Vital practices: Self-experimentation as artistic and scientific form
Ana María Gómez López
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FEdge conditions

So far, this essay has charted the connections between selected artistic and scientific self-experiments, grounding these parallels in the observed commonality of their given inquiries. Can one live outside the temporal cycles demarcated by international standardization or planetary rotation? Can one function and carry out daily activities without the gravitational imperative of upright vision? Can one travel on land and accelerate up to the threshold of the speed of sound, only to immediately come to a halt in a matter of seconds? Indeed, can a seed germinate inside a human eye?

Yet these perceived similarities do not adequately take into account the more inaccessible contexts of self-experimentation. For example, what about self-experiments for which the question and the terms for its resolution remain unknown to a broader public? What happens in those instances in which a person carries out a self-experiment in, with, or through their own body, only to keep its benefits and conditions of execution beyond the scrutiny of others and for their private understanding alone? If self-experimentation offers an individual means to collect information or develop an innovation on one’s own, is it reasonable only to consider self-experiments that were comprehensively communicated, or in fact those that came to fruition in such a manner that their full dissemination to others is even pertinent?

Although this survey has thus far focused on cases of self-experimentation that are relevant to Inoculate, the open-ended or private experiment points to significant questions that nevertheless tacitly inform this project. Two mirroring instances of this kind of self-experiment are provided by the U.S. artist Lee Lozano and U.S. population geneticist George Robert Price. Lozano is known for Dropout Piece (1970–1999), a conceptual artwork whereupon she decided to disengage from the art world entirely—a self-experiment taken to “uncompromising conclusions” and only “making itself knowable without allowing for the possibility of capitalizing on that attention.”67 Giving up a successful career as an artist was preceded by previous acts of refusal by Lozano such as General Strike Piece (1969), which states she would “gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or ‘public’ uptown functions or gatherings related to the ‘art world’ in order to pursue investigation of total personal and public revolution.”68 Lozano moved from New York City to Dallas in 1972, where she remained in self-imposed exile until her death in 1999. In so doing, she gradually lost contact not only with previous professional acquaintances but also with most of those who knew her, remaining in the end only known as “E.” and buried in an unmarked grave at Southland Memorial Park in Grand Prairie, Texas.

A similar self-experiment in removal was pursued by George Robert Price. Beginning his career as a chemist working on the Manhattan Project and with no prior training in evolutionary biology, in 1968 he devised the “Price equation”—a mathematical explanation that shows that altruism is not dependant on genetic relatedness, but can be calculated based on the association between individuals.69 Although this led him to a successful placement at the renowned Galton Laboratory, University College London, Price struggled with the social consequences of his equation, which reduced altruism to self-interest instead of an act of selflessness. In response to his findings, he converted to Christianity, becoming incredibly devout in a short period of time. In 1973, Price decided to engage in a self-experiment of extreme altruism in order to prove his own equation wrong. He would seek out strangers with whom to engage in random acts of kindness, giving away all his money and possessions to the homeless and poor, and allowing them to live in his home. Price eventually became completely destitute and resorted to squatting, yet still managed to carry out innovative research in altruism and the application of game theory to evolution; one of the articles he co-authored at that time made the cover of Nature.70 This purposefulness, however, came to an end when Price took his own life in 1975; dying alone in a squat among those he tried to help, he too had an anonymous burial in Islington and St. Pancras Cemetery, London until a colleague provided his grave with an identifying tombstone.

It would be all too easy to equate Price’s suicide to the discouragement produced by his own scientific findings. As with Lozano, a more productive stance is to examine self-experimentation through the lens of vital compromise. For some artists and scientists, the imperative to embody an ideal or principle provides the unwavering drive to sustain a self-experiment; adverse consequences, while perhaps extensively considered, remain secondary to this resolve. Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader serves as a tenacious example. On July 9, 1975, Ader attempted to cross the Atlantic aboard Ocean Wave, a four-meter-long recreational yacht armoured and reinforced for its long voyage. An experienced sailor who arrived in Los Angeles from Morocco as part of a ship crew in 1962, Ader estimated that traversing the North Atlantic would take him approximately two and a half months. He set off on his journey from Chatham, Massachusetts, in the northeastern United States. It is uncertain at what point Ader disappeared at sea; what is known is that radio contact with him was lost three weeks after his departure. Less than one year later, Ocean Wave was discovered by a Spanish fishing trawler damaged and capsized off the coast of Ireland. Ader’s body was never found.71

Critical analysis of Ader’s fateful voyage—the centre of a three-part project titled In Search of the Miraculous, which involved his trans-Atlantic crossing, as well as night walks in Los Angeles and Amsterdam (the latter of which remained unrealized)—tend toward discussions of tragedy or the sublime,72 associations underscored as much by Ader’s untimely death as by his previous oeuvre. A significant part of Ader’s work cantered around physical or emotional challenges, such as Fall (1970–1971), a film series showing Ader dropping from the roof of a house or a tree branch into a stream, or I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1969), a continuous, three-minute-long close-up shot of him weeping. Among his last performances prior to In Search of the Miraculous was The Boy Who Fell Over Niagara Falls (1972), which consisted of Ader reading aloud the harrowing account of seven-year-old Roger Woodward’s survival after plunging from the Niagara’s cascading heights, an oral rendition carefully interspersed with timed and portentous sips from a glass of water by Ader.

Artistic intentions notwithstanding, Ader’s final opus can be placed among a lineage of perilous solo trans-Atlantic crossings. Undoubtedly, had Ader succeeded in his goal, Ocean Wave — a Guppy 13, one of the smallest pocket cruisers ever built—would have been the tiniest boat to make this journey. The first such documented trans-Atlantic voyage was made by Alfred Johnson in 1876, a Danish-born fisherman who sailed single-handed from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Abercastle, Wales in an open dory — a small, shallow fishing boat named Centennial to commemorate the first century of U.S. independence. Shortly thereafter, Howard Blackburn, another Gloucester-based fisherman from Canada would also carry out two solitary tours across the Atlantic in 1899 and 1901 aboard the Great Western and the Great Republic, respectively; these trips were all the more impressive given that Blackburn had lost his fingers and toes due to frostbite. There is some speculation that Ader read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (1970) by Nicolas Tomalin and Ron Hall, the story of yet another trans-Atlantic crossing by a British businessman whose ill-fated attempt to win a round-the-world yacht race in 1969 led to insanity and suicide in the high seas.73 This would only further place In Search of the Miraculous against a complicated history of seafaring forerunners seeking recognition and adventure at the expense of mortal misfortune.

Just a decade after Ader’s birth, one-man navigation across the Atlantic became the focus of scientific self-experimentation for medical purposes. French physician and biologist Alain Bombard sailed from the Canary Islands to Barbados in a rubber inflatable named L’Hérétique in 1952. Motivated to examine the conditions in which castaway sailors survive at sea, Bombard was sponsored by Zodiac, the same French corporation that produced the lifeboat in which he carried out his trans-Atlantic journey. Understanding that drinking sea water was lethal, Bombard nevertheless urged its ingestion in limited amounts, arguing that subsistence was possible by growing accustomed to its consumption alongside fluids pressed from raw fish and a diet of vitamin-rich plankton. His 1953 memoir Castaway on Purpose: The Voyage of the Herétique74 inspired German doctor Hannes Lindemann to also “experiment with the problem of survival at sea,”75 as he strongly questioned the veracity of Bombard’s saltwater consumption. After several failed attempts to cross the Atlantic, he succeeded to navigate from Liberia to the Canary Islands in a five-metre-long Klepper collapsible boat,76 and from there to St. Croix in 1955; for film extracts of his trip. One year later, Lindemann set out once more from the Canary Islands, this time landing in St. Marteen aboard a sailing canoe. His memoir Alone at Sea: Survival Experiments During Two Atlantic Crossings in a Dugout Canoe and a Folding Kayak (1958), describes challenges also faced by Bombard, such as sharks and inclement weather, as well as hallucinatory states and mental strain caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation. On both occasions, Lindemann carried provisions and freshwater supplies to round out his consumption of fish and collected rain; indeed, he concluded that it was impossible to cross the Atlantic Ocean drinking sea water alone.

The confrontation of a single human with an oceanic expanse proves equal in its demands to the artist, the scientist, or the lay person alike. Beyond the complex logistical questions, the intensive individual preparation, and the uncertainty of execution, what remains primary to those outside of the experience is the bare question of survival or lethal failure. Yet while these examples demanded a strong dose of vital compromise, their implications are not restricted to their direct outcome or immediate effects on investigators. Rather, these self-experiments are equally significant in interrogating existing intellectual safeguards that favour the pursuit of knowledge primarily via recognizable precedent. When scientists and artists place themselves in conditions of physical vulnerability, what is often left in more significant jeopardy is their professional reputation, their insertion into a social or specialized community, and the formal recognition of their work in established institutional contexts. To the self-experimenter, the pursuit of original embodied knowledge, whatever its final purpose, offers the opportunity to break as much with disciplinary consensus on methodological tenets as with the encroaching pressures of dominant societal conventions. The catalyst for this essay lies in identifying self-experimenters whose work accomplishes precisely that—the proposal of alternative anatomical configurations, reorientation of physiological priorities, or transformation of the environments of operation for their bodies—all driving forces that lie at the heart of Inoculate and which continue to sustain its ongoing textual representations.

Amsterdam, 2019

  1. 67

    Tirdad Zolghadr, “Shades of No,” Witte de With Review, June 2014,

  2. 68

    Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (London: Afterall Books, 2014). A facsimile of Dropout Piece is included as Plate 1 and General Strike Piece as Plate 5.  

  3. 69

    For more information on George R. Price, see Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) and Oren Harman, “On the Importance of the Parvenu: The Amazing Case of George Price in Evolutionary Biology,” in Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 312–330. 

  4. 70

    John Maynard Smith and George R. Price, “The Logic of Animal Conflict,” Nature 246 (1973): 15–18.  

  5. 71

    For an excellent resource tracing police reports, files, letters, and other material related to Ader’s disappearance, see Marion Van Wijk and Koos Dalstra (eds.), Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous. Discovery File 143/76 (Vancouver and Los Angeles: New Documents, 2016).  

  6. 72

    Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (London: Afterall Books, 2006), and Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death is Elsewhere (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).  

  7. 73

    Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death is Elsewhere, 131, 8n. 

  8. 74

    The English translation of Alain Bombard, Naufragé volontaire (Paris: Éditions des Paris, 1953) is Castaway on Purpose: The Voyage of the Hérétique (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954). See also Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story: An Account of Sixty-five Days in the Atlantic, Living Off the Sea, trans. Brian Connell (London: Penguin Books, 1956).  

  9. 75

    Hannes Lindemann, Alone at Sea: A Doctor’s Survival Experiments of Two Atlantic Crossings in a Dugout Canoe and a Folding Kayak (New York: Random House, 1958), 4. This is the English translation of Hannes Lindemann, Allein über den Ozean: Ein Arzt in Einbaum und Faltboot, (Frankfurt am Main: Scheffler, 1957). 

  10. 76

    Lindemann’s Klepper collapsible boat is now owned by the Deutsches Museum in Bonn, Germany.