Fresh off the plane from New Mexico, Eve Andrée Laramée sat down at the Rail headquarters with Ann McCoy to discuss art, science, alchemy, and the nuclear legacy they share. Laramée’s upcoming exhibitions include: The Brain: Science, Art, Convergence at The Daejeon Art Museum and the National Museum of Science in Daejeon, Korea; Arc Across the Vortex at Art 101 in Brooklyn; Tracking the Cosmos at The Simons Center for Geometry and Physics Art Gallery, SUNY Stonybrook University in Stonybrook, New York.; Timing Place: Siting The Golden Spike at the Institute of Visual Arts, University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Art Collision at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Ann McCoy (Rail): Your work deals with the triadic relationship of nature, science, and art. Since graduate school your work has taken a trajectory, had a continuum. For example, your early salt installations like “Venusian Lagoons” (1983) evolved into saltwater batteries in the 1990s, then into a current project about a nuclear waste repository in the ancient Permian Sea salt formation. You’ve stated that your work explores how cultures use science as a device to construct belief systems about the natural world. The history of science merges with the history of the imagination, your Kepler project being an example. I know no other artist who explores the relationship of science to psyche. This sets you apart. Older scientific models like Kepler’s are brought forward into the realm of the new physics. I want to begin with your recent work on Kepler.
Eve Andrée Laramée: I’ve been focusing on that the last few weeks. You mention the correlation between science, imagination, and history. Kepler’s poetic imagination and envisioning of the mysteries of the world were ingredients of his science that weren’t edited out as subjective or irrational. My approach to making work, and certainly with the Kepler project, involves creating simultaneous, superimposed timescapes. This is also the case with my nuclear work, examining space and place throughout geological time, social time, and cultural time. The current Kepler project revisits ideas from an installation commissioned by the High Museum, “Instrument to Communicate with Kepler’s Ghost” (1994) on his treatise, Harmonices Mundi.
Rail: At the High Museum you inscribed Kepler’s diagrams on the skylights, and installed a telegraph device. Visitors could type messages to Kepler and send them aloft over copper wires to infinity. [Laughs.]
Laramée: [Laughing.] Well, hypothetically send messages to infinity. Recently, Alastair Noble asked if that installation was available for his show, Tracking the Cosmos. I said, “Sorry, you are about two months late. It was tossed into the dumpster when I moved out of my Williamsburg studio, but I have the documentation.” Moving out of a studio I had for 23 years was jolting, but ultimately provided an opportunity to rethink Kepler now.
Rail: Tell me about Harmonices Mundi.
Laramée: It was Kepler’s theory of the “harmonic music” of the cosmos and geometric relationship between the heavenly bodies. Polyphonic, really, was very Baroque. Kepler was both noetic and poetic, the most accurate observational astronomer of his time, yet also an astrologer and mystical cosmologist. With Harmonices Mundi, he was, in a sense, creating art and was driven by his imagination, as he falsified his own data to prove his theory. He also transformed music theory by introducing a harmonic, interwoven metaphor that he applied to celestial objects—the polyphonic music of the spheres. His work on polyhedrons and that famous diagram of nested platonic solids created a beautiful visual fiction.
Rail: Kepler’s weather astrology is really funny because he actually predicted the weather by using astrological transits. Saturn opposing Saturn means storms, Jupiter conjunct Jupiter sun, etc.
Laramée: One wonders if he actually predicted or if he believed he did. In my current project, his concepts are transformed by mapping another timeframe onto this historical work. Using photographs of the documentation of shadows of Kepler’s diagrams in the skylights that fell on the walls, I’m overlaying these in video, onto images from the Kepler Space Telescope, an instrument launched into deep space to look for Earth-like planets within “habitable zones.” A sardonic irony exists, as one of the reasons we are looking for Earth-like planets is because of our environmental crises. The current project combines the original poetics of Kepler with the Kepler Space Telescope mission, adding a third layer, the problem of orbital debris, space junk.
Fields of debris from various satellites, telescopes, and space probes surround Earth. There are more than 100 million particles polluting space. Since 1961 radioactive materials have been used in space exploration. Some of this has fallen back to earth, spreading radioactive materials. I’m looking at Kepler on metaphorical, historical, cosmological, and environmental levels. Contrasting the spectrum from his cosmos of harmonic interactions of objects in space, to the disharmony of colliding space junk.
Rail: Wolfgang Pauli was obsessed with Kepler. It’s interesting that you take Kepler and bring him into the present, as well.
Laramée: Kepler is important because he decentered the universe and stretched out the planetary orbits into ellipses. That’s a radical thing, decentering the world.
Rail: Kepler is interesting in another way too. He believed in the World Soul, an idea that’s coming back around. He also believed in divine ordinance and was a deeply spiritual man. We are seeing a lot of hubris in modern science, but I see a lack of hubris in your work—a reverence for nature that’s been missing in modern science.
Laramée: I’m deeply concerned with the environment and complex ecological systems. We’re sharing this world with so many other species and we’re taking them down with us. I don’t know about the World Soul, but if there is a spirituality embedded in my work, it is founded in respect of the systems of nature—call it paganism, pantheism, animism, or Shintoism. Our world is filled with organisms, stones, rocks, and trees and these are sacred. Other species have consciousness and they feel pain and pleasure. The world has become Homo sapien-centric, which is hubris. That needs to be decentered.
Rail: That’s interesting because Kepler didn’t believe in inert matter. He believed that matter had a soul. When I see your systems and movement between systems, I see a reverence for the subject matter that is quite different from cold scientific theory. You and I also share a relationship to matter that is quite disturbing. My adopted father died of cancer from working at Rocky Flats. I grew up in the shadow of Los Alamos. The first image I saw on a television set was in 1951, the mushroom-shaped cloud at Frenchman Flat in the Nevada desert.
Laramée: We were Cold War kids. Everyday reality included fear of nuclear war. I grew up very much aware of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and it was John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima, that politicized me to nuclear issues and shaped my ethics. Later, in college, I studied the history of science, and alchemy grabbed me because it integrated an understanding of matter and natural forces with the psyche and transformation. In 1980 I made my first work about the U.S. nuclear legacy. It was about the Church Rock uranium mill spill on Navajo land in Northern New Mexico. The mill tailings ponds spilled millions of gallons of radioactive slurry into the Rio Puerco. Navajo women herding sheep across this river developed radiation burns on their legs that would not heal. Sheep drank from the river, and people ate the sheep, spun their wool. Then babies were born with birth defects. Later came the cancer clusters—kidney, bladder, stomach, lung. This event happened in 1979, just a few months after Three Mile Island. Everyone knows about Three Mile Island, but the Church Rock spill remains socially and politically invisible, yet it was the largest radiological accident in U.S. history.
It occurred to me that nuclear weapons and power deploy dark, inverse alchemy. Elements high on the periodic chart, like uranium and plutonium, decay through their half-life “daughters” into lead—the basest of the alchemical metals.
Rail: This half-life is 4.47 billion years!
Laramée: Yes, over 4.47 billion years, uranium becomes lead. Inverse alchemy. The detonator pit of The Gadget, the first atomic weapon tested at the Trinity Site, was gold-leafed because the plutonium core had to be perfectly spherical to implode correctly. Gold transforming over time into lead; instead of lead into gold—more backwards alchemy.
Rail: The darkest point must be the Trinity Project. As the bomb goes off, J. Robert Oppenheimer quotes the Bhagavad Gita, the part where Vishnu becomes Nataraja, his dark form, the Destroyer of the Universe, the dark face of God. Oppenheimer says, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Laramée: Oppenheimer was ethically, morally, and spiritually haunted to the point of mental illness after the Trinity test and use of atomic weapons. Immediately after his quote, the test director, Kenneth Bainbridge, said to Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches:” an interesting, perhaps misogynistic, counterpoint. Atomic Age alchemy—working for death rather than life.
Rail: Can we move back to alchemical gold? Tell me about Dehlia Hannah’s curatorial project, The Golden Spike.
Laramée: Dehlia’s show addresses the Anthropocene by examining the ways artists and scientific stratigraphers define the pivotal event—the “Golden Spike”—that triggered the current geological epoch where man has transformed the global environment on a scale recorded in the fossil record. Some artists pinpoint fossil fuels, or the invention of agriculture. I propose the Golden Spike is the atomic bomb tests at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945. The genie was let out of the bottle at that moment these atoms split, and there was no way to put that back.
Geologically, the bombing of Japan and thousands of nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War can be traced in Earth’s strata and detected in ice core samples from Antarctica, marking the Anthropocene. Radioactive waste marks the golden spike driven by the Trinity test that irreversibly changed the world. Nuclear war has not ended, it’s become a war on the environment—think of Fukushima or the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Middle East.
Rail: One only has to look at those photographs of the children of Fallujah with birth defects from depleted uranium courtesy of the U.S.A.
Laramée: It’s tragic. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program metastasized nuclear weapons into the nuclear energy industry. Nuclear power produces radioactive waste; the byproduct is energy. And we do not know what to do with this waste other than disposition it.
Rail: Going through your archives I found 10 projects dealing with nuclear waste. One is called “Halfway to Invisible,” about nuclear waste in the Four Corners (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah). I was born in a T.B. sanitarium for Navajo, where our doctor worked. As a child I certainly heard about Navajo women getting sores on their legs from nuclear waste, and Navajo men dying from lung cancer.
Laramée: “Halfway to Invisible” addressed these environmental injustices using interactive sculpture, video, documentary photos, and an archive of scientific papers. The installations are my way of visualizing information in a non-linear time-based mode.
For years I made work with alchemical apparatuses—the physical instruments of transformation. For example, with “Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions,” this vast labyrinthine installation’s final product was a tiny container of the salt of human sweat—the salt from the actual labor involved in making the work. What I was getting at is how scientific metaphors inform the way we contrive knowledge, how knowledge is embodied, and how it affects the world. It calls attention to both the function and dysfunction in science. “Halfway to Invisible” engages a different meaning of apparatus: political apparatus that operate invisibly.
“Halfway to Invisible” was commissioned by Emory University, an affiliate of the Center for Disease Control. The C.D.C. audience was more compelling to me than the art audience. During my research and fieldwork I took many road trips collecting data, photographing, talking to retired uranium miners, geologists, hydrologists, engineers. Nuclear matters in general are invisible due to the secrecy surrounding them, and radioactivity is invisible. My practice tracks and maps traces, creating an archive of the invisible.
The impact of radioactive waste on indigenous peoples around the world is ongoing. This project focused on the Southwest, where over 4,000 abandoned uranium mines exist. The people who worked in the mines and mills were exposed to and ingested radioactive materials on a daily basis for years. My research centered on the epidemiologic and genetic impacts on these workers, most of whom were from Laguna, Acoma, Zia, Zuni, and Hopi Pueblos, the Navajo Diné, Southern Ute, and Ute Mountain cultures. Further west, the Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone were significantly effected by the detonation of 904 above-ground nuclear bomb tests on the Nevada Test Site. These populations have higher rates of certain cancers. Radiation injures cells, and causes DNA damage and genetic mutations. Native peoples’ genomes have been altered. This is something to be reckoned with more robustly than monetary compensation through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. These damages need to be healed. Serious healing of the highest order.
Mining continues at many sites around the country, spreading a web of degradation—extractionary cowboy economics. Lucy Lippard’s new book, Undermining, expresses this complexity so beautifully. She starts out writing about the gravel on the road to her home in New Mexico, and expands to global ecological impacts of mining, then brings it back home again. Its trajectory is crafted like art, and as she says, it’s a wild ride.
Rail: I was thinking of my nuclear childhood, and the Southwest. Hiking near Los Alamos in Bandelier National Monument, we would always take canteens of fresh drinking water because we had this fantasy that radiation was leaking down into the arroyos. We were terrified that we were going to be killed by uranium. You said 55 contaminants are buried at Los Alamos in cardboard boxes?
Laramée: A lot more than that. Los Alamos National Labs (L.A.N.L.) admit to burying 21 million cubic tons of radioactive and toxic waste. Much of it in unlined pits in the arroyos, the water canyons. Okay, here’s a heavy dose of stats from the lab fact sheet: 2,100 contamination sites need remediation, including 26 vast Material Disposal Sites. Liquid radioactive wastes were poured into the arroyos throughout the lab property. And, 10,600 cubic meters of TRU waste—transuranic radioactive waste—are buried at L.A.N.L.. Through erosion and percolation, a plume of radiotoxins—uranium, plutonium, americium, polonium—drain down to the Rio Grande, contaminating the aquifer. Ancient fossil water. The plume creeps from Los Alamos towards Santa Fe; to Cochiti, San Felipe, Santo Domingo pueblos and beyond.
Rail: In ancient Greece hubris was punishable in the eyes of the gods. Too bad we don’t have Zeus to take out a few of these scientists with a thunderbolt!
Laramée: Since we’re on the topic of mythology, let’s talk about “Slouching Towards Yucca Mountain,” my project with the fictional time-travelers who discover radioactive waste repositories in the future and from the past. One of the characters is the Fukushima Psychopomp. I’ll be showing video on her at Art 101 in Williamsburg in October. During editing I was trying to wrap my head around the footage we shot of a shrouded woman in an old cowboy cemetery in the Mojave Desert. Her role was mysterious to me at the time. I was going purely on intuition. Fukushima happened in the midst of working on it. That’s when I realized the character was a psychopomp, the entity—
Rail: —that takes you into the Underworld after death.
Laramée: She guides souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead. When the Fukushima accident began, the news was flooded with thermographs of the reactor sites, beautiful images of the radioactive hotspots. They were spectral images. And I started thinking—spectrum, spectral, specter.
Rail: This underworld theme is echoed in another recent project focusing on Carlsbad, New Mexico, where all of this radioactive waste is stored in a salt dome. For me, this is one of your most interesting projects because it ties in with both the notion of cosmology and even a cosmogony.
Laramée: The project, “WIPP it Good: How Long is Forever?” is about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) which is located in the ancient Permian Sea, a vast salt formation 2,500 feet underground. The project is part of a larger social sculpture intervention, “NukeNOtes.”
Rail: Is this where you took these alternate fact sheets to national parks?
Rail: There’s a great photograph of you in a cowboy hat passing these out to tourists.
Laramée: I insert these brochures at the gift stores in national parks to distribute them. I am particularly concerned about WIPP and Carlsbad, because I’ve been a caver since the early 1980s—I know that underground territory.
Laramée: Yeah, lifetime member of the National Speleological Society—my science-geek side coming out again. I’ve seen beautiful, wondrous things underground. The Carlsbad karst topography is riddled with caves, sinkholes, and intermittent lakes. I think about the relationship between above and below, how activities on the surface impact what is below ground level.
Rail: How far is the storage site from Carlsbad Caverns?
Laramée: It’s 26 miles away. Close to the border with Mexico. WIPP was designed as a temporary pilot program, a test balloon—for long-term deep, geological storage of radioactive waste. Fifteen years ago they started storing TRU waste there. After Yucca Mountain in Nevada was decommissioned, WIPP became the only deep geological site for permanent Rad-Waste storage. This year on February 14, there were two releases of radiation into the atmosphere from WIPP. The government called them “puffs of plutonium.” What is a puff? The cause of the leak was that the Labs used kitty litter as an absorbent in the waste barrels. Hard to believe. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s a good example of what I call “fiction science.” It is significant hubris that a storage site that was deemed to last for eternity leaked 15 years later.
Rail: This Permian Sea is interesting for me symbolically because it is a womb of the earth. Salt in alchemy is often related to the feminine principle. Here you have a poisoned womb, and scientists who are unable to make the symbolic connection many indigenous people can. You have salt, an arcane substance, related to seawater. And this seems to relate back to a lot of your older work where you have a relationship between salt, seawater, and blood.
Laramée: I’m glad that you asked about that because I think that is what really captivated me about the WIPP site. We are putting poison in the ancient Permian Sea. This is a sacred space. It’s the ancient Permian Sea of the Earth! The arrogance of the atomic priesthood to do such a thing is outrageous. There’s a notion of the sting of salt that James Hillman writes about, and in tears being saltwater, our blood being saltwater. The ocean is in our veins. Salt heals wounds. Salt is used in the preservation of food, sustenance. Sal, the Latin for salt, is the root of the word salary.
Rail: In alchemy salt also represents learning through suffering, bitterness.
Laramée: Bitterness is historically associated with medicine. Salt also purifies. It’s been put to use to bless altars, sacred spaces. After blood was used to sanctify places, salt was used. I’m also thinking about magic—salt is used to inscribe sacred circles, a protective place.
Rail: You talk about how natural phenomena and the poetics of science are primary sources in your work, in the effect of forces upon matter and the changes in matter from one state to another. That’s your own form of alchemy. The alchemist felt that a process that happened in nature could take thousands of years, but in the alchemical laboratory, the same process could happen overnight, that’s what the alchemists called the “Art.”
Laramée: Yes, it’s alchemical art. And my fascination with wonder and a love of beauty is why I’m not driven into despair dealing with dark nuclear matters. And I’m actually a very optimistic and hopeful person and I believe in the future. That’s why I’ve worked in education over 25 years. I care deeply about future generations. We all belong to this imperfect world, with its light and dark aspects. The power of art is that it transforms people’s lives. It’s not about art-world politics and money, and the validation that comes with all of that. Artists participate in the world on personal, social, and cultural levels, on political and ethical levels. Art has the power to transform consciousness. And that’s where my deep hopefulness comes from.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.