This weekend, New York's MX Gallery will display a strange wooden box, propped open and full of colorful vials. Above the vials, the gold plated lid will be scrawled with text and a picture of a human digestive system. It's the Ripley. Created by designer Nikolas Gregory, the kit has everything you need to make intimately personalized jewelry with your ass.
The vials as, instructions on the case and notes accompanying the exhibit explain, contain edible abrasive, coloring, and polishing materials, as well as a ring encrusted with gems. Potential users eat these materials as a meal. The idea is that once the ring hits a user's stomach, the abrasives as well as stomach acids and corrosives from other things consumed will wear away the ring, exposing the jewels beneath. Moving on to the small intestine, abrasive materials (think roughage) polish the ring. Then as the ring moves along with other waste through the gut, hardening shit compacts around and colors the gems. Finally—you guessed it—the user must fish for the finished ring, which will take on different properties depending on his or her metabolism, diet, and other factors, from within the potentially rough bowel movement at the end of the gastrointestinal line.
It sounds fucking nuts—and it's meant to be. Named after a stomach-and-ass-eating alien from Stephen King's 2001 novel Dreamcatcher, the Ripley is, Gregory told VICE, his reflection on the trajectory of the world. As of yet, no humans have actually tried to use this kit, which remains a unique prototype with no clear market. However, when VICE caught up with Gregory, he explained not just what he was thinking while making the Ripley, but who might want to use it.
VICE: Walk me through how you wound up creating the Ripley.
Nikolas Gregory: The Ripley kit is kind of a reflection on our changing relationship on food in the future. Things that we eat have been increasingly industrialized. Future foods such as Soylent don't need the mechanics that your body has been developing for the past thousands of years. So what will food be in the future and how can we use our bodies to the fullest potential when the mechanics of our body aren't needed anymore? How can we monetize, almost, our own bodies?
So you're taking a capitalist ethos to the leftovers of natural biological processes?
It's more of, how do we reuse our body parts in a beautiful way? That's why it's in ring form. It's used to propose to a personal loved one. [That's] a very personal act. What better way to represent that than a completely unique way of showing someone's love to someone?
You're putting this in such positive terms. But culturally when we see images of human biology used for production, it's almost always dystopian, isn't it?
When we were starting the project, we were thinking of doing a video of just a manufacturing line. You'd see workers digesting the materials. [Then] they would literally pass that material to the next person on an actual assembly line—that replacement of body for machine. And going back to the sci-fi part, the Ripley name comes from a creature that kills people by going through their anus. So it's definitely a similar name gimmick like Soylent.
I know now that no one's ever used the Ripley. But when I first heard about it, I'd already encountered enough strange products in real life that I thought: It's maybe 50-50 that this guy's tested a prototype and wants to make a serious commercial product with it.
We thought about [publicizing] the project as [commercially viable]. How would society react differently if it was real and how would society react to the speculative project? If you wrote that it was real, potentially people would get a lot more angry than they would at this. So from the design standpoint, acting like it's [on sale] would have been more powerful for this thing.
Why didn't you wind up doing that?
I feel like it's just too ridiculous with all the steps along to get too real. But we pulled it far enough along that all of the steps and information is there [to do it].
Do you intend to commercialize this kit in the near future?
Still, if this is a potential image of the future, you have to convince the people who engage with it that it could become a viable product someday. How do you do that?
I could see this being [commercialized] in two markets. I could see our bodies being used in manufacturing: You eat these certain types of material. You poop them out. You get paid every time you do this. This would be a low-income, terrible image of the future. The next option I see is this ring kit being sold for like $100,000 to very wealthy people who want to find the newest form of luxury jewelry. That's how I pose it—as this bold, glitzy jewelry box kit.
There's an element of body horror in the product and its anus-ripping namesake, though. How does that tie into the luxury product you wound up creating?
The images we made are all nicely grotesque, shot on a black background with the model in a white gown. It all hints at this very medical, gross process, but hidden in this nice jewelry box.
Soylent, which you've been drawing comparisons to as speculative design work, took off in a serious way because it had a level of practical value for some people. I don't know if I see that in the Ripley. How do you compare the kit's potential real-world appeal to Soylent?
Speculative work starts societies thinking about these ridiculous issues. Soylent could potentially be a great thing to have all around the world. The Ripley is more of a cynical thing. I definitely think... maybe in the next 100 years we'll probably see a product similar to this. I think it's important to make this kind of work so that we can possibly avoid [its realization]. Let's just hint at our potential cultural trajectory and find something actually useful.
Where do you see the Ripley hinted at in modern life?
I think we see [it] often in Mechanical Turk. That's not using your body, but using your resource, which is time. So it's definitely factored in and is a very important thing to be discussing [via the Ripley]... for people to acknowledge this future and this reality.
Are you drawing a line between the gig economy and the post-biological dystopia then?
There's the same capitalist vein in it—using one's body. I didn't set a price point for the product. I was thinking maybe we could set a certain price point for the product for someone else to do the process for you. It's similar to having women bare other people's children.
I think there's some more direct, existing biological precedent for this in cremains rings.
Were you thinking of those, or other appropriated biological matter, when you made this?
Yeah. It's really taboo to use your body to make products. But we eat things everyday that are processed through animals. There's a really specific type of coffee [where] certain cats eat coffee beans and then poop them out. That's used as very expensive coffee. That's a good equivalent to this project. [Using human bodies like that is] very taboo. But in future projects you have to reconsider things that are taboo now that could potentially be useful in the future.
How much effort did you put into making sure that this design is actually practically functional as well? Did you consult experts or is it more of a rough idea of how to use our digestive tracts to make rings?
I have friends who do a little work on this. I definitely asked questions [and] we've done tests on a few of these things to make sure that it works. The whole [point of] speculative design is to pose an unreal situation until it becomes completely real and the absurdity of it being taboo is questioned. And we definitely hit that point in our development of this. But once we hit that point we were like, "OK, the idea is the most powerful point of this, so let's go with it now."
But all the project needs [to work] it's all online [for purchase independently].
Follow Mark on Twitter.