Here we go: sometimes following this blog is like waiting for a bus: for a long-time it seems like nothing turns up, and then three posts come along at once! So here is the third post, on the ‘Unknown Fields’ public debate at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (commonly referred to as the ‘AA’). As far as I understood, the event was part of the activities surrounding a particular architectural studio within the AA, called ‘Unknown Fields’ (led by architects Kate Davies and Liam Young). Partly a critique of exploration fuelled by notions of progress, partly a venue for learning and thinking up interventions, the studio addresses interfaces between nature and technology through field trips to areas which are a mix of ‘iconic wilderness’ and site of technological intervention (e.g. mining, tourism). The following day, the studio was to embark on a new field trip which would lead students, mentors and invited guests to places such as Chernobyl and the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Unfortunately, the event was subject to a lot of rescheduling (speakers, rooms, times), which saw some of presentations being moved to the next day – to Kiev. On the positive side, the event had an exciting mixture of speakers which were available for discussion during breaks, as well as free food & drink. Also, the AA is known for its rather exciting bookshop (attention bargain hunters: relocation sale on 20 July 2011!). The main part of the day was held in a room which looked like a cross between a Finnish home sauna and an amphitheatre (size-wise closer to the former) and featured several monitors, for presentation slides as well as muted films relating to the event. I completely forgot to take photographs – which usually means I was too busy thinking and taking notes, so all in all an interesting event!
The first session focused on our society’s engagement with the ‘atomic’ and mostly encompassed work that engaged creatively and critically with issues around ‘the nuclear’ (I use the singular of ‘society’ on purpose as different societies show remarkably similar ways of engaging with nuclear power). For me, this session raised questions around our fascination with all things nuclear – from the fearful to the enthusiastic: What kind of active or creative engagement goes in the right direction? Can ‘enchantment’ be a hindrance or even be abused by those wishing to sustain the industry? This theme continued through the ‘cosmic session’ in the late afternoon.
Michael Madsen, director of ‘Into Eternity’ and participant in the field trip, talked about the inability of humankind to act responsibly with something that stays highly toxic for 100,000 years, especially as ‘there is always something new we are learning about this technology’. He proposed that working with nuclear power was like trying to manage a new fire we cannot put out. Currently, our attempts to manage it are clumsy and have no comparison: we have nothing that compares to it in our experience, not even human structures that have lasted this long. He argued that ‘if we had something comparable, we could talk about it’ (e.g. human structures that have lasted this long). Madsen sees his film as a prompt to address the future. A problem that current attempts to bury nuclear waste are running into, is not only the problem of human curiosity, but of the transformation of civilisations. Proposals to have adjoint manned archives to waste repositories could morph over time from mundane archives of knowledge to temples of a nuclear priesthood of ‘fire keepers’, which holds uninformed population at ransom.
That ‘nuclear temple’ already exists in our time has not only been noticed by computer game developers but by writer Will Wiles who talked about ruins of technological disasters as destinations for ‘toxic tourism’. To him, our facination with ruins (‘ruin lust’) has less to do with a romanticisation of the past than with these ‘failed spaces’ inspiring us to project ourselves into a future (near rather than far) and how it is to live in it, the ruin and its origins in an optimistic past highlighting its precariousness. This actually mirrors current debates in geography on how this ‘enchantment’ with ruins can active interventions in the future.
I was especially excited about the presence of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. I came across her work when still a fashion student, and I credit it/her for majorly contributing to my path from doing sustainable design research in fashion design to becoming a geographer doing art and design based interactions around ‘risk’. Only knowing her drawings and essays (by her as well as about her), it was very helpful to meet her in person to get a more complete sense of how she works. While, earlier in the day, Peter Wynne Kirby had been discussing the prevailing image of a ‘fear of mutation’ in Japanese pop culture , Cornelia Hesse-Honegger was bringing it much closer to home. At the heart of her presentation was the disparity between the ‘official line’ that artificial low radiation is safe and contrasting research that it is unsafe. She argued that many scientists abstain from researching this area, because of the danger of having funding (or their job) withdrawn. She uses her position as an artist, employing scientific method, to do research and publish both artwork and scientific studies that do not have to rely on the usual channels of science funding.
Image: Scentless plant bug from Würenlingen, Switzerland
Source: Website of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger
Here, Hesse-Honegger drew parallels between research that took place before the Vietnam war on ‘Agent Orange’ and other herbicides and defoliants used in warfare. These poisons were used despite experiments showing that these had mutagenic effects on organisms – with scientists claiming not to have anticipanted their consequences. She concluded her presentation by pointing out that similar silence is now surrounding mutations in children near uranium mines, battlefields littered with depleted uranium ammunition or in children of soldiers working with this kind of ammunition. Studies are suggesting that effects are psychological rather than physical while physical effects are clearly observable.
The absurdity of some of the activities surrounding nuclear power was brought out further by Oliver Goodhall’s work ‘Nuclear is good – what will it take to convince you?’, which compared (contrasted would be the wrong word here) his seemingly absurd proposals for managing nuclear threat with real life proposals follwing a very similar vein.
The ‘cosmic session’ had inofficially been started with references to space by other presenters, most notably Michael Madsen whose new project with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (motto: ‘Bringing the Benefits of Space to Earth’) revolves around mapping alien encounters. Officially, it started with comic artist Paul Duffield who presented his latest work ‘Signals’. Inspired by SETI and Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series, his graphic novel – or ‘visual poem’, as he called it – looks at space in terms of our desire for meaning. Rather than as seekers of knowledge, Duffield sees humans as seekers of meaning. He suggested that ‘engaging with the cosmic might engage us with the meaning of significance’. In this sense, ‘Signals’, represents an appeal to ‘always have in mind the cosmic scale and not just our next lunch’.
The question is whether a consideration of the cosmic would make us more liable to act irresponsibly (‘what does such a small act matter?’) or whether it would force us to act in more meaningful or meaning-making ways. A cynical comment on this could be this (and also applying to Will Wiles’ ‘toxic tourism’) would be this Douglas Adams quote which I found on the ‘Unknown Fields’ webpage:
‘The End of the Universe is very popular… People like to dress up for it… Gives it a sense of occasion’ (From: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
Hopefully, things look better than this!
Following on, writer Mark Pilkington illustrated how human fascination with the cosmic has (or is still being) abused as distraction. Calling it the ‘abuse of enchantment’, Pilkington used examples of the US government’s engineering of sites to would attract UFO enthusiasts in order to move citizen’s attention away from the truly sensitive sites to their use of superstition for the purpose of psychological warfare.
The question of what to do about all this misuse of technology or ‘enchantment’ with technology was at the center of Mario Petrucci’s presentation on ‘the artist and the self’ after Chernobyl (which could also have been called ‘Art is good – what will it take to convince you?’). While I could not really relate to his fish metaphor (and usually I can absolutely relate to fish metaphors, as many people know), he raised some interesting points (literally reciting several lists of points) about obstacles to counteracting the destructiveness of our society. Petrucci started by saying that we are caught up in patterns of destruction and inertia, which include a lack of willingness to break out of preframed thinking paths and concepts such as cost-benefit-analysis, near-term orientation, free markets and reducing all value to currency value. Instead, he proposed, that we need a ‘metaphoric economics’, based not on intellect alone but on imagination. And this is where art – any art: audio/visual, textual, sculptural – comes in for him as a combination of mid-wife, interface, vaccine and anti-dote.
To begin with, Petrucci conceded that art is not perfect: not only is there a lot of ‘bad art’ (war propaganda or art which is parasitic of spectacles, e.g. which would profit from a ‘Chernobyl industry’), but it also has a questionable reach. Quoting Woody Allen, he suggested that people are more likely to imitate ‘bad television’ than the visionary proposals of art. (A question discussed during the lunch break: does art merely reach the already converted?) Nevertheless, he maintained that ‘good art’ can do a number of useful things, if art : highlight problems, challenge or transform beliefs, assist in participation and render (itself? others?) proof against unhelpful ‘memes’ and perhaps ‘oust’ destructive imagination through offering more positive kinds of scenarios (‘art can put examples into people’s minds). How does art do it? According to Petrucci, it does so by ‘paying attention’, creating ”alertness nutrients’ for our world’, and by engaging the ‘entire self’.
Also important for Petrucci is that art puts disjunct pieces together into one ‘story of knowledge’. Somewhat counter to Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledges’, he refers to the creation of a story that encompasses all narratives, in order to show that ‘individuals, organisations, nations’ are all in this together. Another image Petrucci used in this context is Chernobyl as ‘not merely something that went wrong or that happened to us, but a material expression of the collective human self, of what makes us‘. He concluded his talk with an ‘action plan’ which, amongst other things, urged the audience to challenge ‘business as usual’ and voice a ‘yes’ to transformation and a better future, ‘even though we may not be sure yet what this ‘yes’ means’. A move from a enchantment with technological disaster, leading to passivity, towards an enchantment with art, leading to activity? Following Petrucci’s argumentation, this is perhaps the only option we’ve got. After all, we are a ‘young, groping species’. The problem is that wreaking destruction is a form of groping as well. Let’s hope its benevolent form proves more popular in the long term… I’d certainly prefer to dress up for that!
Just went to see ‘Into Eternity’, Michael Madsen’s film about the Finnish nuclear waste repository ‘Onkalo’. I thought it was a great film that, for me, linked together a variety of things I had come across recently. Amongst other things these were: the Experimental Ruins workshop at UCL, Neal Stephenson’s book ‘Anathem’ that I finally finished reading, the Arts Catalysts’ ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue I came across, and the paper I’m currently writing about Mikhail Bakthin and his potential relevance to the debate around materiality in geography.
During the film, I had to think of a question someone asked during the last few minutes of the ‘Experimental Ruins’ workshop: can you have ‘future ruins’ – and what would they be? ‘Into Eternity’ seems to deal with exactly that. The film asks how we communicate the danger of the site to whoever comes across it between the time it is sealed until the time it is ‘safe’ – in approximately 100,000 years. The film’s strength, I find, lies in drawing out the clumsy ways in which this question is approached by the people in charge of the project: should art be used – and, if yes, what kind of art? Should warning markers with symbols be used or should the site be left to be forgotten so that no one will approach it in the future? How will future archaeologists deal with the ‘ruin’? Will there be archaeologists? Maybe another species will have evolved altogether? What level or kind of technology will they have? Will the dangerous waste perhaps be useful for them? As the main problem, it seems, emerges human curiosity – people may be particularly encouraged to ‘have a look’ if the site is marked as dangerous – similar to the explorers opening up the Egyptian tombs.
To me, the focus on human ‘cluelessness’ feels less like a statement that the project is in the wrong hands – that the authorities are rather naive about what could happen in 100,000. While this also plays a role, one gets the impression, that such questions would be (or are) equally clumsily approached by all of humanity. How are we dealing with a responsibility and other events stretched over such unimaginable timespans? This problem has also been pointed out by authors such as Barbara Adam (did Madsen read ‘Timescapes’ or ‘Future Matters’?), Nigel Clark (‘Inhuman Nature’) and Mikhail Bakthin (the ‘cosmic terror’ that humans experience from certain space-time scales and configurations). Like Adam, the film points to the enormous difficulties (impossibility?) of not only dealing with the spatialities, but especially the temporalities of our (less than?) sophisticated technological products and byproducts: the history of human civilisation only takes up a fraction of the time our dealings nuclear waste will demand of us. Throughout the film, the people working on the Onkalo project point out that they are placing the long-term danger in the care of the only example of such a long timespan they can relate to – the Finnish ‘bedrock’. Rock seems to undergo infinitesimal changes over thousands of years whereas the surface is permanently in flux – whether it is changes in climate, wars or the evolution of new species. The ‘universal scale’ waste is moved into a space that is operates differently and can ‘comprehend’ such scales. This is reflected in a joke the Onkalo officials share in front of the camera – that when they get to the bottom of the dig, they might find a copper barrel – left from a previous unknown civilisation.
Trailer for the book (!) ‘Anathem’ by Neal Stephenson
The film also made me think of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction epic (close to 1,000 pages!) ‘Anathem’. The novel is based on the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the world portrayed in most of the book, what we know as scientists and other academics (definitely philosophers – not sure if social scientists are allowed!), have been confined to monastery-like institutions where they are banned from undertaking empirical research. This way of life was imposed on them by the ‘saecular world’ after three occasions where research went horribly wrong on a large scale (the book suggests nanotechnology, genetic engineering and space-time manipulation). Some scholars, however, mastered the ability to move between worlds or parallel ‘narratives’ – and potentially even manipulate them. And this is how the civilisation in Stephenson’s book ends up dealing with nuclear waste: it is handed over to the scholars who are capable of switching to a narrative where physical damage from radiation does not exist. Translated into our current vocabulary: scientists/academics, ostracised from the rest of society, get to live on top of all sorts of hazardous leftovers of what previous generations of their kind conceived (there was actually an interesting review of ‘Anathem’ in the journal nature along this theme called ‘Imprisoned by Intelligence). Unlike in Onkalo, these hazards are kept in very primitive above ground facilities as their guardians do not need protection. In the story, most characters still understand what these hazards are, however, some hazards have morphed into legends such as a banned weapon merely known as the ‘Everything Killers’. One could argue that already now, in our world, we hardly know what exact hazards are being dealt with in our vicinity.
A theme that runs through ‘Into Eternity’ is the emphasis the ‘Onkalo’ officials place on protecting future beings that come across the site. In the Arts Catalyst’s ‘Atomic’ exhibition catalogue, the opposite theme is highlighted: As James Flint points out in the ‘Atomic’ catalogue, states withold information about certain kinds of hazards from not only their ‘enemies’, but also their citizens ‘even if their personal welfare was thereby put at risk’. While this statement alludes to the time of the Cold War, the more recent Arts Catalyst project Dark Places seems to continue this theme and raise the question what is currently concealed from us and why. Are we being endangered or protected or is there perhaps no such clear line? Again, the exploratory activities offered alongside the Dark Places exhibition seem to return to the theme of curiosity…
Excerpt from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979)
One film that I would actually like to watch alongside ‘Into Eternity’ is ‘Stalker’, which got pointed out by a student in a recent group tutorial on science fiction portrayals of science. The film often seems to be portrayed as having predicted the desolation following events such as the Chernobyl disaster, thus inviting parallels between the mythic narrative of the film and the actual events. As artist-desiger John Coulthart goes as far as talking of the ‘Stalker meme’. One of his examples is the appropriating of the Stalker vocabulary and narrative: ‘scientists who study the forbidden region (and guides who take people there illegally) have referred to themselves as ‘stalkers”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl computer game trailer
Further, a computer game based on the story imbues Chernobyl’s reactor hall (or an artifact within it) with the wish-granting abilities of the ‘Room’ – a central motif in ‘Stalker’. Further, a number of amateur short films based on the film as well as the computer game can be found on the net. On the basis on such examples, one could argue that Chernobyl is on its way to becoming one of the ‘temples’ mentioned in the Flint’s essay in ‘Atomic’… but not how it was intended by its builders.
Penly nuclear power plant, France
Photo © Jürgen Nefzger / Courtesy Galerie François Paviot, Paris
On my first day in Geneva, I heard about a photo exhibition on nuclear power at the Red Cross Museum. Since its conception, nuclear power has been a subject of controversy stemming from a mixture of hope for a solution to our energy problems and fears about the side effects including the production of large quantities of material that can also be used in nuclear bombs. Recently, it has been in the UK media after Blair’s and Brown’s announcement of a ‘nuclear future’ for Britain.
One of my previous projects, ‘Mutation’ had been partly been inspired by a drawing of the artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger of mutated bugs near Chernobyl and other power stations. I found her engagement with the subject very interesting and was very curious how the artists featured in the Red Cross exhibition would portray radioactivity, which is, unless you count its visible release of energy, invisible. As the exhibition was taking place at a peace and human dignity promoting institution, I expected to see graphic images of bomb victims or deformities from the Chernobyl disaster, which was, indeed, the case. However, within this familiar imagery there were many unexpected twists and turns. The most troubling aspect was the temporal closeness of the images: these were not images from the time these disasters happened, but recent images from these sites: ghost towns, socially excluded survivors, their on-going struggle with their deformed and diseased bodies, people returning to contaminated sites to regain a sense of home. There were also very surprising images in this exhibition, for example, those of nuclear plants placed in idyllic landscapes. These illustrated extremely well people’s ambiguous relationship with this method of energy generation. A film about the history and impact of the discovery of radioactivity was also shown, and a diagram illustrating the ‘relationship between energy and armament’ covered the wall of the final room of the exhibition alongside nuclear power related magazine covers from around the world.
I will give a brief summary of my impressions from the photographs, but you can instead visit the online exhibition here.
Sedan Crater, Nevada nuclear test site, United States of America, 1996
Photo © Emmet Gowin / Pace MacGill Galery, New York
According to the leaflet, In-security ‘tells of a scientific journey from the discovery of radioactivity and the developments that followed in the fields of matter, space, energy, health and armament’. It also portrays the way the discovery and utilisation of radioactivity has changed and continues to influence our lives and the face (and substance) of the world. Ten photographers were featured in the exhibition, all of them asking questions about nuclear power with very different approaches.
The exhibition started with the theme of ‘Truth and Consequences’:
Emmet Gowin, a photographer who became fascinated with scarred landscapes after flying over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation shows haunting images of moon-like terrains. Although the series is called ‘Changing the Earth’, Gowin tries to communicate his feeling of irreversibility of these changes. This does not, however, mean for him that the landscape is ‘dead’ – it is ‘always deeply animated from within’.
Next were Mutsumi Tsuda’s unbelievable souvenirs from the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque: key rings of the bombs ‘Little Boy’, ‘Fat Man’ and the aeroplane ‘Enola Gay’ that dropped these bombs. Contrasting with this were Hiromi Tsuchida’s burnt and deformed artefacts from Hiroshima on the opposite wall.
Guillaume Herbaut exposed the daily realities of the survivors of the Nagasaki explosion who have to struggle with long-term diseases, discrimination and psychological trauma. He also documented the effects of Chernobyl on its surrounding population and their transformed relationship with the environment and with each other. It was interesting to see in Ricky Davida-Wood’s contribution that Cuba is taking care of a lot of Chernobyl’s children who cannot afford care in the Ukraine.
Gerd Ludwig communicates his feelings about the disrespect Soviet governments show for human life and the environment. His images of people who have returned to the contaminated zone because they would otherwise feel dislocated are particularly thought-provoking.
Geiger counter registering toxic levels of radiation, Muslyumovo / Chelyabinsk, Russia
Photo © Gerd Ludwig
What follows is the theme of ‘Precautions’, which mainly features images of functioning or ‘retiring’ nuclear plants, and nuclear weapons, such as Nigel Green’s images of the Dungeoness power plant, which tell a story of future-orientated engineering and the human ‘quest for unlimited energy’.
Jürgen Nefzger’s ‘Fluffy Clouds’ series reminded me of the environment of – and the controversy about – the nuclear plant near my home town, Kruemmel, which we visited with our physics class at school. Showing idyllic landscapes with a nuclear power station in their midst, Nefzger leaves plenty of room for mixed reactions.
Paul Shambroom’s aim was to ‘produce a concrete visualization of the hardware of nuclear annihilation’ right after the end of the cold war. At the time he hoped that nuclear weapons would be a thing of the past. The recent use and development of new nuclear weapons seem to have urged him to show this moment of hope.
Peter Goin uncovers the (material) history of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the consequences of the rush to produce nuclear bomb fuel.
After internalising this cocktail of images and commentaries, as well as the permanent exhibition about the Red Cross, wars and human rights violations, one can only hope that our ‘nuclear future’ will not shine too brightly…
Part 1: ‘Atomic’ Heroes
While I don’t enjoy reading comics, I have a (very big) soft spot for how interactions with matter are imagined in comic book worlds – both story-wise and visually. Of course, there are a great number of other ‘super-powers’ such as omni-linguism, empathy or superhuman strength, but the manipulation of matter takes up the greatest part of superhero abilities – or matter giving the superhero his or her powers. The mutant Mr M, for instance, has ‘complete control over the form and structure of matter’. However, matter is not solely imagined as a substance to be manipulated. It affects the heroes in many different ways. First of all, the weird ways of radiation, subatomic particles, alien elements, non-linearity etc create the superhero. When it comes to superpower origin stories, it is quite amusing to read how many physicists or army people get blown to pieces during ‘nuclear accidents’ of some sort (e.g. Captain Atom, Firestorm, Solar). Is that how the authors imagine the safety standards in power stations, laboratories or the military? I hope they are not talking from personal experience… ;)
Secondly, a lot of heroes, like Mister M, while being potentially able to have ‘total control’ over matter, also let themselves be controlled by it, for instance, by succumbing to alcoholism or needing a substance that maintains their supernatural abilities. Other characters, like ‘toad boy’ are involuntary producers of a harmful or intoxicating substance and are not in control at all over what their bodies and/or their environment make them do.
Even more bizarre than an imagined population of matter-manipulating (and – manipulated) superheroes is the imagined depopulation of said superheroes in an event called ‘M-Day’, which eliminated millions of ‘mutants’. According to Marvel Comics, the move was necessary, because too many superheroes had ‘accumulated’ after more than 40 years of publishing. This has resulted in an argument over who is going to stay or go – or who gets ‘remutated’…
A more charming tendency of comic book imagination is the theme that things do not always work how the god-like heroes intend them to work: one hero (Solar) tries to create or re-create the universe after his liking, but the universe has seems to have its own ideas and Solar finds that not only is Earth now populated with a large number of superheroes, but is also threatened by super-powered ‘Spider Aliens’. So, you can’t have your cake and eat it even in a comic universe, but at least one comforting (?) morale remains: Murphy’s Law is valid for all beings.
I have just received a phone call from my parents who live in Lower Saxony in Northern Germany. They have been retired for a few years now and seem to fill their newly gained spare time with an energetic exploration of the world. Not only do they try to travel to ‘historic sites’ as much as they can, but they also try to find out about things they have encountered in their life but never had a chance to fully explore them. To my surprise, their latest exploration consisted of a visit to the local exploration mine for nuclear waste storage.
The background to this is that my dad used to be a policeman. And like a lot of police men in Lower Saxony, he was involved in the protection of the nuclear waste transports in the area. This was – and still is – an extremely controversial topic back home. At school, a lot of my friends were involved in demonstrations against those transports and sometimes ended up in police custody. My dad was ‘on the other side of the fence’ with his colleagues, some of which had doubts regarding nuclear power, too (like the friends from school who now also have jobs ‘on the other side’). As the storage facilities are not very far from our hometown, he one day decided that he wanted to ‘know what really goes on there’ and organised a trip to Gorleben with his friends from the sports club. My mother was curious, too, so she went along as well.
As they told me on the phone, the visit was very exciting (‘we got to dress up in red overalls with the miners’ lamps’), informative (thanks to ‘a young friendly nuclear scientist’) and was made even more pleasant by good catering (‘they had anything you wanted and all very nice’) and art installations. They seemed baffled by a lot of the comparisons that the scientists made with naturally occurring radiation (‘apparently you are subject to more radiation on a transatlantic flight’) and by the elaborate crash tests the nuclear waste containers had undergone to meet the needed requirements (it was slightly surreal to hear my parents talk about ‘neutron bombardment’ during one of our peaceful Sunday afternoon chats).
I wonder how this newly gained knowledge fits in with our visit to the local salt museum a few months earlier. In this museum, there is a display is about collapsing salt mines and the unpredictability of geological features people tend to perceive as ‘fixed’. The exploratory mine in Gorleben is actually a salt mine, and I remember my dad saying after reading the blurb accompanying the exhibit: ‘and they want to store nuclear waste in a salt mine of all places??’ I am curious how their opinion and image of ‘radioactive matter’ develops … and I hope they send pictures of their ‘action man’ outfits.
Postscript: They did!