The Barany Chair and g-Design

 

Julijonas Urbonas 2010

 

(Full essay is printed in Arc 14 magazine available at http://www.rcamagazine.co.uk)

 

We make sense of the world through things. My chair, for example, helps me to write this text, serving as an object to write about but also making my writing lighter, free of gravity’s burden loaded on my legs. Thus approaching you, my reader and the world, is easier thanks to the ‘amputation’ of my legs, and their removal from my thoughts as well, alas. As a compensation for this side-effect I take advantage of my prosthesis. Having a rich selection, from my lab-like chair with gas springs and caster wheels to the powered chair of the automobile, I can choose whichever differing perspective of the world I want to access.

 

Sat in a chair, merged with it, beginning a cyborg-like relationship with it, I now perceive the world from the perspective of ‘chair-man’. Perception changes with the body’s motility. Rocking chair’s rhythm, accommodated in its dancing surroundings, sooths me, while a roller coaster, a new generation of toboggan-chair, provides the opposite: the harsh oscillating gravitational fields. From here on, my writing could no longer be about chair but through chair. The chair therefore deserves to be called an epistemological engine through which I can approach and make sense of the world around me. Given this point of view, now, to discuss further, or rather contemplate-through, I’ve chosen the Barany chair. It gives a possibility to perceive peculiar aesthetics, which call for a new design approach.

 

While visiting the Spatial Disorientation Lab at Imperial College in London, I came across an odd-looking chair. Dr. Michael Gresty, the professor who runs the lab, notices my curiosity and, smiling roguishly, asks me to sit in that chair. Then, blindfolded, I’m slowly spun around my vertical axis. The professor commands me to shut my eyes and, now, tilt my head down to my chest, then, quickly back up again. Now tilt down. All of a sudden I start feeling a mild dizziness and a short-lasting misperception of the orientation of my body. “Wow”, I told myself, “Such an acrobatic experience caused by a simple twist!”

 

“Although the whole of your body is rotating from left to right, by tilting your head you brought the balance organs of the inner ears into a new plain of motion and suddenly you're getting a very complex motion signal fed to the brain from your balance organ. This is disorienting and because the brain finds it difficult to unscramble these messages it starts to make you feel first of all an experience of malaise and then sick and even cause vomiting”, explains the professor and adds: “Despite its dizzy effect, the mild stimulation of this chair is found highly amusing for most people”.

 

This simple but very effective (or affective) technology, the Barany chair, named after the Hungarian physiologist Robert Barany, is a device used for aerospace physiology training. The chair is used to demonstrate spatial disorientation effects, proving that the vestibular system is not to be trusted in flight. Pilots are taught to rely on their flight instruments instead. It is also used as one of the most effective devices for motion sickness therapy.

 

Putting aside these medical issues, now I’m playing with this chair as an amusement ride designer or just a curious grown-up kid. I spin faster, slower, head right, left, up, down. Again, now under a different repertoire of movements, my skin starts to prickle and sweat seeps out of every pore, mild headache and drowsiness — technically called Sopite Syndrome — are kicking in. (Interestingly, this syndrome is ‘used’ unknowingly by parents to sooth an infant when rocking). After about dozen turns my stomach starts to feel upset, it’s hard refrain from yawning, and… voilá— all the efforts result in the eviction of the contents of my stomach. The chair creates such an extraordinary kinaesthetic environment that my novice body can’t cope and gives up by fooling itself it were intoxicated. “If you would have managed to force yourself to not vomit, the body would stop reacting to the stimulus with nausea”, the professor comments.

 

Is it a coincidence that the body doesn’t like to be lifted of the ground? Our bodies are meant to walk on Earth, the chair — sort of an experiential simulation of an aircraft — is challenging the system that evolved over eons, and is thus well adapted for Earth. Even more, it is questioning or even threatening the body to be ‘obsolete’ in the face of technologies. Remember that one of the chair’s functions is to teach pilots not to rely on the body but on aircraft instruments: the various indicators. Now a student pilot, undertaken such training, is ignoring the bodily perception while piloting, or as pilots say, resisting the instinct to fly “by the seat of their pants”. Even the buttocks, perhaps already a heritage of a sedentary era, are removed. The body is almost taken over by flight instruments, mostly visually monitored.

 

The body is 'amputated’ but the eyeballs left. In this sense, the Barany chair is a sort of ‘perceptual guillotine’. Chop, one eye, chop, second eye.

 

However, for me, the chair is a kind of platform for self-probing and an amusement ride at once. I experienced a new dimension of my body, entered some hitherto unvisited realm. “The most important thing you have as a biological organism is orientation in space, to know where you are and what's happening around you, without that you couldn't even pick up a cup of tea and put it to your lips”, Dr. Michael Gresty emphasises the importance of this sense. Nausea, disorientation, vertigo — sensations of losing contact with the world — hold something very interesting.  On the one hand, when something goes wrong with this orientation in space the brain says: listen you have to get this right quickly to protect yourself. On the other, resisting that request, I enjoy being distracted from the world I ‘wear’ every day, every minute. Roger Caillois, a French intellectual, would interpret this as a deep human’s desire: “pursuit of vertigo…an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind."

 

This ‘contactless’ connection with world, or rather the ground, is not so exotic as it might look at first look. On the Barany chair there is no visual, aural, or tactile reference of orientation but the pressure under your pants. Doesn’t this phenomenon share the same conditions of today’s ‘couch potato’ or ‘plugged-into-computer’ lifestyle? While the rider escapes gravity (whether losing awareness of it or becoming a pilot), a ‘sedentarist’ enters the zero-gravitational realm of the screen where everything is reached with a blink of eye. Isn’t the ground odd and unstable after spending substantial time on a chair while ‘wired’ to computer (especially, on such a chair where your legs are suspended, that is, they don’t touch the ground)? Me, for instance, I feel dizzy and wobbly when ‘landed’ back to the ground.

 

For a pilot, it is a path towards conquering the sky, or the fusing of human and aircraft (note, for longer than the first part of the twentieth century, pilots had been selected primarily by the results of the chair test). Training on the Barany chair is almost inhabiting the unique ’kinematic’ environment of the sky. Although the pilot’s body is deliberately torn away, he or she is still having unearthly (or celestial?) experiences. Thus the chair makes it possible to access such experiences, but on the other hand, it prevents pilots from being engaged with the sensations. Paradoxically, the chair demonstrates the expansion of perception and the reduction at the same time, while it opens up new perspectives within the body and environment.

 

My initial impression of the Barany chair didn’t fade away. Even more, discovering its manifold nature, the combination of design simplicity and perceptual complexity, it turns out to be a very puzzling object. I’ve just tried to unfold (1) its different experiential modes, both torture-like therapy and amusement, transformative bodily effects (embodiment/inhabitation of technology, self-experimentation, amplification of orientation is space), and (2) symptomatic contemporary design/technology traces related to sedentarism and technological [dis]embodiment (in terms of mechanisation or impoverishing of experience). Dealing with such multistability, I see there’s still one common and stable factor affecting relations with that chair, it is the changing relationship with gravity. The chair is capable of bringing the rider into an undiscovered ‘flirtation’ with gravity. But, most importantly, it also makes it possible to quasi-escape gravity through piloting an aircraft. Hence it is an anti-gravitational machine as well. 

 

Given those bodily-perceived phenomena, or, if I’m already allowed to put forward, gravitational aesthetics, I’d suggest to approach through an alternative design perspective. I’d call it g-design (prefix g here serves as a conceptual link to g-force). First of all, note that while the chair embodies the potential of setting human in motion (or stasis?), the reference of interests in respect to the experiential aspect, stems from the human movements provoked by the design rather than its structure (locomotion, choreography etc. VS construction, ergonomics...). Following that focus, in essence, the designer of the Barany chair designs a certain repertoire of human movements, in other words, choreographing the kinaesthetic experience. To this extent, the role of designer comes closer to that of choreographer who is not just composing a set of human movements but building a unique space experienced spatiotemporally. Now, something interesting is emerging in my argument: design is taking a focal turn from material qualities to kinaesthetic and whole-body-engaging dimensions of things. This is g-design.  Informed by gravity-related disciplines, such as choreography, sports, martial arts, biomechanics, phenomenology of human movement, locomotion engineering, kinetic art, it might develop itself into a unique design paradigm. What if such g-design approach would prevail?

 

Barany Chair (198?, USSR) Restored by Julijonas Urbonas
Barany Chair (198?, USSR)
Restored by Julijonas Urbonas
Photo: Arnas Anksaitis