Ten years ago, while still studying design at the London School of Art, Thomas Thwaites bought a toaster for £ 3.94. How would it be, he wondered, himself to make such an everyday and seemingly simple object? But without buying one of the 157 finished components. He smelted iron ore, extracted copper from seepage in an old mine, made plastic from potato starch, and eventually built something resembling a cheese fondue accident.
His toaster cost him £ 1,200 and you could not toast it with it, only heat it. But The toaster project gave him great satisfaction, insight into industrial evolution (s) and about hidden costs in the economy. Plus a book and assignments at the crossroads of art, technology, science, design and do-it-yourself.
Thwaites (1980) was in Artis this month with seven other artists each performing their project. At the urging of Machine Wilderness, an “artistic research program” on what it would do to machines “if they could enter the world of plants and animals”.
Or, conversely, one could think of Thwaites’ project. He invented The harmless car, an innocent, harmless car for its passengers, fellow road users and the environment. Basic material: arrow. Thick to the chassis, the egg-shaped body of gracefully curved thinner toes. “A wonderful material,” he says. “You just do not believe it is so strong, especially braided.”
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The idea he owes to his daughter, who started screaming and kicking when he wanted to strap her in a car seat. “I thought: maybe you have a point.” And then: no seat belts, what does that mean? Something with permanent airbags. The wheels also turn into balloons, he believes. Large canvas balloons that spin very slowly. That way, I’ll be looking for a way around the problem. ”
It sounds methodical: set yourself a task, divide it into sub-problems and then find creative solutions. But how did you even come up with the idea of building a toaster from scratch? Or a cute car? Or his most spectacular project to date: even becoming a goat?
It seems like a childhood fantasy: I wish I was a bird / dolphin / lion. For Thwaites, it was serious. “We know what the big problems are, with no solution in sight. I did not want to worry for a while. Animals do not worry. It was flying behavior, but I wish it was more than the dream of galloping away.And then began the research process, which I always enjoy so much: how could I really become a goat?
Thwaites refused to accept the experts’ ‘no’. You will break your collarbones like a four-legged friend! eat grass? You do not have four stomachs to digest cellulose!
Eventually he overcomes these nos, with great physical discomfort via an ‘exoskeleton’, prostheses and an outer ‘rumen’ into which he spits grass and which produces nutrients by chemical detour. But in the end, it is not about becoming the physical side of the animal, but about the process between the ears. As a shaman tells him: do you really want to become an animal or just put on an animal costume? She refers him to research conducted by the Danish anthropologist Rane Willerslev among native hunters in Siberia. In order to hunt successfully, they themselves become the animal. Not ‘as it were’, but literally one with the moose that they can only kill that way.
Thwaites: “How can they really believe it? The answer is something along the lines of: their definition of what you are as a person varies with the connections to your environment. It is different from our internally defined Cartesian concept of ‘I think, therefore is I’.”
Can you think, turn off the language?
“I actually went to a neurologist to see if he could turn off parts of my brain that make me human. Answer: no, because that’s what makes you yours. And so I decided to change my environment radically. . ”
I went to a goat farmer in the Alps and said I was ‘interested in goats’ and wanted to go and eat and sleep with his goats. Incredibly, he allowed me to stay for a few days. After the first night in the barn, I walked with him and his goats on my dentures down the steep slope to another grassy area. Very painful. I tried to forget how much I wanted a cup of coffee and enjoy the smell of the other goats. It did not really work. Still, I noticed that after a while the goats kept less distance and that I was part of the herd and grazed with them. ”
And then he makes a mistake. Because going uphill with dentures hurts less than walking downhill, he suddenly seems to be at the highest point on the meadow, taller than all the other goats. They stop grazing. “The moment in a western where the whole saloon turns in silence as the newcomer comes through the swinging doors,” he writes in GoatMan, how I took a vacation from being human† The “worst goat, raw herd” had occupied the dominant position. Some goats begin to tremble at their horns.
“We literally look down on most four-legged friends, but if you stand on four legs yourself, the cards are shuffled a little more fairly. When goats fight among themselves, they do so in a ritual way, not to harm. I should have guessed the right angle for a headbutt. I could have lost an eye. A goat that I was somehow attached to saved me. I followed her, and it pulled the strings. ”
Becoming an animal is a trend. Charles Foster, a British lawyer and veterinarian, tried to live as a badger, otter, fox, deer and fast. He slept under hedges, in roadside and forests to discover what it is like not to go “visually” through life as a human being, but to use all the senses. He ate from trash cans, ate worms and road homicide† “You get used to it,” he said NRC† He was also chased by a bloodhound to feel what it is like to be a prey. You do not get used to it.
Their projects earned Foster and Thwaites a shared Ig Nobel Prize in 2016, a science award for frivolous-looking research that is nonetheless thought-provoking. And then there’s Geoffroy Delorme, who lived for seven years with deer in a Normandy forest (L’Homme-chevreuiltranslated in 2021 as the deer man† And there is David Abram’s book, To become expensive (2010), a philosophical exercise based on the fact that we do not see the world “as it is” because our brains quickly replace everything our eyes see with abstract “concepts”.
“It has no doubt to do with us seeking a new relationship with nature,” says Thwaites. Common to him and Foster is their attempt to build a bridge between humans and animals. “And we both realize how much comfort you have to give up when trying to live as a non-human.”
But in addition to the physical discomfort, Thwaites also noted “spiritual discomfort,” he says. “I’m not religious, but I believe I’m part of something bigger: the progress of human civilization, the idea that everything will eventually get better through advanced technology. At least that’s the core of it. Star Trek, which I have looked at a lot in the past. But to use technology to become a goat, to live a humble life without progress or purpose and to be content with it – is to reject this ideal. So why do I really believe in it?
“My visit to the shaman and animism – it has a New Age side to it, but it’s also about what it means to be a person. And it’s compatible with my idea of science. My project was also about it: bringing the two closer together. ”
Do you better understand what it means to be human by becoming an animal?
It starts with a vision, a vision: Yes, I have to make a toaster! Yes, I have to be a goat! That vision is falling apart and I am trying to get close to it. But there comes a point where you realize that it is impossible. And you end up researching what was so appealing about that vision to begin with. You have to find the way you fail interesting, and that’s another way to achieve something else. “
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“There’s an aesthetic side to it, but I do not know if it really is beauty. I hope there is meaning somewhere. “
He opens his laptop and shows a model of his plant-based car, calculated by TU Delft. “The optimal tension lines correspond exactly to the shapes that curved willow toes still want. I like that: How old weaving techniques and computer algorithms coincide. It actually makes sense: when willow trees bend in the wind, they also grow in such a way that the tension is optimized. And you feel it again when you are about to weave. ”
And then you almost become that car yourself.
“Your brain becomes the car, yes.”