When does a life end? When does it begin? And who determines this?
In 1968 three events interlink to form a constellation radicalizing these questions:
In Cape Town the surgeon Christiaan Barnard carries out
the first successful human heart-to-heart transplant.
In Boston an ad-hoc committee of Harvard Medical School chaired by
Henry K. Beecher sets brain death as the criterion for the clinical decision on life and death.
George A. Romero’s classic 'Night of the Living Dead' is released
in cinemas and revolutionizes the zombie genre.
How do we answer these questions today?
The congress was the location of an encounter between various persons and languages which currently define what is still/already alive and what is still/already dead. The zone in-between, an unclear zone of the undead, is the subject of controversial discussion in the life sciences and is being continually extended at a furious pace. The research undertakings of biotechnology, the considerations of medical ethics, the achievements of transplantation medicine and the hesitating help of philosophy has been confronted and charged with the visual worlds of pop culture over the three days. At these interfaces the congress should have been gathered narratives, signs, images and ciphers for an archive of the undead.
We modern humans find it difficult to grant death a place in conducting our day-to-day lives. Rather, life is treasured and fostered: through preventive health policy and optimization technologies (surgical, pharmacological, mechanical, psychological) it is lengthened, with death deferred and dying administered more and more efficiently. And one thing is indisputable: all of us will find ourselves in situations where we make dubious decisions, decision which will have overtaxed us and walk a fine line legally, symbolically and humanly. The vulnerable states between life and death have to be cared for, looked after, fostered and protected on a daily basis, and it is questionable to what extent individuals and society will be able to perform this care work.
The speakers and presenters were: gerontologists, theatre and film scholars, lawyers, philosophers, medical professionals, carers, artists. The films and images which accompanied these three days were taken from the shrill pop world of the zombies. The ideas brought forth by the transhumanists, the super cripples, the attendants of vegetative state patients, the post-rational and the carers were to be simultaneously told in a mise-en-scène that was overloading and complex.
It was a monstrous juxtapositioning, a meeting place of the disparate. But this is what the zones and the stalkers between life and death always were, back then as well, in 1968, a year we are drawing on as a historical condensate of three events which are intertwined and determine our situation today: the first heart transplant in South Africa was followed by the decision of a Harvard Medical School committee in Boston to set the cessation of brain activity as the criterion for death. The chairman was Henry K. Beecher who had advised American torture research in the 1950s. The CIA conducted experiments in the Villa Schuster, located near Frankfurt am Main, and it is here that he frequently met the former Nazi doctor Walter Schreiber, active at Dachau concentration camp, to “exchange and share views”. 1968 is also the year that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in cinemas and established the B-movie icon of the zombie as a figure reflecting relations of violence: war, racism and consumerism are the permanent themes of such films.
The congress was played out in the mise-en-scène of a film set – hospital, laboratory, cemetery, cinema –, a tribute to the cinematic figure of the zombie, who appeared on screen without any significant antecedent in literature or art history. And indeed film itself is an undead medium: first it fragments the movements of a living body, freezes them, frames and captures them, only to then reanimate and parade them on the screen.
We called this event a congress, but it was also a game with the attention of our visitors and an enactment, namely of the various cultures of science and speculative fictions. It took up a form of mise-en-scène from the 19th century: the theatrical popularization of scientific knowledge in an age firmly believing in progress. Under the motto: “making scientific knowledge a tangible experience of shock and astonishment”, public showrooms were created in which the gaining of knowledge became an instance of collective practice – a form of popular theatre. Back then, doubts about and criticism of the controllability of science and technology, along with the thinking of the Enlightenment, were unplanned side effects: we gave them the entire stage.
Karin Harrasser and Hannah Hurtzig
on behalf of the scientific curators and the production team