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IBI trying Town Crier, a device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone

Last week, i was telling you about Le Cadavre Exquis, an interactive installation commissioned Making Future Work. This Nottingham-based initiative that called for artists, designers and organisations based in East Midlands to submit proposals that would respond to four distinct areas of practice: Co creation / Online Space, Pervasive Gaming / Urban Screens, Re-imaging Redundant Systems and Live Cinema / 3D.

The Urban Immune System Research, one of the 4 winning projects, investigates parallel futures in the emergence of the 'smart-city'. During their research, the Institute has produced a series of speculative prototypes that combine digital technology and biometrics: one of the devices 'functions as a social sixth sense', a second one is a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around, a third one attempts to make its wearer get a sense of what might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'.

The devices are the starting point of a series of user tests, performative research and public engagement events that seek to provoke debate and facilitate wider public discussion around potential urban futures, and our role in shaping them.

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Just a few words of introduction about The Institute for Boundary Interactions before i proceed with our interview. IBI is a group of artists, designers, architects, technologists and creative producers conduct practice-based research into the complex relationships between people, places and recent developments in the field of science, technology and culture.

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The Institute for Boundary Interactions display L.O.S.T. Stone and Sticky Data. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

The name of your project is quite intriguing. Why did you call it Urban Immune System Research? How does the immune system of a city compare to the human body immune system, for example? What are the differences and similarities?



The Urban Immune System Research [UISR] project was the culmination of a two day event we ran in December 2010 as part of our LAB commission for Sideshow2010. We set out to discuss the relationship between notions of 'intelligent' systems, and principles of ecology. A whole raft of interesting and thought provoking ideas emerged but after some discussion they coalesced into the UISR project.



We found the immune system a fascinating and intriguing departure point because it demonstrates complex self-organising properties, but what's interesting about this to us is how this kind of system is understood outside of scientific circles, in the everyday and within the context of the city. There is a general understanding of these kinds of systems, but we discovered an absence in the general lexicon of everyday terms with which to describe the kind of phenomena we explored in that workshop. So in part the name of the project is to ask questions about perceptions of intelligence and explore that gap between the science and the experience.



The interest in looking at urban space as an organism developed from thinking about this relationship between ecologies and intelligent systems. We looked at how these systems scale up, inspired by Geoffery West's research into the similarities and differences between mammalian and urban scaling. So despite their very clear differences urban ecologies correlate strongly to biological systems and although made of different components behave in similar ways.



This research quickly grew into a fascination by what happens at that juncture where human technology meets ecology, how personal electronic devices, micro-biology and nano-technology effect us at the macro level. We were interested in how this will manifest  macroscopically, or ecolologically if you will, and how this in turn will affect us individually as constituent parts of that urban ecology. Asking what form an Urban Immune System might take, and the devices we have developed under this title thus far are the first steps in our efforts to understand these ideas and their implications.



The devices all look to find alternative ways of connecting the individual directly to their ecology (the urban organism) and feel their place within it. These technologies operate to mediate our relationship to, and navigation through physical, social and virtual space. This process of upgrading could be seen as the momentum leading us towards transhumanism, an imagined yet possible future where the augmented body replaces natural selection as an evolutionary process in turn effecting the development of our 'ecological' surroundings. 



This notion of transhumanism is another aspect that we we're very interested to explore within this project as it has a lot of synergy with the notion of the urban organism. From one perspective we are looking at the inorganic environment as an organic organism, and from another we look at the organic organism as a component within an inorganic machine. 





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Trying IBI's Sticky Data device. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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Sticky Data display. Image courtesy of IBI

With The Sticky Data device you were asking "What might it feel like to walk through a 'data cloud' or a 'data meadow'?" Did you find an answer to the question while you were testing the device? Is the experience of knowing how much data our body goes through every single second a stimulating one? or is it rather stressing? worrying? overwhelming? Does it influence the way you navigate a city afterwards? Would you for example avoid a quiet street because you've discovered that it might looks like a pleasant street empty of cars and passersby but with a data traffic that you find too intense?



The most stimulating thing about being able to sense geo-located data is the thought that you are physically feeling traces of people's experiences in the same place where they happened. We think this gives an extra sense of connection to a place, even if only for a moment.



It's difficult to say exactly what that should feel like, we're still playing with different haptic sensations, but the device certainly challenged our assumptions about certain areas. For example, in one test we found a really high density of data outside a bus depot, whereas across the street near a stadium, a seemingly much more social and 'eventful' place, there was comparatively little. So you definitely get a sense that the topography of a city's data layer can be quite different to that of its architectural space, but also an alternative sense of a places social makeup. So, finding themselves in a less sociable environment, did the inhabitants of the bus depot turn to more digital forms of social interaction, while the stadium offered enough 'face to face' social encounters that digital interaction was unnecessary?



The hope is definitely to ask people to question their relationship with space by providing a very different experience of navigating a city - the technologies that we use everyday are creating this digital topography, so how does this affect the urban organism and our interactions within it? 



Sticky Data App Field Test

At the end of your description of the Sticky Data project, you explain that "As the user moves on, data seeds will be copied and dropped in new locations spreading them throughout the city or collected and cataloged by the device." Why did you feel the need to add this 'manipulation' of the data? Is it not going to make the 'datascape' too confusing?



This was an idea that came from discussions around the notion of the Urban Immune System. We talked about the idea that perhaps urban space already has an immune system of sorts that operates to keep the city within normative parameters. We discussed this redistribution as something that might function like an immunisation to bolster this existing immune system by disrupting it with non-normative behaviour to see how it responded.  



We were interested in devices that have parasitic (viral) properties or where the owner could engage in the production of data and urban data configuration using the traces that others leave behind just through wearing the device and walking.  We leave behind traces of our electronic identities almost daily and it's something that we are not really aware of.  



Also, if data is part of our physical world then it in some way degrades or gets pasted over like the posters in a metro station over time, the datascape is constantly shifting.  We were going to be selective over how what qualities of data we were looking for, so older data might not be as 'memetically healthy' and so may not spread as far or at all. We were interested in being deliberately disruptive to see what might happen if we push messages into and across territories.  So the Sticky Data project could sift through what is there in electronic space to find data that might benefit the wearer or be most disruptive.




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Testing sticky data. Image courtesy of IBI

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Conductive glove. Image courtesy of IBI

One of the objectives of UISR is to explore new ways to 'sense the social characteristics of a city as you would temperature, or air quality.' Do you have a better idea of Nottingham (or any other city where you have experimented with the devices) after having tested your prototypes through its streets? Do you see the city with another eye?



The devices have opened up new ways of experiencing the city, so we're pleased about that. When testing the Sticky Data device we discovered huge amounts of twitter data in surprising places - like the bus depot on an unremarkable street that we mentioned before. So the device certainly challenges your perceptions of the social makeup of your environment and certain expectations or pre-judgments you may have made. Of course it also has the ability to re-enforce some prejudices too. However, not knowing what the messages are it leaves you to read into their presence from what is physically around you, building the virtual narrative into the physical narrative of your surroundings.



In the tests we have carried out we have felt some interesting things that have challenged and re-enforced our assumptions of particular locations. However no one of us has tested the device thoroughly across the city yet as we are still fine tuning it and have remained largely within familiar areas. Personally I am looking forward to taking the device somewhere totally unfamiliar and finding out what a city you've never visited before feels like. If you have no pre-suppositions about a particular street does the device make it easier to walk down or give you spidey-sense tingle that there will be something unpleasant around the corner? We just don't know yet.  



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LOST display. Image courtesy IBI

Could you describe The LOST (Local Only Shared Telemetry) device? How does it work?



The idea with the LOST device is for it to function as a social sixth sense. It's a wireless device, kept in close contact with the body that stores its owners profile. It simply transmits and receives this profile data over relatively small distances. When it finds a similar signal to its own the device communicates this to the owner by changing its temperature.



We wondered how a system that is similar to that of ants leaving pheromone trails might work in the social context of a city. In antithesis to the omniscient Internet this device doesn't use any kind of infrastructure as it communicates only locally, so the user has to physically travel to find new data rather than just clicking hyperlinks. The sensory feedback the wearer receives is specific only to the time and place in which they find themselves.



It's a thought experiment thinking that if everyone in an urban space wore such a device you would develop a very granular sense of the social make up of your very local vicinity with the cumulative heating, cooling effect of everyone else's device surrounding you. In such a way you could get a very clear feeling about whether a particular area is sympathetic to you as an individual or not. Kind of like blind man's buff, but instead of other players saying warmer or colder you simply feel it directly.



As with the sticky data device, having no lingual or visual output, it interfaces at a somatic level - we're interested in what happens when social data is perceived physiologically rather than visually. By integrating these digital sensory devices into our normal bodily senses we can start to understand the possible positive and negative implications not just of existing systems but also our rapid progress towards transhumanism. 



The notion of being a trans-human is very exciting but until technologies are developed we can never really know what the implications of them will be. Devices like the LOST device allow ways of imagining how technological and biological integration might operate and in turn perhaps begin to understand their consequences individually and socially.  



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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

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IBI trying Town Crier, their latest device which recognises and reads geo-tagged tweets through a megaphone. Image credit: Melissa Gueneau, courtesy MFW

I'm afraid i forgot the name of the device you used for the public performance on the day of Making Future Collaboration Work. Beyond the fun and spectacular side of the performance, what are you trying to achieve with this piece?



That was the Town Crier. It's a backpack mounted with 4 megaphones that shouts out geo-located tweets as you walk around. The other two devices we made offer very subtle, private interactions, so we wanted to try something a little more confrontational. 



The idea was to use the disparity between what can often be intended as very private or relatively anonymous reflections, and the openness of physical spaces that they are associated with. Shouting out these bits of text wrenches them, quite forcibly, back into public view. On the other hand though, the electronic voice puts all these statements on an even plane, and democratizes them giving a sense of the voice belonging to the place rather than any individual. These statements are at different times nonsensical, funny, or timely and touching, but they all add to the texture of a place, offering a glimpse of the collective memory embedded within it.





Town Crier Public Field Test Documentation

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Town Crier. Image courtesy IBI

Are you still working on the project? Do you plan to push the prototypes any further? Add new ones?



We see this as a long term research project so we are definitely still working on not only testing and improving current devices, but also using this process to develop our understanding of the data city, the technologically augmented human, and the ecology that they create.



We're currently developing the town crier into some kind of performance work and playing with the Google Navigation voice more as a means of exploring the way in which the network operates as a continuous landmark in our landscape. 



The Sticky Data and LOST device projects are still very much a works in progress. With Sticky Data we are going to continue experimenting with the way that the data is sensed or output. The immediate question we want to address is the character of the sensation in relation to the density of data being sensed. Similarly, what types of data are being sensed, and what are the most appropriate modes of sensation for these different bits of data? With the LOST stone, we are going to play with what information is used to form the user profile to find which provide most effective functionality. 



Once we've worked out the technical challenges with both of these devices we want to produce enough of them for each of us to wear and live with them for a significant period of time. Perhaps with the LOST device also using willing volunteers to test them to increase the area density. 



We'd like to know what it would feel like if I put on a sticky data sleeve at the same time you put on your watch in the morning and wore it wherever you go for a month. Is it an irritation, will you get muscle spasms, or forget you've got it on most of the time and only notice more drastic or uncharacteristic changes?



After this we hope to have a better idea of how we can develop the project further, fine tuning these devices and perhaps developing new ones. To put it in techno-garb, perhaps create the Urban Immune System 1.0 rather than its current beta version. 



It is perhaps worth making clear that the focus will remain on provoking speculation on what the possible social implications of developing this sort of technology might be, rather than trying to create a cure for urban illness. Technology is exciting and interesting, however the implications of innovations are rarely visible until you have the grace of hindsight. One can only speculate how developments might or might not change the world, but that process of speculation is really interesting and tells us something about our current understanding of our society and technological culture.

Thanks Institute for Boundary Interactions!

Previously: Le Cadavre Exquis.

Sponsored by:





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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

So far the work of Kris Verdonck was mostly a privilege reserved to the aficionados of theater stages but Z33 in Hasselt has invited the theatre-maker and artist to invade its rooms with wonderful machinery, installations, videos and even a metaphorical garden made of some of the most invasive non-native plant and animal species in Belgium. It's the artist's first 'gallery' exhibition. Hence the title of the show.

His works are incredibly invigorating because of their originality and poetry but a few moments spent in their company reveals their dark undertone.

The work of Kris Verdonck (...) focuses on the confusion of man in an estranged world due to technological development. The tension between man and machine, between living species and dead materials creates an atmosphere of Unheimlichkeit or eeriness. This 'current state of the world' - with its environmental problems, ecological disasters and wars - is the central theme through his oeuvre.

In the solo exhibition in Z33, Kris Verdonck focuses on the one hand on the confusion and eeriness of man in his environment. On the other hand, his work is about the confusion of the world itself in which the Apocalypse already took place.

EXHIBITION at #1 is a bold move, the challenge was to prove that Verdonck's pieces, many of which the artist describes as "big installations that are displayed in a theatrical context", were strong enough to stand on their own two feet in a contemporary art gallery. I had never experienced any of his works in theatres before so i had no preconceptions nor expectations. All i saw were absorbing videos, stunning installations and an earnest robot.

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, DANCER #3, 2010. Produced for the performance ACTOR #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

DANCER #3 is one node of ACTOR #1 which explores the metamorphosis from chaos to order. One of the starting points for this work was the history of the creation of the 'homunculus', the artificial miniature human that philosophers, alchemists and scientists have sought over the centuries since Greek Antiquity.

DANCER #3 is a robot trying to stand up straight; he always falls down again, but never gives up. His energy and clumsiness display the optimism of a clown who's always tripping over.

In Box, a glass cube contains the strongest possible light source that can be concentrated on such a small surface. As spectators --equipped with protective glasses-- watch the light, they hear the voice of the actor Johan Leysen who speaks, in German, the apocalyptic texts by dramatist Heiner Müller: Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten (Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts) (1982-1983.)

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Kris Verdonck, BOX. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Light that normally allows us to see was made so strong by the team of engineers Verdonck collaborated with that it turns us blind. BOX is the second installation in a series of installations that examine "the end of the world" from different points of view. Its light could be the luminous flash of a nuclear explosion, a never ceasing, eye-burning lightning that announces the end of the world.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The most jaw-dropping moment for me was when entered a big room on the first floor of Z33 filled with the appliances and objects developed by the artist for live shows. Most of them would normally be kept behind the scenes. The machines often look like medieval instruments (of torture). At the same time, they are often high-technological objects, that fulfil complex functions. They form a large contrast with the extreme esthetical images that they produce.

The overview of machines by Kris Verdonck addresses the field of tension between man and machine in today's society. What relationship can/must/do people want to enter into with technology? How difficult is the balancing act between human control and submission to machines?

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

For the IN performance, an actress remains motionless for an hour in a transparent cube filled with water. The distortion to her senses caused by the environment she is in makes her go into a trance. The sounds of her breathing and movement are amplified by microphones.

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Kris Verdonck, Warehouse of machinery, used in performances / installations, 1995 - present. Part of EXHIBITION #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, IN (image from a performance found on the artist's website)

I wish i'd have time to talk about every single work i saw in the show but i'd better wrap up the asap and hit 'publish' before it's too late for you to drive to Hasselt and see the show which closes on Sunday already so i'll end with two of the most stunning video works:

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Kris Verdonck, MOUSE. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

MOUSE shows - enormously magnified and in extreme slow-motion - a mouse walking into a trap. The trap closes, the iron breaks the small body. A camera with super slow motion (10,000 images/sec) was used to unravel the mechanics of a movement, just like Muybridge did. The technique makes us experience an extremely upsetting emergency situation in the slowest possible way.

We eat meat every day but we don't want to be remembered that animals have to be killed before they land on our plates, and we definitely don't want to be confronted with it visually. MOUSE is an image of our daily hypocrisy turned into a slow motion opera that fills a whole room.

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Kris Verdonck, FRIEZE, 2010. Produced for the 'circuit performance' K, a Society. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The figures in the large-scale projection FRIEZE look like your typical posh office workers. Neatly dressed, impassible and modern. After a few minutes however, their sharpness starts to crack. No matter how hard they try, the businessmen loose their decorum as their bodies slip, tumble and move awkwardly around the claustrophobic space they are confined to.

The characters in FRIEZE could be considered to be a modern version of the majestuous Greek caryatids. These sculpted female figure were functional as well as ornamental and emanated gravitas. The caryatids in FRIEZE on the other hand, display their vulnerability in the extreme.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available online.

Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1 closes this week at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium.

Previously: EXOTE, an indoor garden for invasive alien species.

The competition for Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) invites artists and designers to team up with the Netherlands most prestigious Genomics Centres and produce new artworks in the field of sustainability, food, health, bio-informatics, agriculture, and safety. So far the competition was only open to people living, studying or working in The Netherlands.

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Jalila Essaidi, 2.6 g 329 m/s (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Maurizio Montalti, System Synthetics (image Maurizio Montalti)

But the good news is that the first edition was so successful that The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society and Genomics and Waag Society have decided to open up their second call for application to artists and designers from any country. Three projects will be selected and awarded € 25.000 for the realization of the final piece. The only condition is for you to have graduated in the past five years. Application form and other info, this way please!

A few weeks ago, i was in The Netherlands to see the result of the first competition. You might remember that i had interviewed the 3 winning artists/designers just as they were about to start developing their projects (The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics) so i was curious to see whether the final pieces lived up to their (and my!) expectations. The show is up until January 8th at Naturalis, the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity which is located in Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (detail)

The best surprise for me was definitely the Microscopic Opera, developed by Matthijs Munnik in collaboration with Richard de Boer from the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this installation, the fluid movements of the humble lab worms C.elegans are turned into sounds and images. This tiny worm is used routinely as a model organism in research laboratories around the world. Its 'participation' to the artwork is particularly relevant to genomics since C.elegans is the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (de_buurman has much better images)

A software tracks and converts the movements of the worms into various sounds that range from abstract opera singing to dynamic soundtrack of background sounds. The public can follow the activity of the creatures on a series of screens, they display the images magnified by the microscopes installed above the petri dishes containing each from 100 to 1000 worms.

Microscopic Opera could have been yet another 'new media art' installation controlled by a living being but, somehow, the modesty of the performers, the pleasant sounds they generate and the control and dignity they gain in the process made for a surprisingly moving experience.

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Bulletproof skin stopping the bullet (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Bulletproof skin being pierced (image Jalila Essaidi)

The project that got most headlines in newspapers and blogs is 2.6g 329m/s, developed by Jalila Essaidi with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. The objective of her project was to create a a bulletproof human skin, the kind DARPA would pay fortunes to get their hands on. Except that the project is first and foremost the trigger for a reflection about the many social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

The rather unappealing result is a hybrid between spider's silk produced by transgenic silkworm and human skin cells:

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In an interview with Neva Lukic, the artist explained why her project explores the concept, relativity and borderlines of safety: Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father's hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe... The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn't pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.

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Ballistic gel, used to simulate the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue (image Jalila Essaidi)

Jalila has recently posted on her blog, the extract of Sam Gaty & George Costakis' upcoming A Documentary Film about Synthetic Biology. The short video below gives a quick overview of the work being done in a farm in Laramie, WY whereby spider silk is being spun from goat milk.

The third project is System Synthetics, by designer Maurizio Montalti in cooperation with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The ambitious work attempts to study the possibilities of production of the bio fuel out of the degradation process of the plastic waste using two fungal organisms. A first type of fungi would break down plastic waste, a yeast would then take over and produce bio-ethanol out of it.

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Scanning Electron Micrographs (SEM), showing the interaction between fungus, yeast and plastic material

The final installation doesn't showcase the successful outcome of the project (the whole process would take years to complete) but it documents the intention, the experiments and points to the ecological burden that plastic imposes on our planet. There is a series of objects in a window that deconstruct the process from the moment plastic is broken down by men into smaller particles to phase when plastic waste would finally be transformed in an alternative energy source.

You might get a better idea of the whole project by watching this film:

The three works are on show at Naturalis, Leiden until January 8th 2012. The center has also uploaded videos that present the winning projects.

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Inside the Naturalis

Previously: The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

The Casino de Luxembourg has, once again, put up an show worth a trip to the capital of the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je raises questions about the blurring of identity in contemporary society. I'll review the whole exhibition later on this week but in the meantime i'd like to single out a work i found particularly striking.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Vue d'installation. Photo: Studio Rémi Villaggi, Metz pour Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain

In February of this year, Art Orienté objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) were at galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana to perform Que le cheval vive en moi (May the horse live in me), a bold self-experiment that aimed to blur the boundaries between species.

The French artistic duo has been exploring trans-species relationships and the questioning of scientific methods and tools for 20 years now. This time their work involved injecting Marion Laval-Jeantet with horse blood plasma. Over the course of several months, the artist prepared her body by allowing to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum, and which, for example, can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same.

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011 (image)

In February 2011, having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.

Horse immunoglobulins by-passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her own body and, as a result of this synthesis, have an effect on all major body functions, impacting even the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. "I had the feeling of being extra-human," explained the artist. "I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.'

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Art Orienté objet, Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011. Photo: Miha Fras

After the transfusion, Laval-Jeantet, perched on stilts, performed a communication ritual with a horse before her hybrid blood was extracted and freeze-dried.

Video documenting the performance:

As a radical experiment whose long-term effects cannot be calculated, Que le cheval vive en moi questions the anthropocentric attitude inherent to our technological understanding. Instead of trying to attain "homeostasis," a state of physiological balance, with this performance, the artists sought to initiate a process of "synthetic transi-stasis," in which the only constant is continual transformation and adaptation. The performance represents a continuation of the centaur myth, that human-horse hybrid which, as "animal in human," symbolizes the antithesis of the rider, who as human dominates the animal.

The work was awarded the Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Electronica 2011.
Previously: Interview with Art Orienté objet.

Second Lives: Jeux masqués et autres Je remains open at the Casino de Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain through September 11, 2011.

See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception by architect, artist, film director and Professor at Columbia University and Parsons Madeline Schwartzman (available on amazon UK and USA)

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Black Dog Publishing writes: See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception is the first book to survey the fascinating relationship between design, the body, science and the senses. Over the last 50 years, artists, architects and designers have been experimenting with the boundaries of our senses, altering the way we experience the world.

Did you know it has been revealed that we can hear our skin, can see through our tongue, and can plug our nervous system directly into a computer? With prosthetics, robotics, cybernetics, virtual reality, transplants, and neuroscience altering the way we perceive and experience space, the body has re-emerged as an important architectural site. See Yourself Sensing reports the experiments of artists and designers on the intimate scale of the body, and explores the influence of such experimentation on architecture, installation and new media.

Exploring this concept through the last 50 years of contemporary art and design, See Yourself Sensing examines the work of key practitioners in this field, from Rebecca Horn's object based installations and Stelarc's robotic body extensions, to Carsten Höllers' physically interactive sculptures. The works and artists illustrated throw into consideration how we see and sense the world around us through artistic interpretation. The book includes projects such as solar-powered contact lenses that augment reality, LED eyelashes and an implanted tooth receiver that transmits the Internet directly into the wearer's inner ear, all created with the purpose of transforming and provoking the wearer's sensory experience.

Madeline Schwartzman brings together this unique collection of images that reflect the sensory design in architecture, art and installation, chartering the breadth of this sensory theme through the work of many renowned artists. Analysing the importance and influence of body-scaled sensory experiments, Schwartzman reveals the fascinating relationship between senses, body, art and perception.

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Ann Hamilton, Untitled (Body Object series) #5-bushhead, 1984/1993

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Didier Faustino, (G)host in the (S)hell, 2008

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Susana Soares and Mikael Metthey, Skin Collector from the Pathogen Hunters, Rapid Form SLA, 2010

Books on similar topics tend to look either like catalogs listing and illustrating relevant projects or lengthy essays that you might or might not have the strength and desire to read from the first to the last page. See Yourself Sensing manages to keep the balance between the two. There are plenty of works to illustrate each chapter, many of which i had never heard about and was therefore enthusiastic to encounter. But it is also a well-paced, well-researched essay about the impact technologies are having on the architecture of our senses.

Instead of dividing the book into chapters that would each focus on one of our human senses, the author chose to adopt more conceptual approach. The first chapter, Reframers takes a look at the mind-bending in function, utility or outlook. Environments negociates the space between bodies and containers. Tools deals with utility, performance and enhancement. Mediators are the agents that intervene between people, spaces and objects. The final chapter, Speculations is the boldest of all with its set of ideas and projects that spark even more inspiration and conjectures. The introduction to each chapter focuses on a few artists, researchers or designers. They can be as diverse as R&Sie and Kevin Warwick. Then the book adopts a faster rhythm with the presentation of dozens of project that illustrate the theme of the chapter.

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Janaina Tschäpe, Juju I, 2004

The sections are not hermetically closed, they keep referencing each other and there is a sense of narration, a flow that keeps your mind alert and your interest alert. I think this book is going to be one i'll be referencing again and again. And there aren't many books i can see myself getting back to regularly.

Here's a few projects i discovered or re-discovered in the book. I wish i could add more but some of the ones i found most fascinating don't seem to be well documented online:

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Sitraka Rakotoniaina and Andrew Friend, Impactor and Neck Clamp, 2010. Photo by Sarah Mei Herman & Hitomi Kai Yoda

Sitraka Rakotoniaina and Andrew Friend, Impactor and Neck Clamp from the Shocking series that explores and exposes the boundaries between thrill, fear and science lye. The devices they have designed would allow individuals the chance to test these limits for themselves, capitalising on new, fantastic material qualities promised by the advances of technology and in particular the development of new shock absorbing nano composites.

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Hyungkoo Lee, Creeper,

Creeper is one of Hyungkoo Lee's movable machines that allow humans to alter their sensations and be closer to insects.

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Hyungkoo Lee, from The Objectuals series, 2007

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Catherine Sylvain, Petites détresses humaines et autres maux, 2004

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Haus-Rucker-Co, Have a "psy-year", 1968

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Haus- Rucker-Co, Mind Expander, 1967

Haus- Rucker-Co's experiment brought new perspectives on the fusion/separation between the body and the space.

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George Yu, Blow-up, 2004

Blow-Up, by George Yu Architects, is a group of inflatable touch-sensitive surfaces that enable visitors to modulate sound, touch, and light.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Dis-Armor, 1999-2000

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Dis-Armor, 1999-2000

Krzysztof Wodiczko's now iconic Dis-Armor is a prosthetic equipment designed to meet the communicative need of the alienated, traumatized, and silenced residents of today's cities, offering them the opportunity offers to communicate indirectly with another person by speaking through their backs.

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Marepe, Cabeça Acústica (Acoustic Head), 1995

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Marepe, Cabeça Acústica (Acoustic Head), 1995

Marepe's Cabeça Acústica (Acoustic Head) are two aluminum wash basins connected with hinges and a cooking pan to create a meditative isolation chamber for amplifying singing.

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Jean-Gilles Décosterd, Climats n 3

Jean-Gilles Décosterd's Climats imports the time atmospheric conditions of the Alps into a closed museum space.

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Entrance of the WORK gallery

See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception is also an exhibition open at WORK in London through 24 September 2011.

Euthanasia Coaster is a hypothetical euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely kill a human being. The rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness and eventually death. The whole process reproduces over a much longer period of time the sensations that pilots and astronauts experience during training when they are put through extreme g-force inside human centrifuge machines. The Euthanasia Coaster is of course a speculative project. People might want to experience this ultimate ride in the future, for example when their lives have been extended so much that existence has become unbearable. In addition, the roller coaster, with its spectacular succession of physical and mental sensations, brings back a sense of ritual to the contemporary handling of death (after all, people in England have been known to use fireworks to send the ashes of the deceased into the night sky.)

If you want to know more about the project you can take the fast lane and enjoy designer Julijonas Urbonas's cute Lithuanian accent in this video:

Or take your time and follow this conversation i had with designer:

You have a rather unusual bio for a designer, it states "In 2004, I became a managing director of an amusement park in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and ran it for three years." Was it already part of your design research or was it a genuine job that had nothing to do with art and design and had no other purpose that making a living? What did your experience there teach you?

I grew up in a Soviet amusement park, which was headed by my father. The park was my substitute kindergarten and its employees - ride operators, event managers, technicians, cashiers, administrators - were my nannies. I witnessed the transition from communism to westernisation from quite a unique perspective of that architectural amusement. The entire Soviet Union was filled with these carefully crafted packages of standardised 'military-grade' amusement rides that functioned rather as communist propaganda machines, saturated with Soviet memorabilia, soothing and relaxing the labour force from physical and mental exhaustion. Once Lithuania became independent in 1991, the country's amusement culture was also liberated and western forms of entertainment started to emerge. As a result of this, the park started to experience gradual decrease in visitor numbers, and the need for an upgrade was evident. Growing up, I was constantly involved in various activities related to this transformation, from redecorating and redesigning to rechoreographing the movements of the rides. Later I engaged in a dialogue with these experiences during my BA- and MA-level design studies, finally culminating in a speculative architectural and design proposal for the renovation of the park I had grown up in. This paved the way for my CEO career - I took over my father's position.

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Julijonas - the boy with the blue shirt - riding the Soviet amusement ride "Cabin-boy" in the Klaipeda Park of Culture and Recreation, Lithuania, 1990 (Photo taken from Julijonas' family album)

But it was only quite recently that I realised it had been a little professional misfortune: I never liked to ride the rides myself, but rather preferred to wonder about those peculiar phenomena. My disinterest in submitting my body to the funfair machinery perhaps lies in the fact that I'm quite motion-sickness-prone, and that I grew up in a very standardised park (most children at that age were dreaming about Disneyland). Thus, I've been intimately connected to the amusement park, but also retained a substantial or, better put, critical distance. Nonetheless, in spite of (or thanks to) the latter, I felt something extremely powerful was lurking in the park. And I soon realised, that, for instance, it was the only existing hybrid narrative form that engaged or immersed its audience through virtually all the possible channels at once: psychologically, symbolically, ideologically, bodily, etc. Most interestingly, I found that this sort of surrogate reality provided a variety of aesthetic kinetic bodily-perceived experiences that was unparalleled by any other existing place, except for, was perhaps, only astronaut training camps. So, now I can say that by engineering and designing efficient ways of twisting the rider's guts and elegantly disorienting people, I was in fact working on what I call the aesthetics of 'gravitational theatre' in my PhD research project.

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The same model of the "Cabin-boy" ride (upper top) decorated with a red star in the Soviet amusement park "Victory" in Tiraspol, Moldova (note that such parks were usually called Park of Culture and Recreation or "Парк Культуры и отдыха" in russian.) Photo: Alexander Banekiy, 2011

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A modernised post-Soviet version of the "Cabin-boy" in Orenburg, Russia. It is basically an old iron-rich model dressed in a shiny plastic simulacrum. Photo: Alexander Sablin, 2008

The Euthanasia Coaster, a model of which is currently exhibited at the Science Gallery in Dublin, is designed to put an end to a state of boredom we might feel in the future due to an almost excessive longevity. It would allow people to leave life in a euphoric state through an amusement park ride. Why call it Euthanasia and not suicide coaster?
Have you thought of applying your knowledge of amusement park designs to other purposes?

At first, what was designed was just a fatal falling trajectory with no purpose but one: to kill the rider pleasantly and elegantly. That was where the title came from - "euthanasia" means "easy or good death" in Greek. It was a design thought experiment concerned with what the ultimate roller coaster would look like and what possible usages it would be open to. Later on, having received lots of feedback from my scientific advisers and the public, I began to add more trajectories, yet this time not as engineered curvatures but rather as storylines suggesting different uses. The key ones were obviously assisted suicide and execution. It is because the coaster may provide not just a pleasant death in terms of physiological pleasure but also, more importantly, an alternative death ritual appealing to both the individual and the mourning public.

Today, the procedures of terminating the patient's life are highly hospitalised and not much different from a mundane injection of medicine. There is no special ritual, nor is death given special meaning, except that of legal procedures and psychological preparation. It appears that death is being divorced from our cultural life much like death rituals are dissapearing in our secular and postmodern Western society. But if euthanasia is already legal in some countries, why not make it more meaningful, not in a way certain aboriginals mourn a deceased by ecstatic singing and dancing around a bonfire, for example, but rather as a ritual adapted to the contemporary world where theme and amusement parks replace churches and shrines or at least achieve an equal power of producing spiritual effects (more and more people attend theme parks for self-improvement purposes: relaxation, self-cultivation, socialisation). This is, of course, food for thought.

It has been observed that the jumpers, people who commit suicide by falling to the ground, often demonstrate some sort of aesthetic preference for a nice place or structure to kill themselves, for example, by travelling long distances for that, but also performing some forms of rituals such as folding their clothes neatly before the jump or holding a hat on the head with both hands all the way down. What's more, sometimes the jumpers fall undressed or perform some choreography - it seems that they care about how their bodies meet the air. All this testifies that self-murderers are not apathetic in relation to the ritual of killing themselves, and seek some sort of aesthetic meaning in it.

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The Euthanasia Coaster scale model on display at the HUMAN+ exhibition in the Science Gallery, Dublin in April 2011. Photo: Patrick Bolger/Science Gallery

In fact, falling is a unique experience that sets itself apart from other types of death: while rushing towards the ground or, in the case of the Euthanasia Coaster, towards the loop, knowing and anticipating with the whole body the exact time of death, there is still a fraction of time for reflection. Its real-time interface and inherent dramatic structure - the leap, the fall, the impact - a three act tragedy, are not present in lethal injection, shooting yourself or in overdosing on drugs, for example. Pull the trigger and you receive the shot - there is no gap between the act and its result, while with lethal injection or overdose there is an unknown time interval. In the Euthanasia Coaster the ritualistic drama is exaggerated even more: there is a lift up the tower, the drop, the serpentine fall, the vertiginous and euphoric entry to a series of the loops, and, eventually the fatal ride within the loop. Moreover, another unique thing is that this dramatic spectacle is open to the public, be it the relatives of the rider or the victims of the sentenced to capital punishment, revealing the full drama of their demise. Given all that, the coaster incorporates the private and public aesthetics of a humane and meaningful death: for the faller it is a painless, whole-body engaging and ritualised death machine, for the observers - a monumental mourning machine.

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Close-ups of the scale model. Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

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Close-ups of the scale model. Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

Another possible usage of the coaster - a "hacked" thrill ride - was suggested by an aeronautic engineer who happened to visit the coaster's scale model during one exhibition in London. "Your machine could be easily hacked, you know," she commented. Noticing my confused face, she continued: "Using anti-g-trousers that prevent pilots from blackout and fainting, I believe, I would survive the ride and turn it into the most extreme thrill ride."

My previous project Emancipation Kit is also a part of my PhD studies and has something to do with parks as well. It is a set of specially designed tools for facilitating vomiting - a sort of vomit simulator. The project evolved out of the sketchy idea of "Vomit Park," a park with no kinetic experiences but retaining the very result of them, puking. You visit such a vomit park, disgorge the contents of your stomach, and leave light and emancipated.

I have many more ideas of similar 'amusements', but most of them have to be open for bodily participation and therefore are quite pricey to build. It might take a good while until I realize them.

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Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius. Neon design/typography: Egidijus Praspaliauskas

The description of the project explains that the Euthanasia Coaster benefits from 'the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity.' Could you give us more details about the technology involved in the Euthanasia Coaster?

The key technology of the coaster is basically its falling trajectory, the "story-line" of the ride, if you can call it technology. The very experience of the ride depends on the curvature of the track, and therefore all the design and engineering involved in building a roller coaster is basically structured around this linear element: its play with gravitational forces, the resulting effects on the rider's body, dynamic loads on the supporting architectural structure, the physics of the ride such as tendency to slow down due to air drag and friction, etc.

In the Euthanasia Coaster, the track incorporates both the functional and the aesthetic aspects of the ride. Both converge in the human-gravity interface design, or what I call g-design, and permeate the personal and public levels of aesthetics, dealing with the bodily experiences of the ride including pleasurable death, the ritual, but also the sculptural appeal of the coaster's construction. Based on physics calculations, the coaster's track has a laconic shape and is completely functional in terms of elegantly and pleasurably terminating the life of the rider. It consists of two core parts: (1) the drop tower - for dropping the coaster's vehicle down the track to achieve such kinetic energy that allows to sustain 10 g for about a minute within (2) a series of seven teardrop-shaped vertical loop elements, arranged in a decreasing size order and forming a spiral. In order to keep constant force, the size of the lethal loops decreases along the course according to the car's decreasing velocity reduced by the friction and air drag. The drop-hill features a heart-line roll element, a whirling coaster track element, where your heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the falling trajectory around which you body spins. This element adds a vertiginous experience, but also works as a sort of disorienting anaesthetic for the further harsher part of the ride. The latter incorporates GLOC (G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness) and brain death caused by cerebral hypoxia, oxygen deprivation in the brain- which is, curiously, usually a euphoric experience accompanied with surreal dreamlets.

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The Euthanasia Coaster's loops are specially engineered in the shape of a clothoid loop to sustain uniform and constant g-forces along the ride. Specifically, it sustains 10 g which is not too much to get injured physically and not too little to come back alive.

To calculate all the physics, I needed some mechanical characteristics of the vehicle. For this I modelled a hypothetical vehicle with rough physics approximations of 1 ton roller coaster car with no windshield (I wanted the passenger to feel the wind, its increasing force, and, eventually, terminal velocity).

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A prototype of the vehicle of the Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas, 2010

When it comes to efficiency, the coaster is in fact not the best solution to end one's life with g-forces, as there are more efficient ways of killing people such as the human centrifuge, the Euthanasia Coaster's closest analogue, or many killing machines and techniques introduced by the Nazis. In comparison to those, the coaster is extremely bulky and grandiose, but this heaviness is balanced by the aesthetics of experiential, functional and sculptural lightness devoted to the dignified death of a human being. Moreover, it is also 'light' for the earth as the coaster is driven almost solely by gravity.

The model is exhibited at the Science Gallery along with a b&w video showing the face of -i think- a pilot. There's a short extract in this video.
Could you describe what the man in the video is experiencing?

high_g-force_training_2.jpgThe pilot in the video is undertaking high-g training in a U.S. Air Force Centrifuge at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas. He is performing a set of anti-g-strain manoeuvres - special techniques of breathing and muscle contractions of lower extremities, especially in the abdomen and legs to keep blood circulating in the upper part of the body - which prevent one from fainting while performing high acceleration turns (an experiential equivalent of the Euthanasia Coaster's loops). The pilot there is spun around at approx. 9 g, which means he experiences a nine-fold increase in his body weight. He is stuck to the seat so hard that his whole body is almost completely immobilised. You can see in the video the tissues of his face drooping down - it looks like he is ageing remarkably. Breathing requires more effort, as the ribs and the rest of the internal organs are pulled down, which empties air from the lungs. The force rushes the blood to the lower extremities of the body, thereby causing oxygen deficiency in the brain, which results into blurred colourless vision (aka greyout), later - loss of peripheral sight (aka tunnel vision) and hearing, and blackout. Eventually, this experience - accompanied by disorientation, anxiety, confusion and even euphoria - is crowned with G-LOC, during which the body is completely limp, and vivid bizarre dreams occur, such as being in a maze and unable to get out, or floating in a white space, not knowing who you are, why you are here, etc (check this video). While the pilot is recovering from G-LOC, he is still unconscious, his body flails around in a chaotic fit that is called "funky chicken" in aeromedical slang, as the neurons in the brain - replenished with extra oxygenated blood pumped harder from the heart - begin firing once again. This causes arms and legs to twitch uncontrollably. After having lost consciousness in centrifuge training, pilots often experience amnesia and deny the fact they lost consciousness, even feel dumbfounded when shown video tapes of the episode.

If i understood well, the Euthanasia Coaster is part of a PhD research project that explores gravity's impact on creative disciplines such as design but also art and architecture. Has this field of Gravitational Aesthetics been really so under-explored so far? What will the rest of your "Gravitational Aesthetics" investigation be about? Are you working on other prototypes?

The study "Gravitational Aesthetics" - both theoretical and studio-based - is original on several levels: the systematic phenomenological (or experiential) survey of gravitational experiences such as amusement rides, various levitations, even lucid weightless dreams; and the development of a specific design approach, g-design (the prefix "g" stands as a conceptual link to g-force or gravitational force).

G-design, a marriage of gravity and design, is an original creative and critical approach examining the complexity of the cross-interactions between gravity, aesthetics, technologies and philosophy. Inspired by amusement rides and choreography, it invokes the powerful gravity's creative potential for creating revelatory and enriching experiences that engage the whole body and imagination. Choreographing the bodies through design, shaking the body's innards with poetic vehicles, imagining alternative gravities are a few things that g-design is concerned with.

You may say this approach is not new - there are individual examples of artistic, design, architectural, engineering work that might be 'labelled' as g-design. For instance, roller coasters designed by Harry G. Traver, custom-modified wingsuits, the oblique architecture of Paul Virilio, imaginary vehicles by Panamarenko, etc. These examples abound, yet they are fragmentary, and there is no person who has/had pursued an extensive and systematic study in this area. G-design aspires to fill this gap by surveying the existing examples and designing new ones, while striving to unify and synthesise them in a single theory or creative approach, and give it pragmatic orientation, something that an individual can directly translate into or apply to an artistic practice.

The research project has been mainly theoretical so far, but in parallel to writing I've been sketching all the time, and have produced quite a bunch of ideas that I am very enthusiastic about putting into practice now. Currently I'm developing a few ideas of conceptual amusement rides open to bodily submission: one involves collaboration with a choreographer and roboticist, another has to do with imaginary exercises.

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A performative lecture on the experiential reality of levitation, was delivered at the Arts Catalyst, London, June 2011. Photo: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius

Thanks Julijonas!

P.S. Julijonas Urbonas also invites musicians, sound artists and engineers to submit sound compositions for a series of the installations "Sounding Doors." Selected compositions will be played by opening/closing a door augmented with specially integrated electronics in various public locations in the city Karlsruhe in late Summer. DEADLINE: 1 August 2011.

Check out The Euthanasia Coaster (as well as Reproductive Futures and the Center for PostNatural History) at HUMAN+, an exhibition on view through June 24, 2011 at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

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