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The performance (and performativity) of science

B&W photo. Man dressed as giant butterfly

Jan Fabre, A Consilience, 2000. With Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology, Natural History Museum

The text of short talk that I gave at DASER in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, as part of a themed event on science and performance (you can also watch it here – and see the other speakers’ talks):

Whilst the Arts Catalyst’s work is primarily situated in the visual arts, we see our work – the artistic outputs of our work – as ‘experiences’, in which the medium itself is not the main criteria. I would like to look at three projects that the Arts Catalyst has commissioned, which centre on or incorporate performance as an artform or tactic, and to discuss them through the lens of ‘performativity’, a term which has increasingly entered the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades.

Previously used primarily within theatre and the performing arts, the term ‘performance’ – or the notion of ‘performativity’ is now often employed as a principle to understand human behaviour. The notion that we ‘perform’ our role in society has roots in the 1940s and 50s in the writings of scholars such as Erving Goffman, who in his highly influential book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), emphasized the link between social life and performance. In the 1990s, Judith Butler famously theorized gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. Scholars interested in the notion of performativity stress the active, social construction of reality, as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs.

The concept of performativity in the social sciences sprang from its use by the language philosopher J L Austin, who argued against the predominant view in philosophy at the time (1970s): that the chief business of sentences was to state facts. In particular, he described a type of sentence, ‘performative utterances’, which perform a certain kind of action (such as ‘I name this ship …’). This concept of ‘performativity’ has been picked up, developed and extended by theorists across many disciplines. It has broadly come to be used to describe theories, models or activities that affect and are affected by their actions, rather than being objective observations or truths.

In the study of science, until recently, experiment – science’s interaction with the world – was viewed as something secondary to theory and technology was barely theorised at all. But a new generation of historians and philosophers have pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. In the 1990s, Andrew Pickering argued that studies of science should go beyond science-as-knowledge to include the material, social and temporal dimensions of science [1]. Rather than seeing scientists as ‘disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations’, he suggests that we should start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency.

Two artists, one dressed as a beetle the other as a fly, converse

Jan Fabre & Ilya Kabakov, Eeen Ontmoeting/A Meeting

From the earliest days of the Arts Catalyst, I have been interested in commissioning art, in any medium, that reflects this ‘performative turn’, exploring how scientists shape society, culture and the world and are also shaped by them, rather than art that simply represents scientific discoveries or technologies.

The first project I want to speak about, Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, we were inspired to commission when my colleague at the time Rob La Frenais interviewed the Belgian artist Jan Fabre and returned to the UK to show me a film that Fabre had made with the famous Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, in which Fabre represents the world of the beetle, and Kabakov the realm of the fly.

We invited Fabre to undertake a residency at the Natural History Museum in London, a working scientific research institution as well as, of course, a world-famous public museum. He proposed to interview senior entomologists, each to be costumed in the guise of the insect of the scientist’s focus of study. Fabre himself was an amateur entomologist. To our surprise, the scientists not only agreed to participate, but there was such enthusiasm that we practically had to hold casting sessions.

In the end, five scientists, including the Keeper of Entomology Professor Dick Vane-Wright and the Deputy Keeper Dr Rory Post, took part in a series of conversations held in the museum’s extraordinary backstage collections. As well as discussing their scientific interest in the subject, each was happy to ‘perform’ a number of physical actions of the insects of their field of study. Through this, the film – shown in the museum as a two-screen installation – played on the notion of how the insects and their behaviours act on the humans who study them, as much as being purely the objects of scientific curiosity.

Extracts from Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, 2000, featuring Professor Dick Vane-Wright

In my second example, we brokered and facilitated a collaboration between the French dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois and the multidisciplinary scientific Biodynamics Group at Imperial College London. They worked together from 2000 and 2005, studying control and movement of the body in weightlessness, including a number of zero gravity flights with the European Space Agency and the Russian Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, that we organised.

This work led to installations, performances, films and scientific papers, as well as a published scientific paper and a whole new area of scientific research for the Biodynamics Group.

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (video extract), 2000

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (performance), 2003

In the spirit Pickering’s introduction of a ‘performative image of science, which aimed to rebalance our understanding of science away from an obsession with pure knowledge and towards recognising science’s material powers, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – in their book Laboratory Life – suggest that the aim of science is not to provide facts or representation about nature but rather to ‘perform’ it [2]. Among their cast of actors are the new products of science, such as genetically modified organisms.

In the US group Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory performance GenTerra (2002), performed as part of Arts Catalyst’s CleanRooms exhibition, audience members could grow and own a sample of transgenic bacteria and, after an intensive learning experience, make their own decision on the ‘release’ of transgenic organisms into the environment.

Since the 1970s, spectacularly rapid developments in the biological sciences have become a source of concern as well as excitement. Many scientists warn of the dangers of commercial pressures to push forward with biotechnology, a technique that contains many unknowns and many defects, leading to real and possible dangers to our health and to the ecosystem.

Man in white coat shows petri dishes of bacteria on release device to young boy

Critical Art Ensemble, GenTerra, 2003

Critical Art Ensemble’s work from 1993 to around 2006 sought to expose misinformation about biotechnology that came from such sources as market directives and science fiction. As few people have direct experience of working with biotechnology, the subject can seem abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. A key Critical Art Ensemble tactic therefore was to bring this science out of the lab and stage it in the public domain – giving people direct experience of common scientific processes and reliable information on a one to one basis.

The artists’ projects described above give present a few brief examples of how tactics of ‘performing science’ can focus attention on science’s ‘performativity’: on science as a series of actions that affect the world.

(This talk drew on an essay I wrote about Critical Art Ensemble’s work for the book: ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ in Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies and Rachel Zerihan, Published by Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (Princeton University Press, 1986).

High Energy Interactions: how to be an artist at CERN

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

“How can an artist make relevant art if he doesn’t know anything about relevant science?” – Julius von Bismarck, artist

I have been too busy to blog for a few months, but I must flag up the EXTENDED DEADLINE DATE for the latest Collide@CERN Artist Residency Award open call for digital artists, now open to 5 July. Collide@CERN is the flagship programme of the progressive Arts@CERN initiative initiated by the dynamic Ariane Koek at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m sad that I couldn’t make the dates of the selection committee – thanks for the invite, Mónica Bello (new Arts@CERN curator), and sorry to any artists who might have hoped I’d big up their application ;) – but I’m confident the selection committee will choose boldly, based on their track record. Previous winners of the Collide@CERN digital arts residency, a partnership between CERN and Ars Electronica, have been Julius von Bismarck (2012), Bill Fontana (2013) and Ryoji Ikeda (2014). There have also been a number of other artist residencies of shorter duration, including the wonderful Mexican artist Ale de la Puente.

The Collide@CERN programme expects “at least work in progress as plans/drawings and/or models by the end of their residency”, but emphasise a “free exchange of ideas” between artist and their partner science, in my opinion an absolutely critical element for an artist residency programme if we are to continue to develop and demonstrate the contribution that art makes to contemporary society, which lies not just in the output but in the process and performance of art and the generation of new ideas. In this way, the CERN residencies perhaps echo the spirit of the Artist Placement Group, who negotiated placements for artists between 1966 and the early 1980s in private and public sector organisations, with the aim of fostering a two-way communication between artists and industrialists or politicians, in order to benefit both the host organisations and the artists in the long-term.

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Many people ask me what scientists “get” from work with artists. I feel James Wells, the theoretical physicist who was the ‘inspirational partner’ for Collide@CERN’s first artist in residence Julius von Bismarck expressed it so beautifully when he talked about valuing having someone around who saw the world in a different way, whose influence, he felt, could shake up accepted mindsets. In a talk, Wells notes that the the process of becoming a scientist can “snuff out the daring impulse” in young scientists and that it is the “tremendous daring and openness of ideas” of artists that might really benefit the scientific community. “The first thought of an artist is not can we do this, but ‘this is what I want to do’” he remarked.

Another aspect of such fascinating and important art-science exchange was explored by artist Ale de la Puente in her short CERN residency, during which she organised workshops with scientists to investigate and discover the creation of metaphors devoted to time, scale and space in both art and science,

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

It’s worth featuring some the resulting artworks from the Collide@CERN artist residencies, particularly for me that of the first resident artist, Julius von Bismarck, who worked with James Wells. His first resulting work ‘Versuch unter Kreisen’ is an installation of 4 revolving industrial hanging lights, each attached to a motor which rotate them in a circular motion. Each light has a slightly different frequency which means that every 75 circles they all have the same phase, the rest is chaos, which Bismarck compared to life: that we spend so much time to find a moment of clarity, of coherence, and lose it again. Although I was also intrigued by his mention of other potential works (or perhaps thought works): to make a slight dent in a lake, building a 4-dimensional cube in three dimensions. He spoke of CERN as both creating reality and changing how we see reality, and his desire to add art to the world that could change it slightly afterwards.

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

In Ryoji Ikeda’s resulting work ‘Supersymmetry’, shown recently at the Vinyl Factory in London, the visual reference to particle physics and CERN is more immediate. The first hall contained three large floor-set cubes, with top screens lit from below showing clouds of tiny black circles engaged in an incessant dance, forming and un-forming fleeting structures. The second hall housed four rows of screens, two on either side of a central pathway. Images fly over the panels, the two walls projecting similar but not identical imagery, dynamic images of figures, numbers, words and diagrams zip along the rows of screens, followed by sudden plunges into darkness, underscored by a compelling beeping and clicking electronic soundtrack, conveying an exhilarating sense of overwhelming streams of data generated from multitudes of collisions and the struggle to make sense from such a complex mass of information.

Words and Money: discussions on art, ethics & value

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around sponsorship.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around the exhibition’s sponsor.

I’ve been at a couple of conferences recently in London that were responding to rising concern about the ways the visual arts in the UK are being funded.

‘Take the Money and Run’ reflected on ethics and fundraising. It was organised by Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin and Home Live Art, with Platform. The recent campaign by Platform to force Tate to release details of its sponsorship by BP was an underlying motif for the day.

There were several fiery and articulate presentations and provocations, of which you can get a sense from the twitter storify. I particularly enjoyed artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s tales of attempted manipulation and deceit by sponsors, from the overt and almost hilariously gauche (sponsors wanting to alter their artwork to promote their brand) to the hidden (the gradual realisation that the motivations of the sponsors of an apparently worthy exhibition were not what they seemed).

Their stories ably illustrated key points that the other speakers made:

  • that the type of funding an artist or organisation receives can and often does affect the work itself
  • that the arts have always been sustained by private sponsorship/patronage/philanthropy (different, but related), but now we have more ability to research the sources
  • the need to understand and reflect upon what it is that sponsors are buying, and if that is what we want to sell.

Points from the floor that I greatly appreciated included misdirected gratitude (as was said later in the day “BP doesn’t support Tate, Tate supports BP”), the irrelevance of personal moral responsibility (“It’s not about individual ethics. We’re all compromised. It’s about movements and changing politics”), and the Arts Council’s contentious use of the word “resilience” in relation to forcing companies away from reliance on public funding into the uncertain world of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

‘Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value’ was convened by Common Practice to discuss value and sustainability in the small-scale arts sector. I attended with my colleague, curator Ele Carpenter.

Common Practice is a group of London visual arts organisations that commissions research around the value of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. It has produced two interesting papers: ‘Size Matters’ by Sarah Thelwall, which argued for a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of value, and ‘Value, Measure, Sustainability’ by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, generated by a day-long symposium in 2012 which I attended, which argued for different ways of measuring the artistic contributions of small organisations beyond footfall and econometric indices.

The morning presentations opened up possibilities for creating new language and metaphors for value in small arts organisations. Artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun called for partnerships between cultural organisations and academia to create ‘alternative communities’, and new forms of cultural politics. Charlotte Higgins noted that the UKIP culture spokesperson says the arts are the last domain of the left that he need to conquer.

In the discussion, the notion of care, specifically curatorial care – for art and artists, for concepts and theory – was a recurring idea. A delegate suggested that those doing the ‘caring’ are often female, and that arts organisations suffer from the problem that ‘carers’ in society are not valued. One contributor spoke of gendered male theory in female-run organisations, but the conversation held off from addressing the social entitlement of men to hold positions of power.

New metaphors, outside those related to economic value, were requested, a point that was picked up in the breakout session I attended, where a contributor noted that ‘cultural industries’ in itself is a metaphor that requires attention. An amusing suggestion expanded the ecology metaphor into the idea that small arts organisations create the compost for artists’ practice. The proposer thought the way in which Eshun described theory made her think of theorists as worms, mixing the compost and enriching the soil. It was a popular idea, although it was felt that ecological analogies still rely on ‘growth’ or ‘competition’ models, in which, as Gordon-Nesbitt’s paper noted, “only those organisations able to adapt – particularly to corporate or philanthropic models of organisational development – will survive” and the small is only of worth if it contributes to, or grows into, the large.

The afternoon presented speakers with international but relevant perspectives. Maria Lind, Director of the Tensta Konsthall in Sweden, suggested that, whilst networks were essential for small organisations, it was easier to partner internationally because of competition for funding within a country. Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. in the USA meanwhile presented detailed argument for the need to pay artists working with non-profit organisations. She spoke of the contradictions swirling around the issue of pay to artists, as well as analysing the economy of philanthropy. W.A.G.E. has developed a certification program in the US that establishes a sector-wide minimum standard for artist compensation. Fee levels take into account pay levels within the organisation.

As Higgins and Eshun eloquently described, small arts organisations are small in size but big in scope and networks through which they support the development of artists’ practices (commissioning new work, helping artists to establish contexts for their work, providing residencies and mentoring, etc), enable audiences to experience new artworks and engage meaningfully with ideas and specialist practices, organise discussion and debate, and work imaginatively with long term communities of interest. All this caring, developmental work needs to be valued, not simply as underpinning the rest of the art world, but for having complex and in depth engagement with art and its many communities and discourses. So we were all left thinking about the elephant in the room: will the new Arts Council England research grants examine the ‘impact’ of their regular dissolution and undermining of so many small scale arts organisations across the UK?

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Viaduct


Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen -Belare 2008-2009

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.


Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Nuclear culture in Japan. Pt 2: Road trip through Fukushima exclusion zone

After my lecture at the Actinium nuclear forum in Sapporo, a group of us (Arts Catalyst team and artists with Kyoko Tachibana from our partners S-AIR) travelled by plane and bullet train to Fukushima City (located 60km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant). If we weren’t already aware of what we were heading into, this was the first thing we saw on leaving the rail station:

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Fukushima City was not evacuated after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It is the prefectural capital with a population of more than 280,000. On the surface, life appears to continue here as normal.

We met with Shuji Akagi, an artist and high school art teacher, who lives in the city (Shuji’s work was shown in the Actinium exhibition and he spoke at the forum). Since 2011, Shuji has been meticulously photographically documenting the decontamination of the city. He took us on a tour of the city to give us some insight into this vast process, which involves the rather low-tech process of scrubbing roads, buildings and trees with street sweeping vehicles, high-powered sprayers, and hand-held brushes. In addition, the first metre of topsoil is being removed from parks and gardens and reburied elsewhere. The plan is to decontaminate the entire city. It has taken three years so far and it looks a long way from being finished.

Roadway circular scratches caused by machine

Scratches from decontamination process on the roads, Fukushima City

The photo below is of one of the temporary storage sites for contaminated topsoil in the heart of this busy city. Hidden from street view behind a fence, here they are storing topsoil, which will then be reburied elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture. The city has difficulty finding storage sites to keep contaminated soil. When first removed, it is temporarily stored on the premises of schools and people’s homes, buried in yards or covered in plastic sheets, awaiting collection. 

Numerous black bags containing soil with blue covering in large hole in central city location

Contaminated topsoil, Fukyshima City

Sign with blue Japanese writing

Blue ‘decontamination site’ sign – these are found all over Fukushima City and the region

All around the city, you see these piles of contaminated topsoil.

Blue covered pile outside shop with vending machine next to it

Contaminated topsoil awaiting collection, Fukushima City

Shuji took us to see a large temporary storage site, where this topsoil is then taken, just on the edge of the city by Fukushima University. The topsoil is stored here before being relocated again for burial.

Vast hole in the ground containing large black and blue plastic bags. Sign - picture of worker with hands outstretched in warning and Japanese writing

Temporary contaminated topsoil storage site, near Fukushima University

How do the people of the city feel about the decontamination? Do they discuss its progress? Do they think it is effective? Shuji told us that it is rarely discussed by the city’s inhabitants in general conversation. The city authorities say the city is safe and the city returned quite quickly to normal after the disaster, almost as though nothing had happened. He finds this very strange. But he does not know if he is too worried, or not worried enough, about the dangers posed by the contamination. He knows he looks for spots of high radiation, while others prefer to be reassured, and he finds it difficult to find others in the city as concerned as he is. The art world outside Fukushima and internationally, where his photographs are widely exhibited, gives him an arena to discuss the things that concern him so greatly that he relocated his family to another city, 80 km away, although he still works in Fukushima City to keep up their income.

From Fukushima City, our group drove to Soma, closer to the Fukushima restricted zone, where we stayed the night. Shuji accompanied us, interested to visit the evacuation zone around the power plant. In the early hours, the hotel shook. An earthquake. A small one for here. A common occurrence. And this is where they build nuclear reactors? This feels increasingly uncanny, a place where abnormal things have become normalised.

The restricted zone

It is complex to explain the spatial aspect of the exclusion and restricted zones around Fukushima. This is one map I’ve found that can help, and it usefully shows the location of Fukushima City. Initially, the exclusion (evacuation) zone was a 20km circle around the around the Fukushima Daiichi plant  – shown on the map below. However, the coloured areas show how the radiation was actually distributed, due to the wind direction. This meant that the original evacuation zone was soon extended Northwest towards Fukushima City, although the city itself was left outside it.


The restricted zone today continues to be adjusted to allow people into areas with lower radiation levels, and move them out of areas with higher levels. Below is a recent, although by no means up-to-date, map. The green areas show those parts of the original exclusion zone that people are now allowed back into. The orange are areas where people are only allowed in during the day to work or visit former homes, but cannot live there, or which can only be visited at all with a special permit. The pink area is the Red Zone, the most contaminated area, which is extremely restricted. Due to the revised shape of the exclusion zone, by driving down Highway 6 from Soma, and with a special permit, we were able to come within 4km of the Daiichi power plant itself and to visit the evacuated town of Namie.


The morning after our bumpy sleep, we set off with Shuji and a local guide (a former farmer, evacuated from his house in the exclusion zone, who stays in the area working with an NGO). Driving along Highway 6, we found ourselves tailing one of the many trucks carrying radioactive topsoil. It’s a massive industry here, the clean up. We stopped in Minamisoma (a formerly evacuated city to which inhabitants have been allowed to return) to pick up our permit, allowing us to enter the Orange Zone.

Our guide took us to the coastal area where he lived to the north of the Daiichi plant. In most of the area affected by the tsunami, the clean up has erased most obvious physical evidence. Here, the physical evidence of the tsunami is frozen in time, a consequence of the radioactivity that has fallen on the area. “Here most people got out” our guide says as we reached some derelict houses. “Here, over 100 people died”, he informed us, as we passed an area where there was no trace of any houses – washed away by the force of the tsunami.

Damaged rural houses

Houses deserted post-tsunami damage, Fukushima exclusion zone

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Gold dome and square building

Deserted planetarium, Orange Zone, Fukushima

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

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Tsunami debris

Passing the checkpoint at which we showed our permit, we arrived at the edge of the Red Zone. Getting out of our minivan, we could just make out Fukushima Daiichi’s plant’s reactors, 4 km away, across a river with a broken bridge. Ele Carpenter took her Geiger counter out and placed it close to the water source (where radioactivity concentrates). The readings on the counter had increased as we’d got closer to the Red Zone, but not significantly.

View over ruined bridge towards distant hills and electricity pylons

Looking out towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (from 4km)

Geiger counter placed on a crack in the road

Ele’s Geiger counter, Fukushima Prefecture

As we looked out across the landscape, a pair of workers emerged by car from the Red Zone wearing white suits. This was the first sign we had seen of anyone in protective wear.

Men in white overalls and face masks get into a white car

Workers leaving the Red Zone, 4km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Bizarrely, a Google streetcar passed us as we stood there. Will we be on Google Street View, captured hanging around uncertainly in this uncertain uncanny zone?

We drove to Namie next, a ghost town on the edge of the Red Zone, evacuated after the disaster.

A deserted high street of a small Japanese town

Namie ghost town, Fukushima exclusion zone

In a shop, piles of newspapers left from the day of the evacuation. Kyoko read the headlines for us – they were about the earthquake.

Stack of newspapers in Japanese

Stack of newspapers from the day of the evacuation, shop in Namie, Fukushima exclusion zone

The Geiger counter reading increased and we decided to leave quite quickly to be on the safe side.

We dropped Susan Schuppli off near where our guide’s house was, where she wanted more time to do some filming – I’d offered to drive back later to collect her – and we drove back to Soma. The others headed for Fukushima City from there, while I collected the small car I’d hired and drove the 90 minute journey back into the restricted zone to rendezvous with Susan. I found her filming in the middle of a field near a major seawall rebuilding project. We decide to drive back into Namie for a little more filming and, out of curiosity, we then headed to the edge of the Red Zone on Highway 6. It was the rush hour, and we looked on astonished at the endless stream of traffic emerging from the Red Zone carrying workers. It was almost bumper to bumper driving back through Namie, but no one stops in this town. There are no shops open, yet it looks like a functioning town. It’s just that there’s no one here anymore. And probably never will be.

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

View of rolling hills at sunset

View inland from the coast, Fukushima exclusion zone

We drove back to Fukushima City over the hills, skirting the edge of the Red Zone and passing through the deserted picturesque village of Iitate, an unfortunate place that was hit badly by the radiation despite being 40km from the power plant and outside the 30km exclusion zone around the plant. A feeling of great sadness and waste hit me, a sense of displaced people, disrupted lives and an invisibly toxic landscape.

Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)


Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

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Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Railways, ruins and modernity: artists’ explore Mexico’s abandoned rail network


Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Our latest exhibition, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s ‘SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220‘ has already been featured in several blogs around the world. Even Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wrote a very nice piece about it. However, there is still much to say about this remarkable project, not to mention the stunning pictures and video. The exhibition, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and presented in partnership with Furtherfield Gallery, at the heart of Finsbury Park in London – ends next weekend (27 July). Do catch it if you haven’t yet.

I’ll start with a video which nicely captures the concept of this ambitious and delightful project, in which the artists designed and built their own silver road-rail exploration probe SEFT-1 (which they call a “spaceship”) and set out to travel the forgotten passenger railways of Mexico and visit the communities isolated when Mexico abruptly discontinued its passenger services after privatisation in 1995.

For five years (between 2006 and 2011), Puig and Domene travelled in the SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe), recording the landscapes and infrastructure between cities, interviewing people they met, taking photographs and videos, and sharing their findings online, at (more pictures at the bottom of this page).

On their journeys, they encountered hundreds of “modern ruins” – places and systems deserted quite recently, not because they weren’t functional, but because political and economical priorities changed. Their photographs show remote, derelict stretches of track slowly decaying back into forest or desert landscapes, presenting an eerie image of the past that is also a dystopian vision of an abandoned future.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 with Citlaltépetl in the background

As Professor Malcolm Miles noted in his talk at the opening of the exhibition, ruins hold an allure for us, provoking a different emotional response from the pristine. In the case of modern ruins, they may make us to dwell on the waste and decay of industrial economies; if we look around, such ruins are everywhere in our urban environment. Power leaks, declines and becomes derelict, noted Miles, a notion encapsulated in Shelley’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, but, he felt, in an age of climate change it is easy just to dismiss industry as well as modernity, and perhaps ruins can tell us also about survival. Modernism and industry, he argued, brought us many benefits. It’s hard to look back at that idea now, as it predicted where we are, even if this isn’t the world we wanted.


Railways are an icon of modern industrialisation, part of our identity in the UK. It was British companies who partnered with the Mexican government in the second half of the 19th century to build the iconic railway line that connected Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean, a line that now lies in ruins. In the UK, in 1963, Beeching closed many tracks, and since then the rail network has continued to suffer from disinvestment and prioritisation of road transport by successive governments.

Recognising the historical links between Britain and Mexico’s railways, for this new exhibition, the artists invited British expert model railway constructor Neville Reid to collaborate by creating a scale diorama and model of the ruined viaduct spanning the Metlac gorge in Mexico. One gallery has become a space for the process of model ruin construction. All details – down to the vegetation – have been meticulously researched and reconstructed.

10 July 6

10 July 3

10 July 1


The SEFT-1 exploration probe  and exhibition are still open this weekend and next (11am-6pm): 18–20 July and 25–27 July 2014.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in La Loma station, Durango

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 interior of cabinIvan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 under the stars of Taviche

SEFT-1 in Mars

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