Lily Brewer's 'Weaponized Landscapes' Wins Marstine Prize for Outstanding Work in the Public Humanities

The contemporary, digital photographs are from Mary Kavanagh’s collection, from which we both selected to feature in the exhibition. The archival imagery is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, reprinted with permission by Kavanagh and reinterpreted in her videowork, Trinity3. The text was written by me.

 

Lily Brewer's 'Weaponized Landscapes' Wins Marstine Prize for Outstanding Work in the Public Humanities

Since the detonation of the Trinity Test in July 1945, the scientific and cultural consequences of weapons testing in the United States and those consequences’ international entanglements have been mapped and visualized by artists working at the intersection between physics, photography, and protest. My online exhibition, Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity [https://weaponizedlandscapes.com], focuses on the histories of the Trinity Test and its preparation leading up to July 16, 1945, for which photography played no small role. This exhibition showcases Canadian artist-researcher Mary Kavanagh’s videoworks that attend to the motivations and realities of visualizing protocols during the Trinity Test’s preparation and photography’s later role in public and cultural critique against ever-increasing nuclear armament.

 

For more than seven years, armed with a camera and a range of steely questions, Kavanagh has invited the site’s visitors to sit with her for a moment and talk about their motivations for making the journey to the memorial. Her interviewees recalled stories of duck-and-cover drills, experiences with radioactive cleanup, family members’ experiences with Cold-War-era weapons testing and deployment. These interviews highlight a variety of themes, such as American exceptionalism, radioactive toxicity, and environmental concerns, among others. Through video and text assemblage, she reinterprets the present-day realities of the dangers of nuclear armament and weapons testing around the world.

 

Together, she and I have selected a suite of videos and testimonies for the exhibition in order to make these grievances and observations available to a wide domain of nuclear and “post”-atomic scholars, photographers, artists, Downwinders and others affected by weapons testing in the United States Southwest. This suite recalls the methods enfolded in contemporary landscape photography’s history while speculating new, humanitarian futures that feature acute attention to civic complaint and conscientious responsiveness that underpin civic entitlements to space and wellbeing. The online exhibition can be found at weaponizedlandscapes.com. (The interviews are password-protected and not available for viewing at this time due to issues of confidentiality.) It features and plays at full length Trinity3, Kavanagh's two-channeled videowork featuring video-recorded interviews and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s archival footage of the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy”’s assembly, loading, and deployment leading up to July 16, 1945, at 5:30 am.

 

This online exhibition is the first iteration of Weaponized Landscapes’s publishing program that features photographic projects that reckon with militarized landscapes and their communities. Future issues of Weaponized Landscapes will concern environmental and humanitarian responses, speculative solutions, and imagined futures that emerge as results of weapons development and testing around the world.

 

While physical galleries have exhibited small showings of contemporary landscape photographers working within the fields of the bomb, not one of these exhibitions have been made available outside of small gallery spaces or even in permanent installations. And not one of these small showings has placed nuclear protest and civil resistance at the forefront. It is in this way that Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity is unique. As a public-facing and open-access resource, the online exhibition and introduction is a public resource for a popular audience concerned with how nuclear weapons and their deleterious environmental and social effects are protested by grassroots organizations, artists, and affected communities. Photographers and scholars in “post”-atomic studies have already applauded the possibility of such a resource because this resource compiles, curates, and reframes a collection of grievances and civil resistance efforts, historically and today.

My decision to make this resource public is informed by my work with open access and para-academic press, punctum books, where I have been associate editor for three years. On the importance and even necessity of open access, punctum’s founder and co-director, Eileen Fradenburg Joy has written that OA endeavors to "create the hospitable open conditions for its creative emergence, beyond what we think we know, in whatever forms it might take."

 

In a statement by Congressional investigators, it has been demonstrated again and again that

the greatest irony of our [previous] atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of Unites States nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people. 

In the context of Kavanagh and my exhibition, we make a gallery of undecorated casualties of an undeclared atomic war on small southwestern communities freely available and couched in scholarly, responsible, and creative interpretation. 

 

War is a fact of the past, present, and future. Artists, Kavanagh being only one of them, have used photography to contain, if only for a moment, the horrors of nuclear warfare. Other artists have interviewed workers along the atomic bomb’s pipeline; soldiers who perform in military theater; and Downwinders with stories of their stillborn births, the removal of dozens of malignant tumors, and worse. As I write, one state is actively firing upon the Zaporizka nuclear power plant in Ukraine, and the area around Chornobyl power plant is an active battlefield. The aggressor not only encroaches on its neighbor’s sovereign land and airspace, but its entitlements to that sovereignty, rights to life, and wellbeing. As institutions condemn the invasion of a sovereign nation and the risks to lives, it is hard to imagine, evaluate, or even act on the gravity of our individual and meaningful response in these so-called “unprecedented” times.

 

I have begun to develop a publication and online exhibition program under the title Weaponized Landscapes that draws from WL: Trinity’s themes in order to contour coherence with other weapons-testing programs and the photographers and artists that engage with those topics. Like the first edition, the broader program too will feature brief interceptions in the unfortunately evergreen domain of nuclear radiation, military overreach, unrighteous dominion over sovereign nations and states – moments that are historically defined and will always define the present and future.

 

My goals for Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity and onward are toward the maintenance and expansion of the website as a scholarly, historical, and visual resource, accessible to all. Its expansion would include further research and networking with artists, scholars, and museums and galleries whose work scrupulously investigates the effects of nuclear armament and weapons testing and the communities that bear the brunt. As an exhibition and publishing space, Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity is a blueprint that responsively and responsibly connects audiences of activists, political and historical scholarship, and artistic research directly to affected communities. My overarching objective is to work with artists who pose a conscientious regard toward suffering others, an objective that outlines scales of civil responsibility we all share. When acts of state-sanctioned violence are committed against others in our communities, we, as citizens and participants in the economy of image-making and critique, must be continuously committed to enacting critical practices that minimize harm in ongoing struggle and to eschewing previous understandings of such political frames as absolute principles. Weaponized Landscapes continuously expresses that these are, decidedly, not unprecedented times.

 

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