Our publication on the James Accord Round Table at Z33.
On Friday 19thNovember 2017 I had the absolute pleasure of attending Underground /Overground, a roundtable discussion organised around the ‘Perpetual Uncertainty’ exhibition that was showing at Z33, Hasselt, Belgium. I was invited by Ele Carpenter from the Nuclear Culture research group and this formed the third opportunity for a member of Power in The Land http://powerintheland.co.uk/about/ to contribute to the nuclear culture debate. Helen Grove-White attended a similar event in Umea in November 2016 and myself and Helen took part in Nuclear Art and Archives in Dundee in April 2017.
Z33 House for Contemporary Art, organizes projects and exhibitions of contemporary art and design. Instead of having a permanent collection, Z33 focuses on an ongoing programme of temporary exhibitions. These exhibitions always have a strong social and research-based orientation, and they address topics from various artistic standpoints with a critical eye. Each project combines an exhibition with an extensive programme of related events.
‘Perpetual Uncertainty’ is an exploration of contemporary art in the nuclear Anthropocene. The exhibition brings together international artists from across Europe, the USA and Japan to investigate experiences of nuclear technology, radiation and the complex relationship between knowledge and deep time. The exhibition was curated by Ele Carpenter as part of the Nuclear Culture research project with Goldsmiths and Arts Catalyst.
Unlike the UK, Belgium is withdrawing from Nuclear energy production and starting to address the problem of long term waste disposal. Belgium has seven nuclear reactors generating about half of its electricity. However, since 2003 there has been little government support for nuclear energy, and nuclear power generation. The Federal Act of 31 January 2003, prohibited the building of new nuclear power plants and limited the operating lives of existing ones to 40 years (to 2014-2025). This can be overridden by a recommendation from the electricity and gas regulator (Commission de Régulation de l’Électricité et du Gaz, CREG) if Belgium’s security of supply is threatened.
Z33 sits in the middle of Hasselt, a town with a population of just over 70,000 situated an hour’s train ride East of Brussels. Forty-five minutes to the south there is Mol, home of SCK-CEN (Research Centre for the Applications of Nuclear Energy) where the Belgians are conducting underground experiments in order to test the suitability of boom clay as a material the construction of deep repositories for high level nuclear waste. The research laboratory is aptly named HADES, members of the Nuclear Culture research group undertook a field trip there in June 2017 http://nuclear.artscatalyst.org/content/god-underworld
A little further South is the town of Dessel whose inhabitants have agreed to accommodate a low to intermediate-level waste (above ground) repository. This structure will need to endure for at least 300 years in order for the waste contained within it to become radiologically safe. Designs for this building are already well underway and the process has had a considerable input from the local community. Representatives from two of the community-based organisations (MONA and STORA) presented at and participated in the event at Z33, giving voice to the people who will be living alongside Belgium’s nuclear legacy.
Underground /Overground consisted of a morning of presentations by various speakers, followed by an afternoon of roundtable discussions and concluded with a plenary session and dinner. Full day’s schedule can be found here:
It would be foolhardy for me to attempt to give you a blow by blow account of the day, I will therefore, focus on just a couple of speakers and highlight issues or points of view that I found of particular interest.
The first speaker was Regine Débatty, a writer, curator, critic and founder member of We make money not art http://we-make-money-not-art.com/about/ . She provided a fascinating response to the day’s theme of underground/ overground. Looking back, it seems to me that she was taking underground to represent hidden, forgotten, discarded. Throughout her talk she referenced how artists are revealing the hidden, remembering the forgotten, re-examining the discarded.
First she talked about the highly illegal dumping of toxic waste by the Italian Mafia that started in the early 1980’s in the area around Naples. This has affected the health and the wealth of the region. High rates of cancer have been recorded in the local population and bans on food produced in the region have hit the economy hard. Biùtiful cauntri is a 2007 Italian documentary film directed by Esmeralda Calabria and Andrea D’Ambrosio and written by Calabria, D’Ambrosio and Peppe Ruggiero. It deals with the corruption of the Italian landscape and the politics connected to the management of it. You can see part one with English subtitles here:
Other film makers have addressed the situation in dramatic form in films like Veleno (Poison), 2017, by Diego Olivares: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67td_jy15dY
Gomorrah, by Matteo Garrone was released in 2008 and is based on the book by Roberto Saviano, deals with Mafia crime in general but also touches on the illegal dumping https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egtdYTuRKto
From Italy, Regine moved to Sweden highlighting the work of Bjorn Wallsten who puts forward different ways in which we might consider the 560 tonnes of copper cabling that has been abandoned under the city of Norrköping. http://we-make-money-not-art.com/hybrid-matters-the-urks-lurking-beneath-our-feet/ Wallsten writes about the cabling as hibernating stock, proposing that we might think of it as a valuable resource rather than waste or pollution. However, in legislative terms out of sight is out of mind, bringing to light the idea that underground is the far away land, outside of our consciousness and perhaps beyond our conscience?
Lastly Regine moved to the contested lands of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. At first glance the images in Forest, 2005 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin appear to show an idyllic sylvan retreat. However, in this context afforestation is exposed as a form of erasure. Imported pine trees planted by the Israeli government make former Palestinian homeland unrecognisable and difficult to revert back to domestic use. The fast-growing conifers create a camouflage, enabling Israeli picnickers to repopulate the area through day trips and leisure activities. Names are replaced, geography is repurposed.
In their film The Village under the Forest, Mark Kaplan & Heidi Grunebaum, use a documentary style to draw attention to this:
Planting trees as a political act. Not exactly underground territory, but territory undercover. I found Regine’s talk to be an excellent insight into the function of the arts within a broad landscape of global politics.
Another speaker, Andy Weir, artist and exhibitor in the Perpetual Uncertainty exhibition talked about his work Pazugoo and the research behind it. http://we-make-money-not-art.com/pazugoo-the-3d-printed-evil-spirits-of-nuclear-waste-storage/ He talked about several works of his, but I will focus on Pazugoo of which there were several different sculptural manifestations installed around Z33, two occupied niches which would have previously housed images of the Madonna. I particularly liked the curation of these works, setting up a dialogue with the former use of the site and characters that might feature in the future. When talking about his current practice Andy explained that he is coming at it from a place where humans are displaced from the centre of the universe, a place in the Deep Time future where humans have forgone their place at the top of the tree or perhaps cease to exist in a form that we might recognise. Andy raised questions and introduced ideas that were looking to transform our understanding of nature and geology, giving examples of new materialist ideology such as Jane Bennett’s ‘Vibrant Matter’.
Andy talked of using ‘fictioning’ as a strategy in his work, when dealing with ideas that project so far into the future, way beyond the human experience, the imagination becomes an essential tool. He was quick to point out that he wanted to avoid ideas of the sublime though, his way of avoiding a romanticising of these grand swathes of time is to break it back down into human sized chunks and look at how ideas might be passed across these timescales. There’s a democracy in his approach to making which bears out this ideology, Andy worked with 3 D scans of artefacts readily available from museum data bases, these hybrid characters can then be 3 D printed, a method of production that belies the aura of originality that one-off pieces might exude. Pazugoo, being based on various different mythological characters is able to morph to adapt. Andy has also developed workshops in which students can follow his methods and create their own Pazugoo a strategy that might be employed in order to carry on ideas and information across generations, remembering through making.
Anne Bergmans is a senior researcher and lecturer in sociology at the university of Antwerp. She has been working with people at Dressel exploring the idea of hosting the overground repository. In her talk she questioned the idea of passive safety, keeping dangerous things far away from people, asking, also, if leaving the issue of nuclear waste disposal to government agencies was the best way forward. In her examination of this form of centralisation she put forward the idea of the waste and its disposal as a process rather than a product, introducing the idea of active social responsibility and citizenship.
There were many more speakers from a variety of backgrounds, both specialist and non-specialist and it was invigorating to be a small part of this big discussion. I came away from the day having been exposed to new ideas and having expanded my knowledge of the complex issues around nuclear waste. The Belgian approach seems more open than ours in the UK and they are certainly closer to taking action in terms of medium level waste disposal. However, the question still remains as to how we as a race of human beings make plans and take decisions now that will have consequences so far into the future. With timescales way beyond the generational level who is willing to take responsibility? It feels to me that we are still stuck in the realms of perpetual uncertainty, which is why it is so important to keep discussions like these alive and in the public domain.