Situated Nuclear Knowledges: an Ecology of Antipodean Nuclear Art

By N.A.J. Taylor on 1st October 2018 — 4 mins read

This special issue documents—and thereby draws to a close—the three-year Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative project, sponsored by the Australia Council for the Arts. Contributors to this special issue examined discrete aspects of the project but were unified by a rejection of theassumption that nuclear knowledge is purely scientific and therefore also universally applicable. Indeed, the notion that there exists a singular nuclear knowledge is widely-held by those vested in nuclear science, strategy and policy.[1] Such so-called “expertise” is routinely used to discount the voices of others outside of the nuclear village; ascendency to authority on nuclear matters brings with it a pretence to intellectual hegemony. Consequently, when it comes to nuclear discourse, the insights and perspectives of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others “expert” in the creative faculty of the imagination are variously neglected, omitted or marginalised. Also absent are community voices, grounded in local knowledge and experience. Remedying this global tendency takes on additional importance in the Australian context. For pre-nuclear knowledges such as those developed by the aboriginal peoples on the land they have inhabited for over 65,000 years must surely come prior to a singular form of nuclear knowledge that derives from a 20thcentury scientific project.[2] Further, since the knowledge of the aborigines is potentially as contemporary and ancient as any other knowledge system, including nuclear knowledges, each must be brought into dialogue with the other.[3]

Braiding the threads of nuclear knowledges presented in this volume evidences a distinct plurality of (nuclear) expertise and experiences in Australia. Such knowledges are not only highly-individuated, but they also operate across space and time. To illustrate this let us consider the scientific effect of nuclear weapons that marks them out as distinct from other explosive devices: radiation. The radiation that results from nuclear weapons detonations—whether in warfare or peacetime—follows two distinct pathways: first, externalradiation from direct exposure to gamma rays (i.e. in the blast zone) and second, internalradiation, from indirect exposure to radioactive particulates, including beta and alpha emitters (i.e. through air and water intake). Aboriginal peoples at Maralinga, for instance, were exposed both to external and internal radiation, whereas at least some attempt was made to protect Australian and British service personnel from such exposures. Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away from Maralinga, the vast proportion of white-settler colonial society, living on the east coast of the Australian continent, were neither significantly vulnerable nor sufficiently aware of either. This scientific fact points to the production of distinct vulnerabilities to—and experiences of—nuclear harm. Because these vulnerabilities and experiences differ most starkly between atomic survivor communities and those who are not, this paper also intends to throw some light on the contrast between these two particular sites of nuclear knowledge. 

This essay proceeds as follows. In the first section, I ask whether there is a discernible Australian, nuclear, art? In order to support this contention, I briefly examine the two major survey exhibitions of nuclear art in Australia that were curated by Rod James at Monash University Gallery in 1993 and J.D. Mittmann’s touring showcase that began in 2016, respectively.[4] In so doing I (re)situate Australia, and thereby the category of Australian nuclear art, in the Antipodes. Second, I develop further this notion of an Antipodean point-of-view by retrieving the term from art history. Such an Antipodean stance situates Australia in Oceania, but also in opposition to the dominant statist and anthropocentric (or, human-centred) literature which is written from either a superpower or else Anglo-American perspective.[5] In the third—and final—section, the importance of experiential and immersive nuclear knowledges is explored as a means of connecting two of the major outputs from the Nuclear Future Partnership Initiative—the immersive films 10 Minutes to Midnight and Ngurini (Searching)—with the wider category of Antipodean nuclear art.[6]

[1] Elsewhere, post-colonial scholars such as Itty Abraham (2009), Gabrielle Hecht (2012), and Shampa Biswas (2014)have critiqued elements of this universalizing narrative more broadly. 

[2] For evidence that the minimum standard for the arrival of humans on the Australian continent now likely exceeds 65,000 years, see Chris Clarkson et al (2017). One reviewer provocatively asked whether “nuclear science and ancestral knowledges, cosmologies, and philosophies of aboriginal land owners can be compared in this way”. Following Cameron Muir et al (2013, 264), I seek rather to point out that situated nuclear knowledge has to contend with such encounters in the Australian context “on Aboriginal people’s terms and according to Aboriginal people’s customs, and not within Western frameworks”. 

[3] I thank two reviewers for provoking me to reflect on this point. 

[4] Although this essay takes an alternative approach to the category of Australian nuclear art and to art history, both James and Mittmann’s catalogues are highly recommended. Together they offer a reasonably comprehensive, visual account of nuclear art that is in some way connected to Australia and its people.

[5] In relation to nuclear politics and policy, the Antipodean stance also necessitates a rejection of the statist ontology that prevails in the literature (see Taylor 2014, 2017, 2018). 

[6] For a more thorough analysis of these two outputs, see Barkley et al., Boylan and Crea in this volume. 

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N.A.J. Taylor, ‘Situated nuclear knowledges: An ecology of Antipodean nuclear art’, Unlikely: Journal for Creative Arts, Is.5, 2018. [LINK]