Emilia Tikka looks to the future of life, longevity and legacy
Published 18 November 2019 by Cherise Fong
Finnish artist Emilia Tikka designs fictions where biotechnologies are used to modify the human genome, extend our lifespans or produce offspring. Her latest film “Legacy” was directly influenced by a month-long research residency in Japan.
From our correspondent in Tokyo
Emilia Tikka landed in Japan at the height of the typhoon season, and her ensuing travels between Tokyo, Okinawa, Nara and Kyoto were dramatically punctuated by extreme meteorological conditions. “In Japan everything is super efficient, functioning, clean, etc., but there is still this obstacle of the weather that you cannot control,” she remarks.
Control, more precisely of our mortal human destiny, from our individual genome to the genetic heritage we pass on to our progeny, is a central theme of Emilia’s research. A PhD candidate at Aalto University in Helsinki, Emilia extends this theme to philosophical perspectives on heredity, longevity and immortality, while closely following scientific experimentation on genome editing in the lab.
This research is also what brought her to Japan, where she sojourned for four weeks between September and October 2019, during a Tokyo Art & Science Research Residency organized by the Bioart Society and hosted by the BioClub in Tokyo in partnership with the Finnish Institute in Japan.
“My starting research topic deals with genome-editing technologies and the idea of genealogy, how it affects human evolution in general,” Emilia explains. “It’s part of a small project to show a different perspective of that idea. What I’m doing here is one of those perspectives.”
Her pilgrimage brought her to the remote islands of Okinawa in the tropical southeast of Japan, known for their high concentration of centenarians. She talks about the ritual ceremony of kajimaya, which celebrates the 97th birthday of still healthy nonagenarians holding handmade pinwheels to symbolize the infinite cycle of life and the return to childhood.
Then she visited Nara, former capital before Kyoto and center of Buddhism in Japan, where she contemplated the notion of reincarnation, being reborn in a different body, without necessarily remembering past lives. For Emilia, “It’s very close to the Okinawan way of seeing life as a circle… I came to Japan to look for these non-Western concepts of life and death.”
The scientific part of her journey took her to the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) at Kyoto University, famous for its pioneering research in induced pluripotent stem cells, directed by Shinya Yamanaka, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. During her visit, researchers were experimenting with transposable elements, a new genome-editing technique that consists of reorienting mobile DNA sequences.
“We had fruitful discussions about where this technology will go,” says Emilia. “The ethics department is also interested in building a network around the social aspect, doing [speculative] design to engage the public.”
These initiatives resonate with her own ongoing work: “By speculating on what could be possible, you start a conversation on these philosophical or societal issues. It’s important to say that this is not possible yet, but it’s also important to talk about it. When we are already there, it’s too late to go back and say do we actually want this or not.”
“My previous project [ÆON] was a speculation of what would happen if you suddenly lived much longer. I had interviewed in the West older people, around 80 or 90 years old. Among those who said they would not desire to prolong their lifespan, one of the reasons they talked about was that they don’t have a clear goal in society, a very clear purpose in life. So how I understand ikigai [inspired by Okinawan culture] is that you have this very strong passion in life, it can be work but it can also be other things, that drives you and you continue doing that until the end… Humans are very psycho-somatic, this psychological attitude you have toward what you’re doing is directly affecting your biology.”
“In general my work is always about these big philosophical questions of human drive, an almost uncontrollable urge or wish to do something. [Legacy] focuses on a wish to leave something behind when you die. Some people want to have children, make artwork… It’s a strong wish that everyone has at one point in their life, a part of being afraid to die.”
Emilia’s most recent short film Legacy was written, shot and edited within one week in collaboration with the scientist Alexandru B. Georgescu for the Symbiosis competition in New York. Stark and almost silent, featuring a single character with no dialogue, Legacy creates an eerie atmosphere of solitude and isolation in a cold city. Inside the protagonist’s apartment are photos that seem to represent the same person at different ages, in different situations, or in different lives…
“The film is based on two ideas,” says Emilia. “Firstly on IVG (in vitro gametogenesis) technology [and by extension induced pluripotent stem cells] that makes it possible, in theory, to produce egg and sperm cells from a person’s own skin cells—which means that one could have a child completely alone. The story speculates around this technology combined with an idea of out-of-body pregnancy, opening the possibility for a man to have a child without a partner.”
“Secondly, the film opens the more conceptual idea of ‘legacy’ in the sense of immortality, the urge to leave something behind in this world. Therefore the pictures in the film also suggest that he might have had several lives before. However this technology is very different from cloning—the person would be differing from the original phenotype and genotype and not a ‘direct copy’ of oneself. This opens the question: What would be similar, would there be memories or something else passed on?”
Another theme of the film is “continuous” life cycle. While exploring alternative notions of life cycles in Japan, Emilia was particularly interested in the jellyfish Turritopsis: “It’s an animal which can naturally switch back to the polyp form, back to being a ‘child’. This life cycle makes the jellyfish, in theory, immortal… Is there a secret to stopping the ageing process? What would happen if we weren’t connected to this life cycle, if we could change or control it?”
As for Emilia, she herself is still quite down to Earth: “I would like to live a long healthy life like everyone else, but I wouldn’t like to live forever. The beauty and the intensity of life is that you experience everything only once.”