“We tour the disparate surfaces of everyday life as a way of involving ourselves in them, as a way of reintegrating a fragmented world” – Alexander Wilson (1991)
As international residents at SFAI, Holly and fellow resident Anna Macleod, have conducted their ‘Atomic Journey’ together through New Mexico including trips to The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA), the roundhouse for Uranium Workers Day and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A journey which has drawn out questions around activation within the act of witnessing, and whether visiting artists are complicit in a contemporary act of exploitation – extracting what they need and then leaving.
Anna’s initial proposal to SFAI was to research community resilience in the face of climate change uncertainty as the next addition to her series of projects known as Water Conversations. These projects explore the complex interstices between landscape, technology, science, culture and geopolitics through the emotive global context of water. In recent years, these projects have included an investigation into the legacy of mining and wastewater in a variety of global contexts. The scarred and poisoned landscapes that Anna has journeyed through are often admired as places of pristine wilderness. Yet hidden deep within these landscapes are many unresolved negative emotions stirred by the socio-economic traumas these landscapes have endured. Typically, ‘Water Conversations’ accumulate into the production of portable sculptures that then act as focal points for community gatherings, where thoughts and emotions can be expressed in the safety of a shared collective action.
During the SFAI Water Right’s Round Table, Susan Gordon of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment presented an oil and gas map which initiated an urgency to dig deeper into the history of uranium mining and nuclear exploration within New Mexico.
The majority of uranium mined in New Mexico is found in the Grants mineral belt, the second largest uranium deposit in the United States. Looking at a map of New Mexico, layered with information on the extractive industries dotted throughout the territory, one can draw a triangle from the North Western uranium mining area of the Grants mineral belt at Gallup, to Los Alamos, and then south-west to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) at Carlsbad.*
As was mentioned in the previous post, Policy, Possession and Place, the reality of lives lived on land that was contaminated continuously for twenty year by uranium mine discharge before the 1979 Church Rock Uranium tailings pond spill, were shared with us through conversations with members of RWPRCA. Situated in amongst geological stacks, recognisable to a European as backdrop landscapes for the Hollywood Westerns, this landscape is entirely barren apart from the over-looked brown-ish hills constructed from contaminated scrape-off pointed out to us by the community, the dry-board constructed homes of this ‘forgotten’ community and the intentional plantings of non-regional salt bushes by the EPA.
In stark contrast, 230 miles North of Red Water Pond Road is Los Alamos, a self proclaimed ‘Atomic City’ complete with promotional tee shirts, shot glasses and coffee cups. It is a prosperous well-mannered place. Originally constructed in secret to house the scientist of the National Laboratories, this small city continues to be primarily for current and retired laboratory workers and their families. The centre of the city, where the first nuclear bombs were designed and produced, is now one section of the three-part Manhattan Project National Park, where visitors can join the Park Ranger for a free tour of the central pond area and collect a stamp for their National Park Passport. Los Alamos boasts of an intelligent and healthy population, with the highest per capita of residents with PhDs and the 7th most affluent per capita city in the USA. The location of the city within the forty-three mile site is surrounded by mountains, ski slopes and a well serviced recreational culture. The hyper-reality of middle-class affluence at Los Alamos, a realised model of the American Dream ideals, is magnified by the automated countdown at pedestrian traffic crossing points. Ten seconds to safely cross a road. Ten seconds to experience the anxious anticipation of an explosion.
The unholy uranium trinity is completed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP is located in the Delaware Basin of New Mexico. This 600m-deep salt basin was formed during the Permian Period approximately 250 million years ago. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended salt for radioactive waste disposal because at over 600m below the earth’s surface, salt would plastically deform, a motion called “salt creep” in the salt-mining industry, to close and seal any openings created by the mining, and in and around the waste. It is here that the mined uranium, and all radioactive waste produced in the US, returns to the ground having been through a series of processes, a journey, in which its original state has changed.**
Similarly, our journey to these sites of nuclear relevance has, most likely, changed something within us. There is an activation through the act of witnessing that shifts something within the witness. Their witnessing also enacts a reintegration of occurrences that have otherwise become fragmented from each other – in this case the intentional disjointedness between the mining of uranium, weapons development, nuclear energy and radioactive disposal. However, as international artists-in-residence, this comparison to the nuclear fuel cycle and our journey draws out critical questions about the responsibility of the visiting artist to ensure we do not ‘mine’ communities to the point of exhaustion, especially whilst attending a thematic residency in which sixty artists with over-lapping areas of interest pass through a single institution and therefore small grouping of communities. How do we also ensure, as socially-engaged artists, that our methods of practice whilst working within short-time frames is beneficial to a community rather than detrimental?
Upon hearing about Anna’s artistic practice and through engagement with the RWPRCA community, a suggestion was made to produce a new banner with a water focus that could be used during the community’s Uranium Legacy, Remembrance and Action Day, a day of protest, awareness raising and memorial that takes place annually on the 16th July, the anniversary of The Church Rock Uranium Spill. Focusing on how to create a water banner that incorporated these three purposes, we hosted a co-design workshop at a community member’s home. Using mono-printing, we worked with the community to discuss their differing ideas about what such a banner should include. It was also a time to share methods for using visual attributes such as colour, language and symbolism to produce strong statements that reflect the Navajo relation to place.
The final banner will be realised by Anna over the course of April before being gifted back to the community. It is hoped that this hand sewn banner will hold within it care, solidarity and gratitude that will continue beyond our stay in New Mexico. Whilst we will take away the experienced knowledge from our ’Atomic Journey’, having temporarily been active in the everyday fabric of this place through loosely stitching fragments together.
* The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world’s third deep geological repository licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons and energy.
** It is assumed that at this depth the radioactive material is encased away from interference but with the drastic increase in fracking within New Mexico especially in the Carlsbad area, questions can be asked if these two processes really co-exist in the same landscape?
Wilson, Alexander. 1991. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Ontario: Between The Lines Press.
Edinburgh Scotland, lives and works in Ireland
Anna Macleod is a visual artist based in Ireland. Her art work utilizes a variety of methods and processes to mediate complex ideas associated with contemporary, historical and cultural readings of place. She employs quasi-scientific methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, performance and socially engaged activism to critique contemporary landscapes and to build metaphoric spaces for re-imagining the future. Recent projects have focused on the socio-political and cultural issues surrounding water, looking at questions of access, management and ritual.
Anna Macleod has exhibited Nationally and Internationally. Recent residencies include: Food Water Life, themed residency with Jorge and Lucy Orta, Banff Art Centre, Alberta, Canada. 2015. Joya, Arte & Ecologia, Spain 2016. Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland 2015 & Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia, 2015. Recent solo exhibitions include: Water Conversations – A Survey of Works 2007 – 2015 at The Dock, Carrick on Shannon, Ireland. Staid na Talún – A State of Land, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland, Water Conversations – Broken Flow, Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia.
Macleod is the recipient of the Firestation Artists’ Studios, Dublin, International Residency Award for ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ residency in Joshua Tree, California in March 2016. She was awarded an Individual Artists Bursary from Leitrim County Council Arts Office in 2015 / 2016 and Arts Council of Ireland Travel and Training Award towards the costs of residencies in Australia (2015) and USA (2016 & 2017) and the Jim Dinning and Evelyn Main Endowed Scholarship for Visual Arts for Banff Art Centre residency in 2015.