Nuclear Sound

Ele Carpenter and Peter Cusak at Resonance Fm. Photo: Kyoko Tachibana
Ele Carpenter and Peter Cusak at Resonance Fm. Photo: Kyoko Tachibana

Nuclear Culture on Clear Spot, Resonance FM
Live Broadcast on 7 July, 8-9pm

Ilia Rogatchevski introduces presentations by - then an interview between - Ele Carpenter (editor of the Nuclear Culture Source Book), including material by Susan Schuppli; and Peter Cusack (Sounds From Dangerous Places CD), revolving around their research projects on nuclear culture. [Repeated Monday 9am.] This special interview was organised to coincide Real Lives Half Lives: Fukushima, an exhibition at Arts Catalyst and Sonic Waterloo 2017, a new sound art festival at IKLECTIK. The Nuclear Culture Source Book is published by Black Dog Publishing in partnership with Bildmuseet and Arts Catalyst. Sounds From Dangerous Places was co-produced by ReR MEGACORP and the Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD.

Here's Ele Carpenter's thoughts on Nuclear Sound written in preparation for the programme:

Peter Cusak's book and audio cd's 'Sounds from Dangerous Places' begins in Chernobyl, taking the reader and listener on an acoustic journey of an essentially silent technology and its impact on our audio-imaginations. Peter then travels to the Caspian oil fields before returning to a series of nuclear sites in the UK. In his introduction he asks "What can we learn by listening to the sounds of dangerous places?" and I'm reminded of Peter's talk at IKLECTIC last night, where he described how the everyday activites of humans make every architectural space a place. It is this focus on located inhabitation within the nuclear economy, places that we assume are outside the public domain which also motivates my research. In fact there are many concerns raised through what Peter calls 'sonic journalism' which resonate through the Nuclear Culture project and many of the artworks presented in the Nuclear Culture Source Book (NCSB) and two exhibitions that I've curated over the last couple of years, Material Nuclear Culture at KARST, Plymouth, and Perpetual Uncertainty at Bildmuseet, Sweden, which is soon to open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

Peter Cusak's work gives a grounded, located experience of Chernobyl, revealing the empty spaces and folk song and poetry, all within a rich birdsong soundscape, debunking much of our sonic imagination of the Chernobyl site. He writes:

"Away from the zone, the rest of the world has little awareness of its everyday realities. Instead its impact is on our imaginations. The original catastrophe, the initial secrecy, the heroism and sacrifice of those who bought it under control (who are celebrated in the Ukraine as the 'Liquidators'), the evacuation of more than 200,000 people, the irradiation of five million, the spread of fallout to cover much of Europe and the area's subsequent isolation - all these have created potent mythologies and given real substance to our fears." (Cusak, 2012, p13)

At Chernobyl, like other nuclear sites, lack of political transparency, confusion and disagreement about local radiation levels and the far-reaching journeys of radioactive isotopes across the continent has led to multiple layers of imagination. Field research is essential for artists to undertake their own research, living and working within the different layers of state, industry and community cultures around a nuclear site. Here field recordings reflect a broader engagement with place, capturing a particular moment in time. Peter's work led him to the conclusion that "disasters on this magnitude are essentially unknowable", and his work listens to "the small voices, to the environment itself, to those whose personal knowledge of the area goes back generations, to those on the front line and to those whose lives have been changed forever by events over which they had no control."(Cusak, 2012, p18)

Let's try and start at the beginning of the relationship between nuclear and sound. The first human sensing of ionizing radiation is visual through the exposure of radioactive materials on photographic paper (Martin Howse, NCSB, p31) and the second human sensing of radiation is sonic, through the familiar counts per second click of the geiger counter. Otherwise radiation is undetectable by the human senses of smell, taste, sound and touch. Humans are dependent on the technical apparatus of the radiation monitor to navigate a radiological environment, but can only capture what their equipment can register. For example, the measurement of counts per minute (CPM) is the rate of alpha and beta particles detected by the monitor, and not emitted from a source, in the same way that a recording device doesn't record everything in a place, only what it is able to detect. On the other hand, as Peter reveals, tiny microphones can access places that humans can't, by squeezing into narrow gaps or upon an airbourne drone. In these ways sonic devices have their own acoustic characteristics. Perhaps the most dangerous of acoustic places is the nuclear submarine which is powered by a nuclear reactor especially so that it can spend long periods of time silently listening underwater. The UK hunter killer class of submarines were primarily sonic devices, using sonar to triangulate the ocean searching for other submarines, and in the process sensing a vast range of marine activity. In 2016, Susan Schuppli interviewed retired submariner Alan Jones about his memories of life in search of familiar and unfamilar sounds. The work was presented in the Material Nuclear Culture exhibition at KARST Gallery in Plymouth in 2016.

In The Nuclear Culture Source Book Louise K Wilson reflects on her experience of accessing a nuclear submarine in 2007 where she intended to record an acoustic landscape of the distinctive knocks, creaks and pings endemic to such vessels. However, submarines are designed to reduce impact ‘noise’ to prevent them being detectable, and the acoustic signature inherent to each vessel is restricted information. In the book, Louise reflects on how her auditory expectations were wholly conditioned by watching fictional submarine films, and describes the sonic characteristics of the submarine:

"Submariners, who detect the enemy by listening, are trained to recognise the occurrence of known and unknown sounds. In the 'Sound room' (pictured) live hydrophone arrays translate watery vibrations into evocative sounds. The unknown sonic fragments and emissions are termed transients and given names such as ‘clunks’, ‘bangs’, ‘transmissions’, ‘bio’, ‘chain/trawl noise’. More colloquially these transients are termed “babbling brook”, “laughing man”, “frying fat”, “big bee”. Interestingly bio-audible signals from marine life can sound like metallic clicks. The sonar can detect sea animals but it can also adversely affect them. Likewise humans detect and are affected by sounds and by the processes of active listening. One sonar officer recounts that when he watches feature films, he finds himself concentrating on the auditory ‘background’ rather than the dialogue. This emergent audio landscape ‘pings’ into waking and dreaming consciousness. These (decommissioned) submarines now surface only as fragments of echoic acoustic memory." (Louise K Wilson, The Nuclear Culture Source Book, p59).

The rhythm of the submarine as a human body vibrates through Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson's film 'Courageous' (p50) which is showing in the Perpetual Uncertainty exhibition, soon to open at Z33 House of Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium 16 September - 10 December 2017. The pulse of the propeller forms the heartbeat of the submarine, reminding us that the supposedly clean technology is only really a heater to drive a steam engine. But on a submarine, it's the propulsion technology that's supposed to be the secret.

There are many political restrictions on recording images of nuclear sites, but the more generalised abstraction of audio recording and its more selected forms of distribution mean that many artists have made sound art works recorded within nuclear power stations. The Nuclear Culture Source Book features empset's sound and moving image project produced inside the decommissioned Trawsfyndd Nuclear Power Station in North Wales. Fully operational between 1965 and 1991, the power station was designed by the Modernist architect, Basil Spence, and is currently awaiting final demolition scheduled for around 2083. (p146)

Cusak concludes that most dangerous sites sound the same due to the "the relentless broad-range hum of massive extrators". But I'm wondering if nuclear sites have their own acoustic radiological signatures, and how these will change with the half-life of the site over time?