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Martin O'Brien

An Ambulance to the Future

It starts with death. A few years ago, I surpassed the life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis (CF). I grew up knowing I would die at thirty but I survived. I conceived of this new period of existence as the zombie years. The temporal experience of living longer than expected, or zombie time, is a new way of experiencing life in relation to death. It is a shadow temporality in which life is no longer the movement towards death. It is a shattering and reforming of our temporal experience. Zombie time is ‘a form of enduring life when death is no longer the certainty it once was. It is no longer linear, it’s full of breaks and ambushes. In zombie time, you keep moving but not towards anything, just for the sake of moving. No goals, only desires. No plans, only reactions. The only constant is the presence of death but not in the way it once was, for the zombie knows death and breathes in death. Death is in me, instead of somewhere else’.

When I was invited to take part in this project, and to imagine an impossible performance, I began to think about the logic of the undead as allowing for the possibility of posthumous performance. That is to say, art from beyond the grave. The imagined/impossible/not yet possible work, mapped out here is an attempt at imagining moving from zombie time into zombie hood. The becoming of the undead. My work has consistently explored the ways in which death manifests itself in a life lived with sickness.  I am interested in the ways in which art practices might disturb the boundary of life and death, and the possibility for art after, during, as, and through death.

This is a proposal for a work that is currently impossible. There are split opinions on the potential for cryonic preservation of corpses, in the hope that they could one day be brought back to life. But this text explores the potential of this future technology. I do not know if I believe it is possible. This is a work for the future, in which I am brought back to life. It is a score for my becoming undead. The score is broken into three parts: death, suspension of time, resurrection. Each stage is speculative, although part one does describe the actual practice of cryopreservation, and it is unknown how part three could actually occur. It starts with death.

1. Death

It starts with death. This death is recorded. The last breath is caught on camera.

My corpse lays, cold and motionless. CF finally got me. Maybe I lived long enough to see my hair turn grey, maybe I didn’t.

My death triggers a whole series of practical exercises to prepare my corpse for resurrection. A group of people arrive and begin to work on my corpse. They are a cryonics emergency assistance team. 

My body is injected with heparin and given cardio pulmonary support, and cooled in ice by a funeral director. My body is kept on ice and transported by plane to one of the three worldwide Cryonics centres (two in the USA and one in Russia). At the centre, a process called perfusion takes place: all blood is removed from my body and cryoprotectant agents are added in its place. 

My body is taken on a board, inside an insulation pouch, to a cooling unit. Inside this cooling unit, my body is cooled over a period of five and a half days to -196c. This is the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

My body is then moved to the cryostat, this is the long term storage unit. My body is lowered into a cryostat, filled with liquid nitrogen. 

This is a process called cryonic preservation. In short, it is the suspension of a corpse in liquid nitrogen to prevent decay, in the hope that one day, the technology will exist to bring someone back to life. Cryonics UK calls this ‘an ambulance to the future’. The overall cost for this whole process is approximately £152,877.38, with an additional annual membership fee of £382.19 during life.


2. Suspension in Time

Upon my death, a camera person arrives and documents the entire process of cryonic preservation. This video is edited into a document of my suspension in time.

The video is displayed in a gallery or museum space. Alongside it is a live feed of my corpse in the cryostat. The live feed is also steamed online, all day, every day.

The process is also documented through a series of photographic portraits of my corpse in different parts of the preservation process. These are exhibited alongside the live feed.

The bureaucratic and legislative correspondence which goes into making this happen, is made available for people to read online.

3. Resurrection

It is unclear exactly how the revival process will take place, if at all.

My revival will be televised. People will be able to witness the moment of first breath. People will witness as I open my eyes. People will witness as I look around me as the undead. I will learn what year it is. I will learn that all my loved ones and friends are already dead. I will return to my empty house but will not know the neighbours. I will visit the town where I was born, and the house I grew up in. I will tell people what it is like to die. I will watch the video of my own death. I will ask if I am still sick, or has this been cured by now? I will march in the streets again. I will try to find love again. I will visit the graves of everyone I have ever known. I will marvel at new technologies. I will build a new life. I will philosophise about life and death. Eventually I will die again. I will go through this entire process again until eventually I won’t. I will die and I will stay dead. Like everyone I know, I will vanish. All of this simply delayed the inevitable. It ends with death.

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