Julijonas Urbonas

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The Background

I usually present myself with diverse labels such as an artist, a designer, a researcher, an engineer, a writer, etc. There are several reasons behind this multidisciplinary labelling approach. The first and the most important is my creative methodology: I love migrating between disciplines, mixing different methodologies from various disciplines, merging the professional boundaries. Another reason is quite practical — picking an appropriate expert title, I can apply to different funding sources, not just those that support art, but also science and engineering, for example.

As for my background, I am formally designer. I did BA and MA in design, and currently about to submit my PhD thesis in design interactions, a creative field that is quite interdisciplinary. Despite the designer background, my creative practice ranged from interactive art, sound art, to various performative experiments and pedagogical activities. It is worth to note that since my childhood I've been working in the field of amusement park development as designer, engineer, architect, and even as a CEO of small amusement park. This unique experience has greatly shaped my creative approach which I call gravitational aesthetics.

I've also been affiliated with various academic institutions such as Royal College of Art, Vilnius Academy of Art and Kaunas Technology University. The most recent one is my position of Vice-Rector for Art at Vilnius Academy of Arts.

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Euthanasia Coaster

There are actually several sources of inspiration. They are quite diverse, but all them have something in common, mostly some specific issues of contemporary culture or even zeitgeist. For example, the key ones might be considered the following: the halt of roller coaster progress, secularisation and extinction of death rituals, and current development in sci-fi design.

It is widely considered by amusement rides safety policy makers that many rides already reach the safe limits of the body. So I though I would celebrate this historical moment and soothe the desperate engineers by designing a monument for the end of the ride evolution. Under this light, the Euthanasia Coaster could be considered as the ultimate ride that puts an end to any progress of the ride.

That is how the death coaster emerged from rather a design thought experiment speculating on the ultimate version of a roller coaster and possible usages it would be open to. Later on, having received lots of feedback from my scientific advisers, media, and the public, the coaster assumed a multitude of labels: alternative euthanasia machine, the most extreme ride, an execution machine, a kinetic sculpture, a sci-fi prop, etc.

One of the most discussed "versions" was euthanasia machine. I try to retain a neutral position here, not encouraging suicide, nor discouraging from it. It is up to the public to decide whether they want to have it legalised or just as a story. However, considering the fact that it legal in some countries, you would find that the death rituals are very medicalised and boring. It is like death is divorced from our cultural life as much as the death rituals in our secular and postmodern Western society. But if it is already legal, why not to make it more meaningful, not in a way the Aboriginals mourn the deceased by ecstatic singing and dancing around a bonfire, for example, but as a ritual adapted to the contemporary world where churches and shrines are being replaced by theme parks or at least achieving the equal power of producing spiritual effects (more and more people attend theme parks for self-meliorative purposes -- relaxation, self-cultivation, socialisation). This is, of course, a food for thought.

On the other hand, besides all the conceptual and ethical aspects, what drove the project is its specific methodological development. I wanted to make sci-fi more tangible, merging sci-fi with engineering and design. In literature and cinema sci-fi is well developed and flourishing, but why not to have it in other areas? This kind of design allows you to work with most radical ideas quickly, safely and economically. But also it could make the development of future more democratic. Such design ideas could be voted and evaluated by wide audiences in various online and offline forums —from blogs to galleries — before they get to the factory.

In addition to such story making toolset, it could also be considered as a very powerful storytelling machine. With the coaster project I wanted to create a powerful imaginary link with the public so that they ride the fatal coaster without actually doing it, of course without killing them. I might say I have more than succeeded. More than 5M are already riding it in their imaginations — the ride takes place in the most diverse formats you can imagine: from knee-jerk and expert online comments, dedicated songs, a few film scripts, a project for school science fair, a tattoo to extensive and thorough coverages from journalists.

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The Idea

“Euthanasia Coaster” is nothing but a fatal falling trajectory, curved and tangled in such a way that would leave nobody apathetic, neither the passenger, nor the spectator. Where it lands to it is up to the public to decide. It is an alternative euthanasia machine, a prop for non-existent horror movie, a real fiction, a black humour scenography, social sci-fi design, the world's most extreme ride, a mourning sculpture, a monument for the end of the carousel evolution, a gravitational weapon, the very last trip...

The project is complex, involving quite extensive and diverse conceptualisation and calculations from sculptural aesthetics, fiction, bioethics, airspace neurology, amusement ride engineering, etc. Yet its physical presence is very laconic — everybody knows the project just by the profile of the structure: a drop tower followed by seven vertical loops. That's it. Such a minimalist approach in implementing the presentation of the project, basically, the scale model, was employed intentionally, to open up an imaginary space for possible ride experience, in other words, to prompt the public to construct their own interpretative trajectories. On the other hand, my aim was to disorient the public, the imaginary riders, to such an extent that they would have a somewhat similar experience to the genuine one — to provide them with an opportunity to ultimately surrender to gravity. Of course, without killing them.

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The Technology

The most important part of a roller coaster is, again, its track which shapes the ‘story-line’ of the ride, usually taking the shape of a creatively distorted falling trajectory. The very experience of the ride depends on the curvature of the track, and therefore all the design and engineering involved in building a roller coaster is basically structured around this linear element: its play with gravitational forces, the resulting effects on the rider’s body, dynamic loads on the supporting architectural structure, and the physics of the ride, such as the tendency to slow down due to air drag and friction, etc.

In "Euthanasia Coaster," the track incorporates both the aesthetic and functional aspects of the ride. Both converge in the human-gravity design interface, and permeate the personal and public levels of aesthetics, dealing with the bodily experiences of the ride including pleasurable death, the ritual, but also the sculptural appeal of the coaster’s construction.

Based on physics calculations, the coaster's track has a quite simple shape and is completely functional in terms of elegantly and pleasurably terminating the life of the rider. It consists of two core parts: (1) the drop tower — for dropping the coaster's vehicle down the track to achieve the substantial kinetic energy that allows the car to sustain 10 g for about a minute within (2) a series of seven teardrop-shaped vertical loop elements, arranged in decreasing size and forming a spiral. In order to keep constant force, the size of the lethal loops decreases along the course according to the car’s reduced velocity owing to friction and drag. The loops are specially engineered in the shape of a clothoid to sustain a uniform and constant g-force throughout the ride. Specifically, it sustains the centripetal acceleration of about 100m/s2 which is not enough to cause physical damage, yet which will not allow the subject to return alive. The drop-hill features a heart-line roll element, a whirling coaster track element, where the rider’s heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the drop trajectory, around which the body spins. This element adds a vertiginous experience, but also works as a sort of disorienting anaesthetic for the later, harsher part of the ride, the loops. The latter incorporates GLOC (G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness) and subsequent brain death caused by cerebral hypoxia, oxygen deprivation in the brain — which is, curiously, usually a euphoric experience accompanied by surreal dreamlets (the term refers to the sensation something between dream and hallucination).

When it comes to efficiency, a coaster is in fact not the best solution to end someone's life using g-forces, there are more efficient ways of killing people, such as the human centrifuge,[1] the Euthanasia Coaster's closest analogue, or the many killing machines and techniques introduced by the Nazis. In comparison to those, the coaster is extremely bulky and grandiose, but this heaviness is balanced by the aesthetics of experiential, functional and sculptural lightness devoted to the dignified death of a human being. Moreover, it is also 'light' for the earth as the coaster is driven almost solely by gravity.

Another issue related to the coaster’s efficiency is variation in the size of bodies and the presence of sickness or disease. For example, it is possible that quadriplegics might survive the ride since their bodies lack sufficient volume in the lower extremities to pool the blood.⁠ However, there is no scientific data on this, and this project does not intend to work on feasibility studies or tests, nor appeal to all audiences.

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  • Be super curious!
  • Be super brave!
  • Be super open to failure!

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