Opinion: When art goes nuclear

Through Pramod K Nayar

A few years ago, Finland announced its intention to build its 6and Cape Hanhikivi nuclear reactor in Pyhäjoki. Besides the usual protests, which many countries have seen, against nuclear power and atomic testing, Finland has seen an interesting response – artists.

Curia’s children

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A group of artists including Erich berger, Charlotte Clark, Mari Keski-Korsu, Christina Stadlbauer, created the studio ‘Curie’s Children (Bioart Sons, Radon Daughters)’ in 2013. Mari Keski-Korsu was the artistic director. The idea of ​​this “artistic expedition, production workshop” was, at first glance, simple: to help people understand nuclear processes through hands-on experimentation, construction and research, in addition to art. Participants learned to build their own radiation detectors/Geiger counters, tested mushroom radioactivity and measured natural radioactivity in the area.

Crystal Bennes went further. Reading about a new generation of smaller and probably safer reactors using thorium and hydrogen instead of uranium and water, Bennes created the installation art, “One Hundred Thousand Cities of the Sun”. Combining past, present and future, Bennes constructed an abstract, topological scale model of a “sun city” from nuclear-grade graphite recovered from the thermal column of FiR1, Finland’s first nuclear reactor. This model was accompanied by a series of texts which speculated on such cities of the future, with alternative models of nuclear power.

In these examples we see something important and striking.

Scientific Aesthetics / Aesthetic Science

The artist/artist leaves the studio to enter the scientific laboratory and even in the field. This means that the modes of representation and the aesthetic styles adopted do not only belong to the domains of painting, sculpture or performance. Rather, they are hybrid modes, adapting scientific equipment for artistic purposes and using art to “color” science. It is reminiscent of Orlan’s work where his multiple cosmetic surgeries were televised from the operating room, accompanied by music and commentary. In the process, the rhetoric and style of these realms fades, just as the spaces for practicing art fade.

Such initiatives become meaningful when we recognize that the prospects for a nuclearized world – we can now “safely” (!) assume that it is our world today – must be examined not only through sound scientific , but also through the language and the grammar of art. Are the Geiger counters manufactured in the workshop of the “Children of Curie” safe and reliable if one wishes to use them to test a nuclear zone? Could the graphite rods be any source of contamination? These questions may be directed toward science, but they originate in public perceptions shaped by art.

In recognition of the importance of art to science, one of the best laboratories in the world, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), Geneva, Switzerland, has created an official art program. Directed by the distinguished Mónica Bello (famous for her bioart exhibition, Organizations), CERN describes itself as dedicated to “fostering dialogue between artists and physicists in the largest particle physics laboratory in the world”. At CERN, artists film and perform inside the particle physics experiments of the Large Hadron Collider (ATLAS) detector, the Neutron Time-of-Flight (nTOF) facility and the Isotope mass Separator On facility -Line (ISOLDE), among other key facilities.

To take just one example, Patricia Domínguez made a film inside CERN, about a female cyborg who (as the CERN website puts it) “will be guided by a robot bird, traveling through the” Quantum Worlds” at CERN, ancestral spaces of ancient petroglyphs in the Atacama Desert and the world’s most accurate observatories at ESO’s astronomy facilities in Chile.

Science/life as we don’t know it

In a fascinating volume, Art as we don’t know it, the Introduction states:

The phrase life as we do not know it has gained prominence over the past two decades, spurred by the rapid development of synthetic biology (synbio), an attempt to redesign natural systems and make biology easier to conceive… In synbio, the phrase refers to a sub-field, namely xenobiology which examines the possibility and development of biological systems and organisms with which we are not (yet) familiar…

This statement in an art volume is a sort of manifesto, as it suggests an agenda for scientists and artists: to imagine forms of life, and living, as we do not know them. again.

Highlighting the need for a deeper examination (artistic, social) of technologies that affect life, the art/science program Machine Wilderness explored the biological research station of Kilpisjarvi in ​​northern Finland in 2016. Here, they worked with robots that attempt to communicate with wild animals. , adapting technologies to local animal perception and ecological participation for machines. Ian Ingram of this team developed Nevermore-A-Matic, a robotic object that uses the birds’ beak wiping gesture to attempt to convey a message of doom to the birds. In their report, they noted how the man-made machines had (obviously) different relationships with the ecosystem than the organisms within it. We must therefore, they proposed, move away from “devices aimed at accomplishing a strictly utilitarian task, and towards ideas of artificial nodes that act according to or enable flows, interactions, transformations and environmental processes”. . They called this vision of technology the “non-domestication” of machines.

These art/science projects communicate a key argument: the investigation of life and living, today and tomorrow, must be transdisciplinary because imagining a world/life/living other than what we know today cannot be the business of scientists or artists alone. but must draw freely from their two domains. Conventional fields of investigation can no longer correspond to advances in science, nor can art hope to ignore the imaginations fueled by reports of developments in, for example, synbio. [synthetic biology]. In the process, together, they must also raise questions about the viability of these technologies – such as nuclear – and the possible threats they pose to the earth itself.

The author is a professor in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.


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Christopher S. Washington