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Left: a piece of uranium.  Right: 'American Progress' by John Gast, 1872Left: a piece of uranium. Right: 'American Progress' by John Gast, 1872

Panning for Atomic Gold

Mark Aerial Waller, Carey Young, Thomson & CraigheadDan Grausam, Shelly Mobbs, Karen Kramer, Susan Schuppli

University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway
Fischer Hall
1 Suffolk Street
London SW1Y 4HG




A one-day symposium exploring atomic materials and nuclear culture

Eventbrite - Panning for Atomic Gold

Related links

Nuclear Culture

Nuclear Culture blog

Singularly Assured Destruction 1870-2013

Nuclear Culture on Film , April 2013

Panning for Atomic Gold explores artistic quests for sensory perceptions of deep time through atomic materials and nuclear culture. The symposium will make connections between The Arts Catalyst’s Atomic exhibition (1998), current artistic practices and future nuclear archives. In our twentieth anniversary year the event draws on The Arts Catalyst’s archive of unique documents and artefacts – revisiting work by James Acord, Mark Aerial Waller and Carey Young – and makes public these archives for the first time.

Curated by Ele Carpenter, speakers include radiological protection advisor Shelly Mobbs; scholar of Cold War literature Dan Grausam; artists Thomson & Craighead, Karen Kramer, Mark Aerial Waller, Susan Schuppli and Carey Young; curator Ele Carpenter; and The Arts Catalyst’s archivist Z Richter-Welch and research engineer Lisa Haskel.

Searching for the holy grail of sustainable energy and military might to create the modern world, a belief in ‘Manifest Destiny’ still leads the desire for alchemical discovery and reverse mining of radioactive exploits. This 19th century idea captured the spirit of the American territorial expansion, while in the 20th century utopian pioneers focused on the nuclear project and new territories in space. Today the belief in nuclear modernity takes many forms.

Within art and literature, traces of radioactive materials are made visible, materially and politically, revealing the aesthetics, fears, passions and economies at play in the nuclear cycle. Dan Grausam will focus on the life and work of artist James Acord (1944-2011), who campaigned for greater openness and cultural engagement in the long-term dangers posed by nuclear materials.

In the 21st Century, nuclear materials are entering the public realm, not only as fallout, pollution or medicine, but also as the subject of public consultation on siting and monitoring radioactive waste. Artists and scientists will create a dialogue between materials mined and exploited for nuclear fission: Shelly Mobbs will describe the characteristics of radioactive materials, while artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead discuss their new work for measuring radioactive decay within the human time of the Anthropocene.

The event includes a screening of Karen Kramer’s recent film ‘Limulus’, shifting our sense of time from primitive marine life to decaying modernity, and an opportunity to explore the recently digitised archive of The Arts Catalyst’s artefacts and documents relating to Nuclear: Art & Radioactivity (2008) and Atomic (1998) introduced by archivist Z Richter-Welch and research engineer Lisa Haskel.


Ele Carpenter is a curator, writer and researcher in politicised art and social networks of making. Her Nuclear Culture curatorial research is a partnership between The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she is a Lecturer in MFA Curating. Her research involves writing, conference presentations, field trips, curating exhibitions, film screenings and symposia. The project is commissioning new work in response to the issues raised by dismantling nuclear submarines in consultation with members of the Submarine Dismantling Project Advisory Group. http://nuclear.artscatalyst.org/

Daniel Grausam is a lecturer in English Studies at Durham University, where he researches 20th and 21st century American literature and culture, with a focus on the Cold War and in particular on its atomic and thermonuclear aspects. His current interdisciplinary study entitled Half-Lives, concerns the legacies of the nuclear national security state after 1989.  Grausam’s talk will examine James Flint’s The Book of Ash, a novel inspired by the life and work of James Acord.  Core to Acord’s engagement with the nuclear was a belief that artistic experiment would be central to any attempt to understand the long futures of the nuclear age.  Grausam will also consider Flint’s relationship to a prior generation of Cold-War era nuclear-influenced writers and will put his work into dialogue with other contemporary novelists such as Lydia Millet and Jonathan Lethem.  www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/academicstaff/?id=10618 

Karen Kramer will introduce her film ‘Limulus’ where the narrator is a supernatural piece of marine debris. Navigating deep waters and deep time through the intricate networks linking humans, fish and machines, the work explores technological aspirations, dependency and redundancy though the underwater journey of a jaded helium balloon. The film layers narratives of the extraction of Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) from the horseshoe crab with the mysterious sounds of deep water. http://karenkramer.eu 

Shelly Mobbs has an MSc in Physics from the University of Oxford and was leader of the contaminated land and waste advice group at HPA for over 20 years before joining Eden Nuclear and Environment consultancy in 2011. Shelly is a member of the Society for Radiological Protection and a Radioactive Waste Adviser.  She has over 30 years’ experience of radiation protection, performing assessments of the radiological impact of radioactivity in the environment and was a member of the ICRP Task group on radiological protection criteria for deep geologic disposal and the Safegrounds steering committee. Shelly is currently working on radiological assessments of radioactively contaminated land for the nuclear industry and on biosphere modelling for the BIOPROTA Forum. She is a member of the MOD Independent Advisory Group for the Submarine Dismantling Project. www.eden-ne.co.uk 

Thomson & Craighead (Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead) will present ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter for representing the decay rate of a nuclear waste product to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons development and the production of energy through nuclear fission. The real-time numeric counter will be based on the probabilistic decay (including decay of daughter products) of nuclear waste identified by the artists. The display will countdown in years, days, hours, minutes and seconds, showing the time remaining before the given item of waste is considered safe to be returned to the environment. The animated object of contemplation will offer a live representation of time that far outstrips the human life cycle and provide us with a glimpse into the vast time scales that define the universe in which we live in, but which also represent a future limit of humanity’s temporal sphere of influence. http://thomson-craighead.net/

Mark Aerial Waller has continued to examine nuclear contexts since presenting his film Glow Boys in the Atomic exhibition in1998. His sculpture The Rutherford Experiment of Rutherford/Geiger/Marsden discovery of atomic structure brings a consideration of sub atomic matter into the field of fine art. Positively charged alpha particles were fired at a piece of gold foil, whilst many passed through, others were deflected by the foil demonstrating that the atom is comprised of a nucleus with a relatively large gap between it and the electrons around it. In contrast his film Midwatch, developed from interviews with atomic veterans, is set aboard a battleship recently returned from the 1950s British nuclear tests off Australia. A mutineer from the tests and a time travelling caterer from Nelson's fleet remain onboard. A battle of wills ensues between the two, as Nelson's geographic progress to power is set against the nuclear bomb tests of the 1950's; a collision between a barely remembered Imperial omnipotence and a barely understood technology of nuclear manipulation. www.markaerialwaller.com

Carey Young will discuss Legacy Systems, the photographic series she produced for the Atomic exhibition, 1998. The ‘space race’ represents an extreme point in the achievements of the twentieth century, not least as a zenith of faith in scientific progress. The Legacy Systems series traced this vision to the heart of contemporary Russia. Young – the first artist to visit the sites she photographed – portrayed these technological crown jewels as they lie stranded in the present, like the scatterings of an unruly time capsule. Removed from the familiar iconography of science fiction or Cold War paranoia, these little-seen giants of the 20th century imagination appear small and vulnerable, like the shock of celebrity glimpsed in the flesh. Young will relate this project to several of her recent works in a variety of media in which she uses scientific concepts to examine ideas of time, artistic freedom, identity and the avant-garde, and to propose experimental forms in copyright law. www.careyyoung.com

Susan Schuppli will present her film Time Lag searching for the first mention of Chernobyl in the International press. Today any database search engine will return the nuclear accident at Chernobyl when the date “April 26 1986” is input into its search parameters, whereas a microfiche review of Soviet (Pravda, Izvestia) and international newspapers from the same period reveals a time-lag of 19 days before the event registered publicly in print that a major nuclear accident had taken place. Although an orbiting American satellite took night-time images of the reactor explosion and meteorologists and scientists recorded extraordinarily high levels of radioactivity within days of the meltdown in Sweden and Germany, this information was not linked to Chernobyl for almost three weeks since Mikhail Gorbachev and the Central Committee largely withheld news of the disaster.

Z Richter-Welch joined The Arts Catalyst in 2012 with the organisation through her MA Cultural and Critical Studies at University of Westminster. Z studied visual art for a BFA, cum laude from Howard University in Washington, D.C., USA. She also has a background in the film industry as a writer, makeup FX artist and electrical practicals assistant. From September 2014 she teach on the Art and Society module at University of Westminster.

Lisa Haskel has developed the archive through a technology partnership with the University of Bournemouth Centre for Digital Entertainment, developing a set of computer-based tools that will enable and encourage art and science collaborations to adopt an Open Data strategy. Lisa is a programmer, system administrator and teacher with a background as an organiser of projects in the media arts field.

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Arts Council England


Image of American Progress, (circa 1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a school book. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation.  The painting is widely cited as an allegory of Manifest Destiny – the 19th C American belief that settlers were destined to expand through the continent.