Ele Carpenter, curator of the exhibition “Splitting the Atom” in Lithuania. PHOTO: Umeå Univeersity

Ele Carpenter, curator of the exhibition “Splitting the Atom” in Lithuania. PHOTO: Umeå Univeersity

Interviews Nuclear Superpowers Art, culture, and heritage in the Nuclear Age

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė talks to Ele Carpenter about the strong correlation between the experience of imperialism and colonial power, high technology and cultural responsibility.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 22, 2021

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Eglė Rindzevičiūtė talks to Ele Carpenter about the strong correlation between the experience of imperialism and colonial power, high technology and cultural responsibility.

Intellectual and public debates on nuclear power in Lithuania and the Baltic states have gained a new impetus in recent years, due to significant external factors. A number of geopolitical events have occured: the Fukushima disaster (2011), the building of new nuclear power plants such as the one in Belarus on the Lithuanian border, nuclear tests in North Korea (2016, 2017) and the new Cold War following the war between Russia and Ukraine (2014), which led to renewed nuclear arguments between the United States and Russia. In addition there has also been a cultural shift that influenced those audiences that do not necessarily follow high technology and high politics. The HBO released TV mini-series called Chernobyl (2019) was widely viewed and won many awards. In expert circles, environmental discussions include not only the issue of the extreme long-term storage of radioactive nuclear waste and its cultural memory, but also the colonial relationships between the center and the periphery that have been perpetuated in the decommissioning of mines and nuclear industrial and weapons establishments. Since the very beginning of the nuclear era contemporary artists have been fascinated by nuclear technoscience and its aspects of the dangerous, the spectacular, the mundane.

Ele Carpenter, curator of the exhibition “Splitting the Atom”, and I first met at a book presentation at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, not far from Euston station, which is going to be demolished soon to make way for a high-speed railway. It was a very informative meeting for me as it included many members of the British anti-nuclear community. At the meeting, many people complained about the lack of public interest, particularly among young British people, in nuclear issues. However, when Ele a few years later organized a public lecture on decolonizing the nuclear by the American scholar Gabrielle Hecht at Goldsmiths (2019), the large auditorium was completely full. Clearly something has changed and people are again worried about nuclear power. In 2020 Ele Carpenter curated the exhibition “Splitting the Atom” together with Virginija Januškevičiūtė. The exhibition at the Contemporary Art Centre and the Energy and Technology Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania was shown between September 18 and October 25, 2020.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė: How did you enter the field of nuclear culture and how do you see its transformation during your career?

Ele Carpenter: My mother is a life-long anti-nuclear activist, and as a child I was involved in ‘Families Against the Bomb’, the Greenham Womens’ Peace Camp, Cruisewatch, Sea Action and Nuke Watch. She was involved in non-violent direct action, political lobbying and community organizing, and even went to prison for her peace actions. She eventually went on to establish the Nuclear Information Service, and regularly attends the Aldermaston Womens’ Peace Camp. In the early 1990s I left activism to become an artist, and although my work had political references, I was looking for more of a sophisticated visual culture, beyond binary politics and slogans. I suppose I felt that the visual references of the peace movement were tired clichés and predictable arguments that had minimal effect. Activist images work well as props for actions, visual markers for people in public space and as creative projects to bring groups of people together, like a banner-making workshop or making a giant coffin for a mass die-in. Ideally, the slogans aimed to catch the eye of a newspaper editor and hit the headlines. However, this has changed now that demonstrations are archived as anthologies of placards on social media.

So, speeding on a few years, I became a curator and had a particular interest in socially engaged art, community cinema and tactical media. Then, in early 2010, my mother told me about an advisory group that she had become involved in. The role of the group was to advise the British Ministry of Defence on how to dismantle its old nuclear submarines. She asked me if I would be able to give a talk to the group about how art could help them ask more complex questions. She thought everything had become very clinical, simplified and needed another kind of language in order to rethink the problems. At first, I said no, because I had no idea how this could fit in with my curatorial practice, and I took a year or so to think about it. In 2011 or 2012, I can’t remember now, I decided to take the challenge and I gave my talk to the Submarine Dismantling Project Advisory Group. To my complete surprise the group was really interested in my approach, and I realized that art could do something very important in this strange nuclear aesthetic space. My talk was about how artists deal with concepts, how they unravel language and materiality to create new conceptual frameworks, new vocabularies, and ways of thinking about things. I presented works that dealt with systems of power, with law and ideas, and I don’t think they had expected the intellectual rigor of the work. The aim was not to illustrate, or explain, or justify, or protest, but to create a space for things to become more complicated — for the ethics and aesthetics to become entangled and more interesting. 
I learned that my approach to art worked in bringing together very diverse groups of people with vastly different political opinions. It was a space of curatorial facilitation and I invited artists along at every step of the way, eventually forming the Nuclear Culture Research Group.

I often talk about curating as a form of knowledge production and I see this taking place in all the nuclear culture projects. The most important process is the roundtable discussion, where artists, scholars and people from the nuclear sector share their practices and ideas. Activists often attend, but they are usually frustrated at the lack of positioning. People like to know which ‘side’ you are on. That’s fair enough, but just counting numbers relating to for and against isn’t going to help if nobody has a language to even discuss the matters at hand. If I have to state my political alliance, then I’m anti-nuclear for so many reasons, but aesthetically its more complex. Radiation is magical and beautiful, as well as dangerous; we can’t just simply hate it, it’s part of the world.

Over the last seven years the Nuclear Culture Project has held around six exhibitions, loads of field trips to nuclear sites around the world, and about ten roundtable discussions. Throughout the process I’ve been learning about what it means to live and work in a radioactive environment and have even undertaken training in radiation protection. We’ve engaged over 100,000 people through these events and raised the level of debate regarding what it means to make art in response to nuclear conditions. I really wanted to move away from all the conventional nuclear iconography and also move away from speculative fiction and all the Cold War tropes. Godzilla, mushroom clouds, uranium toothpaste and peace cranes were the tired images of my childhood, and none of them seemed to deal with the present.

My intention was always to focus on the contemporary nuclear industrial complex through organizing artists’ visits to nuclear sites and engaging people from the industry, STS and the nuclear sciences and humanities in the debate about art. As APG said: “the context is half the work”. So the Nuclear Culture Project creates the context for artists to have access to people who understand and work in nuclear industries and studies.

I think it’s become a critical mass of practices and interests that has been successful in creating a new discourse around nuclear arts, one that is more clearly engaging with radioactive waste and the decolonial issues of nuclearity — as Gabrielle Hecht explains — in which uranium mining and processing hasn’t been designated as a nuclear site, allowing it to sit outwith nuclear regulations.

The focus of contemporary discourse is now on the Anthropocene and planetary care, feminism and decolonization, and the effects of nuclear technologies are central to all of these. The Women’s Peace Movement developed the practice of non-violent direct action to effectively remove American nuclear weapons from British soil. The nuclear military industrial complex has always been a colonial project, from the extraction of uranium, testing atomic weapons and the military threat. The human marker of fallout and high-level waste buried in the fossil record are the two geologic golden spikes of the Nuclear Anthropocene. These man-made anthropogenic radioactive isotopes will provide geologic evidence of human activity on earth for millions of years. I often invoke Mark Fisher’s citation of Jameson — that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And it’s probably easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of nuclear weapons. We’re all hoping that the only good that might come from the Pandemic is a shift towards practices of social and planetary care with deeper integrity, beyond capitalism, to break through the rising tide of the populist far right and its brutality.

So the whole concept of nuclear culture today has been transformed beyond ‘making the invisible visible’ and beyond iconographic representation. Instead, we have a more plural, critical, embedded and reflective set of practices that seek to problematize and contradict, revealing not just the visual but the instrumentalization of the visual or the mathematics of data, or the thousands of years of storytelling needed to make sense of the uranium in the rocks under our feet.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė: Your recent exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty was shown in Sweden. Having curated “Splitting the Atom” with Virginija Januskeviciute, how would you compare the societal debate on nuclear power in Sweden and Lithuania?

Ele Carpenter: Sweden has a unique approach to its radioactive waste management insofar as it has government-funded public consultation and independent advisory bodies (MKG). There’s something similar in Belgium, but nothing like this in the UK. The official line is that Sweden has high levels of public trust in government and experts. Thus, the population supports the plans for a geologic repository for spent fuel. But, of course, there are always people protesting because who wants radioactive waste buried beneath their landscape? And more to the point, there are still many unanswered questions about the containment of waste underground.

In  people are worried about the Finnish nuclear power plant just a few miles across the Gulf of Bothnia, whilst in Vilnius people are very concerned about the new nuclear power plant at Astravets in Belarus. In both countries there’s a feeling that a foreign nuclear plant is worse than a local nuclear plant — better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. However, there are obviously huge differences in public accountability in Finland and Belarus, so the situations are not really comparable. However, my point is that in every country, all nuclear industries are convinced that their processes are safe — and the more you believe this, the more you have problems. Nuclear technologies are inherently unstable and need to be constantly recognized as such.

Lithuania has a very different nuclear politics, transitioning from a Soviet nuclear plant to a European Union decommissioning project. It was only when I started reading the documents about Ignalina that I understood the important role Sweden has played in advising Lithuania, both on improving safety at the plant following Chernobyl, and in the plans for a geologic storage facility for spent fuel.

However, artists in Lithuania are generally focused on the social culture around decommissioning the plant, and not the issues of waste, heritage and deep time anthropogenic isotopes. And, of course, the Soviet nuclear legacy includes the memory of having weapons pointing at the UK. I really feel that we are in a unique historical moment, in which Lithuania, Sweden and the UK are all members of the EU.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė: Your mother travelled to Lithuania as a women’s rights activist, although few in the UK showed much interest in the Baltic states. How come her choice, and did your mother’s professional engagement shape your career choices? The nuclear field is notoriously homosocial and is dominated by militarized, masculine values. How has it been for you to find your role in it as a woman?

Ele Carpenter: For me, the Womens’ Peace Movement is central to feminism and rethinking structures of care and decision-making. My mother once said to me “if the Government can pay people to build nuclear weapons, then they can pay people not to” and of course, she’s right. So the project of peace is not just about resistance, it’s about care, and how we live day to day. The Peace Camp at Greenham was always about asymmetry — how we could set up an asymmetrical set of power relations, architectures and social practices in comparison to the military. When my mother tells me stories about her travels in the Baltics in the late 1980s and early 1990s she talks of women working within very formal structures, trying to create symmetrical forms of power in really difficult conditions, not having the space or vocabulary to see that not all forms of organization have to be the same. Perhaps I’m following in her footsteps trying to create spaces for serendipity rather than control.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė: While researching nuclear cultural heritage in Russia and the UK, I was struck by the very strong correlation between the experience of imperialism and colonial power, high technology and cultural responsibility, which I saw in both countries. While this cultural responsibility does not always take democratic forms, it is an important prerequisite for the development of critical and societal engagement in technopolitics. In the Baltic states, which have traditionally been considered rural, ethnonationalist and victimized by the neighboring great powers, societal interest in technopolitics is not of self evident importance. Even in academia, environmental humanities and STS subjects are in the minority. At the same time, as demonstrated by “Splitting the Atom”, there is a strong artistic interest in this area. I wonder if contemporary art and the museum and heritage sectors could become the driving forces that lead to the renewal of public debate and academic research?

Ele Carpenter: Absolutely, art is creating heritage through its own production all the time and can create a context for the complexity of heritage sites and materials to be discussed. Our intervention into the Simulator for the Ignalina reactor control room is an interesting example, particularly with the addition of the Finger Pointing Worker film from Fukushima being screened in the space.

In the UK there has been a massive and sustained peace movement against nuclear weapons, as well as nuclear energy, and this lobby has been instrumental in creating the public discourse around an otherwise very secretive industry. It’s often activist campaigns that lead to improving safety and making information public, although activism has paid little attention to heritage. The concerns are very valid and should be taken into account in our cultural heritage practices as curators. Firstly, heritage projects should not create a false divide between the past and the present. Too often academics and cultural organizations rely on a vintage history, one that stopped 20 years ago so that it doesn’t get muddled up with the present. This is politically insincere and completely at odds with contemporary art and its interrogation of the present. For example, the information boards about the first British operational nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube at RAF Barham, describe British nuclear weapons in the 1980s, as if nuclear weapons were an historical event. Meanwhile, the Trident warheads trundle up and down the motorways between Aldermaston and Burghfield where they are built and reconditioned, and the naval base at Faslane in Scotland where they are deployed. The peace movement suffers from exactly the same disassociation. There are so many new research and archive projects about Greenham in the 1980s, but only a handful of women go to the Aldermaston Womens’ Peace Camp, which takes place one weekend every month. Of course, it’s important to build archives of the past, but we really need art to keep us grounded in the theatricality of this archival process, and how we perform heritage-making with care.

Note: “Splitting the Atom” was initiated by Eglė Rindzevičiūtė as a parallel project to the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council networking project “Nuclear Cultural Heritage: From Knowledge to Practice”. The network’s partner project, “Atomic Heritage Goes Critical”, led by Anna Storm, will organize an international scientific conference on the histories and cultures of atomic power in cooperation with Lithuanian partners in June 2021.