Splitting the Atom

Cecile Massart, Particules, film still. Camera : Chloé Cramer; Music : Todor Todoroff. Filmed in June 2005 at Belgoprocess, Dessel, Belgium.
Cecile Massart, Particules, film still. Camera : Chloé Cramer; Music : Todor Todoroff. Filmed in June 2005 at Belgoprocess, Dessel, Belgium.

Centre for Contemporary Art,
Energy & Technology Museum,
Vilnius, Lithuania
18 September - 25 October 2020
Opening times: 12pm to 8pm everyday except Mondays.

The exhibition Splitting the Atom takes place across two venues in Vlinius, the CAC/SMK and the ETM Energy and Technology Museum. Ele Carpenter has undertaken the curatorial research for the exhibition in collaboration with the Nuclear Culture Research Network at Goldsmiths, University of London; and the exhibition in jointly curated with Virga Januskeviciute, CAC.

The exhibition will address new ways of thinking about the nuclear including:

Nuclear ethics focus on the balance of short-term gain with long-term consequences. Probabilistic risk analysis shows that although the likelihood of nuclear risk is statistically quite low, the consequences are extremely high. However, this model does little to address the slow violence of environmental contamination, materials out of regulatory framework and the long-term psychic effects of nuclear anxiety. In the mid-twentieth century nuclear ethics focused on the morality of nuclear weapons and the safety of nuclear energy. Issues of safety now include the maintenance of nuclear warheads, decommissioning nuclear sites, and the security of power plants and radioactive materials at home. There are also important ethical considerations about the lack of political transparency surrounding nuclear decision making hampered by state, military and business secrets; with restricted public access to nuclear information and archives. Today the discourse needs to take a broader view of the intergenerational responsibility for future generations by considering the whole nuclear cycle from mining to waste in a global post-colonial context.

Nuclear technology has been developed through colonial practices of resource extraction, atomic testing on indigenous lands, exporting nuclear installations, deployment of reactors, weapons and waste storage. And many communities are already living through the slow violence of atomic tests, radioactive accidents and contaminated landscapes. The important concept of ‘nuclearity’ is a term coined by Gabrielle Hecht to describe the uneven regulation of nuclear materials between Africa and Europe/USA, between mining and energy production. The very rationale of nuclearity is based on Western concepts of science, knowledge, and history, so the exhibition encourages us to rethink the nuclear creatively and holistically. Artworks start to trace nuclear stories to the extraction of uranium, working with and alongside communities to rethink forms of knowledge and creative practices from new, or perhaps very old, perspectives. A key characteristic of colonisation is that nation states look to techno-scientific infrastructures rather than local community solutions to energy production. This is the concept of techno-scientific determinism where techno-scientific solutions are privileged over social or political solutions.

The nuclear is embodied through a global network of large scale infrastructures and complex sensing systems. Its material infrastructures are highly visible if you know where to look. Firstly, Uranium is a planetary element occurring naturally in the ground, marking the life-span of the planet. It decays into many isotopes including radium, thorium plutonium and eventually lead. This decay chain is exploited for fission products and medical isotopes each with its own industrial processes. The uranium material trace maps the infrastructure of the nuclear cycle, from vast open cast mines in Africa and Australia, as well as parts of Europe, through processing to the reactor, weapons milling or power plant, then into long term storage of waste products. Now the nuclear utopia of the 1950s is aging rapidly, and the first generation of research sites, power stations and testing grounds are in the process of being decontaminated and decommissioned. As energy consumers we have a material relationship to uranium every time we plug in and switch on. Whilst the sciences tend to specialise on isolated research projects, the arts and humanities can take a broader view to map the material traces of the nuclear economy throughout the planet and beyond. The European Joint Research Centre creates live maps levels of Radon and gamma radiation across Europe, collating data from thousands of monitoring stations. Following the Fukushima Daichi meltdown, crowd sourced radiation monitoring projects such as Safecast and Smartphone Geiger have emerged.

Man-made radioactive isotopes created in nuclear reactors such as plutonium will last for millions of years, providing evidence of humans on the planet long after we have gone. This phenomenon is described as the Nuclear Anthropocene where anthropogenic isotopes enter the biosphere through atomic testing fallout, accidents, and burial of waste. The unique signature of each radioactive isotope can be used as a marker and detected in oceans, bodies and mudflats. Whilst within the same geologic period, underground repositories will insert tonnes of high-level radioactive waste into the fossil record, creating a deep time marker of the human.

Much of our Nuclear Heritage is being eradicated through a decommissioning process based on a romantic desire for a ‘return to nature’ end state rather than a transition to a new research or energy economy. Industry archive priorities don’t often reflect the cultural aspects of working in the nuclear industry, its traditions, artforms and everyday life activities. Nuclear technology is highly controversial and it is important that our archives represent contested political, social and material perspectives. Preserving and learning from our whole nuclear heritage is vital if we are to understand what is buried in the ground, and to learn for the future. Artists and humanities scholars are involved in the discussion of visual markers to warn people away from radioactive waste sites, and to ensure that knowledge about their whereabouts and contents is fully archived. There are interesting tensions between the role of a site marker to warn people about a site in the landscape, and a monument that seeks to commemorate an event.

Nuclear heritage has to negotiate the extremes of trauma and entertainment. Contaminated landscapes around Fukushima and Chernobyl are becoming dark tourist attractions, and generating new aesthetics of nuclear nature and deep time wastes. Whilst mainstream popular culture in the 20th Century focused on speculative fictions, legal cases, and nuclear fear, today programmes like HBO’s Chernobyl are engaging a new generation in the drama of their nuclear history.