From the catalogue, Istanbul Design Biennial 2016:
"The title of the Istanbul Biennale of 2016 ‘Are we human?’ so explicitly introduced as the driving force behind it’s program by the curators Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, represents nothing less then a fundamental shift in the realm of design. A shift away from the question that probably defined most of the design projects of the 20th century, namely ‘what makes us human?’ It confronts both the field of design and it’s users with the latest developments in science and the possibility to manipulate the human genotype. The question ’are we human?’ should be considered as a moment of demarcation between then and now, and very likely as the most urgent question for the field of design, since we are at the very brink of reshaping of what was once referred to as ‘human nature’ and all the moral implications and dilemma’s this will entail. And how eager we are to alter our species: to be forever young, to have children whenever we are ready, to enlarge our memories. Our demands are endless and already a whole market has developed, making our personal bodies into yet another territory of conflict invested with contrasting interests from central governments to private corporations and from activists to designers."
For Het Nieuwe Instituut the invitation to participate at the Istanbul Biennale and to be confronted with the question of ‘are we human?’ came at the right moment. Taking the Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro as a starting project the institute had only just embarked upon a research- and exhibition program based on the recognition of a variety of newly developing bodies: from the body of the state, to the body of the city and of course to the physical body of us individuals. And the Istanbul Biennale offered the possibility to further develop a project titled 51 Sprints from an interactive webdocumentary into a physical presentation and include the latest results at the Olympic Games of Rio.
51Sprints deploys the phenomenon of the 100m sprint finals of the modern Olympic Games as a peculiar and distinctive frame around the question of ‘are we human?’ The Olympic principles “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind; the practice of sport is a human right and the enjoyment of this right should be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sexes, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” – quoted from the current Olympic Charter.
However, the earliest editions of the modern Games were an exclusive affair: the athletes were white, financially independent males from a small group of industrialized countries. The universalistic Olympic principles were not as fully articulated in1896 as they are in 2016, but they may be retrospectively read as a suggestive indication of the then prevalent notions of a universal mankind.
In 51Sprints, the narrative of the development of the 100m sprint finals shows, in an extremely concentrated form, the broadening and deepening of these notions. Through social, political and economical struggles and shifts in perspective, humans of all possible genders, ethnicities, colours, nations and non-nations have found access to the Olympic sprint tracks.
Today, even the default standard of the Olympic human body-plan of two legs, two arms, two ears, two eyes finds itself is criticized as a hegemonic normative instrument that needs to be contested. The recent editions of the Paralympic Games enjoyed a sharp increase in media attention and a growing amount of voices argue for the merging of the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. This would further expand the Olympic standards of a universal human, not only by the inclusive acceptance of the possible absence of certain limbs, but also by virtue of accepting the presence of non-organic, technological components of the human body.
51 Sprints consists of two parts: a video documentary that narrates the expansion of the notion of the universal Olympic human through five parallel stories about gender, race, class, nation and body; and an interactive part: the Equaliser. Here the viewer is put in a speculative position, similar to the scientist or the designer. What if the historical, physical, biological, political and economical differences could be completely cancelled? How would we then value the Olympic performance? Implicitly the wider question lingers: if these differences could be cancelled, what then remains of what we for instance define as human nature or even as Evolution, if the possibility to deny or at least to overcome our biological limitations is presenting itself and the notion of the supernatural or postnatural has left the realm of science as fiction and has become all too human. Are we human in the sense that being human presupposes the acceptance of all that which is or makes us human or will our idea of being human become the result of the fleeting demands of the here and now, shaped by design?
51 Sprints is part of the research- and exhibition program of Het Nieuwe Instituut around the Olympic Games and newly developing bodies. 51 Sprints was exhibited during the Istanbul Design Biennial 2016 and attended by 120.000 visitors. The web documentary is developed by artist Yuri Veerman and design studio Random Studio in collaboration with Het Nieuwe Instituut.