BLOG: REFRAMING THE NUCLEAR-INDUSTRIAL NARRATIVE

“Although framing cannot always contain what it seeks to make visible or readable, it remains structured by the aim of instrumentalizing certain versions of reality. This means that the frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version.”
– Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable

In April 2014, I first attended the biannual open house of the Trinity Site at the White Sands Missile Range. Prior to my visit, I’d spent nearly 20 years working on museums, public spaces, memorials, and cultural communication projects involving various aspects of American history; but I only vaguely knew about the events leading up to and the results of this first nuclear weapons test. Initially, I was primarily interested in learning more about the development of the nuclear bomb itself. Once at the Trinity Site, I found myself fascinated by secondary events within, surrounding, and resulting from the Manhattan Project.

While at the open house, I watched and documented the other people who attended. I observed informal and formal visitor communications. I noticed which stories were told at the monument, and I began to wonder about which stories were left out. I was struck by how the land appeared to span indefinitely beyond the historical signs stuck to the chain link fence encircling Ground Zero.

On our way out of the open house, my companions and I encountered protesters, positioned across the street from the entrance, holding signs referring to the plight of the Downwinders. At that moment, I began to comprehend that he impact of the Trinity Site extended in uncountable directions beyond the few acres held within the monument’s official boundaries.

I knew enough during my first visit to comprehend that the Manhattan Project narrative was an example of one of the “grand hero journeys” of our nation. Since then, I have also increasingly understood that inevitably the major stories aren’t told in ways that address their full complexity. After my visit, I began to pursue lesser-told stories and lesser-known places connected to the Trinity Site.

Ground Zero, perimeter fence on the Trinity Site Open House Day, 2014 / Socorro, New Mexico 

Since 2014, I’ve photographed myriad locations related to America’s nuclear-industrial history. I’ve been particularly keen to visit sites outside of the big three – Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington – and to investigate how historically, and in its enduring legacy, the nuclear-industrial complex touched the entire nation. While tracking down influential scientific labs in bucolic Cambridge, Massachusetts, I couldn’t help but think of the unidentified environments on which their research wrought destruction. At multiple decommissioned military bases in San Francisco, California, I encountered environments left behind by Cold War military practices—from handling nuclear weapons to the Nuclear Radiation Defense Lab’s attempts to remediate vessels used during tests at Bikini Atoll. In Alameda, California, I encountered signs warning of water toxicity, while in Berkeley, California, I ran into fences that I did not attempt to cross. In St. Louis, Missouri, I climbed a six-story mound of entombed uranium – the legacy of a Cold War-era processing plant. Outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, I sat in the midst of the loudest natural environment I’ve encountered, which also happens to be a nature preserve created in the wake of Superfund cleanup of another uranium processing site. In Sahuarita, Arizona, I visited a meticulously maintained Titan missile silo. Outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, I traversed a landscape impacted by nuclear weapons tests. In Paris, France, I stood outside of the lab where the Curies discovered radium. In Cambridge, England, I tracked down the University building at which the neutron was identified. In Germany I experienced a bilingual tour of a West Berlin 1970s-era city bunker built in response to concerns about nuclear war. Though my international site visits have only just begun, I recognize that the Manhattan Project’s place in history is truly global.

Nike Missile Site, SF-88, 2016 / Fort Barry, California 

In April 2017, my professional exhibition design experience and personal long-term documentary pursuit of the nuclear-industrial complex brought me the opportunity to mentor Media Arts students from the New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) Cultural Technology Development Lab in their designs for the Manhattan Project Exhibit at the Bradbury Science Museum. I was excited to both work at Los Alamos and to collaborate with students from and living in New Mexico, whose lives and lands had been directly impacted by the Manhattan Project.

When NMHU professor Miriam Langer and I first discussed the collaboration in Fall 2016, I knew that our mutual work to amplify and elucidate the long-term socio-cultural and environmental impacts of the nuclear-industrial complex would be meaningful. Yet, at the start of the semester and our work together, most of the NMHU students saw nuclear weapons development as a merely historical concern. But in Spring 2017, something significant changed. Nuclear threats re-emerged in the news, and our public imaginations, in ways that hadn’t occurred since the end of the Cold War. For those students born after the Berlin Wall fell, this was no longer just a historical project. The project addressed a prelude for their increasingly frightening present.

I attended the Spring 2017 Trinity Site open house with the NMHU students; I observed their reactions, documented whether or not this yearly event felt different in the midst of increasingly tense international circumstances, and attempted to see the site through the students’ eyes. Back at Ground Zero, once again standing at the perimeter fence looking outwards, I felt connections of this place to many others—now alongside a visceral sense of nuclear history brought forward through time.

Ground Zero, perimeter fence on the Trinity Site Open House Day, 2017 / Socorro, New Mexico

The American military-industrial complex began with the Manhattan Project and associated additional weapons projects; it has flourished since World War II. The nuclear-industrial complex – a considerable subset of the larger military-industrial complex – includes weapons development, mining and manufacturing of raw materials for weapons and nuclear power, testing of nuclear weapons, missile silos implemented during the Cold War, and the subsequent identification, cleanup, and housing of waste of and within sites made toxic by the nuclear-industrial complex’s work. Industry sites span coast-to-coast, the post-Manhattan project legacy is truly national, but New Mexico remains the one state to house the complex’s entire lifecycle, from “cradle” (uranium mining) to “grave” (nuclear waste disposal). The site of the Los Alamos National Lab remains the historical and spiritual center of both the past mythology and current nuclear-industrial incarnation.

The Manhattan Project’s work and legacies always felt relevant to me. We all live with the consequences of scientists’ and politicians’ choices to bring both nuclear weapons and nuclear power into the world. However, understanding decisions made within and after the Manhattan Project, and specifically comprehending how those determinations impact our world now, feels increasingly germane. I wonder, if we are potentially entering into a new nuclear age, how might we not repeat at least some of our historic mistakes? Can we reconcile the choices we’ve made in the past with the nuclear industry’s ongoing impacts—which are disproportionately felt by rural and indigenous communities and people of color in New Mexico and beyond?

Titan Missile Museum, 2016 / Sahuarita, Arizona

My approaches to these pursuits are informed by my more than two decades of professional experience working with museums, and alongside other institutions, crafting narratives for wide ranges of visitors. Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated on, sometimes challenged, and always translated narratives into public-facing formats. As a content-driven designer, I concentrate on interpretation and experience, as I interrogate absences of information. Some questions I hope to address through my work are:

How might we best communicate processes through which we institutionalize histories? How might we provide visitors/viewers with tools that inspire critical engagement with past and current storytelling?

Where might propaganda and institutionalization of narratives both overlap and dissociate?

How might we most successfully place institutionalized narratives and community oral histories in dialogue to impact our collective understandings of their contradictions and co-existences?

How might we productively work with both institutions and communities to confirm the validity of their narratives without alienating either one? How might we instigate constructive conversation and public communication between the two?

What might experimental documentary and fine art forms accomplish that exhibitions within museums, visitor centers, and other institutionalized spaces may not?

Entombed nuclear waste, 2017 / Weldon Spring, Missouri 

Though my project spans beyond New Mexico’s borders, working in close proximity to the center of narrative institutionalization and spending considerable time working with New Mexico-based collaborators are both crucial to my pursuits. While in residency at SFAI in May, with the engagement of two New Mexico-based collaborators, I’ll continue my work on crafting a multifaceted narrative of nuclear-industrial history. I will continue to focus on those stories that are routinely omitted or push against the typical framing of this history.

One of my collaborations is with scholar/activist and University of New Mexico professor Dr. Myrriah Gomez. Our work will unite my documentation of official interpretations – in museums, memorials, visitor centers, and parks – with her substantial archive of oral histories of the community forcibly removed from the plateau on which the U.S. government built the Los Alamos National Lab. Dr. Gomez grew up within this community and, for more than a decade, has documented stories not typically told within institutionalized narratives. Together, my documentation and interrogation of the official accounts and Dr. Gomez’s collection of marginalized individual narratives can become uniquely powerful in their multidimensional approach.

My other collaboration is with NMHU graduate, artist, and writer Shane Flores. Together we will create an installation that features official government films that restage key events of the Manhattan Project to establish the public narrative. We’re crafting our project to include both the films and sets of newly designed card decks. Our decks will identify historical figures seen in the films, women and minority figures of the Manhattan Project, and key contemporary players in the nuclear-industrial history.

My hope is that these projects, by questioning the knowledge production and framing of the American nuclear-industrial history, will offer a more nuanced and expansive version of this history and its ongoing impacts in New Mexico and beyond. We all live within the environmental and socio-economic legacies of the Manhattan Project and the ensuing nuclear-industrial complex. However, since this newest administration has taken power, interrogating and explicating to public audiences how we still live in within the historical legacies of the last rounds of our nuclear imaginations, feels increasingly critical.

National Atomic Testing Museum, 2015 / Las Vegas, Nevada 

 

Sherri Wasserman

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