Mutant Space is a research driven, technoscientifically critical, visual art project about nuclear power and radioactivity. The project consists of visual surveys about power plants, scientific imagery, mappings and data visualizations on radioactivity. It aims at contemplating the politics of nuclear energy through artistic practice. It crosses over multiple forms of visual media and is embodied as an immersive space installation, in online publications and as print material. Metsamor is one of the episodes of this ongoing project which particularly focuses on the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant located in Armenia, at the Turkish border.
Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant operates with an early Soviet design reactor and both technically and politically has strong ties with Chernobyl. They are constructed and commissioned around the same times by the same authorities and they were both build as a result of the same geopolitical strategy of the USSR. Although there are slight technical differences in their reactor structures they both lack the containment structure
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Armenians already had a number of political frustrations. The most important of these concerns was the one over the environmental pollution and the danger facing the Armenians from the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. In March 1986, 365 Armenian intellectuals addressed an open letter to Gorbachev protesting the general industrial pollution in their republic and revealing that there were also widespread concerns about the plans to construct a second nuclear reactor at Metsamor. Soon after the Spitak earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 in 1988 reactor is shut down for seven years.
Eventually, as a result of the economic blockade from two neighboring countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan followed by energy shortages, Armenia resumed operation of Metsamor in 1995. Today this power plant produces about 40% of Armenia's electricity. As announced by Armenia’s energy minister Armen Movsisyan, the reactor recently got a ten year extension to operate until 2026.
Nuclear power and radioactivity are political in many ways. How to assess the dangers it poses? How should a non-scientist evaluate the risks? When and how to respond to an emergency, every moment, every action about it is political. Also, radioactive waste with half life more than a couple of hundred thousand years, and the way this information is conveyed to the future generations while humanity is incapable of deciphering a couple of thousand year old alphabets, is political. Contemporary art is one of the few surviving avenues of daily life which can genuinely host politics and art that deals with such political issues deserves to be on the scene. “That is simple my friend: because politics is more difficult than physics.” So answered Albert Einstein, when asked why people could discover atomic power but not the means to control it. His thesis can still be applied to atomic energy which became more popular after his times. Mutant Space aims at demystifying technology with its lo-fi approach to research on physics of radioactivity. As will be further explained in the following section the installation component of this project combines good old radiation detection methods with today’s “high-end” data visualization techniques. The installation contains the uranium element in its core as the driving source of the whole exhibition.
At a theoretical level, the installation piece, particularly the found waste and light component is directly related to theories of Timothy Morton on ecology and hyperobjects. He radically argues that the very idea of “nature” which so many hold dear will have to wither away in an “ecological” state of human society and approaches this paradox by considering art above all culture, politics, science, etc. In The Ecological Thought, Morton introduces the concept of hyperobjects to describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium. Among these Mutant Space is charged with radioactive hyperobjectivity in relation to ecologic and gallery space.
Mutant Space neither employs nor suggests any form of activism in the form of contemporary art. Mutant Space is neither partial to any anti-nuclear movement nor takes part in the heated energy policy debates. Nevertheless, it will still be engaging for enthusiasts and critical thinkers of the subject matter.
One of the archaeological sites that I visited in 2008 throughout a workshop trip to Yerevan was Metsamor, the “Black Swamp”, 50 kilometers west of Echmiadzin. We drove to Metsamor, with views across the fertile plain to the snows of Ararat and, topping seemingly endless lines of telegraph poles, untidy bundles of storks’ nests complete with their temporary residents, young and old. I vaguely remember seeing the cooling towers of the Metsamor nuclear power plant stand sentinel on the plain on the north of the site.
Metsamor is known as operating on the most insecure reactor still functioning on earth. One of the reasons for this insecurity is the location of the power plant. It is located on Mountain Ararat fault line. The following image displays all the earthquakes which have occurred over the magnitude of 6 within the area of the reactor since its construction. Another part of the insecurity of this power plant is a more technical one. Like its counterpart Chernobyl, Metsamor does not have a container installed. In case of a meltdown in the core, there is no secure layer to contain the leaking core.
Noah’s Ark is one of the many cultural values shared by Turkish and Armenian societies. The Bible writes that it landed on the mount of Ararat. The history as it pertains to religious myths and political populism at a national level is re-written numerous times. All are stories, but the fact is that the Noah’s Ark has a great potential to come true as the end of the world for the people of the region in the future.
Mutant Space, Metsamor is an exhibition proposal as a part of the ongoing Mutant Space Project. It will exhibit Metsamor and the region at large, its radioactivity by means of data visualizations, photographs, videos, maps and sensory information coming from local sources. The project will take chances to present information at local and global scale, such as panels or presentation sessions but most importantly online publishing. This aspect will engage local communities. I also believe that it will be well received in high-tech progressive art/design community.
The form of Mutant Space, Metsamor is driven by its core content, which of course is radioactive material. The half-life of this material can vary from 24,100 years to millions of years, which is a fascinating idea to think about in the art historical context. Similarly, recycling of waste material in sculptural forms is a common practice in art. Mutant Space with its recursive, self enclosed mechanism articulates the waste in its core by creating a dynamic space. One component of the project is a multimedia installation. It consists of photographic prints and fine art digital prints of data visualizations, sculptural form and a CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment). The installation requires a gallery space of around 400 metres square (~4,500 sq.ft) and dry wall material. In the core of the installation is a sculptural lead structure, a container that contains radioactive waste at trace amounts. Geiger probes will be inserted inside this container. Gamma radiation emitted by the active material is detected by the Geiger counter. The measurement data will then be fed to the computer using I/O prototyping boards, possibly an Arduino board and this data is visualized to transform color and fed back to the system in forms of light that alter the perception of space.
The amount of the active material will be at trace amounts just enough to trigger the system. So the space will be safe for anyone. Just to give an idea, the risk of over exposure will be less than encountered in flight in an airplane cabin.
The sculptural form in the core which contains trace amounts of nuclear waste to be collected from the area represents a reactor core. The restless nature of this material and its real-time oscillations are sensed by the counter probes and fed to the computer as raw data in which it is processed to create videographic deformations and glitches. These video projections on semi transparent surfaces create a closed space which is visually mutated by the radioactive material. The print material on the walls are fine prints of large format photographs and maps superimposed with data driven graphics.
In summary, Mutant Space, Metsamor is a project that deals with containment, radioactivity, border, catastrophe, and archaeology. It employs scientific monitoring and imaging techniques as well as photographic/videographic documentation.
At a practical level, some aspects of this project (such as time, space and budget) are negotiable. Nevertheless, given that 2015 is the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, this is a remarkable year for the project to be realized. Also, taking the regional and cross border character of the idea into account, I believe the exhibition would make most sense at the foothills of the Ararat.
Although the project proposes an installation eventually, basically the project is a scientific and political research driven art project about nuclear physics and politics between Turkey and Armenia. It is interdisciplinary, multilayered and involved in delicate/sensitive subjects like border between Armenia and Turkey, nuclear energy and inevitably the genocide. Therefore what is more important for the project rather than the installation is the research and the documentation which also sets the aesthetic tone of the idea. So the installation is not the sole format that the idea can be materialized. The project can embody in other formats and exhibited or discussed.