The Cockroach Disco: re-joying the most-hated pest

by Lindsay Garcia, PhD Student in American Studies, The College of William and Mary

Feminist Pest Control, a faux feminist collective slash non-profit organization, is my first foray into the digital humanities. I came to William & Mary from a visual arts MFA program as a video and performance artist with the intent of utilizing creative practice-based projects as forms of scholarly research. Therefore, I naturally gravitated towards the digital humanities, following in the footsteps of other DH scholars, such as Garnet Hertz, who builds works that engage critically with the making process. Hertz even uses the cockroach as a technology in past projects, such as Cockroach Controlled Robot (2004-2006) and Posthuman System #1: Cockroach with Wireless Video (2003).

This semester, an independent study with Professor Liz Losh allowed me the freedom to tinker with digital tools available at the Physics Maker Space and to use prototyping techniques to invent fantastical technologies.  Throughout the independent study, fellow graduate student Khanh Vo and I read important texts loosely based in Feminist Science and Technology Studies such as Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, which explores the overarching technologies associated with digital media; The Affect Theory Reader, which examines the role of affect in contemporary culture; and New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, which re-told theories of materiality from a more vitalist point of view. These texts, and others, provided me a theoretical framework for asking questions about technologies and objects, such as The Cockroach Disco, which I made as my final project. Deploying what Stephen Ramsay calls “the move from reading to making,” I pondered the questions: how do technologies produce materiality and affect? How can these formations be utilized to harness human ideological changes, specifically about animals that are considered pests?

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From there, The Cockroach Disco emerged. As evidenced in the Feminist Pest Control Promotional Video (2016) above, which elaborates on the (fem)manifesto, Feminist Pest Control is actively pro-pest. That’s not to say that all humans should be forced to live with unwanted animals, but instead, that human supremacy with regards to animal hierarchies needs to be examined, subverted, and defamiliarized. The Cockroach Disco endeavors to consider the standpoints of cockroaches and create a joyful experience for them based on their morphology, instead of feeding them with poisons or squashing them with a book. This device also facilitates the improvement of human-pest relationships by providing a platform for which walls separate the bug from the human, creating a “safe” environment for both species to get to know each other better and to develop positive affects and reactions between the two species.

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The Cockroach Disco looks like a typical aquarium-style pet habitat—albeit with a few off-the-beaten-path flourishes. This habitat has been specially crafted to recognize the biological functioning of the cockroach as best understood by human sciences. I acknowledge that humans cannot fully understand the cockroach because we are not actually cockroaches. The design does, however, give weight to each of the five senses as felt by the cockroaches themselves (discovered only through inhumane animal tests), possibly tapping into cockroach affect—if there is such a thing. While not all 4,600 species of cockroaches are built exactly the same, the disco utilizes the American Cockroach as its model (as these are the bugs I have in my house); however, this device functions for other species as well.

  • sight: Cockroaches prefer dark spaces, which is one reason why they come out at night. The walls of the disco are lined with two-way mirror film, and the light bulb inside emits a red light—a light frequency invisible to the cockroach eye.  This allows the cockroaches to believe that they are in a dark space, while the human also can watch and fall in love with the bugs as they would with other caged pets, such as guinea pigs.

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  • sound: Cockroaches do not have ears. Instead, they sense sounds through their cerci, the pseudo-antennae on their behind, that sense the vibrations and currents moving through the air. Because their response to sensing sounds often involves skittering away out of survival instinct, the plexiglass encased portion of The Cockroach Disco is airtight, allowing the cockroaches to not worry about their human (or nonhuman) predators.

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  • touch: Cockroaches are thigmotropic, meaning they love to feel sandwiched between two surfaces, which is why they often hide in the crevices of appliances and other various spaces in the house. Therefore, different substructures have been built using foam core and scraps from around the house that simulate this feeling.

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  • taste: Cockroaches will eat just about anything, but they are especially interested in sweet tastes, like chocolate and peanut butter. Sprinkled around The Cockroach Disco are various fragments of human life—food, paper, fabric—all tasty to cockroaches. Additionally, a little swimming pool/drinking hole rests in the middle of the space for drinking and to help the bugs cool down from the hot summer days in Virginia as cockroaches tend to dry out easily in dry, hot climates (which, thus, kills them).

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  • smell: Just as with taste, cockroaches are drawn to the sweet smells of food and trash which keep their antennae aflutter. Cockroaches do not have noses, but their antennae act as their smelling devices and keep them attuned to what kind of foods are nearby. Additionally, Feminist Pest Control developed a pheromone spray that will entice cockroaches to mate. More cockroaches means more joy and more opportunities for humans to heal from past pest traumas.

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The disco creates a feminist DIY aesthetic, especially the use of pink duct tape, which is the binding agent for the walls of the device. This use of simple materials—those ordered off the internet or available at a local hardware store—also alludes to the field of citizen science, where amateur scientists create scientific knowledges outside of the often-impenetrable walls of the academy. Anyone could make their own version of The Cockroach Disco, and if any readers would like to take a stab at improving upon the design, go for it! Collective knowledge aids in healing oppressions felt by human and nonhuman pests.

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The Cockroach Disco attracts cockroaches by connecting to the wall via a PVC pipe fitting. Especially in swampy Virginia, even if one does not see cockroaches, they are likely hiding in the walls of the home. For proper installation, a hole must be drilled into the drywall and the PVC pipe glued to the wall surrounding it. Placing sweet-smelling garbage within the disco walls attracts the animals, and the re-joying of the cockroach can begin. While this is a fantastical device, meaning it is meant to inspire change in human mindsets about the much-hated cockroach, it could actually function for someone who has cockroaches in their house, for someone who wants to learn how to remove the fear, shame, and anger associated with the bugs.

The Cockroach Disco will be on display at the Equality Lab in Morton Hall at The College of William and Mary in the fall of 2016. For more information on Feminist Pest Control, please visit the website at www.lindsaygarcia.com/feminist-pest-control or email Lindsay Garcia at ldgarcia@email.wm.edu.

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