On nuclear waste, the vastness of geologic time, and their recent project Look Only at the Movement.
smudge studio, an ongoing collaboration between New York artists Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, is dedicated to “exploring sites and moments where the human and the geologic converge.” Their work is grounded in the notion that geologic time should be central to discussions of human and non-human habitation, ecology and ethics, and art and design.
smudge studio’s recent piece, Look Only at the Movement, is a three-hour film that opened in October 2013 in New York and will travel to venues around the country through the spring of 2015. It opens at the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) on May 1 and runs through June 12th. There will be a public talk at SFAI on May 12th. Look Only at the Movement invites viewers to experience both the banality and the complexity of nuclear waste disposal, storage, and transport in North America—an excess of remnant material for which there is no comprehensive strategy. Presented through visual and investigatory narratives, smudge studio’s body of work consistently questions our understanding of the compounded nuclear legacy of North America.
Emily Gordon To start, we were wondering if you saw your work as fitting into any type of genre or lineage?
Elizabeth Ellsworth I think the first big influences on our work were the Center for Land Use Interpretation and Matt Coolidge. But even before that, our very first collaborative projects had to do with landscape and with invisible forces that shape and change landscapes. We were experimenting with ways of visualizing those forces and sensing them, actually bodily sensing them, when we discovered the CLUI.
Jamie Kruse The CLUI residency in Wendover places artists in a somewhat extreme context. The town is literally divided between Nevada and Utah. The historic and abandoned Wendover Airfield, which is home to the Enola Gay hangar, is on the Utah side of town, along with the residency space. The casinos of Nevada are on the other.
EE The area around Wendover is one of intensive resource extraction. It’s an amazing place at the extreme limits of habitability, and exists under extreme historic, cultural, and economic pressures.
JK During our residency in Wendover we came across a CLUI publication about the Nevada Test Site. This was a big turning point for us. Prior to that moment I didn’t know that over 1,000 nuclear bombs have been detonated within the United States.
Sara Jacobs And the ideas of deep time and the geologic—“where humans and the geologic converge”—were those present before the residency or was that a shifting point?
JK The only way we found it possible to put the realities of the nuclear complex in America into their proper context was to expand the time scale we were using to think about them. You can’t just look at the nuclear in terms of a particular moment. You have to look at how long its current material realities took to form and how long they take to transmutate into something less potent. When we began to do that, all of a sudden the work we were doing required a much vaster frame that was geologic in scale.
EE The forces that shape a landscape—wind, water, light, heat, time—started becoming newly apparent when we started the nuclear projects. Time is a material force, not just an abstract concept. Certain materials on this planet exist only because there have been processes taking place for millennia. For some materials, if you shorten the duration of the process that “makes them,” nothing materializes. If you lengthen it, something else will take form. Putting our bodies at sites of nuclear processes and trying to sense their forces started getting interesting and complicated because it meant we had to try to think of time in terms of millions of years.
SJ What does the practice of inhabitation, or putting your body in a place, mean to your practice and your methodology? Does the fieldwork become the art in itself?
JK Look Only at the Movement feels like a capstone to a body of work that we began seven years ago—work related to the nuclear. All along the work has been about making overlooked places real and more accessible to the general public. This has required a great deal of research on our part. And it has required going out into the landscape and visiting sites that are incredibly challenging to comprehend due to their ongoing legacies.
EE Addressing the nuclear in that way, as a practice that's based in terms of putting your body within a situation or a site, has come to form one of the major motivations for doing the work. Polarized discourses right now make it almost impossible to talk about nuclear waste in terms of what it really is. Cold War discourse has left us with a legacy of highly charged words and phrases. These can actually shape our reality by influencing what is done with nuclear waste or nuclear power, and what kinds of policies don’t get considered or invented.
One of the big motivations for working with the nuclear was our interest in coming up with new ways to use design, words, or photographs to offer perspectives, languages and sensations that focus directly on the materiality of the sites we visited. We didn’t want to talk about nuclear waste as a policy issue, as a political firebrand, or even as a technological problem. We wanted to talk about: What is this stuff? What are its capacities to affect us? What is its power to shape reality around itself?
The question that propelled the whole project was “what does it take for two human beings to meet up with this material and move with it for a while on public roads?” We suspected that if we paused with it for a while and followed it down the road and watched it move dynamically in relation to sunsets or wind or city limits—we would actually be inhabiting the space around it— even if only for a few minutes. We suspected we might be able to sense it more as a material force, and less as the highly charged political arguments and assumptions that have accumulated around it.
EG After the screening of Look Only at the Movement, we were thinking how the irony of the encounters with the waste is that you never actually get to see it. The radiation is something that you can’t see or even feel with your raw senses. You mentioned at the film screening that you imagine nuclear waste warping reality around it.
JK We see nuclear waste as a trajectory of time and space that is vast and incredibly powerful. And that’s a sensation we literally felt when we were passing the truck transporting waste to WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) in New Mexico. We saw the material being transported as being in direct relation to the solar system (uranium formed in supernovae about 6.6 billion years ago) and also to unknowable deep geologic futures of the American landscape. At WIPP, the waste is intended to be stored underground for the next 10,000 years. These realizations were all happening in the seconds we were passing one another on the highway.
EG It’s as if the research element of your work and your fieldwork connected in that moment. Would that experience in the field have been as powerful if you didn't have the research that told the story?
EE There was another project we did looking at a number of sites from a CLUI database of underground nuclear tests in Nevada. They included several sites in national forests, on the edge of national parks, and on Native American Reservations. To get there, we had to follow vague directions, driving on long dirt roads. But we’d done a lot of research on those sites—what kind of bomb was tested, how much it leaked when it exploded, the current spread of residual radiation, and how the Native Americans were treated in negotiations to use land. Each one of the sites had amazing stories to go with it, stories about people being dislocated or people scared out of their minds, or people being affected by radiation leaks. It was an intense experience to go to these remote, isolated backroad sites that had been neglected and left unmarked—tracking them down and showing up and standing in a field that looked normal but knowing the invisible story. We were freaked out by most of the arrivals!
JK We really just wanted to take photos and run. It was incredibly nerve-wracking.
EE We found ourselves projecting our imaginations into the space below where we were standing, where the earth heaved up 10 feet (or more). With the underground nuclear test sites, there’s so much you can’t see on the surface, and the sites are minimally marked.
SJ What’s scary about it is that these sites are completely accessible in a lot of cases. They’re unknown and unmarked, and you can just drive up to them.
EE Or there’s a big sign that says, simply: “Don't dig here.” And that's the biggest “don't” there is.
SJ Another question I’ve been thinking about is how nuclear test sites and nuclear waste storage sites are memorialized, or if they have the potential for being memorialized. Does that fit into your work at all? Does waste have the potential to transition into anything other than waste?
JK We proposed a project through the Institute of Wishful Thinking after we visited various underground testing sites. We proposed that every fifty years, for 24,000 years, design students would visit, study, and update the marking systems at nuclear test sites in the United States. If the sites were revisited they would be kept in peoples’ consciousnesses. If we can meet the challenge of showing up for thousands of years—and communicate with one another about the ongoing material realities—then we might be evolving in interesting, and highly necessary ways. The idea is that by going through such a process humans might make different choices in the future. The project proposed less of a memorial, and more of a re-upping of our attentiveness to a material reality and situation that will continue to persist well beyond our lifetimes. Our languages may not even last as long as the need to contain nuclear waste. Many of the sites we visited need updated marking and several currently look like small tombstones. We contacted the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management to try and interest them in the marking project. We got to a certain point—
EE —And they referenced “Homeland Security” and said they would rather not call attention to the underground nuclear test sites that are on public lands.
JK We went back to a site in New Mexico in Fall of 2013, and had a very eerie feeling when we arrived because the primary marker for an underground test called Gnome was gone. There’s currently a huge rush of gas extraction very close by, so streams of trucks are now rumbling down dirt roads that had been completely empty when we were there only three years ago. There appears to be drilling very close to where the marker was.
SJ I remember at the Parson’s screening of Look Only at the Movement someone brought up the Rocky Flats Mountain Arsenal. It’s not occupy-able for humans, and partially because of that, it has transformed into an ecologically robust landscape. Could you speak about the word “waste” itself in the extended time scale of nuclear material?
EE We’ve talked a lot about how using the word “waste” for this unusable excess of leftover nuclear material is so inadequate because it doesn’t grasp the intense potency of the stuff, or its longevity and continuous active shaping of human life around it. To say it’s “waste” makes you think of something you simply ball up and throw away—
SJ—It makes the material seem very passive—
EE—and that’s what makes it imaginable as simply “waste.” “Waste” also implies that it’s something we can get away from, that there is an away when it comes to nuclear material. But there’s no away when it comes to the radiation. There is no “away” from the radiation of Fukushima. “Waste” isn’t a helpful term.
We most likely have isotopes in our bodies now that we didn't have before we started this project. So do the people who live in Moab, Utah next to the uranium tailing site there. Anytime there’s a storm with wind, they run the risk of inhaling radioactive dust. So there is no away. We've made nuclear materials and distributed them and now we are becoming of them.
JK You also start to see how there’s no “away” when you look at all the design, infrastructure and landscape planning that this material requires. We’re hollowing out mountains in Nevada [Yucca Mountain] and burying waste 2,000 feet under a gigantic salt dome in New Mexico, and yet we’re far from shutting off the one-hundred plus reactors currently generating high-level waste in the United States. It continues to accumulate. We’re never going to be relieved of designing for these materials or attempts to keep it isolated. So much energy, technology and innovation will continue to be directed towards this endeavor. Back in the 1950s most people thought of nuclear power as an affordable power source, not as waste that requires stewardship for all of eternity. The entire cycle does not seem to be considered, even today.
EG Do you think there is an excess of space and time in how we are dealing with nuclear material? Does the vastness of the American West and the timescale of radioactive material privilege us to create this false sense of away?
JK That’s interesting. Finland has Onkalo, the world’s first repository for high-level waste. Their mandate is for 100,000 years. In the United States, the mandate for the same high-level waste is one million years. Here, both the landscape and the political polarities are vast. Yet we don’t sense an urgency in public consciousness regarding the fact that none of our high-level waste has anywhere to go.
EE When you are in the American West, the thing that is so palpable is that so much of its “open space” has been militarized and nuclear-ized—many of these zones are Native American lands acquired by the government during the Cold War and WWII.
Sure it may be far away from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—but nuclear materials exist very proximate to many groups of people in the West.
JK Originally our focus was on the American West because there was so much evidence of nuclear testing on the surface there—but the byproducts of the nuclear complex are no less an issue in the Midwest or Northeast, in places such as Chicago. Byron, right off Lake Michigan, is a case in point. It’s interesting—we might think that nuclear materials are mostly in the West, and that there are these mythical spaces that surround it and isolate it from us. And yes, bombs were detonated there, and yes, they’re trying to store waste in a mountain there. But we forget that the material results of nuclear power generation are everywhere. I think we've realized that a part of our project is to direct people’s imaginations to the places where they live, so that nuclear material doesn’t seem so far away, but actually quite close by. Because it is.
EE That’s the beauty of focusing on the materiality itself. If you simply map the locations of it, the whole continent lights up. It’s in everyone’s backyard.
SJ One thing I got out of the screening was the idea that this is part of a shared legacy in the United States. The West has a very particular history and I think even today we have this idea of the American West as a distant frontier. But we are complicit as well.
JK Yes, it’s hard because we have this idea that it was all about testing nuclear bombs or the Cold War, when really, we turn on the light switch in our homes and we’re embedded in the production of nuclear waste. Nuclear energy waste is high-level waste, and that’s what has nowhere to go. It’s really inconvenient to realize: “I’m implicated by using electricty.”
SJ And your work is not just the research. There’s something very objective and almost banal in the way it’s presented. It creates a fine line for the audience between observation and participation. In Look Only at the Movement, why did you chose to eliminate narrative?
JK We have other projects that are text-based “field-guides” that strategically direct people towards specific sites or information. These were intensive research and design processes, because they required us to fact check so many details. With Look Only at the Movement, we wanted to make a gesture that invited people into their own process of grasping the material force of the nuclear. We thought we could do that by contextualizing the nuclear through movement and the larger topographical realities of North America. The film needed to be long (three hours) in order to offer this larger context. If you have ever gone on a road trip, you can relate to moments of driving past tourist sites like Hole ‘N’ The Rock and the sensation of endless roads. Experiencing such moments in the video might make it easier to then also encounter the other moments, where the nuclear coexists alongside the tourist sites. These encounters punctuate the video.
The video is experiential. We hope it invites curiosity about what you’re looking at—in the video and on a highway. If you see a truck go by with a shape that you've never seen before, perhaps you might begin to wonder what it is. The video is an invitation to a different mode of engaging a typically polarizing topic. We’ve learned that often, you lose everyone the minute you say “nuclear waste.”
Look Only at the Movement is also about being able to re-contextualize an exhibition as it travels. The project opens in Santa Fe in May and will be on exhibit at CLUI Wendover through the summer of 2014. Next fall it will travel to Colorado and then close in Reno, Nevada at the Nevada Museum of Art next spring. Each venue offers a different audience and also stages a relay of connection between seemingly disparate geographic locations. We are all linked by the reality of this moving materiality.
EE If I were to say something about representation related to the video, it would be that the intention behind the editing, the duration of framing, and the two-channeled nature of the video add up to a gesture. The gesture being: what it takes for two human beings to meet up with this material and move with it for a while on public roads and respond to it. The work is more performative than representational.
We don't expect people to watch the entire three hours in one sitting. Its duration relates to habitation. The video becomes a trace of what it took for two humans to move toward this material and move along with it, inhabiting the space of the nuclear more deeply, slowly, intentionally, and with more attentiveness.
Maybe what’s needed is a collective slowing down and intentional inhabiting of new realities that are being formed at this moment in human history. Maybe we need more intentional, contemplative experiences of deep inhabitation and deep dwelling within the materialities of right now—more trying to sense the difference that they are becoming and the impact they have on us as bodies and as imaginations. We need to get curious about how they change our stories and story telling, how they change our bodies and how they change the sensorial; what we feel and attend to and are drawn to. We’re really curious about how to pay attention in such ways to the material realities of right now.
JK In the video, the camera was mounted on the car, making the videography very static. We’re delivering to the audience what the camera delivered to us. But we felt that was enough.
EE And going back to your questions about waste and excess: the reality is that no matter where the stuff is, it’s on the move. So whether it’s racked at Indian Point up on the Hudson, or sitting in casks parked outside a demolished power plant, it’s moving. It’s moving out of the containers that it’s in, it’s moving within the containers that it’s in, and it’s already leaking or will be leaking eventually.
We framed the video with a very specific intention: to point to the fact that this thing we call “waste” is a volatile event—it’s not a passive object. It’s not a thing you can crumple up and throw away, or put in a container and bury. It’s an ongoing event that, in relation to human time, is going to be never-ending. By making a gesture of movement in relation to its movement, and by putting the audience in motion with us, we’ve tried to underscore the eventfulness of the stuff itself.
Emily Gordon is a landscape designer at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York. She is smitten with spatial and visual story-telling, and interested in the ongoing entanglement between America and its land.
Sara Jacobs is a landscape designer at SCAPE Landscape Architecture in New York. She is interested in the narrative of geography within the idea of landscape, and the map as a medium to visualize the unknown, unseen, and ephemeral landscape.
A different version of this interview will appear in lunch9: In Excess, the forthcoming issue of the design research journal of the University of Virginia.