Thomas Thwaites' first major project, The Toaster Project, was a huge success which resulted in worldwide media coverage, a popular TED talk, an appearance on "The Colbert Report," and a book. His most recent project, GoatMan, experiments with taking a holiday from being human, and his recently-released book chronicles the experience.
This project began with a desire to escape the stresses of being human by asking "Wouldn't it be nice to be an animal for just a bit?" A research grant by the Wellcome Trust provided the necessary support. Wellcome is an organization with a mission of improving health for everyone by starting conversations about science, health and the human condition (hello, discursive design).
Once funded, plans were underway to traverse the alps as a goat while thinking like a goat (using transcranial magnetic stimulation), eating like a goat (via an external-artificial rumen), and walking like a goat (with custom prostheses). In order to do this, Thwaites engaged experts in a variety of fields including neuroscientists, prosthetists, goat sanctuary workers, goat herders and animal behaviorists.
We recently corresponded about the project.
"While I'll agree that this goatman sounds mad, I'll bet someone will patent something he's 'invented' and use it for human artificial limbs in the next decade." - commentary from an NPR article
Tharp: You call yourself a "maker of projects with a touch of the future about them." Can you comment on speculative design's relationship to design practice or to innovation more generally?
Thwaites: Speculative design is about 'the vision'; and if it doesn't seem strange or absurd, then it can't be adding much that's different from what we're already familiar with. This is what separates speculative design from innovation, or design concepts. Innovation in design doesn't (or shouldn't?) seem absurd or weird. But speculative design thrives off this unfamiliarity. However, going too far so that it just becomes nonsense is also a problem. Whereas innovation is constrained by what's practical, speculative design is constrained by what could be practical. I look for this balance between weirdness and plausibility.
Thomas Thwaites, the man who goatified himself because, as he put it, it'd be "an interesting and slightly different way of looking at the world and thinking about ourselves in relation to other people, other objects, other animals." - NPR Photo Credits: Tim Bowditch
Designers spend a great deal of time trying to empathize in their process and this project clearly is empathic (even if it wasn't the main goal) — do you have advice on obtaining (better) empathic insights?
Always remember everyone grew up and are living in their own bubble, including yourself of course. So everyone will have their own view of what's obvious, (and non-obvious). When I was researching how a shaman could say that 'I can at will transform into an elk,' I came across the work of a researcher who went round Siberia in the early 1900s, asking pre-literate people questions from IQ tests, like which one's the odd one out from: a saw, a hammer and a fish. And these intelligent yet non-literate people would give very unexpected (and 'wrong') answers, and yet have reasoned arguments for them. It's like the ancient Greeks said the sea was the color of red wine. That seems completely wrong to us, because the sea is blue right? But it makes clear just how 'top-down' our perception of the world is: we see what we already believe we're going to see.
Testing the arm and leg prostheses Photo Credits: Tim Bowditch
I read that it took you a year to develop the arm and leg prostheses — could you tell us a little bit about the formal iterative process with Dr. Glyn Heath, the prosthetist at the University of Salford.
Well it was about a year doing the whole project, not just the prosthetics. By the time I went to see Dr. Heath, I had already made three prototype quadruped walking devices and dissected a goat at the Royal Veterinary College, so I was coming round to the idea that undoing 5 million years of evolution into a biped might not be quite as simple as I had at first hoped. My time at Dr. Heath's clinic confirmed that. He had me walk around the clinic using a pair of sawn off crutches, and adjusted the heights until he was happy I was putting the correct amount of body weight on my front legs. Then we tried out different positions for my hands and feet, different types of prosthetic joints, different angles of those joints and so on. It was a nice mix of very practical manual work, and a lifetime worth of clinical expertise.
How well did the prostheses work? Are there things you would focus on if you were to do another iteration?
I of course learned a lot in the field, so I've already re-made my back leg prosthetics to enable a more comfortable, and goat-like, posture. Dr Heath has sent me some additional joints for the front legs too, so yes there are lots of things to be improved in the next iteration. But will I ever gallop? I'm not sure. It was uncomfortable enough just walking.
Photo Credits: Tim Bowditch
Do you see any practical use for the prostheses? Was there anything gleaned from the process that has any further application?
Dr. Heath was very impressed with my ability to trot pretty much spontaneously in the clinic. He said he'd consider writing a paper on what he saw as this vestigial ability. But in terms of practicality, well, maybe I'll spin out a goat holiday start up from the project.
"So I thought I would try and take a holiday from being a human." Photo Credits: Tim Bowditch
Through this work, what did you learn about escaping the human condition?
Well, that ultimately the only permanent escape is oblivion. I suppose that's where the sentiment of resting in peace comes from. But talking to the neuroscientist who used transcranial magnetic stimulation on me, so as to switch off my ability to speak, was enlightening, in that he was speaking a lot about stories. As in, it's the ability we have to think in terms of stories, that's a major difference between us and other animals. Our episodic memory of a particular event from our past, we retell to ourselves as a story. And when we build scenarios about possible things that might happen, we use stories (stories in the widest sense). He said that there's a lot of thinking that 'we are the stories we tell.' So the project has further deepened my conviction that humans are very story driven animals. So we need to be careful about the stories we make of our lives. This relates to work in treating post traumatic stress, and cognitive behavioral therapy: giving troubled people the ability to rewrite their stories to be less troubling.
Photo Credits: Siobhan Imms
In the coverage of the project, you have been called 'crazy,' 'narcissistic,' 'NUTS!,' 'unhealthy,' 'insanely stupid,' 'mentally ill,' and 'someone (with) the free time to do weird stuff like this is because his labor is not required to sustain society's standard of living.' What do you say to these naysayers about your contribution(s) to society?
The surface narrative of my project is 'I tried to become goat.' Some people, and some media coverage will never get beyond this. At this surface level the project can be viewed as entertainment, whether you like it, or depending on your tastes. There is certainly value in entertainment…it's a serious business, an industry. I think sometimes people overlook that much of science and technology is driven by humans wanting things beyond sustenance and health. A large portion of society's activity is devoted to keeping ourselves entertained in the broadest sense of the word, through travel, food, stories in hundreds of different media, fiction and non-fiction etc. This stuff is not trivial, and is certainly a part of society's standard of living. So, if some people only ever see the project as entertainment, 'design comedy' as someone called it, then that's OK, and they can decide if they like it or not, and if not, go and find things they do like to entertain themselves, like a Hollywood film, poetry, classical sculpture, video games or whatever.
But I think that like all good entertainment, and my intention with the project, was a few errm, deeper concerns. So for example, and the reason why I think the Wellcome Trust have their arts award funding stream at all, is a concern with this old idea of the two cultures; 'the arts' and 'the sciences,' and never the twain shall meet. With this project there's a bit of reconciliation going on…In the same book I'm looking at views of what it means to be a human animal, a 'person,' from the perspective of a shaman and a neuroscientist, a psychologist and an anthropologist. In many ways the whole 'becoming a goat' thing is just an excuse to go to the back corridors of universities and ask various very specialized specialists some expansive questions.
There's also a more design critique aspect of coming up with a counter to some of the wilder aesthetics in speculative design projects concerned with biomedical futures.
In terms of some contribution to society in general, well, there's an ongoing societal conversation about the direction our culture should take, and I would argue this project, as well as other projects I've done like the ole' Toaster Project are a contribution to that. Yes there's an absurdity to them, but if you look beyond the absurdity then there's some thought, and some pedagogic intent. This goat thing has been in a few tabloid newspapers here in the UK, and I did have a conversation with the photographer who took the photos in the alps, about whether or not to let the tabloids have his photos. He's a talented photographer, and he took the photos in the alps on large format film, and he wasn't too pleased that his photos were shrunk down to 200px wide on some tabloid website. But then the reverse of that is 'oh, it's too high art for the tabloids' which would be a kind of reverse snobbery. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think some folk mistake populism or absurdity for a lack of seriousness and depth to a project. And of course, one of the arguments for speculative design in general is supposed to be about communication and debate… And one of the criticisms, is that the only communication going on is within 'speculative critical design' circles. I want some of my work to get out of the design bubble!
Discursive designers collaborating with scientists, technologists, and other specialists can have an impact on how they see their work or ask questions that they did not think about or do not have permission to. How do you see having an influence on other fields, researchers, and practitioners?
I'm not totally convinced about this notion that discursive designers involved in a collaborative project for maybe a year, could provoke new questions in people who've been specializing in something for years. On the other hand, designers are sort of trained novices, trained in thinking around an issue, approaching things indirectly and so on, looking for the twist, etc. But I'm not sure my collaborations with scientists have genuinely led to them making a new advance in their field, at least not directly. But indirectly, a few months later? Well who knows!
Photo Credits: Tim Bowditch
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What's the next speculative design project for you?
I'm doing a project about (the future of) work, for the 2017 St. Etienne Design Biannual.
Thanks to Thomas for taking the time to talk with us!
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