Going Nuclear at the RSA

The recent symposium on Art and Radioactivity at the Royal Society of Arts proved an exception to the many generalised discussions around art and ecology, by focusing on the specific and timely issue of the relationship of all things nuclear to contemporary art. While the organisers, the RSA’s own Arts and Ecology team, together with Arts Catalyst, who specialise in the relationship between art and science, and another UK arts organisation SCAN, laid out their intention as to try to bridge the divide between the ‘pro and anti-nuke’ lobbies – conscious of the fierce debate around this issue in the environmental movement – the symposium ended up giving voice to a consensus of opposition to nuclear power from both artists and scientists.

The first speaker, American artist James Acord, presented his long term engagement with the decommissioned Hanford nuclear plant, which is the most radioactively contaminated site in the USA, with levels matching in some areas those in Chernobyl, and his desire to create a ‘Stonehenge for the nuclear age’, as a warning to future generations. He described his ‘greatest idea ever’ as to use a reactor to transform radioactive elements into harmless metals such as platinum, and a failed attempt to convince Imperial University London to let him use their experimental reactor for these purposes. While for Acord, such a ‘transformation of elemental substances’ was inately sculptoral, the chief scientist apparently refused to allow him to use the university reactor for artistic purposes, for fear of the potential negative publicity (as most people in London are blissfully unaware that there’s an experimental nuclear reactor at Imperial College).

Acord’s thoroughly conceptual understanding of artistic practice came through in his insistence that ‘art is not frivolous’ and that scientists shouldn’t have a monopoly of access to nuclear technology. His art came over as being primarily about his long term research and provocation of the nuclear establishment, such as by going through the very complicated legal process to gain a license for handling radioactive materials – and having the license number tatooed on his neck, rather than in the occasional (also appealing) art objects that he produced along the way. Having failed to convince the authorities to allow him carry out his ‘greatest idea ever’ using nuclear reactors, he resorted to DIY techniques involving the creative misuse of a smoke alarm and some orange uranium-coated dishes, which over a period of months he maintained would bring about the transformation of a small but registerable quantity of plutonium into a non-radioactive metal.

Two other presentations were of commissions for a related exhibition entitled Nuclear: Art and Radioactivity. On the one hand, the approach of Simon Hollington and Kypros Kyprianou was to criticise through mimickry the communications strategies of the nuclear power industry, which involved the setting up of the British Atomic Nuclear Group, giving the appropriate acronym B.A.N.G. This seemed to rest on a rather familiar artistic strategy, although to make a valid critical point about the absurdity, defensiveness and moral bankruptcy of the commercial advocates of nuclear power. The other new work, by Chris Oakley, appeared to run the risk of looking like an advertisement for nuclear power, in the idealised picture it presented of nuclear fusion being developed at Culham as a clean and safe alternative to fission. The artist was clearly sensitive to such criticisms, admitting that the press people at the nuclear plants he suceeded in accessing tried to influence him through the archive materials they provided into giving a rosy picture of nuclear power. He also was questioned at the symposium about why he decided not to refer in his film to the dual history of Harwell, as birthplace both of UK atomic energy and the British nuclear weapons programme. There were clearly pitfalls in the aestheticisation of nuclear power through a reliance on visual imagery alone to deal with a complex and highly politicised issue.

The symposium was enlivened by a video link up with radical new media artist Steve Kurtz in Australia, who gave an off-the-cuff introduction to his current work researching the way in which George Bush used ‘radiation’ as an ideology to justify the use of torture and undermining of civil rights in the USA. Asked in a question about the chances that Obama will bring a change in US policy, he said he feared that Obama was not likely to do much about the fundamental problem of ‘predatory capitalism’, The Critical Art Ensemble he said was interested in ‘stopping the abuse of information so we can make an intelligent decision.’

There were also two presentations by scientists, both of whom were clearly anti-nuclear. One of the scientist presentations showed how the government’s consultation process for the new generation of nuclear power plants, which was given the go ahead earlier this year, was completely flawed and undemocratic. The other scientific presentation was an enjoyable jaunt through the history of the universe, specially done for artists, by someone who clearly had an artistic frame of mind, despite his strictly scientific credentials. He started with a quote from Joni Mitchell (‘We are stardust – billion year old carbon’) and went on to say that the only safe place to have a nuclear reactor is in the sun, and that we should go back to this original energy source that powered evolution from the beginning. Keith Barnham (the scientist in question), explained why he moved from heading a team of particle physicists at the CERN accelerator to pursuing practical research into a new generation of solar energy panels. It was actually quite inspiring…

The last presentation was by the veteran conceptual artist Gustav Metzger, who used the categories of ‘prescience’ and the ‘extreme’ to approach the notion of apocalypse, looking back to moments in modern art history, such as Picasso’s Guernica, while picking up on amusing but significant slices of life culled from the British press, such as a report that Abramovich is buying a house in Kensington, in order to pull it down and build a bigger one, but bomb proof. His message was in the end quite pessimistic, as he said that no one wants to realise that ‘there is no permanent life on earth.’

One of the other illustrious speakers was Kate Hudson, chair of CND, who spoke about the history of CND and nuclear disarmament. Someone made a comment about the failure of CND, and one of the younger artists interjected meaningfully: ‘I was 10 in 1980, and spent the next decade walking around with a CND badge, you don’t know what effect that had.’

The dimension of sustainability came out strongly in several of the talks, and was reflected in the artists’ long term commitment to the nuclear issue and the dematerialised notion of the art work, which most speaker’s shared. There was an interesting moment when members of the audience stood up to insist that the scientists not misunderstand contemporary art, by conceiving of it in aesthetic terms (on the lines of ‘we need artists to make our solar panels more beautiful’), when in fact, what many artists were doing is exploring the idea of art as an alternative knowledge producer, something that trespasses on the excusive rights of the sciencist to control knowledge. Many of the speakers also showed a keen interest in finding ways to intervene in dominant systems, especially those of the media, and to address white hot ecological issues through their work.