Nuclear fusion with art at its heart
Unthinkable, the art in the impossible materials of ghosts, folklore and underground worlds merged with a nuclear industry and repositories potentially storing waste for thousands of years?
Not if you are from the University of Cumbria Professor Robert Williamswhose acclaimed work was presented to 168 experts from 17 countries at an international conference, and created an exceptional energy in its own right.*
It was a completely logical step to move from alchemy to atomic processes as they have similar goals, says the artist and scholar whose work is now listed with the International Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). ).
Holding one of the world’s largest collections of published information on the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, NEA members represent 85% of the world’s nuclear capacity.
And therein lies the Cumbrian Alchemy (CA) project, credited with influencing debate and public perception, particularly in its home county, the base of the UK’s first nuclear power station.
Not only did CA shed light on the role of art in the management of nuclear sites, but it provided benchmarks to alert civilizations to the storage of waste for millennia to come. It has also helped to shed light on international guidelines for reducing deposit intrusion, as well as actions following site closures.
The project began with American artist Bryan McGovern Wilson, who was then working with Professor Williams on his Alchemist’s Shack project in Pennsylvania, amid conversations about subterranean, archaeological and geological issues. Long-term storage of nuclear waste and environmental issues began to emerge.
Funded by Arts Council England, the duo looked to Cumbria and the North West Energy Coast, where the nuclear, mining and renewable industries offered an artistic treasure when combined with the landscape, l archeology and folklore of the region.
A plethora of sites beckoned and those surveyed ranged from vitrification centers in Drigg and Barrow, historic monuments in Heysham, Penrith, Castlerigg, Florence Mine and beyond, as well as dialogue with museum curators and specialists and artistic projects.
At its heart were history and narrative, existing alongside two nuclear power plants, shipyards building nuclear submarines, renewable energy, mining and graphite, iron and coal mining industries.
“Combined, that’s a compelling power,” explained Professor Williams. “We were in the right place at the right time to be part of the long-term nuclear repository discourse, having already sparked interest in what is happening underground.”
By contributing to the important RK&M (Archive, Knowledge and Memory) collections of the international nuclear industries, new famous works of art have been developed.
Large-scale Diasec photographs, a series of drawings and sculptures, even stones from Cumbrian sites were sent to New York, cast in uranium glass in a studio overlooking the halls of Columbia University where the Project Trinity, the first atomic bomb, began.
Their work on Perpetual Uncertainty has been seen in Scandinavia and Belgium where audiences of around 190,000 have been reached, over another 11,000 through outreach opportunities.
Back in Cumbria, the couple were credited with managing to develop a better understanding of nuclear issues.
Professor Williams explained: ‘No one had ever done this before. Nuclear agencies are interested in protecting future generations from the effects of current activities and we have become part of the debate.
“We have succeeded in contributing to an important dialogue that crosses all kinds of disciplines and borders. People in the nuclear industry tend to live in echo chambers due to the nature of their work. We encouraged them to come out.
“It was important to be the unbiased voice and that we approached this from an agnostic position of being neither pro nor anti-nuclear.
“It wasn’t even about risk or peril, it was about being clear about the issues, especially when thinking about how future cultures would deal with waste deposits. We wanted to inform and bring knowledge to life, which is very different from big flashing lights.
“The language and meanings had to move away from the old skull and crossbones danger signs and that’s why our project was well chosen and received.”
“Sellafield’s failed plans to build a depot that would have stretched beneath the Irish Sea were particularly relevant. It was a much bigger talking point and came in the early days of the project.
That Cumbria Alchemy has been able to generate internationally recognized dialogue, interest and recordings as a legacy in its own right.
Complex relationships have been established between nuclear and energy industries, archaeological monuments and folk traditions, and land and place management. However, the work is far from complete.
Professor Williams helped with the BBC’s The Nuclear Priesthood, which asked how people 100,000 years from now could be warned of buried nuclear waste with poet Paul Farley exploring options ranging from pictures and monuments to folk tales atomic. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zdq9
Both artists have described their Atomic Priest as channeling the spirit of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, in working with the “impossible materials of alchemy, ghosts and underworlds”.
Although Covid has been difficult, it has also prompted new responses from them.
Professor Williams explained: “During the pandemic, we communicated via screens and without travelling. We imagine how to do this through land, rather than waves, by examining mycelium connections across the Wood Wide Web.
“This is where research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is an intricate underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria that help connect trees and plants to each other.
“There may be other ways of interacting with each other and conduits that could help us. We continue to study underground geological communications. I live near Lancaster, there’s a Lancaster near Bryan’s place in California – maybe we can join them across the land!
*’Cumbrian Alchemy’ in Constructing Memory: An international conference and debate on the preservation of radioactive waste records, knowledge and memory across generations. Organized by the Nuclear Energy Agency (AEN) and the French Nuclear Energy Agency (ANDRA). World Center for Peace. Verdun, France. September 2015.
Cumbria Archaeological Tour with The Atomic Priest
Robert Williams and Bryan McGoven Wilson as the Atomic Priest during a photocall at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick
Robert Williams and Bryan McGovern Wilson working at the Cabinet Magazine Gallery in New York
Robert Williams with Cumbrian Alchemy at the Beacon Gallery, Whitehaven