28 February 2023
Author: Olivia Houghton and Lisa Mandemaker
Image: EctoLife by Hashem Al-Ghaili, Germany
Over time, more people will opt out of the traditional birthing process due to lifestyle inconveniences, and those who are unable to biologically reproduce will long for deeper connections with their offspring. This could make artificial wombs a favourable choice. While this reality seems distant, Lisa Mandemaker hopes to start the conversation and bring about public and ethical debate through tangible, immersive experiences. Mandemaker tells LS:N Global about her ongoing mission and the concept of her Monuments for Future M/otherhood exhibition.
Reproduction for otherhoods
Over the past year I have worked with design experts, philosophers, researchers, doctors and communities to reflect on reproductive futures. Our collective research highlights how reproduction – whether natural or artificial – is a political category entangled with systems of care that enable reproduction. Many existing products and technologies embody Western heteronormative and transhumanist values. Technology for reproduction rarely caters for multitudes of ‘otherhoods’, excluding ethnic, social and cultural groups with perilous consequences.
We propose a speculative paradigm shift from imaginaries of technologies to imaginaries of care and solidarity. Instead of putting technology at the centre of the conversation around artificial reproduction, we aim to nurture a conversation about the future of motherhood and parenthood.
Stimulating artificial connections
The imaginary of care and solidarity became tangible in Monuments for Future M/otherhood. It is an immersive installation offering an alternative future where artificial wombs are part of our natural landscape. The main goal is not just to show what the future could look like in 30 years, but to stimulate a conversation about a future worth wanting.
Visitors to the exhibition are drawn in by the natural and artificial look of the installation and enter a corridor overgrown with grass, plants, flowers and fungi: a co-habitation space for humans and non-humans. At the centre of the installation stands a large, monumental arch. In the curve at the top of the arch is a deep red, half sphere: an artificial womb. Inside the womb 18 rings light up. The two big shiny mushrooms in the space invite you to pick up their hat and wear it like a helmet. Inside, a voice outlines a short narrative explaining our speculation about what has happened up until 2050. It speaks to you like you are an 18-year-old person who was born from an artificial womb and came back to visit a monument. This particular womb has been gestating babies for 18 years, delivering one baby each year. After 18 years, the machine went into retirement and became a monument. As you walk up to the monument, the artificial womb will sense you are one of their children and starts to search for your personal ring. The data ring with your gestational data will light up, showing you your place in the constellation.
Presenting the future in this way gives us tangible tools to discuss and reflect on future values, possible interactions, new rituals and meanings. The questions we ask through this experience focus on how it might feel to be born from an artificial womb and are aimed at starting to shift ideas about family. How do you relate to the other people that were born from the same womb, for instance? Are they your siblings? But besides questions about how you are cared for and who your parents are, it also asks questions about how we care for such machines. Is it possible to connect with
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