The craving and the kick: sex and drugs and smartphones

Heidi Ledford on the debut exhibition of Science Gallery London, exploring the bleak territory where want slides into need.

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Iced lolly covered in pins dripping on to a hand

Another Day on Earth (Pincushion) references how cravings can lead to both pleasure and pain.Credit: Olivia Locher

HOOKED: When Want Becomes Need Science Gallery London, King’s College London Until 6 January 2019

The most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen is Requiem for a Dream. Darren Aronofsky’s graphic 2000 film about people addicted, variously, to heroin and amphetamines left me shaking.

So I felt some trepidation entering HOOKED, an exhibition on addiction, and the inaugural show from Science Gallery London. Thankfully, the exhibition sidesteps the extreme depictions that too often allow us to view those who live with serious addictions as set apart. It mostly examines dependencies experienced by millions — on smartphones, the Internet, sugar, gambling. Many of the exhibits are agnostic about the focus of addiction, instead offering a critical and creative examination of the social factors that form its roots, and the costs that it exacts from individuals and society.

Science Gallery London bills itself as a “space where science and art collide”; it aims in particular to engage young adults. It is the latest addition to Science Gallery International, an initiative with sites including Dublin and Detroit, Michigan, and with plans to open others, such as one in Melbourne, Australia, by 2020. The London site is hosted by King’s College London, and this exhibition draws on the work of several researchers there, but the broad windows of its main entrance face outwards to entice foot traffic at a busy junction.

HOOKED dedicates considerable space to timely concerns about various forms of cyber-addiction: to smartphones, online gambling and social media. This seems an especially appropriate choice given the museum’s focus on adolescents.

But even with my adolescence firmly behind me, I appreciated the examination of smartphones and social media as a way to put addiction solidly in the realm of everyday experience. Entering a room full of screens showing a phone’s battery dwindling, I felt a faint tightness in my chest until I checked my own phone and, seeing 53% power, felt a wave of relief. Later, curator Hannah Redler-Hawes tells me that this exhibit makes many visitors feel instant anxiety. (I don’t view this as meaning I am addicted to my phone, but the emotion evoked gives the viewer a quick flash of empathy for those who are.)

A clip from ‘Me, You, Limbo' installation

A clip from video installation Me. You. Limbo. by Yole Quintero.Credit: Yole Quintero

Venezuela-born artist Yole Quintero’s video installation Me. You. Limbo. shows a woman in dialogue with her phone. She was happy with her life, she says, until “you” came along and she became a ghost. The phone, in creepy computerized outbursts, protests and pins the blame on the woman, in a classic co-dependent relationship gone wrong: “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.”

Thus, Quintero effectively conjures the universal hallmarks of addiction: reward giving way to a gradual loss of self, as want transitions to need. “Addiction happens when the fun stops,” says Redler-Hawes. Placing this in a familiar setting is a powerful way to take viewers on that journey.

HOOKED glosses over the nitty-gritty science of addiction: viewers will not find discussions of neurotransmitters or opiate receptors. But it is strong on social contributors to addiction. Three videos by British artist Richard Billingham, whose father had an alcohol problem, explore the relationship between boredom and dependency. Particularly effective is a half-hour-long close-up of his brother’s hands tapping manically on a game console after a night on amphetamines. Is he even playing a game, I wondered in horror, or just tap-tap-tapping away?

Several pieces examine consumerism and the intentional obsolescence that fuels that cycle. A coffee table made of sugar by design studio Atelier 010 is a case in point. On certain occasions, lucky visitors might get to see the artist pour a cup of tea on it until it collapses, as a reminder of how our society prizes products that are designed to fail.

Going from room to room, I move from the causes of addiction to its consequences. But the exhibition strangely fails to place this in the context of ongoing addiction crises, such as the epidemic use of the drug spice in Britain, or the opioid crisis that is tearing millions of US lives apart, and kills 115 people in the country each day from overdoses alone. Instead, the exhibits are more general. For example, a curtain made from wedding rings, some discarded or pawned, is a reminder of how addiction can contribute to failed marriages.

Four sections from The Workshop.

In The Workshop, artists Dryden Goodwin and Mr Gee worked with young people at Oakhill Secure Training Centre, UK, to discuss their experiences with drugs.Credit: Dryden Goodwin

One of the strongest features of HOOKED is its emphasis on involving people who have lived with addiction and its consequences. A moving silent video by British artist Dryden Goodwin chronicles an outreach programme at Oakhill Secure Training Centre in Milton Keynes, UK, a prison housing boys aged 12–18. Many of them are there for offences related to illegal substances, and spoken-word artist Mr Gee asked them to write poems personifying drugs. “I can make you feel great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great,” writes one boy, personifying a strain of marijuana called gelatos.

Lines from another poem, written in the voice of crack cocaine by an adolescent jailed for murder, cut deeply as they fill in the ultimate outcome for too many users: “I like when people take me, because they always come back for more.”

“I hate funerals though.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06922-z
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