The University Record, January 21, 2002

‘BoundedSelf’ exhibition challenges traditional views of human identity

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Personal care products, intended to represent societal influence over women’s sense of identity, are among the items on display at a new exhibition called BoundedSelf. (Photo courtesy Life Sciences, Values and Society Program.)
Losing weight, changing hair color, even surgically altering the shape of one’s nose—body modifications such as these have become so commonplace that they hardly raise eyebrows. But how would you react to someone who wanted to add a third ear to his head just because he liked the look of it? Or to a person who claimed she couldn’t feel complete unless she amputated one of her fully functional legs?

BoundedSelf, an exhibition at the Media Union Gallery through Jan. 27, confronts visitors with such quandaries, encouraging them to examine their feelings about human identity and the sense of self. Wandering through a labyrinth, visitors encounter five stations, each exploring a topic such as physical appearance and self-image, the concept of society and the human being as a biological entity.

At computer terminals in the exhibit space, visitors can fill out a survey with questions focusing on developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering and their impact on the sense of self. Based on their answers, respondents to the survey (also available online at http://earth.si.umich.edu/BoundedSelf/survey1.cfm) find out their Fluidity-Fixity Index Score—a measure of one’s attitudes toward identity.

The exhibition is a product of the 2001 Rackham Summer Interdisciplinary Institute, which explored the theme of motion and emotion. Sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham Graduate School and the Life Sciences Values and Society Program, the exhibit was created by Chris DeFay, doctoral student in history of art; Laura Citrin, doctoral student in psychology and women’s studies; Tobin Siebers, professor of English; Paul Fossum, assistant professor of education at U-M Dearborn; and Ricardo Carvajal, doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology. Architecture and urban planning graduate students Al Weisz and Andre Sandifer designed and built the labyrinth.

Carvajal, for one, says that working on the project expanded his own sense of identity—as a biologist and as a person. “I’m a person who likes to exercise a bunch of different muscles, and a project like this does that,” says Carvajal. “It has made me think about what I could do in the context of my own work to keep flexing those muscles. And, though I’m generally not a great risk taker, I think this has made me a little bit more adventurous.”