Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Memorializing the Cold War One Ambiguous Site at a Time

How should the Cold War be memorialized? This question forms the backbone of the Obermann Interdisciplinary Research Grant project of Sarah Kanouse (Art & Art History, CLAS) and Shiloh Krupar (Geography, Georgetown University).

Through their “wishful federal agency,” The National Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service,” also known as the National TLC, Kanouse and Krupar are working to develop the National Cold War Monuments and Environmental Heritage Trail. In late October, the two led a design charrette at the University of Illinois toward planning the heritage trail.

Charrette Planning 

Kanouse and Krupar, who first met at a geography conference, prepared for the charrette and engaged in several site visits during their Obermann residency in July 2013. “There is simply no substitute for being in the same room for a collaborative project,” reports Kanouse. “We accomplished more in the month at Obermann than we had in the prior year, and we found our thinking about the project became both more creative and more complex.”

Planning the charrette was central to their time together. Architects and other designers commonly use these workshop-style events to consider collaborative solutions to design challenges. For their event, Kanouse and Krupar wanted to acknowledge perspectives often ignored in conversations about the Cold War, including the insights of artists, activists, and residents of affected areas. About half the participants were residents of Champaign-Urbana, while the rest traveled from the Chicago and St. Louis areas.

"Seriously pleasurable critical thinking"

Over the course of eight intense hours, the group tackled such problems as the absence of reliable information about the health and environmental effects of the nuclear legacy, widespread public ignorance about the extent of atomic infrastructure, and the challenge of sincerely commemorating those involved in atomic infrastructure while also critically questioning the government’s actions in the Cold War and current federal and state attempts to recognize that period.

Despite the troubling subject matter, Kanouse and Krupar organized the workshop to foster what they call “seriously pleasurable critical thinking.” By all accounts, it worked. Community organizer Susan Folle wrote, “I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed the day. I was reluctant to attend because I thought it was going to be a room full of artists.  I had no idea that I would be in the company of such articulate, brilliant, intelligent people. I would love a day just to exchange ideas with some of them!”

Today there are more than 15,000 square miles of nuclear-contaminated land.

There are many ways to commemorate the Cold War. A “wishful” National TLC video, available on the front page of the organization’s website, highlights images of flying flags and sound bites from speeches by presidents ranging from Kennedy to Reagan. But there is another story to be told. The United States’ nuclear program involved more than 300 active sites. Today there are more than 15,000 square miles of nuclear-contaminated land and more than 600,000 workers associated with these historic and current activities who experience occupation-related illness and death.

“The commemorating of the Cold War is difficult,” acknowledges Krupar, a cultural geographer who works from the vantage point of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “Most people are not that excited to remember it, but those who are are passionate. Remember the Enola Gay exhibit?” she adds, alluding to the 1995 Smithsonian retrospective regarding the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II, an exhibit that was eventually canceled due to disagreements among various factions, including U.S. veterans and scholars.

Jumpsuits and tri-fold brochures

Several museums with a Cold War-focus have since opened or are being planned, including the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas and a National Cold War Museum in Virginia. Kanouse and Krupar are interested in the narratives promoted by these institutions. To draw attention to the slanted and often incomplete versions of events in official commemorative exhibits, TLC satirically employs the rhetoric and aesthetics of government bureaucracy to perform a serious but deeply felt critique of U.S. militarism and the American nuclear state. From the white “TLC”-emblazoned nylon jumpsuits they wear during site visits to the tri-fold brochures with clunky typefaces and bald eagles, the pair are attuned to the government’s story-telling and authority-building techniques.

Fieldwork is a key component to Kanouse and Krupar’s project. They are particularly interested in identifying areas where jurisdiction is unclear or where the site is serving several purposes at once. For example, last spring Kanouse visited a former military base on the Upper Mississippi River in northwestern Illinois that is being converted to a wildlife refugee, a process that includes input from the Army, the EPA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“While severe contamination remains in the refuge–including unexploded ordnance, chemical dumps, asbestos, and soil so laden with TNT it will burn–the refuge has genuine ecological value,” Kanouse wrote in a field report of the visit. “The size, secrecy, and remoteness of military bases often resulted in unintentional habitat preservation. The site is a haven for 47 Illinois endangered and threatened species and contains the largest sand prairie remnant in the state–punctuated by munitions storage bunkers and peppered with TNT.”

And last summer, during their Obermann residency, they visited a privately contracted, operational uranium enrichment plant in Kentucky that simultaneously serves as a state wildlife management area and an asbestos dump. Identifying, mapping, and inventorying these ambiguous sites, as well as collecting the stories of the people who work and live in or nearby the sites, are all parts of their mission.

Exhibit now in Illinois, more sites to follow.

Maps and photos of the site visits were used in a preparatory workbook distributed to all charrette participants prior to the event in Illinois. Sketches and plans from the charrette are central to the exhibition that the pair currently have on display at the University of Illinois’ Figure One Gallery, 116 N. Walnut St. in downtown Champaign. They hope to host another charrette and exhibition in Denver in 2014.

“The pilot charrette in Champaign surpassed all our expectations; it was simply one of the most enjoyable and intense days of collaborative creativity and knowledge-sharing that I have ever experienced,” reported Kanouse. “After two years of working with the National TLC Service concept and a year of laying the groundwork for the charrette, the event was exhilarating. We are more committed than ever to bringing this project to other areas of the country where atomic legacies linger on.”