Silverlake VOICE features Phillip Stearns
Friday, March 20, 2015
Phillip Stearns, an artist based in NYC, after the tragedy of Fukushima decided to explore the subject of radiation. This research led him to build an installation, now on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.
A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends is like a Hodoscope. Instead of tracking the presence of ambient radioactivity, it actively makes it visible and audible. It translates, in a hunting yet contemplative way, what we can’t perceive with our eyes to sound and light. It translates, in a haunting yet contemplative way, what we can’t perceive with our eyes into sound and light. The Installation is made of 92 Geiger counters (the instrument that responds to radiation) connected to lights, each counter-light element represents an electron in the Uranium atom. When the chandelier detects a radioactive particle it emits a flash of light. The result is a constant stream of flashes that light the room up accompanied by the cracking incessant sound of the Geiger counters. “A source of radioactivity strong enough to cause the installation to remain solidly lit would be fatal to any living organism in the room, as in the case of a nuclear catastrophe.” …
Hi Phillip, tell us about the inspiration behind your piece “A Chandelier for One of Many Possible Ends”…
The piece was inspired by the meltdown catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11th, 2011 (four years ago this past wednesday). In reflecting on the tragedy, I kept coming back to this place where in all the sorrow, there was still hope. While listening to a single Geiger counter in my studio click away randomly in what I thought should be the absence of radioactivity, I understood that since its beginning on Earth, radioactivity has played a crucial role in the development of life. I began looking into sources of radioactivity that were not solely the cause of human activities and found that there is a continuous stream of radioactive particles passing through us and interacting with matter, the raw stuff we self identify with. Some of this radiation comes from deep space, the explosion of hyper massive stars unfathomable distances away. The Earth itself is formed from dust ejected in such explosions, some of it radioactive, but that radioactivity is responsible for keeping Earth’s mantle molten, allowing for plate tectonics and the constant remaking of the surface. Apart from the fallout from nuclear detonations and reactor meltdowns, trace elements in the Earth’s crust are terrestrial sources radioactivity. All of these sources contribute to the background radiation that drive the flickering of the chandelier.
What led you to choose this title?
The title is intentionally ambiguous. I wanted to convey the complexities of the issues at hand without over playing one particular read of the situation. Everyone is going to experience the piece in their own way (whether in person or through documentation), influencing their interpretation of the title.
The installation is now on view, until the end of March, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo. Do you have plans of moving the installation elsewhere after this show? It’s fascinating how the piece would change its behavior in different locations…
I am working with the Burchfield Penney Art Center to tour the installation. Nothing has been decided at this point, but we’re talking about its inclusion in a touring exhibition proposal to be presented to the American Alliance of Museums in April. Otherwise, I would like to keep the installation close to home. There are some venues like Pioneerworks, The Knockdown Center, The DIA Foundation, MoMA PS1, etc. that I’d like to propose the idea of exhibiting the work to. Though, I’ve been contacting some friends, artists working out of Japan, to see about possibly installing the work in Fukushima next year.
How long did you work on it from concept to realization?
I first had the idea to connect Geiger counters to fluorescent light fixtures months after the incident. These early sketches led to a proposal for a public exhibition, but it wasn’t until recently that I was able to self-fund the project. The project’s current form was designed and fabricated over the course of 6 months.
“I think invention is a natural expression resulting from the way matter in our universe self organizes, and something that is not at all unique to humans.”
“A source of radioactivity strong enough to cause the installation to remain solidly lit would be fatal to any living organism in the room, as in the case of a nuclear catastrophe.”
Do you think you are going to develop this project further?
I am already working on ideas for future installations and am hoping that support for the current installation will open opportunities to realize them. By starting a dialog about installing the work in Fukushima, I hope open doors to proposing projects for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 5 years time it will be 75 years since atom bombs were detonated above those cities. For such public projects, I’d like to work with neon and adjust the behavior of the light so the flickering were softened, either by smoothing/fading the changes in brightness, or by having the installation fully illuminated and momentarily increasing the brightness of the elements when they detect radiation.
So, in your opinion, what is the greatest invention of all times?
I think invention is a natural expression resulting from the way matter in our universe self organizes, and something that is not at all unique to humans. In this regard, I feel that DNA is probably the greatest invention of all time.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted be an artist, but also astrophysicist or scientist working in theoretical physics.
Have you always been so experimental playing around with technology?
Definitely. In grade school, I was taking apart electronics simply to see what was inside to try and figure out how they worked. Somehow I developed a keen interest in the behavior of malfunctioning or strangely behaving electronics. A lot of my work has to do with extending, or misapplying technology, stretching it beyond its original design.