Tuesday, 12 July 2011

a new fire (unknown fields)



'The sun. The desert. The sky. The silence. The flat stones. The insects. The wind and the clouds. The moon. The stars. The west and east. The song, the colour, the smell of the earth. Blast area. Fire area. Body-burn area'


(Don DeLillo, End Zone)

Am just back from a wonderfully provocative and engaging day-long symposium at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square, London: 'Unknown Fields: from the Atomic to the Cosmic' - an open forum prelude to an adventurous 'nomadic design studio' field trip for architecture students and others, taking them from the Chernobyl exclusion zone and Pripyat to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and on to the Aral Sea. The fourth in a series of annual expeditions organised by Liam Young & Kate Davies (as Unknown Fields), this year's journey marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight and the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Earlier Unknown Fields 'trajectories' involved field trips to the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Galapagos Islands (2008), the Arctic Circle (2009), and the West Australian outback (2010).

The symposium, shoe-horned uncomfortably and bum-numbingly into the Architectural Association's tiny library, brought together an intriguing group of presenters - artists, writers, film makers - to discuss the legacies of technologies' past optimisms, cultural manifestations of the possibilities and fears around nuclear power and space travel, and some of the emerging scenarios in our collective environmental and political future(s) and imaginings.

Leading off in the 'Atomic' section of the symposium, the Oxford-based environmental anthropologist Peter Wynn-Kirby described Japan's evolving cultural relations with nuclear power - the continuing paradox of fear and need - with reference to Godzilla movies and other stagings of post-war nuclear trauma, performative workings-through of what Susan Sontag called 'imagination of disaster' (in a 1965 essay in which she explains fantasy functionally as a process of 'inurement'). Wynn-Kirby touched on the horrifying story of the Japanese tuna trawler the Lucky Dragon no. 5, unwittingly caught in a blizzard of radioactive ash in March 1954 after the vast 'Bravo' thermonuclear test by the American military in the Pacific near Bikini atoll in early 1954, and the radioactive trail they took back to port in their contaminated catch, boat and blistered bodies. He also provided invaluable contexts for contemporary reworkings of anxiety in the wake of the Tohoku/Fukushima disaster via accounts of the fear induced by radiation's uncanny invisibility, default governmental and industry denials and cover-ups, the discourse of nuclear power as 'clean and green', the problems of waste disposal (Zonabend's 'filth everlasting', Hall's 'ultimate litter') in the light of most people's 'forward time horizon' of approximately 100 years, rather than the thousands of generations that constitute a nuclear half-life. After tracking the volume and trajectories of trans-national flows of nuclear waste, he offered a terrifying listing of disposal and dispersal strategies for such waste adopted or proposed thus far, including sea dumping/ejection into space, dumping on the Antarctic ice sheet, insertion into tectonic plates, embedding in 'inert silt' at the bottom of the Pacific, and long-term 'containment' in repositories such as Yucca Mountain in the USA.

The poet Mario Petrucci, author of the brilliant act of re-membering Chernobyl, Heavy Water, presented an intellectually energised paper entitled 'Chernobyl and the stories of knowledge', touching on e.g. denial as a synergy of four factors or 'pests' - the 'destructive meme', 'radical inertia' (deeply ingrained resistance to change, adapted and modified from Ivan Illich), the 'framed question' (with an agenda, assuming only certain possible 'answers'), and 'unaccounted positive feedback' (the nuclear industry as an accelerant on resource requirements); art as transformation with the potential to dent radical inertia, shed light on unaccounted positive feedback, create 'meme-proof' experiences (irreducible to single meanings, thriving on ambiguity) - art as something that might help us 'bear it' and 're-boot consciousness'.

As well as a critique of short-termism and free-market economics, Petrucci was exploring how artists might 'understand' Chernobyl in all of its actively destructive psychic gravity; he posited a model of knowledge as qualitative, engaging intellect, imagination and a responsibility to bear witness (to re-member, so that those who have been 'exposed to the invisible should never become so'). If both art and science contain 'alertness nutrients' and 'psychic nutrients', he suggested, we might approach them with the quality of attention Levertov demanded: 'poets must give us imagination of peace to oust imagination of disaster'. He quoted the Australian poet Les Murray: 'Only poetry recognises and maintains the centrality of absolutely everywhere'. Petrucci's final words were a request to us to expand skepticism to include skepticism towards our own doubts, and a loop back to a quote from David Bohm he had cited earlier: 'Studying the distractions is part of the process'.

Next up was the film maker Michael Madsen, whose recent documentary Into Eternity focuses on the Onkolo Nuclear Waste Repository in Finland. Madsen provided contexts for his remarkable film about Onkolo (which means 'hiding place'): as a self-monitoring construction design to contain some of Finland's nuclear waste, intended to last for up to 100,000 years, and thus 'possibly the first post-human structure' (a quotation from a critic's review of his film); the finite life-span of our own civilisation, and the impossibility of imagining that far into the future (and therefore of acting wholly responsibly). Madsen went on to offer a swift history of radiation since the 1880s, with 'knowledge' at every point assumed to be 'complete' before new unforeseen elements were discovered to destabilise the parameters of the known. Before showing the trailer to his film, with its bewildering account of this peculiar subterranean 'afterworld', he talked of nuclear waste as 'a new kind of fire', the first humans have encountered in our species' history that is inextinguishable (quoting the nuclear physicist Dr Hans Bethe?); and of the emergence of a 'nuclear priesthood', 'protectors' who 'know' and act on our behalf.

Will Wiles, author of Care for Wooden Floors and a forthcoming book Toxic Tourism, explored our culture's fascination with such places as Chernobyl, Pripyat, Baikonur and the Aral Sea, referencing Christopher Woodward's In Ruins and Brian Dillon's notion of 'ruin lust', from the Romantics' sublime apocalyptism to a post-industrial return to the monumentality of ruins in the work of, for example, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark - Spiral Jetty as a 'dialectical ruin' projected into the future in deep geological time. Wiles alluded to Virilio's Bunker Archaeology (with its analysis of 'aberrant monuments' reflecting a loss of faith in modernism), the Mir Space Station ('ruins of the future', the discarded waste products of civilisations and ideologies), the work of Jane & Louise Wilson, and the wave of urban explorers and art photographers (e.g. Christopher Payne's abandoned asylums). Discarded systems and technologies, and a sense of loss at their passing, with an attendant appraisal of current systems: the rust belt, old mental health infrastructures, and the grander ruin of Soviet civilisation (with its grand project of 'taming nature' - and class), with Pripyat as 'the Vatican of ruins'. If (Soviet) modernism's sense of control - its huge-scale interventions 'to make the world a better place' - was now lost, then an outline of the post-human seems to inhabit the devastated ruins of control.

After a short and frankly borderline bonkers presentation by Oliver Goodhall ('Nuclear is good'), an anomalous pro-nuclear presence in this company who looked so far out of his depth that for much of his presentation I, and others, took it to be a not-very-good parody by a rabbit caught in the headlights (was this an adventurous, dialogic choice in terms of the event's curation, or a ludicrous misfire? hard to tell, although Oliver wasn't really up to the task of a genuinely provocative counter-discursive intervention in the context), it was on to the extraordinary Swiss scientific illustrator and activist artist Cornelia Hesse-Honneger, one of the core reasons (along with Petrucci, Madsen and Louise K. Wilson) for my presence at the symposium on this first day of my annual leave.

For many years, Hesse-Honneger has been making detailed taxonomic drawings and paintings of mutated insects, their deformities the result of exposure to mutogenic chemicals, in particular low-level radiation. As well as detailing the ways in which true bugs (her 'favorite' bio-indicators) and other insects have been 'disturbed' - deformed feelers, wings, eyes etc. - she mapped the evolution of her own work before and after Chernobyl, and in particular her systematic projects around nuclear power stations in Sweden, the Swiss Alps, France, the Ukraine, the UK etc. These ongoing studies focus on the gathering of quantitative data and the production of qualitative material in her exquisite paintings of insects and plants in those areas where the weather trajectories down-wind of nuclear power stations and reprocessing plants overlap.

In 1990, she spent just 10 minutes in Pripyat, in a silence without birds, with only the music from loudspeakers.

Hesse-Honneger was at pains to differentiate between the toxicity of low doses of 'artificial' (man-made) radiation and 'natural' radiation (e.g. in the granite-rich geologies of South-West England or the Alps), and to point out the degree to which the 300,000 + publications by independent scientists about the harmful effects of low-level radiation from Chernobyl have been systematically devalued and ignored by state- and industry-sanctioned scientists, and the funding of those researchers rendered 'difficult'. Ultimately she brought her presentation to a close with a series of wholly alarming images of facial deformities in Iraqi children, the victims of the obscenity of depleted uranium weaponry, and a forceful account of the degree of such contamination (and resultant deformities) in Afghanistan and areas of the former Yugoslavia, as well as in uranium mining communities in Africa, Australia and the USA. Nuclear waste, she suggested, was now dispersed and located within human beings, to calamitous effect.

The 'Cosmic' section of the symposium felt significantly curtailed, an after-thought in the shape and weight of the day; a number of advertised speakers weren't able to attend (artist Alicia Framis, designer Regina Pledszus, 'experience designer' Nelly Ben Hayoun), and the looser-than-loose managing and chairing of earlier sessions meant that the day was hours behind schedule, time was running out on the room, the energies of those attending were flagging, etc. The critical mass and gravity of the 'Atomic' presentations created a kind of imbalance overall, and we never really made it off the ground in this second part.

Nonetheless there were three engaging contributions, beginning with a short and quietly enthusiastic presentation by comic illustrator and animator Paul Duffield, reflecting on the impact of Carl Sagan's series Cosmos and continuing SETI research on his approach to visual storytelling, in particular in his visual poem Signal. Then on to Mark Pilkington, 'UFO folklorist', curator, editor of Strange Attractor, occasional contributor to the Fortean Times, and musician, who sprinted through some of the core ground of his stimulating and often hilarious road trip book Mirage Men: A Journey into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs. From the development of covert military technologies during the Cold War, via Kenneth Arnold's sightings of UFOs in 1947, and an increasing number of flying saucer stories and films (including The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951), to a perceived intelligence and security problem, the classified RAND document of 1950 entitled 'The exploitation of superstitions for the purposes of psychological warfare', the CIA's increasing involvement, and the planting of stories in the media triggered by the RAND proposals (e.g. the April 1952 issue of Life magazine with its cover shot of Marilyn Monroe and the title 'There is a case for interplanetary saucers'). A heady and hugely entertaining cocktail of institutional paranoia and psy-ops disinformation strategies, 'black' military technologies research, conspiracy theories, ufologists and popular culture forms. One sensed he could have gone on for days.

Finally, the British artist Louise K. Wilson offered a brief introduction to aspects of her own work; sensitive to the fatigued overload of her audience, Louise cut her presentation short while still managing to cover a lot of ground and articulate a number of generative ideas. The notion of an artist's 'passport of admission' to sites, many of them contested or largely inaccessible; Kim Sawchuck's notion of 'bio-tourism', trajectories into internal spaces through e.g. MR scans and dream registers; Virilio's 'museum of accidents', and the body's own flaws and faultlines; Steve Goodman's 'sonic warfare' and 'the politics of frequency'; 'auralisation', as a sonic equivalent to visualisation; the stimulus provided by Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard's Four Rooms CD (2006), recorded in abandoned social spaces in and around Pripyat - a swimming pool, a church, a theatre auditorium, a gymnasium - using a version of Alvin Lucier's mirroring acoustic techniques to explore these spaces' psycho-acoustic qualities, the spectral traces of inaudible and invisible dangers.

Louise described her approach to locations via something akin to auscultation: an attentive and patient listening in to an architectural body, a documenting of the specific acoustic signatures of ruins, a gathering of reverberant 'impulse responses' often from derelict Cold War sites: a decommissioned Cumbrian missile site, Orford Ness and the National Trust's 'continued ruination' policy, Woomera and Nurrungar in South Australia, Aldermaston.

As we left, almost 3 hours after the scheduled ending of the symposium, Louise was setting up a contact microphone workshop for the Unknown Fields trajectory travelers, who were leaving the following morning; she played some recordings of limpets moving in hyper slo-mo on a rock, liquid and percussive sounds like the accelerated machinic groans and cracks of icebergs - them limpits are sure as hell busy. Cornelia Hesse-Honneger stood up to formally warn the travelers that Chernobyl still posed very real risks to health, and that they should take every precaution - air filter masks, clothes and shoes to be abandoned on emerging from the site, etc.: 'Don't touch anything'. Liam Young and Kate Davies smiled, said it's fine, every person will have full kit, a protective body suit, a face mask, gloves, we're on top of it, it's all fine. On my way out, in the doorway one of the students was asking Hesse-Honneger for some final advice: 'So do you think it's possible to take samples from the Chernobyl site? I'd very much like to'.


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