Deconstructing Acceptance

Cumbrian Alchemy, Robert Williams & Bryan McGovern Wilson (2013)
Cumbrian Alchemy, Robert Williams & Bryan McGovern Wilson (2013)

Ele Carpenter contributed to the workshop on 'Deconstructing acceptance – Siting radioactive waste repositories from societal and scientific perspectives' organized by the Environmental Policy Research Centre, FU Berlin, in the framework of the ENTRIA project (Disposal Options for Radioactive Residues: Interdisciplinary Analyses and Development of Evaluation Principles).
The workshop was part of the annual 20th REFORM Group Meeting taking place in Salzburg, August 31 – September 4, 2015, on Climate Protection Policy, Carbon Markets and Sustainability

Gaining acceptance and acceptability through artist involvement?
Dr. Ele Carpenter, Goldsmith College University of London, Associate Curator Arts Catalyst, London, UK / Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden.

This paper seeks to address assumptions about involving artists in consultation processes for Geological Repositories for High Level Radioactive Waste.
Radioactive Waste Management agencies in France and Netherlands are working with artists and architects to explore the deep time implications of marking sites and embedding knowledge of repositories in a broader culture. How have these approaches changed since the 1960s, and how are contemporary artists responding to the current challenges of waste management and burial? Visual artists are interested in nuclear aesthetics and the deep time implications of the Nuclear Anthropocene to think beyond the human, but how can their work contribute to a wider societal discussion when nuclear industry decisions are still made outside the democratic process? Commissioning art is a long and complex process of negotiation engaging with the socio-political context: so what are the motivations for inviting artists to engage with this industrial process? What kinds of curatorial knowledge are needed to enable artwork to have its own agency and volition? How are the concerns of instrumentalising art to gain acceptance addressed? What kinds of archives do we want to create for the present and the future, what kinds of stories should they tell, and how should they be funded?

Contemporary visual art is concerned with conceptual frameworks of in/visibility, materiality and deep time, articulated through research into visual languages, archives, data and collections; all poignant concerns for thinking through the challenges of long term storage of radioactive waste which will be harmful to humans for over 100,000 years.

The visual arts are slowly engaging with the current discourse on site markers that, as an industry led process, has a tendency to focus on the humanities and applied arts, and negate cultural, curatorial and artistic theory and practice. Whilst the literature surveys and consultation groups have drawn from the expertise of architects, designers, planners and public artists; they have yet to seriously engage with autonomous artistic practices.

This paper addresses the problems of leaving artists and curators out of the discourse of site markers, and presents some art projects which poignantly address concerns of data-visualisation, the lived experience of radiation, and the conditions of the present.

Contemporary Visual Art and Site Markers
The challenges of site markers are well documented in the ‘Literature Survey on Markers and Memory-Preservation for Deep Geological Repositories’ (M.Buser, 2013). The study highlights the lack of artists, curators involved in the current literature and marker working groups. Ten years earlier, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson (2003) identified the lack of artists, and disdain of contemporary art within the WIPP Marker planning teams in the USA (p193). She reflected that the lack of understanding of aesthetic perception over time may lead to artwork which has little contemporary artistic relevance. By focusing on the future there is a danger of over-aestheticizing the future without attending to the socio-political context of the present.

Poignantly, the Literature Survey acknowledges the need for contemporary relevance of any kind of site-marker or enscribed information otherwise “The trading of information using milenaristic structures is therefore doomed to fail.”(Buser, 2013, p65). There are many plans for ‘marking concepts’ (M.Buser, 2013,p63) but the actual commissioning process has not been developed, and so the tension between the aesthetic and socio-political frameworks for different artistic disciplines has not been investigated. Art, architecture, public art, landscape architecture, communication design, socially engaged art and participatory art practices all have different modes of temporal engagement with these kinds of questions.

Whilst it is not the realm of art to “win over communities” we might look to the visual arts to see how the relay of cultural practices enables the evolution of visual ideas. What the continuity of art demonstrates is not the transmission of truth, but the reinvention of the concept of truth for each generation. So the question might be, not how do we communicate into the future, but how do we make something meaningful enough in the present to have relevance in the future? Or, as Julia Bryan-Wilson asks, how do the WIPP marker proposals “view the future as continuous with the present? How will their contextual address shift, destabilize, or collapse?” (Bryan-Wilson, 2003, p199).

Visual artists are examining the tensions between a monument for the past and a marker for the future, challenging the inherent problems of ‘encoding and re-encoding’ visual information and performative behaviours. In the 2010’s nowhere is this process more acute than artists’ responses to the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown, and the resulting contamination of the landscape and urban spaces of the city of Fukushima. Kota Takeuchi’s artwork ‘Take Stone Monuments Twice’ (2013) explores the repeated attempts to record stone markers of climatic and cultural significance along the Tohoku coast of Japan. The warnings of the high tidal mark of a previous tsunami were ignored and lost, just decades after they were built. Takeuchi’s webcam film ‘Open Secret’ (2011) exposes the loop of responsibility, where the worker and viewer are caught in a loop of image capture, a loop dependent of the consumption of electrical energy. These works directly address the viewer in their own production of culture, their selection of images, and modes of self-surveillance. Rather than trying to gain public acceptability for a radioactive future, they engage people in a wider discussion of the politics and aesthetics of living in a radioactive environment. Bryan-Wilson also addresses the problem of trying to avoid the loop of responsibility. She suggests that markers can be a distraction from the responsibility for a contaminated present, by attempting to commemorate something which has not yet happened (Bryan-Wilson, 2003, p200).

Art and Industry
These issues of arts’ engagement and distraction in the socio-political context are extensively discussed within the fields of socially engaged art practice and public art; especially in relation to artistic practices which involve collaboration with other disciplines or sectors. For example, in the 1960s and 70s the Artists Placement Group (APG), led by Barbara Steveni, established artists residencies within companies and organisations with the refrain the ‘context is half the work’. Whilst APG were referring to the social and political context being half the artwork; we might reverse this question for the teams consulting on waste markers, and ask: what is the aesthetic and temporal context of the work? How does it have contemporary relevance with visual culture?

Interestingly the APG archives are now held by Tate, recognised as making a significant contribution to visual arts practice. In contrast most public art is not collected by museums unless part of an artists larger body of work in which an aesthetic and intellectual development can be identified. The distinction between public art as a permanently intended feature of architectural space, in contrast to the temporality of social practices, articulates very different understandings of art in the public sphere. So how do contemporary artists deal with the public realm, and what is the role of socially engaged practices within ideas of democracy?

To think through nuclear site markers in terms of artistic practices brings us directly into a discussion about the role of art in public consultation, local democracy, and social acceptability. In the Netherlands COVRA have commissioned designer Willem Verstraeten to create a visual concept for the HABGOG site, where the outside of the building is repainted in a paler shade of orange to representing the cooling of the waste inside; perhaps an over-simplification of high level waste waiting to go into a geological repository. The fragmentation of the nuclear cycle by scientific research and now artistic programming does not help to make visible the nuclear economy as a whole, its affects and implications.

Perhaps this is not surprising given that the development of nuclear weapons and energy has taken place outside of the democratic process. Yet now the industry is searching for effective local democracy to take ownership of waste sites at a local level. As nuclear materials shift from private industry into the public domain of unregulated deep time, long term questions about collective decision making become increasingly urgent. As identified in the Literature Survey the risks of long-term organizational structures which accompany a repository have “not really been addressed...” (Buser, 2013, p70). This reflects the realisation by the nuclear institutions that they are unable to look after the waste they have created, and the remit of the marker working groups is to shift responsibility from the institution into the public domain. The language of the nuclear industry is insufficient to deal with these new longterm social and aesthetic problems.

Nuclear Anthropocene
The last few years has seen a materialist turn in contemporary art and philosophical discourses from new materiality to speculative realism. Concepts such as Actor Network Theory (Latour) and Radiation as a Hyper Object (Morton), are cornerstones of rethinking the social life of objects and the ubiquity of radiation. These deep time perspectives try to transcend a human centric view of the world to find a new language for articulating our contemporary condition. The Nuclear Anthropocene is already evidenced in 20th century fallout (Hancock, 2015); in the next century humans are planning to insert a radiological time-stamp directly into the fossil record.

As part of the Nuclear Culture project, Artists Thomson & Craighead are taking a very different approach to Verstraaten. Instead of trying to represent radiation symbolically through colour, they are working with the abstraction of numerical counters for the decay rates of specific istopes and objects around the world.

Artists are engaged in the discourse of the representation of nature, from landscape painting and photography to contemporary concerns with dark matter and the Anthropocene. The nuclear humanities analysis if how the concept of the atomic sublime situates the nuclear as part of nature has been throughly interrogated by Jospeh Masco and Peter Hayes. In turn the nuclear waste industry uses images of nature to justify its safety record and lack of contamination: forests, reindeer, wild animals help to embed the nuclear as ‘natural’; an aesthetic trope which immediately arouses suspicion on field trips to nuclear sites. Whilst to think in deep time might liberate us from the environmental and psychological stresses of the present, it also highlights the scale of the human footprint and the complex ways in which nature is technologized.

Roundtable discussions
Agencies such as the Arts Catalyst facilitate collaborations between art and science, bringing together different disciplines, providing space to think outside the usual frames of reference, and to take care over language, translation and meaning across industry/ public sector partnerships. Commissioning art is usually a long and complex process of negotiation including ethics and the socio-political context. Inviting artists and curators to Roundtable discussions, provides the opportunity to deconstruct assumptions about transferable metaphors, shared philosophical concepts, and new forms of folklore and mythology. Artists interrogate textual, numerical and visual language through deconstructing rhetoric, and the role of the human within material and energy networks. Their motivations for engaging with geo-repositories are to interrogate the aesthetic and conceptual frameworks, and not to provide a soft structure for public consultation. Curatorial knowledge of contemporary art practices is needed to enable artwork to have its own agency and volition through any working partnerships. This is essential for a full and open dialogue, but there is archival issue at stake. Without an understanding of art-historical and contemporary practices, and without the political space to operate independently, the art-work will fail to gain cultural recognition, and will not be collected and archived: contemporary relevance is essential for future value.

Whilst museum archives may well include art about nuclear culture and geo-repositories, in turn nuclear archives can also include art. If radioactive materials are being released from institutional responsibility to the public domain, then the archives should also operate with the public domain. As a result they can tell complex and contradictory stories, a tactic employed by the Cumbrian Alchemy project in their archive of nuclear culture in Cumbria (Robert Williams & Bryan McGovern Wilson, 2013).

Cecile Massart’s artwork reveals the problem of the industry focus on object markers rather than social processes. Her proposed architectural markers encourage people to continue to add to the site, to mark the place over generations and centuries. Her reinvention of the marker, constantly re-interpreted within the present, is very different from the landmarks proposed by the Human Interference Task Force in the USA (Bryan-Wilson, 2003). Rather than trying to communicate with the deep future as a semiotic challenge, like Takeuchi, Massart’s work contends that the problem is not simply one of the past or future, but of the continuing present. Massart proposes new forms of social organization prioritizing interdisciplinary and intergenerational knowledge sharing through a public laboratory on the site. With Massart’s proposal, it remains to be seen if ANDRA, the French nuclear waste management agency will support the social infrastructure as well as the modernist gesture of Massart’s site marker proposed in Northern France. But first the industry assumptions of public art commissioning need to radically challenged if the project is to be properly funded and developed.

To conclude I suggest that temporality and materiality are the blind spots of this debate. The focus is on single objects and texts for the future, rather than culture and institutions in the present. Whilst the WIPP marker designs of the 1960’s were attempting to mark across millennia, today we recognize that it is more valuable to mark a site by taking responsibility for the conditions of the present rather than attempting to mark something that has yet to take place.

The role of visual artists working in this field is not to gain confidence in geologic repositories, or to make them more publically acceptable, but to engage in a complex and contested discourse of how the repositories contribute new dimensions to nuclear aesthetics. This debate is essential for a broad and far-reaching debate about nuclear culture in the 21st Century, how it is in embedded in our archives, collections and cultural discourse and the stories we want to tell.

For artists and the public to fully engage in public consultation the process needs to include complex and multiple voices and positions which acknowledge the contradictions of a state created and privately developed industry leaving its waste in the public domain for generations to come. To properly consider deep time responsibility the consultation process has to contribute to genuine long-term solutions towards reducing dependency on nuclear power and weapons. To avoid the fragmentation of scientific research and the military industrial complex, we urgently need to include indigenous and international stakeholders from different parts of the nuclear cycle. And finally, if nuclear culture is to be meaningful, we must ensure that archives of nuclear culture include diverse forms of dissent and critique as well as an industry perspective.

Bryan-Wilson, Julia., (2003). Building a Marker of Nuclear Warning. In: Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade. Eds Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin. University of Chicago Press. p183-204.

M.Buser, ‘Literature Survey on Markers and Memory-Preservation for Deep Geological Repositories’ NEA & OECD (2013).

Robert Williams & Bryan McGovern Wilson (2013), Cumbrian Alchemy. Cumbrian Publishing.

Latour, B., (2005). Reassembling The Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Craighead, Alison & Jon Thomson [website] http:/

Hancock, Gary., et al (2015)
 The release and persistence of radioactive anthropogenic nuclides Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395, first published on February 28, 2014, doi:10.1144/SP395.15