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Posts tagged ‘geopolitics’

The active role for culture in a divided nation

Poster showing coastline. Text: No man is an island. No country by itself.

Wolfgang Tillman poster (detail), 2016

A surprising number of people have said to me lately that they don’t know any Leave supporters at all. So I think I should say that Leave voters include members of my family, neighbours, and friends I have met through my non-work related interests.

I’m trying to understand why they voted Leave (which are not uniform, although – yes – immigration is a common theme), even though I disagree passionately with the decision they took. Many people feel ignored and disempowered by the political establishment and were delighted at the chance to say “fuck you” to their recommendations. Others blame different aspects of the EU for their woes – from immigration to the decline of the fishing industry to perceived threats to their culture to a vague fear of “faceless” unaccountable bureaucrats. Others, yes, I think were misled by the lies and propaganda sent out by ambitious, mendacious politicians and promoted by tabloids owned by an anti-EU tycoon. But, as we know, the Remain campaign’s response to those misrepresentations was too late and rather feeble.

In any case, how could complex arguments for our membership of the European Union and the ramifications of withdrawing be explained and conveyed through a campaign motivated by power play and presented as a stark IN/OUT choice? It took me quite a lot of research to understand, even partially, the various ramifications of the decision I was about to take; time which most people don’t have.

Of course, I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the vote. I am desperately worried for all our EU immigrants and visitors – as well as, frankly, anyone with a non-white skin – who appear now to be being openly insulted by loons who have misunderstood this vote as some kind of validation of their racist isolationist ideologies. I am scared for the protection of our environment, deeply concerned for my son, given the work done by the EU to give rights to disabled people, worried about my daughter’s future, and frightened of an extreme right mandate emerging from this. Culturally, I feel European as well as British, English, etc, etc. Selfishly, I don’t want to lose my freedom to travel and work in Europe. But those of us in the Remain ‘camp’ need to understand that we have more in common than we realise with many Leave voters. Particularly those frustrated people in communities who feel left behind by economic growth, their industries decimated by Thatcher, their community spirit and personal wellbeing shat on by so-called “austerity” policies, (sparked by banking idiocy, in which they played no part, and a political ideology that they probably didn’t vote for) and their voices totally ignored. Remainers state their bafflement at communities who appear to have scorned the EU’s investment in their communities. But handouts from the EU don’t rebuild community spirit and pride.

As for the demographic analysis of who was IN and who was OUT: it’s helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I fall into a number of OUT demographics. I am not a young person and I live in a small town that voted to leave (“Little England”). Conversely, Leave voters include many whom we assume would vote Remain: immigrants – both EU and non-EU -, people with degrees, academics, socialists, artists, scientists, young people, disabled people, those who care about the environment, Londoners, Scottish people, and people in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Leave camp also includes people with whom I would find very little in common, and those with whom I would find it pretty impossible to have a fact-based tolerant conversation, but I’m just saying there are many with whom we can talk.

I believe that leaving the EU and the single market is bad news for us all. We are all victims of a political and media campaign of over-simplification, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lies, sparked by an internal party political struggle. Handing power to those who don’t believe in the welfare state, nor in rebuilding and investing in communities left out in the cold by the UK’s economic growth, and who intend to dismantle the NHS, is not something that many Leave voters intended.

I am not being an apologist for the bigotry, racism and violence that emerged during the campaigning and since the vote. It is disgusting and shocking. Yet I hope we may prevent further division and bolster the tolerance and openness that still exists across our society. Somehow, we need to find a new political conversation that is more informed, kinder, more inclusive and nuanced, before we head down this road of no turning back and find ourselves in a more divided world than the one we already live in. This conversation is going to be desperately needed, whether we proceed with Article 50 and leave the EU, or (and perhaps even more so) if the desperate attempts to circumvent it are successful or the whole thing is fudged.

How does art and culture play a role here?

I’m not sure that we will get this new conversation, this lead, this honesty, from politicians. With one or two honorable exceptions, they are still – 3 days after the referendum – hiding in their sixth form common rooms, squabbling about who is going to be head prefect. We can, of course, keep lobbying them, hoping they will eventually get their shit together. And as for the EU leaders baying for our exit before the dust has even settled on this momentous (and advisory) referendum, how unhelpful and divisive can you get? Shame on them as representatives of a united Europe.

But party politics and policy, in any case, change back and forth with the prevailing wind. Our role in the arts is to affect and change culture. This is more permanent. We need to make work within the communities that are not in the major cities and who are not the usual audiences. We need to make work and open conversations around complex issues such as migration, race, climate and environmental change, the commons, how to nurture health and a sense of well being, and disability rights. We need to work with scientists, other experts and communities to do this: we need informed conversations. But even more than this, we need to create new visions of the tolerant, progressive, inclusive society we could be. We need to seed hope. Art, as ever, has a role to play.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

– John Donne

 

Critical art and outer space: examining space as a global commons

Illuminated globe outline with two people visible behind

Joanna Griffin & Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration

The ‘Critical Issues in Outer Space’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ huge Annual Meeting in San Francisco last week was scheduled in the daunting 8am slot on the final day. Nonetheless, a good audience gathered, perhaps indicating the rising interest in the topic of outer space within geography.

Julie Klinger, convener of the session, gave a stimulating presentation on the new challenges to international outer space treaties (that designate outer space as a common heritage of all humankind) from state and private sector interests in off-Earth mining *, particularly looking at mining interests on the Moon.

Danny Bednar’s paper considered the complex landscape of actors and interests involved in today’s outer space activities – from use of orbits, exploration of the solar system, to proposed colonization and exploitation. He proposed that concepts of ‘governance’ from the social sciences, which emphasize the shift in the processes of politics away from purely state actors to numerous private interests, can make a useful contribution to understanding current space issues.

My paper – which you can listen to below – discussed some of the critical strategies employed by curators and artists to engage with the political and spatial nature of outer space as a global commons, including Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab, Joanna Griffin’s Satellite Stories and, in collaboration with Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration, my own work with the European Space Agency and International Astronautical Federation and the ITACCUS committee, and Arts Catalyst’s exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’. I argued that critical artistic and curatorial practices can contribute to our understanding of outer space as a dynamic and socially constructed space, and help to shape the social imaginary of the region around our planet as an important global commons.


(apologies for poor audio quality)

The session included by a Skype presentation by James Ormrod, presenting the book that he has co-edited with Peter Dickens ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space’, a strong collection of texts from many disciplines, showing the compelling contribution being made to our understanding of outer space issues by the social sciences, arts and humanities. I’ll try to review this book in a later blog post, but in the meantime I’m thoroughly enjoying read the essays in it. I should add the proviso that art is represented in the book by a chapter that I have written, in which I chart the construction of a ‘space imaginary’ through the visual arts.

* Four months ago, the US Senate passed the Space Act of 2015, which grants U.S. citizens or corporations the right to legally claim non-living natural resources — including water and minerals — mined in outer space. This law directly conflicts with international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the US is a signatory, states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Legally, the US cannot give rights to claim off-planet resources to which it does not have ownership.

 

Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts

 

In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

Tomás Saraceno’s artistic project Aerocene is a series of sculptures that will float in the longest 0-fossil fuel journey around the world, becoming buoyant only by the heat of the Sun and infrared radiation from the surface of Earth. For COP21 Paris, December 2015, Saraceno presents Aerocene in a sculptural installation at Grand Palais. 

http://www.aerocene.com/

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Some responses to War at the speed of light …

James Bridle, Dronestagram, 2012

A couple of recent interesting blog posts have picked up on my War at the Speed of Light: artists and drone warfare post a few weeks ago, which reviewed Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen’s works at the Brighton Photo Biennial.

Geographer Dr Alan Ingram, in his post Making geopolitics creepy and cool with art, fascinatingly analyses the use of particular words in the comments books at Fast and Paglen’s exhibitions: ‘stunning’, ‘cool’, ‘creepy’, ‘ugh’, ‘*shudders*, ‘oh no…’, ‘weird’, ‘wow’, ‘huh?’, by way of François Debrix, JJ Charlesworth, and neuropolitics (more please, Alan, this is a fantastic subject!). Ingram’s excellent blog Art and War is part of an academic research project exploring the responses of artists and art institutions in the UK to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq,

Meanwhile, Honor Harger’s Drone’s Eye View: a Look at How Artists Are Revealing the Killing Fields, whose venue Lighthouse in Brighton hosted the Paglen show, introduces James Bridle’s significant body of work on drone warfare. Bridle’s Drone Shadow is an ongoing investigation into the shadow of the drone, in which one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are drawn to scale on urban landscapes, while his new project Dronestagram, launched this month, is a social media project on TwitterInstagram and Tumblr which posts a drone’s-eye-view of strike locations.

Thanks to both!

Also, in case you’ve missed it, I draw your attention to Culture+Conflict, a UK-based not-for-profit agency, founded in 2011 by Michaela Crimmon, Peter Jenkinson and Jemima Montagu, which focuses on the role of the arts and culture within conflict and post conflict situations across the world.

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
– quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Nuclear landscapes: exploring New Mexico’s atomic legacy

View out over a desert landscapes
Looking out towards Trinity Ground Zero (20 miles away), New Mexico

My first trip to the States, in 1997, was to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 560 square miles of beautiful, polluted desert landscape in the Columbian Basin, Washington State. This is where the first reactors were built for the Manhattan project to produce plutonium: fuel for the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, Hanford was home to nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium-processing complexes, a vast complex technological landscape. I travelled there to meet with the artist James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, who took us around and told us numerous tales about the history and contested landscape of Hanford.

The nuclear landscape of Hanford – contested, isolated, resonant with history, paradoxically visually beautiful and highly polluted, dense with security – fascinated me. Visiting New Mexico for ISEA 2012 (International Symposium of Electronic Arts): Machine Wilderness, I was keen therefore to explore this other significant landscape of nuclear history. The world’s first atomic bomb Trinity exploded in the deserts of southern New Mexico, using plutonium made in Hanford, while to the north of the state, the volcano-perching small town of Los Alamos was the heart and brain of the wartime atomic bomb programme. Both Hanford and Los Alamos remain home to significant scientific laboratories, closely associated with the military’s nuclear programme.

At ISEA, I met Matt Coolidge, the director of CLUI(Centre for Land Use Interpretation), an expert on the constructed landscapes of the States. Coolidge gave a brief presentation on the technological landscape of New Mexico, particularly Los Alamos, as part of the ISEA ‘Radical Cosmologies’ panel, but almost more interesting was when, afterwards, he showed us the large amount of Los Alamos laboratory surplus equipment in the back of his transit van, that he had bought from a place called the Black Hole in Los Alamos. Two artists on the same panel were Tom Jennings and Eve-André Laramee, who had a collaborative installation ‘Invisible Landscapes’ in the ISEA exhibition, referencing the Cold War atomic legacy of uranium mining and radioactive waste. Their installation included video projections and sculptures, digital photos and light box and sound sculptures (click here for iPhone video clip of the piece).

Installation with equipment and photographs

Tom Jennings & Eve-André Laramee, Invisible Landscapes, 2012

I visited the Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, a fascinating place, made more interesting by chatting with a guide and educator there, John Anderson, who worked for over 50 years in the nuclear world. I commented on his English/Russian name badge, and he explained that he had been part of a programme in which the US provided technical advice to the Russians on safety and decommissioning. He pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits, including a neutron bomb, mythologized as being able to leave infrastructure intact, destroying only living things, in fact their detonation, Anderson told me, would cause considerable destruction through blast and heat effects. He also talked about some ‘Broken Arrow’ incidents – US military terminology for accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, including accidental nuclear detonation or, astonishingly, the loss in transit of a nuclear weapon or material, primarily due to aircraft accidents. The Museum houses many fascinating exhibits and a magnificent large-scale outdoor display in development, which includes a B52 bomber plane, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, and a nuclear cannon.

Snark missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

Titan Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Watch from Hiroshima (photograph), Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

My road trip to Los Alamos started out from Albuquerque, heading northbound along the Interstate 25, but I soon turned off to take the looping, scenic back route, which took me through ancient sacred grounds of Native Americans, winding along one of the steep canyons of the mesa, and around the crater of the Valles Caldera. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, chose the site. He knew Los Alamos, the site of a small private school, from his youth, when he rode in the New Mexico landscape. Los Alamos suited the brief for the site: remote, far from the sea, and sparsely populated. By autumn 1943, a few thousand people were living in Los Alamos, working in the lab in the hills. They worked six days a week for two years, their work culminating in the atomic bomb explosions in 1945: the Trinity test, and the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the work at Los Alamos continued as the Cold War darkened, making bigger and “better” nuclear weapons.

View from Los Alamos mesa

Main entrance to the Los Alamos National Laboratory

I drove around the fenced lands of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The area is divided into seventy-four Technical Areas. The lab is now engaged in a range of programs related to security, environmental technology, renewable energy, health sciences, and son on. But nuclear weapons are still the main activity and responsibility of the lab. I passed the main gates of the lab, and rejoined the main road into town from the other side. Entering town, the former gates of the lab are recognizable by an unused guard tower on one side, and a guardhouse on the other, now a restaurant. Beyond the gate, Technical Area 21 on the left, is one of the most contaminated sites. Facilities here were used for early research with plutonium and uranium. It’s the site where chemical operator Cecil Kelley died in a plutonium criticality accident in 1958.

Technical Area 21, Los Alamos

Los Alamos has the clean, planned look of an affluent middle class suburb. I stopped off at the Bradbury Museum, predominantly a science museum, with a specific emphasis on nuclear science. It has an excellent large-scale annotated map of the area, some interesting exhibits, including replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man – the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – and a cinema, which showed a very interesting film on the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan project.I visited the tiny Los Alamos Historical Museum, which – unlike the Bradbury Museum – includes panoramic photographs of destroyed city of Hiroshima. Behind this small interesting museum is Bathtub Row, the remaining teachers’ cottages from the former school, which became the housing for the main lab scientists. These bungalows were considered luxurious for having bathtubs. Oppenheimer’s house is at the far end of the row.

Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos

I drove up the valley, along “Acid Canyon”, where untreated waste was dumped between 1943 and 1953. It is next to the town’s high school. I was heading for the “Black Hole” of Los Alamos, a vast collection of surplus Los Alamos laboratory equipment, bought at auctions and acquired by other means, over decades, by the late owner of the Hole, Ed Grothus. Grothus once worked at the lab, but resigned due to his ethical concerns, staying in Los Alamos as an outspoken critic. The Black Hole has been selling off the collection for years, and the weekend I was there, Grothus’ adult children were having a big sale at the Hole. Several artists – to whom Matt, I or my colleague Rob had mentioned this – also turned up, overjoyed at the opportunity to buy extraordinary items of fascinating old nuclear lab equipment.

Black Hole, Los Alamos

Black Hole, Los Alamos, interior

On the way back to Albuquerque, I took the Turquoise Trail, Highway 14, called after the several turquoise mines that were once here. The road passes through former mining towns, some now deserted. Gold, silver, lead, zinc and coal were all mined around here. I stop for a beer before sunset in the town of Madrid, now a community of artists and creative types, with a main street lined with cafes, bars and craft shops catering for tourists.

White Sands National Memorial, in the heart of White Sands Missile Range

A few days later, I set off South, taking Interstate 25 in the other direction. An hour’s drive, and I turned left onto Highway 380, and headed out along the Northern perimeter of the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States, covering is almost 3,200 square miles. This was the site of the first atomic explosion. Ground Zero at Trinity is now only open to the public on two days a year, but I pulled over on the stretch of road that I calculated was closest to the site.

I stepped out of the car into the heavy heat of the desert, and looked south across the dry lands towards the mountains. From where I stood, about 20 miles from Ground Zero, I would have felt the heat and shock wave of the explosion, and the mushroom cloud would have been clear to see, reaching 7.5 miles in height.

“The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range …” – General Farrell

Trinity Ground Zero, White Sands Missile Range, on GoogleMaps

Ground Zero, Trinity, 48 hours after the explosion, 1945

If you’re interested in this topic, here are a couple of great books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes – an astonishing epic book interweaving science, politics and human psyches to tell the story of the first atomic bomb

Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Scott C Zeman – interesting collection of essays covering a range of cultural expressions of atomic energy

Ruins, conflict, culture and science: dOCUMENTA (13)

Kader Attia, The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012

Many adjectives have already been wielded to describe this year’s documenta, “earnest”, “grim”, “despondent” and “concept-less” among them. Certainly, there are few laughs in this year’s documenta (the 13th since its founding in 1955 by an artist banned by the Nazis), but in all it’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Many of the works by 300 artists – mostly new commissions – are site-specific, installed in railway stations, disused shops, hotels, cinemas, old hospitals, the natural history museum, and scattered throughout Karlsaue park. I appreciated the serious-minded intent behind the works, and the internationalism of the exhibition both in content and representation, with artists from fifty-six countries including many from Africa and Asia.

A large number of the works mark significant events or occurrences, including varied perspectives on recent upheavals in Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The works in the main exhibition in the Fridericianum have a particular focus on conflict, catastrophe, ruin, trauma, survival and repair across many historical events, as though such events and restorations were on an endless loop. There are many absorbing works here, but I spent a particularly long time in Kader Attia’s disturbing, fascinating installation, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, a maze of repaired African artefacts, vintage colonialist texts and wood-carved busts of disfigured faces, and a slideshow of facially injured World War I soldiers provocatively juxtaposed with mended African masks.

Many powerful works are sited in and around the Hauptbahnhof railway station, among them William Kentridge’s stunning video and sound work The Refusal of Time (which elicited a round of applause), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s augmented reality audio tour of the station linking it to a darker past, Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-screen multiple histories of a monastery in Germany: from concentration camp to girls reformatory to psychiatric clinic, and Lara Favaretto’s vast pile of industrial debris.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel), 2012

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012

dOCUMENTA (13) has been called “genre-busting”. Its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stated that she wanted to broaden documenta’s focus from the visual arts to culture at large. This has been largely done through the mode of the artist’s enquiry, but there are also non-artists involved, including physicists, biologists and social scientists, and a scattering of historical artefacts.

The role of science in this “culture at large” is most prominently represented by the Austrian physicist Anton Zeileger’s Quanta Now, a series of five important quantum physics experiments installed in the Fridericianum, including the double slit experiment and quantum entanglement of photon pairs. There is also an installation in the same building of Russian biologist Alexander Tarakhovsky’s work on epigenetics, and the Bavarian priest and artist Korbinian Aigner’s multiple paintings of the new strains of apples he created while in Dachau concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Donna Haraway’s writings on multi-species co-evolution inspired the artist Tue Greenfort to compile and present an archive of artists’ materials, texts, books, videos and documentation of artworks dealing with the relationship between human and non-human species (including Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema, an Arts Catalyst commission).

Anton Zeilinger, Quanta Now (installation detail of the experiment on quantum entanglement of photon pairs), 2012

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, 1912–1960s

Ecological themes are very present, in the process-based projects by Pratchaya Phinthong, whose simple installation – two dead tsetse flies, one female carrying the deadly disease sleeping sickness and her sterile consort – is underpinned by a research project, in which Phinthong has been traveling in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia and providing locals with inexpensive traps to help control the tsetse fly populations, and Amy Balkin, who has been trying to get the Earth’s atmosphere included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Ecology is closely tied closely to politics in the beautiful and coherent exhibition in the Ottoneum, Kassel’s natural history museum, with Amar Kanwar’s moving installation The Sovereign Forest tackling the forcible displacements of indigenous communities and peasants in Odisha (Orissa), India, by commercial interests, Claire Pentecost’s elegant and thoughtful installation Soil-Erg, in which she proposes a new system of value based on living soil, and Maria Thereza Alves’ installation on five centuries of damage done to Lake Chalco in Mexico and the people who live there.

Pratchaya Phinthong, Sleeping Sickness, 2012

Claire Pentecost, Soil-Erg, 2012

Elsewhere, the politics of nuclear energy are presented both in Mika Taanila’s stylish 3-screen video work The Most Electrified Town in Finland and the Otolith Group’s film Radiant, which explores Japan’s fated love affair with the unstable atom which culminated in the Fukushima reactor meltdown.

In documenta-Halle, Thomas Bayrle’s car engine prayer-machines and collaged airplane suggest our very dreams rely on carbon-burning technologies, while Yan Lei has hung a room with 360 paintings, produced one per day over a year, inspired by internet images. During dOCUMENTA (13), the paintings will be gradually removed, spray painted in the local Volkswagen car factory, and then returned to the exhibition.

Mika Taanila, The Most Electrified Town in Finland, 2012

Thomas Bayrle installation, dOCUMENTA (13), 2012

Yan Lei, Limited Art Project, 2012

Karlsaue park is the site for many intriguing works, both in the landscape and installed in small buildings. Standouts for me are Omer Fast’s extraordinary tale of a couple’s disturbed, unsettling response to the death of their soldier son in Afganistan (confirming my art crush on this remarkable artist), CAMP’s gentle reflections on maritime life and the informal economy across the Indian Ocean, and Sam Durant’s alluring playground-gallows.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012

Sam Durant, Scaffold, 2012

Two real “conflicts” disturbed the civilised art-going days of the dOCUMENTA (13) previews. First, the failure of dOCUMENTA (13)’s aim to transport the El Chaco meteorite, a 37-ton, 4,000-year-old lump of space rock, from aboriginal land in Argentina to Kassel, as proposed by artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolas Goldberg, continued to stir debate during the opening week. It was a controversial proposal, strongly and successfully protested by indigenous Argentians.

Indigenous Argentinians protesting the removal of the El Chaco meteorite for inclusion in documenta 13

And then, on preview day, above the peaceful sunlit Karlsaue park, rose Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)’s shatteringly–loud helicopter, rising and sinking several times an hour, audible – and frequently visible – across the town, invading art-going experience and drowning conversations. In A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, CAE raised a huge bar graph depicting wealth disparity across the world. 99% of the world’s incomes fitted onto the banner, but the globe’s richest 1% required a helicopter to soar 250 meters up in the sky. Exclusive €300 tickets were purchased by an irony-unencumbered fifty people, only twelve of whom showed up on the day to be escorted down a red carpet for their flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could buy a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride.

Some of the reason for this economic disparity, as well perhaps as the mechanics for the endless cycle of manmade disasters, are revealed in Mark Lombardi’s obsessive mapping of corruption, politics and finance, that make visible the hidden connections between political and economic processes, corporation, and individuals.

Critical Art Ensemble, A Public Misery Project: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality, 2012


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