Building the everyman cyborg

19 September 2012

As well as meeting two real-life cyborgs during our Superhuman drop-in event We Are All a Cyborg, we asked participants to share their own experiences of implants and enhancements. Richard Tyrone Jones describes building ‘Gene’ from the realities and the desires of visitors to Wellcome Collection.

Hello, I’m Richard Tyrone Jones, a poet, educator, performance artist, host, and cyborg. I’m a cyborg, not just due to my braces and contact lenses, but because I have an internal cardiac defibrillator under my collarbone with leads creeping into my heart. It keeps my heart beating in time but shocks me if my pulse goes dangerously fast. Last week, as part of the Wellcome Collection’s Superhuman exhibition, I completed three days of performances and audience-interactive art with Sarah Ruff, a performance artist with and fellow cyborg who has a contraceptive implant, which ensures she can’t get pregnant but messes with her body’s natural cycles.

We viewed the exhibition ourselves early on, thinking of our responses to it and what material would work best, given the variety of interesting exhibits visitors would have actually seen. Then, on the hour, we performed about seven minutes each, explaining how we both came to be real-life cyborgs by using projections on and around our body, anecdotes and clunky dancing. For an idea of what it looked like, see or the trailer for my full show, ‘Richard Tyrone Jones’s Big Heart’. About 300 people over the three days – many more than we expected – enjoyed the performances, asked questions, gave us positive feedback and felt up our cybernetic implants. But that wasn’t all.

Afterwards, we invited the audience to share their experiences of their own cyborg implants, prosthetic parts or bodily augmentation – or those of people they have known. Our aim was to collect enough stories of ‘cybernetic’ augmentation to get close to creating a fully robot being from our showroom dummy friend – who Simon the sound man dubbed ‘Gene’ – to bring him/her to life as a third ‘everyman cyborg’.

So, by covering every part of the human body that can now be replaced in duct tape, and by attaching luggage tags with the audience’s ‘Superhuman interest’ stories written on them to every relevant part of Gene, we soon built up a map of where the human body most often goes wrong or needs a little synthetic help…. from the locations where most luggage tags are dangling, you can see it was primarily the face, knees and hip joints that tended to need replacement the most!

We collected no less than 74 different stories of cybernetic augmentation from visitors over the nine hours. We had planned to draw illustrations and write poems on some of the tags, but in the end it was almost all we could do to note down all the medical stories! The most interesting stories were, for me, from those with implantable cardioverter defibrillators like mine. One man, who knew someone who’d been brought back from the dead no less than five times by his ICD, wrote: “I have an ICD just as you do – also due to heart failure. But… you didn’t mention – someday we’ll have to decide to have it switched off.” It’s a very good point – and one I worked into my presentation from then on.

When you’re bemoaning the fact you have no shoes, along comes someone with no feet, so they say. Carolina had Long QT syndrome Type 2– a very rare, genetic but environmentally triggered condition that results in a severe allergic reaction to more than 10,000 drugs. When she was 22, she was given the wrong medication and had 14 heart rushes, going into ventricular fibrillation at a rate of about 500 bpm. Her heart stopped for 37 minutes, and she was largely conscious throughout – they had to defibrillate her, put her on a heart and lung machine and keep her in ice to slow down her metabolism while they fitted her ICD. On top of all that, she’s also diabetic and so has an insulin pump that gives her insulin every 20 seconds. She was definitely our most-‘borged visitor – but also looked very healthy and chipper despite all she’d been through. It’s a testament to how far we humans have progressed in mending ourselves using spare parts – and the elastic nature of the human spirit!

Not all of these stories referenced current technology, though. We allowed visitors’ imaginations to run wild on the coloured luggage tags. And while some of the cybernetic enhancements people would like to see are perennial favourites (wings, a tail), others showed a lot of imagination: ‘digital skin’ on which adverts, tattoos or sponsorship could be programmed by nanotechnology or chameleon-like pigment changes, and – my personal favourite – the ‘off switch’. When the lady suggested this I immediately assumed “Oh yes, so you could just go straight to sleep at night,” but she countered with “No, so that you can choose when to die.”

We decided that the on/off switch would be hidden in the small of the back under a flap of skin (here, more duct tape) and that it would need three responsible people to all decide to turn it off – two doctors, and (usually) the person whose switch it was…! Or it could just be put on a timer. So while visitors were excited by the idea of gadgetry extending our lifespans, many are also already thinking about how to responsibly end life too – more than our governments, anyway!

I learned an awful lot from doing these shows and speaking to so many super humans. We often think of cybernetic technology as futuristic gadgetry that enhances human capabilities, but we – or rather Gene – collected a plethora of examples of cybernetics that already live within people today, from spectacles to prostheses to robotic implants. And maybe we didn’t succeed in replacing all of Gene with cyborg technolog, and creating a reverse-Pinocchio son, but as I write this, and finish typing up all of the luggage labels, there’s a glint in his disembodied false eye that says he isn’t quite ready to go back into his box…

‘Richard Tyrone Jones’s Big Heart’ is on tour around the UK this Autumn, supported by Wellcome Trust. Follow Richard on twitter: @rtjpoet.