Seat Detail: Faisons de l’inconnu un allié, organized by Lafayette Anticipation: Fondation d’enterprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris 

Tyler Coburn's speculative evolution & ergonomic futures 

Issue no3
June - July 2022
Make Friends Not Art

Hidden between the tourist shops and windows of the red light district, little gem and art bookshop Sans Serriffe, runs parallel to their shop a weekly program with book presentations, lectures and exhibitions, which tie into the subjects their books deal with. This time, an old friend of the shop, American artist Tyler Coburn, held a lecture on his multi-part project Ergonomic futures, which questions contemporary “fitness” through the lens of speculative evolution. He asked an array of scientists the question “What are future scenarios for imagining new types of human bodies, and how might this thought experiment reframe conversations about the body normativity in the present?” He presented the current state of this research to a small and intimate audience in a likewise space.

Lecture by Tyler Coburn. Photo by Pieter Verbeke

On a sunny day, with an even sunnier Aperol Spritz in hand, the audience gathered slowly in and in front of the book shop for Coburn’s lecture. The atmosphere was laid-back. Due to his harmonic voice and rhetoric his lecture became somewhat poetic. Eloquently, Coburn presented an imaginative chain of stories, a melee of sometimes humorous speculations on the future body. Through the symbol of the chain, running up and down, he highlighted some of the links of speculative evolution. These links represented conversations he’d had with paleoanthropologists, ergonomists, evolutionary biologists and genetic engineers, whom he stimulated to talk speculatively.

He named the different links of the chain after the scientists he talked with, such as Shara, or after a related topic, such as Symposium. He asked anthropologist Shara Baily for a story about what believers in aliens thought to be an extra-terrestrial jaw. In Symposium, Coburn went back to the story of Plato, and to the origin of our human shape, split in two by the lightning of Zeus. From history, Coburn moved to the future and asked if it would be possible that between now and then (in the future) our bodies will experience such a degree of evolutionary change, that the biological and ontological criteria of the human body become undone, and the human as we know it fragments or even seizes to exist altogether.

Seat Detail: Faisons de l’inconnu un allié, organized by Lafayette Anticipation: Fondation d’enterprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris 

How would a designer answer this question? Maybe the young discipline of ergonomics might provide an answer? The link Dreyfuss, referring to the founder of ergonomics, Henry Dreyfuss, delves into the field of Ergonomics, which responds to the needs of the human and is tightly connected to the increase of productivity of the human body. In 1939, Henry Dreyfuss designed democracy as a city, called “Democracity,” and claimed to depict the world in a hundred year’s time. In the story, Joe and Josephine inhabit Democracity and live an ergonomic live. Throughout all the different forms of ergonomics, the tendency to typologize remains a constant.

The link Guppy tapped into the sci-fi expectations one might have when first hearing about speculative evolution. Coburn showed the typology of aliens with their distinct big heads. He wondered whether these figures could be born in reality and came to the insight that a bigger brain is not per se better. In an experiment, four guppies with alien-like heads, showed greater capacities than their smaller headed peers, but at the cost of their guts and reproductive system.

The final link in the chain is Chimera, a story in which personal evidence is losing it from genetic evidence. The curious case of Lydia Fairchild was used as an example. Fairchild can be considered as a chimera, caused by forty-six chromosomes that made her into multiple people. As part of her application for public assistance, her children had to be submitted to a DNA test that resulted in Fairchild being both the mother and aunt of her own children. Maybe, chimeras are a sign of what is yet to come.

Lecture by Tyler Coburn. Photo by Pieter Verbeke

After the talks with scientists, Coburn started to work with New York architects Bureau V to speculate about different body typologies. During the evening at San Serriffe, Coburn presented two types of seating they’d designed for these future-bodies to come. What would it mean to ergonomically design seating for future body types? One of the designs was shown during the 11th Gwangju Biennale The Eighth Climate (What does art do?). The other one was shown at Faisons de l’inconnu un allié (Joining Forces with the Unknown), organized by Fondation d'entreprise Galeries Lafayette. One seating type has a phallic insert; the other a rubber-like coating, as developed during the 1960s in aero-space technics. As the two types of seating don’t specify the body-types they were designed for, the present users can speculate endlessly about the future bodies that will reside in them.

Seat Detail: The 11th Gwangju Biennale, curated by Maria Lind, from DIS magazine

Before that day comes, the designs function as museum seats. One type can be found in the Museum of Man and in the Centre Pompidou (both in Paris), where it is permanently installed in the Picasso room. The other type of seating is permanently shown in the Art Sonje Center and in the Seodaemun Museum of Natural History (both in Seoul, South Korea). Coburn strategically presents them as museum furniture, since a museum has an incredibly long duration and is therefore the safest place for the seats. The other part of the project is a clean looking and innovative website that Coburn made in collaboration with Luke Gould and Afonso Martins, with short stories as links of the chain, which will keep on evolving over the years to come.

With his lecture, museum seating and website, Coburn uses the idea of a future norm to talk about fitness, ability and disability. Especially at times in which designer babies are a thing and in which humans are already half way there in their cyborg-transformation, questioning the present through the future might bring new insights on the direction our bodies are heading towards. Coburn’s story makes me dream of future bodies in museums, taking a moment in front of a Future-Picasso or the Marcel Duchamp of 3856. Since sitting is the new smoking, the museum seating might by then be radicalized into nets, where we’re casually hanging from, as Coburn suggests. Would that still count as ergonomic design?

"Ergonomic Futures" by Tyler Coburn took place at San Serriffe on the first of June 2017.

Visit the website of the project here!

Corine van Emmerik
is art historian

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2022