Julijonas Urbonas

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Julijonas Urbonas is an artist, designer, researcher, engineer, founder of Lithuanian Space Agency, associate professor at Vilnius Academy of Arts. Former Prorector at Vilnius Academy of Arts. Former Director of a Soviet amusement park in Klaipeda.

For almost a decade, working between critical design, amusement park engineering, performative architecture, choreography, kinetic art and sci-fi, I have been developing various critical tools of negotiating gravity: from a killer roller coaster to an artificial asteroid made up entirely of human bodies. In these projects I coin the term of gravitational aesthetics, an artistic approach exploiting the means of manipulating gravity to create experiences that push the body and imagination to its extremes.

Informed by postphenomenology, space medicine, particle physics, outer space anthropology, extro-disciplinarity, I have also established - by writing, researching and making - unique creative methodologies under such names as vehicular poetics and design choreography. Such an establishment has been shown and discussed in a wide diversity of venues: art, design, architecture biennials, academic and non-academic publications, TV and Radio shows.

My work received many awards, including the Award of Distinction in Interactive Art, Prix Ars Electronica 2010. My projects can be found in private and museum collections such as the Lithuanian Art Museum, the X Museum Beijing, the Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM).

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Lithuanian Space Agency

2021

#LSA #space #architectural fiction #participative #quasi-fiction

Pavilion of Lithuania at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

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‘Take a large population of humans, strip them of all social, racial, cultural, sexual, political and economic constructs and bring them together so that they stay in close proximity for a substantial amount of time. That would be the ultimate revision of human architecture.’
Julijonas Urbonas, the founder of the Lithuanian Space Agency
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The Lithuanian Space Agency presents, Planet of People
22 May – 21 November 2021

The Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA) is thrilled to present the Pavilion of Lithuania at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. In the unique setting of the Renaissance church Santa Maria dei Derelitti, the LSA proposes a fictional outer space world that brings together gravitational aesthetics and cosmic imagination. The LSA’s exhibition in Venice is curated by Jan Boelen, commissioned by Julija Reklaitė and organised by Rupert, Centre for Art and Education, and presented by the Lithuanian Council for Culture. 

The LSA, founded by Julijonas Urbonas, is an organisation that researches space architecture and gravitational aesthetics. The agency is an astro-disciplinary initiative that aims to create a truly extraterrestrial imagination. A think-tank-cum-space-logistics-company, the LSA is researching and developing the poetic logistics of establishing alternative ways of being and imagining together both on and beyond Earth. Acknowledging the cosmos as the site of radical other-worldliness, the agency focuses on how we can get closer to the unearthly while also shifting perspectives on humanity to those of an alien.

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According to Boelen, ‘The current crisis is a crisis of imagination. The LSA presents prototypes that let us choreograph and dream together. The most ambitious prototype is a machine for an escape from Earth that catapults us into space where we merge into an alternative planet. With this presentation, designed as a Gesamtkunstwerk, the LSA introduces a new possible space age. A space age that gives power back to the people, shifting it away from the national and commercial colonisation of space.’
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For the Biennale Architettura 2021, the LSA presents Urbonas’ most recent project, Planet of People –– an artistic and scientific study into a hypothetical artificial planet made up of human bodies. The agency explores what it would actually take to realise the architectural fiction of Planet of People and raises questions about its sociopolitical implications. When humans are liberated from the constraints of Earth and simply become the building blocks of this new extra-terrestrial structure, what is the role of our earthly cultural and ethical notions? At the centre of the installation of Planet of People is a 3D scanner that scans the participants of the experiment and ‘sends’ them into space as animated simulations. As more and more people participate over the course of the trial run in Venice, the scanned bodies begin to form a new planet. 
‘Increasingly, we become aware of the fragility of Earth and the human species. More and more, we realise that we might not have an appropriate survival plan when the doomsday comes. What are the alternatives?
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There are two options: a planetary-scale funeral or a monument for the history of Earth and its inhabitants. It is time to consider both’, says Urbonas. ‘Imagination is inseparable from reality and vice versa. They neither contradict each other, nor do they exclude one another. The same goes for architecture. It is as imaginative as it is realistic. Scientific and architectural speculations are informed by social and technological constructs as much as they themselves inform those constructs. So, on this level, Planet of People is as real as the Eiffel Tower. The only difference between them is that one is yet to be built.’
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The LSA includes a number of other Urbonas’ works or ‘prototypes’, such as Airtime, Barany Chair, Cerebral Spinner, Cumspin, Emancipation Kit, Euthanasia Coaster, Hypergravitational Piano, Oneiric Hotel. These so-called prototypes are based on Urbonas’ research into gravitational aesthetics, a name he has given to a genre of architecture, design and art. Gravitational aesthetics is concerned with the choreographing and locomotive power of things, both real and imaginary, and the effects these choreographies have on the sensual, psychological and social domains. Consider, for example, Cumspin, which uses artificial gravity to enhance human sexual pleasure, or Euthanasia Coaster, a roller coaster that ends in euphoric death. These works and research have formed the basis of the main installation, Planet of People.
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The LSA is also pleased to announce the release of their first annual report, which will be available for purchase at the exhibition and on the agency’s website. The report includes several texts on gravitational aesthetics by Urbonas and contributions from other members of the LSA. The major part of the report is dedicated to an in-depth presentation of Planet of People with feasibility studies conducted by a number of researchers from different fields of planetary science, such as space architecture, design, art and engineering, astroanthropology, astronomy and astrophysics. Among these contributors are Michael Clormann, Régine Debatty, Vidas Dobrovolskas, Hu Fei and Jia Liu, Li Geng, Theodore W. Hall, Craig Jones, Rebekka Ladewig, Xin Liu, Lisa Messeri, Michael P. Oman-Reagan, Joseph Popper, Lauren Reid, He Renke, Fred Scharmen, Ma Yansong and Zheng Yongchun.

During the exhibition in Venice, the LSA will deepen its research into space architecture and introduce it to the public through guided tours and workshops led by Urbonas and Boelen. In partnership with other international institutions, the LSA will also continue developing their programme and testing Planet of People after the Biennale Architettura 2021.

Address:
Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Derelitti
Barbaria delle Tole, 6691,
(Castello), 30122 Venice, Italy (Map)

Find out more at lithuanianspace.agency
Instagram: @lithuanian_space_agency
Facebook: @LithuanianSpaceAgency

For further information, images and interviews contact:
media@lithuanianspace.agency
Vilius Balčiūnas +370 630 60280
Jogintė Bučinskaitė +370 624 93440

REGOS

2021

#robotics #egomotion #vehicular poetics

REGOS (Robotic Egomotion Simulator) is a new artistic toolkit for reproducing a wide range of motion experiences for both artists and audiences. Based on a mechanism capable of conveying all linear and rotational movements, REGOS could be used in theatre, dance, music shows, cinematic effects, VR, entertainment, but also for simulation and research.
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REGOS has been specially engineered with the artist as both a customer and an operator in mind. It features a custom-tailored motion control software that allows a non-expert to compose, edit, record and play motion scores with precision and ease. In addition to its high performance, the simulator is also very flexible, allowing to expand its range of movements with additional motion devices such as a spinning platform or connecting to other devices. All of this enables seamless integration of the machinery into your set design. The machinery has been engineered to disappear not only visually, but also acoustically to allow motion art speak for itself.
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READ MORE HERE

Planet of People

2019

#space #quasi-fiction #eschatology #participative

A Planet of People (2017 - 2019) is an artistic and scientific feasibility study of an artificial planet made entirely from human bodies.
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The project revolves around the idea of sending humans to L2, one of the Lagrangian points in space where the gravity is absent, and allows the frozen bodies float freely until their weak gravities make them assemble into a blob: in this way, a new ‘human’ planet is extra-terraformed. A cosmic fossil of humanity. A monument of humans to humans.

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Playing with its variables, such as the quantity of individuals and the duration of time, the project speculates upon the aesthetic, ethical and scientific aspects of such a space structure. What spatial structures would it be possible to choreograph? How would a landscape of biomass look like on such a planet? What biochemical processes would it undergo, and would it form its own ecosystem eventually? And what would be the ethical, cultural and political implications, both here on Earth and out there?

The project questions the very (anthropocentric and earthly) definition of human species and life in general – its aesthetic and ethical implications – by looking into how the discourse changes once a large group of human bodies cross the Kármán line which marks the border between our ecosystem and outer space. Combining astroanthropology, speculative engineering, biomechanics, space law, space medicine, astrophysics, astrogeology and space arts, the project also speculates upon the establishment of exo-disciplinary arts.

The outcomes of the artistic research are visualised through 3D astrophysics simulations, 3D human body scanner based interactive installation, drawings and performances.
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Extraterrestrial design and architecture: Julijonas Urbonas
Astrophysics: Vidas Dobrovolskas
3D simulation, programming, animation: Jakob Schloetter (Pointer Studio), Ignas Pavliukevičius
Music: Gailė Griciūtė
Graphic design: Asya Sukhorukova (Pointer Studio)
Electronics: Dmitrij Snegin
Industrial electronics: Vladas Kaškonas
Technical assistance: Paulius Vitkauskas

The exhibition was supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuanian Council for Culture, Vilnius City Municipality, Science Gallery Dublin, Vilnius Academy of Arts, Clear Channel, Vilma Dagilienė, Romas Kinka, Lietuvos Rytas, Ekskomisarų biuras.

Escalator Slide

2020

#playground #public art #falling

Climb up an escalator, slide down a slide. The corporate austerity meets the playground pleasures. Crossbreeding an escalator with a slide, the joyful experience of sliding down is brought to the next level. The business-suit-friendly slide welcomes the white-collar workers for a moment of escape from their sedentary daily routine. Brushing the office-chair-ridden backs against mirror polished stainless steel becomes the gasping-for-air replacement of a coffee break.
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Address: Live Square, Gedimino pr. 44, Vilnius
Commissioner: Eika, Hilton Hotels

Video: Laurynas Skeisgiela

Honey, Moon!

2018

#opera #live sculpture #space

In 2018, I was commissioned by Operomanija, a Lithuanian production house for new musical theatre, to direct and design the set for the opera ‘Honey, Moon!’. Collaborating with composer Gailė Griciūtė, librettist Gabrielė Labanauskaitė-Diena and others, I turned the opera into something between a participative performance and a live sculptural installation. Scattered across the 1000 sq. m exhibition hall of the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius were seven revolving platforms on which twelve performers – vocalists and instrumentalists – were strapped and performing. Covered with custom designed fabrics by illustrator Célestin Krier, the platforms looked like extraterrestrial landscapes, yet on closer inspection those semi-transparent textiles revealed various conglomerates of narrators, singers, a flautist, a clarinettist, a violinist, a cellist, a pianist, and a synthesiser player.
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The public was invited to walk around the constellation of sets and explore the play between micro, macro, and cosmic scales, encouraging the confusion between what could be considered as human and planet. For me, it was a true space opera dedicated to honey, the Moon, honeymoons… Honey, Moon!
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Director and author of installation Julijonas Urbonas:
“What will happen to the genre of the opera when we catapult it into space? Or onto the Moon? Before answering, we first need to authorize a neologism combining the terms “interspecific” and “interplanetary”. This opera is a staging of such a neologism”.
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Librettist Gabrielė Labanauskaitė-Diena:
“It is a contemporary, mystical dramatic journey, an allegory of the search for a person‘s other side and the discovery of himself/herself in any possible form - love, self-acceptance, illumination - on the Moon. “Honeymoon” is like a regular journey, like hitch-hiking that involves wearing a wedding dress and getting into cars of different experiences.”
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Composer Gailė Griciūtė:
“The opera score includes electro-acoustic and live music. The chamber ensemble, the collage of records of the atmosphere, the modular synthesizer, the vocal ensemble, and the readers are like modules, or audio-planets that exist together and separately. Each of the sound sources builds a particularly fragile layer of musical texture, they interweave with each other and come together into a single flashing musical fabric of changing repetitiveness.”
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Stage director and author of installation Julijonas Urbonas
Composer Gailė Griciūtė
Librettist Gabrielė Labanauskaitė-Diena
Sound architect Arturas Bumšteinas
Illustrator Célestin Krier
Electrical machinery engineer Julijonas Urbonas
Biomedicine engineer Dmitrij Snegin
Platform electronics engineer Vladas Kaškonas
Production manager Paulius Vitkauskas
Sound analysis programmer Sebastian Lexer
Graphic designers of the surtitles: Gailė Pranckūnaitė, Marek Voida
Producer Operomanija
Performers: Darius Jurevičius (narrator), Viktorija Damerell (narrator), Edvardas Šumila (narrator), Ieva Skorubskaitė (soprano), Kristina Jurevičiūtė (mezzo-soprano), Vaidas Bartušas (counter-tenor), Jevgenijus Kovalčukas (bass), Kristupas Gikas (flute), Artūras Kažimėkas (clarinet), Toma Bandzaitytė (violin), Arnas Kmieliauskas (cello), Marta Finkelštein (piano), Ignas Juzokas (modular synthesizer), Anton Gorelik (bodybuilder), Jevgenijus Sokolovas (bodybuilder), Grigorij Moisevič (bodybuilder), Nerijus Brūžas (bodybuilder)

Airtime

2016

#weightlessness #performative architecture #ride #vehicular poetics

Airtime is a dropping floor, which fuses elements of a participatory kinetic sculpture with elements of performative architecture, an anti-gravity machine and a thrill ride. Special equipment under the floor raises and drops those walking on it, occasionally causing a state of weightlessness. ‘Airtime’ is an expression that amusement ride designers use to describe the freefall sensation that passengers feel when they come out of their seats during a ride.
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Although it is just a plain plane, its vertical trajectory of movement forms a unique choreographic and psychosocial space. Those standing on it start to behave and move abnormally, unsure of what to do or how to react, and aware of the inevitable fall. Some look at each other and stiffen. Others crouch down, sit or lie, trying to find the right body position. Some hold hands, to relieve the tension of waiting. The fall lasts less than half a second, but at that very moment the most unique dance occurs. It is difficult, if not impossible, to come up with an example of when a group of open-mouthed people perform a primal dance, balancing in the air and expressing ambivalent sensations of pain, ecstasy and fear. After the fall, they scream and laugh, and sometimes run away.
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Falling between an aircraft accident, a vomit comet, and a drop tower, this collective drop machine is nothing but a vertigo, both physical and conceptual. What is actually happening when a group of people all of the sudden turn their attention to their guts suspended in midair? What happens to the feeling once it is relocated from its originary locus such as amusement park to open-for-interpretation space such as an art gallery? Who are we when the earth suddenly falls away from under our feet, when one of the most fundamental forces, forming us since the beginning of time, disappears?
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Idea, design: Julijonas Urbonas
Mechanical engineering: Marius Pališaitis, Julijonas Urbonas, Aurimas Česnulevičius, Dainius Vaičiulis
Hydraulics engineering: Julijonas Urbonas
Electronics: Dmitrij Snegin
Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius
Video: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius
Assistance: Ignas Pavliukevičius, Paulius Vitkauskas

Cumspin

2015

#sex #extreme #pleasure #vehicular poetics #ride

Cumspin (2015) is an orgasm enhancing funfair machine. Based on the principle of a centrifuge, it exposes the love riders to variable gravitational forces. Not only does such an extreme sex environment introduce to new love positions but also pushes the peaks of pleasure to new dimensions.
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Spinning in one of the eight spherical capsules, the lovers may control the centripetal force by changing the distance between the axis and the capsule. The farther from the axis, the greater the force that pushes them against the wall. The riders would have to coordinate their movements with the forces to control the flow of the blood in their bodies. Pumping in and out of the love parts would heighten intercourse or masturbatory sensations. And directing the blood to the lower extremities would cause the sudden loss of oxygen to the brain accompanied with a euphoria. The latter in tandem with orgasm brings into being a sensation that is beyond any definition of pleasure. Hypergravitational orgasm.
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Concept, design, ride engineering: Julijonas Urbonas
Micromechanical engineering, electronics: Dmitrij Snegin

Euthanasia Coaster

2010

#extreme #pleasure #death #hypergravity #quasi-fiction

Euthanasia Coaster (2010) is a hypothetic death machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being.
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Riding the coaster’s track, 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. Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in aeronautics/space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful. Celebrating the limits of the human body, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster: John Allen, former president of the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company, once said that “the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead. This could be done, you know.”
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“Euthanasia Coaster” is nothing but a falling trajectory, curved and tangled in such a way that would leave nobody apathetic, neither the passenger,nor the spectator. Where it lands to it is up to the public to decide. It is a prop for non-existent horror movie, a real fiction, a black humour scenography, social sci-fi design, the world’s most extreme ride, a mourning sculpture, a monument for the end of the carousel evolution, a gravitational weapon, the very last trip…
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Since its presentation to the public, the project has become a unique media phenomenon. It has drawn enormous attention from the public and received extremely extensive coverage from international media. The content and form of the feedback ranged from special TV shows, dedicated songs, a film script, a series of virtual replications, a project for school science fair, and a tattoo to knee-jerk online comments and thorough expert discussions. The project was awarded the Public Prize of New Technological Art of Update 2013, Ghent, Belgium.
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"This brings a whole new meaning to the term 'killer coaster'."
— Chris Talbot, Boingboing.com, 2011.

"I would love it if the seats were empty when the train returns. You know, it catapults you to another dimension."
— Vincent Wikström, 2011.

“Dying like a screaming clown...”
— Ross Noble, QI, BB Two, 2012.

“Oh no, I think it sounds like a horrible way to go, and after reading this I may never really enjoy riding roller coasters."
— Deborah Anne Hart , Discovery.com, 2014.

"If I were terminally ill, I'd definetly want to this way...and make sure they have a picture station along the tracks so the family has something to remember you by."
— Doledart, Io9.com, 2011.

“I can hack it with g-trouses that prevent the pilots from such centrifugal forces, and make it the world’s most extreme ride!”
— A pilot, Science Gallery, Dublin, 2011.

“Curiously, it does work as provocation, regardless of intent. So be it. ”
— Antonio Damasio, “Design and Violence,” MoMA, 2014.

Experience

Seated, harnessed with a health monitoring system, and strapped to the seat of a single-seat coaster vehicle, you are slowly towed to the top of the drop-tower. It takes a while, as the ride is about half a kilometre long! Hence, you have a few minutes to contemplate your decision and your life in retrospect. You even find enough time to adapt to the height and get through a series of imaginary fatal falls, while realising that the objects on the ground are getting smaller. Slow lift is an important illusion that intensifies the perception of height. The slightest movement of the car triggers drumming heartbeats and tests your decision… The top! If this test has not changed your mind yet, then at this point you have no choice but to submit yourself to the very last fall. Yet you still have a few minutes for the last words and goodbyes, or just enjoying the exhilarating bird’s-eye view of the surroundings. You relax and press the FALL button. Whirrr… swish – the ultimate surrender to gravity! No, you realize, in fact it is even greater than just giving up, as in the blink of an eye you enter the heart-line, the whirling element of the coaster track, where your heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the fall trajectory. In other words, your body spins around the heart while you fall. Gravitational choreography! The scooting gust of wind, goose bumps, suspension of breath, and vertigo — a set of experiences comprising a sort of fairground anaesthesia — prepare you for the fatal part of the ride.

Now you are already falling at a speed close to the terminal velocity, when the force of air drag becomes equal to the force of gravity, thus cancelling the acceleration. You feel your body as if supported by an air pillow. Just after this point, the track smoothly straightens forward, entering the first loop of the coaster, a continuously upward-sloping section of the track that eventually results in a complete 360-degree circle, completely inverting the riders at the topmost part. The centrifugal force drives the car upward, and you are literally pinned to the seat, your buttocks’ flesh is pressed against the ergonomic planes of the seat so hard that your whole body is almost immobilised. The tissues of your face start drooping down — it looks like 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. But most probably you are already unconscious, as this force rushes the blood to the lower extremities of the body, thereby causing oxygen deficiency in the brain. It is exactly this cerebral suffocation, also known as cerebral hypoxia, that is going to kill you. If you are still conscious, you are more resistant to the high g-forces than the majority of people, but don’t worry: the loop is engineered in such a way that the force will remain constant despite the changes in speed, thus ensuring that the painful level of acceleration is not reached. And be assured, the second loop will definitely do its job. In the meantime, if you are lucky, or, rather, g-force-resistant enough to be awake, your vision may blur, lose colour (greyout) and peripheral sight (tunnel vision), or even disappear completely (blackout), together with hearing. Eventually, this experience — accompanied with disorientation, anxiety, confusion, and, most importantly, euphoria — is crowned with G-LOC (g-force induced loss of consciousness), 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. Of course, you can tell the story only if you survive, which is virtually impossible. But you might ignore this and suppose you have survived. You would soon recover from G-LOC, remaining unconscious, and your body would flail 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. Finally, coming around, although still confused and disoriented, unable to remember anything, you would regain your memories in a few hours, and they would be one of the most memorable, with a peculiar souvenir on your legs: little red pinpoints all over the skin as a result of blood leaks through the blood vessels, a sort of gravitational measles.

The rest of the ride, six or five loops, proceeds with your body being numb, ensuring that the trip ends your life. You die, or, more accurately put, your brain dies of complete oxygen deprivation, a legal indicator of death in many jurisdictions. The biomonitoring suit double-checks if there is a need for the second round, which is extremely unlikely, as the result is guaranteed by seven-fold repetition.

Design, engineering: Julijonas Urbonas
Medical advisor: Dr. Michael Gresty, Spatial Disorientation Lab, Imperial College
Model making: Paulius Vitkauskas
Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius
Video: Science Gallery
Video footage (human centrifuge training): William Ellis

Oneiric Hotel

2013

#gravitational dreams #service design #participative theatre

Oneiric Hotel (2013) is a pop-up hotel equipped with special dream-directing equipment — an artistic reconstruction of the few successful psychophysiological sleep experiments that managed to induce and direct lucid dreams. Oneiric Hotel reenacted these experiments as bespoke experiences for the visitors, transposed from the scientific laboratory to the set of a pop-up hotel. Equipped with dream-inducing contraptions and techniques, the public was invited to take a nap in sleep capsules, entering into the dream experiments in their own way. The ‘scientific subjects’ became the designers of their own oneiric experiments.
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List of devices used in Oneiric Hotel:
1. Sleep monitoring system — a headband with embedded EEG that tracks sleep patterns, during which people are dreaming. Once the latter is detected, namely, the REM (rapid eye movement), the system activates the stimulation devices.
2. Leslie & Ogilvie’s Rocking Bed — a special sleeping capsule, which tenderly — almost imperceptibly — rocks while the sleeper turns in his or her bed. The design is based on the research of the dream scientists Dr Leslie and Dr Robert Ogilvie, who did a series of vestibular stimulation experiments in the 1990s.
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3. Castaldo and Holtzman Voice Player - a voice record player, which plays a prerecorded story in the voice of the dreamer. In 1967 the scientists Castaldo and Holtzman found that the dreamer played to his or her own voice during sleep reported that the main character in the dream was more active, assertive, and independent compared with when the dreamer heard someone else’s voice which led the main dream character to be more passive.
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4. Nielsens’ Air Cuffs — A set of pneumatic pressure cuffs to be worn on the lower part of the legs. During the dreaming state, the cuffs rhythmically squeeze the calf and feet. They have double function: directing gravitational activities in dream, but also inducing awareness of the dreaming state (it works a bit like “reality check” device). Dr Tore Nielsen employed the contraption to his sleeping scientific subjects in 1993.
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5. Cubberly’s Gummed Squares — a number of small pieces of adhesive tape, to be stuck on the bare skin and scattered around the body. In 1922 stimulation experiments, Dr. A. J. Cubberley used the gummed squares to produce constant tensile stimulation of the skin throughout the night. He reported effects on dream content in 95% of stimulation trials.
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Concept and design: Julijonas Urbonas
Curator: Justė Kostikovaitė
Curator assistant: Zara Nogueira
Technical assistant: Paulius Vitkauskas
Programming: Jonas Peteraitis
Costumes: Aistė Nesterovaitė
Logo: Povilas Utovka (Present Perfect)
Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius.

Talking Doors

2009

#public art #interactive

In 2009, five doors to well-known public buildings in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius were transformed into interactive installations as a study into the door’s poetic power of organising and provoking various psychological, conceptual, and social events in public space. Equipped with electronic devices, the doors became a portal to Lithuania’s Democracy Index, a musical instrument, a kinetic sculpture and even the source of an earthquake. Talking Doors ultimately proved to be not only the materialization of symbolic concepts but also a peculiar experiment that evoked a whole series of curious events.

Democratic Door

Site: Vilnius City Municipality, Konstitucijos pr. 3, Vilnius.

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The degree to which the door of the municipality’s building was open was controlled by a custom-made electronic door-closer reading the current value of the so-called “democracy index”. The latter was being formed in real time by processing the data obtained through the special online poll that asked web surfers to rate the level of Lithuania’s democratic development on a ten-point scale. The higher the respondents’ average evaluation, the more open the municipality’s door was. The door’s position visualised the poll results and thus became a peculiar indicator of democratic development itself. Let’s imagine what would happen if such customised door-closers were installed in the doors of all state institutions. Quite possibly, politicians would be simply physically pressed to respect democratic values and pursue democratic ideals, since otherwise they would be unable to enter or leave their workplaces.

One of the fundamental principles of the democratic system states that every citizen should have equal access to political power. Therefore, democracy means open access to both the legal structures, which ground and protect democratic freedoms, and the very things that symbolise that power – documents, offices, communication channels, etc. Things can empower politics in reality and embody the values promoted by it. For instance, the door is by far the most effective instrument of access control. The right to enter (the key) can stand for the power to govern or control the space behind the door, as well as reject or discriminate those who don’t have this right. The CEO’s and other top-level employees of some business and academic institutions deliberately embrace the so-called “open door policy” by keeping their office door open unless they are out of the office or have very important work to do, thus symbolically inviting other employees of any rank to stop by and share their concerns freely without prior appointment. Culture critic Jurij Dobriakov argues that active implementation of this practice can be viewed as an indicator of the institution’s democratic culture as such.

Democratic Door sought to shift the public attention from governmental bodies and institutions (for instance, the Parliament), where policy is formulated and validated, to material objects and their capacity to represent political interests. This part of the project also demonstrated that not only the symbolic “sources of democracy”, but also the things we touch or use everyday mediate democratic values.

Sounding Door

Site: Lithuanian Academy of Music, Gedimino pr. 42, Vilnius.

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The sound art installation Sounding Door explored the potential of the door’s sonic aesthetics. The special electronic equipment installed in the front door of the building of Lithuanian Academy of Music enabled composers, musicians, sound designers and artists to sonify the act of opening or closing the door and the ritual of stepping over the threshold. The participating authors shaped the door’s sonic character, created the building’s “voice”, made their contribution to the city’s soundscape or just composed music for the door. The latter became both a musical instrument and a stage, while the composers and the “users” of the door alike acted as performers.

Sound designers create the sounds of mobile phones, crispy corn flakes and even hairdryers, while apparently leaving such essential element of daily experience as the door without due attention. Although sound design and architectural acoustics have become disciplines in their own right, the sound of architecture itself is still rarely discussed. Why are we confined to choosing a door for our home space only based on the visual characteristics of the former and not, for instance, the specific sound of its hinges?

The sound of the door constitutes a unique element of the experience of architectural objects, or even represents the “face” of a building. The door is one of the few architectural elements that actually demand an active and personal involvement on the part of the visitor. When we open the door, we “shake hands” with the building and thus symbolically greet it. The sound of the door (e.g. the sound of the hinges, tapping, gradually unfolding soundscape from behind the door), as the building’s voice, greets the entering one and amplifies the sense of stepping over the threshold. It also has a similar influence on those who are not in direct contact with the door at that moment: for instance, the creaking sound of the hinges informs us that someone is about to step over the threshold and will enter or leave our space soon. This sonic reaction can also have a very personal value – some people may recognise their relatives from the way the door sounds when the latter open it. Thus, the sound of the door, penetrating both public and private spaces, plays an important part in developing the culture of sonic environments.

An international open call for sound works was announced to realise this part of the project. These were to be submitted in standard audio format (up to 30 seconds in length) or as software patches designed to match the hardware used by Sounding Door. Eighteen works were selected, and their reproduction was adapted to the kinematics of the door – the velocity of turning, acceleration and current position, all tracked by special sensors in real time. Unique loudspeakers that turn any hard surface into a sound source were employed to sonify the door, thus making the latter become a loudspeaker itself. The schedule of the door’s “concerts” was generated randomly, with the software loading a new track automatically every two minutes.

Hesitating Door

Site: All Saints Church, Rūdninkų g. 20/1, Vilnius.

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The kinetic sculpture Hesitating Door reminds the viewer about the ambiguous, hesitation-inducing aspect of the door as a phenomenon. Such “foreign elements” as an automatic door-closer and the lock create a fake sense of the door’s stability and predictability, turning it into an everyday functional object that instantly conforms to our will. Open – enter – close, that’s it. Yet in collective imagination the door still remains one of the essential metaphors for hesitation and the mute unknown. Even as we walk in through an open door, we often pause to ask if we can indeed step over the threshold and enter a private space. We also feel uneasy when the draught makes the door open or shut as we approach it (this is a recurring motif in horror movies), since this gives us an uncanny feeling that the door moves by itself.

Yet what do we ourselves do with doors that don’t have an obsessive habit of returning to the “closed” position? Sometimes we leave them open, inviting guests to come in; half-open – only for those who really need to enter; closed – when we wish to be alone. Yet what is a halfopen door, neither wide open nor closed? An undecided, hesitating door. It is one of the best metaphors of the human situation itself. We are often eager to open our minds to others, yet at other times we lock ourselves up from all intruders, and sometimes we leave only a tiny gap for those smart enough to unlock us. We always hesitate as to how much outer reality we should let in.

The door of the All Saints Church was swinging, turning itself according to an unpredictable pattern and at variable speed (the installed equipment had been programmed to automatically disable itself and turn Hesitating Door into a regular door when a visitor came within the 4 metre range – this had been done to intensify the “mystical” experience and solve the safety issues; otherwise, the “ghostlike” behaviour of the self-turning door would be demystified by sound of the active equipment). If this door choreography says anything at all, it reminds us of the fact that buildings are never empty, even when no human being has entered them. Their space contains a spirit of its own – a spirit that can suddenly wish to exit and then come back in through the door. We can “see” it only by watching the movements of this apparently hesitant, swinging, disobedient door – one that isn’t sure if it wants to let us in yet.

Counting Door

Site: Contemporary Art Centre, Vokiečių g. 2, Vilnius.

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Website stats applications widely use the unique visitor counter, which tracks the number of every user’s visits to the website over a certain period of time. This indicator is used to measure the real size of a website’s audience, referred to as reach elsewhere. For instance, in advertising it expresses the concentration of a chosen advertising medium’s audience.

This indicator’s counterpart in the physical space – the door – can also track a physical environment’s community and measure the “reach” of the former. Access (or right to access) can reflect a visitor’s belonging to the building’s audience, but it also defines the “outside community”. The door invites and rejects, bonds and separates at the same time.

Counting Door is a physical interpretation of the virtual counter. A modified video camera installed in the doorway of the Contemporary Art Centre was tracking the number of unique visitors with the help of a face recognition system widely used in today’s CCTV surveillance systems. A computer-simulated voice informed each entering visitor how many times the latter had come through the art centre’s door. Unlike in analogous institutionalised internal-use systems, the unique number is disclosed here, thus the data generated by the facetracking “peephole” is open to personal interpretation and digital voyeurism.

Door Events Inc.

Site: Design gallery/shop Hotel of Things, T. Ševčenkos g. 16A, Vilnius.

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One of the five “talking doors” was not actually a door, but rather a company providing various door-related design* services: custom door tuning, door accessory design, door events, door sonification, doorkeeping courses, door etiquette lectures, etc. Door Events Workshop offered its clients to order unique door related happenings (such as a series of random knocks on the client’s home door), learn alternative ways to open the door and get an insight into the etiquette of door opening, buy a specific door sound or even offer their own door-related service.

Door Events Workshop received six orders, most of which were requests for door events. Several series of door knocks were ordered; one of them acquired the form of a door concert: a professional drummer was hired to tap a special composition. One order requested a course in alternative door opening techniques taught by an emergency lock opening expert. The course’s listeners were trained to open the door without any additional tools, for instance, with a foot kick, or using objects of everyday use like paperclips, rulers, and so on. One order requested the managers of Door Events Workshop, Egidijus ir Remigijus Praspaliauskas, to tailor a tailcoat and a business suit from sandpaper for door tuning.

The workshop’s activity culminated in the production of a mass production-ready doorbell designed to transform a slightest tap on the door into a domestic earthquake. This product consists of two boxes: one, attached to the door, tracks the intensity of knocking; the other one is attached to any object (such as the floor, a furniture item or a flowerpot, etc.), to which the amplified knocking is “teleported”. The stronger the guest knocks on the door, the more intensely the chosen object trembles.

Concept and design: Julijonas Urbonas
Electronics: Julijonas Urbonas, Dmitry Snegin, Šarūnas Šutavičius
Programming: Julijonas Urbonas, Sebastian Lexer, Andrius Mikonis
Graphic design: Povilas Utovka, Alistair Webb
Photography: Aistė Valiūtė and Daumantas Plechavičius
Managing of Door Events Workshop: Egidijus and Remigijus Praspaliauskas
Technical assistance: Paulius Vitkauskas

Supported by Public institution „Vilnius – Europos kultūros sostinė 2009“ (Vilnius - European Capital of Culture 2009), Lithuania

Lithuanian Space Agency in Damn magazine

2021

Lithuanian Space Agency: Back to Stardust

Essay, In: Damn #79 Autumn 2021

Why bother colonizing existing planets when we can make our own? We’ve sure made a mess of things down here, so why look only to transpose terrestrial limitations onto these new worlds? By imagining more cosmically, argues Lithuanian Space Agency founder Julijonas Urbonas, we have the means within ourselves to recontextualize the earthbound constructs that define us: societal norms, race, sexual orientation, politics. The current economies of exploration are limiting and outdated— we need a radical otherworldliness.
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What happens to imagination once it leaves Earth? It becomes disoriented after crossing the Kármán line, the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space. After all, imagination has evolved in the earth’s ecosystem, where it is held by gravity and human care. Catapulted up there, it is confronted by the hostility of outer space, otherworldliness at its most acute. How can we align imagination with such a departure from its terrestrial origins?

Although art, science, literature, and religion—to name a few—have often been reimagined from the perspective of the cosmos (with the prefix “astro” denoting the departure from terrestrial thinking), most of these domains of thinking and making suffer from a certain degree of earth-bound bias. When considering humanity’s long-term survival, these disciplines often simply search for a cosmic replica that is structured around known, and experienced, human con- structs. While the physical space may change, the sensual, psycho- logical, and social concepts often remain earthbound. The majority of the world’s space programmes manifest such a terrestrial conservatism, taking their sustenance from material and (astro-)ecological exploitation, colonialism, and warfare. Our current moment, re-cently labelled the “Second Space Age,” is characterised by the emergence of an outer space economy, the (private) commercialisation of space, an increase in space debris, interplanetary biocontamination, and the establishment of the astro-Anthropocene.

My concern with what I perceive to be a crisis of cosmic imagination led me to establish the Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA), an astro-disciplinary initiative that aims to create a truly extraterrestrial imagination. A think tank-cum-space logistics company, the LSA works to develop the poetic mechanics of establish- ing alternative ways of being and imagining together, on and beyond Earth. Accepting the cosmos as the site of radical otherworldliness, the agency focuses on how we can get closer to the unearthly by shifting our perspectives on humanity to those of an alien. Being aware of the near, if not total, impossibility of its mission and the cold indifference of the universe, the LSA believes that the only way to access the cosmic mindset is through our capacity to imagine cosmically: employing techniques of pretence, make-believe, and simulation as vehicles to multiple cosmoses. This plural term lies at the core of the LSA’s ethos: the cosmos is a multiverse with an infinite number of realities, including some that will never be accessible to earthlings. As such, the LSA combines knowledge and tools gleaned from a multitude of scientific or artistic domains but does not limit itself to disciplinary paths. We are examining methods to unlearn terrestrial thinking.

The conceptual background of the LSA is based largely on my decade-long research into what I call gravitational aesthetics. By examining gravity’s impact on our thinking and imagination, I have developed a set of gravity-defying creative tools that are meant to tap into unprecedented sensual, psychological, and social domains. By embedding these tools into a diversity of fields that include design choreography, vehicular poetics, amusement park engineering, per- formative architecture, art, and sci- fi, I am able to design experiences that push the human body, and its capacity for imagination, to its extremes. Planet of People, a scientific and artistic feasibility study of an artificial planet made of human bodies, is the most recent materialisation of these quests. It is a quasi-real, multimodal fiction based on a variety of narrative devices. The project has been transferred to the LSA to advance its complex intellectual grounding, which spans astro-aesthetics, the eschatological imagination, the astro-Anthropocene, extraterrestrial anthropocentrism, and terraforming.

[This is an essay extract. Full version is printed in Damn #79 Autumn 2021]

A Planet of People

#space

A Planet of People

Essay, In: Marija Drėmaitė, Tomas Vaiseta, Norbertas Černiauskas (editors), Imagining Lithuania: 100 years, 100 visions, 1918–2018, Lithuanian Culture Institute, 2018.

Illustrations: Ignas Pavliukevičius

The apocalypse is already here. Pandemics, climate change, deadly asteroids, atomic war, aliens – that is only some of the possible scenarios. But the scenarios for saving humankind are considerably fewer: the colonization of other planets, space stations, and cryoanabiosis (suspended animation by freezing). The great nations are already preparing for these scenarios. America is preparing to colonize the Moon and Mars. The Russians are freezing their people (through the Russian cryonics company KrioRus). The Chinese are conducting negotiations with aliens (using the largest FAST radio telescope in the world). And what future awaits small countries like Lithuania?

Lithuania does not have – and it is doubtful that it will ever have – the technological and economical resources for space colonization programme, like the great nations do. What are the alternatives? To believe in the goodwill of the megastates and free places on their ‘Noah’s arks’?

The ‘black swan’ theory says that such events can happen unexpectedly and suddenly. In the worst-case scenario, if we have to come to terms with end of our planet and history, what human legacy, apart from space debris, will we leave in the Universe? One could consider analogues of the golden phonograph record, on which are recorded images and sounds of Earth’s life and culture, sent in the space probe Voyager. However, nothing can be a substitute for a human being.

I am working on the project Cosmic Lithuania in which I reflect on the cosmic identity of Lithuanian and consider various speculative scenarios of the future. As a part of this project I put forward a proposal – why not catapult a person into outer space? Just the body, without anything else. We would save weigh and volume, and so the flight would be simpler and cost less. And what is most important, outer space is an excellent space for conservation for a long, long time. Outer space is an excellent environment for cryoanabiosis – a vacuum and an almost absolute zero.

In order to avoid solar radiation and unexpected collisions with other cosmic bodies, I am proposing that one of the Lagrange points be chosen. These are locations between two bodies orbiting around one another (for example, the Sun and the Moon, the Sun and Earth), in which the gravitational pull compensate for one another and third bodies, for example, space probes, stay in place and become stabilized. Those bodies are not affected by any other forces, only very weak gravitational forces, emanating from their own bodies (any object with mass has a gravitational field).

In this way the bodies of three million Lithuanian citizens hovering in space over a certain period of time would be glued together in one cluster, an artificial asteroid. One can consider other forms as well, unique sculptural structures: everyone holding on to a huge ring, snowflake, sphere or some kind of architectural composition. A cosmic fossil of humanity. A monument to humanity made up of people or, to be more exact, to Lithuania made up of Lithuanians.

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A brief diary of an artist residency at CERN

2016

#micro #lab #residency #quantum gravity

Great Science for Great Arts or Great Arts for Great Science
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Designing Death

Designing Death: G-design, Fatal Aesthetics, and Social Science Fiction

The article is published in: The Edge of Our Thinking, edited by Florian A. Schmidt (London: Royal College of Art, 2012, pp. 32-46)

This paper presents my project, Euthanasia Coaster, an alternative euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to take the life of a human being. The text will outline the crucial aspects of the project’s development: engineering, physiology, ethics, fiction design, and conceptualisation. It will also include some notes on the quite extensive and diverse feedback the project has received from the public and media, with contributions from scientific, medical and technological experts as well as those with artistic, ethical and entertainment backgrounds.

Gravitational Aesthetics

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Euthanasia Coaster was developed as a part of my PhD research on the topic, “Gravitational Aesthetics,” an exploration of the interplay between gravity, aesthetics and technologies. The rudiments of the idea of the coaster started to emerge at a later stage of the research, while sketching some ideas on the concept of the dead body (in terms of disembodying trends in design and cultural development as well as exhaustion of aesthetics of amusement park rides) which has been a critical model for the whole thesis. These sketchy ideas turned into a design thought experiment, hypothesising what the ultimate roller coaster would be like. The R&D of the idea involved diverse approaches, both theoretical and studio-led, and different kinds of skills and expertise. I have consulted with roller coaster engineers, an expert in mechanical engineering simulation, an aircraft stress analyst, aerospace physiologists, and a suicide psychologist.

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The coaster is presented as a scale model accompanied by a technical drawing and video footage showing pilots’ faces in high-g training in a human centrifuge. #ref 1 ref# The 1:500 scale model is one meter high, and consists just of a single coaster track supported by a series of string-thin columns erected from a pile of black fine-grained sand. The track accentuates the engineered falling trajectory, the key object of the project. The drawing, as a stylised engineering draft in 1:1000 scale, depicts just the front projection of the coaster, and presents the physical calculations of the coaster’s track. The video composition is created from real footage of pilots’ high-g training, showing the effects on the body such as the distortion of the facial tissues, fainting, intensive breathing, etc.

(g)Design of the coaster

The most important part of a roller coaster is generally its track which shapes the ‘story-line’ of the ride, usually taking the shape of a creatively distorted falling trajectory. 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, and the physics of the ride, such as the tendency to slow down due to air drag and friction, etc.

In Euthanasia Coaster, the track incorporates both the aesthetic and the functional aspects of the ride. Both converge in the human-gravity design interface, 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 a kinetic energy that allows it to sustain 10 g for about a minute within (2) a series of seven teardrop-shaped vertical loop elements, arranged in decreasing size 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 reduced velocity owing to friction and drag. The drop-hill features a heart-line roll element, a whirling coaster track element, where the rider’s heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the drop trajectory, around which the body spins. This element adds a vertiginous experience, but also works as a sort of disorienting anaesthetic for the later, harsher part of the ride, the loops. The latter incorporates GLOC (G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness) and subsequent brain death caused by cerebral hypoxia, oxygen deprivation in the brain — which is, curiously, usually a euphoric experience accompanied by surreal dreamlets.
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When it comes to efficiency, a coaster is in fact not the best solution to end someone’s life using g-forces, there are more efficient ways of killing people, such as the human centrifuge, the Euthanasia Coaster’s closest analogue, or the 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.

Another issue related to the coaster’s efficiency is variation in the size of bodies and the presence of sickness or disease. For example, it is possible that quadriplegics might survive the ride since their bodies lack sufficient volume in the lower extremities to pool the blood.#ref 2 ref# However, there is no scientific data on this, and this project does not intend to work on feasibility studies or tests, nor appeal to all audiences.
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To deal with the physiological issues of the coaster, I’ve been consulting with Dr. Michael Gresty. He has given enormous help in familiarising me with aerospace medicine. However, to say the truth, Dr Gresty does not actually believe in euthanasia in general. His contribution to the project was just advising on relevant written references and aerospace medicine-related contacts. It was very difficult to get some direct advice from experts in this area as everybody was very sensitive to the topic and was afraid of being involved in it should it be misinterpreted by the public. In fact it seems there is no documented evidence stating how long does it take for a high downward acceleration to kill a person. But I managed to find a few scientists (with the help of Dr Gresty) who gave their guesses on how much force and time would a person need for a lethal dose. They asked to not disclose their names though.

Euthanasia machine

Euthanasia (from the Greek “good death”) refers to the practice of ending a life in a manner which relieves pain and suffering. Euthanasia is categorised in different ways which include voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary and active or passive. Euthanasia is usually used to refer to active euthanasia, and in this sense, euthanasia is usually considered to be criminal homicide, but voluntary, passive euthanasia is widely non-criminal. Euthanasia conducted with the consent of the patient is termed voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. When the patient brings about his or her own death with the assistance of a physician, the term assisted suicide is often used instead. Euthanasia is the most active area of research in contemporary bioethics.#ref 3 ref# ⁠

Leaving aside the ethical question whether euthanasia should be legalised or not, I looked into contemporary euthanasia in the countries where it is legal, and what drew my attention was that the procedures of terminating a patient’s life are highly hospitalised and not much different from the mundane injection of medicine. For example, usually the sedative sodium thiopental is intravenously administered to induce a coma. Once it is certain that the patient is in a deep coma, typically after some minutes, pancuronium is administered to stop breathing and cause death. There is no special ritual nor is death given any special meaning apart from the legal procedures and psychological preparation. It is as if death is divorced from our cultural life just as death rituals are in our secular and postmodern Western society. But if it is already legal, why not make it more meaningful, not in a way the aboriginals mourn the deceased by ecstatic singing and dancing around a bonfire, for example, but as a ritual adapted to the contemporary world, where churches and shrines are being replaced by theme parks or at least achieving equal power by producing spiritual effects (More and more people attend theme parks for selfmeliorative purposes — relaxation, self-cultivation, socialisation; or as an alternative testimony, take the increasing number of spiritual theme parks around the world, such as Holy Land in the US, Hindu Park in India and many others#ref 4 ref# ⁠).

Fatal aesthetics

It has been observed that ‘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. They will, for example, travel long distances to find a suitable venue, but they also perform some ritual acts such as folding their clothes neatly before jumping or holding a hat on their head with both hands all the way down.#ref 5 ref# What’s more, sometimes the jumpers are undressed or perform some choreography – it seems that they care about how their bodies meet the air. All this testifies that not all self-murderers are apathetic in relation to the ritual of killing themselves, and seek some sort of aesthetic meaning in it.

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 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. This 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 Euthanasia Coaster the ritualistic drama is exaggerated even more. There is the ride 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 aspect is that this dramatic spectacle is open to the public, be it the relatives of the rider or the victims of those sentenced to capital punishment, revealing the full drama of their demise.⁠#ref 6 ref# 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.

Social science fiction, design fiction and fiction design

Euthanasia Coaster is a design proposal based on a scientific, engineering and medical foundation. However, the coaster could be considered ethically/socially unrealistic today, and so it can be interpreted as a social design fiction.

The term “social science fiction” (SSF) was coined by Isaac Asimov to describe a new science fiction trend in the 1940s, “which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings,” and places creative and investigative emphasis on the social, or more broadly, upon the human condition, rather than on technological, material or scientific reality.#ref 7 ref# Such fiction might be seen as a “morality tale, warning of possible futures, playing through the means necessary for them to be avoided or rectified.”#ref 8 ref# By presenting alternative realities which reflect the social trends and preoccupations of the time, social science fiction functions as a forum for diagnosing the present — probing and bringing to the discursive foreground the technological and scientific effects on humans, and for visualising the possible futures that might come out of them. Thus it is an effective technique not just for speculating on the future, but also for shaping it, and for empowering decision making. Asimov argues that SSF offers a mode of thought to question and imagine change. “We’ve got to think about the future now. For the first time in history, the future cannot be left to take care of itself; it must be thought about.”#ref 9 ref#

But the impact of SF literature on reality and the future has inexorable limits, basically those of the written word, as Bruce Sterling, the father of the term “design fiction”, once said.#ref 10 ref# Introducing this specific design approach, he calls for the designers to help liberate words from their constraints, to free themselves from paper, the publishing infrastructure, the demands of the shelf. What literature really lacks in my opinion is the richness of experience, the realness and sensual texture of the encounter, and an interactive contact with the complexity of materiality. As fiction serves as a series of textual or theatrical props that fuel the reader’s or the viewer’s imagination to produce all sorts of emotional or physical states,#ref 11 ref# in a way, fiction design (I prefer this term to design fiction because it has less to do with literature) might extend this effect by serving as a unique kind of reality simulator, where alternative realities could be encountered, lived, tested, discussed.

In fact some forms of these design strategies could date back to the 1930s. For example, they could have been partially initiated by the ultra-modern city model “Futurama” at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 ⁠and⁠ more recently, from the 60s onward, by the utopian architectural experiments of groups such as Superstudio, Archizoom, Ant Farm, Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau.#ref 12 ref#,#ref 13 ref# Although architecture once seemed to dominate the stage, today this kind of scenario-building is permeating more disciplines and has become increasingly valued in providing a platform to not only recognise, consider and reflect uncertainties in a complex industrial or technological setting,#ref 14 ref# but also to address fuzzy design problems characterised by complex networks of trade-off and interdependency⁠.#ref 15 ref# Most recently, this type of design practice is proliferating and is usually associated with speculative design, critical design, and especially value fiction.#ref 16 ref#

Euthanasia Coaster as a social fiction design is an incomplete story as it is actually a functional design proposal for a killer coaster: just an engineered falling trajectory. It does not say anything itself about the settings (historical moment in time, geographic location), ethics, institutionalising, legal issues, etc. Presenting itself in such a minimalistic way, it reveals itself as a script proposal (of the usage) or as a McGuffin#ref 17 ref# object for your own story. Thus it aims to be less didactic, more suggestive and open for multiple interpretation, generating possible trajectories of the usages or failures — the other realities — in the ‘user’s’ imagination.⁠ Thus such design is capable of existing in several realities at once, or in the words of Michel Foucault, heterotopias, that, unlike utopias, are neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’, but are simultaneously material and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.#ref 18 ref# In the case of the coaster, it has even more ‘existences,’ it is polyreal. It is simultaneously present in physical reality, such as the tangible one experienced here-and-now during the direct encounter in a gallery, and in scientific realities like the ‘world’ of engineering, medicine and entertainment, but also in the imaginary ones rendered by the open-to-interpretation nature of the project. This insight was partially validated by the huge attention from the media and other people with very diverse cultural, professional, personal backgrounds.#ref 19 ref# Some people accepted the coaster as an alternative euthanasia machine or an execution device, others as the most extreme thrill ride hacked with anti-g equipment, a beautiful sculptural structure or just an SF horror story. One American offered and even begged to be the 1st guinea pig, should the project be brought to life.

Be it an engineering proposal, a sculpture or a story, the project demonstrates the fiction design’s polymorphic power of operating within several domains – both professional and nonexpert – and with several purposes at once, but also functioning as a creative zone of an exceptional freedom, where even the most radical and ambitious ideas could be tested by their authors such as designers or engineers safely and economically, and, most importantly, voted and evaluated democratically by wide audiences, both the potential users and just curious ones, with the help of the public forum a fiction design provides, such as an online commenting or the spread of word of mouth. Thus the shaping of the future could be made accessible to almost everyone. If it fails, you, the fiction designer, can always say it was just a fiction, or even comedy, even it is a black humour.#ref 20 ref# There is nothing wrong about that as long as it stays in feigned realm, where horror or comedy movies also operate in a somewhat similar fashion.

  1. Human centrifuge is a device which rotates at various speeds about a vertical axis and which carries a small cabin within which a person can be strapped in. It is used as a training device for acceleration aspects of complex flight missions, and as a tool that aeromedical scientists use to study effects of g-forces.
  2. This observation was made as comment to a blog entry on the coaster by a person, presenting himself as Prof. Norman Fairview with affiliation to Aerospace Modelling, Alton Towers. He states that he did the coaster’s physics recalculations and double checked the engineering and claims that “the lower G forces and durations calculated with [his] methods predict the ride wouldn’t quite put an end to some quadriplegics, instead further entombing them with retinal detachment and burst ear drums.” The latter insight in fact is not true, such experiences happen in other type of accelerations, such as horizontal ‘eyeballs-out’ g-force or vertical longitudinal negative acceleration. The coaster produces positive ‘upward’ g-force. Thus that error reveals the true nature of Prof. Fairview’s claims, either the absence of aerospace physiology knowledge or a shallow investigation, although the quadriplegics related observation is quite realistic. Fairview, N., 2011. Euthanasia coaster: assisted suicide by thrills. Boing Boing [blog] 20 April. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011]. 
  3. Borry, P., Schotsmans, P. & Dierickx, K., 2006. Empirical research in bioethical journals. A quantitative analysis. Journal of Medical Ethics, 32(4), pp. 240-245. 
  4. Mitrasinovic, M., 2006. Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Ashgate Publishing, pp. 181.
  5. Soden, G., 2005. Defying gravity: land divers, roller coasters, gravity bums, and the human obsession with falling. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 106. 
  6. This insight has been modified and borrowed from: Soden, G., 2005. Defying gravity: land divers, roller coasters, gravity bums, and the human obsession with falling, New York: W.W. Norton, p. 103.
  7. Miller, M.M., 1977. The Social Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. In: J. D. Olander & M. H. Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., p. 14. 
  8. Smith, W., 2004. Science Fiction and Organization, Routledge, p. 5.
  9. Asimov, I., 1971. Social science fiction. In: D. Allen, ed. Science fiction: the future. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 263-291. 
  10. Sterling, B., 2009. Design Fiction. interactions, 16, pp. 20–24. 
  11. Goldman, A.I., 2006. Simulating minds: the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 284. 
  12. Midal, A., 2008. Tomorrow now : when design meets science fiction, Luxembourg: MUDAM Luxembourg, p. 7. 
  13. Midal, A., 2010. Design and science fiction: all that glitters is not gold. In: Swiss Design Network, 6th Swiss Design Network Conference – Negotiating futures - design fiction. Basel: Swiss Design Network, p. 29. 
  14. Varum, C.A. & Melo, C., 2010. Directions in scenario planning literature – A review of the past decades. Futures, 42(4), pp.355-369. 
  15. Peldszus, R., Dalke, H. & Welch, C., 2010. Science Fiction Film as Design Scenario Exercise for Psychological Habitability: Production Designs 1955-2009. In: AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), 40th International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES). Barcelona, 2010, Reston, Virginia, USA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, p. 3.
  16. Dunne, A. & Gaver, W.W., 1997. The pillow: artist-designers in the digital age. In: ACM (Association for Computing), Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (CHI ‘97). Atlanta, 1997, New York, USA: ACM, pp. 361–362. 
  17. McGuffin is a plot device used for setting a story into motion. Usually employed in mystery films, thrillers, film noir, this cinematic tool can be something that all the characters are trying to get their hands on, or can also be someone or something that is lost and being sought, Beaver, F.E., 2006. Dictionary of Film Terms: The Aesthetic Companion To Film Art. Peter Lang, p. 153. 
  18. Foucault, M. & Miskowiec, J., 1986. Of Other Spaces. Diacritics, 16(1), pp. 22-27. 
  19. The project has been featured in dozens of media entries, blogs and hundreds of online discussions and forums that vary quite radically in content, perspectives and audience. Since its first presentation to the public in the HUMAN+ exhibition in the Science Gallery, Dublin in April 2011, the coaster has drawn more than 250K visitors who have accessed the project’s website, 180K watched the SG’s video on Vimeo, and more than 300K read the Wiki article. 
  20. From my experience, occasionally, I was finding the non-expert public interpreting Euthanasia Coaster as a joke, a black humour, but I think it is completely acceptable, even might be desirable, because, first of all, humour is a powerful tool to talk about painful topics, to challenge preconceptions, but also to make the contact with the public more intimate, design becomes less didactic and less elitist yet open to more serious contemplation to those who are willing to do so.

Barany Chair in ARC

The Barany Chair and g-Design

Essay, In: Charmian Griffin (ed.), Arc 14, 2010

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.

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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?

Nonfiction of Levitation

Lecture-performace

August 10, 2013, Kosmica 2013, Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City, Mexico.
June 7, 2011, Kosmica 4, The Arts Catalyst, London, UK

#levitation

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Levitation – between the worlds of mythologies, science fiction, poetry, magic, science and technologies — has been perhaps the most dreamed and desired invention. In its enormous variety of incarnations, from the purest lightness of angel to diamagnetic levitation of living matter, there is something profoundly contagious about it, and no wonder its opposite, gravitation, is one of the greatest mysteries of physics (and I’d dare to say of experience) to be solved. Yet, when it comes to the tangible reality⁠, one can barely say more words than a merely body’s floating without any physical contact with solid ground or suspended in the air — what is it like to levitate. Avoiding fantasies, myths, pseudo-science and even physics (at least partially), as well as allegedly weightless phenomena like OBE, aka out-of-body experience, astral projection, and the imagination (although I believe it deserves a rigorous scrutiny), in this lecture I attempted to bring the floating ideas of levitation to the ground. With the help of six assistants and a custom designed strap harness system I performatively simulated various contemporary levitation technologies — flesh hook suspension, neutral buoyancy, aerodynamic hovering, free fall, orbiting. And in doing so, had drawn various perceptual ‘blueprints’ of lightness in terms of ‘naked’⁠ experience, or simply put, how the absence of gravitational burdensomeness is being perceived.
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Walking on Wall

Walking on the Wall: an introduction to the field of design choreography

Lecture/performance/fairground ride

2012 October 6, National Art Gallery, Vilnius, Lithuania
Curated by Dovilė Tumpytė and Gerda Paliušytė

“I have in the past felt sorry for the ceilings and the walls. lt is perfectly good space, why doesn’t anyone use it?!”, Trisha Brown once said while stepping out through a window to take a walk on the façade of house. The pioneer of contemporary dance, she didn’t begin to explore wall walking with ballet shoes, but rather using climbing equipment. She not only created an entire new choreography vocabulary and space for dance, but also demonstrated that discoveries in choreography often arise from a change in physical surroundings or settings, in this case combining architecture with harnesses, wires and pulleys. It is this insight of hers that embodies the approach of design choreography that I am developing — creating human movements through design.

This hybrid of lecture and fairground ride reconstructed the famous American choreographer, Trisha Brown’s piece “Walking on the Wall” (1971). Unlike similar reconstructions, this re-enactment was performed not just by the author but by the audience as well — the public was given a chance to take a stroll on the façade of the National Art Gallery.

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(news)

(about)

Julijonas Urbonas is an artist, designer, researcher, engineer, founder of Lithuanian Space Agency, associate professor at Vilnius Academy of Arts. Former Prorector at Vilnius Academy of Arts. Former Director of a Soviet amusement park in Klaipeda.

For almost a decade, working between critical design, amusement park engineering, performative architecture, choreography, kinetic art and sci-fi, I have been developing various critical tools of negotiating gravity: from a killer roller coaster to an artificial asteroid made up entirely of human bodies. In these projects I coin the term of gravitational aesthetics, an artistic approach exploiting the means of manipulating gravity to create experiences that push the body and imagination to its extremes.

Informed by postphenomenology, space medicine, particle physics, outer space anthropology, extro-disciplinarity, I have also established - by writing, researching and making - unique creative methodologies under such names as vehicular poetics and design choreography. Such an establishment has been shown and discussed in a wide diversity of venues: art, design, architecture biennials, academic and non-academic publications, TV and Radio shows.

My work received many awards, including the Award of Distinction in Interactive Art, Prix Ars Electronica 2010. My projects can be found in private and museum collections such as the Lithuanian Art Museum, the X Museum Beijing, the Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM).

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