The work of post-disciplinary designer Adam Peacock allows us to have much-called-for conversations regarding how technological developments are shaping our self-perception in a new online era. Peacock works primarily through his experimental lens The Validation Junky, which he developed during his master’s studies at The Royal College of Art in 2013. Through the lens, he explores the interface between consumer psychology and technology in a series of investigations. The latest – Genetics Gym – visualises what we would do with the ability to edit our genes in any way imaginable.
Imagine you could alter your DNA to your liking. You might choose to change your eye colour, your height or maybe speed up your metabolism. In recent years, scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit our genome. The technology is still experimental, whilst being illegal in most countries too. Nonetheless, in the end of 2018, the first gene-edited twin girls were born in China. “It becomes alarming because the more I work with this, and the more I speak with geneticists, we start to realise that some of what I’m speculating is not just possible, it is fast becoming a reality, and it comes with a sense of urgency to discuss how we want this technology to be developed,” says Adam Peacock.
For now, gene editing is mostly researched in relation to the prevention of specific diseases, but in his latest gallery installation, Genetics Gym, Peacock has translated the technology to look at cosmetics. “I’m in a sort of peculiar place because I’m probing the internet and image-based communication so I’m coming at this field from a different tangent. But in doing that, I’m working between consumer psychology, genetics, branding, computational design, and fashion,” he says. Peacock is a post-disciplinary designer working within fashion, which means he observes different disciplines and issues within contemporary design. But it is only for the past couple of years he has come to look at genetic technology. “I set out on this investigation trying to understand how computers and image-based communication are affecting the way we read beauty, and how it’s affecting and manipulating new cultures of reading beauty. In order to do that we need to understand how the human brain reads visual genetic strength, and that’s where the Genetics Gym came in,” he explains.
“The function of it is to engender a much bigger conversation on where we want to go with technology. How we want to continue to develop image-based communication, and equally how we want to develop genetic and artificial intelligence technologies as we continue to evolve as a species,” Peacock says. “I think maybe we will get to a point where we start to have these uncanny avatars of ourselves where we just appreciate that we exist online as some sort of PR portfolio.” Genetics Gym presents a fictional scenario in which a hypothetical pharmaceutical company sells the possibility to design yourself through gene editing. “I was asking the question, if you had the ability to design yourself in any way imaginable with new or still to be invented genetic technology, what would you do and why?” Peacock explains. Through five characters, all different in ethnicity, gender, sexuality, personality and so forth combined with five brands that all have different ideologies and perceptions of success, Peacock created twenty-five different portraits. The portraits serve as a cultural matrix for exploring where we want to take gene editing in the future. And while some scenarios, like genetically changing hair colour, seem likely to happen within a foreseeable future, Peacock explains that altering a process such as ageing seem implausible. “According to the scientists that I’ve been working with, changing the genes of ageing is one that looks really unfeasible,” he says.
The seed for the Genetics Gym installation was planted already back during Peacock’s master’s degree in Design Interactions at The Royal College of Art. But it was not until three years later, when he was awarded residency at the Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion, that the project evolved into a bigger conversation. The project came about under the lens of The Validation Junky, Peacock’s core investigation, through which he explores consumer culture and technology. “I use it as a lens to observe how anxiety and personal issues, whatever they may be, always have a relationship with consumption behaviour and the types of brands and products we use to illustrate ourselves with,” he explains.
Peacock originally developed The Validation Junky to explore questions of overconsumption and status in the twenty-first century. The ideology of the project is built upon the theory by the clinical psychologist Alan Downs, who in his book Velvet Rage discusses the anxiety attached to gay men growing up in a straight society. Downs describes gay men, who have yet to accept their sexuality, as ‘validation junkies’ seeking other’s acceptance through flashy luxury goods or successful careers. The term resonated with Peacock and became the basis of his project, which has since progressed to focus on how image-based communication, in queer culture and beyond, is creating increasing needs for validation. “When I was trying to understand why someone would swipe left or right on Tinder or why certain images are appealing on Instagram, I started looking into genetics,” he explains. “What an evolutionary biologist would term perception of genetic strength is what we call sexiness within a Darwinian evolutionist perspective.” All the way back from our ancestors our brains have been hardwired to read genetic strength. As Peacock points out, with image-based communication the popular culture appeal of women with big hips might be attributed the association with childbearing, or men with broad shoulders might be an association with protection. Our brains subconsciously tell us whether we are attracted to a person, and if we should procreate with that person to, essentially, produce well-balanced children.
And while the prospect of designer babies sounds surreal, yet fascinating, the possibility of gene editing eventually ventures into more uncomfortable realms. “The real area of contention is what you constitute as a disability. What you choose to design in or out with genetics,” Peacock says. As he acknowledges, we may find it amusing to be able to change the colour of our eyes, but if we were given the opportunity to edit out genes associated with something like Down’s syndrome, homosexuality or what the designer terms as “colourfulness of humanity”, some people might take that choice.
Most people want their children to have strong genes, but few have given much thought as to what the description entails. “How you define strong is where it gets really interesting because that is the fundamental underpinning moment about why we choose to go on a date with one person compared to another, and later down the line, why we choose one car over another. It is because of all the information that is subconsciously embedded within that thing. It’s all derived from genetics and illustrations of genetics in certain contexts,” Peacock explains.
“The thing is when you start talking in this arena, you’re entering into very uncomfortable realms. Especially as I’m sort of approaching similar subjects and conversation to the eugenics movement. But my intent is certainly not to design, or suggest, the creation of a perfect human,” he asserts. “My intent is to deconstruct image-based communication and try to observe how the internet is critically affecting the way we now illustrate our identities and communicate in the twenty-first century.”
In his role as speculative designer, Peacock aims to build bridges between already existing contexts to allow more people to enter the conversations. “The research behind Genetics Gym is so complex and multi-layered but as an installation it allows a multitude of different perspectives to come together and engage in a really rich dialogue that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to most,” he says. “We then start to build this much bigger philosophical lens to talk about the homogenisation of technology. When we’re observing Instagram, YouTube or internet dating there are certain identity expressions that win accidentally within those infrastructures.”
To Peacock living in a visual world driven by technology has led to a homogenisation of our ways of expressing identity, and he is worried that, as we continue to evolve with technology, we will continue to homogenise as well. But technology has also moved society forward in many ways that would not have been possible without. “The positives are that you see a massive rise in transsexualism, gender non-binary and sexual fluidity, which is wonderful. I think it’s allowing humans to actually become the reality of who they are rather than their binary of what society has told them they should be,” he says. “It has bridged together communities in ways that has never been done before.”
And while Peacock’s work leaves an array of questions unanswered, he is sure of one thing: genetic technology will continue to develop in the future. “It’s important that we start having these conversations now because we are able to set the ethical legislation in place,” he says. As we are still in the infancy of online communication, etiquettes around what is acceptable is still developing as we move forward. “It’s like a new alphabet. We haven’t yet defined what is appropriate or not,” he points out.
And the designer sees no prospect of the drive for perfection slowing down in the future either. “It’s an innate human need. We always want to illustrate our genetics in the best way possible, and there are always these little ways you can pump yourself up a little bit more. It all depends on culture and cultural normalcy with snobbery around cheating,” he explains.
The future of gene editing could be scary. While, for now, it is primarily developed to prevent diseases, history has exposed our eagerness for ways to alter ourselves to become more ‘beautiful’. Cosmetic surgery was initially invented as reconstructive surgery to be performed on people injured in war but has today turned into a billion-dollar industry changing our appearances to fit social ideals. “You get a sense of urgency when you realise that we can’t ignore it. We have to guide it,” Peacock says, as he reveals the big end game for him is, “designing the digitalisation of the way the human brain reads genes”. The big end game for genetic technology? It all depends on how far we are willing to go in pursuit of perfection.
Photography credit: Adam Peacock