Nuclear Culture on Film

Ryan C. Doyle, Eva and Franco Mattes, Plan C, 2010, Photo: Tod Seelie
Ryan C. Doyle, Eva and Franco Mattes, Plan C, 2010, Photo: Tod Seelie

Sunday 28 April 2013, 11am - 5.30pm. The Arts Catalyst, London. Mark Aerial Waller / Isao Hashimoto / Sandra Lahire / Otolith Group / Eva & Franco Mattes / Chris Oakley / Yelena Popova

A programme of artists’ films investigating nuclear culture from the perspective of the 21st Century reflecting on 1980s feminist experimental film and activism, gritty dramatic satire of the 1990s, and recent video-essay works from 2009 – 2012. Artists narrate their own experience of nuclear environments in Britain, the Urals, Estonia, Ukraine, Japan and Canada, travelling back home or to sites of disaster to try and capture the invisible or the unimaginable. Investigating the aesthetic implications of radiation reveals the impossibility of capturing an energy that bleaches the images from film and erases the hard drives of digital devices. The films raise important questions for nuclear critique from nuclear entropy, utopian and dystopian belief systems, questioning scientific certainty, political agency and the proliferation of nuclear culture.  Curated by Ele Carpenter with students from MFA Curating, Goldsmiths.


Roundtable Discussion

A roundtable discussion with artists Kodwo Eshun (Otolith Group) and Mark Aerial Waller in conversation with philosopher Liam Sprod, chaired by Susan Kelly. The recording of the event is available here:


Roundtable discussants


Kodwo Eshun is a writer, theorist, filmmaker and co-founder of The Otolith Group with Anjalika Sagar, 2002. Their practice includes curating, publishing and production of artists work. Their research into aural and visual cultures is informed by the legacy and potential of the moving image and the archive. In 2012 The Otolith Group made the film ‘The Radiant’ exploring the aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Susan Kelly (Chair) is an artist and writer whose research looks at relationships between art and micropolitics, rhetoric and practices of organisation. She works in performance, installation, video, and writes and publishes. She works both independently and collectively with various art-activist research groups in London, and teaches Fine Art at Goldsmith's College.

Liam Sprod was born in England before the possibility of nuclear war prompted his parents to relocate to Hobart, Australia. There he studied, researched and taught philosophy at the University of Tasmania. Eventually tiring of merely reading European philosophy he has been undertaking research throughout Europe, tracing the various end-of narratives from the ends of history in Berlin and Jena, through the end of poetry in Auschwitz, to the end of television in Timisoara, Romania.  The result of this was the book Nuclear Futurism (Zero Books, 2012).  He is currently a PhD Student with the London Graduate School at Kingston University, where he is working on the confusion of time and space in post-Kantian philosophy as a way to open up the confrontation between realist and idealist tendencies within that tradition.

Mark Aerial Waller makes films, events and sculptural installations that seek relationships with the historical positioning of culture; that mythologically potent archival data can coexist in the area between the reconfigured present and its original home. This work includes the film Glow Boys (1999), made in part at Oldbury and Sizewell reactors, after a year's research meeting staff and contractors at BNFL sites across the UK, Midwatch (2001), where interviews with veterans of the first British nuclear weapons tests collide with  Melville's Moby Dick in a psychologically charged exchange. Waller lectures at Central Saint Martins and Norwich University of the Arts and exhibits internationally.


Film Screening Notes and Links

The Otolith Group, The Radiant, 2012 HD video, colour, sound, 64'14
The Radiant explores the aftermath of March 11, 2011, when the Great Tohoku Earthquake struck the North East Coast of Japan at 2.46pm, triggering a tsunami that killed tens of thousands and causing the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the fissures opened by these catastrophes, The Radiant travels through time and space, invoking the historical promise of nuclear energy and summoning the future threat of radiation that converges upon the benighted present. Under these conditions, the illuminated cities and evacuated villages of Japan can be understood as a laboratory for the global nuclear regime that exposes its citizens to the necropolitics of radiation.

Mark Aerial Waller, Glow Boys, 1999, 14mins
In Glow Boys the disaster is brooding, waiting to happen. The film takes place in a British nuclear power plant in the company of contract workers who are also known as 'glow boys'. This term was an in-joke at the Three Mile Island reactor during the clean up operation in the late 1970's. Due to a shortage of contractors the same people would return with new identities. The glow boys or ‘sponges’ would pick up more and more radiation as well as more and more pay, leading good but short lives. The film and it’s companion ‘Interview with a Nuclear Contract Worker’ is based on extensive research, visits to reactors across Britain, and talks with shift workers, locals and nuclear scientists. The musical score is by contemporary atonal composer Paul Clark and includes a specially commissioned musical performance by Mark E. Smith of The Fall. In Interview With a Nuclear Contract Worker (1999, 9mins) the character under interview is an extra from Glow Boys. He weaves a complex narration of his experience on the film set, shifting between his work in the reactor and his analysis of the 'nuclear racket'. Constantly in a state of flux, his conversation shifts from the film time, to the moment of being filmed, to his personal time away from the set. He is a temporal nomad, unconstrained by the controls of temporal designation. “If you think about it, we are, in some way, more celestial, almost divinely appointed. It couldn't happen without us.”

Cecile Massart, Cecile showed a film in 4 parts of her exploration of radioactive waste storage sites in Belgium. Details to follow.

Sandra Lahire, Uranium Hex, 1987, 11mins
Sandra Lahire (1950-2001) was an important feminist experimental filmmaker. Using a kaleidoscope of experimental techniques, Uranium Hex explores uranium mining in Canada and its destructive effects on the environment and the women working in the mines. A plethora of images ranging from the women at work to spine-chilling representations of cancerous bodies are accompanied by unnerving industrial sounds and information about the effects of uranium mining. Marina Grinz writes: “The radiation of the body is transferred to the radiation of the picture. The radon 222 that disintegrates the skin seems here to over-expose the film image. …. Radioactivity is deployed as a radioactivity of the film image in itself.”  Uranium Hex was made in collaboration with Jean Matthee, Anna Thew, Lis Rhodes et al. Funded by Channel4 at the London Film-makers' Cooperative.

Your Greenham (2007) Selected short films, 25mins
In 2007 the Guardian commissioned Beeban Kidron and Lindsay Poulton to document the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp online. Throughout the 1980s the peace camp attracted hundreds and thousands of women who protested against the deployment of cruise missiles at the USAF Greenham Common base until they finally left in 1991. ‘Your Greenham’ is an archive of 80s films and images alongside new interviews with women about their experience of the peace camp and non violent direct action protest (NVDA). Far from nostalgic, the new films record the enduring legacy of Greenham on the lives and politics of women who took part in the protest.

Yelena Popova, Unnamed, 2011, 17mins DV, colour, sound, 4:3.
Popova’s video essays are investigations into the history of two unnamed towns built as secret settlements for the development and production of nuclear technology in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Unnamed reflects upon the long suppressed nuclear disaster in the late 1950s in the city where the artist grew up. As the film develops, the representation of the disaster becomes a central metaphor for the 20th century. By alluding to Maurice Blanchot’s L’écriture du désastre (1980) the failure of science is compared to understanding (the comprehension of details) as opposed to knowledge (the awareness of consequences and coherence). As the title suggests, this video-essay reflects on the question of how invisibility of both the history of the town and a prototype disaster of the 20th century can gain a form of sensuous perceptibility so that it can be faced and considered. Part 2 ‘Nuclear Utopia’ focuses on a similar secret settlement built by the Soviets in Estonia. On her journey to this place, the narrator is constantly reminded of her experience as a child in such a town. The juxtaposition of past and present, which is at the heart of this quest, circles around the notion of ‘communist utopia’. The perfect system imposed by force as a central aspect of Stalin’s ideology (Jameson, F., 2007:xi) is addressed within the exceptional framework of this hidden nuclear site. As an enclave within an enclave, the unnamed town works as metaphor for the questionable premise of a fulfilled utopia. (Heidi Brunnschweiler).

Chris Oakley, Half Life, 2009, 15mins.
‘Half-life’ looks at the histories of Harwell, birthplace of the UK nuclear industry, and the development of fusion energy technology at the Culham facility in Oxfordshire. Produced with the cooperation of both these organisations, the film examines nuclear science research through a historical and cultural filter. Drawing on archive footage of the sites, alongside contemporary materials, the work takes structural clues from nuclear physics, exploring the heritage of nuclear energy from the roots of the technology that drove the industrial revolution. The relationship between nature, and our reliance on mineral energy resources, and the portrayal of the often-mundane realities of nuclear research seek to ‘normalise’ emotionally driven debates around the subject. With the recent widespread acceptance of the reality of climate change driven by carbon dioxide emissions, the work explores the realities and myths surrounding the nuclear sciences. Commissioned by the Arts Catalyst and SCAN.

Let Them Believe, 2010, 15:17 mins Directed by Todd Chandler & Jeff Stark. Featuring Eva and Franco Mattes, Ryan C. Doyle
Let Them Believe was shot on location in Chernobyl and Manchester. The film follows a group of artists plotting to steal a carnival ride from the radioactive zone of Chernobyl. The artists explore the site describing their personal reasons for going and the difficulty of making art in the face of a nuclear accident. The aesthetic of the film was probably inspired by Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker, scavenging scrap metal from the Zone; but shifts gear into another reality when they build the merry-go-round ride for the AND festival in Manchester. The narrator tells us “you can go to Chernobyl it’s safe in small doses, like the time it takes to ride.” She draws an analogy between the spin of the merry-go-round and the head-spin of the accident “when truth disappeared, when science gave up.” The work was inspired by nuclear artist James Acord.

Isao Hashimoto, A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945. 2003. 14’25”.
The Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a beautiful, undeniably scary time-lapse map of the 2,053 nuclear explosions which have taken place between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project's "Trinity" test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan's nuclear tests in May of 1998. This leaves out North Korea's alleged nuclear tests in this past decade. Each nation is marked with a flashing marker on the map whenever they detonate a nuclear weapon, with a running tally. Hashimoto, who began the project in 2003, says that he created it with the goal of showing the fear and folly of nuclear weapons. The map is based on the data “Nuclear Explosions, 1945-1998’ by Nils-Olov Bergkvist and Ragnhild Ferm, co-published by the Swedish Defence Research Establishment (FOI) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPIRI) in 2000.

The Nuclear Culture on Film programme is a partnership between The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College. Supported by AHRC and Arts Council England.