Nuclear Culture Talks in Sapporo

LLW Repository, Cumbria, UK
LLW Repository, Cumbria, UK
Thursday 17th October 2013: at OYOYO Ele Carpenter, An overview of the Nuclear Culture research project.
Tuesday 22nd October, 2013:  Hokkaido University. Ele Carpenter, Thinking about Invisibility and Art Objects: Radioactive Divinity and the Nuclear Sublime.
Both talks are open to the public and everyone is welcome.
What nuclear culture in 21st Century?
Can artists broaden the language of nuclear discourse?
How are artists engaging with nuclear questions and concepts?
Should art play a role in communicating radioactive sites for the future?
How do we perceive risk? What kind of dialogue do we need to take place? 
What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the future?
What kind of nuclear folklores will emerge?

Ele researching these questions to create a context for commissioning artists and curating exhibitions to reveal how nuclear knowledge and experience changes the way in which we see and understand the world. Internationally, artists are making work in direct response to nuclear weapons, power and waste. Their practices contribute to a conceptual enquiry into the characteristics of radioactive materials across time, including aesthetic, material and social-political concerns.

The term ‘Nuclear Culture’ can be used to identify the way in which nuclear concerns are explored in cultural forms, ie art, music, film. But it can also be used to think about the nuclear industry in terms of cultural behavior; this includes decision-making structures, and the way in which society accepts or resists nuclear energy, weapons, waste storage and the variability of perceived risk. Through cultural and aesthetic analysis we can use theoretical frameworks to understand and articulate our contemporary experience of the nuclear, and to develop new forms of nuclear critique.


Hokkaido University: 22 October
Thinking about Invisibility and Art Objects:
Radioactive Divinity and the Nuclear Sublime.

I had been researching art and nuclear culture in the UK for about 18 months before I came to Japan, working with artists and members of the Advisory group to the MOD on the process of decommissioning nuclear submarines. Traveling to Japan, I was wary of my role as an outside observer, a disaster tourist even, so Sapporo seemed to offer a crucial distance from the country’s more notorious nuclear sites. I was met with a warm welcome, and carefully I started to ask delicate questions about how nuclear aesthetics and the nuclear economy are explored by Japanese artists. Hokkaido is an island where radiation is known about but not felt, and is now home to 2000 nuclear refugees. The Tomari nuclear power plant is closed, and there is an underground research laboratory for geological waste storage at Horonobe. Japan, like Britain has an extensive nuclear economy that lies outside the democratic process and, for the most part, is culturally invisible.

Nuclear knowledge and experience changes the way in which we understand and see the world. Internationally, artists are undertaking conceptual enquiries into the characteristics of radioactive materials across time, including aesthetic, material and social-political concerns. Through visual and cultural analysis we can use theoretical frameworks to understand and articulate our contemporary experience of the nuclear, and to develop new forms of critique beyond a religious belief in nuclear modernity (to end all wars and provide free clean electricity forever).

In Europe I was interested in how Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory might be helpful to understand the nuclear network of objects, people and things. But these concerns shifted when I started to meet people in Sapporo, and prepare talks at OYOYO and Hokkaido University. Since the Fukushima meltdown, the vast variability of risk perception, and the impossibility of gathering any facts about the situation has divided communities into radio-phobes or those in radio-denial. But as the world becomes increasingly polluted everyone fluctuates between the binaries of blissful ignorance or uniformed fear, especially with the absence of political dialogue, or frameworks for bringing everyday realities and theoretical studies together.

Influenced by generous and open conversations with artists, I decided to try and separate the nuclear from modernist utopian belief by examining how we perceive radiation in the landscape over longer time frames.

My lecture at Hokkaido University introduced some characteristics of the felt presence of radiation in objects and the landscape. I drew upon western notions of the atomic sublime from Joseph Masco (2006) and Peter B. Hales (1991), and an eastern reflection on the possibility of a radioactive divinity inspired by an interview with the photographer and anthropologist Chihiro Minato (2012).

The Otolith Group interviewed Chihiro Minato for their film ‘The Radiant’ commissioned by Documenta 13 (2012). Minato reflects on how the landscape is inhabited by invisible radioactivity as well as the divine elements of mythology and belief. He considers how radioactivity might be incorporated into the legends of villages whose customs have been transformed by the disaster. In this way, he proposes, radiation can be thought of as the birth of a new divinity. Minato raises important questions about the nature of radioactivity and the way in which culture carries knowledge through generations and centuries.

Divinity is the state of things as a god-like power, a supernatural spirit, sacred and eternal. In Japan the divine is present in everything: in rocks and trees, mountains, lakes and even the sun. From a scientific perspective low-level radiation already inhabits the landscape, naturally occurring in our bodies, food, buildings and rock formations.[i] But in the 21st Century the levels are rising again.

The sublime is an immeasurable greatness or power outside human understanding. The term was used in western thought to describe objects in nature in the 18th Century, transcending beauty but filling us with awe and horrific fascination. In England the over whelming experience of nature as ‘sublime’ has its roots in romanticism, rather than the spiritual connotations of ‘divinity’.  Masco discusses the role of the nuclear sublime in positioning the atomic bomb as an intellectual project through visual effect. He refers to Kant’s formations of the dynamic sublime and the mathematical sublime (Masco, 2006, p56). The dynamic sublime is provoked by seeing a tornado or erupting volcano from a safe distance. The mathematical sublime begins with the inability to comprehend the scale and vastness of a mountain or river. In both senses, the sublime is an attempt to intellectually frame something that is outside of language: it does not lead to comprehension, but to an intellectual compensation. And it is perhaps this aspect of the sublime that returns us to visual art as a form of intellectual or aesthetic compensation for what we cannot understand.

For the Aichi Triennale, Architect Miyamoto Katsuhiro mapped a 1:1 scale drawing of the Fukushima Daiichi Sakae Nuclear Plant into the social space of the Aichi Arts Center. The work created a giant 3D drawing of the plant throughout the many levels of the Arts Center, using tape attached to the floors, walls and ceilings. It reminds us how removed nuclear architectures are from everyday life and the public realm. Although the production of waste might remain shrouded in secrecy, the storage of waste is increasingly visible as it creeps into public space. The miles of green plastic that cover the fields of radioactive waste around the Fukushima Power Plant stretch into the distance, a seemingly immeasurable transformation of the landscape into a truly nuclear sublime.

In the western discourse of the sublime, the visible is the dominant form of radioactive inhabitation, through eyewitness accounts of atomic tests. On the east coat, it is the invisible form of radioactive inhabitation in the landscape that Minato identifies as having divine qualities. Whilst the atomic sublime and the radioactive divine relates to nature and landscape, radiation also inhabits objects and artefacts – where a different kind of haunting takes place. In Yuki Yamamoto’s paintings the blue circles resonate with the image of the water storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Masco draws on Freud’s notion of the uncanny to examine how radiation haunts or animates objects, as an expression of the psychic effect of radiation. Perhaps the concept of the uncanny can be used to describe the unnerving doubt on the safety of our closest objects and most familiar materials. But whilst the visual affect of the colossal challenges for waste storage are plain to see, they are in danger of remaining unnamed and unspoken. The invisibility of radiation can be accompanied by a political absence, one which Masco describes as the invisibility of the nuclear economy produced through a combination of the ‘banal’, hiding the economics of the industry within everyday life, and the nuclear uncanny of fear which produces a form of denial and subsequent political void.

One of the questions for nuclear culture is to consider what kind of discourse do we need to take place? And what kind of legacy or folklore we want to leave for the future?

Hales, Peter B,. (1991) The Atomic Sublime, American Studies Journal, Vol 32, No.1: Spring 1991.

Masco, Joseph,. (2006). The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton.

The Otolith Group (2012) The Radiant. DV, 64’14.


Further Posts on Nuclear Culture in Sapporo:
Nuclear Culture in Japan: An Introduction to the research residency with S-AIR.
Field Note 1: Sapporo: Art and Nuclear Culture from the perspective of Sapporo.
Transforming the Water Cycle: Review of Niwa Yoshinori's artwork at the 500m Gallery.