An Artist Explores the Intersection of Death and Tech

Visual artist Tamsin Snow spent 12 hours once drawing dissected human body parts.

The limbs had been quickly frozen. “So after thawing they were as close to the moment of death as possible,” she said, by email.

It was at a class in a medical facility in Antwerp about a decade ago. At one session, a doctor dissected a human brain.

Snow wasn’t unnerved, she says. On the contrary, she was fascinated and since then her work – a mix of installations and computer-generated imagery – has tended to explore the interaction between death and technology.

Snow, who grew up in Sandycove, studied art in London and worked there, before returning to Dublin around four years ago.

She recently got a new studio in the Temple Bar Gallery, a tidy space with grey floors and white walls, in the city centre overlooking the River Liffey.

“There is something very special about the view and the perspective that it gives,” she said.

A Revival

Showroom, a short film from 2017 made with computer-generated imagery, is a mock advert for a cryonics laboratory, where a customer can have their body frozen in the hope of future revival.

It tracks through a pristine white space, clinical, futuristic and cold.

A round lift rises out of the ground. “We believe that death is a process not an event,” says the computer-voiced narrator. Then a train pulls up.

Snow, a science-fiction fan, used montage from books and films to create the Showroom laboratory. The escalator is a replica of one in the Canary Wharf tube station in London. The sleep pods are ripped from the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, she says.

Cryonics is based on the hope that science will one day be capable of reviving people. But of course it may never happen.

“I wouldn’t say cryonics is a myth though,” says Snow. “There are parallel fields of science, space travel for instance, where experiments with putting the body into a kind of stasis for long periods of time are getting closer to reality.”

She has no ambition to be frozen when she dies, she says. Her work is just a platform for others to think about those things, she says.

“Cryonics is interesting in that it proposes a radically different way of thinking about death,” she says.

It could even call into question the meaning of death if there is a possibility that the person could be revived in the future.

Many who freeze their bodies are quite old, she says, and she wonders if they would be happy waking in a different era.

Cloning humans is much more likely to be a reality soon, so she wonders why anyone choses cryonics rather than preserving genes for cloning, she says.

“Instead of being resuscitated in their old, diseased body they would be brought back as a newborn baby,” she says.

The Future of Autopsies

In 2011, she heard a programme on BBC Radio called Post Mortem, she says.

In it a pathologist performs a consented post mortem “to demonstrate why he thinks the demise of this once common practice represents such a loss to medicine”.

This got Snow thinking and in 2015, she exhibited an installation called Autopsy, which included a replica autopsy table.

It was inspired by the fact that the rate of autopsies has been falling in Europe and the US for decades, and scientists are working to develop virtual autopsy technology.

“A totally virtual autopsy would be one that involves scanning and analysing the body remotely, without having to touch it,” she says.

The technology to take over fully from physical autopsies doesn’t exist yet, she says.

But there is an idea that it is more humane to do the autopsy virtually, and so there is a trend towards developing machines that can do that, she says.

“For whatever reason, people still see autopsy as a horrific thing, despite the fact that it happens after the event of death and it gives you answers as to what caused it,” she says.

“Unlike in the past, public autopsies and dissections almost never happen now,” says Snow.Medical students attend fewer autopsies than they used to, she says.

“I’m not sure what that means,” she says. But “it seems possible, likely perhaps, that if we do away with any physical contact with corpses certain kinds of knowledge could be lost”.

Snow is working on material for her first solo exhibition here in Ireland.

It’ll include a new CGI animation and sculptures, and it will be exhibited in Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in December, she said.

She has been shortlisted for this year’s Golden Fleece Awards, an annual award for visual artists.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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dan hitt
at 24 February at 20:49

Tamsin Snow — whose name is so appropriate for the piece — is quite right that cloning is much closer to revival than revival from cryonics. And i think she's also correct that people should consider the cloning alternative. However, it must be pointed out that those who are cryonicists expect not to be revived until the technology exists to cure all of their illnesses, including aging. So they expect to be revived to the state they were when they were 18. And there are certainly advantages to being 18 over being a newborn.

Marta Sanbderg
at 26 February at 06:05

I find it difficult to see why anyone would want to clone themselves - a baby isn't you and in an overpopulated world do you really think that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have an exact genetic copy of you created, rather than using the 'normal' way of procreation (which has the advantage of being rather fun) make little sense to me. On the other hand, cryonics seems sensible. Waking up in a restored youthful body, but with your old mind and memories, a century or so from now seems like a great adventure. And this time around I would know what to do with a fully functioning body. Unfortunately, this time around I figured it out half a century too late

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