What if you could escape the pains of daily existence by transforming into a goat? That’s the question UK-based designer Thomas Thwaites asked himself while dog-sitting last year during an anxious period of underemployment. A blissfully sleeping dog, Noggin, inspired the idea. Unlike, say, self-help books or psychotherapy, this solution, he reasoned, would get at the root of all his problems: being human.
In GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human (Princeton Architectural Press), Thwaites chronicles this transformation, a hilarious mashup of performance art, experimental engineering, and psychological self-study. “Even the queen worries. To be human is to worry,” Thwaites muses in the book. “Wouldn’t it be nice to live totally in the moment, with no worries about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, or what you should do? To step away […] from your very self itself? Wouldn’t it be nice to be an animal just for a bit?”
GoatMan is not just a spectacular freak show, though it’s definitely that. It’s also an example of speculative design at its most irreverent and imaginative. A research grant from the Wellcome Trust afforded Thwaites the opportunity to go all-out with his species change: He tries everything short of surgery (and, thankfully, bestiality) to become as goat-like as possible in both mind and body. He visits a Danish shaman, who tells him a goat is his spirit animal. He consults experts at a goat sanctuary, Buttercups, who debate whether goats worry. He talks to animal behaviorists, neuroscientists, and prosthetists, who help him “make an exoskeleton that would undo five million years of human evolution and adapt [his] bipedal anatomy to that of a quadruped.” To quiet his chattering human mind, he uses hallucinogens and transcranial magnetic stimulation, which temporarily suppresses the areas of his brain responsible for speech. To eat like a goat, he designs a prosthetic stomach that “digests” grass.
He draws the line at mating with goats: “I am sure my girlfriend would be extremely upset if she were cuckolded by a goat,” he writes, though he admits articles like this one would’ve been more interesting if they could’ve been headlined “Largest Biomedical Research Charity in the World Funds Designer to Have Sex with Goat.”
All this research and engineering culminates in a three-day “holiday from being human.” Thwaites roams the Alps on all fours in his homemade exoskeleton — including artificial hooves, a bell around his neck, and a helmet — with a herd of his fellow goats. (He had trouble keeping up, but they were otherwise welcoming enough.) He grazes, chewing up grass and spitting it into his artificial rumen bag. With the aid of acid, a pressure cooker, and campfire, which help break down the cellulose and lignin in plant matter, he drinks “the most unappetizing meal of [his] life: burnt grass stew.”
The book is about much more than a bearded guy rock-climbing in a goat costume. In funny, conversational prose, Thwaites touches on the long history of humans trying to transform themselves into animals, from Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machines to Siberian shamanic hunters becoming “one” with their prey. He explores philosophical and psychological notions of selfhood and human thought, from Cartesian dualism to Heidegger’s idea of a “being-in-the-world,” and breaks down the ongoing debate over what distinguishes humans from other animals. Thwaites’s experiment is a whacky, refreshingly un-self-serious addition to these age-old conversations. Ultimately, it’s about the nature of the human condition, and the strange, sometimes glorious lengths to which people go in attempt to escape it.