Artist Thomas Thwaites builds a car that can not yet hurt a snail

Thomas Thwaite’s ‘harmless car’. The regular car tires are replaced later.Statue of Thomas Thwaites

It was a ‘special experience’ to work every morning in Amsterdam’s zoo next to the ostriches, says Thomas Thwaites (41), with the sound of ‘singing gibbons’ and ‘noisy conversations between seals’ in the background. With the shoes still full of mud, the English artist presents his work in production from the last few weeks in Artis: a Flintstones-like car chassis made of woven willow. A number of children also collaborated spontaneously during their visit to the zoo. ‘The braiding technique was laborious, but fortunately not so difficult.’

It’s the start of what’s going to be a completely ‘harmless car’. The ultimate goal: The car must be able to drive 15-20 kilometers per hour with its family in, without causing harm to anyone or anything. And then Thwaites thinks not only of indirect environmental damage, but also of impact in the most literal sense: he dreams of very wide tires of dandelion rubber, with which even a snail can be run over unharmed. A video of similar tires that you can drive over people with already attracted a lot of attention among the children who visited Thwaites’ workshop in Artis: They applied enthusiastically to be run over by him.

Thomas Thwaites' 'harmless car', with a band of willow trees.  Picture

Thomas Thwaites’ ‘harmless car’, with a band of willow trees.

Under the name Machine Wilderness, eight artists will have their own studio in Artis for a few weeks from mid-March to late June to work on a project. These projects have one thing in common: they explore the relationship between humans, nature and technology. The artists regularly hold open studios, give workshops and guided tours and present their work at the end of June in the Groote Museum van Artis and in Amstelpark. This artist-in-residences take place under the name Machine Wilderness.

The wilderness of the machine

The artist-in-residence project Machine Wilderness concludes on June 24 with an ‘art-science fair’ at the Groote Museum van Artis. Many participating artists will be in attendance, including Ivan Henriques, Ian Ingram and Špela Petrič. They explain their work on the basis of conversations and experiments. On 25 and 26/6 and 1-3 / 7 their work will also be presented at Zone2Source in Amstelpark in Amsterdam. Thomas Thwaites’ car can be seen in both places.

For Thwaites, his time is already coming to an end, the next artists are about to start. ‘In a strange way’, it made perfect sense, says Thwaites, to start working on his harmless car in a zoo. ‘This work is about my struggle with the harmful effects of the things we humans design, produce and use. In Artis, animals from all over the world gather in one place. Together, they represent, so to speak, the wildlife on earth that must suffer from these effects. Many endangered species and other animals are having a hard time, partly because of one of the most harmful objects man has ever designed: the car. ‘

Thwaites has often proved to be a lover of almost impossible experiments in his work. Initially, it is often thought experiments, he says, that spring from a ‘dormant feeling of discomfort’. That’s how he decided on his past Toaster project (2010) to build a toaster from scratch on their own using crude oil and metals from disused mines in England (exhibited in the permanent collection of the Groote Museum van Artis).

Thomas Thwaites made his own toaster for his Toaster Project from 2010. Statue Daniel Alexander

Thomas Thwaites made his own toaster for his 2010 Toaster Project.Statue of Daniel Alexander

“Making the plastic house turned out to be extremely difficult,” he sighs, showing a photo of a melted toaster. By actually implementing such a rather crazy idea, and also documenting the route to it in detail, he made it clear what a toaster ‘costs’: what enormous effort and environmental costs are required for the ‘simple’ luxury of a toasted sandwich.

In front of GoatMan (2016), another famous experiment, Thwaites, who was having a hard time at the time, decided to take a break from modern humanity. He joined a herd of goats in the Alps for a few days. He moved on special dentures, ate grass and tried to digest it using an artificial stomach. Like his previous project, it resulted in a witty book where there is surprisingly much to learn – not least about people.

Thomas Thwaites joined a herd of goats for his GoatMan project in 2016. Photo by Tim Bowditch

Thomas Thwaites joined a herd of goats for his GoatMan project in 2016.Image by Tim Bowditch

Thwaites, of course, knows full well that his completely harmless car is impossible. It’s about the experiment, the road to it and the question of what compromises he has to make to keep his car running. What damage can be avoided? Which one is not? And how much damage do we actually consider acceptable?

In front of GoatMan Thwaites received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2016, the award for research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. Maybe this car has a good chance again. When he’s done. For how to make a harmless engine? Thwaites: ‘Obviously a lot needs to be done.’

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