JC: Joseph Coniff
MG: Megan Gafford
JC- We recently had a studio visit and chatted about a range of topics and ideas relating to your work. A good place to start though might just be for you to explain what your studio is like. How would you describe your space?
MG- Nearly everyone who visits my studio describes it as a mad scientist laboratory. And I suppose it does look like a messier version of Rick's garage from Rick and Morty, although unfortunately, my technology is far less advanced than his. Alas...
Even though my studio looks rather industrial, with concrete floors and metal siding, it's actually the coziest one I've ever had—mostly because it's my first studio with windows. My hammock is set up next to hundreds of daisy plants that I'm cultivating beneath grow lights, and I can relax there beside them with the sun streaming in. But many people would find it less cozy, because the hammock is also near half a dozen tanks full of cockroaches that I'm breeding, and it's across the room from my uranium collection. Many of the stray electronics lying around that give my studio a Rick and Morty vibe are for the cockroaches, which I'm surgically altering to transform them into cyborgs whose movement I can remote control. And the daisies have been irradiated because I'm growing mutant flowers to preserve as sculptures. If someone feels troubled when walking into my studio, then hopefully that means I'm approaching my goal of mingling eeriness and elegance together by beautifying the unsettling side of science.
JC- I remember your hammock being right next to your mutant daisy plants. Why did you choose to grow daisy plants? What are you doing/exposing them to in order to make them mutants?
MG- I got the idea after the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan when this image of mutant daisies growing outside of the disaster zone went viral on Twitter. If you google "Fukushima daisies" you'll find a variety of elongated and duplicated flowers, resembling caterpillars or conjoined twins. The technical term for these kinds of mutation is "fasciation", and it may or may not have been caused by radiation. The Fukushima daisies might have been a mere coincidence, with their mutations caused by a hormonal problem in the plant or perhaps some fungus. We'll never know, but of course everyone assumes the culprit was radiation.
They reminded me of the infamous 1964 campaign ad from President Lyndon Johnson that depicted a little girl counting daisy petals until a nuclear explosion engulfed the TV screen. It remains one of the most controversial political campaign ads ever aired, because it harnessed a potent psychological force: nuclear fear. The cartoonish and childlike daisy is a symbol of innocence, or in this case, innocence corrupted.
I've been using radiation as an art material since grad school when I got a taste of this nuclear fear first-hand:
A friend sent me instructions for building your own subatomic particle detector, and of course I had to try it. It just didn't sound like the sort of thing you should be able to build on your own — what an allure! The machine is a cloud chamber, and the best way to understand how it works is to picture an airplane flying across the sky, leaving condensation trails in its wake. If you create a cloud in a glass chamber and place a radioactive source inside, then the subatomic particles emitting from the source will create miniature versions of those condensation trails behind them. It's breathtaking! It's the closest you can get to seeing the subatomic world with your naked eye, although you are literally watching the particles' history through space and time. So, of course, I had to share a video of the phenomenon on social media...
I woke up to an email from my department chair and building proctor with a subject headline about using radiation in my studio because my posts alarmed at least half a dozen people in the visual arts department, and I had some explaining to do. Fortunately, it all worked out and ultimately everyone was super supportive of my work, but this experience taught me that something I was wholly mesmerized by could also be terrifying. I thought that was quite sublime, and it set me off on this exploration of the unsettling side of science. Before that, I was engaged in an innocent kind of wonder, but now I'm more interested in this paradoxical experience of something so beautiful it might kill you. I often think about the old Romantic painters who tried to capture the sublime in nature and also rejected industrialization and modernization; I'm trying to do something similar, but while embracing the Enlightenment tradition that they were so suspicious of.
Pushing Daisies is my latest exploration of this nuclear fear and of the sublime. A physicist helped me dose the daisy seeds with the same kind of machine used for treating cancer with radiation therapy. So the daisies are not themselves radioactive, in the same way that patients returning from the hospital are no danger to their families. But the seeds received a dose far higher than what any human would ever be intentionally exposed to, approximately enough radiation to kill about 60 people all at once. Plants are far more resilient to radiation.
The title of the piece injects some black humor into the work, à la Stanley Kubrick's film Doctor Strangelove. That movie was originally going to be a dramatic thriller, but as Kubrick worked on the script he found that the possibility of nuclear annihilation was so absurd that it had to become a comedy. So if the beauty of the flowers doesn't hook my viewers, I hope the humor will.
JC- Is it true that cockroaches could survive a nuclear apocalypse? Are they that resilient to radiation? At what point did you think of creating work with cockroaches? I wanna know more about this surgically altering process in an effort to create cyborgs.
MG- It is true that German Cockroaches can survive almost 15x more radiation than humans, although they aren't the most resilient examples of living things that can handle a lot of radiation. The common fruit fly can handle about 10x more than a cockroach! And a parasitic wasp that plagues caterpillars called Habrobracon hebetor is remarkable for surviving about 25x more than a cockroach. The most radiation-resistant organism known to exist is Thermococcus gammatolerans, an extremophile single-celled organism that was discovered in 2003 living in a hydrothermal vent underwater off the coast of California; it can survive about 6,000x as much radiation as a human. A nuclear holocaust means that radioactive weapons and their fallout collapse human civilization, but I think a number of organisms could survive so that life would not be wiped out on Earth.
I got the idea for Jitterbug after watching HBO's Westworld and thinking about other recent sci-fi like Ex Machina. One of the roles that sci-fi plays is to express current anxieties about science and technology. So I started thinking about how artificial intelligence and other implications of computer science are the contemporary fear, supplanting the nuclear fear of the 20th century. No one has invented true A.I., and that is certainly above my pay grade, so I wondered how I could invoke such concerns about computers and I thought of cyborgs. I guess that came to mind because I almost lost my leg in an accident in 2013, and when that happened, I had to confront the possibility of becoming something like a cyborg myself.
Then the next question was what kind of animal I could turn into a cyborg, and insects seemed like the obvious choice for ethical reasons. I just googled "cyborg bug" and found instructions for surgically altering cockroaches! I would rather use a less disgusting insect, and maybe once I get the hang of this technology I can move on to some pretty beetles. When I was struck with the idea, my first impulse was to create an aerial dance of cyborg butterflies. Since my goal is to control movement, a dance seemed like the right way to execute that elegantly.
There are researchers who have made cyborg moths and dragonflies, but controlling flight is much more difficult. So I'm starting with the humble cockroach, and worst-case scenario, I hope I can create small enough circuit boards to use the domino roach species that are actually quite cute. I know that sounds impossible, but they look more like overgrown ladybugs than cockroaches and are about the size of a quarter. Right now, I can briefly control whether a cockroach moves left or right, and I want to get a dance troupe of cockroaches turning in circles in harmony, like synchronized swimmers. Imagine about a dozen little bugs with circuit boards on their backs, all turning the same direction in circles as if they were dancing a waltz.
I'm tapping into the cockroaches' nervous system through their antenna. An electrode is embedded in each antenna, and a third electrode is grounded in the thorax. When I send an electrical signal from the little watch battery on the circuit board to the antennae, the cockroach feels a sensation as if its antenna has detected a wall and it must turn away to continue moving. The circuit board plugs into a little plastic piece that I glue onto the hard plate above the cockroaches head, a part of its body that feels like a fingernail. I can unplug the circuit boards, leaving only the plastic piece and electrodes, when I'm not actively using a cyborg.
Antennae are sensory organs, so they adapt quickly and the cockroach regains control in just a minute or two. I want to figure out a new way to do the surgery that will tap directly into the cockroaches' ganglia (these are like tiny proto-brains), so that I can maintain control for at least 20 min and also because that wouldn't require amputating the antennae to attach the electrodes. I think the performance should last at least 20 min, but the duration will ultimately depend on what's possible.
JC- You certainly operate out of a lab type setting, with a lot of experiments happening. But you’re also producing objects in there (like the preserved daisy’s encased in resin). Ultimately, how important is the physical output of objects for you? I’m curious about where the bulk of your studio time excitement is, in the experimenting or the creation and finishing of work?
MG- I get more excited about the end result. When I started these projects, I knew that they would demand long studio hours with extensive experimentation, so I never worried about lacking quality time with the creative process. The idea of experimentation is more romantic than the act itself because the amount of failure involved is both emotionally and financially draining. On the one hand, I agree with Thomas Edison when he said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Philosopher Karl Popper put it another way when he theorized about "falsification", which is the idea that science progresses through a process of elimination when scientists prove ideas wrong, rather than right.
But on the other hand, it's very expensive to find 10,000 ways that something won't work. Moreover, I had no guarantee that either of these projects would work at all; my art practice is like a bad gambling habit. So I feel a great deal of relief once I finish the work.
I worry that I stumbled too deep into the frontiers of science with Jitterbug and that my idea might not be possible with current technology and my skill level. An optimistic timeline is probably two or three years, not including the past couple of years that I have already been working at it. To be clear, I have been focusing more on Pushing Daisies so far, and beyond my initial research and proof-of-concept success with briefly controlling the left/right movement of cockroaches, I have only been raising large colonies of insects while spending most of my time casting daisy sculptures. So I mean that once I start focusing intently on Jitterbug, I think that it will take at least a few years to succeed. It will probably take longer.
But if I do succeed, I will feel as though I pulled off the nearly impossible. It would mean that I learned how the world worked so well that I could control it with grace. That moment would be sublime.
Images courtesy of Megan Gafford