Kallipoliti + Theodoridis

GUINEA PIGS; A Minor History of Engineered Man

Lydia Kallipoliti + Andreas Theodoridis

A Minor History of Engineered Man

A research project for the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, “Are We Human” curated by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley.

Project Team:
Chendru Starkloff, Royd Zhang, Mary Tieu LaFave, Ivan Leon, Ellen Wong

Animation: Emily Klein
Narrator: John Rhett Russo

GUINEA PIGS; A Minor History of Engineered Man from Lydia Kallipoliti on Vimeo.

The naturalist, in the nineteenth century, was not only a man skilled in careful observation and documentation of plants and organisms, but also a brave traveler whose physical endurance and fortitude magnified his given bodily capabilities. In many ways, the naturalist was then a heroic explorer determined to defeat his physiological boundaries and conquer uninhabitable lands. His journeys were token of his commitment to advance the sciences and, by and large, our perception of what constitutes our world. In the twentieth century, the explorations of the naturalist resurged in the face of the astronaut and the aquanaut, who could now travel above and below the limits of the earth in regions prohibitive to man’s physiology. Outer space, the bottom of oceans, Antarctica – exceptionally unfriendly regions to the physiology of humans –were places for all that defied property and territorial commitment. In this vast, blank space, humanity had a second chance to reinvent itself from scratch.

In this context, an augmented and engineered type of man was of larger cultural interest, a new universal human subject, augmented through technological instrumentation. Unlike the Vitruvian Man, nevertheless, the figures of these engineered men were not idealizing a cosmic subject representative of humanity as a whole. The explorer of the twentieth century is a guinea pig, whose body is a test bed; he is a combustion machine, delegating human agency in measurements of input and output. Unlike the naturalist, the guinea pig resists utopia. It refutes the wholeness of the body, even ‘wholeness’ as a generic idea, and proposes in its place biotic components, in parts that can be replicated, interfaced and interconnected in endless ways.

GUINEA PIGS presents five species of such engineered men: AMPHIBIAN MAN, EXOSKELETAL MAN, EXCREMENT MAN, FEEDBACK MAN and WEIGHTLESS MAN. A series of three-dimensional immersive projections narrate the stories of these figures, as fictional characters offset from the texture of reality; like the living ghosts of archival research. The five episodes bring together the imaginary of design culture at a given moment in time with the “raw” technical investment of engineering research and development. In parallel, each Guinea Pig, is presented in narrative texts, archival material, and patent drawings suspended from the ceiling and observed from a designated station on the floor, enabling the visitor to lie down and assume a horizontal position in the exhibition space. The change of posture from vertical to horizontal turns the viewer him/herself into a guinea pig, into an object that is observed, monitored and documented by the curators.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

GUINEA PIGS are not merely speculations of human subjects, but also funded experiments to create superhuman abilities documented in manufactured prototypes, reports and patents. Either drawn or merely reproduced by architects and designers, these figures illustrate that the line between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

To explore the inner world of the ocean, man has been faced with substantial challenges of physiological adaptation. The mysterious dark and silent world below has only become accessible by equipped fleets of deep sea exploration submersibles and breathing devices that augment man’s capabilities to live and breathe underwater. One of the first men to prove humans can work, eat, and sleep underwater was Captain Jacques Cousteau, who along with French engineer Emile Gagnan invented the aqualung in 1943. Cousteau envisioned an amphibian man who could operate underwater indefinitely without breathing and would have his lungs filled with a super-oxygenated liquid instead of air, circulated outside the body and through an external re-oxygenating unit attached to the human; this would allow divers to reach estimated depths of 9,000 feet without heavy diving gear. The aqualung was a step towards man’s ability to live under the ocean surface.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

Ocean exploration has been furthered by a number of programs including Jacques Cousteau's Conshelf, the US Navy’s SEALAB and the Soviet Union’s Ichthyander Project in the 1960s, General Electric’s Tektite in the 1970s and today's Aquarius facility in Key Largo, Florida. These endeavors pioneered the struggle to defy the piercing cold, lack of light, and challenging water pressures of the depths of what sociologist John McHale termed the Earth's "inner space." Yet, the blue depths remain comparatively unexplored despite advice from visionaries Buckminster Fuller and our time's Stephen Hawking that the fate of humanity depends on our capacity to adapt to new, challenging environments.

Weightlessness- zero gravity, as it is often called, is inevitable in space travel. Life, nevertheless, contained in three - equally occupiable - dimensions, fundamentally subverts our perception of space. In zero gravity, functional space is the entire volume of a room in cubic metres. In zero-gravity, the circle represents a better geometrical description for free flow movement when contrasted with the horizontal and vertical axis system on gravitational earth.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

At first sight, weightlessness raises ergonomic issues in the utilisation of space. The problems raised by weightlessness, nevertheless are not merely functional. One of the main issues discussed among groups of environmental engineers, psychologists, flight surgeons, physiologists and microbiologists working for NASA was man’s loss of the erect posture and eventually his loss of directional sensation within the closed non-gravitational world of a space station. Man’s negotiation of movement between axes signalled for psychologists a regression of the individual to earlier life stages.

As a visual analogy, we may envision floating as a staged process of devolution from the posture of the fully-grown erect man to the adolescent, the child, and finally to the newly-born infant whose skeletal structure and bodily tissue are so flaccid that it cannot carry its weight upright. In the course of this regression, the body would subconsciously return to an infantile state and lose its central point of reference. This devolvement of man’s erect posture undermined confidence about not only the functioning of man’s musculature and skeleton, but also his state of mind. Psychologists’ assumptions were reflected in medical assumptions and conclusions by doctors and physiologists who confirmed severe symptoms in blood circulation from gravitational influences. When the cardiovascular axis of an animal or human is flipped from vertical to horizontal, possible symptoms included mineral loss, increase in secretion of fat mobilising substances, and cardiovascular deteriorations, as well as induced stress and excessive excitation.

Life in weightlessness and the freedom of the body appealed to the collective imagination and evoked quite enthusiastic expectations from design critics in the architectural press of the 1960s. However, man’s ultimate unrestrained mobility eventually brought forth an architecture of restraint; one where space travellers were tied and fastened to avoid injury and held tightly while performing extra vehicular activities to the mother ship with umbilical cords. In the vacuum of space, the risks appear too high to reinvent habitation.

Following the oil crisis, the 1970s saw the rise of methane digesters, biofuels and home-made reprocessing devices to convert human excrement to power. The prevailing logic in these efforts was that all living bodies and organic materials should be at the disposition and distribution of natural ends in cycles. The death of one thing should always be subservient to the restitution of another. Recurring restitution promised a new world that would recycle materials perpetually and feed all leftover substances back into cycles of production.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

The desire for the absolute purging of waste appears also in several experimental projects and writings where man’s excrements are essential to self-reliant ecosystems. Architects and designers were expected to participate as guinea pigs in a digestive process of energy regeneration with their own stools; such was the case in Graham Caine’s Ecological house in South London, Sim van der Ryn’s Integral Urban House in San Francisco (featured in his book, The Toilet Papers), Stephan Szczelkun’s drawings for the Survival Scrapbooks and last but not least the “Gobar bio-gas” movement in India, spearheaded by Ram Bux Singh, who has directed biogas experiments and built methane generators for two decades. All these projects articulated the ultimate eco-social fantasy for a world of no loss, by reusing man’s organic excretions. The reuse of human and animal excrements opened up the possibility of a new world: one that could recycle materials perpetually and feed all leftover substances back into cycles of production. These efforts recuperate an ancient mystery of material transitions in invocation of infinity, through the perpetual transformation of matter.

To launch a space capsule in outer space, is like replicating a piece of the earth and carrying it to extreme conditions. The smart organization of material flows is an issue of survival, as life is dependent on the cycling of provisions. The potential for convergence of all waste materials into useful ones becomes eminently important, as a means of sustaining life within the enclosed space of the spacecraft.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

Feedback man visualizes the management of human physiology as a life support system and the problem-solving obsession of monitoring, capturing, and recycling human subsystems. Crucial to the description of “man-machine” systems are the human feedback loop diagrams, illustrating the body as a closed ecology. Ingestion and excretion cycles are strategically edited through the use of external apparatuses which are assigned the mission to recycle all corporal flows. Feedback man launches a new biotechnological image of man was emerging, one where human agency is delegated in terms of input and output.
In the 1960s, images of the space program were not only the jumping off point for otherworldly fantasies; they were a catalyst for re-thinking transformed social and technical relationships as architectural problems. In the magazine Architectural Design edited by John McHale in 1967, the oxygen-regenerative space capsule was analyzed as the emergent image of the ideal living environment, with constant flow of clean air, free from carbon dioxide and moisture.

Feedback man represents a wider cultural interest of the postwar period. The mission of inhabiting a boundless new space, out of the earth’s safe blanket, actuated an alternative description of the body in space, a visualization which had profound implications in design, crossing different scales of reference. Greater desires for the control of the human environment met with an increasing anxiety about survival in uninhabitable spaces. The spaceman, carrying a piece of the earth’s environment with him, and the space cabin – a reproduction of a miniature earth-- have defined to a great extent ecological principles in design as life support systems.

Worn as an outer mechanical garment, the powered exoskeleton is a man-amplifying tool that allows the user to control robotic appendages with natural human movement. Under the intimate control of its operator, the exoskeleton dramatically amplifies the wearer's strength and endurance by a factor of approximately 25 to one. John McHale coined the term “Man+” in reference of the elaborate mechanical bodywork encasing humans. Man+ was also, nevertheless, referencing solid feedback loops between man and machines, in which motor impulses from nerves and muscles were picked up and fed to artificial muscles.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis

Spearheaded by major subcontractors such as General Electric with support from the US Navy and Army, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed several programs that sought to augment human capabilities with mechanized slave limbs. Under the rubric of experiments for man-machine integration, the contentious term “master-slave” has consistently been used since the late 1950s for anthropomorphic manipulator systems, and later on for computer networking. In the case of powered exoskeletons, the “slave” is a mechanical replica of the “master’s” body and armature, designed to carry unimaginable loads and endure all possible injury, all virtually without consequence to the user. The term was later used to define a centralized communication protocol: one device or process, the master, would control all others, the slaves.

In the 1960s, electric engineer Ralph Mosher pioneered an extensive investigation on master-slave Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machines (CAM), developing several robotic prototypes with extra limbs that would be directly tied to the human nervous system rather than operate autonomously. Mosher envisioned this type of union—our neurons translating desire into kinesis—as a wedding of sorts. Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machines (CAM) mimicked the movements of their wearer, presenting a literal union of man and machine.

Image Courtesy of Lydia Kallipoliti & Andreas Theodoridis
Image Courtesy of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial
Image Courtesy of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial
Image Courtesy of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial

Lydia Kallipoliti is an architect, engineer and scholar, currently an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and at the Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology in New York. Her research on the intersection of cybernetic and ecological theories is presented in a variety of media including online digital platforms, lexicons, databases and archives, exhibitions and holographic animations, with the scope of engaging a wide audience in what she calls ‘immersive scholarship.’ Her work has been displayed among other venues at the Venice Biennial, the Istanbul Design Biennial, the Shenzhen Biennial, the Storefront of Art and Architecture, RIBA and the Disseny Hub Barcelona. Kallipoliti holds a SMArchS from MIT and a PhD from Princeton University. She is the principal of ANAcycle thinktank in Brooklyn, New York www.anacycle.com.

Andreas Theodoridis is an architect, engineer and environmental analyst, currently a PhD Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology in New York. Theodoridis has fifteen of experience in practice through the office he founded in Athens, 207x207 architecture network www.207x207.net. Theodoridis holds an MS in Sustainable Environmental Systems from Pratt Institute and has previously taught at Columbia University and Syracuse University.