An Unsettling Matter - Installation by Paul DeMarinis at Ars Electronica 1991
In 1957 my family moved to Ely, Nevada about 100 miles downwind from the atomic test site. My father, a geneticist, had taken a job with the United States Public Health Service monitoring the pathways of radioactive fallout through the sparse ecology of the desert. Sometimes we would wake in the early hours of the morning to see a bomb go off. We'd listen to the countdown on dad's radio, watch as the sky lit up in premature desert sunrise, only to disappear into night and stars again. In the days following a test I remember seeing spectacular sunsets, red walls of fire in the evening. All the dust, I suppose. My father told of the time at the test site he'd driven to ground zero within an hour after the blast. He described the incredible clouds of dust in the air, the desert winds blowing dust into everything. Afterwards, he said, they were told to shower and change. Years later we learned details of some of the unrecorded tests in which plutonium bombs were destroyed by conventional explosives, I guess to see if they could be vulnerable to terrorist attack. While the bombs didn't go off, kilograms of plutonium were spread across the desert in the form of a fine dust, where I'm sure, it blows around to this day.
During summer vacation I often accompanied my father on his rounds along endless stretches of desert road. So vast were the areas, so great the distances and so sparse the population, that we would sometimes spend an entire day to reach one destination and return home. Sometimes we'd visit a sheep ranch. An unending horizon, broken by a distant clump of trees, a dirt road asymptotically approaching the animated dot of a vanishing point would bring us, by and by, to an oasis of water, children, a clapboard house set among willows and tamarisks. There my dad would collect and replace film-badges, radiation measuring devices made from a piece of photographic film covered with a strip of lead. People on ranches downwind from the atomic test site were asked to wear these to determine their exposure, after the fact, to the radioactive fallout. Other days we'd travel to lonesome rural schoolhouses, falling-down gas-stations and remote mines to collect filter papers from vacuum fans which accumulated fallout dust. The Atomic Energy Commission was probably more interested in analyzing the isotope-ratios to ascertain the efficiency of the bomb, than in protecting the citizenry from their excesses.
My father always brought along his camera, taking snapshots of our journeys through this sacred nowhere. Now, as I gaze at them, my eye zigzags between the enduring vividness of Kodachrome, more dazzling and accurate than any memory I could ever have, and his pencilled annotations on the cardboard slide mounts. Terse, unyielding phrases accompany his images. Decoded with the help of knowledge leaked and revealed during the "freedom of information" years of the late 1970's, they are chilling testaments to the life we shared. "Steel tower - Galileo shot 5:40" is a surreptitious photo of a mass of melted girders snapped from belt level at ground-zero within an hour after an 11-kiloton atomic blast. "Nevada - Lund - Shot VII - Hood - Cloud 5 hrs. later" shows a waterless cloud of radioactive dust approaching our town. "Nevada - me monitoring near Lund", posed for memory, shows dad pointing the geiger-counter's needle at the vastly indeterminate haystack of the desert.
Interspersed are other photos from that time, the usual family album-fare: the kids at the swimming hole, a wild west rodeo, ghost towns, me and my mom staring proudly into nowhere. I have incorporated these images, some positive some negative, into my installation, as memory-windows, the most vulnerable loci in the skin of the lead-hut.
The spoken texts are based on first hand accounts of other survivors of U.S. atmospheric atomic testing. Many are drawn from the books "GI Guinea Pigs" and "Countdown Zero." Some of these stories are profoundly disturbing. Others seem almost humorous, given the grim circumstances. Within each of them I felt a shared madness - that of having witnessed the end of the world without the world actually ending. It is an image that, once experienced, is difficult to put aside. Other sounds include insects and thunder from the Nevada desert and songs that I remember from that time.
The powder in the room is an acrylic powder. Like any other powder it clings to clothing, shoes, skin and readily spreads everywhere, contaminating surfaces and spaces. The only difference between this powder and deadly plutonium is that it is easily detected by the eye - and that it is harmless.
Special thanks to: Elizabeth Medrano, Ann Wettrich, Melanie Walker, Kenneth Atchley, Mark Thompson, Jim Pomeroy, Rich Lopez, Laetitia Sonami, Judith Skinner and my parents and sisters . Thanks also to the Ars Electronica staff, especially Gerald, Dieter and Wolfgang who worked hard and creatively to help me realize this project.
(c) 1991 Paul DeMarinis