Basel's KBH.G Proposes 'The End of Aging' in New Exhibition

A radical show that blends fact with fiction regarding the question of cheating death.

Art
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“What if people stopped dying?” asks a poised Michael Schindhelm, amidst a group of journalists observing Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger, which has been transformed to resemble an abandoned hospital from a post-apocalyptic film. The question the German-born, Switzerland based author, curator and filmmaker poses is certainly urgent, but nothing new, as the quest for immortality has similarly stirred anxiety and aspiration within society since the beginning.

Turning the pages back: ancient societies figuratively escaped the inevitability of death by memorializing themselves through massive monuments made of mortar and limestone, such as those found across Egypt, East Asia and Africa. Centuries later, and long before the advent of photography, painting and the tradition of portraiture became a way for wealthy aristocrats to overcome their own mortality; while graffiti, though fleeting, extended the personal imprint of oneself on the urban landscape to anyone with easy access to a spray can, a fearless mentality and a certain proclivity to break the rules. Today, social media has made each of us our own brands, our own kingdoms, our own archivists who implant our life and observations of the world into a larger digital ecosystem that seemingly flattens the planes of time.

At 63, Schindhelm is acutely aware of his own mortality, as he’s experienced many lives and has helped others do the same. Raised in East Germany during the hardships enforced under the Communist Bloc, Schindhelm met a young Angela Merkel who was also studying quantum chemistry, both of them utilizing science as a vessel to learn and ask larger existential questions that transcended nationality, gender or religion. When the Berlin Wall fell, Schindhelm famously advised Merkel to be fearless and “Go out into the Wide Open,” which galvanized her to pivot into politics.

In 2005, Merkel was appointed chancellor of Germany and recited this advice in her speeches to the masses. Schindhelm himself would shift cities and careers multiple times over — developing a fruitful career as a writer, filmmaker and director, the latter of which he served in various roles across Europe, Asia and the Middle, such as at the Theater Basel from 1996 to 2006, cited as the best years of his life.

Today, Schindhelm lives in Ticino, Switzerland, but regularly commutes back to work on projects in Basel — a city that is home to some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical headquarters, where the concept of extending one’s life is less science fiction and more of a real possibility. Musing on the myth of the cyborg, Schindhelm states that the “hype around human enhancement was actually driven by people that didn’t have a clue about the human body — computer experts,” adding that “Biologists started complaining about how computer scientists look at the human body as if it’s just another computer, such as the brain, for instance, which is much more complex for various reasons and not as easily replicated as building a computer.” With one foot planted in science and the other vested in the arts, Schindhelm understands the balance needed to push the field of biology, but done so in a way to have an emotional impact which will resonate with the masses. It’s here that The End of Aging spawned.

“Who is afforded the ability to live longer?”

Produced in collaboration with Basel journalist-turned-KBH.G director Raphael Suter, the show immerses audiences with an elaborate scenography made of film installations and science-based research, encouraging visitors to ruminate on a world where mortals and the undead live side by side. Walking through the dimly lit space is a akin to playing a map from Resident Evil or Silent Hill, where a chilling emptiness pervades the space as if a ghost can jump out at any corner. Suter, who works to reimagine the white walls of the gallery for each exhibition, went to lengths with Schindhelm to build a hospital that looks weathered by time — chock full of graffii, a fake morgue installed opposite of the entrance, as well as a real LCD monitor from a former hospital that displays wayfinding to different operating rooms — the last room on the list even saying “Unlimited Lives” — adding to the slightly unsettling nature of the show.

In one of the first rooms, a series of video works project against metal walls reminiscent of a futuristic war bunker or the lair of a Bond villain. “The exhibition works like a thought experiment: What if?” asks Schindhelm. “What if people don’t die anymore? At least not biologically, because biomedical has provided us means to overcome biological death and even to reverse biological clock. In one film, there is a Japanese child actress who is more than 100 years old. But thanks to modern medicine, she is able maintain the physical appearance of when she was 14.” In another film, Basel-born rapper, Black Tiger — the first such rapper to record in the Swiss-German dialect — laments the prison of never being able to die; thematically, his soliloquy is similar in scope to the Men of the White Mountains, the ghost army that could only finally whither away after fulfilling their oath in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

“If you look at literature, there is a major debate about extending life. Should we do it?” Schindhelm pondered. “What does that mean to our society, economically, in terms of justice between generations, overpopulation, consuming resources, and the imbalance between old and young because the old accumulate power and capital, and will try and live forever.” Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors return to reality in the “Waking Room”, filled with four orange hospital cots set for lounging as a 65-minute documentary shows interviews with leading researchers who expound on where the science of extending is currently at.

There is an “extraordinary revolution underway”, according to Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan, who in the documentary speaks on the leaps made regarding the process of aging, as well as the current developments being made to decelerate age in animals, such as dogs over 40 pounds in weight — who generally die earlier than a smaller canine. If a pill does come out to extend a dog’s life by 30 percent, “you can imagine the wave it will trigger and what people will expect for themselves,” Schindhelm added. But anything along those lines are still in world of science fiction. Schindhelm nonetheless remains an optimist, explaining how experts in the field are already working to replicate human organs through 3D printers and test these processes on varying types of cancer.

The question of extending life is just as much an issue of ethics, as it is a quest to push the boundaries of science. Who is afforded the ability to live longer? Who will be left out? Schindhelm ends the walkthrough by alluding to the Latin aphorism “Carpe Diem,” inferring that the goals in which one sets for themselves and the memories formed throughout life’s short stint may be actually be rendered meaningless if humans overcame the process of death. For those in Basel, immerse yourself in The End of Aging until July 21, 2024.

KBH.G
Spitalstrasse 18,
4056 Basel, Switzerland

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