a futuristic totalitarianism inspired Andrew Niccol's 'fanta-thriller', Gattaca.

In a nearby future, prenatal selection of the genes has become normalised and society is built on the physical and intellectual excellence of its members. The 'children of love', naturally conceived, are victims of the 'genetic racism', because they are not 'perfect'; or they have a predisposition to certain diseases. One of these 'children of love', Vincent Freeman (interpreted by Ethan Hawke), tries to pass himself off as one of the 'valids' in an attempt to work his way up the ladder of Gattaca, a space-flight corporation, so that he can become an astronaut. He borrows stick-on fingerprints and urine samples from a genetically-superior doppelgänger who has been paralysed in an accident. Endurance, the capacity of dreaming and taking risks are the qualities that make Vincent achieve his goal - to become an astronaut - despite his 'genetic' inferiority.

Two aspects of this film make us think about the real threats of genetic engineering: The first social-economic consequence of genetic research could be the spreading of prenatal genetic selection, initially for health reasons (to reduce genetically determined diseases), then because insurance companies would refuse to ensure people who are not genetically perfect or bear in their genes even a predisposition to a certain sickness. This phenomenon could lead to new 'genetic' apartheids.

The second consequence is of a philosophical order. If we could decide in advance, or even 'buy' characteristics like 'scientific intelligence', the talent for music, sport, etc., what would be left of our identity and of the deep reasons of our choices and actions? Vincent's story demonstrates that the capacity of believing and dreaming is more important than a physical superiority and that endurance and progress in pursuing our life-goals are the consequence of the unique story and life experience of each man.

Art is still an important tool, which can help to solve this moral and social matter. It can provide us with the anthropological means to face the genetic revolution, to make choices for real human progress. In the last decade of the 20th century many artists have been inspired by 'fantagenetic' imagery. In the science-fiction nightmare, genetic mutated monsters replace robots and extraterrestrial beings. Or, like in a Damien Hirst fantasy, living creatures exist in an aseptic zone of 'conservation', between life and death. Franco Angeloni warns us against the commercialisation of genetic heritage and, playing with marketing strategies that could be used to sell this new product (the gene), shows the absurdity of considering the human body a product. Angeloni makes a mockery of our attitude as consumers, always ready to follow the false promises of the market and believe that we can buy the means to be a better person or receive recognition.

The Super Genetic Market is a showcase, which displays these materialised objects of desire and visualises a paradoxical situation: it is not 'we' anymore; our qualities are something we can choose and combine. The tragicomic play of a man bagging qualities leads to a 'man without qualities'. We are spectators of an apparently ironic play. If our conscience is touched the game becomes cynical. It is up to us. The artist asks us what we want and packs the product, with both thoughtlessness and optimism. But everything seems too easy… too artificial. It is the death of desire, the end of ambitions. Paradoxically, just that lack of desire, ambition, and endurance will lead us away from those goals we wanted to achieve by buying genes! The artist is not a moralist, nor an idealist. On the contrary, playing with the mechanism and the language of the market he shows a sane attitude towards the consumerism society. There are no neuroses, no atrocities, and no 'demonisations' of advertising strategies. We can choose. We can leisurely go towards our future. The 'genetic ghosts' are exorcised. Finally, mankind will always be the same, for better or worse…

(Marina Turco is an art historian and new media art curator)