I spent at least half an hour wandering A.Human — an art installation about a futuristic body modification fashion house — before realizing one of the models was a human being. This wasn’t totally unreasonable: he was mostly hidden behind a wall, revealing only a torso embellished with glowing lines. According to a small sign beside him, the lines were transdermal blacklight implants designed as club wear, which the label’s mysterious designer A. Huxley had dubbed “Carnaval.” I realized my mistake when I looked closer and saw his muscles twitch.
A.Human is full of these reverse-uncanny-valley moments. The installation, which opened last week and runs through the end of September, feels like something David Cronenberg might create if he worked for an Instagram marketing agency. It’s a collection of fashion pieces affixed to human flesh, modeled partly by mannequins and partly by live actors posed like mannequins. And while this may sound like the stuff of nightmares, A.Human is a bold attempt to make them uncomplicatedly beautiful — though it ultimately misses the mark.
The installation is set up in a Manhattan showroom, where fictional designer A. Huxley is supposedly showing off their 2019 fashion collection just in time for New York Fashion Week. The space, which starts as a dim, earthy room filled with wooden boxes and dirt before segueing into bright, mirror-filled corridors, was designed by (the real-life) immersive theater director Michael Counts. Near the beginning, you can find pieces like the “Tudor,” a ruff collar seemingly made of flesh and displayed on a man buried up to his neck in soil. Walk down a short hall, and you’ll find alcoves of disembodied legs modeling built-in high heels. (Occasionally, one of them wriggles its toes.) Loop back around, and there’s the “Pinnacle,” a pair of raised shoulder horns whose live model gazes blankly into a mirrored wall.
For a break from the body-mod fashion, you can duck into a pump room that’s been turned into a grotto with a beating heart, or pose in a large ring made of stylized, grasping human hands. On your way out, you can customize a heart and print it on a T-shirt, ostensibly as a way to test out a new coronary implant before buying it.
A.Human was produced by an entertainment group called Society of Spectacle, founded by marketing executive Simon Huck — best known for his friendship with the Kardashian family — and named for the seminal Marxist text. The show, like so many installations that have come before, is designed for social media. Photographs were encouraged at the opening party, and among other promotional moves, the team created a custom implanted (or in reality, prosthetic) choker for Kim Kardashian to wear on Instagram.
But Huck also sees it as opening a conversation. “We want everyone to kind of walk out the door like, yes, you take your fun photo, and yes, it’s — we hope — an exciting experience,” he told The Verge in a brief interview between group selfie sessions at the party. “But the question we want to ask is, if you could change your body as easily as you change your clothing, would you?”
That’s not a new question: it’s a core theme of Netflix’s TV series Altered Carbon and the upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077, to name just a couple of recent examples. Unlike many of those stories, though, Huck has said that he doesn’t want the exhibit to feel dystopian. It’s more like the bright cyborg future that real-life transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan have predicted, but without any of the talk about gaining super-strength or immortality. As Huck puts it, A.Human was designed to meet one major challenge: “How the hell do we build this in a way that doesn’t scare people?”
The flesh ruffs and shoulder horns may scare some people no matter how they’re framed. While the show’s Instagram pictures seem to get generally positive responses, A.Human co-creative director Jen Lu says she’s seen plenty of disgusted comments and vomiting emoji.
But Society of Spectacle tries to minimize these reactions by avoiding a realistic take on body modification. A.Human’s implanted fashions are visually convincing but conceptually fantastical. Installing a modification is supposed to be as easy as waxing your eyebrows. The pieces are left unpriced to imply that they’re “affordable and accessible to everyone,” says Huck. And they exist in a future that is “devoid of taboo and judgment” where everyone is free to design exactly the body they desire. “We don’t want people to love this,” Lu says. “We just want them to question, what in the world are they even looking at?”
Some news reports have speculated that A.Human’s implants could be the “future of fashion.” This isn’t impossible in the (very, very) long term, but the show doesn’t say anything about how we’d reach that future, nor does it grapple with the real problems facing present-day body modders or fashionistas. Instead, it asks us to imagine a world where they’ve already been solved.
It’s a totally legitimate kind of futurism, one that often works well. The most intriguing fashion pieces in A.Human straightforwardly appeal to our morbid fascination with unusual bodies, and they’re stronger for minimizing glib, shallow social commentary window dressing. A.Human asks visitors to find beauty in looks that would usually be used as a kind of body horror — like hands webbed in delicate, lacy patterns, or a full-back array of anglerfish lanterns.
The show is also executed flawlessly. The human “models” are played by stage and immersive theater actors who spend between one and three hours getting prosthetics applied each day. They blend eerily with the artificial environment, holding nearly stock-still poses for over an hour at a time.
But A.Human’s far-future utopianism doesn’t fit with the conceit that A. Huxley (named after Aldous Huxley, author of dystopian novel Brave New World) is a real designer in a “five minutes into the future” fashion industry.
The A. Huxley label is supposed to be progressive by present-day standards, its founder a gender-fluid genius who wants to help people realize their best selves. Even so, the show’s present-day trappings anchor it to a world where bodies are judged mercilessly and fashionable body modification is grimly conformist. (You don’t have to look far for examples: The Spin Crowd, a 2010 reality show about Huck’s PR agency, featured his co-founder Jonathan Cheban pressuring a “plain-Jane” employee to get lip injections.) The way the show is displayed also casts the models as passive commercial objects, which is creepier than any of the actual modifications. A.Human would feel radically different if visitors were mingling with augmented humans at a party — or even watching a runway show.
Before the premiere, Huck told Vogue that A.Human avoids anything too directly inspired by existing beauty standards. But in a near-contemporary setting where women already get surgery to wear high heels, a pair of dramatic conch-like bio-shoes feels decidedly less whimsical. And even in A.Human’s taboo-free future, implant models have toned muscles, minimal body fat, and mostly light skin.
A.Human is supposed to evolve as it progresses, possibly changing or adding new elements. While any future plans are still in flux, Huck hopes to take it on tour after it closes in New York. Running the show is unsurprisingly complicated and apparently very expensive. For one thing, most of the prosthetics are fragile and difficult to build, requiring a perfect skin tone match and degrading after one use. But Lu says they’re hoping to eventually run an “A.Human 2.0.” Maybe a sequel can deliver on Society of Spectacle’s best ideas.
A.Human runs through September 30th in New York. Tickets start at $28.
Update 9:30AM ET: Updated to reflect a ticket price drop from $40.