This essay is part of Issue #1 “Agents Provocateurs: agitate normality”, a bimonthly series curated by KoozArch on the agency of architecture and the architect.
The developments that led to the splitting of the atom are perhaps the best manifestation of both the opportunities and the existential threats associated with technological advancement—especially when unchecked. Nuclear technology reminds us that human survival on earth is not a given, as humans have become dangerous not only to themselves, but to the entire biosphere.2This essay provides an overview of a semester-long collaborative effort, in conversation with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, to develop creative, artistic and activist perspectives to look at the wide spectrum of the “nuclear dilemma”, including the risks associated with the use of nuclear weapons and their testing to the critiques surrounding nuclear energy as well as the human rights and exclusionary implications of nuclear technologies.
Perspectives on Survival: Nuclear risks, design and public action. A semester-long investigation on the agency of architecture in relation to nuclear power, energy and space
“When you contemplate the death of culture, as an artist, you feel you really have to do something now.”1
The raw threat: Nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons are the biggest threat to human survival our planet has ever known. A single one of them can destroy an entire city, kill millions and jeopardise the natural environment for generations to come. Although nuclear weapons have been used only twice in the history of warfare—the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—the danger of these weapons arise from their very existence: the world’s combined nuclear arsenal is huge, with nine countries owning 12,500 warheads as of early 2023.3 Exacerbated by the increasingly reckless rhetoric since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous doomsday clock4—which symbolically calculates mankind’s vulnerability to global catastrophic disaster as a result of unchecked technology—currently stands at ninety seconds to midnight, which symbolizes existential doom.5 This sense of urgency compels us all to act, highlighting the interconnectivity of nuclear dangers and climate change as well as their catastrophic implications for humanity and the planet. However, nuclear weapon states continue investing in their nuclear stockpiles while the multilateral and bilateral guardrails designed to protect humanity from the worst scenarios rapidly erode. In an imaginary projection, the energy released by the simultaneous detonation of US and Russian warheads could make a crater around 10 kilometres across and 2 kilometres deep, which would reduce the amount of heat reaching the earth’s surface from the sun, trigger a nuclear winter6 and unleash a pulse of electromagnetic energy, destroying everything, from national power grids to microchips worldwide.
Radioactive matter, activism and the invisibility dilemma
What are the challenges surrounding nuclear activism at a time of increased nuclear risk and heightened existential threats? Uranium and plutonium, used for the making of the atomic bomb, are radioactive elements considered to be invisible because they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Timothy Morton calls them hyperobjects,7 entities so massive and complex that they cannot be fully comprehended by humans. Their emitted radiation is sticky like glue and affects everything on the planet—it cannot be undone. Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology and land ethics, argued in theSand County Almanac8 that we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in. How can we interact with, respond to, and make visible invisible elements?
Sven Lütticken has extensively explored this question in his essay series Shattered Matter, Transformed Forms: Notes on Nuclear Aesthetics,9 arguing that the invisibility of radioactive matter challenges the ability to mobilise public action and makes stirring public response difficult. The literal invisibility of harmful ionising radiation is coated in a political invisibility that is broken only intermittently at moments of disaster. Lütticken suggests that the way in which we represent nuclear matter and its effects is crucial to understanding and addressing the political and aesthetic crises it poses and states that we must find ways to make visible the invisible threats of radiation in order to create a more informed and responsible public discourse around nuclear energy. He further encourages the inclusion of artistic and cultural initiatives in public education and policymaking as a valuable approach to dealing with this invisible threat.
Implications on the natural world
The destruction of the planet and the threat to the lives of humans and other species extends beyond nuclear war. Long-term effects of uranium and plutonium extraction methods, bomb testing and failure to properly dispose of nuclear waste all have significant environmental ramifications for what scholar Anna Tsing refers to as the “patchy anthropocene.”10 For humans to survive on earth, we must imagine strategies, pragmatic processes, effective assemblies, and collective survival approaches that can release us from the “dead hand11 of the past that clutches us by way of living people who are too frightened to accept change”, as described in the book The Ministry for the Future by K. S. Robinson, which explores the urgent need for humanity to take responsibility for its actions by imagining a new form of global governance. The book presents a compelling argument for the establishment of a global governance structure dedicated to preserving the planet and ensuring the survival of all life on earth. This newly conceived global form of governance could coordinate efforts to combat climate change, protect endangered species, and promote sustainable development.
Famous footage of light-emitting explosions and mushroom-shaped clouds rising above a remote tropical island in the midst of the ocean or a faraway desert are ingrained in our collective consciousness. Since the first plutonium implosion device test on July 16, 1945, at a site 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the code name “Trinity”, at least eight countries have performed 2,056 nuclear tests. These tests have occurred in dozens of locations around the world, including Pacific atolls,12 the Marshall Islands, China’s Lop Nor, Nevada, Algeria (where France tested its first nuclear device), western Australia (where the United Kingdom tested its nuclear weapons), the South Atlantic, Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk, and various locations in Russia.13 Each of these detonations affected the ecology of the test site, resulting in an exclusion zone—a region that is so contaminated that it is unsuitable for humans or other species to live in.
The ghost landscapes left behind by nuclear detonation serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of nuclear exposure. The long-term effects of nuclear radiation on human health and the environment are unknown, and the threat of future disasters remains a concern. However, the concept of nuclear exclusion zones, which range from mining sites to explosion zones to power reactor locations, is extremely complicated, revealing, among others, a complex system of injustices.
Nuclear technologies, power and exclusion
Karen Borad, a scholar and quantum scientist, speaks extensively about the disproportionate impact of nuclear testing on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and cultures. Spaces designated for testing atomic bombs, mining, and waste disposal, which are still regarded as ’empty’ or ‘barren’ by Western military research, were in fact inhabited by indigenous communities who were never considered in the decision-making process of where to test the bombs.14 The United States alone has dropped about 2,000 atomic bombs on indigenous territory, where the damage done to the environment and human health as a result of nuclear testing is still evident today, with high rates of cancer and birth defects reported in affected areas.
Valerie Rangal, Santa Fe’s artist in residence, goes into great detail about these issues. She is a Navajo artist, planner, and activist who has spoken out against nuclear testing, mining, and waste disposal in her community.Rangal’s work emphasises the need of including Indigenous populations in nuclear policy making and ensuring their perspectives are heard. Her artwork serves as a compelling reminder of the continuous legacy of nuclear operations, as well as the critical necessity for responsible decision-making.
Today in the US, indigenous communities are contesting the plan to bury nuclear waste on Yucca Mountain. The Mountain is an important part of the Western Shoshone and Paiute Indians’ traditional homelands and holds significance in their creation stories. The Western Shoshone people refer to this land as Newe Segobia and Yucca Mountain as “The Serpent Swimming West” to symbolise their struggle to adapt to American ideology. Burying nuclear waste on this site violates the federal trust and responsibility to tribes, and it favours high population density, development, and whiteness in human settlements.15 The exclusion of women is also a critical dynamic that needs to be explored. Nuclear policies disproportionately affect women and marginalised communities. Officials from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Department for Peacebuilding and Political Affairs emphasised the need for a feminist approach to disarmament and the importance of including diverse voices in environmental policy decision-making processes. Yael Bartana’s artistic intervention and performance titled “What if Women Ruled the World” and “Two Minutes to Midnight,” is a four year transdisciplinary series that explores what would happen if countries around the world were governed by women. The discussion ranges across the global emergencies of our male-dominated reality, with climate change, toxic masculinity, and the nuclear arms race rising to the fore. As the actors in Bartana’s performance—enacting an all-female government of an imaginary nation—strive to reimagine international gender paradigms, tensions escalate with the enemy nation, whose leader is obsessed with the size of his rocket.
The discussion on gender looks at the language associated with nuclear weapons from a feminist theory perspective, relying on language to explain international politics. It juxtaposes words associated with masculinity—power, exclusion, rationality, strength, seriousness, order, domination—with those associated with femininity—sort power, dialogue, compromise, compassion. This showcases how the entire discourse around nuclear technology is a masculine construction, which defines a heroic kind of masculinity and war, which depends on a feminised and devalued notion of peace as unattainable, unrealistic, passive and—it might be said—undesirable. It defines war and weapon of mass destruction (WMD) as rational, heroic and powerful. As such, despite vague promises in multilateral treaties, there’s no elimination intent beyond vague promises because this is a formula of power and not compromise.
Carolyn Merchant, an ecofeminist pioneer, studies the relationship between environmental destruction and patriarchy in her book The Death of Nature. She contends that we may repair human ties with nature by adopting a more feminist viewpoint and shifting from the paradigm of dominion over nature to one of human partnership with it. Merchant’s work emphasises the need for a more inclusive and holistic approach to environmentalism that understands the interdependence of social and environmental concerns. This approach is critical since nuclear catastrophes disproportionately harm women and children, and women are often excluded from nuclear energy decision-making processes.
Finally, women have been largely absent from the scientific and political decision making about nuclear technology, in spite of the long and consistent history of women’s organisations advocating for the total disarmament of biological, chemical and particularly nuclear weapons. We need more women around the table to change the narrative: push back against the exclusion of a whole range of relevant inputs as if they did not belong in discussions of “hard security issues” because they are too “soft” (i.e. feminine). To push back against the proliferation of nuclear weapons by focusing on discourse and the tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them”.
Spaces of public appearance
Reality can be shaped by our actions and interactions with others. This idea is central to the works of philosophers and scholars like Hannah Arendt, Chantal Mouffe, Bruno Latour, and Miwon Kwon. In The Human Condition, Arendt argued that reality is not just a matter of objective facts but also of social construction. “Everything that appears in public space can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. And what appears, seen, and heard by others and by ourselves, constitutes reality.”16
As art and design practices shift from art in public space to art in the public interest (Miwon Kwon), their participatory and relational makeup can generate platforms and agencies that question dominant culture, construct new practices, establish new subjectivities, and subvert existing power configurations (Chantal Mouffe). Artists and designers can make visible hidden and suppressed realities through artistic practices; they can engage with various constituents and entities—formal and informal, human and nonhuman, alive or other things (Latour); they can cross disciplines and collaborate with communities, scientists, social scientists, philosophers, grassroots organisations, or policymakers; they can develop designs and strategies for interventions in both physical and virtual spaces and challenge all types of soft and hard infrastructure and contribute to shaping reality.
For example, the 1982 protest against nuclear proliferation17was a turning point in the anti-nuclear movement, as it brought attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons and sparked international dialogue on disarmament. In the early 1980s, a series of pieces published in the New York Times and other news outlets captured the spirit of a popular and powerful anti-nuclear-weapons movement. Henry W. Kendall, Dr. Bernard Lown, and Dr. Helen M. Caldicott founded the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control. Popular art and design groups joined in, occupying public spaces and strengthening the movement. Protesting artists began to shape the form and manner of both art and the anti-nuclear campaign. In New York, dance companies, theatrical groups, cabaret artists, and others made the subject a theme.
This effort in response to nuclear proliferation was collective and intersectional. The impetus for this mass anti-nuclear movement was about more than nuclear disarmament. It linked injustice to armament, highlighting inequalities at all levels and debating the disparities between state priorities and societal values. Such interdisciplinary collaborations can provide space, platform and agency for artists, scientists and activists to come together, challenge disciplinary boundaries, empower communities, break silos, cultivate new forms of knowledge and co-develop future imaginaries.
Conclusion / Crossover
We have engaged with institutions, scientists, policymakers, artists, designers, and communities to further explore the agency of design to advocate for change in response to the climate crisis and nuclear threats. Our interdisciplinary approach has enabled us to critically examine the intersectionality of these issues and their impact on marginalised communities, prompting us to call into question the underlying patriarchal structures that sustain them.
As we hope to address issues of concern while challenging these paradigms through our collective efforts, during the spring semester 2023 we invited a group of Harvard Graduate School of Design students to familiarise with imminent nuclear threats, connecting them with legislators, scientists, intellectuals, and activists, encouraging them to activate the space of appearance and to conceive of projects that could lead to change. The initiative’s goal was to inspire and empower the next generation of professionals to take action to prevent a nuclear disaster. The UN Office for Disarmament connected the students with their #YouthForDisarmament fellows, resulting in a peer-to-peer exchange between two groups of young people who approached the same issue from different geographical contexts, professional backgrounds and perspectives. The interaction quickly established a common ground and demonstrated our shared values. Our interdisciplinary approach emphasised the need for more inclusive and long-term solutions to challenge patriarchal power structures and promote a more equitable future for all. The student projects, which were created in a variety of contexts, scales, and formats, can be divided into the following categories: 1) nuclear detonation; 2) power reactors; 3) mines and waste disposal sites; and 4) incidents, reflecting a strong commitment to social justice and a willingness to take bold action in the face of global crises.
1 A quote of Louise Nevelson from a 1982 NYT new piece. The founder of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament in New York.
2 New York: Harper & Row. Jonas, Hans (1984): The Imperative of Responsibility. In search of an ethics for the technological age. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
3 Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces. Who owns the world’s nuclear weapons?”, [online]
4 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight”, 24 January 2023, [online]
5 Borger, Julian, “Doomsday Clock at record 90 seconds to midnight amid Ukraine crisis”, The Guardian, 24 January 2023, [online]
6 Richard P. Turco first used the term “nuclear winter” to describe a one-dimensional computer model he developed to investigate the notion of “nuclear twilight” in 1983. According to this model, the planet would experience a severe drop in temperature as large amounts of soot and smoke would remain in the air above the surface for years.
7 Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. JSTOR, [online], Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.
8 Leopold, Aldo, 1886-1948. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There.
9 Lütticken, Sven, “Shattered Matter, Transformed Forms: Notes on Nuclear Aesthetics, Part 1”, E-flux, Issue #94, October 2018, [online]
10 Tsing, Lowenhaupt, Anna, Mathews, Andrew S., and Bubandt, Nils. 2019. ‘Patchy Anthropocene: Landscape Structure, Multispecies History, and the Retooling of Anthropology.’ Current Anthropology 60(Suppl. 20): s160-s197.
11 Dead Hand, also known as Perimeter, is a Cold War-era automatic nuclear weapons-control system (similar in concept to the American AN/DRC-8 Emergency Rocket Communications System) that was constructed by the Soviet Union. The system remains in use in the post-Soviet Russian Federation.
12 From 1946 until 1958, the United States conducted nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Sunken ships and the Bravo crater at Bikini Atoll testify to the destructive intensity of the tests, which were almost 7,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The geology and natural ecosystem of Bikini Atoll, as well as the health of people exposed to radiation, were severely impacted by these experiments.
14 Barad, Karen, “After the End of the World: Entangled Nuclear Colonialisms, Matters of Force, and the Material Force of Justice”, The Polish Journal of Architects, 58 (3/2020), pp. 85–113, [online]
15 Nuclear Princeton, Nuclear Waste Storage, Princeton University, [online]
16 Arendt, Hannah. 2018. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
17 Intondi, Vincent, “The Fight Continues: Reflections on the June 12, 1982 Rally for Nuclear Disarmament”, Arms Control Association, June 10, 2018, [online], Schell, Jonathan, “Remembering June 12”, The Nation, June 14, 2007, [online]