Panning for Atomic Gold

John Gast, American Progress, circa 1872.
John Gast, American Progress, circa 1872.

The Arts Catalyst presents: A day symposium of quests for sensory perceptions of deep time through atomic materials and nuclear culture. Celebrating 20 years of The Arts Catalyst; drawing from the Arts Catalyst Atomic exhibition (1998), and looking to future nuclear archives.  Curated by Ele Carpenter with The Arts Catalyst.

Saturday 17th May 2014

University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway, Fischer Hall, 1 Suffolk Street, London, SW1Y 4HG.

Booking essential. Tickets £7 including drinks. CLICK HERE TO BOOK.

Speakers: Radiological protection advisor Shelly Mobbs; Scholar of Cold War Literature Dan Grausam; Artists: Thomson & Craighead, Karen Kramer, Susan Schuppli, Mark Aerial Waller, Carey Young; The Arts Catalyst archivist, Z Richter-Welch and Research Engineer Lisa Haskel.

Searching for the holy grail of sustainable energy and military might to create the modern world, Manifest Destiny still leads the desire for alchemical discovery and reverse mining of radioactive exploits. In the 19th Century the idea of Manifest Destiny captured the spirit of the territorial expansion of ‘American Progress’ (John Gast, 1872). In the 20th Century utopian pioneers focused on the nuclear project and new territories in space. Today the belief in nuclear modernity takes many forms.

This symposium will revisit past artworks, current practices and potential futures. Drawing from the Atomic exhibition, 1998, (James Acord, Mark Aerial Waller, Carey Young) to explore the legacies of the artist’s practices, and make public the exhibition archives for the first time. Within art and literature, traces of radioactive materials are made visible materially and politically; intercepting the nuclear cycle to reveal the aesthetics, fears, passions and economies at play. Scholar of Cold War Literature Dan Grausam will focus on the life and work of James Acord (1944-2011) who campaigned for greater openness and cultural engagement in the long-term dangers posed by nuclear materials.

In the 21st Century, nuclear materials are entering the public realm, not only as fallout, pollution, or medicine, but also as the subject of public consultation on siting and monitoring radioactive waste. Moving within networks of objects and humans, artists and scientists create a dialogue between materials mined and exploited for nuclear fission. Radiation Protection Adviser Shelly Mobbs will describe the characteristics of radioactive materials. Artists Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead are developing a new work for measuring radioactive decay within the human time of the Anthropocene. Karen Kramer’s recent film ‘Limulus’ shifts our sense of time from primitive marine life to decaying modernity.  Within geologic time, the modern belief in atomic gold is called into question as an archaic practice.


Daniel Grausam is a lecturer in English Studies at Durham University, where he researches 20th and 21st century American literature and culture, with a focus on the Cold War, and in particular on its atomic and thermonuclear aspects. His current project, from which this talk is drawn, is an interdisciplinary study entitled Half-Lives, and concerns the legacies of the nuclear national security state after 1989.  Grausam’s talk ‘Alchemical Transformations? James Flint, James Acord, and Genres of Nuclear Risk’ will examine James Flint’s superb The Book of Ash, a novel inspired by the life and work of James Acord, one of the contributors to the 1998 Atomic exhibition. The book provides a perfect test-case for examining the legacies of the exhibition and Acord’s larger body of work. Central to Acord’s engagement with the nuclear was a belief that artistic experiment would be central to any attempt to understand the long futures of the nuclear age, and consequently this paper explores the literary strategies Flint employs in order to engage the challenges posed by Acord’s provocations. In short, what literary forms and genres are the appropriate tools to engage (nuclear) realities that outstrip conventional forms of realistic representation? (As one of the novel’s epigraphs, from a conversation with Acord, puts it, “You can’t make this shit up”). In an attempt to answer that question this paper considers Flint’s relationship to a prior generation of Cold-War era nuclear-influenced writers, and puts his work into dialogue with other contemporary novelists such as Lydia Millet and Jonathan Lethem.

Karen Kramer will introduce her film ‘Limulus’ where the narrator is a supernatural piece of marine debris. Navigating deep waters and deep time through the intricate networks linking humans, fish and machines. The work explores technological aspirations, dependency and redundancy though the underwater journey of a jaded helium balloon. The film layers narratives of the extraction of LAL from the horseshoe crab with the mysterious sounds of deep water. “From the shore, the mirrored surface of the ocean can give the impression of a vault, a mute safe where the secrets of the noisy world drown. But beneath the waves exists a domain just as chattering as our own – and scientists are finding new ways to listen in on the conversation.” A.E. Smith.

Shelly Mobbs is a Director of the consultancy company Eden Nuclear and Environment She has an MSc in Physics from the University of Oxford and was leader of the contaminated land and waste advice group at HPA for over 20 years before joining Eden Nuclear and Environment in 2011. Shelly is a member of the Society for Radiological Protection and a Radioactive Waste Adviser. Shelly has over 30 years’ experience of radiation protection, performing assessments of the radiological impact of radioactivity in the environment. Her expertise is in radiological assessments of management options for radioactive waste, radiological assessments of radioactively contaminated land, and the development of radiological protection criteria for radioactive waste and radioactively contaminated land. She was a member of the ICRP Task group on radiological protection criteria for deep geologic disposal and the Safegrounds steering committee. Shelly has performed assessments of the disposal of solid radioactive wastes and of discharges from the NORM and nuclear industries. She developed the HPA biosphere model BIOS and the HPA contaminated land methodology and performed assessments of discharges and disposals to support the recent review of the UK Exemption Order regime. Shelly is currently working on radiological assessments of radioactively contaminated land for the nuclear industry and on biosphere modelling for the BIOPROTA Forum. She is a member of the MOD Independent Advisory Group for the Submarine Dismantling Project.

Thomson & Craighead will present ‘Temporary Index’ a counter representing the decay rate of radioactive waste. The work considers the human relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons development and the production of energy through nuclear fission. The real-time numeric counter will be based on the probabilistic decay of nuclear waste identified by the artists. The display will countdown in years, days, hours, minutes and seconds, showing the time remaining before the given item of waste is considered safe to be returned to the environment. The animated object of contemplation will offer a live representation of time that far outstrips the human life cycle and provide us with a glimpse into the vast time scales that define the universe in which we live in, but which also represent a future limit of humanity’s temporal sphere of influence. The work marks the object of nuclear waste within time.

Mark Aerial Waller has continued to examine nuclear contexts since presenting his film Glow Boys in the Atomic exhibition. His sculpture The Rutherford Experiment of Rutherford/Geiger/Marsden discovery of atomic structure brings a consideration of sub atomic matter into the field of fine art. Positively charged alpha particles were fired at a piece of gold foil, whilst many passed through, others were deflected by the foil demonstrating that the atom is comprised of a nucleus with a relatively large gap between it and the electrons around it. In contrast his film Midwatch, developed from interviews with atomic veterans, is set aboard a battleship recently returned from the 1950's British nuclear tests off Australia. A mutineer from the tests and a time travelling caterer from Nelson's fleet remain onboard. A battle of wills ensues between the two, as Nelson's geographic progress to power is set against the nuclear bomb tests of the 1950's; a collision between a barely remembered Imperial omnipotence and a barely understood technology of nuclear manipulation. The film was shot in total darkness using infrared equipment. Neither the actors, nor Waller on camera, could see one another. The filming itself was thrown into the realm of nightmare, as any sense of ego is removed, allowing a more profoundly intense personality to seep out.”

Carey Young will discuss Legacy Systems, the photographic series she produced for the Atomic exhibition, 1998. The ‘space race’ represents an extreme point in the achievements of the twentieth century, not least as a zenith of faith in scientific progress. The Legacy Systems series traced this vision to the heart of contemporary Russia. Young – the first artist to visit the sites she photographed - portrayed these technological crown jewels as they lie stranded in the present, like the scatterings of an unruly time capsule. Removed from the familiar iconography of science fiction or Cold War paranoia, these little-seen giants of the 20th century imagination appear small and vulnerable, like the shock of celebrity glimpsed in the flesh. Young will relate this project to several of her recent works in a variety of media in which she uses scientific concepts to examine ideas of time, artistic freedom, identity and the avant-garde, and to propose experimental forms in copyright law.

Susan Schuppli will present her film Time Lag searching for the first mention of Chernobyl in the International press. Today any database search engine will return the nuclear accident at Chernobyl when the date “April 26 1986” is input into its search parameters, whereas a microfiche review of Soviet (Pravda, Izvestia) and international newspapers from the same period reveals a time-lag of 19 days before the event registered publicly in print that a major nuclear accident had taken place. Although an orbiting American satellite took night-time images of the reactor explosion and meteorologists and scientists recorded extraordinarily high levels of radioactivity within days of the meltdown in Sweden and Germany, this information was not linked to Chernobyl for almost three weeks since Mikhail Gorbachev and the Central Committee largely withheld news of the disaster. By severely underplaying the gravity of the situation, tragically delaying reports that a substantial nuclear explosion had taken place, and downplaying the potential for contamination a tragedy of far greater consequences ensued. For those working at the Chernobyl nuclear plant site or living in the adjacent city of Pripyat this time lag would prove fatal as malignant cells metastasized, seeding their defects throughout the zone and eventually airlifting their malevolence across the borders of the Ukraine into Belarus and Europe. 

The Arts Catalyst Archive is being developed by archivist Z Richter-Welch and research engineer Lisa Haskel, along with The Arts Catalyst team. Z Richter-Welch will present an overview of the archive, its artefacts and documents which include the exhibitions ‘Nuclear: Art & Radiation’, 2008, and ‘Atomic’, 1998.  Lisa Haskel has developed the archive through a technology partnership with the University of Bournemouth Centre for Digital Entertainment, developing a set of computer-based tools that will enable and encourage art and science collaborations to adopt an Open Data strategy.

Panning for Atomic Gold Facebook page.

IMAGE: This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a school book. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation.  The painting is widely cited as an allegory of Manifest Destiny – the 19th C American belief that settlers were destined to expand through the continent.