It's a goat!
De-evolution against the existential terror of everyday life is still trending. The designer Thomas Thwaites commissioned a set of special prosthetics and decided to spend a couple of days living as a goat. His experiment makes Dean Kissick think about modern communication, the Paleo diet, ancient satyrs, and Miley Cyrus.
Lately I attended a dinner at which a friend had cooked a suckling pig, and everybody there was clamouring for a portion of its warm brains, and there I wondered how far our obsession with nose-to-tail eating and beastliness might take us. I thought also of the vast popularity of the paleo diet (basically, eating like a caveman), and farmer’s markets, and extreme forms of outdoors exercise such as triathlons and assault courses. Today there’s so much interest in a more natural, slower way of living as part of our modern quest for meaning and fulfilment, and recently this trend reached a sort of apotheosis when designer Thomas Thwaites, 34, commissioned himself a set of special prosthetics and spent three days living as a goat, amongst a farmer’s herd of goats on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. Thomas (who is a sincere chap, not an ironist playing the goat) spent a long term preparing for the project, in ways that neatly reflect many of-the-moment healing practices. Early on he visited a modern, city shaman in Copenhagen and she informed him, “You could never be an elephant because you have not shared cultural or environmental history with elephants. Maybe you should be a goat?” It’s sensible advice, but brings to mind Lindsay Lohan’s revelation this summer of how having ayahuasca sessions with a shaman, combined with meditation and whole-body cryotherapy, has lessened her stress levels and transformed her wayward life.
Thwaites also worked with scientists from Aberystwyth University on the construction of an artificial goat’s rumen; which is to say a grass-digesting internal chamber of bacteria and fungi, which sounds ideally suited to the present-day obsession with healthy bacteria and fermented foods. However things went awry when the academic staff realised he was planning to drink the grassy milkshake from his manmade rumen, and that it might possibly kill him. “As soon as you start saying to scientists that you want to put things inside your body,” he confided to me, slightly ruefully, “everything gets a lot more difficult.” This particular digestive tract was abandoned. But in a similarly experimental manner Thwaites worked with somebody from University College London on using transcranial magnetic stimulation to very temporarily induce a virtual lesion in his own brain: “I went to this guy and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve honestly never thought of using transcranial magnetic stimulation to make someone feel more like a goat.’”
The life of a goat might be like a dream. It might satisfy our need to connect to nature, but also our more 21st-century animal fantasies: the adoration of avatars, the online cult of teenage “otherkin”, the forms of communication through emoji and animated cartoon animals, all those sweet videos of animals. Writing in Frieze Ana Teixeira Pinto suggests that this contemporary obsession with animals, in internet culture as well as in the art world, might actually constitute a protest of sorts. “With most of us barred from all but a consumptive relation to civil society,” she concludes, “watching animal videos might also be construed as a form of pas¬sive resistance… Replacing an obsolete notion of the ‘human’, perhaps the animal has become the new face of humanity.” It seems that many of us desire to become animals nowadays. Next time one of your Facebook buddies posts a video of a tiny little octopus crawling around somebody’s palm changing colour, or indeed a goat singing a Taylor Swift song, or those delicate fainting goats that collapse en masse just think, maybe they’re not just showing their twee and sensitive side. Maybe they’re outright rejecting their containment inside a human body, and yearning instead for a post-human future as a beast. It’s an enticing form of escapism as it’s so unlike most projections of the future; rather than training as post-human robot pilots or whatever, we would instead degenerate into old mountain-dwelling things with an ancient way of life.
Thwaites himself frames his desire to take a mini-break away from being a person (and all its associated existential terror) as a therapeutic form of transmogrification, as well as a research project. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s a bit crap being human sometimes,” he says. “Not only do you have to worry about external stresses and strains, you’ve also got this whole internal monologue, this internal froth going on. I thought [this project] was an interesting idea and an interesting way to approach the problems of living as a self-conscious being. Basically a way to kind of talk about depression and mental health and things like that from a different perspective.” And in its desire to escape what it is to be human, and vault the constraints of society, his project brings to mind the goat-like satyrs of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology with their lives of sensuousness free from the trappings of civilisation:
they dance lasciviously around the place playing their flutes, they’re overindulgent lovers of wine and women, and who wouldn’t want that? It’s the sort of lifestyle I imagine Miley Cyrus leading.
In his renowned paper “What is it like to be a bat?” American philosopher Thomas Nagel laments, “If I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task… Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.” So if we were to live as goats – and according to Thwaites technology has a long, long way to advance until this would really be possible – unfortunately we would never really understand what it’s like to become an animal, only what it’s like to pretend to become an animal. In other words, up in the Swiss Alps we would be an uncomfortable person in goat’s clothing.
Dean Kissick is a writer based in Los Angeles.
Thomas Thwaites’ exhibition Goat Life opened at Studio 1.1, London, on Thursday 3 September