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Murphy's Well-Being

Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 20:21 By: jstenner

n this interactive video installation the Florida Research Ensemble (FRE), working on behalf of an online consultancy, the EmerAgency, uses Arts and Letters practices to render perceptible some of the forces at work in the Koppers Superfund site. The consultation does not offer solutions, but provides the terms of understanding that empower citizens to participate in the decisions affecting their well-being. This concern, the priority of Philosophy since its inception, resonates with one of the threats to the community – the pollution of the Murphy Wellfield that supplies the drinking water for our area (just one of several kinds of contamination associated with the site). “Murphy’s Law” states that if something can go wrong, it will, and in our case, it has. The danger is not just to the community’s well, but its well-being. Part of the lesson is that the Koppers disaster is just one of 1280 Superfund sites in the U.S., each site representing an environmental disaster compromising the well-being of our society.

Video Trailer

What needs to be appreciated is that our dilemma is the norm, business as usual. Or rather, that the cost in lives and treasure incurred by our citizens constitutes a sacrifice required to maintain our American way of life. Murphy’s Well-Being expresses this sacrifice in an interactive narrative, in order that it may become an object of public deliberation and review. The interface metaphor organizing the consultation is evoked through a play on the name of the (Murphree) wellfield, in that the so-called “Murphy Game” is one of the oldest con games around. The bait-and-switch trick of a con game figures how any commodity, such as the pine tar produced in Gainesville, often comes with hidden costs (by-products, side-effects) that are not acknowledged. The installation database includes a collection of testimonials seeking to become a fable. Users participate in a crowd-sourced consultation, helping to identify possible lessons or “morals” of the video interviews, through a montage with the other discourses informing our scene: mythology, history, philosophy. The goal of the consultation is to pose the disaster as an opportunity to take stock of our values and options going forward.


The structure organizing the project design is known as a cognitive map, or popcycle, an updated version of the four-part allegory (based on religion) by which pre-modern society made sense of the world. The Koppers popcycle, based on art, brings into relationship the following discourses:

    • Family: the Family narrative documents stories, personal histories and memories of citizens most affected by Koppers, such as those living in the Stephen Foster neighborhood adjacent to the site, and all those who have struggled for a true remediation.
    • Entertainment: Hollywood cinema has developed a genre of disaster films, specifically stories in which individual citizens confront and triumph over corporations or other institutions violating the public trust. Erin Brockovich may be the most apt, but the most recent example is Cameron’s Avatar. Such films illustrate the mythology of individual agency informing American values, but belied by events.
    • History: Documentaries such as James Burke’s Connections remind us that while the production of pine tar for wood treatment in Gainesville started in 1916, the industry is as old as the Colonies themselves, since wood treatment was a necessary technology for the maintenance of ship hulls. The larger historical narrative of our dilemma includes the entire history of European colonial expansion, all the way back to the original spice trade in ancient times.
    • Philosophy: Arts and Letters disciplines have developed a set of practices within the framework of modernism for transforming immediate embodied experience of pleasure/pain (attraction/repulsion) into a logic for conducting practical reason necessary for ethics and politics in a democratic society. With these devices, the Koppers site is generalizable as a microcosm for understanding the crisis posed by the Superfund phenomenon to the well-being of the macrocosm itself. The chief insight is that these dilemmas are not anomalies, but the result of a habitus, a collective way of life. The question posed is: what is to be done?


Murphy's Well-Being is an installation composed of two, synchronized video projections and an interactive, multi-touch table that allows participants the ability to investigate and navigate the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site and adjacent surroundings. The interactive surface uses the Diffused Surface Illumination method to respond to presses on the screen. For example, homes in the adjacent Stephen Foster neighborhood function as buttons. The viewer presses a home, thus triggering playback of contextually related video projected on the nearby walls. The projection on the left is an interview with an occupant from the home, and the adjacent video is a video programmatically selected from one of the popcycle categories previously enumerated.


Murphy's Well-Being is a collaborative project of the Florida Research Ensemble (FRE). Participants include: , , , , , and . Murphy's Well-Being was created in response to a request to participate in the Superfund Art Project exhibition titled, , Thomas Center Gallery, Gainesville, FL, March 2 - April 28, 2012. Support for the project was provided by the University of Florida Fine Arts Scholarship Enhancement Fund and the via the City of Gainesville and The Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Project Initiation:
2011-08-01 00:00:00