Supplement 2 — Susanne Kriemann and Eva Wilson

Exclusion Zones
Eva Wilson

O sun, you middle-aged star. For the past 4.567 billion years, you have been embroiled in a process of continuous nuclear reaction—one that will continue for about the same length of time, until the hydrogen fusion in your core has diminished, your outer layers expand, and you swell to become a Red Giant, and, in the process, swallow the planets closest to you, including, most likely, Earth.

The sun’s radiation, the symptom of its entropic decay, is the source not only of life, but also of time on Earth. Spiralling around our ageing star, we measure our lives in revolutions. Another ten or twenty revolutions from now, fossil fuels will be diminished and spent to the point of exhaustion. For the past few hundred million years, these fossils have harboured the energy of our sun deep under the pressure of the Earth’s mantle and in the heat of its core. These are the sediments of prehistoric organic matter that at one time basked in the spectral range of light that facil­itates photosynthesis (between 400 and 700 nanometres). This was long before organisms developed the ability to break down cellulose, which eventually prevented organic remains from sinking deeper toward the Earth’s core and fossilizing.

My coevals: we will never become fossils.

Today, the mechanics of extraction produced under the rule of a consumptive economy have excavated and brought to light—to the same nuclear light that formed them—the coal and oil and gas whose combustion sustains (and endangers) life on Earth. We live in a global economy of the sun, commodities’ creation running on radiation, burning up time, millions of years, in a century.

Nuclear reactor fuels have no solar source. They are the product of several supernovae, the input of explosive debris of Earth’s progenitor stars at the time of the planet’s formation. Whether the origin of radioactive energy is extraterrestrial, or rather forms the core of the planet itself, its astronomical make-up and inception is effectively indistinguishable.

The vast majority of energy consumed on Earth, however, is solar, stellar, as is the basis for the chemical reaction that caused the mass extinctions of the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) that initiated our current oxygen-based ecosphere. The spectral range of solar light visible to humans approximately matches the range of photosynthetically active radiation. Our eye responds to stimulation by electromagnetic radiation within this spectrum as perception of colour, while a plant’s pigments are able to convert it into chemical energy, releasing oxygen as a waste product: as the air that we breath, but also as a toxic polluter for the now extinct pre-GOE organisms. Underground, where there is no light, colour does not exist.

Some photosensitive carriers can record radiation beyond the limits of the visible spectrum: this is how the artist Susanne Kriemann was able to record autoradiographs of radioactive uranium from within a darkroom in a laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Some of the first dosimeters—personal film badges used to monitor cumulative radiation doses—were developed after scientists of the Manhattan Project realized that photographic film stored near to radioactive materials had been exposed (in both senses). The image conjured from the film indicated invisible gamma rays, X-rays, and beta particles that were shooting through the labs, through the scientists, and through time.

Uranium-235 has a half-life of 703.8 million years. Caesium-137’s half-life is approximately 30 years. Both isotopes are in a state of constant instability, decaying continuously into more stable elements. At the end of its long process of entropy, uranium becomes lead—an element that, in another time, made up the type metal that produced typographic print.

Uraninite, or pitchblende, is a radioactive mineral and ore that can be used to recover uranium and radium. Large deposits of uraninite were discovered in the Ore Mountains in Thuringia and Saxony in Germany as early as the fifteenth century. At the time, the leady, fatty black substance was deemed worthless and only retrieved from mine dumps when its oxidized colours were discovered as useful in the production of olive-green, grey, and ochre pigments.

Painters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used concoctions of oxidized uraninite mixed with fresh-egg tempera or oil made from local walnut crops to produce paintings that are radioactively contaminated: look at them and they will look back at you, not by means of the refracted sunlight glistening off their varnish in all the colours of the visible spectral range, but by the stealthy emanation of their own energies, radiating not just to your eyes, but through your clothes, your hair—and all the cells of your body.

In 2016, Susanne Kriemann joined a group of researchers: geologists and biologists from the University of Jena analyzing the quantities of toxic and radiating elements in the ecosphere of the fields surrounding the mines operated by the now defunct mining company SDAG Wismut (a Soviet-German stock company) in the Ore Mountains of the former GDR. Kriemann in turn was collecting the contaminated plants in order to use them in her photograms. Apart from uranium, the soil and vegetation from the former mining areas contain traces of lanthanum, ittrium, gadolinium, lead, copper, aluminum, argentum, vanadium, and other heavy metals and rare earth elements.

The long history of extraction and global dissemination of natural resources from the area ended abruptly in 1990 with the collapse of the nation states whose territorial and exterritorial claims to the land evaporated with them. Agriculture in the densely populated Wismut area has now made way for risky recreation grounds, and harvesting and extraction on the Gessen­wiese test field in in East Thuringia today serves the sole purpose of attempting to protect animals and humans from the dangers of its contamination. It is thought that safe human consumption of groundwater, soil, and air from the area will not be possible for another 100,000 years.

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About the Author

Eva Wilson is a writer and curator based in London and is currently working on a doctoral thesis at Freie Universität Berlin on the concept of virtuality and the virtual image in the nineteenth century. She is an editor for documenta 14 and was a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies BildEvidenz at Freie Universität. She was Director of Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, and a curator at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna. Installation views of Falsche Kamille, Wilde Möhre, Bitterkraut at RaebervonStenglin, Zürich, 2016

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