Perpetual Uncertainty: a talk with Z33 curator Ils Huygens

Nuclear fissures, radioactive materials and power plants: Ils Huygens bridges art and science at Hasselt’s Z33 House for Contemporary Art, by exploring contemporary nuclear science’s omnipresence in our lives, and the way in which it instigates a culture of fear. In partnership with the umbrella project Nuclear Culture, Perpetual Uncertainty will run until the 10th of December.

When talking about nuclearity, a strange vocabulary must be mastered. For most of us, terms like “isotopes”, “halftime” and even “deep time” are familiar – but when asked to come up with a definition, you would most likely hesitate. This language is not part of our daily lives. It appears sporadically, in press releases about cracks in nuclear power plant reactors, or campaigns claiming to raise a debate on the pros and cons of nuclear energy. This opacity is typical in how we experience all that is nuclear. It makes sporadic and fragmental appearances in our lives, and yet we live with it daily – most of us dealing with it every time we flip a light switch. It’s simultaneously part of, and excluded from our conscious culture – not what you would expect from such an omnipresent phenomenon.

We travel to Hasselt to talk to Ils Huygens about Perpetual Uncertainty, an exhibition at Z33 House for contemporary art, which aims to confront its audience with precisely this lack of familiarity when it comes to the nuclear. We sit down at a round table, a rather symbolic setting. “It all started with a man named James Acord,” explains Ils, who manages the project at Z33. “Acord was an American scientist, artist and researcher and was the only civilian who obtained government permission to work with radioactive materials. Naturally, he was very proud of this – he even tattooed the license number of his legal permit on his neck! He too noticed how little people know about nuclear energy. In order to counter this, he started a series of round table discussions, and invited artists, philosophers, scientists and activists to sit down and talk about what he felt was a very obscure technology.” The table standing in the reception area of Z33 today is a replica of an original design by Acord, as both an homage and continuation of the idea he initially developed.

The exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty is part of a bigger project called Nuclear Culture: An international undertaking, initiated in 2011 by curator Ele Carpenter and Arts Catalyst London, an interdisciplinary organisation bridging the arts and sciences. The exhibition is just one of the many projects within Nuclear Culture, which aims to create a “culture of the nuclear”. Ils explains: “We want to have a broad discussion about the topic, including in media, because they only cover the subject sporadically. What is the impact of nuclear activity on our society? We’re not only talking about nuclear energy production and the waste it produces, but also the global trafficking of uranium, or the impact of nuclear weapons on geopolitics. We’re not looking for controversy, but rather want to see if we can reach a broader cultural understanding of the matter. This is also why we feel it’s so important to have this debate in the first place, because this allows us to get artists in contact with specialists, and to go beyond the typical knee-jerk reaction of fear many people have regarding this subject and actually create a dialogue. Neither we nor the Nuclear Culture project are sponsored in any way by nuclear stakeholders, by the way. We get that question a lot.”

Together with the round table discussions, field trips to Fukushima and other nuclear “hotspots” are means by which artists can become closely involved in a world that is usually off-bounds, to which access is limited by security measures and secrecy. This secrecy is often imposed by governments as a way of avoiding panic, or even downright hiding their mistakes. Think of Susan Schluppi’s video Trace Evidence (2016), which illustrated how nuclear radiation can be measured over large distances – revealing what was meant to remain untold. The infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster went unnoticed by the rest of the world for a good three weeks, only coming to light when abnormal levels of radioactive isotopes were picked up at a power plant in distant Sweden.

Many works in Z33’s show are of the documentative kind, exhibiting results of research – like British artist Dave Griffith’s Deep Field (2016), a microfiche-fanzine containing images he shot at HADES, an underground laboratory in Mol researching the safety and feasibility of the geological storage of nuclear waste. “Microfiches, or pieces of film containing tiny photographs of the pages of a newspaper, catalogue, or other document, can be kept for about 500 years, much longer than digital storage solutions. This kind of technology touches upon the problem of long-term thinking about what we want to communicate to future generations”. This stretched concept of time, typical for nuclear agents, and which of course take decennia to disappear, is also present in the work of Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. They built a totem with a countdown, representing the decay of radioactive materials in seconds. An embodiment of time that far outstrips the human scale, their work offers us a glimpse into the vast timescales present in our universe.

The impact of the nuclear goes way beyond our understanding of time, and the questions it raises influence society in a much broader manner than a mere discussion on the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

“I think the public, after having seen the show, will realise that there’s more to say on the subject of nuclear energy rather than simply arguing for and against nuclear energy, or whether it’s ‘clean’. Rather, the impact of the nuclear goes way beyond our understanding of time, and the questions it raises influence society in a much broader manner than a mere discussion on the pros and cons of nuclear energy. I would like for people to think about the geological impact of humans on earth on a larger scale – you know, the whole question of the Anthropocene. Because the enrichment of uranium and the testing of atomic bombs have had a huge impact on the earth’s geology. For me, personally, I was really impressed by our field trip to HADES. Did you know, by the way, that Belgium is one of the first countries to have conducted a conversation with its citizens concerning a new surface storage for low-level radioactive waste in Mol and Dessel? This discussion also included the possibility for other necessary infrastructures, like an information centre.” Time will only tell.