Monthly Archives: November 2012
Few disasters have more persistently tugged at our collective imagination than the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. In the subsequent quarter-century, a flood of statistical analysis has dissected the concrete effects of the accident on regional mortality, radiation levels, and the Ukranian and regional economies, and other scholars have assessed the quantifiable impacts on mental health. Yet little of this scholarship has painted a particularly satisfying picture of what in many ways is a socially imagined disaster as well as a real, measurable catastrophe that cannot be completely rationalized through scientific analysis. Mario Petrucci has argued that “the quantification of Chernobyl and its after-effects, crucial as it is, can never become our sole aim. Chernobyl stands to remind us that knowledge is as much qualitative as quantitative.” The thousands of people neighboring Chernobyl and in the shadow of the vast radiation cloud are joined by countless more people well outside the Ukraine in their common apprehension of the specter of unseen radiation, a widespread wariness of a state or states that intentionally misrepresented the crisis, and a fascination with the psychological, bodily, and material effects of disaster.
In the wake of the disaster, a 30 kilometer “exclusion zone” was created around Chernobyl expelling all residents and leaving behind an abandonment space that often has been symbolically cast as a testament to the resilience of nature, the fatal flaws of the Soviet state, the fallibility of expert knowledge, and the aesthetics of loss, fear, and suffering. Much of the exclusion zone is occupied by the former “nuclear city” of Pripyat, which was settled in 1970 to house Chernobyl laborers before its roughly 49,000 residents were removed in two days following the 1986 disaster. The slowly eroding city has been a magnet for a variety of observers aspiring to make sense of the Chernobyl disaster, with some former residents hoping to turn it into a protected living museum revealing technological catastrophe; other artists document Pripyat aesthetically by assessing post-abandonment graffiti and even placing a mural of The Simpsons in the heart of the exclusion zone; some observers monitor nature’s rebound in the exclusion zone; Timm Suess’ wonderful page on Chernobyl includes sounds, videos, and many images; and many more chronicle their trips into the exclusion zone, which tours enter on a regular basis (though there are some moves to restrict such tours). Today a wealth of photographers have descended on the abandoned city and remaining exclusion zone, capturing our fascination with the ruins of a disaster that has seized many peoples’ imaginations.
Some imaginations of the Chernobyl exclusion zone paint it as a dead space populated by barren Soviet-era concrete structures. For instance, Pripyat has appeared in the games S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, in which a variety of mutants and mercenaries aspire to kill players as they move through the post-apocalyptic landscape, and the visually memorable Pripyat ferris wheel occupies the game’s landscape (one tour company even offered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tours of Pripyat and the exclusion zone). Pripyat also appears in several versions of the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Some artists take their visual cues from such post-apocalyptic video art conventions, which pose a bleak landscape of mutants and dystopian creatures—these creatures essentially represent radiation, which is an otherwise difficult entity to represent artistically and materially—and places them in confrontation with powerful human agents.
Much of this art from video games to photography aspires to imagine an effective human presence where it otherwise does not exist today. Artists’ conceptualizations of the space illuminate the most powerful evocative dimensions of the abandoned landscape—mountains of gas masks, empty nursery cribs, Soviet ideological symbols, the empty Pripyat amusement park—to underscore the absence of people while lamenting the lost social life in an empty traumascape. Artists sometimes risk inflating the scarred and barren exclusion zone left in the wake of the radiation cloud, but overdone depictions of the post-apocalyptic exclusion zone are simply aspiring to evoke the distinctive ruins of instant abandonment in the face of human and state failures.
In reality, security around the zone is relatively lax, wildlife has thrived in what Mary Mycio describes as Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary (compare the Wired piece on wildlife in the exclusion zone); organized tours have been visiting the zone for at least a decade; and some squatters have moved into the area or are among the 3500 people living in Chernobyl working for the state managing the disaster site. Nevertheless, Chernobyl and Pripyat are clearly declining in the absence of maintenance and under the persistent threat of thieves pilfering anything that can be sold. Urban explorers often point to Chernobyl as one of the world’s most compelling sites, representing what Bradley Garrett refers to as a “post-human imaginary”; that is, the most alluring ruins are those that are intersections of history and a “post-human future imagination” that envisions a world without us. Paul Dobraszczyk paints Chernobyl as an “umediated experience on the ruin of the city” where we can confront “inconceivable terror.” The explorer UrbanX, for instance, has documented a series of visits into the exclusion zone with exceptional rigor. These explorers’ forays into the exclusion zone reveal our somewhat dystopian anxieties about our contemporary loss of place. Photographer Timm Suess argues that Chernobyl provides a “post-mortem” picture, echoing a common characterization of abandonment photographers as chroniclers of architectural “death,” but Suess suggests that Chernobyl is distinctive in the nearly instant abandonment of the site and its quarter-century isolation.
All of these mediums aspire to represent Chernobyl artistically and express our anxieties, fascination, and curiosities with the disaster. Mario Petrucci concludes that an artist’s perspective on Chernobyl tempers the scientifically driven bureaucratic efforts to manage the aftermath of the disaster. He advocates an artistic imagination of the Chernobyl apprehension, anxiety, and suffering, suggesting that “In understanding Chernobyl, intellect can therefore only ever provide one tool. … I believe it a fundamental truth of our species that suffering – and a genuine empathy with suffering – serves to reorient us in a better direction. Chernobyl is far more than a scientific mistake or a folly of Soviet zeitgeist; more, too, than yet another increment in our capacity to generate tragedy and environmental stress. On some plane – one that is more instinctive, and felt, than arcane – exists the chance to transform Chernobyl from wound to opportunity, to move from scientific progress measured scientifically to human progress whose values are rooted firmly in compassion.”
Our fascination with Chernobyl has complex roots, but much of it revolves around how we view the state and scientific authority and experience apprehension and anxiety. Adriana Petryna weaves a compelling ethnographic case arguing that the models of “scientific knowability” that aspire to assess and politically manage the toll of Chernobyl simply fail to capture human suffering and apprehension. Ulrich Beck made a similar case when he referred to Chernobyl as a moment of “anthropological shock” in its illumination of the divide between scientific knowledge and the human experience of suffering and risk. In this shock, science fails to address the depth of our apprehension, and it evades our anxieties that even post-Soviet states will not always protect their own citizens. Scientists have waded into the exclusion zone hoping to systematically document nature’s response to the disaster, but photographers may paint a more satisfying—if utterly emotional–image of floral and faunal rebound than tables of data analyses.
In the most creative hands, such art should lead to genuine activism and not simply be a voyeuristic gaze on distant Eastern Europeans. Krista Harper has argued that the Chernobyl disaster moved some Hungarians (which borders the Ukraine) to openly question scientific and state authority and fashion communities of shared anxiety that fueled environmental activism. Phaedra Pezzullo argues that “toxic tours” to places like the Chernobyl exclusion zone are fueled by a commitment to social justice intended to foster concrete activism against environmental pollution catastrophes. For most of us, the discussion about Chernobyl simply will not occur without photographers, artists, cinematographers, poets, and novelists willing to tackle Chernobyl as something more complicated than a nuclear accident, instead framing it as a discourse on deep-seated apprehensions of an apocalypse we fear we may create ourselves.
Chernobyl Web Pages
28 Days Later Chernobyl Thread: urban explorers’ discussion of the exclusion zone
Abandoned Kansai: exceptionally thorough Chernobyl trip with video
Chernobyl: Robert Polidori
Chernobyl 20 Years On: BBC page on the disaster
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: Firesuite Photography
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: The Time Chamber
Chernobyl Zone: images of survivors and the contemporary landscape
Chernobyl: The Exclusion Zone: Gerd Ludwig Photography
Chernobyl Up Close: Igor Kostin’s images of Chernobyl taken immediately after the accident
Chernobyl: Within the Zone: Heidi Bradner Photography
Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation: Darren Nisbett Photography
Chornobyl Museum: Ukraine’s national museum of the nuclear accident
Flora of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: the ecosystem’s rebound in the exclusion zone
Heavy Water: A Film for Chernobyl: YouTube trailer
Many Faces of Decay: Timm Suess’ Chernobyl trip, among the finest photograph collections from the exclusion zone with thoughtful commentary as well
Our Pripyat: YouTube channel of Pripyat videos
Picnic in the Death Zone: a 2007 video visit to the exclusion zone
Pripyat: Web page by displaced residents aspiring to preserve Pripyat as a “museum city”
Pripyat: Atom’s Wake: Jan Smith Photography
Prypat and the 30K Zone: David McMillan’s photographs of the exclusion zone
Project Pripyat: “poetic excavation of a modern Pompeii”
Remembering Chernobyl: stories and images on Pripyat and Chernobyl before the accident
The Toxic Camera: video from Jane and Louise Wilson’s film
Image Credits All images on the blog are Creative Commons-licensed. No images have been modified by me.
Chernobyl reactor image courtesy jon|k
Chernobyl art image courtesy ~Sk1zzo
Ferris wheel image courtesy ssmarta
Pripyat sign image courtesy Pedro Moura Pinheiro
STALKER ferris wheel image courtesy hiroshiman
Melanie Arndt (editor)
1987 The anthropological shock: Chernobyl and the contours of the risk society. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32: 153-165. (subscription access)
2011 Nuclear Activities and Modern Catastrophes: Art Faces the Radioactive Waves. Leonardo 44(2):124-132.
2010 Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city. City 14(4):370-389. (subscription access)
Ian Fairlie and David Sumner
2006 The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH). The European Greens Party.
Bradley Lannes Garrett
2012 Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration. PhD Dissertation, University of London.
Krista M. Harper
2001 Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in Hungary. Anthropological Quarterly 74(3): 114-123.
David R. Marples
1996 The Decade of Despair. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 22-32.
2005 Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. National Academies Press, Washington DC.
2002 Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
2004 Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations. Osiris 19:250-265. (subscription access)
2006 “Three Hot Drops of Salmon Oil”: The Artist and the Self in the Aftermath of Chernobyl. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31(3):254-260.
2007 Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution, and Environmental Justice . University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
Sarah D. Phillips and Sara Ostazewski
2012 An Illustrated Guide to the Post-Catastrophe Future. The Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):127-140.
1995 The ‘‘Cultural Fallout’’ of Chernobyl Radiation in Norwegian Sami Regions: Implications for Children. In Children and the Politics of Culture, ed. Sharon Stephens. Princeton University Press, Princeton University Press.
Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesternko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (editors)
2009 Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181.
2012 Approaching the Void: Chernobyl’ in Text and Image. The Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):100-112.
Today Flossenburg Castle is an impressive granite rubble ruin lording over the northern Bavarian town, which has been home to a quarry industry since the medieval period. Between 1938 and 1945 that labor was done by Nazi prisoners in the Flossenburg “protective custody” camp. Roughly 100 satellite camps dotted the landscape around Flossenburg in a network of labor, custody, and death camps that were part of a vast swath of such camps reaching throughout contemporary Germany and Austria.
The conventional historic site experience clarifies historical events, moments, and figures and underscores if not resolves their significance and placement in a grand historical narrative. Weaving these narratives in concrete landscapes lends them a unique spatial immediacy that reduces how we distance such places and events in time, so they are often more emotionally powerful than even the most thoughtful text narrative. In many ways camps share that immediacy with other historic sites: The sheer numerical horrors of genocide risk remaining abstract to many people, but such quantifiable and temporally if not geographically distant trauma is much more difficult to dehumanize in the heart of a preserved camp. Nevertheless, genocide on such a scale remains impossible to “resolve” or to a certain extent “explain” in a wholly satisfying way.
Flossenburg very effectively provides stark descriptive detail acknowledging the behavioral atrocities of captors and their state; the sheer demographic weight of genocide; the material culture of camp soldiers and prisoners; and the complex landscape of camp labor and imprisonment that reached well beyond the confines of contemporary camp boundaries. Perhaps the argument that “we must never forget” remains the justifiable pedagogical goal of such camps and landscapes of trauma, but much of the effect of camp visits is to induce incomprehensible and inexpressible shock. That is, from the distance of time, geography, and culture (in my case, speaking as an American), the holocaust is a bounded event with specific demographics, clear narrative foci, a spatially circumscribed place, and a series of agents (some human—like Nazi party ideologues and camp soldiers—and others structural and social—ethnic tensions in inter-war Europe, economic depressions following World War I, and so on). When that narrative is told in the context of a camp landscape, though, in many ways it remains incomprehensible and indefinable. There is not really a conventional pedagogical goal addressed by camps but instead a sober historical and spatial experience that requires no especially coherent and immediate response beyond fostering a deeply rooted reflection.
Following visits to Flossenburg Concentration Camp Memorial and Mauthausen Camp Memorial within a week, people persistently have asked me “what I thought,” driven by a desire to turn their own mostly inexpressible sentiments into a concrete set of conclusions that logically and rationally resolve a human experience without any clear logic or rationality. This is not a trauma completely unique to the camps—landscapes of warfare dot the globe, many involving horrific homicidal mania uncomfortably akin to the World War II experience—but the preserved camp spaces do provide a landscape to reflect on the depth of the trauma attached to the holocaust, persistently pushing the reality back into collective consciousness where other instances of terror and trauma have receded in memory and are masked in space.
Archaeology at these camps is among the discipline’s most compelling examples of the power of material culture to evoke the depths of terror and say something truly consequential. The Austrian camp Mauthausen was based near a granite quarry, much as Flossenburg. After 1942 Flossenburg prisoners worked on arms production for the Messerschmitt company, as did captives at Mauthausen, and both camps were part of a complex network of smaller camps: nearly 100 sub-camps reached out from Flossenburg, and Mauthausen was supported by the massive Gusen camp and probably 60 more subcamps. The camps were spatial nodes in a landscape of terror that canvassed nearly all of contemporary Germany and Austria.
Like Flossenburg, Mauthausen is set in a picturesque spot that is today cleared of a vast number of camp structures and nearly all the powerful sensory cues of camps, which were confined and dirty places with the sounds of labor and trauma and the smells associated with work, refuse, and death. In Mauthausen’s truly beautiful Austrian countryside, it is difficult to comprehend such horror in what is now a well-manicured, even peaceful place, so archaeology can contribute to a narrative that firmly roots these camps in human horror by documenting the everyday world of the many lives that intersected in such places. University of Vienna archaeologist Claudia Theune has been part of a team of scholars conducting excavations at Matthausen, and she recognizes that archaeological interpretation can begin to evoke that landscape’s complexity and breadth beyond existing fence lines, watchtowers, crematories, and post-war memorials, revealing much about the lives of captives and captors alike. Mauthausen is currently undergoing a significant revision of its interpretive spaces that aspires to provide an increasingly reflective and challenging experience, and archaeology and buildings archaeology have been significant dimensions of that design.
Few archaeological deposits at Mauthausen are more compelling than a seemingly non-descript slope along a fence line outside the camp. An electric fence covered one side of the central camp, with the other sides ringed by massive stone walls. Outside this electric fence a slope referred to as the “ash heap” was the final resting place of cremated remains intermingled with a variety of camp refuse. Core drillings established the depth of the cremation deposits, and those human remains were immediately returned to the mass grave. Many such camps todays are scattered with human remains, a reality that archaeologists can assess, but one that is challenging to interpret. Few archaeological artifacts in any context are more powerful than human remains, and in Mauthausen they are especially sobering reminders of the scope of terror imposed in these camps.
Archaeology can document and reconstruct the camp’s vast, now-dismantled landscape of soldiers’ barracks, support buildings, spatial features (e.g., trash pits), human remains, post-war commemorative memorials, and post-war camp modifications in a rigorous and reflective analysis. Increasingly such archaeological scholarship is shaping the interpretation of camp spaces in particular and wartime landscapes in general (compare the projects at Sobibor; Auschwitz; Sachsenhausen; Majdanek; Adrian Myers’ review of camp archaeologies; and Isaac Gilead, Yoram Haimi, and Wojcieh Mazurek’s survey of extermination camp projects). Beyond the dignified recognition of lives lost in such places, much of what archaeology offers can potentially humanize the range of people in camps, including captors like the SS soldiers at Mauthausen who tortured strangers, pushed many people referred to as “parachutists” off quarry cliffs, and lorded over 100,000 murders. Archaeology can systematically document the everyday life of such captors and begin to address how they experienced power over captives. This may not un-do the incomprehensibility of the camps at all, and its humanization of soldiers may be especially unsettling as it complicates caricatures of evil and potentially evokes unexpected affinity; that is, the everyday life of captors is potentially mundane in many of the same myriad rhythms of life as anyone else, which only deepens the incomprehensible shock of what occurred in such places. For the thousands of captives who did not survive these places, the most modest material things that archaeology recovers—like shoes, keys, jewelry, combs—begin to undermine the powerless anonymity the Nazis hoped to impose on their captives long after their deaths and make concentration camp archaeologies one of the discipline’s most consequential contributions to healing.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy photographers shared ten images every second on Instagram, documenting the storm, testifying to the power of nature, and underscoring the internet’s power to shape our collective imagination. The most ridiculous images following the storm, though, came from Brazilian model Nana Gouvea, who wandered about the hurricane-strewn landscape posing for clumsily seductive pictures alongside crushed cars, downed trees, and refuse-strewn streets, producing what Huffington Post dubbed genuine “hurricane porn” (she was immediately lampooned with a tumblr page and a facebook page).
While Gouvea parasitically stumbled about New York, a host of other photographers posted images that were not quite so voyeuristic, but they also were not utterly “authentic” representations of the storm. The Tumblr page Is Twitter Wrong? posted images of the storm that were clearly manipulated; snopes ridiculed several of the most obviously photoshopped images; The Atlantic posted a series of images emblazoned “real,” “fake,” and “unverified”; mashable posted many of the same images; and the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog ran an article “Caution: That Hurricane Sandy Photo May Not be Real”.
This discourse over storm images illuminates how aesthetic representations shape our imaginations of complex if inexpressible realities like the experience of a natural disaster. Much of this discussion is a journalism discourse about authenticity, a conversation on attribution that matters in news rooms where the press aspires to present something in which we can believe. Craig Silverman, for example, counsels his followers to verify all images before re-posting, re-tweeting, or otherwise sharing them socially. This is good advice for a journalist, but much of what circulates online is more important for its power to simply evoke responses, and doctored images can induce us to humor, outrage, sympathy, or response.
Authenticity may not be the most useful metaphor to understand these storm pictures in particular and aesthetic representation online in general. That is, we increasingly live in an internet environment that is akin to walking down Main Street USA in Disneyland; Disneyland announces itself as a lie in which we willingly participate from the very outset, and most of us expect if not actually desire clever if not beautiful distortions and misrepresentations in such popular culture. A discussion focused on the most conventional notion of “objective reality” risks being reduced to a simplistic polarization of authenticity and artificiality that does not capture how anybody with instagram, photoshop, or the most commonplace camera-phone shapes every picture they take. Flickr and instagram are loaded with straightforward pictures of the storm and its aftermath, but they share space with a host of images that attempt to articulate inexpressible experiences by doctoring with images in small and dramatic ways alike.
Pictures are compelling representations of the power of nature, so astounding funnel cloud images and turbulent flood waters appear in numerous pictures of natural disasters. Even the best-timed images taken by gifted photographers fail to capture the concrete experience of uncertainty and powerlessness within a disaster, so photographers and artists aspire to produce visual representations that will evoke such an experience. In the hands of the media that representation often has struck observers as parasitic: weather reporters find a place out on the boardwalk where they’ll be buffeted by winds and risk being swept away by breaking waves; people emotionally gutted by the bad fortune that destroyed their homes are paraded in front of cameras unable to capture what they have lost; and intensive if not ceaseless media coverage of meteorological disaster brings every possible apocalyptic threat to our doorstep. Simply telling a compelling or amusing story is not always acceptable, because there is a genuine social impact to disaster narratives and their representation in the media. In 2010 David Sirota blasted media coverage of an earthquake that savaged Haiti, arguing that “Like any X-rated content, this smut is all flesh and no substantive plot. The lens flits between body parts and journalists pulling perverse Cronkite-in-Vietnam impressions …. But there is little discussion of how western Hispaniola was a man-made disaster before an earthquake made it a natural one…. The destitution is tragic — and a reflection, in part, of colonial domination.” This is when representation becomes voyeuristic and risks effacing human suffering or ignoring the state’s failure to respond to a genuine tragedy.
Hurricane Clouds over Statue of Liberty image taken from Snopes.com
North Carolina Coastline image courtesy NCDOT Communications
Statue of Liberty image from Paul Maszlik deviant art.com
Shark image from Cinemablend