The Bright Tunnels of Alchemy,
the Dark Lights of Science
At the beginning of his magnum opus The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer identifies what he regards as the two principles of thought upon which magic is based: 'First, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles a cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.' What interests Frazer in particular is that these two principles both regard affect as being in some way inherent in the structure of the world. Agency, whether human or superhuman, is not part of the equation. And it is no great leap from this realisation to various parallels between the mindset of magic and that of modern science. Certainly the first principle, of cause and effect (labelled by Frazer the Law of Similarity), is familiar to all of us moderns; not quite so effectively there have been several more or less misguided attempts in Frazer's wake to identify the Law of Contact or Contagion with notions from quantum physics of 'action at a distance'. Whether or not the latter stand up to scrutiny, Frazer's point is valid - that 'magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.' With its assumption that one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spiritual or personal agency, 'its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science; underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature.'
So goes the first tenet of Frazer's thesis. The second concerns religion, the practice of which he believes involves a radical difference in perspective from that required by either science or magic. The religious outlook is defined by its belief in the essential plasticity of the world, and most essentially by its faith in the possibility of miracle - by definition a rupture in the natural order of things. 'The distinction between the two conflicting views of the universe turns on their answer to the crucial question, Are the forces which govern the world conscious and personal, or unconscious and impersonal? Religion, as a conciliation of the superhuman powers, assumes the former member of the alternative.' Thus the priest, whose stance before the gods is one of humility, is forever antagonistic towards the magician, who knows that even if the gods exist they too are subject to natural law and can therefore be commanded and bidden - if the correct configuration of spells is known. Nevertheless, religious and magical attitudes can exist side by side, always within the same society, commonly within the same individual. How many of us can say that we have rigorously excluded all superstition from our thought, or that we have never felt some benefit to be god-given?
The alchemists are often regarded as the means by which magic tunnelled underneath religion and eventually widened out into the cave network of modern science. Frazer again: 'When at a late period the distinction between religion and superstition has emerged, we find that sacrifice and prayer are the resource of the pious and enlightened portion of the community, while magic is the refuge of the superstitious and ignorant. But when, still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents is giving way to the recognition of natural law; then magic, based as it implicitly is on the idea of a necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will, reappears from the obscurity and discredit into which it had fallen, and by investigating the causal sequences in nature, directly prepares the way for science. Alchemy leads up to chemistry.'
Long before James L. Acord became involved with nuclear science, he worked for a period as a jeweller. He had long had an interest in alchemical practices - was familiar with the writings, not only of Frazer, but of Paracelsus and the sixteenth century metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio - and making jewellery gave him an opportunity to incorporate some of them into his own work. Some of these turned of these turn out to have a sound scientific basis. For example, certain alchemical rituals call for the use of blood or semen to 'inoculate' metals when making an alloy: 'You know when you read Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas they talk about the hero's blood-quenched sword, and everybody thought poetic license, right? Blood's extremely rich in nitrogen. And we now purposely dissolve nitrogen in water when we quench steels to make them harder than they would be when they were quenched in brine and pure water. A blood quenched sword is a stronger sword - it's nitrogen quenching.' Modern industrial alloying makes good use of chemical inoculates which are added to the moulds just before the ductile metal is poured in. As it vaporises, it imparts information to the metal which instructs the crystals on the way in which they should arrange themselves as they cool.
Less scientific, and more 'contagious' - although to the alchemists there was no difference between the two - is the practice of incorporating an alien element into a piece of work in order to imbue it with a certain quality. A coin, or a lock of the alchemist's hair might be considered to guarantee the value of an artefact; more sinisterly, animal or even human sacrifices might be used: the body of a child unearthed at Stonehenge is not thought to be evidence of ongoing ritual sacrifice at the site but rather a talisman designed to impart some quality to the site at a particular stage in construction. Acord remembers another example: "I've heard that they were doing [bridge] excavation work along the [Thames] somewhere and I think it was in or very near London, and they'd been bridges there since the 10th or the 12th century and for whatever reason they had to get all the way down to the bottom, and what they found at the very bottom was, carefully placed in a foetal position, the whole skeleton showing no signs of violence of they estimated to be between an 8 and a 10 year old boy. And the hair sort of went up on the back of my neck and I said why did they do that? I don't know what the official explanation of this is, but to me it made perfect sense. Flexibility. The enormous flexibility that you need to have when you build a bridge so it will hold up, is best represented by a child that age. It admits to all kinds of interpretations, but the concept of putting things in to me was just a natural and instinctual thing to do.'
More famously, many alchemical recipes had to be mixed by the light of the moon, which seems like another example of an overactive and superstitious imagination until you realise that moonlight is reflected sunlight and is therefore polarised light, and that polarised light acts as a catalyst in many chemical reactions. In one of the bizarre coincidences that seem to surround Acord's work, the explosion of the first atomic bomb for the Trinity test in the Jornada del Muerta desert produced a light so bright that it reflected off the moon.
Acord first became involved with nuclear materials during in the 1980s, a fascination that soon became the defining direction in his career. An auto-didact who ran away home at fifteen to become a painter in Italy (and ended up a cowboy in Nebraska instead), he pursued an itinerant life as a sculptor for the next twenty-five years. A course at the Cornish School of Allied Arts in Seattle gave him an academic basis for his work, but his true education came from a series of apprenticeships - to Phil McCracken, a North-Western school sculptor, and Ray Jensen, among others - and jobs taken in various industrial shops - electroplating, stone carving, wrought iron manufacture and so on. It was a romantic, Renaissance approach, much like that of Paracelsus and Biringuccio before him. 'I wanted to be able to identify and imagine how anything I saw was made,' he remembers. 'Everything I looked at, I wanted to know: Was it cast in a mould? Was it spun, you know being turned against a sharp object, like the way a lathe turns things? What was the process?'
Understanding the continuum of matter that stretches from stone to metal and being able to bond together the materials that lay at each extreme had long interested Acord, and his interest was naturally captured when, while improving his stone carving skills during a period in the major granite centre of Barre, in Vermont, he discovered that granite has a relatively high uranium content, and is in fact the most radioactive of all stones. Further research uncovered the role that granite deposits played in the nuclear industry, as possible sites for the long-term storage of unwanted nuclear by-products, and drawing upon various aspects of his learning and experience Jim began to work on a granite sculpture entitled Monstrance for a Grey Horse that combined elements of the medieval reliquary and the granite depository in a work of art that directly - and, in a certain fashion, alchemically - addressed nuclear issues.
Although Monstrance was designed and intended to house radioactive material of some description, getting hold of such a substance wasn't as easy as Acord had assumed it would be. Now back in Seattle, his attempts to get hold of a small amount of 'waste' metamorphosed into an extended encounter with nuclear powerplants, nuclear bureaucracy and a particular variety of uranium glazed tableware, and as a result he learned a great deal about nuclear culture relatively quickly. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know - and the more complex his plans for Monstrance became. A visit to the Hanford Site, the largest atomic facility in the West and a mere five hours' drive from Seattle, turned his fascination to obsession. Witnessing the level of craftsmanship involved in the construction of the Fast Flux Test Facility, a new sodium cooled reactor that had just been built there, and learning with astonishment of the capabilities of a machine with which the alchemical dream of transmuting one metal into another had finally been realised, Acord understood that this was the technology he needed to properly complete Monstrance. He decided to move to Richland, Hanford's dormitory town, to learn how to use it and how to get access to it.
Hanford's main claim to fame is that it produced the plutonium used in the 'Fat Man' type A-bombs used in the Trinity test and dropped on Nagasaki. The atom bomb, of course, has come to represent the ascendance of science - of magic - over religion, at least in the West, for the first time in thousands of years; concomitantly the mushroom cloud now evokes a greater emotional response than the cross. In this part of the cycle, the Los Alamos scientists were the magicians, finally capable of directed the power of the gods. And yet, just as in times gone by, just as in Egypt, or Mayan America, the knowledge gained was promptly directed towards not ordering the gods, but ordering men. As Frazer notes: 'so far as the public profession of magic affected the constitution of savage society, it tended to place the control of affairs in the hands of the ablest man: it shifted the balance of power from the many to the one: it substituted a monarchy for a democracy, or rather for an oligarchy of old men; for in general the savage community is ruled, not by the whole body of adult males, but by a council of elders.'
The excuse for this shift was either present or easily found - tribal war, cold war. The spatial and cultural concentration of a community, the kindling of paranoia within it, the monitoring of the populace and the marshalling of forces; all of these are intimately bound up with the very beginnings of the formation of the city. And if Los Alamos was where the alchemists were, Hanford - centre of US plutonium production between 1944 and 1987 and home to the largest cache of undesirable nuclear material outside of the USSR - was where the atomic city was constructed, along with its temples, temples which were soon to become cathedrals.
Why cathedrals? Because in order for the Atomic Energy Committee and the Department of Energy set up their vast state within a state they needed to subvert the practice of science, to dislocate it from its ideal state of an open community of knowledge and make it into something secret, something compartmentalised and controlled. Whether it was the design of weapons cores, the statistics of tritium production or the extent of contamination and health danger in the counties surrounding the Hanford site itself, for over forty years the atomic state routinely withheld information not only from 'the enemy' and the scientific community but also from its own workers, even if their personal welfare was thereby put at risk.
The result was that the community living in the dormitory town of Richland, constructed at the southern foot of the area containing the dozen or so reactors and numerous colossal processing plants like a medieval town huddled around and completely orientated by the cathedral at its heart, was obliged to continue its atomic operations in an atmosphere, not of scientific openness or even of ignorant superstition, but of faith.
Government officials and politicians chose to ignore the warnings of Niels Bohr, Oppenheimer and Szilard at the close of World War II that a nuclear arms race could only be avoided by an immediate sharing of atomic secrets and a signing of international treaties - the way in which the issue of poison gas had been dealt with at the end of the first war - and chose instead to use information control to make a priesthood of their scientist/magicians, just as Mayan rulers had done with astronomical knowledge a thousand years before them and as the Pharaohs had done four thousand years before that. Frazer describes this transitional process: 'Thus religion, beginning as a slight and partial acknowledgement of powers superior to man, tends with the growth of knowledge to deepen into a confession of man's entire and absolute dependence on the divine; his old free bearing is exchanged for an attitude of lowliest prostration before the mysterious powers of the unseen, and his highest virtue is to submit his will to theirs.'
In this way a scientific community is transformed into one of unquestioning acceptance. Linear equations, tools with which to explore the world, end up followed blindly as dogmata thought to capture the world while all the time the world roils on beyond their grasp, and utopian dreams of an open society of science are hijacked and used to couple together and set into motion the elements of what has subsequently become known as the military-industrial complex. Once Acord was living alongside Hanford, much of this became apparent to him, and his work grew in scale and ambition, so much so that his central project - a massive henge-like monument to the nuclear age to be constructed on the Hanford site and incorporating twelve breeder blanket assemblies donated to him in 1993 by Siemens - is so huge and complex an undertaking that it is looking increasingly unlikely that it will ever actually be built. Indeed, much of the controversy that Acord's work causes in the UK (in contrast to the US, where the issue is generally the fact of its nuclear content) is whether it should be regarded as conceptual art, performance art or actual sculpture. Acord, although increasingly sympathetic towards the first two readings, generally insists upon the latter, if only because it is the unfaltering determination to wrest forbidden substances and technologies from the control of the modern nuclear priesthood and into the realm of art in actual fact, rather than as errant possibility, that has motivated him for so long. For him, sculpture is not only a way in which to describe and to understand nuclear culture, but also a real means of sending a line to earth from one of its key poles of power.
The transition from science to religion achieved by the US atomic state was well-charted, if not always well-comprehended, by one section of the American media at least. In its most memorable aspect it was manifested in the form of the superhero, and kids at least were quick to grasp this idea, although their parents, as usual, lagged somewhat behind. Superman with his special relationship to kryptonite; Spiderman, bitten by an irradiated spider as a boy; the Incredible Hulk, victim of an atomic experiment gone wrong: these figures express the fear, exacerbated in a climate of secrecy and war, that normal humans are not equipped to deal with atomic technology. As Frazer points out, 'religion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour,' so it seems only natural that the workers at Mark Aerial Waller's fictional British nuclear powerplant should wear T-shirts emblazoned with their forms.
In contrast to Acord, Waller is less interested in the fetishisation of nuclear technology and more in the role it has played in the post-Cold War economy - in other words, as a domestic power producer in the pan-global system of consumer-capitalism that within the terms of this essay is the true legacy of the military-industrial complex. The transition between the two affords an elegant narrative dovetail, which is probably neat enough to be wary of but still worth a look: atomic weapons, built as a deterrent and thus, by the typically-inverted logic of nuclear politics, designed never to be used, are transformed by that same logic (most succinctly expressed as the principle of MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction) into an economic weapon, carrying out an offensive via the escalation of costs both sides are required to pay out for their continual maintenance and multiplication. (Fortunately, it is possible to see how this worked towards the collapse of the USSR without lending credence to Ronald Reagan's post hoc claim to have understood and exploited the process.)
While the missiles annexed space and resources, reaching into enemy territory both literally, thanks to long range rocket technology, and economically, Waller's short film Glowboys investigates the way in which their domestic counterparts, the nuclear powerstations (originally invented, as at Hanford, not for energy provision but for plutonium production), have helped to annex and reconfigure time itself, harnessing it for economic ends. Waller's previous work includes video studies of 24-hour petrol stations, spaces externally designed to attract passers-by with their glare of apparent activity but which are discovered, once inside, to exist in a kind of non-time, their fluorescent lights forever buzzing at the same frequency and the shadows that fall across their Teflon surfaces stationary around the clock. (Coincidentally, Teflon - mentioned in relation to service stations in Waller's essay 24Hr Twilight - was invented in order to construct seals that were both gas-tight and greaseless in the gas diffusion plants used to extract Uranium 235 from its less fissile sister Uranium 238 for implementation in Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb.)
Waller finds the same kind of non-time created on the inside of the powerstation. Indeed, BNFL's corporate slogan is 'Where Science never Sleeps' and he makes much of this. In the near future world of Glowboys, hunters roam the environmental parks that surround the reactors, pegging mutant species with their high-powered rifles; it is they who remain in contact with the diurnal rhythms of the earth. Inside the plant, by contrast, the employees operate in the non-time of capitalism, a commodified time during which the lights are always on and lunch is always available.
This time is too a religious time, metaphysical insofar as it transcends the coherent patterns of the world. Correspondingly Clint Loop, the main character, begins to feel himself imbued with aspects of the superhuman, to regard himself a man of power, and Waller concomitantly provides him with his very own soothsayer in the form of musician Mark E. Smith of The Fall, who plays a caterer with a penchant for crooning, one part oracle and one part karaoke punter. With the inclusion of Smith, something of a pop culture 'prophet' since the 1970s, Waller signals his intent not merely to observe the reactor and its monolithic culture but to infiltrate it, introducing a new set of elements and terms (another of which is the soundtrack by contemporary classical composer Paul Clarke) into the site which between them allow alternative sets of possibilities and conceptions to grow up about it. While Acord has immersed himself in nuclear culture, lived it in order to create from it, Waller stands on the outside, isolating and recombining various elements that may be completely disconnected from the scientific or technological issues involved to create a series of optical and conceptual effects. In a certain way he is not unlike the characters in J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, building sculptures out of shards of broken mirror in a series of attempts to understand the psychoses of H-bomber pilots, to plot the logics of popular culture, to trap time itself.
On the other hand, the static moment of techno-science created inside Waller's the reactor plant is perhaps the corollary of the vast stretch of time (some 25,000 years) that has to be built into the design of a nuclear waste repository such as that being constructed inside Nevada's Yucca mountain. For Waller, the great conceit of capitalism is that it can alter the nature of time itself, that it desires to put time in the service of selling; similarly, for Acord, the great conceit of nuclear science is its attempt to put eternity (on a predictive scale, 25,000 years might as well be an eternity) in the service of its own ends, its attempt to think that it can possess time to such an extent that it can 'risk manage' the future. And yet he does not consider the task a totally hopeless one, and cites the cave paintings at Lascaux, some 27,000 years old, as the pre-eminent example of human culture surviving over time - in the form of art. In what is possibly a rather Romantic frame, Acord argues that it is only by turning to art that science can hope to repeat the achievement. With regard to the impact of art upon consumer time, Waller seems somewhat more ambivalent.
The economic circuit of atomic weapons à arms race à mutually assured destruction à atomic bankruptcy is only in fact completed by the addition of the term 'Star Wars'. With a stroke of accidental genius Ronald Reagan initiation of this program so raised the ante on staying in on the final Cold War hand that it broke the back of the Soviet economy. Carey Young's contribution to Atomic, Legacy Systems, examines version 1.0 of this: the original space race, opened of course by the Soviets themselves with their launch of Sputnik I in 1957. Her points of access are the space museums and space cities of 1998 Russia, or in many cases what is left of them, caught as they are between a rising tide of vicious and untrammelled capital and a whirlpool of economic collapse while still struggling to fulfil their roles as Communist icons. More often than not these relics of extra-planetary might now find themselves displaced and abandoned in the midst of infrastructure reconfigurations designed to interface New Russia with the systems of the West, and the Russians are increasingly aware of this - public access is being restricted to ever more of the subjects of Young's photographs, and in many cases it is a wonder that she managed to capture them at all.
While Mark Waller tactfully places his account of the multiple timestreams of modern existence in a parallel land, in Russia these multiplicities are fully and glaringly real. There has been neither the time nor the resources to enable the country to construct the streamlined societal separations that we're used to in Britain, or which are conveniently afforded by the block and ribbon development patterns that underlie North American cities. Increasingly of course, in the urban centres of the West these zones are collapsing into one another, and dress and mode of transport become - as they were in the 19th century - primary forms of social distinction once again. 1990s Moscow has taken this process to an extreme, however, and even the most riven, polarised urban bases of the South's oligarchic and dictatorial elites find it hard to compete with that city's contrasts of Mercs-n-guns-n-fur back-dropped with total urban decay. The psychic shock has been so much greater for the Russians, too - the Moscow of only ten years ago was a place of evening curfews and homogeneity, a place with a special no-time character of its very own. Here the state within the state was the state. Hanford was the entire country.
In the USSR, the transition from a science of magic to a science of religion had always already occurred. It was taken for granted from the start that science should serve the ends of the state, and this lack of necessity to pay even lip-service to the demands of an open society allowed the process to take a more traditional form than it did in the USA and focus its energies through the body of a king. Lewis Mumford describes this process in relation to village societies undergoing urban transformation: 'At some moment, it would seem, the local familiar gods, close to the hearth fire, were overpowered and partly replaced, certainly outranked, by the distant sky gods or earth gods, identified with the sun, the moon, the waters of life, the thunderstorm, the desert. The local chieftain turned into the towering king, and became likewise the local priestly guardian of the shrine, now endowed with divine or almost divine attributes. The village neighbours would now be kept at a distance: no longer familiars and equals, they were reduced to subjects...'
In the modern Soviet analogue of this process, the king (as figurehead, as sun god) was formulated in the figure of astronaut Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was turned into national hero in a way that Armstrong never was in the US. Statues of him ascending to the stars, a kind of cyborg Christ, were erected all over the country; a circular bas-relief of his head some twenty feet in diameter was made the centrepiece of an exhibition celebrating Soviet space achievements. This exhibition had its own special building - the Kosmos Pavilion - the star attraction in an enormous and permanent national expo created in the 1950s and 1960s and called the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition. Today, with perfect post-Cold War irony, the VDNKh is the VVTs (the All-Russia Exhibition Centre), its grandiose belvederes and gazebos now housing a gigantic consumer goods arcade. Even the Kosmos Pavilion's majestic avenue of spacecraft has been displaced by groups of Armenian traders selling Sony TVs, though they too are now being evicted by other interests. One of Young's photographs, Gagarin with Gun, was taken here; it shows the Gagarin bas-relief veiled (apparently for purposes of renovation). On the hoardings below, however, is another picture of the great space hero, a snapshot of him taken while out hunting blown up into a poster. He's carrying a shotgun and a brace of dead ducks, but in Young's photograph the poster takes on an ambiguous quality and it is easy to imagine that the fallen sun-king has been transformed into gangster. Read this way, it's an image that speaks volumes for Russia.
Young's previous work includes a series of photographs taken of a psychogeography of 'technological graffiti' she herself inscribed at various sites in the English new-town of Milton Keynes. The pictures have an hermetic, enfolded, informational quality about them - indeed, Young's aim was to show how the architecture of this place, an architecture that prefigures the structures of the silicon chip and the 'information superhighway' itself, 'represents a time capsule of utopian ideas.' Again the concept is found in Mumford, who writes: 'Beginning as a representation of the cosmos, a means of bringing heaven down to earth, the city became a symbol of the possible. Utopia was an integral part of its original constitution, and precisely because it first took form as an ideal projection, it brought into existence realities that might have remained latent for an indefinite time in more soberly governed small communities, pitched to lower expectations and unwilling to make exertions that transcended both their workaday habits and their mundane hopes.'
In Air Mosaic, the architecture functions as a conduit between the virtual and the real, a connection made poignant by the fact that just as Milton Keynes's planners 'valued shopping and business' over education and culture, so the Internet, originally a largely academic tool much-lauded for its ability to disseminate knowledge and information, has been largely overcoded by retail-led interests in a clear echo of the annexation of atomic science by the military industrial complex.
Again, in the USSR such an experiment took place on a continental scale. The whole state was a time capsule of utopian ideas, with Gagarin, the space man, the atomic man - early on the two became indistinguishable (Russia being far more prepared to put nuclear technology into space by its slightly more socially responsible counterpart) - as figurehead, sun god. The Stalinist metaphysic involved a complete fusion of the virtual and the real, with the virtual understood as not merely the potentialities of digital communication but as the dynamic realm of latent possibility for organisation and communication that inhabits the body of any socius. In July 1947 US Policy Planning Staff Chief George F. Kennan stated that the US should adopt a position of 'long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment' of the USSR and of communism, with Truman signing the National Security Act, so creating the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the National Security Resources Board later that same month. Stalin's program, on the other hand, sought to control not only possibility but the very conditions of possibility by killing millions of Soviet people, relocating millions more and restructuring the entire population into some sixty 'pure' racial groups, each of which was was represented by a building in the original VDNKh. Again, this terrible history haunts Legacy Systems, most especially in Half Light, Kluga, Russia, a photograph in which a rocket throws its sunset shadow across a grid of facing stones, a quintessentially Soviet architectural moment.
Today, as the cathedrals and temples of the atomic age are dismantled and packed away in the takedown of the stage set that was the true theatre of the Cold War, we can only hope that this great and damaging project which somehow failed to destroy us all was the last gasp of linear thinking, of ultra-rationalist science.
However, while the practices of atomic engineering and the oversimplified game theories and intelligence/behaviour models that accompanied them are being compromised and undermined by the new, non-linear, mathematical disciplines, today there is a new axiomatic with which to simplify the world. As all three of these artists confirm, however different their approaches, the Siamese twins of nuclear and space technology can no longer be looked at in isolation from the consumer-capitalist project, in which the equations and slide-rule models of the post-war years have not withered away but rather have matured into the advertising classifications and neuro-linguistic programming practices that define and delimit contemporary life.
James Acord's struggle to complete his monument and to make use of nuclear technologies is being stalled, not by a paranoid war bureaucracy, but by the demands of the commercial interests involved in Hanford clean-up which require that everything relating to the Site can justify itself in terms of economic and environmental efficiency. Mark Waller sees the nuclear powerstation in terms of its position and function on an economic-energetic circuit and splits it open, filling the insides with a stew of the popular culture that has evolved out of and is powered by that very same circuitry. And Carey Young notes that cyberspace, with 'its deep structures, formed by the language of code and naming systems [...] perhaps offers more of a slippage backwards than a leap forwards, suggesting that a return to rationality and high modernism might be immanent within this particular "crystal ball"' while capturing on camera one of the many mega-projects of the twentieth century that have helped to give 'the future' its deservedly bad name.
- Atomic exhibition catalogue, October 1998