Artist Julijonas Urbonas designed something called the Euthanasia Coaster—a roller coaster that would hypothetically go so fast that the rider would die. I got in touch with him to learn more about the ride and see if he's afraid of death.
A technical drawing of the Euthanasia Coaster courtesy of Julijonas Urbonas.
According to artist Julijonas Urbonas's website, his work Euthanasia Coaster is "a hypothetic roller coaster, engineered to humanely—with elegance and euphoria—take the life of a human being." In simpler terms, it's a carnival ride that kills you, though not before you have a spiritual experience along the way. The Euthanasia Coaster starts with a long, slow incline before a quarter-mile fall, which leads into a series of loops that are designed to create so much centrifugal force that you won't be able to breathe, finally dying from lack of oxygen to your brain.
The coaster may seem like a gimmick, but it turns out to be an art piece as humane as it is shocking and terrifying. Urbonas mentions that his roller coaster could be used in a theoretical future to curb overpopulation, or to help people who feel their life has gone on "too long." Sure, the whole idea sounds like a black metal concept album, but Urbonas's death device was created to serve a sympathetic purpose—to give someone the ability to bow out of life with one final, lethal thrill.
Urbonas was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his concept and the wide range of responses people have had to his suicide coaster.
VICE: What was the original inspiration behind the Euthanasia Coaster?
Julijonas Urbonas: There are actually several sources of inspiration. They're quite diverse, but all of them have something in common. The key ones might be the halt of roller-coaster progress, the extinction of death rituals, and the current development in sci-fi design.
Your website described the coaster death as "elegant," which I thought was really interesting. How did you go about designing an "elegant" experience?
In the project description, I combine the term "pleasure" with "elegance" to refer to both the physiological as well as aesthetic and ethical definitions of pleasure. During the entry of the first loop of the coaster, the rider would experience GLOC—G-force-induced loss of consciousness—as well as the cerebral hypoxia that is usually accompanied with euphoria.
In addition to these physiological pleasures, the death coaster hints at the possibility of a unique kind of fatal aesthetics. Falling is a unique experience that sets itself apart from other types of death. While rushing toward the ground (or, in the case of the Euthanasia Coaster, toward the loop), there is a fraction of time for reflection before death comes. In the Euthanasia Coaster, this is exaggerated even more. There's the ride up the tower, the drop, the serpentine fall, a series of the loops, and, eventually, the fatal ride within the last loop.
Another unique aspect is that the spectacle would be open for the public to watch—be it the relatives of the rider or the victims of those sentenced to capital punishment. For the faller it is a painless, engaging, and ritualized death machine. For the observers, it is a monumental mourning machine. Of course, it is not for everybody, much like thrill rides and horror movies.
On the other hand, elegance could be understood in quite different terms. The structure of the coaster itself could be considered an elegant, architectural sculpture. It's actually nothing but the falling trajectory, shaped in the air, and driven just by gravity. Also, if you consider the project as a sci-fi story, you may see elegance in the presentation of the project, such as the sinister and minimalist design of the scale model. It is non-didactic and open for the imaginary rider's interpretation.
Have you been surprised by the public response to the piece? Any really bizarre reactions?
Since its presentation to the public, the project has become a unique media phenomenon. It has drawn enormous attention from the public and received extremely extensive coverage from international media. The feedback ranged from special TV shows and dedicated songs to film scripts and a science-fair project. The audience themselves have been very diverse, varying in professional background, culture, and age. My intentions to spark the public imagination and provoke discussions has been more than satisfied—I didn't expect such a wide and diverse response.
Two years ago, a sci-fi enthusiast wrote me saying how he liked the coaster and the way it refers to Kurt Vonnegut's stories, where euthanasia is used as a topical background. This guy wanted to pay tribute to Vonnegut and realized that getting a tattoo of my coaster was, in his words, a "completely appropriate and beautiful way" to do that. Another weird response was by a potential self-murderer, who requested that I use him as the first guinea pig, should the coaster be brought to life.
There has also been quite interesting feedback from the technical audience. For example, a NASA engineer commented on the coaster in a sci-fi blog. He says he spent some time recalculating the physics of the coaster and found some minor errors in aerodynamics and friction—he also pointed out that the amputees or those with smaller legs may survive the coaster, because there would be little or no volume in the lower extremities to pool the blood.
Another interesting insight was made by a pilot, who happened to attend an exhibition that featured the coaster scale model. He told me that he could hack the machine and survive it by wearing a pilot's anti-gravity pants that inflate during a high-g aircraft maneuver and push the blood upwards. Should it really work, the coaster would be the most extreme ride ever.
Are you afraid of death, personally? What do you imagine happens after a person dies?
I'm not sure if I'm afraid of death. It's one thing to imagine it and another to encounter it physically. What I am sure of is the fear of slow death due to terminal illness that would impose a burden to my relatives. In terms of afterlife, I retain an agnostic view.
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