Thought Experiments of Julijonas Urbonas. Interview by Kotryna Markevičiūtė

March 8, 2019
Author Kotryna Markevičiūtė

At the end of 2018, you presented the solo show ‘A Planet of People’ at the Vartai gallery in Vilnius, which you developed with astrophysicists. An interactive installation was central to the exhibition, whereby visitors could scan their bodies with a specially designed three-dimensional scanner, and in this way take part in your fictional scenario of sending human bodies into outer space (to the zero-gravity Lagrangian point) and form a new biomass-based celestial body. Could you say more about the preparation of this project? Why did you choose to work on the theme of outer space?

The project started almost twelve years ago, when I met various artists, curators, scientists and engineers who worked closely with or had experience of working in space. I was living in London at the time, conducting research on gravitational aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, and began collaborating with the Spatial Disorientation Lab (Imperial College, London) and space medicine researchers. After returning to Lithuania, I felt deprived of the cosmic discourse, or to be more exact, its closedness, its narrowness and the technocratic management of the country’s cosmic identity.

It should be remembered that the history of space research in Lithuania is nearly four centuries old. It starts with the book ‘The Great Art of Artillery’ by Kazimieras Simonavičius, and includes the creation of the astronomical observatory at Vilnius University, the transatlantic flight by Darius and Girėnas, and the first successful attempt to grow plants ‘from seed to seed’ in space, up to the establishment of the Lithuanian Aerospace Association and the first Lithuanian launch of satellites. Although interest and the number of space projects in Lithuania have increased in the last decade, the topic has not been widely discussed in the field of culture. In my opinion, all attempts to create a new vision of the national space programme, if we can call it that, have been developed in isolation and too technocratically. For example, the first satellites, LituanicaSAT-1 and LITSAT-1, which were launched in 2014, were designed to transmit the audio recording ‘Lithuania loves freedom’ and a greeting from the Lithuanian president ‘Greetings to all Lithuanians around the world!’. These recordings were dedicated to a super-narrow community of techno-fanatics, or more exactly to radio hams, who have the means to pick up the signal from these nano-satellites. I wonder how many of them understood the message, and if they managed to translate it, what they learned from hearing this truism? We might ask how these messages differ from the beeps transmitted by the first satellite Sputnik 1. So when it comes to our cosmic future, the imagination of the developers of the cosmic programme is confined to nerdy and unoriginal ideas; they usually resemble visions of mega-states, like the colonisation of other planets. But visions are an integral part of a nation’s identity. Do we lack the imagination and critical thinking to shape our own cosmic vision without borrowing it from others?

Provoked by this, I started looking for means to expand the cosmic discourse in Lithuanian culture. I worked on various ideas, from organising the Kosmica biennial (with the Kosmica institute) to the production of an extra-terrestrial vodka (in collaboration with the astro-botanist Danguolė Švegždienė). Many of these ideas ended up in a drawer, while ‘A Planet of People’ kept recurring under various different circumstances (in conversations with scientists and similar encounters). On one hand, this idea somehow resembled the creative strategy I used in a previous project ‘Airtime’, to send a group of people from one place to another in a way no one ever did, and to explore the consequences. On the other hand, this thought experiment seemed to have the potential to inspire the cosmic imagination and the self-awareness of citizens, and question the concept of space. The idea has been used in several different projects: from lectures, creative workshops and writings on speculative design, cosmic imagination and cosmic identity to exo-disciplinarity, generative cosmic choreography software, and opera. I decided to compile a publication, and extend the scale of the project into a tangible, science-fiction narrative-based, discursive platform, which was presented for the first time at Dublin’s Science Gallery (during the ‘Life at the Edges’ exhibition), and the latest version was presented recently in Vilnius.

In ‘A Planet of People’ you speculate on the idea of sending not only human bodies into outer space, but also culture, art and science, with all its disciplines. In the exhibition, you also collaborated with Gailė Griciutė, who performed a specially composed piano piece inside a rotating structure. Can you say more about this strategy of ‘thought experiment’, and how you apply it to this project?

‘A Planet of People’ is a staged thought experiment designed to pose questions such as: what happens to choreography, architecture, music, and art in general, when they leave the Earth? When the Karman line, a boundary that lies at an altitude of a hundred kilometres above sea level, and symbolises the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, is crossed, art becomes disoriented. After all, the disciplines appeared and grew on Earth, in this ecosystem and under the care of humans. Some of them, such as biology, medicine, engineering and anthropology, have been gradually adapting to astro-anthropocene, but disciplines in art are still very much attached to the ground. How could cosmic, or, as I call it, exo-disciplinary, art look and sound?

My creative practice has long been influenced by these thoughts; however, they have only gained a more concrete shape in my projects and writings of the last few years. For example, during the creation of the opera Honey, Moon!, which I directed, together with the composer Gailė Griciūtė and other people from the opera world, we discussed how conditions in space would affect the opera genre. When I talk about space, I have in mind first and foremost its gravitational conditions: the state of weightlessness, hyper-gravity (higher than the Earth’s gravity), Lagrangian points, etc.

One of the platforms used in the opera, hypergravitational piano, was moved to the exhibition at the Vartai gallery. We changed its revolving choreography, increased the artificial gravitational force, and tracked how these factors influenced the performance, the instrument, the propagation of sound, and music in general. Gailė composed a special piece for this purpose. It’s important to acknowledge that unique gravitational fields are formed under these conditions of artificial gravity, and they have a different effect on different parts of the body and the musical instrument. Centrifugal force increases away from the spin axis, so gravity is felt less in the fingers than the head or the buttocks. The tension of the piano strings changes. Of course, we do not use such a speed that these effects are very noticeable; however, according to Gailė, the rotation of the instrument and the performer alone open up new possibilities for performance, and cause different states of mind that influence musical decisions.

Bodily imagination is an important element in your artistic practice, and it is also evident in ‘A Planet of People’. You try to evoke it in different projects by using direct and indirect methods; through experience of physical change, such as gravity or the speculative imagination of these changes and sensations. So the first encounter with your work is primarily physical. What does this tangibility and immediacy of the art experience mean to you, and what does it offer the perceiver?

Since ‘Euthanasia Coaster’, I have been working with various artistic strategies that liberate science-fiction from paper and screens. Literature and cinema offer this genre a rather narrow range of experience. Words, books, publishers and cinemas only stimulate experiential interaction between the story and the reader or the viewer to a certain extent. For instance, a novel or a film demands static and disembodied involvement. This idea is extremely important to me; therefore, I research and apply various methods that activate the body. What I develop is a kind of choreographic science-fiction, which provokes bodily, kinaesthetic, AKA motor imagination.

For example, the visitor is given the opportunity to establish an empathetic relationship with himself or herself in the exhibition, free from terrestrial and human contexts. A scanned file of the visitor’s body is processed by the system, which estimates weight, volume, etc, and attributes an individual gravitational field to it. Finally, the body is thrown into a cluster of corpses, which exists under astrophysical conditions. Three screens display the latest review of the scanned bodies, an accelerated formation of the celestial body according to the principles of astrophysics, and a chaotic movement of all the bodies in one space. In the latter, the bodies move in random order and speed, bump into each other, change trajectories, and sometimes stick to each other. It is some kind of Brownian ‘contact dance’. This opportunity raises questions. What ultimate pose should I choose to be frozen in outer space? What would become part of my cosmic identity, my fossil? But at the same time, how would it affect the collective and even national choreography and the architectural formation of this celestial body? Or simply, what can my body do out there that it cannot do here?

A naked human body placed in outer space becomes tabula rasa, open for a new construct(ion). Fundamental spatial concepts such as ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’, no longer make any sense. What does an upright posture mean when the foot-ground contact is lost? The head and the bottom become equal. Actually, this is why I use patterns in the exhibition that might be seen as a cluster-landscape of small heads, butts, or of clouds or guts. These earthly concepts, together with gender, race and culture, become constructs of the mind and the imagination. The scanner eventually becomes an extra-terrestrial dance floor.

However, after the exhibition in Dublin, it occurred to me that these ideas about choreographical imagination were not quite realistic. People rarely practise or think about these forms of imagination. Even the word ‘imagination’ derives from the word ‘image’, and that explains a lot. But this domain not only belongs to vision, but also to other senses. I looked for the means to strengthen this choreo-imagination in the display, from a rope system used for special effects in cinema to a guide-choreographer. Most of these ideas seemed too cumbersome and didactic, so I settled for scenography and animation. To create this engulfing, unearthly environment, as a safe zone for experiments on visitors’ imaginations, I hide all the gadgets and cables, everything that reminds us of a certain period, the reality, and ‘reveal’ the present time. In the next stage of the project, we’re planning to launch an automatic recognition of a human skeleton, which will allow the system to animate virtual bodies. The bodies will be constantly changing poses, the limbs will move in an accidental way, and touch each other at various points. The owners of these bodies will have the opportunity to watch themselves dancing in a way they would never want to or would not be able to in this earthly reality. Have you ever tried joining in in a collective armpit-heel-heel-chin-forefinger assemblage?

In your art projects, and the last one is a good example, you attempt to disturb or reverse ordinary social relations and the ‘dignified’ state of human existence as we know it. This is particularly evident in situations where bodies or their environments are somehow affected or changed. In ‘A Planet of People’, the act of the fragmentation of human bodies and the formation of accidental biomass-based structures resemble a post humanistic scenario.

Posthumanism dissolves the division between reality and fiction. Instead of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’, we should use ‘pasts’, ‘presents’ and ‘futures’. Instead of the questions ‘how we live and who we are’, we ask ‘how we could live and who to become’. Everything we believe in and live for, together with ethics, religion, culture, politics and the economy, are suddenly perceived as the results of our imagination. The Human loses the upper case ‘H’, and is placed in quotation marks, or positioned next to other beings: a pike, a hydrophobia virus, a toothpick, the Z boson, a barkhan ridge, the asteroid 2420 Čiurlionis, aerosol … Suddenly we can become anything we want. What we need is a persuasive representation. ‘The boundary between science-fiction and social reality is an optical illusion,’ says Donna Haraway in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’.

This view resonates directly with my strategy to liberate science-fiction from certain media. For me personally, posthumanism invokes the imagination, and encourages me to think how science-fiction would look if we took it from books and cinemas and introduce it not only to dance floors, galleries and kitchens, but also to science laboratories, hospitals, parliaments, markets, etc. On the other hand, this radical liberation of the imagination questions disciplines and dogmas, and stimulates reorganisation, hybridisation and cross-pollination. Therefore, I naturally introduce interdisciplinarity into my practice. For instance, I connect choreography with design, and establish a new term design choreography, transport engineering with poetics and coin vehicular poetics, or directing and scenography with medical engineering and lucid dream psychology, and this becomes oneiric engineering. 

You talk and think extensively about choreography and developments in bodily perception. Are there any bodily awareness toning exercises that you practise yourself?

Daily life for me is a site for choreographic fiction. One day I make my bed in a dramatic manner, pretending that my bedroom is a stage. The next day, I do it as if I were a bed-making robot. And the day after that, as if I were seeing the bed and the bedding for the first time. One day, I cross the street starting with my right foot; the next day, I use the left. Sometimes I brush my teeth in accordance with the noise. Or as if this activity were a kind of horror movie. I climb the stairs exhaling every fourth step. The next time, I try not to make any noise while climbing, but to keep the body graceful. Almost every day, I perform some unconventional act at any given moment or place. For example, when I’m in a shop I might suddenly turn around, stretch out my hand, and start walking straight until I bump into a wall. These unusual dances eventually migrate to my dreams and stay there. However, I never touch the wall in my dreams; the hand goes through it. This contact dance with the wall can ‘wake’ you up in the dream (in lucid dream psychology, it’s called the method of reality check). Then I start to practise unearthly choreography. In one dream, I embody some elementary particle, and try to repeat its dynamics and interaction with other particles and fields. In the next dream, I explore how to go to the toilet in the absence of gravity.

Finally, for many years you have been working across the disciplines of art, design and science, researching the human (sub)conscious and the limits of human perception. It would be very interesting to hear what ideas and authors influence you today.

Many different ideas, topics and authors have appeared recently in my dictionary (in alphabetical order): astro-anthropocene and astro-anthropology (Debbora Battaglia, Michael Oman-Reagan, Lisa Messeri), astro-biology (Penelope Boston), cosmic pessimism (Eugene Thacker, ‘In The Dust Of This Planet – Horror of Philosophy’), inversion of science-fiction (Quentin Meillassoux, ‘Science-fiction and Extro-Science-fiction’), art as biology or life science (Alva Noë, ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature’; Tim Ingold’s Anthropology of Lines), chthulucene and non-human friendship (Donna J. Haraway, ‘Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene’, Steven Connor, ‘Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and other Vocalizations’, and other writings by him), choreography and the circus of falling (Elizabeth Streb, Yoann Bourgeois), science-fiction in literature, cinema, art, design, architecture and cooking (Ted Chiang, ‘Black Mirror’, Cooking Sections, Forensic Architecture, Dunne & Raby, Marguerite Humeau, Dora Budor, Noam Toran, and others).

Thank you!

Photo reportage from Julijonas Urbonas’ exhibition ‘A Planet of People’ at Vartai gallery