THE TRAGEDY OF THE ALL-TOO-COMMON
An interview with Erika Wanenmacher about America's shared, secret atomic heritage and its manifestation in "The Science Club: The Boy's Room, Now, Forever, Then, Part 1" By Denise Caruso
You've said that your art is often a way for you to process things that make no sense to you; for example, the secret radiation experiments that were the inspiration for this show. Does the processing bring you peace, does it stir you to greater outrage, or both? How does it feel now that the pieces for this show are done?
Since I found the first tissue sample slides from the radiation experiments in Los Alamos at the "Black Hole"-a lab surplus store owned by one of my heroes, Ed Grothus. I've been researching these stories, which just tend to lead me to other stories. For example, I just finished reading a book about Rocky Flats and the subverted grand jury process that completely blew my mind! ["The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Nuclear Crime and How We Caught Them", by Wes McKinley and Caron Balkany, Apex Press, 2004.]
At this point, the heinous stories seem never-ending and I guess that fuels my outrage, but at the same time, getting "The Boy's Room" installed makes me feel like I've done a bit of remediation. Some how, telling the stories to a broader audience is part of my own healing.
Lately, friends have been referring to this work as my "burden." I guess it is. It certainly is a story that chose me, not the other way around. The pieces for this show are done, but I want to expand this show to other venues, with maybe four or five installations. I just keep finding more stories, and it seems that some kind of radiation experiment happened in almost every area of the country.
For example, I have an installation partially completed that is about an experiment called "Green Run" that was done in Hanford, Washington, that involved letting a cloud of radioactive steam out of the reactor to observe how it traveled in the air, and ultimately settled on the farmland of the surrounding area. Then there is the story about the Fernald School in Massachusetts, where the government conducted radiation experiments on boys, telling them they were joining a science club. That's where the title of the overall show came from. That story will be told in Part 2 of the installation, to be shown at a later date.
While doing the research for the project, you kept finding new places where the radiation experiments were being done. You said, "I've decided that these aren't synchronicities, they're commonalities." This is profoundly different from most people's experience and understanding of what happened during the "atomic age"-which is to say, most people think they weren't affected at all.
Commonalities-I think that is the biggest change in thinking that I experienced. It's always a great experience when something I make teaches me something unexpected. Just the sheer amount of radioactive material that was released into the environment is staggering, with much disregard for the aftereffects. Basically, every person, plant, animal on the planet has been affected by the Atomic Age-not just by the overt power of destruction, but also by the subtle results.
Understanding both the overt and the subtle is tremendously important, and it seems like Ed Grothus really embodied that understanding. I remember meeting him several years ago, at the Black Hole. The Los Alamos community wasn't too enamored of him, were they? In what ways was your work influenced by your observation of Ed's relationship with the lab?
That's true. Ed is probably Los Alamos's most vocal dissident. He worked as a machinist at the lab, starting with the Manhattan Project. He started buying and selling lab surplus items back then. He had a change of heart during the Vietnam war, and has been speaking out against Los Alamos's nuclear weapons manufacturing ever since. Ed is a hero of mine because he speaks his conscience (in a big, theatrical way!), regardless of who he might piss off. I find that really inspiring. He is also not afraid to think big. He just got a 40-foot high marble obelisk made that sits on what he calls "The Doomsday Stone," a granite cube with the story of man's atomic heritage engraved in 15 languages on it. It's either fearless or foolish behavior. Either way, his work and life continue to inspire me.
You seem to live your life with one foot planted firmly in physical reality and the other in the realm of the mystical and magical. My sense is that your ability and/or inclination to do this is about drawing down power. Tell me about the interplay between the two realms.
I started thinking about my work as spells about 10 to 15 years ago, after realized that I wanted people to react to my work in a specific way. I was making sculptures and installations about humans' interaction with plants and animals that literally told people, "Think about this, look at this, consider this." I became aware that the first thing one needs when constructing a spell is clear intent. This seemed to make sense in the context of the work I was doing. One reviewer called me a "Green Dominatrix"!
The model of the artist as the connection between different communities and spheres of influence has always been one that I related to, so making the jump between magical and physical reality is part of the job description for me. Actually, the longer I work this way, the magical realm sometimes makes more sense than the "physical" realm.
I'm not sure it's about drawing down power ... When I am working and "in the zone," I feel a connection to a greater whole, and when I am doing specifically magical work, I ground into the Earth, and draw energy up from the earth, up through my body, out the top of my head, and back down into the Earth to complete the circuit. Magically, I work with the elements-Earth, Air, Fire Water-united with Spirit. This includes my manipulation of materials when I am making objects.
That is one reason I keep trying new media and techniques. I'm really in service to the idea that I'm trying to convey, and whatever material will accommodate and accomplish this is what I will use. In this way, I "manifest" objects.
For me, this is one of the most remarkable aspects of your art -- the fact that you work with so many different media, when most artists spend their lives learning to live in an intimate relationship with one. I know this can be a professional trial, since the art world tends to categorize and judge artists by their chosen media. What other artists have you come across who consider which media they choose to be as inspiration-driven as the actual subject of the work itself? Making art can be a lonely pursuit, and I wonder whether your omni-media approach makes you feel more separate from other artists, and to what end.
Jack of all trades, master of some-that's how I think of myself sometimes. Really, the aspect of working with a new material or technique is exciting for me. It's like meeting someone who could become a good friend. There is a back-and-forth exchange, a sort-of courtship where the parameters of the relationship are determined, and each carries their respective qualities throughout the relationship.
Honestly, the artists that I connect with change on a daily basis. One day it will be Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, another day Joseph Beuys. It totally depends on what I am thinking about and working on. I truly admire artists who dedicate their lives and careers to one medium. I just can't do it! I recently met Val Cushing, a god in the ceramics world (he taught at Alfred University for 40 years) at Anderson Ranch here in Colorado. He totally got my work, and I his! It was fantastic!
I think that idea-driven work is actually where most artists are working. It's just that some are in the microcosm ("how will a tiny tweak of this handle change the attitude of this pot ...") and some are working on the macrocosm. I believe that making art is basically the same as any other creative process. I tend to gravitate towards anyone who is passionate about the particular vein they are mining, whether it be in music, physics, writing, biology, coding, even making art! Actually, a lot of the people I hang out with cross disciplinary boundaries. They are working in several different areas at once, each discipline informing the other. I think that you tend to migrate ways of working across discipline boundaries that are successful-that give you options that you wouldn't have had, had you stuck to the one vein.
I can certainly relate to that! Where do you imagine this work will lead you next - artistically and personally, if one can separate them? Deeper, or in a different direction altogether?
It's pretty much impossible for me to separate the work from me, personally. It's like the Jungian idea of alchemy, with the person ultimately as the work. As I make it, it makes me. I am not sure where this project is leading. I have more installations to do about the radiation experiments, and I want them to be seen in other areas, but I also look forward to working on some less dark work.
Will the installations themselves "ask" to be built in certain cities or locations because of their content? Do you know how they will be different from the Boulder installation?
I think it's natural that certain areas will respond to the installations that are about their locations, but I could imagine that some communities would be reluctant to revisit the subject. Actually, some of the lawsuits are still active. After the Department of Energy disclosed the Human Radiation Experiments in 1995, it opened the door to liability lawsuits. In some cases the lawsuits are in appeal; in others, new disclosures and recent Freedom of Information Act files have spurred new litigation. I imagine that each time the installation is done, it would be responding to the space and situation. The installations are meant to be flexible in that regard.
What would you like your audiences to take with them from having experienced "The Science Club"? How has it changed you?
One of the most significant ways this project has changed me is that I question (even more than I did!!) the authority of others to decide what is appropriate or "in my best interest" or "for the greater good." I would like viewers to consider what is happening around them with a greater sense of personal empowerment, and responsibility.
Denise Caruso is a veteran technology journalist and the author of "Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet." She is the executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute in San Francisco, an independent, not-for-profit research organization that is dedicated to interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving.