Splitting the Atom


A short conversation with curator Ele Carenter 

Splitting the Atom, an exhibition organised by the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius, will be showing through 25 October.

There are two nuclear power plants in the vicinity of Vilnius: Ignalina in Lithuania (decommissioned), and Astravets in Belarus (not yet operational). A third and infamous one is Chernobyl, still eerily present following the effects of its catastrophic failure, and more recently, via the popular television series that focuses on the disastrous consequences of lies and neglect. This exhibition offers insight into the different cultural contexts of these plants and their role in the global infrastructure of the nuclear cycle – from natural resource extraction to waste.

Why is it so difficult to build trust in nuclear power? What are the costs of energy created through nuclear fuels? What defines nuclear heritage, and what happens when radioactive waste becomes part of our culture? How are nuclear technologies part of colonial histories? These and other issues are explored in the exhibition by more than thirty artists from different countries working in the field of nuclear heritage.

The project is taking place at both the Energy and Technology Museum (ETM) and CAC Vilnius. The exhibition’s curators are Ele Carpenter and Virginija Januškevičiūtė.

Ele Carpenter gave the following interview to

What was the trigger that planted the idea about such an exhibition? How is the very intimate relationship between the main theme and Lithuania – i.e. the close proximity of the nuclear power plants to Vilnius, the discussion about the Astravets case that has been in the news for a long time, and the awareness that you can't escape from the consequences brought about by these projects – reflected within the show?

I've been curating contemporary art exhibitions about nuclear culture for the last five years, working in the UK, Japan, Sweden and Belgium, so it was very serendipitous that our colleague Eglė Rindzevičiūtė introduced Virga and me, along with Jonas Žukauskas and Jurga Daubaraitė, to each other at a seminar she hosted at Kingston University London as part of her Nuclear Cultural Heritage research network. I was increasingly interested in the specific nuclear politics of Lithuania in relation to the EU, and made a trip to Visaginas and the Simulator earlier this year to help in understanding the context. Eglė also spoke at the Decolonising the Nuclear Workshop I organised at Goldsmiths University of London as part of the Nuclear Culture Research Group. It was really important to consider Soviet nuclear colonisation and heritage as part of the wider international discourse of nuclear decoloniality with other artists in the project, such as Alex Ressell and Kerri Meehan, who live and work near uranium mines in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories of Australia.

The global complexity of the relationship between nuclear energy and the political concept of nuclear power are all very apparent in Lithuania today, further heightened by the situation in Belarus. Virga and I have worked together on the concept and development of the exhibition, and my focus has been on situating artists’ engagement with Lithuanian nuclear culture in a global context. Specifically, to consider the wider material trace of the nuclear industry from testing, mining and waste, in works by Aimee Lax, Thomson & Craighead, and Andy Weir, along with Jonas Žukauskas & Jurga Daubaraitė. Each country has very different nuances to its nuclear issues, partly depending on its postcolonial relations, history of testing, or accidents. In the weaponised states, protest tends to focus on nuclear weapons, whilst other states focus more on the politics of energy production.

Yelena Popova, One Too Many (U238>Pu239), 2018, design for jacquard woven tapestry

The exhibition’s narrative straddles the border between art and science. Do you believe that artists are becoming the leading force along with (and in cooperation with) other disciplines to solve many of the problems that we are facing today?

I'm not sure artists have the responsibility to solve problems, but they can certainly provoke a discussion and widen the discourse to include a greater awareness of the forms of materials, histories and cultural storytelling which we are dealing with. Politics has such a narrow form of language; the arts can provide new ways of thinking about things. It's vital to work in an interdisciplinary way, but it takes dedication and time. Most of the artists we are showing have a long-term commitment to investigating nuclear issues – it's not something you can read up on overnight. Through my Nuclear Culture Research Group, I organise field research to nuclear sites, and interdisciplinary round tables with artists and scientists. We originally planned for the ‘Atomic Heritage Goes Critical’ international scientific conference on histories and cultures of atomic power to take place during the exhibition, but it has been moved to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I'm really looking forward to reflecting on our exhibition at the conference along with artists and scientists as well as scholars from across the humanities.

Several artists in the exhibition employ or document scientific processes to visualise radiation, such as Cecile Massart's Particules – a film showing radiation moving across a cloud chamber, and Martin Howse's photographic exposure of uraninite. Others, such as Thomson & Craighead, make invisible data visible – such as counting the duration of time that high-level waste needs to be isolated from the biosphere – in order to highlight the abstraction and complexity of proposals with consequences that are often times beyond human comprehension.

The press release mentions that Splitting the Atom provides an insight into the different cultural contexts of Ignalina and Astravets. Could you characterise those contexts? What is the difference between them?

Ignalina is predominantly a story of decommissioning, and we're trying to broaden this to include urgent issues of preserving both heritage and waste. On the other hand, Astravets is now on the global political stage as a Lukashenko project, with all the fear and uncertainty that this brings.

You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,’ said Lisa Meitner, who, just like Marie Curie, dedicated her life to ‘splitting the atom’. They worked for progress, but in some way, their discoveries have become a tool that destroys the planet. Why do humans always distort great ideas?

Nuclear physics is fascinating, but the motivations for disinterested science are not always scientific. The development of nuclear fission was accelerated by the desire of the military and the state to build an atomic bomb, not to develop good science nor even for the development of domestic electrical energy. I'm reading Isabelle Stengers’ Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science, which makes an important argument to reconsider scientific determinism. We still tend to hold on to the idea that science and technology are the future, and that they will save us! This is partly what we mean by the phrase ‘nuclear modernity’ – where the very idea of the future and the concept of progress are entwined with nuclear technologies. Today this includes nuclear medicine and the research for a fusion reactor. In the Energy & Technology Museum, the map of Lithuania's pre-Ignalina hydroelectric power network raises a lot more questions about sustainable energy sources; and situating the exhibition within the ETM collections juxtaposes many different energy histories with contemporary artist projects.

In an interview for, the philosopher Michael Marder said: ‘(..) I consider non-decomposable materials with which the world is filled (plastic, depleted uranium, etc.) as strange, nightmarish realisations of metaphysical dreams, the dreams about immutable existence that philosophers at least since Plato have been yearning for. And now, finally, in the 20th and 21st centuries, such dreams have been realised in a nightmarish way through the production of materials that are non-decomposable, such as depleted uranium, which takes hundreds of thousands of years to degrade.’ We have created an artificial landscape that, in the end, we may not be able to even inhabit. Does this exhibition try to find a way out from this vicious circle? Does it propose alternatives?

Uranium is actually a naturally occurring element, found in ore in the ground, so it's odd to describe it as non-decomposable – it was never going to be compost! But it is important to distinguish between naturally occurring elements and man-made isotopes, and note that radioactive elements emit ionising radiation through radioactive decay for different amounts of time. The exhibition takes up some different philosophical traditions, telling stories of uranium through Australian Aboriginal traditions that go back 60,000 years. In the exhibition you will see the Garlngarr family's new paintings which tell the Bula Djang story of what happens when you disturb grounds that we know contain uranium deposits, along with a new music video by Alex Ressell and Kerri Meehan, which shows how these stories are an integral part of contemporary culture today. The uranium from Australia has been mined to provide fuel for reactors in Europe, Asia and America. Uranium has many daughter products, such as the radium depicted in Erika Kobayashi's Half Life Calendar, and Plutonium 239, which is used in the weapon tests shown in Isao Hashimoto's animation.

But we don't really cover the depleted uranium you mentioned, which is a man-made by-product and used in the manufacture of uranium glass, which several artists work with and I myself use in my Laboratory for Variable Risk Perception, which has been showing at the V&A Ceramics cabinet this year. Rob Nixon also writes about depleted uranium in his book Slow Violence. The exhibition does not provide a way out of the vicious circle of radioactive contamination; instead, it proposes many different ways of living within radioactive environments, like Kota Takeuchi's work made in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, and the Bula Djang paintings, for example. I prefer to use Donna Haraway's term of ‘staying with the trouble’*, and finding ways to build alliances and friendships for survival.

*Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is a 2016 book by Donna Haraway in which she offers ‘making kin’ as a way to consider multiple species and interact in a multiple species world.

Title image Credit: Susan, Schuppli, Trace Evidence (film still) 2016