On toasters, living like a goat and looking back 200 years from now: Thomas Thwaites
The technological and socio-political developments of the last few years (or even weeks) might make it seem like we are living in a momentous period in history. But exactly how much of this period will people remember 200 years from now? Will it be regarded with the same detachment that we regard the Industrial Revolution or collapse of the Maya Civilization – a chapter in the annals of history reduced to a summary of milestones that future students have to study for tests?
The writing of history (or historiography, to be precise) is the subject of Living History, which creator Thomas Thwaites describes as "a 360º virtual reality 'documentary' film from the future, about the present." Some of you might remember the British designer for his attempts to become a goat (an endeavor for which he was co-awarded the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for biology) or reverse-engineer and build a toaster from scratch.
It's easy to dismiss these projects as outlandish or attention-seeking but there is a method in his supposed madness, one that is characterized by a penchant for looking at the mundane from a different perspective, as well as breaking things down and then reassembling them, often with the help of experts from related and arcane fields. His quest to become a goat, for instance, included a consultation with a Danish shaman as well as visits to a prosthetics clinic and biology lab to make the limbs and artificial stomach needed for his sojourn as a quadruped on the Alps.
We caught up with Thwaites recently to talk about the construction of history, the ephemerality of the present and why few of the things or people we currently revere will matter in 2217.
Before diving into the interview, you might want to take a look at Living History. If you have a Samsung Gear Virtual Reality headset, you can watch it on the MilkVR Platform. Otherwise, you can catch it here.
In your last project, you tried becoming a goat "to escape the angst inherent in being a human." How did the idea for Living History come about?
I suppose it came from watching very old archived films of people in London from 200 years ago and the strange feeling you get when you imagine putting yourself in those grainy black-and-white images, which were actually real at the time. It's a way of transplanting yourself and I guess I was interested in that feeling and trying to imagine what it would be like to actually be in a film from 200 years, though of course it would all be in color. So I thought perhaps in the same way that film from the early days of cinema is kind of fascinating to us now, VR of mundane street scenes from the present day would be interesting to people and historians in the future.
You're based in London. Why did you set this documentary in South Korea?
I was sent a link for a call for residency at the Asia Culture Centre in Gwangju. They had just opened this big arts space and it was an international call to spend six months there. Also, I was an outsider looking at, what was in my eyes, an incredibly strange but wonderful country, so it fit with the intent of this project.
Why did you choose this particular point in the future?
I chose it partly because we've had moving images for about 200 years, so it's kind of like a parallel. But also with that kind of timespan, I wanted our generation to have become an age.
When you look at the 1800s, you just think of it as the Industrial Revolution and that's it. There were celebrities during that period of course but we don't remember any of them. Similarly, all the details about our world, like [former president] Obama and President Trump, and other events that are significant on the scale of our lifespan, would just be a paragraph in a history book to people in the future. I like the idea of time - the angst, detail, troughs and peaks in people's lives, and events we think are so significant - being summed up in one sentence.
You've built a toaster literally from scratch right down to smelting your own iron ore, and had special prostheses made to become a goat. Apart from making life difficult for yourself, what would you say is the common idea running through your projects?
There's certainly a thread that runs through a lot of my work, including right back to the toaster project. I guess I'm always looking for ways to provoke a change in perspective, and trying to look at the mundane with fresh eyes. With the goat project, [it might seem that] essentially all I'd done was to go and stand in a field with some goats, but what I was trying to do was approach that kind of space and situation in a way that provokes another look at it – that is, a look from the goat's point-of-view. With the Living History project, again, I'm looking for a way to provoke another look at the familiar everyday: What would it be like to see the world from the perspective of the far future?
How was the process behind this one different compared to your earlier projects?
This one was more difficult technically and less processed than the toaster or the goat project. It was like a little fiction film so writing the script took a long time to get the tone right. It's a nice way of talking about the future without having to nail down specifics. Is everyone going to transition into a post-human form? Who knows? This kind of ongoing technological development could continue or change radically. The only thing you can be sure of is that it's going to change.
Where I was talking about materials [in the film], I suppose I was imaging that there might be a movement from a mechanical manipulation of materials to make objects. If someone from 200 years ago were to look at a microchip, they'd have no idea what the hell was going on there. Will there be an age of biology where things are sort of grown or assembled in a completely different way?
What did you enjoy about working on this project?
The fun bit is the mistakes [the narrator makes] – it's a mixture of fairly trite, boring observations of the world and complete misinterpretations of things like Christmas trees and the significance of cars.
I was wondering if those parts were meant to be ironic.
It's a bit silly but I was wondering whether people will still have the same idea of Christmas in 200 years' time. For us, it [used to be] about Christianity and it's now become a commercial present-giving holiday. Before Christianity, it was a pagan holiday. I guess you can interpret the festival in various different ways and maybe this commercial present-giving holiday is a short interlude before it becomes a Christmas about dominating Nature or something like that. Will society change such that Christmas takes on a different kind of meaning?
Apart from looking at the mundane from a different perspective, what other ideas were you trying to explore?
Coming from the goat project, I was doing research about non-human and animal rights, and recently, there's been a few experiments with lab-grown meat. I was thinking about that, hence the visit to the farm [in the film]. You can tell a bit about the world I'm imagining by the things that this future voice finds interesting, such as the fact that we keep billions of animals so we can eat them, which implies there is some other way of farming or feeding people in the future.
In the film, I also touch on the ever-increasing amount of data that we are capturing about our world so I'm sort of imagining the archivists in the future would be linking together different bits of data together like phone records, video and images, to create a sort of 3D virtual-reality environment.
Why did you choose to make a VR documentary instead of, say, a digital or 8mm film? What do you find intriguing about the medium?
In a slightly metaphysical sense, it's getting closer and closer to your actual perception, if you know what I mean. Watching a film on a screen, you're sort of there but you can look away. With VR, it's getting closer and closer to your retina, so you could see it as another stage or progression of technology getting closer to the very core of your body. We're still at the demo stage so it'll be interesting to see where VR goes next.
What do you think will continue to persist in 200 years' time?
[Long pause.] That's an impossible question! [Laughs.] I guess religion would persist. It's shown itself to be fairly robust. We've had money for over 10,000 years; obviously language will evolve. Possibly some of our myths will kind of persist, stories which have somehow passed along the ages. I got interested in the idea of comparative mythology, certain kind of common myths … like the kind of judeo-Christian mythology that is also found in various other cultures. But I think so much will be just completely uninteresting for people living in 200 years' time.