‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’

Every now and again an opportunity comes up to curate and later write about some interesting work. Siobhan McGibbon and CURAM gave me one such opportunity. Siobhan McGibbon was part of Tulca 2012 (seems like yesterday!) which I curated in Galway and also part of Why is it always December? an Abridged exhibition in Millennium Court Arts Centre, Portadown and publication in 2016. ‘What became of the people we used to be?’ maybe would’ve been a better title for the essay but I had already used that for Tulca (though it could be a subtitle for just about everything I curate and publish). There are a number of artists (some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to curate) working in the speculative science/science fiction field and producing glimpses of alternative futures, or more scarily maybe just accurate depictions of the future. This essay is an expanded version of the one that appears in the Curam catalogue of the CHIMERA art and Science Programme. Anyone that wants to read the catalogue can order one from them. Thanks to Siobhan and CURAM for giving me the opportunity. You can see more of Siobhan’s work at http://www.siobhanmcgibbon.com/ and CURAM can be found here: http://www.curamdevices.ie/ 


Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. [1]

(T.S Eliot)

When I was about seven or eight years old I read a piece in a newspaper that detailed the cities which the Soviets had their nuclear missiles aimed at. One was basically pointed at my house which was situated in a council estate built beside an American naval base in Derry. I was essentially ground-zero. It makes a kid a bit existential. So whilst there was the everyday worry of sectarianism and violence in my mind there was also an overriding threat of sudden extinction emanating from the (I imagined) catacombs of Moscow. It put somebody scrawling IRA or UVF on a wall into perspective. It was also especially ironic given that we had a sign on the outskirts of the city saying that we were a nuclear free zone. Given that I was someone that loved Dr Who and sci-fi comics such as 2000AD (which did seem a long way off) the next step was to imagine if by some chance we survived a Russian attack in what state or maybe more accurately what shape we’d be in. Mutation and change was a current theme of 1970s sci-fi and I would imagine how I would be changed by the Strontium 90 cascading from the sky. Would I have strange new powers like Johnny Alpha (of 2000AD) and use them to benefit society or would I be evil and monstrous. Each to a young boy had its merits.

The Cold War of course ended and the apocalypse was averted (at least for a while) but the concepts of sudden catastrophe and mutation would stay with me and heavily influence my curatorial and editorial practice. An early issue of Abridged, the poetry/art magazine I edit was called Mutation whilst one planned for later this year is entitled Contagion. It’s fair to say that I’m known for initiating projects that explore the apocalyptic sublime and associated concepts and so Siobhan McGibbon’s practice fascinates me.

I first saw her work at “Terrible Beauty- Art, Crisis, Change & The office of Non Compliance”, Dublin’s first (and only so far) contemporary art biennale in 2011. In a biennale that was heavily and often very directly polemical her work stood out as nuanced and imaginative – strange hybrids of hair, skin and wood in a room that seemed like a prison cell: mutation within a cell in perhaps.

In 2012 I was invited to curate the TULCA visual arts festival in Galway and an opportunity for McGibbon to take part arose. In a group show her work needs to be part of a certain context and an appropriate exhibition space is required for it to be seen as it should. The theme of the festival was ‘What Became of the People We Used to Be?’ and it explored the concept of how each decision we make births a new and different universe, that we are in the midst of a continual mutation of our own making, of our own choices.  It was influenced by quantum and medical science. Though I am not an expert in either sphere I find that the possibilities they open up fascinating particularly when explored through the visual arts. The Niland Gallery, an unpainted concrete bunker space seemed perfect for the Haemangioma Series, sinister sculptures entitled Proteus Syndrome, Venous malformation and Neurofibromatosis type I  that lurked in the darkness of the space, barely lit and brooding over their deformity or of their rejection by what is supposed to be ‘normal’. In basing her work on actual diseases McGibbon takes away from us the (sometimes easy) option of distancing ourselves by ascribing the sculptures to sci-fi or fantasy. People have and do suffer from Proteus Syndrome (the most famous being Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man) and the work asks us to consider how we define normality and if our definition is just a construct based on media-led tableaus of perfection and beauty. McGibbon’s work is always beautiful even in its portrayal of mutation and at its most hybridised challenges our contemporary notions of person and persona.

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T.S Eliot) [2]

Which brings us to the Xenopthorpian Mythos: I was invited to curate an exhibition at Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown in Spring 2016 and immediately thought of Siobhan McGibbon. The show originally inspired by the fact that Portadown has its own preserved nuclear bunker and called ‘Why is it always December?’ had moved slightly away from its original premise and acquired a micro/macro gothic medical aspect to it and McGibbon’s Xenopthorpian work fitted in perfectly. Art and Science share similarities in particular the taking of a concept, changing it and fitting it into an existent theory or new idea and presenting it for critique. Both disciplines are also about making the invisible visible, the interior exterior in essence the micro macro. Emotion and subjectivity may play a bigger part in the arts but I would argue that emotion in the form of dissatisfaction with the status quo is the catalyst for innovation in the sciences. A sense of ‘need’ to know, a curiosity to explore and a desire to articulate is implicit in both art and science.

“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” [3]

“He has no children of his Own you see… He has no dog. And he has no friends and His lawn is dying… and What about all those packages He sends. What’s He building in there?” [4]

Wouldn’t we like to know? We have a slightly schizophrenic attitude towards research of any sort but in particular medical/scientific research. We want to feel that scientists are working for our benefit but there’s a part of us that imagines them as Dr Frankenstein-like figures in their laboratories meddling with forces beyond their control. The Xenothorpean race McGibbon informs us evolved from “an accidental piecing together of separated things”. This immediately raises our suspicions. ‘Accidental? You’re either in control or you’re not. Is there something suspicious going on?’ We can see this suspicion in the ongoing debate (particularly in the USA) in relation to MMR inoculation. Most people will trust the evidence emanating from the scientific community that inoculation is much safer than catching Measles, Mumps or Rubella but there are people who will refuse it on instinct or through conspiracy theories that imagine that anything the ‘authorities’ give that are supposedly good for us must be bad. Sometimes though it’s good to be sceptical: McGibbon references Radithor, a patent medicine that claimed that radiation actually improved health:

Do you have high blood pressure, goitre, stomach cramps, female trouble, kidney problems, constipation? Dr. C. Davis wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine that “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life…” By the early 1930’s one could buy radium-containing toothpaste, beauty creams, chocolate bars, soap, ear plugs, suppositories and contraceptives.[5]

“The Radium Water worked fine until his Jaw came off” observed the Wall Street Journal somewhat snidely on the death (from radiation poisoning) of one of the main sellers of radioactive products, Eban McBurney. [6] The Xenopthor character that McGibbon has created recalls the goddess type women that appeared on the advertising for the radioactive medicine.

On the other hand if we or our loved ones are ill we naturally want the latest most up-to-date treatment and we would in the most desperate circumstances try even potentially fatal remedies so it is perhaps too easy to condemn those in dire need. Products like this though did perhaps contribute to the later suspicion of scientific research.

Literature and film in particular has also had a tremendous influence on how we feel about science especially in relation to creating or maintaining new life. As has religion and mythology. There are numerous examples of hybrid mythical and (semi)-human creatures throughout the world’s religions and mythologies: in the celestial realms the angels have bird wings; the devil has horns and cloven hoofs not to mention the various animal/human featured deities of for example ancient Egypt and Greece amongst others. Then there are the lycanthropes, the werewolves that feature in many cultures.

It also has been suggested that mankind could be the hybrid of chimpanzee-pig cross-breeding though this theory is controversial to say the least. [7] Also the realm of speculation we have the human/alien hybrids of television programmes such as the X-Files which suggest government conspiracies and cover-ups.

These gods, angels, daemons and human/animal hybrids were for the most part feared. They were in a sense an early metaphorical ‘other’, the unfamiliar, uncanny and potentially threatening used particularly by religions to keep their members in check. Even when religion and mythology were losing their grip, at least amongst the educated intelligentsia and artists, science was used to create new ‘monsters’.  The most famous monster of them all was Frankenstein created by Mary Shelley.  The book and probably more so films (particularly those starring Boris Karloff) have passed into the societal subconscious.

McGibbon references Frankenstein and it could be argued that this work of fiction has become the epitome of a scientific hubris. In fact the novel can be considered in the light of industrial and technological change. Published by Mary Shelley in 1818, a time of rapid industrial and societal change which forced cottage industries out of business and saw the beginning of the anonymous factory, Frankenstein really struck a chord. Luddites had recently been executed for breaking up machinery and Shelley whilst acknowledging the inevitable march of progress warns against too much ambition in science and industry. Frankenstein’s creature rebels and turns on humanity as humanity turned on it. Would the Xenopthorpian race be likewise shunned and eventually turn on its creators?

The average life span of the para-human is not known, but conservative estimates place this at 250 years. Sexual maturity is reached at 14 years. Assuming a reproductive life span of 200 years, and the ability to produce 12 offspring per year, one female para-human could be the progenitor of 2400 offspring, who could each reproduce at least 2400 offspring, and so forth.[8]

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the reaction of a Press obsessed with sex? Can you imagine the reaction of a Press obsessed with fear of the ‘other’?  In 1997 when Dolly the Sheep was cloned it was seen particularly by the tabloid media as a slippery slope to human cloning with its designer babies and growing bodies for spare parts. Dolly proved that it was possible to take a cell from a specific adult animal, and then use that cell to make a genetic copy of that adult animal. The argument went that creation had become the Creators: If God was made redundant, could our ‘creations’ eventually do the same to us? The tabloid press being concerned with ethics was of course completely ironic.

The newspapers ruminated and postulated. Would those ‘mad’ scientists create something that displaces us? Something that removes us from our place at the top of the food-chain? Something that makes us obsolete?  This was before the internet had hit its stride and before a rolling and continual media-spotlight had watered down most ‘news’ to speculation.

McGibbon is influenced by HP Lovecraft whose explicit racism and horror of sex is well documented. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) is possibly one of the most influential horror writers ever, though he was not considered such in his time and died in poverty and relative obscurity. His influence has grown in recent times reaching beyond literature encompassing film, television, music and video-gaming. Lovecraft’s best-known stories have been called the ‘Cthulhu mythos’ and feature the ‘Old Ones’ a powerful pantheon of mysterious monster-deities that exist in a dimension separate from but close to our own.  Worshippers both human and fish/frog/human hybrids perform black magic rituals to open portals so that these Old Ones can come infect and destroy our world and trigger an apocalypse. The best known of the Old Ones was Cthulhu, a winged octopus type creature that has been considered symbolic of female genitalia.

It may be that Lovecraft is an exemplary example of the dread in regard to race and sex that existed in the United States of his time (and perhaps still does there in certain areas there and in other parts of the world). Alan Moore observes that ‘it is possible to perceive Howard Lovecraft as an almost unbearably sensitive barometer of American dread. Far from outlandish eccentricities, the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.’ [9] That is the fear of ethnic minorities and women becoming influential. It is noticeable that the disaffection of the white (though in this instance working class) male with a rapidly changing society is one of the reasons given for the rise of Donald Trump. Lovecraft though he would have been appalled by being thought of as average perhaps represents the (if such a thing could be said to exist) ‘ordinary’ person’s fear of the new and the strange. Indeed Moore makes a very astute point when he observes that ‘in his frights and panics [Lovecraft] reveals himself as that almost unheard-of fluke statistical phenomenon, the absolutely average man, an entrenched social insider unnerved by new and alien influences from without.’ [10]

Lovecraft would’ve perhaps made a perfect newspaper columnist in the more populist and right-wing dailies or weeklies: ‘Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it.’ [11] Lovecraft had a fear of black people, Jews, Italians, Poles and virtually every race of people that weren’t white Anglo-Saxon. His response to the Xenothorpean species would have been filled with such racist horror and fear of displacement.

In 2093 society collapsed. It has not yet recovered. [12]

McGibbon’s  Xenothorpean mythos is much more that merely (if that’s the right word) a cautionary metaphor of the need for understanding, acceptance and tolerance though there are elements of that implicit in the creation of anything new, let alone an entire species. It asks ‘What if we create a new species that conceptually considers us as ‘lesser’ and treats us accordingly or has no concept of morality at all?’ Lovecraft stripped (mostly) of his racism (though rarely of his sexism) has had a major influence of film-makers in particular. Alien for example is one of the most popular horror/sci-fi franchises of recent years. The films are set in a future where humans have come into contact with an unknown parasitic alien life form (the Xenomorph) which implants its seed into them or kills them without conscience. The Xenomorphs are vicious, predatory and without morals. They are also completely and violently sexual (to both women and men – their design and seeding/killing habits are rape metaphors) and were possibly were created as a type of bio-weapon by another mysterious alien race. They consider humanity (as well as animals and other species such as ‘Predators’) as merely hosts for their offspring or as food. Suddenly our place at the top of the food-chain has been usurped by a race that no more considers our feelings than we do for the wasps we swat in summer. Alien was deliberate in its use of violent rape metaphors and played into the fears of males in the audience. As its screenwriter Dan O’Bannon put it: “One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.” [13]  

McGibbon though with much more subtlety has emphasised science and sexuality. She has, with Xenopthor’s Chalice constructed a chalice containing a vagina that is spawning frog-spawn. The spawn is created from agarose, a polymer material extracted from seaweed and stem cells referencing sexuality, radiation and religion

The fear of the Xenothorpes then is caused by their near indestructibility, longevity (250 years at a conservative estimate) and reproductive speed as well as importantly their newness. They embody the classic fear of the Other. In McGibbon’s future something happened between 2040 when the first Xenophon was unveiled and 2093 when society collapsed. We can only speculate as to what that was.  We get a hint of the panic and perhaps resignation in academic/scientific circles as to the fate of humanity when in a Ted Talk in October 2060 it is stated:  ‘If you are sure of nothing else, be sure of this one thing – the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. Everything will disappear.’ [14] It may be that with the emergence of these new ‘para-humans’ the story of Homo Sapiens has been told.

In recent history this fear of being obsolete can be seen in Cold War classics such as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) described as one of the formative science fiction films of the period, and a ‘key exponent of the infiltration-paranoia that haunts so many contemporaneous films.’ [15]  It mirrors the fear of Communism in US society of the time and the suspicion of ‘authority’. Doctors and Scientists play key roles in the film. This ‘pervasive use of men of medicine is more than a convenient motif to match the film’s metaphor of body-replacement. It also calls into play the anti-Promethean motifs of previous fantasy cinema; and, by making the head body snatcher a psychiatrist, the film panders to the prevailing anti-intellectualism of the mid-Fifties’ [16] and indeed we can see the same anti-intellectualism in debates such as Brexit in the UK where it was stated that the public were ‘tired of experts’ and wanted to take their ‘country back’. A distrust of experts suggests a reliance on faith and emotion, a pre-Enlightenment engagement with society in which science and the unfamiliar were considered attacks on the ‘natural’ order. To step into McGibbon’s  Xenothorpian Mythos installation is to enter another world, a dark uncertain alien and weirdly mystical environment. Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ seems appropriate as you find yourself in a weird hybrid of laboratory and church in which the ‘natural order’ is no longer of our making.

Of course one of the intriguing aspects of McGibbon’s work is its implicit questioning of what exactly the ‘natural order’ is.  The ‘natural order’ is defined as ‘the orderly system comprising the physical universe and functioning according to natural as distinguished from human or supernatural laws’ [17] This ‘order’ tends to edge towards conservatism and is suspicious of the ‘chaos’ of newness and whose limited perspectives are neatly summed up by a phrase (attributed dubiously to Nietzsche) that ‘those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.’ Admittedly that could lend itself to the defences of dictators and serial killers but ‘natural order’ is as man-made as ‘God’s laws’ and has been used to kill new theories and often particularly by those in the Church to kill the theorists coming up with them.

Many scientists would claim that their discoveries are neutral and can’t be held accountable with what is done with the knowledge they have uncovered: ‘As Robert Oppenheimer made clear in relation to the bomb, the duty of scientists is to understand how the world works; but how this knowledge is used ultimately lies, in a democracy, with the people’s elected representatives.’ [18] This may or may not be a negation of responsibility. As Edward Goldsmith in a letter to a colleague pointed out: ‘scientists cannot live in a void: they must take into account the realities of the world they live in. And in today’s world it could not be more predictable that work on the genome project must lead to such things as the development of GM foods. The position you take is very much that of the US gun lobby. While they actively supply an increasingly unstable American population with guns, they deny any responsibility for the use to which they are put.’ [19] The balance then is to weigh up the benefits to society from the potentials drawbacks. Sometimes this is difficult and of course secrecy doesn’t help allay a sceptical press and public as we can see in the fragments in regard to the development of the Xenothorpian species. What started (supposedly) as research into the curing of lethal diseases and chronic conditions in humans somehow developed into something much more sinister or even more exciting depending on your point of view.

Of course in a society though becoming more and more secular (at least in the West) but still influenced by centuries of (mainly) Christian domination ‘natural law’ effectively means ‘divine law’ for many people. It is hardly surprising then that McGibbon informs us of the schism that the development of the new species causes within the Catholic Church. More than a third of the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion adherents pledged allegiance and support to a rival Catholic hierarchy based in Avignon. Their position was that ‘Man, as pinnacle of creation, has an inherent dignity and an allocated life span…Altering the fundamental substance of our being, undermining the preciousness and uniqueness of human life, is arrogance and evil.’ [20]  The artist only gives us fragments of the future but we can see how our society fractured.

So we are presented with a new species, perhaps the inheritor of our Earth, perhaps its saviour. Neither of which necessarily means a bright future for Homo Sapians. McGibbon offers us an alternative future or perhaps is merely documenting our future in advance, a contemporary type of prophecy. Of course humanity has to play God. It has to keep trying to find the causes of and cures for diseases if not for humanitarian and welfare rationales then at least for profit and employment. We are now perhaps in a position in which we can control our own evolution and there are groups such as ‘transhumanists’ positing that we are morally obliged to assist the human race transcend its biological limitations. As stated previously McGibbon’s installations are a mixture of laboratory and church and it may be no coincidence that groups such as the transhumanists have been compared to Christian eschatologists in that they believe in a earth altering event (such as the birth of the Xenothorpe) that will change humanity forever; a type of scientific Rapture or ‘end time’ for (Wo)Mankind.

In 2015 Siobhan McGibbon ‘wondered how a being that is partly human/tadpole/zebra fish would be designed, how would it function and how would the implementation of such a creature be received’. We can only make educated guesses on its design and how it would function but we can perhaps base our opinion as to how it would be received on how the foreign and unfamiliar are treated at the moment particularly in the newspapers and we can perhaps rightly imagine the worst.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Preface to Harry Crosby, Transit of Venus (1931), p. ix.

[2] T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding V, Four Quartets,1943.

[3] H.P Lovecraft, Call of Chutulu. P73, 1928.

[4] Tom Waits, What’s He Building? Mule Variations, 1999.

[5] Tales from the Nuclear Age, Charles, M. Glassmire, 2010 https://talesfromthenuclearage.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/drink-radithor/

[6] Ibid

[7] Damian Gayle, Daily Mail, 05th Decemmber 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2515969/Humans-evolved-female-chimpanzee-mated-pig-Extraordinary-claim-American-geneticist.html

[8] Harris, Origins and results of R’lyeh Study 2-730, 2079

[9] Alan Moore,  The New Annotated HP Lovecraft, 2014

[10] Ibid.

[11] Charles Baxter, The Hideous Unknown of HP Lovecraft, 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/12/18/hideous-unknown-hp-lovecraft/.

[12] The Xenophon Tapes

[13] David Dietle, Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely On Rape, http://www.cracked.com/article_18932_alien-film-franchise-based-entirely-rape.html

[14] Recording of a TED Talk, October 2060.

[15] Robert C. Cumbow, Imitation of Life: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, 2015, http://parallax-view.org/2015/10/26/imitation-of-life-invasion-of-the-body-snatchers/

[16] Ibid

[17] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/natural%20order

[18]Lewis Wolport, Letter to Edward Goldsmith, The Ecologist, Volume 30, No.3, May 2000, http://www.edwardgoldsmith.org/887/is-science-neutral/

[19] Edward Goldemith, Ibid.

[20] (Papal Encyclical published by Neo-Vatican Congress, 2055.