Thanks to Hollywood and the publishing industry, science fiction has for the last several years been diluted into some very tired dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk tropes. In a lot of ways, multimedia artists have picked up the slack. Maxim Zhestkov recently did it with Epsilon, a series of exquisite 3D images of a scientific base on an alien planet. And Daniel Arsham has been doing for the last several years with his Future Relic series, which explores a climate change-impacted world in abstract ways.
Dutch filmmaker and visual artist Floris Kaayk throws down his own gauntlet with The Modular Body, a series of 56 interconnected videos that constitute an over-arching online science fiction storytelling project. This sprawling online narrative, designed in collaboration with LUSTlab, calls to mind the recent internet rabbit hole that was Adult Swim’s This House Has People in It. As the trailer details, The Modular Body tells the kaleidoscopic narrative of The Oscar Project, a scientific effort led by fictional researcher Cornelis Vlasman to bioengineer a modular lifeform. This modular entity, which vaguely resembles the “facehugger” from Alien, is named Oscar.
Kaayk tells The Creators Project that he conceived The Modular Body after wanting to create a science fiction story about creating life in the lab. While researching, he came across loads of articles on popular science websites about developments in the field of biotech, particularly on growing organs and 3D printing with human cells.
“Usually the headlines of those kind of articles present it as if it's already possible to create operational organs with currently available technology,” Kaayk says. “If you start to read further, you'll discover that this field of research is still in a very early stage. It's not possible yet to print functioning, vascularized organs—maybe in 30-40 years, but right now it's science fiction.”
“I thought: Why would we print an organ exactly in the same shape as the one we already have? Why wouldn't we use this opportunity to improve it?” Kaayk recalls. “Or even more extreme: if we can print organs and body parts, why not completely redefine and redesign the human body? That's when I started approaching the current human body as a closed system. Difficult to repair or adapt, maybe even obsolete. An open, modular system could become immortal, and adaptable.”
Upon visiting The Modular Body site, which can be viewed in full screen, viewers are met with the project’s trailer. They are confronted with a barrage of images of scientific experiments, both biological and synthetic, that introduce The Oscar Project. Like any classic late 70s or early 80s science fiction film, ominous synth arpeggios and ambient drones soundtrack the video courtesy of Machinefabriek.
“This is a worldwide event—the entire mankind basically has to relate to Oscar,” says a man in a television roundtable discussion. “Because this is apparently what we can do with 21st century bioengineer… Oscar challenges the divide between the natural and the artificial.”
One of the female talking heads says that Oscar helps demystify the definition of life. Others are more skeptical, doubting that it is a completely independent lifeform, and whether it actually is “desirable” to have a new modular body.
Once the trailer has run its course, viewers can click on a matrix of thumbnails to watch dozens of other videos that act as supplementary material for the story of Oscar. In one a fictional vlogger named Vlogger Cathy Lee sounds off on Oscar and modularity. She compares the human body to Apple’s product ecosystem—a closed system that is hard to service and adapt. Lee believes that the human body could be made to be more open and modular.
“Oscar shows that it is possible to program stem cells, to culture them and to print them in any desired tissue,” Lee says. “This means the division between man and machine is slowly thinning. This living creature provides insight into opportunities for the human body. Think of the replacement or upgrading of obsolete organs in a possible clickable system like the building blocks in a Lego set.”
In the video titled Skeletons, Vlasman shows off skeletal structures of Oscar’s various modules. It’s a short clip, but realistic in its execution, with text that describes the skeletons as providing firmness and protection and also connect the blood and nerve network of the various modules”. Another video, Half-finished Lung Module, shows The Oscar Project lab members Cornelis, Abi, and Douwe looking at a nearly complete lung module. While the skin is missing, Oscar’s lung module is capable of breathing. Yet another video show’s Oscar’s heart beating.
To add another dose of authenticity to The Modular Body, Kaayk presents a crowdfunding video that features members of Project Oscar pitching their modular body concept. “We believe in the human body as an open system, instead of a closed system,” they say. “That’s why we want to create a body that exists of organ bricks.”
Kaayk wanted the video to tell the story as a whole, but he didn't want to present them in traditional, linear way. So he came up with an idea of an interface that would “glue” all of the 56 story fragments together, to give the audience an opportunity to start wherever they pleased.
Crowdfunding pitch video:
“Together with LUSTlab I ended up with an algorithm that connects the fragments in a logical order—every video has it's own story tags,” Kaayk explains. “As soon as you watch a video, video's with matching storytags pop up next to it like recommendations or suggestions from the algorithm. So a visitor can easily find a logical order in this jungle of video excerpts.”
“And while finding your way through this story, your own storypath evolves,” he adds. “Every time a video is watched it becomes part of the storypath. This means that you can create your own story. And if you're satisfied you can share your own storypath on Facebook with your friends.
As with This House Has People in It, the fun in experiencing The Modular Body is to be found in exploring the various strands of media that comprise it. While Kaayk didn’t design it for laughs, viewers will have more than a few chuckles in seeing scientific researchers and technologists satirized with the very media (YouTube videos) they use to publicize their work.
Click here to see more of Floris Kaayk’s work.