Dance of Randomness


Dance of Randomness

Luke Murphy Interview

Videography: Yuichi Uchida / Photography: Ports Bishop / Sound: Glenn Luvrick / Music: Erin Durant

Luke Murphy is a New York-based artist who grew up in Canada through the end of the Cold War era. Upon seeing Luke Murphy’s work, you’d never guess what compels the piece into creation.  Radiation, anxiety and randomness are three key concepts that form his computer generated art.  In his youth, he became obsessed with Geiger counters and country music. Eventually, he figured out how to make art based on radiation counts.  With the Cold War over, we still deal with radiation scares in different ways such as the situation in Fukushima and fracking in Pennsylvania, a process which some experts say brings radiation to the surface that had been trapped in the ground.  This is why Luke’s attempt to turn intangible things like radiation and randomness into a form raises interesting questions about the world we have come to live in.

You incorporate intangible things like radiation, anxiety and randomness into your work.
   A lot of the work I’ve been making over probably the last 10 years had to do, a lot, with moving things that were not easy to categorize or define. I would take things that were ineffable or abstract and attempt to produce them in a concrete way. A lot had to do with graphing as well as painting. I was always interested in anxiety, and it was about how to take those things that couldn’t be defined or really couldn’t be given a pictorial view, and give them shape.  A lot of it had to do with graphing, so I would graph things like suffering versus pain and anxiety. In that context, I was also interested in a number of other different types of things, ways to make painting, or certainly ways to make art.
You make some of your work based on radiation counts.  How did you come to be interested in radiation?
   I was always interested in the period of time just post-war, when America started to form its current pop culture. A lot of it had to do with country music. I’m a big fan of country music.  It was also the formation of when the atomic bomb was formed and when abstract expressionism and American art was formed. There was a combination of things going on, as America reinvented itself and emerged. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Cold War and Geiger counters were very much present all the time, so they had a resonance, always, for me.  What were these things? They seemed to be tied with a period of making things that I couldn’t understand, a time I wasn’t so familiar with, though I like country music (from the era). Country music and Geiger counters seem to be wrapped up, in a funny way, together.
   So I started collecting Geiger counters. I had a lot of them. They range from ones from very early on from the ‘40s on, to ones from the ‘80s and even ‘90s. I have an East German one there, the most contemporary one. There’s a naïve hope that sits on top of something very sinister, and not really very well understood, either. There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm in it, so there’s an artifice to it.
   Maybe that’s what I like about it. There’s an artifice to it. It was a lot like art, in some way. Anyway, I had a lot of these things hanging around, and I love listening to them, because I could hear these particles from the cosmos coming in. It’s really fantastic to hear just a single click, and you know it’s a particle hitting this tube. I had them around a lot, and I thought I needed to do something with them, to combine an anxiety, pool more anxiety, as well as the wonder at the sublime that these things listen to.
   That’s when I started to use them to generate something. I figured out how to hook them up to a computer and how to use the information that came out of them to produce art works. That’s really how I got into it. It is a little bit like trying to visualize things that don’t have any visual component. They’re invisible, and they’re sublime as well.
Why do you think you were attracted to it so much?
   It’s such a mysterious thing. It’s both wondrous, but it also has a lethal dimension too, which is very much something. Art is always like things that have edges or things that are dark, but wonderful. There’s always that mix and radiation is very much that type of thing.  In addition, radiation has always been very much politically hinged with the Cold War, with the anxiety growing up and thinking about those things, the anxiety that we all have about this nuclear power which is all around us. It still remains unknown.  It’s manageable. Engineers know how to control it, but it’s still something that everybody is a little bit worried about. I think we should always be worrying about.On the other hand, it’s also a very natural thing. It’s very much part of the cosmos. I wanted it. In some ways, how do I get in touch with that and use it? That’s why I started making the work.
How do you turn them into art?
   It’s relatively straightforward. A Geiger counter is a sensor that picks up a passage of a particle from the cosmos or from uranium or a radioactive source. It does this by picking up a potential energy between its poles. When a particle goes through, it excites the gas that’s within the chamber, the so-called Geiger-Müller tube and produces a spark. That spark is a single tick. Every particle that goes through produces a tick. That produces a so-called counts per minute that you normally see on a Geiger counter. That time between the tick is perfectly random. What I do is I count those ticks as they come in. I took my Geiger counter, I created a small electronic interface to pick up those ticks and I fed it into a computer. Then I used computer written algorithms to convert those passage of ticks, count the time, to turn it into random numbers. Once I have a pool of random numbers, I can do anything.  That’s the power of digital art. Once you have this pool of random numbers, you can make anything happen. I just happen to be using natural sources or radioactive sources for the numbers.
In your eyes, how were uranium and country music wrapped up together?
   There are a couple of layers. One layer is that they occur historically around the same time.  Country music is, as we know it, the country music that everyone listens to now is really a synthesis of several different types of music — Irish music, and also folk music. There was a number of different strains that came together. They were packaged together by some very smart people in Nashville in the late ‘40s.  A lot of the country music was also made due to people coming from the country into the urban centers. It was a lot about loss, thinking about home, and there’s a bit of nostalgia to that.
   At the same time, the formation of the atomic bomb happens in the mid ‘40s, and it happens by bringing a lot of people who were displaced from Europe, a lot of scientists who were displaced into one place together to create this new thing.
   In both cases, there’s a kind of a cooperative effort to build something new. In one way, atomic energy looks forward, country music kind of looks backward, but they happen together. Also in a funny twist of fate, the atomic bomb is created in the desert in New Mexico, in the West. There’s a kind of a western frontier aspect to the whole atomic energy era that matches very closely, but country music relies on.
   There is a kind of a strange intermingling of those things. Even in the popular culture through the ‘40s and ‘50s, they do get mixed up together. I think America also mixes them up. Certainly through the ‘50s, there was a lot of belief that atomic energy would solve everything and it was a great power and it was somehow mixed with religious pieces.
And the hope around uranium and atomic energy became more about anxiety, which is another component you are interested in.
   Anxiety in some ways, it’s about how we know we’re alive. It’s very important; it’s a component to human beings. It’s one of those things that tell us always we’re alive; it tells us our relationship to things. That’s sort of one level of anxiety.
   I read a number of years ago Kierkegaard, and he wrote a lot about anxiety. He attempted to turn anxiety into something else, to rethink how we understand what anxiety is all about. Anxiety was our way of understanding the core part of our being, the best part of our being. In fact, he said anxiety is, and I’m not a philosopher and I am an artist, a way of understanding potential, that you could open the possibility. Anxiety is your funnel into the potential possibility for becoming anything you want, for understanding all of the possibility.  Anxiety is both positive and the negative force. I was always interested in what anxiety means. Anxiety is very important all around. It’s used also as a tool. It is used culturally to make people buy things.  It’s a very powerful force. That’s one reason why I was interested in how it sits in our culture. Of course graphing it was seen to be like exactly the right thing to do because we can’t fit it in there, and yet graphs also produce anxiety. That’s why I use those things, as a way to talk about it, and use something that produces  anxiety.
Then, there is randomness that also attracts you.
   Because randomness is very close to anxiety, that in many ways randomness is also a source or anxiety for us. You say something like “random act of violence”, you’re already tense.  There’s something about randomness that is a great fear for humans because it’s unpredictable. It’s also fascinating when you can see it in the distance, because humans want to see patterns. They want to try and understand how things are fit together. Randomness tests our ability to that. It puts us on an edge. I was interested in that part of it, but how do you contain it or how do you use it? I think also when you’re in front of something you can’t control,  when it’s so big, it’s so beyond you, and it makes you feel very small and vulnerable, that anxiety you want to examine. If you can own it, you can maybe deal with it better.
   I think that’s part of the reason why I was interested in radiation and Cold War. The forces are so large and seem so strange that I couldn’t help, but keep coming back to saying, “Why did it happen? How did it get here? How did that all come about?”
   The technology also is kind of amazing. The science is fascinating too. I think the other allure of it all is the sciences. It’s incredible. It’s very strange. The sight of how an atom breaks apart or even how atoms are constructed, all of which all comes out of this radiation, it’s fascinating. You can’t help but sort of want to understand it a little bit more.
   It’s very illusive and partly awesome because quantum mechanics is so theoretical, completely math based. There are no visualizations left. The last good model for the atom was Rutherford’s planetary model which we all have, which is like an atom with electrons whizzing around it.
   That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now some probability cloud inside another probability cloud with a huge formula for it. There are no visuals for it.  That is so tempting for an artist to ask, “What is that thing?” That’s the other allure to it all. It sits inside this very complicated bit of politics.   


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