Erien Withouck

P(ECH) B(LENDE): The Darkness in Light

On Susanne Kriemann’s Library for Radioactive Afterlife

 

girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

(We wander in the night, and are consumed by the fire)

 

An auto-radiograph, an imprint of a material emitting light –not reflecting, emitting. A photographic imprint which excludes the use of a camera. A type of photogram[1] deceiving its own name, as it is formed in complete darkness.

 

The print exhibited at the 2018 edition of Artefact, This Rare Earth. Stories from Below shows just that. As a part of the project girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, this auto-radiograph is made through the presence of gadolinite; an essential material for the production of LED, used (among other things) to light up smartphone screens. The stone which produced this image was found on the site of Barringer Mine which was opened in 1902 by John Barringer. His main clients included Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as gadolinite was then used for the production of the light bulb, which is also reflected in Kriemann’s installation. The mine closed just two years after its opening due to lack of demand as technologies advanced (Roelstrate 2014). One-hundred and ten years later, Susanne Kriemann points to the continued existence of radioactivity in the surrounding land. She not only brings this back to the present by auto-radiographing the land, but further by solarizing[2] her photographic print using her smartphone, who’s LED screen contains the same type of material mined at Barringer so many years ago. The site of the Barringer mine is now located underneath Lake Buchanan in Llano, Texas. Kriemann takes on the role of archaeologist; through her work the past is (re)presented.

 

She extends this role as archaeologist even further in her Library for a Radioactive Afterlife, a photobook and online platform where she carefully documents her radioactive findings. This library, or archive, consists of radiographs made by other researchers before her, alongside her own. Furthermore, she adds elements such as photo-micrographs, aerial photographs of mines and photographs of the effects of radiation on flowers and chickens; she demonstrates how radiation still resides in the tools used in mines more than a century ago.

 

In our collective memories lie images and accounts of the aftereffects of Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima. But these are momentary, they show the shock of destruction. These images are typically represented in a customary photojournalistic language: destroyed buildings, mutilated bodies, the mushroom cloud. They represent the shock of the events. Through her collection of images, Kriemann represents the effects of radioactive disasters through a language we have perhaps not yet been confronted with. She portrays the long-term after-effects, the light that still shines in the darkness, and will do so for the coming million years. Through her process, Kriemann brings the invisible to the realm of the visible, as ghosts from the past.

The radiation which was present in these objects and animals is directly transferred onto the photographic print. Hereby the indexicality of the photograph is questionable, and could be seen more as a direct representation. There is no agent between the print and the object, not even light deciding which parts of the surface will become shadows. The frame is that of the paper, but could also be considered as the darkness that surrounds the objects. These radiographs are like the hair of Hiroshima’s victims, or the crippled bikes displayed in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (the actual bikes, not the ones mediated through the film). The scale of the mushroom cloud is inconceivable, the disaster of the atomic bomb unimaginable. There is a need for an alternative way of visualising the effects of the abstract and invisible substance that is nuclear radiation. This is Kriemann’s answer.

 

Our visual culture relates x-ray techniques with sicknesses. Images of tumours and broken bones. Through her radiographs it is as if Kriemann is diagnosing the surface of our earth. She is not only examining the areas where we expect broken bones, but also those we thought to be healthy. Through her actions, the landscape is redefined.

 

When regarding this, it becomes interesting to consider the idea of visualising the Anthropocene. In his blog post Welcome to the Anthropocene, T.J. Demos studies visualisations of the Anthropocene, and criticizes the high-resolution satellite images that have become an ‘icon’ for its representation. He writes this is “important insofar as – at least in relation to much scientifically-framed imagery, maps and data graphs – we’ve moved essentially beyond photography (gauged to human perception) to remote sensing technology (scaled to global, even inter-planetary visualizations).” Demos implies that these images give us the illusion of control, and give way to the allowance of geo-engineering, the idea that we have the ability to master nature.

 

Although I do follow Demos in a need for a new visual representation of the Anthropocene, he is critical about the ‘human’ aspect of the term ‘Anthropocene’ and argues we should rather consider a Capitaloscene. He argues the damage done is not so much the fault of human-species, but rather industrial and capitalist frameworks we live in. “The crisis of climate change, according to this perspective, owes not simply to a substance like oil or coal, but to complex socio-economic, political and material operations […] that distributed causality for environmental change beyond the problematic generalization of human species-being.” (Demos 2015). However, the first step to acknowledging this huge environmental disaster is eliminating denial and admitting its presence. How can we battle this problem on a global scale if we are not ready to admit we all play a part? Although there is no denying they are the cause, these industrial and capitalist frameworks are dependent on our role within them, and so I believe there lies a danger in immediately and only blaming these institutions, as this makes the issue almost unperceivable. As the scale of the problem then drastically changes, a feeling of hopelessness makes it easier to ignore than to act.

 

This brings us back to Kriemann who offers us a more direct visualization. She reinterprets the landscapes we have come to know and recognize. Although Kriemann’s methods are not photographic in the strict sense, they do offer us an alternative visual representation. Not one seen from above, but from below, literally in the earth’s surface. On a much smaller scale, her projects strike closer to home. When regarding the Anthropocene, much debate and imagery is focused on the future, when perhaps we should firstly focus on the past, to consider the damage already done. Kriemann focuses on just one issue in this very large problematic being global warming, but it may serve as an introduction in considering the Anthropocene from a different perspective, one which was invisible to the human eye. Her images allow us to make a diagnosis before immediately reaching for a cure. Admittedly, time is an urgent issue in these matters of ecology, but reaching for hurried solutions (such as nuclear energy) without carefully considering the consequences will only add to the problem.

 

If we regard the landscape as a metaphor for time, the role of the archaeologist is recovering that time. The role of the artist is to search for a way to visualise this time - this history - in a way that is approachable and understandable. This becomes an important process in the global environmental debate, where time is not only an issue of the past, but also of the present and, most importantly, the future.

 

Bibliography:
 

Demos, TJ. 2015. “Anthropocene.” Fotomuseum. Still Searching... (blog). January 5, 2015.

http://www.fotomuseum.ch/en/explore/still-searching/authors/26409_tj_demos.

Resnais, Alain. 1960. Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Roelstrate, Dieter. 2014. “Let There Be Dark.” In Ray, by Susanne Kriemann. Amsterdam: Roma Publications.

 

 

Notes:

[1] A photogram is a photographic technique by which one places objects directly onto light-sensitive paper, after which the paper is exposed to light, then it is developed. This leaves a shadow of the object on the surface of the photographic paper. The name (Photo)gram directly refers to light.
 

[2] Solarisation is a photographic technique in which light sensitive paper is exposed to light, with or without the presence of a photographic image already exposed on the paper. This process is often uncontrollable, as it is extremely fast.