Ruins of the far future

‘Into Eternity’ trailer

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.