Visions of Human Enhancement: Art, Popular Science Imagery, and Public Opinion


This thesis critically examines, through both theory and practice, the affective and/or performative nature of imagery from the visual arts, popular science and other media concerned with biotechnologies for human modification and enhancement. These biotechnologies tend to polarise debates between progressive and transgressive (or Frankensteinian) views and positions, so images about them are especially important. Visual images have the potential to shape opinions, and hence the direction of future developments, but little work has been undertaken to determine the principal pathways by which they impact on and influence public perceptions of, for example, human cloning or genetic modification.

The research identifies specific types of imagery associated with both positive and negative views of human enhancement, and addresses the lack of empirical research into public responses to artworks and science-based visual imagery by means of a survey. The study distinguishes three principal frames through which the subject is customarily addressed: representation, imagination and narrative metaphor, and assesses the role of artworks that incorporate aspects of scientific visuality, such as bioart. The practical investigation draws on theories of affectivity, performativity and Luhmann’s temporal scenarios, focussing on ambiguity and the active role of the viewer of the artworks, in relation to the construction and interpretation of meaning.

The survey findings are indicative of a relationship between the perceived qualitative-affective content of the imagery and viewer attitudes towards biotechnologies, and form the basis of novel artistic responses to extend and challenge existing representations. By identifying and explaining the aesthetic mechanisms involved, this thesis contributes to the visual construction of understanding on the subject of human enhancement in art and science.