From a pleasurable death to performing particles

Maija Rudovska

An interview with Lithuanian artist and designer Julijonas Urbonas


The works of Lithuanian artist and designer Julijonas Urbonas surprise, provoke and challenge one to review one’s preconceived notions about design – be it a carousel designed as a death machine, or a dropping platform that provides an exciting sense of wonder and the chance to experience free-falling (even if just for a second). Until relatively recently, Urbonas’ creative activity was linked to a rather more international environment as he worked on his doctoral project at the Royal College of Art in London, and presented his works and ideas in a variety of contexts (e.g., technology, engineering science, art, and design). This past summer his works could be seen at the Milano Triennale, in the exhibition “Airtime” presented by the Lithuanian pavilion (curator – Justė Kostikovaitė). At the moment, Urbonas is in residency at Arts at Cern, and taking part in the program ACCELERATE Lithuania (done in cooperation with the Rupert Arts and Education Centre in Vilnius) – a place where science and art meet.

Airtime in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial. Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

Many of your works are based on an interest in gravity and its explorations (as you have named it, “gravitational aesthetics”). Can you explain where this interest comes from?

The interest in gravity stems from my close relationship with amusement rides. I grew up in a Soviet amusement park, which was headed by my father. The park was my substitute kindergarten and its employees – ride operators, event managers, technicians, cashiers, administrators – were my nannies. Having spent all of my childhood there, paradoxically, I never liked to ride the rides myself, but rather preferred to wonder about those peculiar phenomena. My disinterest in submitting my body to the funfair machinery perhaps lies in the fact that I was quite motion-sickness-prone, and that the Soviet parks were not as glitzy as Disneyland. Thus, I’ve been intimately connected to the amusement park, but I also retained a substantial or, better put, critical distance. Nonetheless, in spite of (or thanks to) the latter, I felt something extremely powerful was lurking in the park. And soon did I realize that, for instance, it was the only existing hybrid narrative form that engaged or immersed its audience through virtually all possible channels at once: bodily, psychologically, socially, ideologically, economically, etc. Most interestingly, I found it providing a variety of aesthetic, kinetic, bodily-perceived experiences that were unparalleled by any other activities, except for astronaut training camps. Such insights have kept me working in this area my whole life: from amusement-ride design, park architecture, and running the same park I grew up in, to artistic research. So, now I can say that, by engineering and designing efficient ways of twisting the rider’s guts and elegantly disorienting people, I was, in fact, working on what I now call in my PhD thesis “gravitational aesthetics”.

Cumspin (2015) in the gallery “Vartai”, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2016. Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

What does “gravitational aesthetics ” mean? And how does it manifest in your work? 

Gravitational aesthetics may be understood as aesthetic qualities characteristic to “body movers”. However, having realized that it is largely underdeveloped and constrained by the narrow approach of merely making the rides viscerally exciting and thrilling, I set out to do some artistic research in order to expand such an insight. More specifically, by investigating gravity’s impact upon our perception, thought, technological development, and the aesthetic possibilities that gravity allows us to imagine, I’ve been developing a uniquely creative paradigm of gravitational design.

Gravitational design exploits today’s unprecedented means of manipulating bodily perceptions of gravity to create experiences that push the body and imagination to the extremes. This methodology celebrates the eclectic fusion of experimental design, choreography, locomotion engineering (including amusement rides), kinetic art, and participatory architecture. Thus, it is not limited to the field of design, but also informs other creative disciplines of how to negotiate gravity and enrich the corporeal qualities of things. Choreographing bodies through design, shaking the innards with amusement rides, directing gravitational dreams, and “imagineering” alternative gravities are a few things that gravitational design is interested in.

Gravitational design consists of two major sets of creative strategies: Design Choreography and Vehicular Poetics. The establishment of the strategies is grounded in g-design’s concern with the poetic potentials of technologically mediated human movement and orientation in space, in other words, motility, mobility, and choreography. Design choreography and vehicular poetics differ in their fundamental relationships with gravity in terms of the strategies that they refer to: the former is concerned with active interaction such as standing or walking, and deals with designing and composing human movements through things and environments; whereas the latter set focuses on more passive interactions such as commuting with the help of technological means of transport, and deals with poeticizing vehicles and the trajectories they impart upon the passengers.

Airtime in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial

To illustrate both approaches, let’s consider my recent project “Airtime” [which was shown in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial, and curated by Justė Kostikovaitė – ed.] – a dropping floor. The installation is basically a platform that lifts people up and then drops them down half a meter. Even though it is just a simple plane, the public behave and move in unique ways, mostly choreographed by the anticipation of the fall. They play with their bodies to prepare for the hit: some squat, sit or lie down to find the most effective position; some just stand with their knees bent as if ready to jump; others grab or hug each other (even strangers) to mollify the anticipatory tension. The fall takes just less than half a second, but it is in this moment when the most unique dances take place. I can’t think of a similar situation in which everyone is performing some sort of primordial dance of finding their balance in mid-air, animated with open-mouthed expressions that convey a variety of emotions that include pain, ecstasy and fear. From this point of view, you may think of “Airtime” as performative architecture that choreographs such dances. But if you look from the perspective of a means of transport, it is a non-destination oriented vehicle. People submit their bodies to the machine not to get from point A to point B, but to embark upon a unique journey, even if it lasts for only a blink of an eye. Whether it is kinetic art that acts upon the guts, a self-test for our hardwired fight-or-flight mechanism, or a flash escapist experiment – it is up to those falling to find out.

Cumspin (2015) and Ethanasia Coaster (2010) in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani.

You have created various design objects and developed ideas that trigger mixed opinions, for example, “Euthanasia Coaster” – a roller coaster that provides a pleasant death experience, and “Emancipation Kit”, an ergonomic, vomit-inducing instrument, among others. These works, and others like them, raise questions about ethics and similar concerns. Yet, at the same time, they are more fictional and imaginary than real. Can you comment on that? Have you ever considered pushing any of the ideas further in order to overcome the opposing notions of imagination and reality?

I would consider the coaster and the vomit stick neither unreal nor real, but somewhere in between. A sort of reality-fiction. We could discuss the differences between the terms for hours or days (especially taking into account the currently ongoing philosophical buzz around the subject), but let’s forget these differences for a while and ask simple questions such as the following: Would you consider a blueprint of a roller coaster less real than the machine itself? You may say that the one on paper is not the same as the one already built. True, but such machines do not exist without drawings, simulations, props, etc. “Euthanasia Coaster” is a blueprint, a technical proposal based on real physics, engineering, and medical research. The scientific feasibility definitely adds another shade of realness, and yet ethically, it may sound far-fetched. But I keep getting emails from a variety of people who would like to see the realization of such a machine. Some of them even offered their bodies for testing, had the coaster idea gone into further development. Therefore, we see that the coaster is already ethically acceptable (to some), and thus real (for some people).

Is a functional tool that nobody uses less real than the one that is widely used and even abused? The vomit stick was made from surgical stainless steel as an actually functioning tool; its form is throat-ergonomic and vomit-friendly (the form is hydrodynamic, which makes vomiting with the stick inside the throat safe). Even though it could be used to induce puking, nobody uses it physically (except in a few tests of mine), but they do so in their imagination. Of course, such an outcome is preconditioned by my artistic strategies and communication. And this is where another question might pop up: how realistically, or more specifically, how vividly does the object radiate its experiential reality?

Sleep capsule from Oneiric Hotel (2013) in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani.

The debate could continue like this endlessly, but I think these quick examples have already shown that we need to agree on a very specific context in order to discuss realness. On the other hand, I’ve come to terms that the more we discuss it, the more confusing it becomes. And then I thought, this is exactly what I am aiming for: to complicate the divorce between the real and the imaginary, or to induce the amnesty of such a thing.

Read in the Archive: A Self-Made Dream Scenario | Julijonas Urbonas’ dream hotel, “Oneiric Hotel”

In terms of going with this a bit further, it is worth considering the projects “Oneiric Hotel” and “Airtime”. The former project was a pop-up hotel equipped with special dream-directing equipment that had been taken directly from sleep labs that conducted various scientific experiments. People could come, book their sleep session, and have a few hours to test the equipment by themselves while napping in a specially-designed rocking sleep capsule. One in five to seven people reported various sleepy or dreamy effects: from hypnagogic visions to lucid dreams. But when we started to dismantle the hotel, we found out that one set of the equipment was broken and had not been working the whole time. Despite that, and surprisingly, it had been no less effective: the people who used it had reported induced dreams as well. It must have been due to some sort of placebo effect. I took this revelation seriously and directed all of my attention towards all of the details that make up the experience of the hotel: from the way people come to the hotel, to the way the receptionist looks and speaks, to the sounds and scents of the interior. That’s because I felt that the placebo effect was much more than just “the spell or the smell” – it was embodied in the wholeness of the project. The result was more than successful, even overwhelming. The third version was installed in a window-gallery in the city of Klaipėda, Lithuania. The window gallery was chosen intentionally: to attract more ‘neutral’ subjects – passersby drawn by the unusual spectacle of a hotel behind the window. We had a lot of women in their fifties and sixties. Most of them just could not manage to fall asleep. But the biggest surprise came when a few of them came back several days later to report that they had brought something home, to their own bedrooms. With both excitement and fear, they told of how they had started to have lucid dreams (the kind in which you are aware that you’re dreaming) for the first time in their lives!

As for “Airtime”, the collision between tangible reality and imagination was more thought through in advance, and controlled. Having equipped myself with certain tools of amusement-ride psychology, I employed several tricks to exaggerate the experience of falling: the underestimation of the effect, and the anticipation of the drop. In the beginning, the participants feel quite relaxed knowing that it is a shorter drop than from a chair. But once on top, the anxiety builds up as they actually do not know what is going to happen, nor the exact moment at which they will be dropped. They shout, they laugh, some flee the room open-mouthed.

Ethanasia Coaster in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani.

You have spoken and shown your projects widely, collecting admirers and critics internationally. “Euthanasia Coaster” has especially received attention from different communities. Do you feel that this project (and others) reverberate beyond the art/design realm? How important is it for you to reach out to a broader audience and make an impact on how things are approached/perceived in society?  

It is hard to tell if my practice operates beyond the realm of art and design, since these fields have impregnated everything you might think of. Yet, if you think of the audience, it is quite broad: from laypeople to experts, from extreme sportsmen, physiologists, and space engineers to musicians, sci-fi writers, and filmmakers. It is just impossible to grasp its breadth. I don’t want to brag, but just take a look at the circulation of “Euthanasia Coaster” on the internet. The reason behind my strategy to address wider audiences is very simple: it makes me feel both close and relevant to the world.

Could you please elaborate on “design” as a concept nowadays? What kind of meaning does it have for you?

The term “design”, as well as the discipline itself, has become so prevailing and pervasive, and yet it is so ambivalent and complex, that it is simply impossible to grasp its essence. Perhaps everything could be designed today, or at least there’s such a belief floating about. It is not just mundane everyday things, but whole cities, landscapes, the weather, bodies, behavior, politics, the economy, even nature itself. It is almost a God-like occupation now (think of how creationist use the term “intelligent design”).

And yet it is so arrogant, shallow and impotent. Firstly, it is largely market-oriented or intoxicated by capitalist reality. Secondly, it is mostly either about glitter or one’s arse (chairs and sitting-man-oriented objects still flourish in design classrooms, studios and exhibitions). Thirdly, it is blindly occupied with the belief that it is on a problem-solving mission, but without questioning the problems in the first place. All of this, in some sense, results in or is produced by the growing inability to embrace the complexity of today and the discrepancy between design imagination and the immensity of production.

Emetic spatula from Emancipation Kit (2008) in the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2016 Milan Triennial. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani.

In your opinion, what is the most effective and needed kind of design in today's society?

What we need today is a discipline that is more diverse, complex, imaginative, challenging to the status-quo, and free of market constraints. One that does not sell, foist or promote, but questions and makes people think instead of consume. There are some traces of such a response, it’s just hidden under the names of “critical design”, “speculative design”, “design fiction”, etc. It is peanuts compared to the huge economy of design, but hopefully, this weak signal will soon be amplified.

You work broadly among various fields – art, design, engineering, research, writing, etc. Do you think that cross-disciplinary work is crucial for the realm of art nowadays? If yes, how? And what is the role of an artist?

There is a simple reason behind why I’ve been working among various disciplines – it is just too boring to stay in one field. Putting all wit aside, I tell myself that there are no borders between the fields, they just differ in their means of expression, tools, methods, knowledge vehicles, values, behavior codes, etc. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to demarcate such fields as design, art, and science. One may not agree, but think of how biotechnology scientists talk of copyrighting their engineered bio-entities, or how experimental scientists boast about their unique instrument designs, or just how imagination and creativity manifest in all fields.

Inter-, multi-, cross-, trans-. There is a reason why such prefixes have been popping up occasionally in postmodern thought for some time now. It is largely due to the response to the modern epistemology that singularizes and isolates knowledge from its context. Depression is no longer the concern of psychology but also of neurology, sociology, and cultural studies. There is no longer such a thing as a single History, Future, and Truth, but histories, futures and truths. The uppercase letters are made lowercase. Once the centers of knowledge and power are decentralized, an epistemological pluralism – a rich soil for the meeting of diverse disciplines – emerges.

Oneiric Hotel by Julijonas Urbonas

Naturally, we’re witnessing a similar trajectory in the arts, partly as a result of the aforementioned zeitgeist, partly as a refusal of modernist formalism, and partly as result of conceptualism that does not rely on a singular medium or discipline. There is no need to repeat it, as postmodern thinkers have already over-discussed this. But simply put, I don’t see any reason why artists should refrain from having a dialogue with other fields, borrowing some tools from a scientific lab, applying scientific methods for artistic research, etc. Even though art may be characterized by its peculiar way of thinking, it is not limited by its means of expression – be it paint, hydraulics, electromagnetic fields, or social engineering. One might say that this makes it even more difficult to differentiate what is art and what is not, but I think that this question is not relevant as long as art provides us with extensive, expansive, non-reductionist, revelatory knowledge on who, where, how and why we are.

You have been working internationally, yet you are based in Lithuania and are a Vice-Rector for Art and a lecturer at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. What are the struggles and challenges that art education faces today (especially locally, in Lithuania)? What should be improved upon?

One of the major pressures art academies experience, at least as far as I can see here, in my academy, is numbers: how much money was raised in collaboration with companies, how many exhibitions/projects were produced, how many people attended the latter, how many papers were written, what was the quoting index, etc. Such numbers don’t say much about quality and the role the institution plays within society. An academy ought to be a space for liberated thought and experimentation, not a profit-generating company.

Even worse, the burden to report good numbers adds to the already sluggish nature of academies in terms of keeping up with the changes going on in the contemporary world. Today, art could be anything – a meal, a code, an exhale of helium gas, a levitating curator’s hair, a monetary transaction; the artist’s studio has expanded (outsourcing, art residencies in scientific labs, factories, hospitals etc.) and contracted (computer desktop, café, library) at the same time; disciplines interact and cross-breed, forming hybrid languages of expertise; a booming art market coexists with the critical and disruptive forms of creative practice…It is getting increasingly difficult to match up appropriate pedagogical infrastructure, methodology, and eventually, bureaucracy, to such a complex art world.

Julijonas Urbonas tells about Ethanasia Coaster

At the moment you're doing a residency at Arts at CERN, a prestigious organization that is the leading art and science program promoting a dialog between artists and particle physics. What kind of ideas are you developing there?

Having researched and developed various technology-mediated gravitational activities, currently I’ve become interested in the choreographic dialectics between the macro and the micro, namely, gravity in the scales of human and elementary particles. In some sense, I consider CERN as an extremely unique performative stage on which humans and particles dance together to understand each other better. Whether is it a maintenance cycling around the LHC tunnel, the “training” (quenching) of the superconducting magnets, or the “contact dance” of particles, such dances are one of my key interests in CERN. More specifically, I wonder if such choreographies specific to CERN, or particle physics in general – combining humans and non-humans – could be discerned and replicated as purely a dance performance. Or what scientific or technological principles of a particle collider, for example, could be incorporated into a human-scale performance?

On the other hand, I am interested in experiencing CERN intimately for its largely speculative scientific background. Having employed various speculative methodologies in my creative practice, I’ve become interested in contemporary speculative physics from the methodological point of view. The more I read about it, the more I see it as a unique hybrid form of science fiction, where hard-core mathematical equations, super instruments, and exotic technologies play in tandem with vivid academic-cum-fictional writing and artistic visualizations. And I can’t help but wonder how physics would look like if such methodologies became even more radical, transcending the dogmatic praxis of science. How physicists would operate, for example, if their numerical and textual vocabulary extended into a dance-wise, performative methodology?