Life & death in a rush – art meets euthanasia

Julijonas Urbonas, a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London, has designed a “Euthanasia Coaster” that will, he says, enable its riders to experience euphoria followed by painless death. The idea is a work of art rather than a practical project, but it makes us look again at the idea of painless death through anoxia.

Anoxia is a state where the brain is deprived of oxygen, whether by breathing helium or by the precise compression of arteries as described in Five Last Acts. It has been described by martial arts practitioners (who undergo anoxia during a special hold to the neck) as, “not at all unpleasant – a bit like feinting.” With brief anoxia, the subject recovers fairly quickly. When prolonged, death normally ensues quite rapidly.

The idea of increasing the heightened sensations is not a new one. Temporary anoxia is the aim of a certain cult of sexual thrill-seekers. But racking it up by means of a g-force which will eventually cause unconsciousness, quite deliberately, is a newer concept.

Julijonas Urbonas suggests it could be the ultimate thrill-ride. With a series of brain-scrambling loops, his hypothetic euthanasia roller coaster has been, “engineered humanely – with elegance and euphoria – to take the life of a human being.” He goes on to explain, “Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death.”

Julijonas Urbonas is a designer, artist, writer, engineer and PhD student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art. He is fascinated by what in his research he calls the bodily-perceived aesthetics of ‘gravitational theatre.’ Which leaves this reviewer unclear as to how far the physics has been peer-reviewed for accuracy – although the idea is clearly workable and that is perhaps all that counts as far as an art project is concerned.

I can’t see Oregon, the Netherlands or Switzerland rushing to construct a euthanasia coaster. The attraction of a heart-pounding fairground ride wears a little thin with advancing years for many people. But maybe it would have a certain attraction for the younger patient, and cases of assisted suicide or euthanasia are not limited to the older age group but include those with quadriplegia and multiple sclerosis at an earlier age. Respecting a person’s choice in their last act does not mean one cap fits all. Some, like the protagonist in Third Star, want to “feel the fight one last time.” Perhaps Urbonas’ Coaster is not completely crazy after all . . .

Exhibits: Human+ The Future of Our Species (Science Gallery: Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, until 24th June 2011)

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