Thomas Thwaites is currently investigating what it might be like to live as a goat.
He commissioned prosthetics for his arms and legs so that he could walk, as comfortably as possible, on all fours. He considered constructing an artificial rumen that would digest grass for him to consume, using actual gut bacteria found in goats. He consulted with a behavioural expert on goats, and even watched as a goat was dissected, to learn more about the animal he wanted to be.
But the best part is that Thwaites also arranged to live as a goat for a few days on a goat farm in the Swiss Alps amongst actual grazing goats.
"I was able to keep up for maybe a kilometre or so on this migration down the side of this kind of rocky mountain, and then they just left me in the dust," Thwaites told me via Skype. "So I spent the rest of the day trying to catch up to them. And eventually I found them again, and it was quite nice, in the actual soft grassy pasture bit. But actually heading down the mountain was petrifying. Because if I fell I didn't have any hands to stop me from hitting a rock."
Thwaites is a conceptual designer based in England with an interest in technology, science and futures research. Previous projects have included ruminations on the future of genetic engineering and a hypothetical god-as-a-service called Nebo. His latest project is similar in that it considers how humans might augment themselves in the future.
"Posthumanism, transhumanism technology and stuff, is about allowing humans to achieve their desires in a way. And I guess [some people's] desires aren't necessarily to become super intelligent," Thwaites explained in our interview.
In other words, it stands to reason that not everyone will want to be a cyborg. Some might prefer not to evolve, but to de-evolve instead.
"To be a nonhuman animal? So much calmer and simpler!" Thwaites wrote to me in another email. He wanted to explore what it would be like to live as a creature immune to the worries and frustrations—the "existential terror"—of everyday life, and to do so as authentically as possible with the technology that exists today. "And then the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust said, 'go on then,' and gave me a small arts award," he wrote.
He set a goal of crossing the Swiss Alps, and found a sympathetic goatherd who was willing to let him live amongst his herd in September 2014. But living as a goat—let alone navigating the region's rocky, sloping terrain, Thwaites would soon discover—was far from easy. There was little time to get used to the prosthetics, which placed a painful amount of weight on his arms when travelling downhill. It was much too cold and rainy to sleep with the goats outside, so Thwaites and his team set up camp each night. And, of course, there was the matter of convincing the goats that this funny-looking man with prosthetic limbs and a helmet was actually one of their own.
"I found myself at nearly the highest point on the hill of the whole herd of goats, and there was this moment where I looked and noticed that all the other goats had stopped chewing and were looking at me," he recalled. "I hadn't been scared at all before, but I suddenly became aware of their quite sharp and pointed horns."
"A particular goat that I'd been hanging out with a lot seemed to have defused the situation," he laughed. "I might just be making human stories in my brain, but that's what it seemed to me."
Another farmer, whose herd was grazing with Thwaites, thought the goats had accepted him too. In total, he travelled with the goats for three days, and spent another three days as a solitary goat.
This September, Thwaites will exhibit photos and other materials from his project at London's Studio1.1 Gallery from September 3 to 17, and he has a book coming out in the spring with Princeton Architectural Press, tentatively titled GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.
"I think it's a bit of an ongoing thing, because it seems so tantalizingly close to be able to gallop and be free and just eat grass," Thwaites told me. "I'm not sure how close I'll get in reality, but in my mind, my fantasy, I'm just one prototype away."