Black-out

When I first moved to France I didn’t know that it is a powerhouse of nuclear energy. With 56 nuclear reactors scattered throughout the country and 78% of France’s electricity production deriving from this source, it is the largest producer of nuclear in the world after the US. Ella Skilbeck-Porter interviews two artists dealing with themes of a Nuclear France in their work.

When I first moved to France I didn’t know that it is a powerhouse of nuclear energy. With 56 nuclear reactors scattered throughout the country and 78% of France’s electricity production deriving from this source, it is the largest producer of nuclear in the world after the US and contributes half of the European Union’s nuclear output. This isn’t an image that one typically has of France. But in 2013 in the wake of Fukushima and the on-going devastation that this disaster wreaked, the nuclear question and its role in the future energy landscape in France re-emerged.

In the year I spent living there I came across several artists who were dealing with themes of a nuclear France in their work and had the chance to talk to them about their practice.

Sorin Oncu is a Romanian-based artist who, in May-July 2013 had a three-month residency at 59 Rivoli, a rambling, well-known and frequented artists’ studio and exhibition space that extends over six floors in central Paris.

Her show “Still Life 3 Decommissioning” was a response to the many postcard stands she passed on her way towards 59 Rivoli.

“All these souvenirs and postcards are part of a very carefully constructed imagery promoting a nineteenth century French identity. I was intrigued by this repetitive identification with the past so I started researching characteristics of France today. I found out this hidden identity. You never see a postcard with a nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant, yet this is a significant part of the French identity today.”

Her project focused on deconstructing the imagery of the bucolic French landscape and romantic atmosphere of the nineteenth century cityscape and exposing the present day reality.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Camembert/Césium, mixed media, 2013

Oncu subverts typical images associated with and promoted as ‘French’, taking for example the packaging of Camembert cheese and appropriating the branding with iconography related to nuclear power plants and Eléctricité de France (EDF), the French state owned utility company, and as seen above, Cesium-137 a radioactive and volatile isotope that results from nuclear fission.

Composed of collages and drawings stuck up on the walls in the typical anti-nuclear colours of yellow and black, the works in the show function as active gestures that reinvent nuclear sites and the signs that surround them, demonstrative of a counter movement to take the power of representation away from the government and corporations and reinvigorate them in a new light.

Rather than using the well-known nuclear disaster image to which one is either desensitized or resigned, the sarcastic hybridisation of the French stereotype images with the images of nuclear sites offers debating potential.

Visitors were encouraged to ‘dismantle’ the SL3 exhibition, a symbolic action for the decommissioning of nuclear sites, actively becoming part of the process and turning the installation into something of a happening. Oncu describes the artwork as an ‘Art/Social intervention’ determined by “what you take off the wall rather than what you put on it, leaving the space itself stripped of its content while the concept is amplified."

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Still Life 3 Decommissioning, mixed media, 2013

France embarked on the nuclear industry to ensure its energy independence after the Oil Crisis in 1973. A popular slogan at the time was: no oil, no coal, no choice. There was no public consultation, and never has been, on this industry. Indeed it is an industry shrouded in a fog as thick as that which the reactors emit. And one of the main motivations of Oncu’s installation was to create a conversation around the subject.

Oncu believes that there is a problem with a lack of presence in the mainstream media regarding this issue. Nuclear energy is rarely discussed, public opinion is generally indifferent, and the government offers endless excuses for secrecy.

During the 80s, a semantic transformation—or rather deformation—of nuclear sites occurred in order to quell public concerns. They were paraded as sources of regional pride, for example the Chinon nuclear site in Touraine was framed as a ‘chateau of the 20th century’ by local officials, thus enshrining the site as a testament to France’s technological progress as a way to appease public concern, and as Oncu says, to boost their popularity and ensure opposition to nuclear power is not part of French politics.

During her documentation she became increasingly pessimistic regarding the future energy landscape: “My main concern is the fact that we are so enslaved by our comfort that we are ready to ignore any risks. We accept every justification that assures us that ‘all is well’. Of course there are many solutions, and research results of clean energy are promising.

“The reason for my pessimism is that I still don't see how we can overcome this self proclaimed title 'master of resources', while our political systems are so easily subjugated by corporations. As long as nuclear energy is directly correlated with the high standard of life, the anti-nuclear sentiment will be difficult to build.”

She doesn’t believe that the anti-nuclear sentiment is where it needs to be in order to have a greater influence on authorities, nor does she consider opposition to nuclear power yet to be in force.

In her art practice, Oncu often deconstructs symbols and concepts that she feels need to be altered and is driven to work "by what upsets me in our present day reality, so my work results in a sort of benign individual protest.

“Art can be part of a protest, but its function is not to become one. Art is a shout that should tell a society what it needs to hear. It shouldn’t need to offer solutions or answers. Its function is to explore different dimensions of the problem and establish a cultural relationship that penetrates all levels of the emotions and the intellect”.

She describes the show’s reception as positive—indeed when I arrived near the end of the seven-day intervention there was hardly anything left on the walls. She adds that the majority of visitors to 59 Rivoli were preoccupied with France’s excessive dependency on nuclear energy and that the show sparked many memorable conversations and continued through the dismantling, “serving its function of activating and determining consideration regarding the French nuclear identity”.

Another art practitioner dealing with these themes I came across was Dominique Robin , a French artist and writer currently based in New York.

His show “Black-Out” was exhibited from January to April in 2013 at Galerie Louise Michel and grew out of a year that he spent living in Central-West France and regularly visiting and photographing the nuclear power plant at Civaux.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Civaux series, photograph, 2013

The multi-layered title speaks to a psychological black-out, where an individual loses consciousness due to a trauma, a media black-out where a certain subject is censored by the news, and an electrical black-out resulting from a cut to power supply.

The show was composed of a series of photographs of Civaux, extracts from Svetlana Alexievitch’s Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, and an artist book he made, The Forgotten House, that is spun from personal memory.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic The Forgotten House, installation, 2013

Robin’s work deals with passages of time and what transpires on Earth, between the ephemeral and the immemorial. He explains that what interests him are consequences of actions, coupled with an ecological reflection that is often in line with targeting a political issue.

“My approach to nuclear isn’t activism, it’s simply the real . To describe is a form of resistance. To describe is a way of changing the real.”

Similar to Oncu, Robin is attentive to the symbols and language surrounding nuclear sites, “One must remember that nuclear was installed upon the land without consultation. What this means for a society that pretends to be democratic, is it required the constant production of discourse to permanently block the holes made by the absence of precise information available on the subject. It required a sort of “collective repression” to maintain the level of consciousness below that of reality. In truth, the more the French people are informed, the less they will be in favour of nuclear energy.”

He has first-hand experience of such things and understands how public consultation is not a part of the process nor the “hard disc” of nuclear power. Growing up in a family of agriculturists in Neuvy-Bouin where a nuclear waste unit was proposed in the 90s, he believes that an energy war took place in order to ensure France’s independence, and in this case the countrysiders won. However, there was never any media coverage of this event.

Like Oncu, Robin is interested in the aesthetic and representational power of nuclear sites and their implication for national identity. He expresses disbelief that an intellectually reflective country such as France, which is well versed in visual signs and symbols, shows such profound incomprehension at the symbolism of their acts and considers the burying of nuclear waste “to be a poisoning of our very foundations”.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Civaux detail, photograph, 2013

The first title he conceived for this project was ‘Mox/Mammoth’. Mox is an abbreviation of “Mixed-Oxide”, a highly toxic fuel used in nuclear reactors, and this title appealed to Robin as in 50,000 years MOX will still be stored in the earth—in the same location where 50,000 years ago Mammoths roamed.

He examines the structure of the nuclear power plant from a cosmological perspective, drawing on the elemental nature and explaining that, “in the forest of signs of our times, nuclear power plants are only the tip of the iceberg”. Robin is interested in how these nuclear waste burial sites are going to be our legacy to the future functioning as a type of tomb, like the pyramids of Egypt. An atomic cemetery.

Radioactive nuclear waste, “the worst poison humanity has ever invented”, at its most toxic has a life-span of 100,000 years—a close-to unfathomable amount of time to us—at which point atoms will have fully decayed and lost their radioactivity.

What to do with nuclear waste, of which there is to date 250,000 tonnes on earth, is one of the most contestable subjects in the nuclear debate, and Robin draws into discussion the long essay About a Mountain by John D’Agata about the burial waste unit in America, Yucca mountain, near LA, and the Finnish documentary Into Eternity about the world’s first permanent geological repository site for nuclear waste that stretches in a tunnel-network 5 kilometres underground in Finland, 300 kms north of Helsinki.

The underground facility site has been named ‘Onkolo’, meaning hiding place, and once full will be sealed off—hopefully forever.

However, the question remains: how to prevent future evolutions of the human species from entering such a deadly space? What symbols and deterrents will be needed to warn of the invisible danger inside?

The devastations wreaked by nuclear disaster have a long time-span, made more sinister by the secrecy that surrounds the industry and the scope of its impacts.

To give an example of this, the meltdown at Chernobyl, estimated to have affected over one million people, was kept hidden for as long as possible. It was only when radioactive particles were discovered in Sweden two days later that the disaster was brought to light. Residents were told to bring supplies for a three-day evacuation. They never returned to their homes. Radiation in the area is still so high that the exclusion zone extends 31 kilometres in all directions. Animals in the worst hit areas died or stopped reproducing, and in Germany authorities have banned the consumption of wild game meat due to the risk of contamination linked to radioactive mushrooms. The Chernobyl reactor is now enclosed in a concrete sarcophagus.

In Japan, a decommissioning of the Fukushima site has not passed beyond preliminary stages due to high radiation levels, and a complete decommissioning of the site is not expected for another 30-40 years.

300 cubic metres of water are injected daily to cool the plants and over 150,000 residents were evacuated from the Fukushima Prefecture, unable to return. The World Nuclear Report declares that 3,200 people have since died from suicide or ‘decreased physical condition’, all classified as ‘earthquake-related deaths’.

The Japanese government has not released the total cost of the disaster, but a recent report cites US$100 billion.

Robin says: “The more I know about it, the more I consider nuclear energy to be completely absurd. I try to have a relationship to time and space that is far removed from what nuclear energy produces. I believe we are all infinitesimal things lost in the universe and that we must rest not at the center of time, but on the margins of time.”

Further, after a thorough engagement with this industry through his recent work, Robin has resolved to embark on the ephemeral. No longer concerned about leaving a trace, he makes a point not to. The idea of the ‘ephemeral’ is often associated with ecological art. Analogously, Oncu’s exhibition which presented artwork without a price, placed itself outside of traditional art market models. It is interesting to note that these artistic practices are incorporating their resistance to current dominant models.

“Nuclear power plants are machines. What defines a machine is something that breaks down. It’s the nature of the machine… There will be other Fukushimas, and other Chernobyls… these disasters will continue.”

While many European countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, are choosing to forego nuclear power after Fukushima, France is still carrying on strong with its nuclear power program. Prime Minister Francois Holland declared that by 2025 France will have cut 50% of nuclear, but while next generation reactors are on the way and old reactors are being extended beyond their life-limit this could be unlikely.

So, what is needed for a country like France to phase-out nuclear?

“It’s very easy,” Robin says, “we are completely technologically capable of foregoing nuclear. It’s simply a political decision. It’s not an economic question nor is it a technical problem. It’s political: you decide to leave it behind, and you leave it behind”.

Nuclear is a centralised industry whereas renewable energy and decentralised models (where individual households can generate their own energy for example through solar energy panels) pose huge threats to traditional systems and companies, and are thus often placed in an unfavourable light.

In the World Nuclear Report 2016, Paris-based author and independent energy consultant Peter A. Bradford concludes: “Purely from an innovation perspective, it’s hard to imagine a sorrier, costlier and more self-indulgent story of serial failure than the nuclear industry”.

In the current climate that rightly looks to move away from fossil fuels to diversify and invent and invest in new energy solutions, these are wise words to remember.


Notes on Nuclear Energy

  • Nuclear energy has always captured the imagination and fed its way into art. Whether in apocalyptic fiction, nuclear arms war or disaster.
  • Of the 62 reactors currently under construction, a third are in China, however China has also invested US$83 billion in renewable energy (solar and wind).
  • The energy transition and push for a tomorrow that is decarbonised is strongly on the agenda.
  • The benefits of nuclear are often stated: it provides the base supply of energy demand, has little to no greenhouse gas emissions, is inexpensive (France pays 30% less for energy than neighbouring countries), and assures energy independence with France exporting 15% of energy produced.
  • As French minister journalist and environmentalist Nicolas Hulot says, the choice between nuclear or carbon is like a choice between the plague or cholera.
  • This progression to be nuclear free, or the move to renewable energy, has been taken up globally and in a recent report shows that 45% of the world’s population live in countries that favour wind and solar energy to nuclear.
  • Some say that new technology and advances may make nuclear energy safer, however the contingency for accidents will always be high—whether due to human error, natural disaster, or other unpredictable activity.
  • There is still a lot to overcome, even on a simple daily life level of alternate energy sources being accepted rather than seen as ‘hippie’, ‘activist’ or ‘smug and bourgie’. Really, these derisive labels feed into dominant ideologies, when really in today’s world being environmentally conscious and aware should simply class you as ‘not an idiot’.
  • With AREVA, the French owned leader in nuclear power, having gone bankrupt, times certainly are changing. “The way humans get electricity is about to change forever” Bloomberg New Energy Finance 23 June 2015.
  • So, educate yourself, look at art, create and sustain your own energy. Let's look to the future. Living in a time of power to the people, means you get to make these choices.
  • In light of global, ecological issues, if not to say crises, there are many citizens actively engaging and reinventing the discourses surrounding nuclear energy in order to create dialogue and open, informed discussion.
  • What to do with radioactive waste (of which there is to date 250,000 tonnes on this earth) is high on the political agenda and in 2006 the French government elected to store nuclear high-level waste in a deep geological repository at Bure. This site will be licensed in 2015, and operational by 2025. The estimated cost is currently between 15 and 30 billion euros.

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