Time, remembrance and nuclear waste

An image of an all white facility that looks like the insides of a factory or power plant. There are two halls visible, connected with a round passage way.

Photo: HNV collective

Atomin haamu -teos tarkastelee muistamista ja ajankulua. Pohjatyön teokselle on tehnyt poikkitaiteellinen HNV-kollektiivi eli Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen-kollektiivi, jonka työssä yhdistyvät teatteri, musiikki ja kuvataide. Teosten keskiössä ovat unohdetut historialliset narratiivit, joihin sekoittuvat fakta ja fiktio. Lämpimänä lokakuisena päivänä Baltic Circlen viestintäharjoittelija Anastasia Dimas haastatteli Felicia Honkasaloa ja Akuliina Niemeä. Haastattelussa selvisi kollektiivin ja sen taiteen taustoja sekä miksi ydinjäte ja säteily kiehtovat.

Ghost in the Atom is an exciting piece hosted by Baltic Circle 2020 that focuses on remembering and the passage of time.  The groundwork for Ghost in the Atom has been done by the multidisciplinary artist collective, HNV collective, also known as the Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen collective. Their work utilises theatre, music, and visual arts and explores forgotten histories by mixing fact and fiction. On a warm day in early October, I got a chance to sit down with Felicia Honkasalo and Akuliina Niemi and ask them about the start of their collective, its art and their fascination with nuclear waste and radiation.

It all started five years ago, when Honkasalo and the third member of their collective, Sinna Virtanen, were visiting a London museum where they saw the fossil of a sea-dragon. Maybe even more fascinating than the fossil though, was the story of Mary Anning, the palaeontologist who discovered it. Even though her portrait is now hanging next to her discoveries, she did not always get the recognition she deserved. As Honkasalo explains, despite Anning being a pioneer in her field, she has often been overlooked by history because of her gender. This person forgotten by time is what inspired the pair to invite Niemi to join them and start an artistic collective set on exploring those forgotten by history as well as historical narratives and the way they relate to scientific facts, myths, and imagination. It was during their time working in Lyme Regis, Anning’s hometown, that they started developing practices that they still use in their work today.

As a person who always found group projects in school a bit tricky, I have to ask them what it is like to work as a collective. “It’s a never-ending discussion about how we should proceed, how we should work and how we can work”, Niemi explains. “It’s a live discussion that keeps changing constantly – it’s never stagnant”, Honkasalo adds. They believe that their different backgrounds in various artforms benefit their process, because everyone can bring their own practices and points of view to the table. “It’s been a great learning experience”, Niemi says. “And it’s fun!”, Honkasalo adds. “Making art, especially visual art, can often be quite lonely”, she explains, “but a collective can bring a lot of fun into it. Despite it not always showing in the final product, the process usually involves a lot of humour.” According to Niemi, working in a group can also help in distancing oneself from a piece in a healthy way: “If something doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that you yourself were bad, but just that the process didn’t work out this time.”

Because their work is often based on extensive research, I wonder what ignites that first flame of inspiration to start the long creative process. “It all starts from a shared curiosity, which often ends up spiralling us into many different directions”, Niemi explains. When it comes to radiation and nuclear waste, it all started when a green souvenir rock sample from New Mexico found its way to their office. It was a sample of trinitite residue left from the first nuclear bomb test at the Trinity site in New Mexico in July 1945. After keeping the rock for a long while, they started wondering whether it was radioactive, so they decided to take it to the Physics Department of the University of Helsinki for testing. Even though it was revealed that the trinitite sample did not hold high levels of radiation, it still generated a sense of danger for the collective and ended up sparking a wider interest in radiation.

Before Baltic Circle, the collective explored the theme of radiation at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art in the form of a sculpture and a piece of video art. The inspiration behind their artwork was the fascinating story of a few pieces of trinitite jewellery created for propagandistic purposes. After World War II, Japan spoke up about dangerous levels of radiation in areas affected by the atomic bombs dropped by the United States. As an answer, the United States tried to refute Japan’s claims by “proving” that radiation was harmless. This led to the creation of a pair of trinitite earrings, a necklace, and a head ornament by the United States army. The jewellery was then introduced to the world at a ball in 1945 by actress Merle Oberon who wore the pieces of jewellery as proof that they were harmless. The collective’s art installation showcased the history of these mysterious and now lost pieces of jewellery while exploring the themes of beauty and deadly danger. Niemi reminds me that their pieces are meant to be art and not necessarily educational.

In the year 2020, people have become all too familiar with an invisible danger that can lurk everywhere without direct detection. On that account, I ask Niemi and Honkasalo to explain how they have been able to not only process and understand an invisible danger but make art about it. “It’s kind of delicious”, Honkasalo exclaims. “Especially considering how important visuality is in the visual arts, approaching something invisible can be very exciting and inspiring”, she explains. Visuality also plays an important role in planning nuclear fuel repositories. Because the decomposition of nuclear waste can take up to at least 200 000 years, the scientists of today need to figure out ways in which to warn future generations and deter them from disposal sites.  With the time frames being so vast, when it comes to nuclear waste, it is impossible to predict what kind of societies could be roaming the Earth before the waste becomes harmless. To tackle this issue, an interdisciplinary field of research called nuclear semiotics was developed in the 1980s, specialising in the creation of long-time nuclear waste warning systems. The suggestions range from silly to ingenious. According to Niemi, some plans included colour-changing cats that would warn anyone of nearby radioactive activity. Others called for the establishment of a clergy system that would preserve knowledge about nuclear waste sites. The erection of some kind of monument was also considered, but with the time frames being so gargantuan, the meanings of cultural monuments will likely be lost in time. These big, almost inconceivable, time frames, they tell me, are what fascinated and inspired the collective in the creation of Ghost in the Atom.

Onkalo, the nuclear fuel repository in Olkiluoto Finland is the starting point of Ghost in the Atom and becomes the site for the world’s longest funeral. To put things into perspective, the burial of nuclear waste is such a lengthy process that many of the scientists involved in the planning today, will not be able to even see the waste capsules being laid to rest. Honkasalo and Niemi describe Onkalo as a place that feels both primitive and futuristic. It was important for them to get to visit the cave 400 metres underground. “When you get to experience a place through all your senses, you understand it better. Just listening to scientific facts and information can end up distancing you from the real place”, Honkasalo explains. “By touching and smelling it, it comes to life more easily”, Niemi adds.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has led to many event cancellations and threatened the survival of cultural institutions around the world. Ghost in the Atom, however, can be experienced outside one’s home while still not being on location. It blends a multidisciplinary art experience with the audiences’ own imagination. Ghost in the Atom uses VR technology and can be experienced by one person at a time. “The decision to base the piece on virtual reality feels right”, they tell me. Firstly, it fits the subject matter and nature of radiation. “This way we can bring an invisible world around audiences and the installation sort of takes place inside the spectator’s head”, Niemi explains. Secondly, VR technology is a safe and gentle way to bring art to audiences during this time. “It really is lucky that we decided on this medium before the pandemic”, Honkasalo adds.

Most of the work they did in Onkalo, was research that did not directly end up in the piece itself. It was, however, perhaps the most vital part of preparation for Ghost in the Atom. Sound recording and photography were their main tools. In addition, they talked with the people working there to help make sense of the complicated nature of radiation. Also, just being in Onkalo was an important way to prepare and, as they tell me, their favourite part of the whole preparation process. “It’s a wondrous place”, Niemi describes. “For me, the different materials there were very important. For example, the beautiful and powder-like, pastel clay that they use to block the tunnel was very interesting and memorable to me”, she continues. “It was a beautiful place, almost like a stalactite cave. As a damp, dark and echoey place, it generated almost a pious feeling”, Honkasalo describes, “which is funny, because at the same time it is a construction site with drilling and explosions. It’s still beautiful though, and even the marks on the walls on where to mine next remind you of curious cave paintings. To an outsider the neon spray paint takes up a different meaning.” Niemi reminisces on the choreography-like preparation before descending into the cave: “You had to wear boots, a helmet and a belt full of pockets and a flashlight.” “And then the actual descent started with a car and it didn’t feel like going down at all. It’s funny how quickly the sense of time and place disappear in a mine”, Honkasalo adds.

The collective also visited the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, which is still under construction. Honkasalo describes the experience as incredible: “In addition to its being a reminder of humanity’s incompleteness, it was also a reminder of unbelievable human achievement.” Even though they have been working on this project for three years, human capability and the need for experimentation has not ceased to amaze them. They tell me about their trip to Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first ever explosion of an atomic bomb took place, and how being there really drove home the fact that we, small human beings, can achieve something as monumental as splitting the atom. “What interests me, is the human need for experimentation no matter the outcome. That childlike struggle between good and bad; when you tear off the legs of a spider. Maybe we retain some of that into adulthood, which is both lovely and terrifying”, Niemi considers.

So, can we ever hope to find a way to deter future generations from nuclear waste repositories? “The time frames are so huge that we don’t really know if there will even be humans here anymore”, Honkasalo ponders. “Language might disappear, and culture will likely disappear too. Even if we could warn the next generations – based on what we have seen of human nature – how on earth could we prevent them from digging up the radioactive waste?”, Honkasalo wonders. “Personally, I don’t believe that it’s possible.” Nevertheless, they are clear that they do not want to pass judgement or paint a threatening picture of the future. “This curiosity and need for experimentation are so relatable”, Niemi reminds me. “While a child might experiment with life and death by ripping the legs off a spider and a scientist by splitting the atom, the bottom line is the same. The scale is just different”, they add. They believe that we can all relate to that to some degree. “With our artwork, we want to invite our audiences to discover everything through themselves. We don’t wish to preach or give information, but rather to invite audiences to play and imagine the things for themselves.”

As our conversation nears its end, I ask them about one of the main themes of Ghost in the Atom: the world’s longest funeral. I wonder how one can remember nuclear waste and who we are really remembering in a funeral like this. Do we just remember ourselves? “Funerals are usually for the community and for establishing new dynamics”, Niemi explains. “It’s also good to let go of the human-centric aspect and worldview”, Honkasalo reminds me. “It could be nice to pretend that we’re laying the waste to rest in a loving and affectionate way. There is something very comforting about that. That makes us the mourners who won’t get to be here when the waste actually dies underground. There is a cool time frame here”, she explains. “It would be interesting to know what kind of world will exist in thousands of years into the future after the death of our own. We have examined the circle of life in quite a few of our pieces and it is interesting to see how something is always born from a loss and how a birth is usually the death of something else. It can be exciting and beautiful”, she says and adds: “Radioactivity is not bad in itself. It is a natural phenomenon. It occurs naturally, in Finnish rocks for example. It is the people who have made it dangerous. People are dangerous. It is the same thing with COVID-19 and how pandemics have become possible.”

Before leaving, I ask them about their plans and the future of the HNV collective. They tell me that they have been working simultaneously on Ghost in the Atom and another piece set to open at the Helsinki Biennial in 2021. The two projects explore similar themes, like the passage of time and remembering, and have fed off each other. Their next project explores humans as both the creators and destroyers of life. It focuses on a scientist who accidentally detonates Earth and kills everyone. He then ends up dragging himself to the sea so that the bacteria in his body can rebirth life once again. This multimedia piece is also based on extensive research and background work. For example, the collective has filmed combat exercise sessions of the Finnish navy in Hanko. “Instead of the verse ‘from dust to dust’ our slogan could be ‘from water to water’”, they laugh.

The author, Anastasia Dimas, is Baltic Circle’s Communications Assistant and currently doing a master’s degree in History at the University of Jyväskylä.

An image of an all white facility that looks like the insides of a factory or power plant. There are two halls visible, connected with a round passage way.

Photo: HNV collective