Participatory Performance in Variable Risk Perception

Uranium Tracing, Ele Carpenter, 2018
Uranium Tracing, Ele Carpenter, 2018

DATAMI Resonances SciArt 2018 Summer School, Joint Research Council (JRC), EU Commission, Ispra, Milan, Italy, June 2018.

Wednesday 27th June, 10.15-13.00
10.15am Presentation by Ele Carpenter on Art, Radiation & Data
11am Participatory Performance in Variable Risk Perception and roundtable discussion with JRC Nuclear Scientists: Paolo Peerani, Vittorio Forcina, Giorgia Cinelli and Marc De Cort.

The JRC is like a small university campus including a nuclear research centre, just a half hour drive from Milan Malpensa airport. The address, Via Enrico Fermi, gives an indication of just how central the nuclear is to this site, and to the very nature of European collaborative research. I've been joking that sending uranium glass to Euratom is like sending coals to Newcastle, but the research reactors at the JRC and now being decommissioned. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 Italy shut down its nuclear power stations. Whilst the Euratom Treaty was signed in 1957, shortly followed by the organisation based at Ispra, it has now evolved into the JRC which broadened its remit to include other disciplines alonside the nucler research center. Today the Euratom Work Programme is focused on nuclear safety, monitoring and waste management. The Nuclear Culture workshop at DATAMI provided the opportunity to find out about the JRC nuclear research programmes. Much of their work is focused on decommissioing the old research reactors at the site, and managing the low level and high level radioactive waste on site.

This workshop brought together artists participating in the DATAMI conference with JRC Nuclear Scientists to discuss environmental and background radiation monitoring and data collection. Ele Carpenter spent a couple of hours with the nuclear scientists comparing different kinds of radiation monitors and discussing the discrepancies in readings due to different kinds of calibration. Ele then gave a short introduction to the nuclear anthropocene and her curatorial research, including commissioning artwork currently showing in the Perpetual Uncertainty exhibition at the Malmo Konstmuseum, Sweden, focusing on the 'temporary index' artwork by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, and the Pazugoo artwork by Andy Weir. Temporary Index starts to gather together a data set of the long time periods for which high level radioactive waste needs to be isolated from the biosphere. The work counts down the decay rate in seconds, a very human scale of counting time within the deep time scale of millions of years. Whilst Pazugoo is a process of mutating an ancient belief system applied to radiological danger. Both artworks function as markers of nuclear sites, and are distributed across online and physically located space. Ele introduced Ken + Julia Yonetani's 'Crystal Palace' artwork comprising of Uranium glass chandeliers lit by UV light representing each nuclear energy producing country; and her own artwork 'Laboratory for Variable Risk Perception' comprising of over 100 pieces of domestic uranium glass.

The workshop then invited the artists and scientists to form multidisciplinary groups to undertake a 'Participatory Performance in Variable Risk Perception' using items of decorative uranium glass from Ele's artwork. The performance involved exploring the varying perceptions of low level radiological risk by experiencing what it means to seek out and find a radiological object. The glass objects were hidden around the grounds outside the conference centre and participants were given geiger counters to seek out the glass in the environment. Uranium glass was chosen because it is part of our everyday radioactive uncanny. The glass contains uranium salts, but is radiologically very low-level; when lit with UV light it glows an uncanny bright green, evoking the fear and awe of radiation. The groups discussed the challenges of searching for and measuring radioactive materials, the difficulty of finding stable data, the difference between alpha, beta and gamma radiation, and the very short ranges of emissions from low level objects.

Risk is perceived very differently depending on an individual’s experience, knowledge and political culture. There are many sets of conflicting analysis of radiological data and its effects, so we might conceptually think of assemblages of subjects and data which give particular meaning to the data at any given historical moment in time. Although there is currently a lot of interest in the phenomena of 'big data' there's a lack of public access to data about nuclear sites, contamination and waste. It's probable that this data doesn't exist, or at least has not been collated in any joined-up way. It's also very difficult to compare data using different measuring systems and behaviours across civilian and military, state and commerical, public and private systems. However, the JRC is undertaking important mapping projects which are starting to include crowd sourced data, and could be an interesting resource for artistic research.

Giorgia Cinelli presented the JRC Radiological Mapping projects on real time monitoring and the European Atlas of Natural Radioactivity, which will be published as a book next year. Their maps enable members of the public to subscribe to a specific station and receive regular updates. However the current maps do not include data from Greenland or from the ocean.

The following roundtable discussion with Marco de Corte raised the complexity of comparing different kinds of radiological data across formal and informal data gathering, and across health and background radiation monitring. The JRC has just started a new project researching the increase in crowd sourced radiological readings using smart phone pocket geiger counters, and are hoping to be able to map the environmental data (taken from static readings of environmental monitoring stations) alongside the mobile monitoring of people following traces of radiation in their local environments. The project includes advising companies producing smart phone radiation monitors on the user manuals, to ensure that people take the most effective measurements possible. The JRC also maintains a European Lung Cancer register, and future work will map this data onto the radon map to see if there is a correlation between background radiation and lung cancer.

The roundtable conversation also covered:
- the relationship between pyschic and physical effects of radiation.
- the need for scientific and artistic bureaucracy to establish intergenerational structures for continuity of knowledge, such as museums, archives and libraries.
- Radon Washout
- time delay between scientifically private and public data.
- Ele presented all the scientists with a copy of the Nuclear Culture Source Book, and presented Giorgia with a 'Ray Cat' T-shirt.
- Paolo Peerani presented Ele with the 'Art Spaces' JRC exhibition catalogue, where over 50 artists were given an empty steel waste container drum to create an artwork for an exhibition which took place in the empty radioactive waste storage site in 2017.

The collaborative outcomes from the workshop include:
- increased understanding of the distinctive characteristics of environmental monitoring across formal and informal data collection.
- exchange of research and publications.
- established common understanding of the critical integrity of artistic practices in the field of nuclear culture.
- potential for the Nuclear Culture project to make public the JRC research, especially in the field of nuclear studies and nuclear humanities.
- potential for artistic work with existing mapping data.
- to address the lack of radiation monitoring data from Greenland, working with Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway.

More info about the conference here: