Euthanasia Coaster (Julijonas Urbonas)
From the curators: Between 2003 and 2007, designer and engineer Julijonas Urbonas ran an amusement park in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and garnered first-hand experience in crafting situations that involve “gravitational aesthetics.” Urbonas created the hypothetical Euthanasia Coaster as—in his words—a humane, elegant, and euphoric solution for those who have chosen to end their lives. Challenging the physical and psychological limits of the human body, this speculative design is intended to slowly ascend 510 meters (roughly 1,700 feet) into the air before launching passengers down seven loops at a mind-boggling speed of 100m/s. The roller coaster aims to give its riders a diverse range of experiences from euphoria to thrill, tunnel vision to a loss of consciousness and, eventually, to the end result: death.
At first glance, it appears possible that the intention behind the Euthanasia Coaster may have been to provoke horror and rejection. While appearing to bask in violence and instigate it, is the author trying to produce the opposite effect: animating a disgraceful idea so that it can be rejected more easily? One wishes such a positive reading would apply to Julijonas Urbonas’s proposal, but the evidence is not encouraging. The author describes his work with the following words: “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful. Celebrating the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster.” Unfortunately, the likelihood of any pleasure and euphoria being produced is low; nausea and discomfort would be more probable.
The setting for the original presentation, a large exhibition on the future of the human species titled HUMAN +, is intriguing. It featured a combination of futuristic pieces based on both reasonable and marginal readings of contemporary science. Conceivably, Mr. Urbonas was simply indulging in flippant outrageousness for the sake of novelty and sensation, but an interview he gave at the time suggests otherwise. He does say that his creation would be helpful in dealing with problems such as “overpopulation” and “living too long.”
Those who reacted with concern when the work was first presented can be accused of lacking a sense of humor, of being unable to read irony and satire where irony and satire may have been intended but hidden—in brief, spoilsports with a blind eye for innovation. But the blame surely must rest with the concept and with its subject. Death is the stuff of tragedy and euthanasia is death compounded by myriad questions regarding the circumstances in which it may or not be acceptable. Death and comedy are strange bedfellows. Their marriage requires abundant doses of expository justification, strangeness, a little bit of hamming, and redemption—as when the murdered Commendatore comes back to dispatch Don Giovanni into hell, followed by the merriment and moral rectification of one and all. There is nothing faintly comedic about organized euthanasia. As the population ages and birth rates decline, as resources dwindle and advanced societies accept a high level of unemployment as norm, it is troublingly possible that social and political systems intent on solving the problems of old age, disease, defeat, and discontent might resort to technically intricate solutions akin to the Euthanasia Coaster.
On the face of it there would be little new in such a development. For the past century, even as violence has generally declined in a welcome trend that signals some human maturity, technically elaborate modes of institutional killing have emerged, all relying on the miserable scientific backing of physics, chemistry, and medicine. Our own varied methods for carrying out the death penalty are examples of a public endorsement for scientifically ornamented means to put an end to human life. On the other hand, were designs such as the Euthanasia Coaster to be adopted as a final solution for a suffering humanity, the novelty would reside in the sweeping scale at which such a killing machine would have to be institutionalized.
The Euthanasia Coaster is not fun at all as art, and it is preposterous as a technical device. Curiously, it does work as provocation, regardless of intent. So be it. Mostly it is sad, sad, sad.