#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 17 - 18 Apr 2023

Thomas Thwaites

Thomas Thwaites is a design researcher who undertakes projects that are not-quite possible (yet), as a means of probing the psychological and social impacts of technologies.

His work has been shown at galleries and museums across six continents including the National Museum of China, Cooper Hewitt, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul, ZKM, and is in the permanent collections of the Victoria &Albert Museum the Design Museum London, the Banque De France, the Groote Museum, and the Asia Culture Centre (South Korea).

His projects occasionally receive a phenomenal amount of media and academic attention, as with his Toaster Project, where he attempted to make an electric toaster from scratch, and Goatman, where he attempted to take a holiday from being human. The books of these projects have been translated into Japanese, Korean, and Norwegian (with a forthcoming German edition of Goatman).

He’s received multiple awards for his work, including from Prix Ars Electronica, (Honorary Mention), The Wellcome Trust, and the renowned ‘Ig Nobel Prize for Biology’.

Want to watch this video on YouTube directly? This way, please.

Goats and cars: beyond failure

Over the past decade Thomas Thwaites has created an eclectic range of projects, always skirting the edge of the technologically possible. He’ll talk about some of his other work, his narrative design process, his adventures as a goat, and his current project to create a completely Harmless Car, to explore the landscape of guilt.


[Disclaimer: A little content warning up front: If you are sensitive to blood or scenes of surgery, you might consider not watching this video.]

[audience applause]

Thomas Thwaites: The kind of joy of being the last speaker is you get all day to kind of get a bit nervous and adjust your slides – all of that. So, I’ve been doing all of that.

So, hello. Guten tag.

And yeah, um... You know Marc said I’ve got like an hour, so [laughter] I’m not sure I’m going to speak for an hour, but I thought maybe I would kind of start by just kind of going through the archive a bit, digging out some sort of older projects.

I’m kind of a designer, writer, filmmaker kind of person. I sort of studied life sciences as an undergraduate. And I like mundane science fiction. And I think, with my work, I’m trying to work out how I sort of fit in time.

How did I get here? Where is it going? And how social movements and technological objects kind of start out feeling outrageous but then, sooner or later, just become the norm and so on.

We’ve got this future shock from AI coming at us. But give it five years. What do you think? Will it feel very normalized and mundane?

Like an old project a friend of mine was working on, printers that printed wallpaper, and said, “Do you want to have a play,” and so I kind of basically made a calendar. I was very proud of myself. I scripted up something for a plugin for Illustrator and made this calendar that would fit to whatever wall size you had.

The calendar just basically lays out the days of the week for however high your wall is, and so you get a calendar of 400 years.

[audience laughs]

Thomas: Actually, calendars are more complex than you think when you first start out. But yeah, so you can kind of see your life as an 80-line high sort of slots on this wall, and then there’s the history and the future. And so, I suppose I’m kind of motivated to try and find out what happens before my slot and what’s going to happen after my slot.

Yeah, so I guess another motivation for my work, of course, is trying to make some money. But I’m pretty useless at that, and I blame that on my tutors at art school who were Dunne & Raby at the Royal College of Art. I did this course called “Design Interactions,” and we kind of studied this thing called critical design, though we didn’t know it was called that at the time.

A summary of that, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but in the A column is all the words associated with orthodox, conventional design. Then on the B column is the words that they associate with critical design.

Rather than being kind of affirmative, you’re being critical. Rather than problem-solving, you’re sort of problem finding. Rather than designing for production, you’re designing for debate – and so on.

You’re not going to make that much money, [laughter] you know, designing for debate. But it explains that I’m kind of interested in ideas that are maybe just kind of beyond commercializable somehow. I think that’s where I am.

Beyond tellerrand, perhaps. But it’s interesting putting these slides together because I’m seeing the stuff that was beyond tellerrand is maybe now just tellerrand. Then maybe give it five more years and it’ll just be middle plate. I don’t know how you say that in Germany, but yeah.

This is an old project I did for the Design Museum. On the left there, it’s based on this ancient Babylonian god called Nabu. It was this idea for a startup.

Basically, like everyone, I struggle with self-control. I’m lazy, and I really struggle to better myself, et cetera. I don’t know what I want. But of course, the great market is all based on providing us choice, et cetera.

But yeah, so this project was, “Well, I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what’s best for me. So, can I not offload this?” If I’m always influenced by dark patterns in marketing anyway, can I not offload this kind of struggle with choice to an AI?

This kind of AI startup would basically tell you what you can and can’t watch. When you sign up, you sign over your money and your... control of your money to the startup, and you sign over control of what content you see via your slightly totemic religious kind of wi-fi router there.

Yeah, and I think maybe with a few of Mario’s amazing AI-powered affirmations and inspirational quotes, people could start taking on a kind of AI governor. It would be so freeing, you know.

Another kind of random project from the archive was, I was asked to look at the future of crime, and so I started thinking about the potential for bio crime. I came up with this sort of police bee unit, which the idea would be that the police would monitor for synthetic biology, genes transformed into plants.

They would use bees to go out in the local area, get pollen all over them, and then when they came back to these special beehives, the beehive would sort of read the waggle dance that the bees do to tell their hive mates where they’ve been. Then that would allow the police to... They can decode this waggle dance. Then they can follow the bee back to the source of this suspect pollen.

I do more straight-up films as well. Basically, you can’t be thinking about the future or whatever without thinking about climate change. And so, the Design Museum asked me to do these films about design and sustainability.

I made these nine little films. It begins with two rocks contemplating the history of the temperature of the Earth over the last 20,000 years.

Yeah, it’s kind of this big sort of projected thing. But as part of it, I was trying to... I struggled with this idea of, like, “Well, either technology is going to save us or we’re going to have to really kind of pull back and really kind of downshift and simplify our lives.”

I went to interview the chief sustainability officer at IKEA, and then had him in conversation with this guy. He’s a neo-peasant advocate who thinks we’re all doomed.

Avocados: This was my sort of lockdown project. Basically, I ended up being helped a lot. I was doing a residency at a place called Open Cell. I decided I would try and make a heart-lung machine for plants, sort of prosthetics for plants, and so being helped a lot by Dr. Naomi Nakayama.

I worked away to try and repatriate some of the problems of avocados into my local town, London. I made this machine, which took over the xylem and phloem functions from the roots of a plant. The idea being that you could grow avocados in shipping containers. It kind of worked [laughter] slightly.

Yeah, so a random collection of projects from the archive sort of on the edge of the possible – perhaps, some of them.

But I also do this other kind of project which is, I think, I get involved in a story. A story, the basics of a story, you have a character who then kind of struggles to achieve some goal. Then at some point, there’s some resolution, and they return home. Maybe they got what they want or maybe they got what they needed.

The first time I did this kind of story-driven project, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I just had this urge to make this toaster from scratch. This was going way back in time.

I call this project “The Old Toaster Project” now. But I’m going to mention it because it really affected my later work.

I decided, “Okay, I’m a designer. I’m a maker. I should at least make one simple thing entirely myself from the ground up,” and so bought this toaster, took it apart. Low and behold, amazing complexity.

I need to make all of these things from the raw materials, so I start emailing professors with, like, “Oh, I’m Thomas. I’m trying to make a toaster. I need to make steel. Can you help?”

The professor at the Royal School of Minds very kindly ushers me in and explains the basics to me and says, “Well, steel is just a form of iron, so you need to start with some iron ore.”

Then I go back to school. I was at school doing this project.

[video starts playing]

[phone ringing]

Male: [Indiscernible]

Thomas: Hello. Could I speak to Jonathan, please?

Male: He’s underground at the moment.

Thomas: Oh, he’s underground. Oh, well, I’m sort of embarking on a project. I’m trying to make a toaster, and I need to get some iron ore to make the steel bits inside the toaster.

Male: Yeah?

Thomas: And so, I was wondering if I could come down there and get some iron ore.

Male: Yes, you can do.

Thomas: Can I?!

[movie continues playing a short time further]

Thomas: Yeah, so I’m not going to talk about this project too much, but I got the iron ore, and then begins this whole kind of process of trying to smelt the iron. It doesn’t work. I ended up using a microwave.

I visit many more mines to get the other bits, so try and make bioplastic to make the plastic case for the toaster. That doesn’t work, so I ended up going to get some plastic from a recycling factory.

After nine months of failure and struggle, this is my finished toaster.

[audience laughter, applause, and cheers]

Thomas: There it is with it’s lovely plastic case. Then there it is on the shelves ready to buy.

[audience laughter and cheers]

Thomas: Yeah, it’s a kind of project trying to grapple with this problem of, “I love things. I love having a comfortable life. But I know we’re not paying the trust cost of these things. There are all these externalities to the price that aren’t priced in.”

Yeah, and so this is how it looks when, suddenly... The V&A bought this project, amazingly. And so, all my crappy old microwaves and stuff like that suddenly became museum objects.

They came around the conservators with their white gloves and handled my pots and pans and all of this kind of stuff. It was a strange transformation. We had a big debate about whether they needed to catalog and leaf that was on one of the kind of bits that I’d used outside.

Then this became a book. Then I did all these talks.

God, for my sins, I even ended up making a TV program. That was the most hideously embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

Yeah, I don’t know. Then that was that. [Laughter]

I guess a few projects intervening. Maybe hair changes color, et cetera. I find myself several years later feeling a little bit like, “Ugh.”

I’m dog-sitting because that’s the kind of thing that I was doing then. I’m dog-sitting Noggin.

I’ve just had an argument with my girlfriend, and I’m really wondering how I’m going to make money. I’m really worried about fucking climate change and all of this kind of stuff. Anxiety.

I look at Noggin, and I think, “Noggin, you’re so lucky! You don’t have to deal with any of this stuff. You’re just there kind of happy. Just sort of very at home, comfortable with yourself, with your environment. Sure, you get upset, but you don’t worry. Wouldn’t it be nice to be you?”

I’m not the first person that has wondered this. John Stuart Mill and his utilitarian philosophy had to kind of argue that even though it sounds like it would be lovely to be a pig wallowing around in the mud, no, you have to be the human. You have to be the Socrates.

However, Noggin has a nice life. I kind of started to think, “Wouldn’t it be nice just to escape? Gallop away. Gallop away.” [Laughter]

It kind of became a bit of a dream, and I didn’t have much else on at the time, so I kind of wrote this funding application to the Welcome Trust saying I wanted to be an animal. To my surprise, they gave me the money to do it.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: Yeah, and so I told the Welcome Trust that I wanted to be an elephant. I hadn’t given it that much thought, to be honest. I just thought maybe it would be kind of easier to be an elephant because they’re big, and it looks like fun to have a trunk. They’re happy, elephants.

Then I did a bit more research when I got the money and quickly realized that trying to be an elephant to escape existential angst and the pain of existence was not a good target because I picked one of the very few other animals that seem to have an understanding of their own mortality.

Elephants, when there’s been a traumatic death in their family, they exhibit this kind of ritual mourning behavior. They live in these very complex families, these complex social units, and the complexity of family was exactly the kind of thing I was trying to escape from.

And so, I went to the pub, and was kind of moaning to my friend, like, “Oh, I’ve got all this money to be an elephant, and I don’t want to be an elephant anymore.”

[audience laughter]

Thomas: “What do I do?” And she made the excellent suggestion that I should consult with an expert in human-animal transformation, and she put me in touch with a shaman friend of hers (or shamanic practitioner) Annette, who lives in Copenhagen. I was going there anyway, so I went to visit Annette.

[video starts to play]

Thomas: Hi.

Annette: Hello.

Thomas: Hello, Annette. Hello.

Annette: Good timing. How are you?

Thomas:Hi. Thank you. Thank you.

Oh, it’s an amazing little community, sort of—

Annette: It is.

Thomas: --of houses and so on.

Annette: Sorry. It’s just... I’ve been ... [indiscernible].

Thomas: Oh, okay. Um, is it okay if I film, Annette?

Annette: To what?

Thomas: Or is it--? Is it okay if I film? Video things.

Annette: Um...

[video stops playing]

Thomas: No.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: She kind of quite rightly pointed out that it would be disruptive to the energy in the room. But she sat me down, and I sort of explained what I was going to do, what I wanted to do.

And she said, “Look, Thomas. You’re an idiot for thinking you could be an elephant. Of course, you couldn’t be an elephant. You can only hope to kind of become an animal that you’re closer to somehow kind of culturally, spiritually, sort of historically.

“If you’d grown up in the Kalahari Desert, then maybe you could kind of approach being an elephant. But you didn’t. You grew up in the suburbs of London, so what animals do you have in the suburbs of London? You’ve got squirrels. Why don’t you be a squirrel?”

I’m quietly shrinking inside because, like, who wants to be a squirrel?

But then she said, “Well, you know, maybe sheep. You’ve got lots of sheep in England.”
I’m like, “Oh, God. Sheep. Who wants to be a sheep?”
But then she said, “Well, maybe the goats.”
And as soon as she said it, I was like, “Yes! That’s right. That is the animal I should be.”

She basically saved my project. And she also pointed out that my idea was obviously not a new idea at all. The oldest... Some of the oldest human artworks depict human-animal hybrids in some ways.

This is the oldest depiction of a human-animal hybrid known. It was discovered (to science at least) quite recently. It’s in Sulawesi in Indonesia, and it was drawn by someone 44,000 years ago.

Quite near here – I’m not going to say this right – in Hohlenstein-Stadel, this lion-human was dug up and somebody carved this about 30,000 years BCE. It’s kind of this human figure with this lion's head. It’s made of mammoth ivory.

You fast-forward to today, all the way through to today. We’re still interested in these human-animal kind of forms.

And so, I started to think of my projects as a way of seeing what modern-day science and technology could say about this very ancient human dream. As is my method, I started emailing and pestering various academics.

This is Dr. McElligott. He’s a goat behavioral psychologist or ethologist. He studies the goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats. This place is like heaven on Earth for goats.

We went there and interviewed his research subjects. I asked him what makes me different from a goat. He said, “Well, it’s sort of an impossible question, really, in terms of your inner mental life because that’s not accessible to us. But what we think is that humans, unlike goats – of course, we have this ability to use language – once we’ve got this language, what we use it for is to tell these very complex stories. We have this ability to make stories in our heads, these nested scenarios, these recursive scenarios. Humans do it. But as far as we can tell, goats don’t.”

Then I started pestering a neuroscientist who uses transcranial magnetic stimulation and said, “Dear, Dr. Devlin. I want to become a goat. Can you switch off my ability to use language and tell stories?”

He said, eventually, after... Eventually, he got back to me and said, “Well, I could, Thomas, but that would be switching off about two-thirds of your brain (i.e., killing you). So, I can’t do that. But if you come in, maybe I can try and interrupt your ability to speak.”

Using this TMS machine – basically, it’s a powerful electromagnet, which kind of penetrates into your cortex and the electromagnetic fields – interrupts the activity of the electrical synapses in that area. It’s a very unpleasant process.

[video starts to play]

Thomas: Who is that trip-trapping over my ... [indiscernible].

[loud clicking noises]

Thomas: [Laughter]

[video stops playing]

Thomas: It’s basically making all my nerves on the side of my face fire and kind of really getting into my fillings in my teeth, my metal fillings. [Laughter]

But he said... After an afternoon of making me stutter, he said, “What you’re asking me to do is just not possible with present-day technology. Come back in 50 years and maybe we would have managed to have a fine, scalpel-like machine which could... we could sort of switch off elements of your perception and change your perception to be nearer to that of a goat.”

I said, “Okay, I’ll come back in 50 years,” and moved on to what I thought would be the easy bit, which is the body because we have so many structures in common with goats like our skeleton is very close to that of a goat.

I went into the workshop and started mocking up these exoskeletons that were going to let me gallop away. This idea of a sprung kind of spring with a hang-gliding harness so I could glide across the mountainside.

When I actually went to test it... not quite the sort of graceful, freeing experience I was hoping for.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: But I’d been inspired, of course, by all the Boston Dynamics quadruped stuff.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: I tracked down a scientist that had worked on those kinds of projects who now works at the World Veterinary College, and said, “What am I doing wrong, Professor Hutchinson? I’ve got all of these... I’ve got all of the rigging, the robotics, kind of actuators. I’ve got the CPU, the neural network already. But I’m finding it so difficult.”

He said that it’s easier to start from scratch. Your existing body is actually a hindrance. And while he’s letting me down easy, he’s saying, “Thomas, you’re never going to gallop.”

We were having a look at his place of work. It gets a little bit boring now because we wandered into this building, and he’s in the middle of dissecting a snow leopard.

I’m like, “Wow! That’s a really rare, rare animal. How many goats have you dissected?”
To my surprise, he said, “None.”
I said, “Well, could we dissect a goat?”
He said, “Yeah, sure. If you bring me a dead goat, we can dissect it.”

I started to think, “Where could I get a dead goat from?” And so, I went back to Buttercup’s Sanctuary for Goats.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: And kind of had quite a difficult conversation with the owners of the sanctuary that rescued these goats from fairly abusive institutions like the Royal Navy was experimenting on them by seeing if they got the bends. I don’t know if they were actually shoving them out the doors of submarines, but near to that kind of thing.

Yeah, but eventually, they said, “Look. There is a goat that we have. She’s called Venus. She’s suffering from a kind of wasting disease, but we don’t know what the disease is. And so, you can have her body when she dies, as long as you get the vets at the Royal Veterinary College to take a biopsy and then tell us what the disease is because we’re worried about the other members of the herd.”

And so, Venus died. Unfortunately, she died on a Sunday, so she had to spend the night in my fridge. But then the next day, I took her to the Royal Veterinary College and there began this very interesting process that I’ve never seen before of this recognizable animal becoming something which is kind of much more recognizable from a butcher’s shop.

Millions of animals are slaughtered every year. This thing is a production line.

But it was this very kind of visceral illustration of the differences between an engineered approach and a more evolutionary approach. This is a classic example of a generative design where you’ve got the bracket on that side of the screen engineered to withstand certain stresses, and then the kind of honed bracket which can withstand the same stresses after it’s been through a kind of evolutionary algorithm.

This is Venus’s brain, about a tenth of the size of my brain. [Laughter] Actually, the tenth the size of most human brains.

Yeah, so I realized it’s like the interface between the engineering and the evolved body that is the key to this. Of course, it’s the prosthetics, and so I visited some doctors of prosthetics and said, “Could you make me some goat legs?”

They kind of were interested enough to invite me up. I clumped around their clinic. They took molds of my limbs and said, “Okay. Go away. Come back in a few weeks, and you can test out your legs.”

In the meantime, I started to look at guts because I wasn’t going to be very free if I had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. And so, I needed to be able to not just eat grass and other kind of foliage, but also digest it.

The reason why goats and other ruminants can survive on these kind of tough fibers is because they have a whole extra stomach, this kind of rumen, which is positioned before their true stomach in their gastrointestinal tract. Inside that rumen, there’s this stuff called rumen fluid, which is full of these bacteria and fungi, which are all specialized in breaking down these touch cellulose fibers.

I realized I would have to make an artificial rumen, and so I came up with this idea. I molded this bag in food-safe silicon that I could strap to my chest, keep it nice and warm and insulated, and my idea was I would bite off some grass – chew, chew, chew, chew, chew – and spit it into one end of the bag and then, inside that bag, I would need a sample of healthy, you know, a sample of rumen fluid with a healthy microbiome in there. I would put that microbiome into this bag, and it would all culture next to my body. Then after a few hours, I could then suck out this kind of fermented, yogurt-y sort of milkshake. Then it would go down into my true stomach.

[audience murmuring]

Thomas: I thought I needed some help with this, so I visited a center for rumen biology in Aberystwyth University and took my artificial rumen up and showed it to them. I showed them my artificial rumen and they showed me their artificial rumen.

I explained what I wanted to do, and they said, “Yeah, okay. That could work. That could be interesting.”
I said, “Well, could you provide me with a sample of rumen fluid from inside a healthy goat when the time comes?”
They said, “Okay. Yeah, that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

And so, I went away and sort of arranged some other things. And when the time came, they didn’t send me a sample of rumen fluid. They sent me a letter from the university lawyers saying, “Any suggestion that our researchers encouraged you on this foolhardy pursuit is entirely false and we will not be providing you with any samples of rumen fluid or anything else,” blah-b-blah-b-blah.

And so, I phoned them up, and they said, “Look. We kind of put it through the, you know, mentioned it to the ethics board, and the ethics board said no way because we don’t understand what is going on in that kind of microbiome. We’ve got very limited knowledge of the bacteria and viruses that could be in there, so there’s a small risk that you could contract some long-term gut disease and then sue the university.”

However, I’d arranged to visit a Swiss goat farm, and I’d been emailing this guy via Google Translate, and I was a little bit unsure that I was coming across correctly. And so, I didn’t kind of mention much of what I wanted to do. But when I got there, I met Sep and said, “Yes, I’m here because I’m very interested in goats. But I’m also so interested, I want to become one of your goats. And I want to eat with your goats and sleep with your goats. And just be one of the herd.”

And Sep thankfully said, “Yeah, okay.”

[audience laughs]

Thomas: “Make yourself at home.” [Laughter] I won’t do his accent. “Make yourself at home. The goat shed is over there.”

Great. But he said, “Look. There’s one thing. Tomorrow, I’m going to move the goats because I need to move them down the Alp to their winter pasture a bit lower down.”

I said, “Look. Don’t worry. You won’t even know I’m there. I’ll just kind of fit in.”

[audience laughter]

Thomas: “You just do what you normally do, and I’ll be fine.”

And so, basically, at dawn the next day, I’m living the dream. [Laughter]

[audience laughter]

Thomas: ...kind of. And I’m amongst the goats. And I’m sort of walking along as they walk along. It’s a beautiful moment.

But very, very quickly, the landscape gets much steeper, and the goats just kind of flow down the mountainside like no problem at all. And me, I’m left, my arms shaking, left behind by the herd. Probably left to die, really.

It’s quite scary because I don’t have any hands to stop myself from slipping, and I’m worried about my face. But I just kind of plod along, basically, and quickly get blisters, of course, because my prosthetics are rubbing.

I take lots of breaks and just gradually keep going. Eventually, at the end of the day, I catch up with the herd in their new pasture.

[bell chimes]

Thomas: And I’m really trying hard not to be revolted by this kind of goat breath at this moment because it’s quite a kind of difficult thing.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: I’m eating a lot of grass, but it’s a bit of a laborious process because I’d never worked out how to extend my mouth parts down, so I have to get on my knees each time to take a mouthful of grass.

I’m with the goats. After about three days, I’m feeling kind of comfortable. But there’s this moment which – thinking about in retrospect and then talking to Sep – the goat herd – he noticed it, too, when I guess he was keeping an eye on me – yeah, this moment when the atmosphere seemed to change slightly. A couple of the goats started tossing their horns around in my direction and basically offering me up for a fight and wanting to butt heads.

Sep said that perhaps that was a moment where you were in a display of dominance because every kind of goat that joins a herd has to find its place in the pecking order. And so, the head goats were wanting to see if you were there to knock them off their perch, and I really wasn’t—

[loss of audio]

Thomas: --retreated because their horns are quite scary when they’re at eye level and when you’re down at their level. You kind of start thinking, “Wow! I’m really fleshy around the neck and the sides.”

[audience laughter]

Thomas: Yeah, I think I basically became the most submissive goat in the herd.

Then after a few days there, I decided that I would have to branch out on my own. Basically, I’d promised the Welcome Trust that I was going to become an animal and then cross the Alps. That was a stupid thing to promise.

But it turns out it was much easier going up. As long as I headed up, I was fine because more of the weight was on my back legs. And so, I like to think that I kind of disappeared into the Alps.

Since then, I’ve been wondering what that project was about.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: Yes, it was sort of about becoming a goat. But I can’t claim to have any epiphanies on the mountainside. I just sort of just really wanted a coffee. [Laughter] And sort of just wanted—

You know I was constantly trying to forget I was a human. But it’s very difficult to forget what you are. And I was constantly trying to sort of be present in the moment and all of this stuff. But there was just this nagging, like, “I’m cold and uncomfortable and wet. And I want a coffee, and I’m really tired because I can’t sleep.”

And so, I’ve since kind of realized that this project was uncomfortable not just in doing it, but it was uncomfortable psychologically. I’ve realized that to want to become a goat is sort of to want to give up on what makes us human, I suppose.

I realized that although I’m not religious or whatever, I realized that there was something that I was giving up that I was uncomfortable with giving up. I realized it was basically... I was giving up on Star Trek.

[video plays with Star Trek opening monologue]

Thomas: and I grew up watching *Star Trek the Next Generation, which is like the kind of happy Star Trek, which is where human beings in this very wise, like... I still get chills. Human beings in this very wise sort of... We’ve evolved, basically.

[video ends]

Thomas: We’ve kind of solved the problem of economics. They always talk about human beings in the 21st century were a very hostile species. It’s a better future.

But wanting to become a goat is kind of giving up on this dream which I’ve sort of subconsciously soaked up. It’s like, “Do we aim for the stars or do we aim for this humble existence, very grounded, very, sort of, you know, like Earth? And we do we aim to keep this line going up, or do we accept that it can’t go up forever and we need to think of something else to aim for?” We need to aim for being a goat on the mountainside.

There’s this sociologist Ernest Becker who wrote in the ‘70s about human beings and their fear of death. He said that religion, nationalism, kind of science progress, all of these things that humans have to tie yourself to one of these things which is bigger than yourself because we’re terrified that we’re just going to be forgotten. And so, you have to feel like you’re making a contribution. I guess, with the goat, I was trying to grapple with this dilemma.

He put it like we are gods with anuses. We’ve got this amazing power and technology and society, but then ultimately, we have to shit and die. That’s what we’re dealing with.

Yeah, so there’s Venus posed as a human, like an alternate kind of evolution. Then this is what the protect looks like when I’ve exhibited it. It also became a book, which is now out of print.

But amazingly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think, very soon, Mein Leben Als Ziege is... [Laughter] You know somebody has translated it into German, so you might be able to buy that at some point.

Yeah, that was that project, and... [Laughter]

[audience laughter]

Thomas: What am I doing now? I had two kids. Gone gray. Various kind of small projects.

I’m sort of... Yes, trying to sort of, you know, sort of wonder, you know, if the goat project was sort of, you know, could be summarized as a little bit of, like, “Do no harm,” a goat treads very lightly on the Earth.

Maybe the toaster project was sort of this exercise in, like, everything is connected. Even the toaster in your kitchen connects you to the deepest human history of that kind of first moment where somebody realized the stone in the fire was a bit shiny and everyone has been making these incremental contributions ever since. The whole world is now connected and is involved in making our lives... We’re all interconnected and so on.

But if you put these things together, then maybe you get this slight paradox. It sort of becomes impossible to do no harm.

I’ve been thinking, “Design creates value through the creation of objects,” or services, and so on. But there’s the flip side of that, which is maybe “Design is a way of transferring harm from one place to the other through the creation of objects,” and services.

I think they’re kind of two sides of the same coin. I think, yes, there’s a kind of cost-benefit analysis and if the benefit outweighs the cost. But the problem is that, of course, the benefits fall to different people than the costs fall on.

I think I feel guilty [laughter] because I sort of know we’re barreling towards this sort of climate future. Hopefully, someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat and save us. Maybe that’s going to happen. But the current projections are two, three degrees, and all of that.

I know that just living my life is contributing to that, and so I have decided that I will maybe just try and make something neutral, harmless. Not better. Not going to strive to make anything better because we’ve got this whole history of solutions causing problems and so on.

But can I make something harmless? The thing that I want to make harmless is a car. Yeah, and so the car is like the most... arguably the most harmful object ever created, the leading cause of violent death in the world, more than guns and explosives and war.

Yeah, more deaths, suffering, and suicide even. Leading killer of children. So, it’d be quite good to make a harmless version. By harmless, I mean utterly harmless, so following almost this Janeist principle of harmless not only to yourself and others but to all forms of life.

Yeah, and so... Yeah. Just last year, I was invited to ARTIS Zoo in the Netherlands to do a residency. I suppose they thought, yeah, you could become another animal. But I said I wanted to try and make this car.

Yeah, and so these were my neighbors for three weeks, the ostriches. I was also there with the chimpanzees and the seals and the butterflies and the millipedes and the cockroaches.

I began by thinking about the car chassis and, of course, I couldn’t make it from stamped aluminum. I thought, “Okay. What’s the most harmless material I could think of?” It was like coppiced willow because you don’t kill the tree or anything like that. You kind of give it a haircut, maybe.

I started thinking, “Well, an appropriate form for that kind of material would be like a space frame design.” And so, I got in touch with a professor at Delft University who does stress analysis. He produced a weaving pattern that would potentially be an efficient use of the willow.

Yeah, and so I started envisioning the car that I want to build. It’s something like this.

Then a weaver came and gave me a few lessons in ancient Dutch basketry techniques. Then I just kind of set to work trying to come up with this car and just gradually sort of started weaving things together.

Then at the end of three weeks, I had this type thing. Those aren’t my wheels, of course. And, yeah, took it for a little bit of a trundle.

And so, yeah. That’s the chassis. I’m actually going back this summer to make the wheels. The wheels need to be like huge balloon wheels, kind of like this, because if there’s a tiny little snail in the road or something like that, the car just needs to roll over it. This guy is brilliant.

[audience laughter]

Thomas: I’m going back to make the wheels out of dandelion rubber and hemp canvas and gradually building up this vision of this car which I can drive without guilt.

But, of course, at some point, I’m going to come up with the... come to the inevitable problem of, like, “Well, I want this car to drive. I want it to be a real car. I want to take my family on holiday in this car,” which is going to present a problem of what the hell is going to make it go along.

I sort of anticipate that at some point this car will stop being a harmless car and will have to be a harmful car. That’s where I’m interested in going with the project, having this sort of... being confronted with, like, “Okay, well, you’re going to harm someone inevitably, so who will you choose to harm? Who is it most just to harm with your car?”

What is the kind of most mindfully harmful battery technology that I can use or the most mindfully harmful electric motor manufacturer? I don’t know exactly. I don’t know where it’s going to go but hopefully, I’m going to be able to drive it and then crash it. That’s my dream.

Yeah, so I don’t know. Okay. Thank you very much. [Laughter] That’s the end.

[audience applause]