The Minstrel’s Lab: Taking steps to experiment upon ourselves

1 Posted by - February 16, 2015 - Spatial Common(s)


By Lucía Jalón Oyarzun & Mateo Fernández-Muro
Published June 23, 2014, in ARPA Journal, Issue 01: Test Subjects

Self-experimentation in scientific research finds its official first guinea pig in the life and times of one Sanctorius Sanctorius, a physician born in Padua, Italy, in 1561. For over thirty years Sanctorius weighed himself—everything he ate and drank, and all the waste he produced. Though the medical significance of his discoveries was minor, his empirical method was radically new. This method would offer some of its most fascinating occurrences during the 19th century, when just the right mix of thirst for the world, romantic endeavor, recklessness, and imagination were in the air.

In 1798, twenty-year-old Humphry Davy was appointed chief experimenter at the Bristol Pneumatic Institution. The center, established by Thomas Beddoes, sought to understand the medical possibilities opened up by a new chemistry of respiration. The work of the Pneumatic Institute was based on the idea that “factitious air” and gas could modify the inner constitution of the body, and cure the sick when thrown into the circulatory system through the lungs. In April 1799, Davy began his research on the effect of compounds such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide on the human body. Davy always served as his first test-subject, which meant that he usually ended up prostrated in bed for days due to heavy headaches, nausea, and seizures.

After several experiments he found that the effects of the nitrous oxide (N2O), popularly known as laughing gas, were promising and safe enough for a series of larger experiments. He established a basic timeline: he would first test different concentrations of the gas on himself. Next, he would test on animals. And finally, on other volunteering humans. These volunteers, selected from the Bristol’s emerging bourgeoisie, would soon hype up the inhalation of the gas as laughing parties became an endearing attraction of the city (1).

Novels like the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Invisible Man revealed a less cheery side of unbounded self-experimentation. Authors Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells masterly exposed the risks of this nightmarish distortion of perception, unlocking the darkest depths of human thirst for power and will to crime. Walking a fine line between a creative relation to empirical research and the risks brought by unsettling the status quo, we would like to rethink the relationship between self-experimentation and architecture. Can we match that distant romantic recklessness and wonder at the world with the same intensity and urgency in our contemporary, yet stalemate, position? Can we, as architects, be our own test-subjects?

This attempt at self-experimentation implies the unfolding of a new relation between architecture’s own knowledge and the architect’s role within the sensible world—a relationship addressed by #GatherThePavement, an experiment launched by displacements for the Madrid Urban Laboratory hosted by Medialab-Prado (2).

#GatherThePavement works from two main hypotheses: A more general one that settles the framework and goals of the project, and a more specific one that unsettles the role of the architect. The first relies on Judith Butler, who coined the expression “gathering the pavement” to explicitly render the role of architecture and the materiality of the built environment in the common production of our sensible and political world (3). To gather the pavement implies a political action based on the agency of presence, rather than on its reduction to different forms of representation. It describes a democracy in which the term citizen regains its connection to the polis as the material assemblage of bodies and shared imagination. And so, if we consider the built environment as the shared production of multiple bodies (rather than a collection of lifeless parts), it becomes fundamental to unveil the role of the non-epic(4) in the composition of a common world, instead of focusing on one-time architectural and political actions. Accordingly, and here unfolds our second working hypothesis, the architect’s practice and position change as we turn to work on the strategies, spaces, and rhythms necessary to invent and construct this common world…


You can read the complete piece online in ARPA Journal, a public forum for debate on applied research practices in architecture, based at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.




(1) See the fantastic account of the relation between experience and knowledge in Holmes, Richard. The age of wonder: how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

(2) Madrid Urban Laboratory is a collaborative prototype workshop and international symposium on the infrastructures, practices and tools necessary to rethink the common world organized by Medialab-Prado. A program part of the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism of the Madrid City Council, Medialab-Prado is conceived as a citizen laboratory for the production, research and dissemination of cultural projects that explore collaborative forms of experimentation and learning that have emerged from digital networks. More info at:

(3) “So though these movements have depended on the prior existence of pavement, street, and square, and have often enough gathered in squares… it is equally true that the collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture.” Butler, Judith, ‘Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street’, eipcp – European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, September 2011, accessed 07 February 2014,

(4) “Because we lack forms of organisation which make political action a long term habit … Because our mental schemes of reference (the imaginary of revolution, etc.) do not fit our practices and give little value or visibility to that which is not epic.” Amador Fernández Savater, ‘Notes for a Non-Statocentric Politics’, Critical Legal Thinking, 21 April 2014, accessed 01 May 2014, Originaly published in Spanish in

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