For Want of a Nail

For Want of a Nail

By Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine and Futurefarmers

Three nails for J. Robert Oppenheimer, more than half a century after the Manhattan Project.

Distributed for no place press





Three nails for J. Robert Oppenheimer, more than half a century after the Manhattan Project.

For Want of a Nail takes as its starting point a series of curious memoranda sent from J. Robert Oppenheimer's office in October 1943 and archived in the Los Alamos Historical Museum, in which the eminent scientist repeatedly requests a nail in the wall upon which he could hang his hat. The persistence and specificity of the request for this nail inspired the international art collective Futurefarmers to create, by hand (and after more than a half-century delay), three nails for the theoretical physicist: one forged from a meteorite, one cast using 1943 steel pennies, and a third made by re-fusing Trinitite, a material formed by residue from the Trinity nuclear bomb test.

Growing out of a site-specific contribution to an exhibition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this book engages the region's complex nuclear history as it relates to land use, resource extraction, and the far-reaching decisions that were made within the Manhattan Project. Throughout this multidisciplinary project, Futurefarmers constructs a narrative that runs parallel, and in some cases counter to, the conventional accounts of the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer, its chief architect. Through video stills, production shots, essays, and interviews—presented in a book with uncut, unopened pages that the reader may cut to access more images—For Want of a Nail not only opens new ways to think about the region's particular atomic history, but also prompts more general reflections on how knowledge and narrative are embedded and communicated in material objects, both ephemeral and ancient.

ContributorsPeter Galison, Patrick Kiley, Lucy Lippard, Megan Prelinger and Rick Prelinger, Anne Walsh


$30.00 T ISBN: 9781949484045 144 pp. | 5.75 in x 8.25 in 110 color illus.


  • A banal request by physicist Robert Oppenheimer for a nail to hang his hat on and a small table for his telephone marks the starting point of Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine's (Futurefarmers) original tale of the Manhattan Project.... he narration develops on several levels, drawing us in and prompting us to reflect on the many implications of nuclear, past and future.



  • Can you imagine? Living in a world where a nail is more precious than an A-bomb? Take your hat off to Franceschini and Swaine and hang it on the paradox of our age, which they evoke with wit, simplicity, and Zen like mystery.

    Michael T. Taussig

    Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

  • As [Futurefarmers] participatory operations suck viewers into place and history, the disconcerting focus on what initially appear to be insignificant details blossoms, blows up, forges ahead into unknown territory. Their “open practice” is based on exchange rather than imposition, enticing us out of our familiar cubicles into unfamiliar lands, even when we are already living there.

    Lucy Lippard

    excerpt from For Want of a Nail