Category Archives: energy

A bodily experience of man-made earthquakes

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

The province of Groningen in The Netherlands has the largest gas field in Europe. Since the early days of extraction in 1959, the field has produced billions of cubic meters of the natural resource. The exploitation is a lucrative business but, because the extraction process is causing earthquakes, it is also ruining the lives of the local residents. Many of the houses in the area have been so badly damaged by the man-induced earthquakes that they are uninhabitable.

Gas field in Groningen. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg/Getty Images, via The Guardian

House in Groningen. Image via CBS

Sissel Marie Tonn‘s artwork The Intimate Earthquake Archive is an attempt to understand and communicate the psychosomatic effects that these man-made seisms have on the people who live in the area. The research behind the installation combined an exploration of the vast amount of data available in scientific archives (from core samples to sand and soil lab tests, to data on seismic activity recorded by the Dutch Meteorological Institute or KNMI) with a collection of the personal stories told by the inhabitants of Groningen, who describe how they feel the earthquakes passing through their bodies and homes.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: ©Joeri Thiry, STUK

The artist collaborated with Jonathan Reus to turn the digital siesmic archive of the KNMI into a tactile archive, one which can be physically accessed and experienced by the visitor through their body when they don a specially-designed waistcoat with embedded surface (skin) and bone conduction transducers.

The artists have selected 12 earthquakes of cultural and political significance to be part of this sensory archive, and have worked to transform these data sets into vibratory compositions that move across the body and at the subsurface of the skeleton, producing a composition of tremors on the surface of the body – in the same way the seismic waves move across the land.

The Intimate Earthquake Archive is not only an interactive installation that invites “deep listening” within the body but also a reflection on how anthropocentric geological changes might be recorded, experienced and how they can be reproduced for other people in order to help them attune themselves to a future marked by man-made geological changes.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive, 2017. Video

I was supposed to go and experience the work back in February when it was exhibited at STUK in Leuven (Belgium) during the Artefact festival. Unfortunately, one of the joys of the winter was that i got very ill and had to cancel the trip. My only consolation was that Sissel Marie Tonn has kindly agreed to be interviewed about her project:

Hi Sissel! The The Intimate Earthquake Archive started with a research into the blurring between nature and culture in The Netherlands. What is so special about it in the country? Could you give a few examples?

I guess I believe that the scale of anthropocentric modifications of the biosphere has made this separation between nature and culture somewhat impossible. What I find interesting living in The Netherlands is how land management and stewardship is so integral to the Dutch cultural history and mentality.

When researching the phenomenon of the man-nmade earthquakes in Groningen I also started looking into the peat industry in the country, emerging in the 11th century, up until around the 1960s. Peat is is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation and other organic matter that can be used as fuel, and the extraction methods of peat was eerily similar to the mining of fossil fuels today. When the reserves most easily accessed had been exhausted peat diggers developed new methods and technologies to reach further into the bogs and mires. This industry has left a visible mark on the landscape, where some areas look like thin-toothed combs of land strips cutting through the water-filled bogs. The peat industry has made it into the cultural history of the country as well – from social history of the poverty of the peat diggers, to developments of canals to distribute the peat, to museums, street names and archives commemorating this use of the land, and the benefits and repercussions it had on culture and life in general. Looking at this part of history I became interested in the idea of how the gas-induced earthquakes that have taken place in the province of Groningen since the mid 80s would enter into Dutch cultural history as a form of archive as well.

I had a look at this phenomenon of man-made earthquake and at the protests of the local population. From what i could read online, it’s very damaging for the houses. But you are more interested in the intricacies between nature and culture of course.

Could you explain the impact these earthquake are having on the human body of course but also maybe (if this has been documented) on the environment in general?

The starting point for this research was a curiosity towards how living with man-made ecological change changed one’s perceptions of place. I had a hunch that experiencing subtle or profound changes within ones immediate environment somehow amplified a sense of a presence of that space, giving an opportunity to grasp the interconnectedness between body and surroundings. This was something I had been working on for a while, but in 2015 I heard about this strange phenomenon – man-made earthquakes. I got in contact with some people who were living in the town where the gas was first discovered in the 60s – really lovely people that hosted me while being there.

I became interested in how they described the earthquakes: physical sensations, metaphors describing how they sounded and felt, as well as the stories they told of dealing with the bureaucracy around damage claims towards the NAM (Dutch earth gas company), the feeling of being ignored by the state and politicians for decades, and the anxiety of not knowing what could happen. The aspect of uncertainty connected with the phenomenon, and the fact that the scientifically predicted “highest magnitude” has changed (and is, essentially, impossible to calculate) brings quite a lot of anxiety and fear to the people living in this area.

I was interested in how some people claimed to wake up seconds before an earthquake was felt. To me this show a tangible relationship between what philosopher Felix Guattari calls the interconnection between the ‘social’, the ‘mental’ and the environmental ecologies. Guattari stated in his essay ’Three Ecologies’ already in ’86 that we would never be able to solve the ecological crisis without addressing these other ‘ecologies’, and I find that very interesting in the context of the man-made earthquakes. When people feel neglected by the state and industry it is as if they develop bodily attunements towards these changes – almost as a mode of survival. At around the same time I was also visiting various governmental institutes that were gathering information on the phenomenon – a huge warehouse full of all the core samples that has ever been taken from the ground, laboratories researching new opportunities for extraction in the material samples from the earth, and the seismologists working on the huge digital database of all the seismic activity recorded in the area. These very different encounters sparked the idea of creating the Intimate Earthquake Archive.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view at Artefact festival, STUK. Photo: Photo: Kristof Vrancken

How did you recreate the feeling of earthquake on bodies? Did you work with people living in the area to have feedback on how close the sensations are compared to what they feel?

The Intimate Earthquake Archive is not an attempt to recreate the feeling of an earthquake per se – it’s not an earthquake simulator. It is rather the gesture of taking a digital seismic archive (managed by the Dutch Meteorological Institute and which can be accessed here) and bring it into the realm of the sensing body – to create an opportunity to know about this phenomenon through the body (rather than the overwhelming amount of scientific information already gathered). I found it interesting that the meteorological institute had made this archive public, yet the data one can retrieve on there is very abstract to someone without specialised knowledge.

Together with artist Jonathan Reus, as well as with the technical help of Marije Baalman and Carsten Tonn-Petersen, I developed The Intimate Earthquake Archive, which connects the digital seismic archive of the man-made earthquakes in Groningen with the sensing body of the visitor. We have designed a wearable interface with embedded surface (skin) and bone conduction transducers.

We have chosen 12 earthquakes of cultural and political significance to be part of this sensory archive, and have transformed these archival data sets into vibratory compositions that move across the body and at the subsurface of the skeleton. Visitors choose which earthquake compositions they want to experience by positioning themselves within a network of long-wave radio transmitting core samples, where proximity to the samples increases the intensity of experiencing that entry. The vibrations move across the skin similarly to how the earthquakes moved across the land, and are intended to inspire a ‘deep listening’ experience within the body.

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

Sissel Marie Tonn, The Intimate Earthquake Archive. Installation view STUK. Photo: Kristof Vrancken

What do visitors experience exactly? What are the sensations on the body like? How strong or unpleasant is the feeling?

The visitors put on the vests, as well as noise cancelling ear protection muffs. Then they enter the installation where, as they approach different core samples, compositions of vibrations play out on their bodies. The transducers are distributed so that there’s a mixture of vibration of the skin through parts of the body, and direct transduction of sound through the bones at other parts of the body. So what they feel is a composition for these different modes of experience, based on the seismic recordings, which communicates information on how the earth was vibrating along the x, y and z directions (measured at stations at multiple distances from the epicentre of the earthquakes). The compositions take advantage of the multiple types of vibrations that the vests allow the visitors to feel. For example with bone-conduction you have the sensation of sound coming from within the body, and from no particular direction, whereas with haptic transduction of the skin, it’s really a tactile experience. These different dimensions combined to create a kind of deep listening experience that’s internalised through the body, and this experience is strengthened by the earphones that block out all other environmental sound.

Did you manage to answer the question mentioned in the description of your work “is the sensation of a man-made earthquake fundamentally different than the sensation of a natural one?”

First of all I think there is just something fundamentally weird about the whole concept of ‘man-made earthquakes’. Earthquakes is often connected with the ‘force’ of nature, something outside of our control. But now to a larger and larger degree humans have the capacity to act as geological agents. Therefore I think there is something jarring to the experience of an earthquake that is produced by our dependence on fossil fuels. Furthermore, what I mentioned earlier about how the occurrence of these earthquakes are entwined in mistrust toward the government and industry, resulting from years of neglect and the feeling of being silenced to protect industry, as well as the anxiety of the unknown. These social and mental factors play into the experience of an environmental change that is anthropogenic, and needs to be taken into consideration.

I’m quite curious about the core samples made of sand stone that hang over the head of the audience. Why did you use sand stone?

I used sandstone because this is the kind of stone where the gas is found. I liked the idea that these hanging objects in a way represent the beginning and the end of the phenomenon (core samples being drilled to research whether that particular sedimentary strata contains gas, and the earthquake resulting from the drilling). The samples are kindly donated to us by the TNO (The Geological Survey of The Netherlands). We have been very lucky to get help and information from a lot of scientists working on the phenomenon in The Netherlands.

Why is it more important to you to transfer a physical experience rather than provide information about the phenomenon?

I am interested in moments where relations between our body and the environment around us are revealed to us, and perhaps make us more aware of our place in and effect on the earth system. I am particularly fascinated by how evolutionary processes, such as our senses and perceptual modes of attention, affect our ability to perceive environmental changes, and thereby affect our capacity to act upon them. In that sense I think it’s important to move away a bit from the more cerebral aspects of dealing with the issue of man-made ecological change. Therefore I often create wearable ‘tools’ that challenge the body’s preconfigured modes of perception, for instance by amplifying signals of environmental changes that slip below the radar of our senses, or which exist in a time other than the present. I am interested in how these ‘tools’ can create an awareness of the reciprocal relationship between the body and the surrounding environment, as well as question how artifacts, forms of knowledge, and architecture, shape our perception of the environment. What can we take from these situations, where people living with man-made ecological changes start relying more on the senses of their own bodies than that of scientific measurement systems? I am interested in implicating the body of the visitor, of showing that these changes (in the larger picture) will fundamentally affect the body, and perhaps that we need to attune our bodies more towards these changes in order to act upon them.

Sissel Marie Tonn in collaboration with Jonathan Reus-Brodsky, Sensory Cartographies (video still), 2016

Sissel Marie Tonn in collaboration with Jonathan Reus-Brodsky, Sensory Cartographies, 2016

You designed The Intimate Earthquake Archive as “a kind of test ground for the visitor to attune herself to a future marked by man-made geological change.” Is this something you are interested in pursuing beyond TIEA? And which kind of other man-made geological change do you think you should brace ourselves for?

I am working with Jonathan Reus on an ongoing research-based project called Sensory Cartographies, in which we develop worn biometric and body-extension instruments that challenge the body’s pre-conditioned modes of paying attention. We see them as way-finding apparatuses for reshaping a worldview – knowing momentarily without focus – creating an alternative cartography that is attentive to subtle fluctuations of change.

Sissel Marie Tonn, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. Image courtesy of the artist

Sissel Marie Tonn, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. Image courtesy of the artist

You have recently installed another of your artworks, Becoming Escargotapien at the Jan van Eyck Open Studios in Maastricht. What is the project about?

Becoming Escargotapien is a project I started last year. It deals with the many ways in which the human body is fundamentally entangled with the surrounding world. Living in a world where bi-products of industry seep into our bodies, where ocean acidification bleaches coral reefs and perforate the shells of mollusks, and plastics make it back into our bodies, it seems urgent to me to think about what power-laden distinctions we draw between nature and culture (as we talked about earlier), but also between human and non-human, and between body and environment in general. The Escargotapien is a speculative species I have invented, a kind of tool to explore these distinctions through a story.

The installation that I set up at Jan van Eyck consists of a spoken ‘tale’ that connects the developments of calcified matter in organisms during the Cambrian Explosion with contemporary use of 3d printing technologies used in regenerative medicine. Specifically, it deals with the use of mother-of-pearl as material for reconstructing human bone: Some 550 million years ago, when the oceans underwent a sudden mineralization, the soft organisms of these ancient waters started developing spinal cords and exoskeletons. From then on, species developed along separate paths. But something in the body still recall this shared past, making this marriage of bone and nacre (mother-of-pearl) possible today – bone doesn’t easily forget its mineral origins. Similarly, fossils of the deep past can reveal astounding facts about their environments through material traces embedded in the petrified bone.

The tale is told through a direct vibratory connection between the bone of the visitor and the 3d-printed ‘porosified’ fossil making up the listening devices (the sound is transmitted through a bone-conducting transducer). The tale almost becomes embedded into the body of the visitor, as a felt memory of vibration, that they take with them – for a while at least.

The installation also contained an architectural intervention into the studio space, where the floor was raised in order to bring visitors close to the windows. The movements of the outside world is thus brought into closer relation with the immersive experience of listening/being in the space. The soft ‘mat’ covering the platform requires the visitor to balance and move differently around the space, while being made aware of the repercussions of such small perceptual changes and repositioning of the body, through the audio.

Thanks Sissel!

The Intimate Earthquake Archive was at Artefact Festival, STUK, Leuven, BE and is shown again as part of Hyberobjects Exhibition which opens on 13 April at Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, TX, USA.

Perpetual Uncertainty. Inhabiting the atomic age

Susan Schuppli, Trace Evidence (video still), 2016. ©-Polly-Yassin

Nuclear cultures, its promises, dangers and dilemmas, are never far away from media headlines. Sometimes the stories are terrifying (as in Kim and the Donald fighting over the title of “World’s Most Irresponsible Leader”.) Other times, the stories echo events or political choices from the past: radioactive waste that keeps on piling up, toxic legacies of European bomb tests in its African colonies, seaborne radiation from Fukushima nuclear disaster detected on the U.S. West Coast, etc.

Perpetual Uncertainty, an exhibition that opened a few weeks ago at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, reminds us that the nuclear forms the backdrop of our lives, for thousands of generations to come. And even beyond.

The show brings together artists from across Europe, the USA and Japan to investigate experiences of nuclear technology, radiation and the complex relationship between knowledge and deep time.

Perpetual Uncertainty is amazingly informative and stimulating. It helps the public face its anxieties by visualizing every material and immaterial aspect of nuclear technology: the extraction of uranium from the ground, the production of energy, the repercussions of deliberate and accidental explosions and the thorny subject of radioactive waste. Through each of work in the show and each aspect they explore we get to realize how much man-made radiation has transformed our understanding of materiality, knowledge and time.

While the exhibition helps us comprehend what it means to inhabit the atomic, it also leaves space for the impasses and dilemmas that characterizes nuclear culture, a subject which, as we know, still brings far more questions than answers.

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Courageous, 2016

Suzanne Treister, NATO, 2004-2008. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Z33 is an ideal venue for a reflection on nuclear culture. First, because Z33 is a research-based institution that explores the critical perspectives that art, design and architecture can add to the understanding of the contemporary challenges and dilemma that society is facing today.

Furthermore, Z33 is located in Hasselt, Belgium. Now you might not automatically associate Belgium with nuclear blasts. Yet, the country is disturbingly linked to the bombs that were dropped on Japan by the U.S.A. back in 1945. At the time, Belgium had made itself incredibly rich by extracting the mineral resources of its colony, the Belgian Congo. One of the mines was located in Shinkolobwe and had been identified as a source of uranium. The quality of the mineral was so high that it was sold to the U.S. and supplied nearly a large part of the uranium used in the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, and much of the related product of plutonium that went into the one that destroyed Nagasaki.

Here’s a few lines about some of the works in the show:

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, Kuannersuit, Kvanefjeld, 2016

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, Kuannersuit, Kvanefjeld, 2016

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, Kuannersuit, Kvanefjeld, 2016. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, Kuannersuit, Uranium ore from the experimental mine at Kvanefjeld, 2016. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

The region of Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland is the site of rich rare earth mineral resources and large deposits of uranium. It is also a place of incredible beauty with unspoiled mountains, wooden houses and deep blue fjords.

Foreign mining companies have shown great interest in Kvanefjeld and a recent relaxation of regulations by the government of Greenland has opened up the possibility of creating an open pit mine there.

Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway spent the summer 2016 traveling in South Greenland, meeting residents, politicians, farmers and government officials and uncovering the deep divisions surrounding the mining project.

For some, the mining activity is a means of gaining autonomy from Denmark and keeping younger generations employed.

However, opponents to the project believe that courting foreign investors amounts to swapping one form of dependency for another, with the added risk of environmental degradation, health hazard for the community and their livestock as well as a threat to traditional ways of living from the land and the sea.

According to environmentalist NGOs, the mining project does not ensure that environmental risks are reduced as much as is practically possible. For example, polluting tailings from the refinery are disposed of in Lake Taseq high up in the Narsaq valley river system. From here, there is a high risk that radioactive isotopes and toxic chemicals will enter the groundwater, rivers, fiords and the sea.

The divisions within the local communities illuminate the dilemmas of our times and underline that the quest for energy and ‘progress’ has trade-offs and costs for society and the whole ecosystem.

Yelena Popova, Unnamed (Video still), 2011

Yelena Popova’s Unnamed video essay combines personal and archival footage to relate the story of her hometown in Russia.

Ozyorsk (codenamed City 40) was a “secret” town, built to accommodate the scientists and technicians of a plutonium factory along with their family. The residents were forbidden from leaving the city or making any contact with the outside world. For decades, this city of 100,000 people did not appear on any maps.

The government went to great lengths to ensure that the city’s occupants would be content with their secluded lives: they enjoyed high quality healthcare and education, generous wages, beautiful buildings and parks as well as well-stoked grocery stores.

The film goes on to reveal how, in 1957, the plant was the site of the Kyshtym nuclear disaster, the third-most serious nuclear accident ever recorded. The Soviet managed to keep the explosion secret for years. It’s only in 1976 that scientist Zhores Medvedev made the nature and extent of the disaster known to the world.

As the film develops, the representation of the disaster becomes a metaphor for the failure of science in the twentieth century and the difficulty to both understand a phenomenon (thus comprehending its details) and knowing it (by being aware of its consequences and significance).

Today, the city of Ozyorsk is still home to most of Russia’s nuclear reserves and people living in the area remain exposed to high levels of radiation.

David Mabb, A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

David Mabb, A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament combines William Morris fabrics with anti-nuclear symbols and slogans. The association is less arbitrary than it might seem. The British Ministry of Defence used the Morris Tudor Rose print (1883) for over thirty years (from the 1960s through to the 1990s) to furnish the officers’ quarters inside its nuclear submarines.

In 2014, David Mabb visited one of those submarines, the decommissioned HMS Courageous which the public can now visit naval dockyard in Plymouth, on the southwest coast of England.

Famous 19th century socialist Morris would have probably been upset to see his designs used inside instruments of war and violence. Mabb reappropriates Morris’ fabrics and pairs them with anti-nuclear protest signs and slogans from different times and countries.

The works are presented on old-school freestanding projection screens. Distributed over two exhibition rooms, they look like an actual protest march.

As Mabb explained the title of the work in The Bulletin:

The work is called A Provisional Memorial to Nuclear Disarmament.” “Provisional” because Britain’s Conservative government has—despite considerable opposition—decided to go ahead with the commissioning of a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines armed with nuclear missiles. And just last week, it confirmed that it is going to proceed with Hinkley Point, the first nuclear power station to be built in Britain for two decades.

Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, Temporary Index (Dessel), 2017. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Will people in a distant future be aware of radioactive sites? Will they understand the language we try to develop now to warn them of the danger? Thomson and Craighead’s Temporary Index is a totem that marks both time and space.

First, the totem acts as a signpost, mapping the distance between Z33 and the Category A Radioactive Waste Facility to be built at Dessel, 44km from the gallery.

Temporary Index also counts down the seconds that remain before the nuclear waste facility is finally deemed safe for humans. The numbers displayed on the screen are overwhelming. Yet, the radioactive substances they point to have a super short life compared to others. They are low-level radioactive waste that will require ‘only’ 300 years until they no longer represent a threat. Other waste disposal facilities have to provide protection for over hundreds of thousands of years, which far outstrips the understanding that most of us have of time.

Temporary Index, Chernobyl Reactor #4, Ukraine, an earlier version of the Temporary Index, was exhibited at the Perpetual Uncertainty show in Umea last year. It marked the distance from the museum to the Chernobyl reactor and visualized the 20,000 years of radioactive decay necessary for the Ukrainian location to be safe, providing us with a glimpse into the vast time scales that define the universe in which we live, but which also represent a future limit of humanity’s temporal sphere of influence.

Isao Hashimoto, 1945-1998 (video still), 2003

Isao Hashimoto, 1945-1998 (video still), 2003

Isao Hashimoto’s video doesn’t need much explanation. His video plots on a map every single known nuclear test and explosion that took place across the world from 1945 until 1998. 2053 in total. It’s shocking to discover how gaily the UK and France have tested their nuclear weapons in distant territories.

Shimpei Takeda, Trace. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Shimpei Takeda, Trace

Shimpei Takeda used photo-sensitive material to physically expose the traces of radiation present in the samples of the contaminated soils he collected throughout the landscape surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

He used no camera for the photographic process. He simply placed the radioactive soils on photo-sensitive films in a light-tight container and left them there for a month. Radioactive substances emit radioactivity to expose gelatin halide on the surface of photographic film.

The number and size of the white dots are proportional to the amount of radiation present in the soil.

Shuji Akagi, Decontamination of My Yard, Fukushima City, 2013

Shuji Akagi, Fukushima City, 2011-2017. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, Shuji Akagi has been documenting the changes his hometown is going through. Most of his images feature big plastic blue or green bags and tarps. They seem to be everywhere: in the streets, in the fields, in people’s backyard, etc. They are filled with contaminated soil. In his photos you also see how people have resumed their daily life. Only now they have to navigate around the plastic-wrapped manifestation of invisible radiation.

It has been estimated that the decontamination process could take more than 100 years.

More works and images from the exhibition:

Dave Griffiths, Deep Field (UnclearZine), 2016. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Dave Griffiths, Deep Field (UnclearZine), 2016. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Eva and Franco Mattes, The Last Film, 2016. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Ken & Julie Yonetani, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations, 2013. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Robert Williams and Bryan McGovern Wilson, Cumbrian Alchemy, 2013. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Exhibition view of Perpetual Uncertainty at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Cécile Massart, Laboratoires, 2013. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Cécile Massart, Colours of Danger for Belgian High-Level Radioactive Waste, 2017. Exhibition view at Z33. Photo by Kristof Vrancken

Kota Takeuchi, Take Stone Monuments Twice, 2013-2016

Kota Takeuchi, Take Stone Monuments Twice, 2013-2016. Photo via z33 research

Kota Takeuchi, Take Stone Monuments Twice, 2013-2016. Photo via artsy

Nuclear Culture presents: Perpetual Uncertainty is at Z33 in Hasselt until 10 December 2017. Entrance is free.

More photos from the exhibition on Z33 flickr set and on mine.

Perpetual Uncertainty is produced by Bildmuseet, Umeå and curated by Ele Carpenter with the support of Z33 and Arts Catalyst London.

Related stories: Sonic Radiations. A nuclear-themed playlist commissioned by Z33 for the exhibition and The Nuclear Culture Source Book.

The Nuclear Culture Source Book

nuclear-culture-coverThe Nuclear Culture Source Book, edited by Ele Carpenter, a curator, writer and one of the driving forces behind the Nuclear Culture Research Group.

On amazon USA and UK.

Black Dog Publishing writes: The Nuclear Culture Source Book is a resource and introduction to nuclear culture, one of the most urgent themes within contemporary art and society, charting the ways in which art and philosophy contribute to a cultural understanding of the nuclear. The book brings together contemporary art and ideas investigating the nuclear Anthropocene, nuclear sites and materiality, along with important questions of radiological inheritance, nuclear modernity and the philosophical concept of radiation as a hyperobject.

This book was published at the end of last year. 5 years after the Fukushima disaster. 30 years after Chernobyl. Even Fukushima sounds like a distant memory now but if we start to think in terms of nuclear deep time (where the safety of the storage of radioactive waste underground has to be guaranteed for the next hundreds of thousands of years if not far more), it actually happened less than a micro second ago.

Merilyn Fairskye, Plant Life (Chernobyl) Reactor 4

The Nuclear Culture Source Book contains artworks and essays that attempt to respond to the current nuclear age. This is an age characterized by an environment made radiological by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. But also by the long term effects of the fallout from weapon testing and the thorny issue of long-term storage and occasional leaking of nuclear waste repositories. Add to the picture, a vast infrastructure involving mining, energy production, waste transport, etc.

How do we take responsibility for high-level waste that has to be kept safe from earthquakes, climate change, volcanic activity and container corrosion for up to one million years? Is this even possible? Do we risk forgetting this nuclear background when its vast timescale exceeds our own understanding of time? When radiation cannot be perceived directly by our human senses? Will we ever stopped being haunted by a threat that remains invisible, odourless, silent?

This book illustrates the role of art in creating a visual sensory framework that helps us grapple with nuclear culture. It also demonstrates that there are ways to approach, debate and articulate the many political, aesthetical and social issues surrounding a phenomenon that eclipses our standard notions of time, materiality and danger.

Thomson & Craighead, Temporary Index, 2016. Image: Arts Catalyst

The Nuclear Culture Source Book accompanies the exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty at the Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden, but it offers far more than your usual exhibition catalogue. It presents more artworks than the exhibition does and it contains outstanding essays. I was particularly fascinated by a text in which artist and writer Susan Schuppli so eloquently exposes facts i had never heard about such as the spontaneous nuclear fission of an uranium deposit in Gabon two billion years ago or Sweden’s role in forcing the Soviet Union to officially announce the Chernobyl disaster.

Dark nuclear times have suddenly been brought back to our minds now that there’s an obtuse and raving lunatic in control of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. A book like The Nuclear Culture Source Book is not going to make us feel better about the future of the world but it might at least enable us to face it with a better informed and clearer head. I highly recommend that you browse the publication if you get a chance. It’s only January but i’m already pretty sure that this one is going to be among my favourite books of 2017.

A quick run through some of the works i discovered in the book:

Trevor Paglen, Trinity Cube. Installation view, Don’t Follow the Wind, 2015. Image via elephant mag

Trevor Paglen’s Trinity Cube brings together two key moments in the nuclear age. The Fukushima disaster and the early experiments of nuclear weapons. The outer layer of this jewel-like cube is made of irradiated broken glass collected from inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. The inner core of the sculpture is made out of Trinitite, the mineral created on 16 July, 1945 when the U.S. exploded the world’s first atomic bomb in New Mexico, heating the desert’s surface to the point where it sand turned into glass.

The cube can be found inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone as part of the Don’t Follow the Wind project. The artwork will be viewable by the public when the Exclusion Zone opens again, anytime between 3 and 30,000 years from the present.

Isao Hashimoto, 1945-1998

Isao Hashimoto made a simple but strikingly disturbing time-lapse animation of the 2,053 nuclear explosions on earth between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998. The video leaves out all tests since 1998.

Jane and Louise Wilson, The Toxic Camera, Konvas Autovat, 2012. Photo: likeyou

Jane and Louise Wilson, The Toxic Camera, 2012

The Toxic Camera is inspired by the film Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks made by Vladimir Shevchenko in the days immediately following the accident. The film crew was the first in the disaster zone following the meltdown of the power plant on April 26, 1986. They shot continuously for more than 3 months, documenting the disaster’s impact on the local population and the cleanup efforts. Radiation levels were so high that parts of the film were marked with white blotches from radiation. Shevchenko died from radiation exposure before the film was released. As for his 35mm Konvas Avtomat camera, it was so highly radioactive that it had to be buried on the outskirts of Kiev.

The Wilsons’ film explores interconnecting stories from interviews conducted with Chernobyl survivors and with Shevchenko’s colleagues, 25 years after the incident.

Morris&Co fabric, Tudor Rose, 1883, used to upholster British nuclear submarine interiors. Photo: Nuclear Culture

The Morris & Co company’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ fabric was used to upholster British Nuclear Submarines from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s.
It seems that, like many other Victorian manufacturers, Morris & Co produced wallpapers rich in pigments such as locally mined arsenic green. However, due to the action of damp mould, the wallpapers emit poisonous gases which made the occupants of houses ill. William Morris apparently refused to believe that this was the case, and only reluctantly gave up producing such wallpapers.

Taryn Simon, Black Square XVII, 2006–ongoing. Void for artwork. Permanent installation at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow

In the year 3015, a black square made from vitrified nuclear waste will occupy a now empty space in at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. The nuclear waste is made of organic liquids, inorganic liquids, slurries, and chemical dusts from a nuclear plant in Kursk as well as from pharmaceutical and chemical plants in the greater Moscow region. Through a process of vitrification, radioactive waste will be compacted and solidified into a mass resembling polished black glass. This mass is currently stored in a concrete reinforced steel container, within a holding chamber surrounded by clay-rich soil, at the Radon nuclear waste disposal plant in Sergiev Posad, 72 km northeast of Moscow. It will remain there until its radioactive properties have lowered to levels deemed safe for human exposure. Cast within the black square is also a cylindrical steel capsule containing a letter to the future written by Taryn Simon.

The work is part of the Black Square series, a collection of objects, documents, and individuals within a black field that has precisely the same measurements as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting of the same name.

Hilda Hellström, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster (video still), 2012. Image via cfile daily

Hilda Hellström, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster

Hilda Hellstrom, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster

Hilda Hellström’s The Materiality of a Natural Disaster is a set of radioactive food kitchen artifacts made from soil and clay taken from the exclusion zone surrounding the Daiichi nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan. The objects are irradiated, but within “allowable” levels. Hellström collected the irradiated soil with Naoto Matsumura, a former rice farmer and the last resident living inside the exclusion zone. The pots are accompanied by a video that documents Naoto Matsumura’s daily routine. He lives without water nor electricity on his land that won’t be farmable for at least thirty years.

Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations

Crystal Palace is comprised of 31 chandeliers, as many as there are nuclear nations in the world. The size of each chandelier reflects the number of operating nuclear plants in that nation. Antique chandelier frames have been refitted with uranium glass and UV lighting. Once switched on, the UV bulbs cause the glass beads to glow with an eerie green. The title of the work references the grandiose building designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, alluding to human ambition, technological development and the costs and consequences that inevitably accompany them.

Suzanne Treister, NATO 2004-ongoing. From the series NATO

Shuji Akagi, Fukushima Traces, 2011-2013. Photo via Osiris

Shuji Akagi’s Fukushima Traces chronicles the city’s decontamination process and life after the tsunami. His visual diary and annotations reveal governmental billboards of encouragement to the population, contaminated soil from playgrounds and sports fields dug up and covered with blue tarpaulin, trees stripped bare to remove contaminated leaves and branches, cracks on the road, etc.

In the book of the project, Akagi writes: “I would like to record as much of what happened within the sphere of my everyday life. No matter how the media would cover the shining city-scape in the glow of recovery, I want to document the lingering scars of my surroundings.”

Brian McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams, Cumbrian Alchemy, 2014

Cumbrian Alchemy, by Brian McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams, explores the connections between the nuclear industry of the Energy Coast in Cumbria and Lancashire and the archaeology and folklore of the region. The performance in the photo above was inspired by Thomas Sebeok‘s proposal in 1984 that an Atomic Priesthood of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and other experts could be effective in communicating information over vast expanses of time.

smudge studio, Look Only at the Movement (route map), 2012-15

smudge studio, Look Only at the Movement (digital stills), 2012-15

In 2012, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse from smudge studio followed the routes along which nuclear waste is moved in the American West from sites of waste generation to disposal stations. Equipped with a car-mounted video camera, they documented storage infrastructures and engineered landscapes such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where nuclear weapons research is conducted; the former site of a plutonium plant in Colorado; the Department of Energy’s TRANSCOM in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which monitors, 24/7 and via satellite, the transportation of nuclear waste in trucks; the uranium tailings disposal cell at Mexican Hat in Utah and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, America’s only deep geologic repository where nuclear waste is buried 1,250 feet below the surface in a salt dome, etc.

Look Only at the Movement exposes the encounters of two worlds that seem to ignore each other: the travelers on the American Highway and the network of nuclear waste transport, disposal cells, and sites of remediation. It also demonstrates how the movement of nuclear waste through public spaces is (and will long continue to be) a condition of contemporary life, landscape, and infrastructure design. Yet, citizens, architects, and engineers have virtually no models for how to design and maintain infrastructures capable of safely containing nuclear materials for the millions of years required by their potency.

The exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty is at the Bildmuseet in Umea (Sweden) until 16 April 2017.

Included in the exhibition: Inheritance, a precious heirloom made of gold and radioactive stones.

Related stories: High-Speed Horizons. Using sonic booms and nuclear energy to power aviation, Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, Relics of the Cold War.

Inheritance, a precious heirloom made of gold and radioactive stones

Erich Berger and Mari Keto, INHERITANCE, 2016

If there’s one exhibition i’m dying to see at the moment, it’s Perpetual Uncertainty / Contemporary Art in the Nuclear Anthropocene at Bildmuseet in Umeå. The show brings together artists who respond to our contemporary ‘nuclear age,’ an age punctuated by disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and their far-reaching fallout, marked by continuous nuclear weapon developments, tests and threats but also by long-term storage of radioactive waste.

One of the works in the Bildmuseet exhibition attempts to make sense of the vast timescales involved in the topic. INHERITANCE, by Erich Berger and Mari Keto, is a set of jewelry artifacts made of gold and other precious metals but also of naturally mined Thorianite and Uraninite. The presence of these radioactive stones renders the accessories practically and symbolically unwearable for deep time, until the radionuclide transmute naturally into a stable and non radioactive isotope of lead.

Erich Berger and Mari Keto, INHERITANCE, 2016

The jewellery pieces are kept inside a stackable concrete container which contains a time piece modeled after a Fenjaan water clock (one of the first instruments to measure time), as well as all the instruments necessary to measure and record the amount of radiation remaining in the jewellery: an electroscope, a rod with a piece of fur to electro-statically charge the electroscope, a timer for recording the time as well as instructions that detail the rituals to be performed generation after generation until it is safe to wear the jewellery.

With these artefacts comes also an auto-radiography of the jewellery. An auto-radiography is an image produced when the radioactive energy emitted by an object takes a photo of the object itself.

Photographic plate made in 1903 by Henri Becquerel showing effects of exposure to radioactivity

Erich Berger and Mari Keto, INHERITANCE (auto-radiography of the jewellery), 2016

Berger had the idea of engaging with this particular topic after a field trip close to his home in Finland, the first country to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility. The artist was inspecting the area for techno minerals when he discovered native copper in the bedrock. For the researchers working for the Finnish nuclear waste industry, the sample constituted physical evidence that copper is resistant enough as canister material for nuclear waste in Finnish bedrock.

Erich Berger and Mari Keto, INHERITANCE, 2016

INHERITANCE is part of a broader research that looks into the temporal, spacial and economic dimensions of nuclear processes. Nuclear processes (and waste in particular) are particularly difficult to comprehend. They weigh on our existence but remain invisible to us, as individuals and as a society, and they involve timescales so vast, they defy human understanding.

By transferring the issue into a heirloom that is passed on from generation to generation, and shrouded in precise rituals and caring gestures, Berger and Keto make tangible the challenges of a technology that generates energy, constitutes a potential menace and puts us in debt with future generations.

The artists were kind enough to answer my many questions about their work:

Hi Mari and Erich! What guided the aesthetics of the jewellery. Because accessories quickly look outdated. Did you go for something that would look timeless or did you just followed the current taste in accessories?

You are right, jewellery is like many other everyday cultural objects subject to fashion and styles. So when we discussed the aesthetics if the INHERITANCE jewellery we wanted to find something “timeless” or “classical”. We have been looking through a lot of image material on crown jewellery, family jewellery, archaeological findings or high end fine jewellery labels like Tiffany & Co or Dior. We wanted the jewellery to look precious and desirable, of high value, and it should give confidence in its appearance and its promise to bridge into deep futures.

Conceptually we used the idea of family jewellery. It is a rather conservative concept which exists in many cultures and serves both to form and bind family affiliations but also to distribute wealth and identity into the future. As such, family jewellery can be considered as actual vehicles for personal identity and economy into the future.

This is why we used gold together with the radioactive stones to give it the preciousness in the material but the gold also really nicely contrasts the deep black stones. Also the decision to make a set with necklace earrings and brooch in the same style comes from the family jewellery background.

What makes the jewellery so meaningful / valuable that you want to be in contact with potentially harmful objects for more generations than you can count?

Family jewellery is perfect to inverse the logic of nuclear waste. Family jewellery is a vehicle for family identity and wealth into the future. With nuclear waste we in-debt the future and enjoy the (energetic) wealth in the present. We ask ‘What do we leave behind – what will the future inherit from us?’

Many attempts are made by artists or designers to scale the vastness and inhuman complexities of issues like nuclear waste or climate change to suit human experience. But shouldn’t we rather head in the opposite direction: Art scaled to the scope of the real and not reality down-sampled toward the digestible – a sentence borrowed from Benjamin Bratton. Bratton talks about speculative design but we think this can be easily addressed towards the arts as well.

Also why did you decide use materials that do emit radiation? Why was it important to you that the work wasn’t ‘fake’?

We discussed the use of actual radioactive material a lot but from the very beginning we knew that the story of the work only can unfold if we stay true to the materiality of the subject we wanted to talk about.

We think that if we as artist use materials to tell or evoke a story then it only comes to life if the materials are real and impose their materiality on the viewer, be it now the gold or the radioactivity of the stones. There would be no transcendence of the story without the realisation that one is actually never be able to wear it. But not only the jewellery is really radioactive, also the accessories for measurement are not faked and all is in working condition. It could start its journey into Deep Futures any moment if someone would be interested in taking the work into family care.

Why the need of a dry day to perform the ritual?

Because the electroscope measurements would be distorted when the humidity is too high. Humid air makes the electroscope discharge much faster.

Erich Berger and Mari Keto, INHERITANCE, 2016

What are the natural radionuclide you used for this work?

The work uses natural crystals of Thorianite (ThO2) from Mogok, Myanmar, THORITE – (Th, U)SiO4 from Behera/Madagascar and Uraninite (UO2) from Shinkolobwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Was the museum never worried about exhibiting such a piece?

We all were/are cautious about the radioactivity but took good care and made all necessary precautions during the production. One should not forget that the radioactive materials we use are not illegal as they are naturally occurring. It is more a question of exposure, which is a question of distance and time. It was very important for us, curator Ele Carpenter and the Bildmuseet that the work will be legally exhibited and self evidently will cause no harm to the visitors. Specifically important for us was that the work will not draw attention for the wrong reasons as it would easily overwrite our primary intentions. We had an intense dialogue and process and several radiological assessments to arrive at the conditions under which the work can be exhibited. In our case under a vitrine and at a viewing distance of at least 60 cm, but this was all very exciting and everybody involved wanted it to succeed and was very helpful and cautious. The same counts for the transport of the work.

Thanks Mari and Erich!

The exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty / Contemporary Art in the Nuclear Anthropocene remains open at Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden until 16 April 2017. Check out Kunstkritikk for a comprehensive review of the show.

Related project: POLSPRUNG by Erich Berger.

Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2) or the quest for free energy

Nick Laessing Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini), Talk Radio with John Bedini (excerpts from 1980s radio show Open Mind), 2009

Nick Laessing Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini), Talk Radio with John Bedini (excerpts from 1980s radio show Open Mind), 2009

A few years ago, artist Nick Laessing stumbled upon a book in a second-hand bookshop. Titled The Search of Free Energy, the publication introduced him to the world of people who are searching for alternatives to fossil fuel as a source of energy.

The artist went on to meet and interview some of the scientists, inventors, self-taught engineers and amateurs who are looking for ways to produce free energy. What fascinates Laessing are the utopian ideals that inspire these ‘fringe’ scientists but also the subculture surrounding overlooked inventions and the intrinsic sculptural qualities of some of the prototypes developed by these communities of inventors.

To explore with more depths the work of these enthusiasts, the artist started making his own copies of the machines. He is showing one of these devices at the moment in the exhibition The Promise of Total Automation at Kunsthalle Wien. It’s a brilliant, thrilling show and i’ll get back with a more detailed review of it in the coming days.

The ‘free energy’ generator exhibited in Vienna was modeled on a patent filed by an American inventor called John Bedini for a motor that is supposed to be able to recharge its own batteries and run continuously. The batteries also supply energy to an old reel to reel player that plays an interview that Bedini gave to the US talk radio show Open Mind in the 1980s.

Nick Laessing, Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini), Talk Radio with John Bedini (excerpts from 1980s radio show Open Mind), 2009

Nick Laessing, Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini), Talk Radio with John Bedini (excerpts from 1980s radio show Open Mind), 2009

Nick Laessing, Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini), Talk Radio with John Bedini (excerpts from 1980s radio show Open Mind), 2009

Bedini believes that anyone can make the machine at home, all you need is a magnet, some copper coils and an old nail, Laessing explained in an interview with Cluster. But, while it may appear a simple, old-fashioned apparatus you can assemble in the backyard, the truth is that the physics behind the machine is very complex and not conventional at all. I’ve spoken to electrical engineers at various shows who are unable to grasp it; it is created from a completely different view on electricity, different to how we understand it.

Ultimately, i think that what Prototype II (after US patent no 6545444 B2 by John Bedini) demonstrates best is that art is a space where it is possible to expand and explore fringe science, all its idealistic promises and equivocal achievements in a way that would not be regarded as valid in a conventional science context.

The Promise of Total Automation remains open at Kunsthalle Wien until 29 May 2016.