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Jessica Holtaway
October 19, 2021

Making Space for beauty to land

Dr. Jessica Holtaway interviews Tim Andreae, artist / activist responding to a site of nuclear waste near to his home in Idaho, USA.

In August 2021, Tim and I met in digital space to discuss his work as an artist and activist.  Since 2013, Tim has been creatively responding to a site of nuclear waste near to his home in Idaho, USA. We discussed the ‘teachings’ of living alongside and with nuclear contamination.

Image 1: Tim looking into a hot cell (a protected enclosure) on the Idaho National Laboratory tour in 2014. Photograph courtesy of DOE (Dept. of Energy)

The Snake River flows through southern Idaho and into the Columbia River in Washington.  Beneath the river’s plain is a huge reservoir of groundwater, providing water for public use.  However, in the 1950’s and 60’s, plutonium contaminated waste from bomb making was buried in unlined pits directly over the aquifer. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s the Idaho National Laboratory (a nuclear research site) used injection wells to flush low-level radioactive waste into the aquifer.  Over the last 15 years, a project to remediate the buried waste has been underway. But what will be “remediated” is just a fraction of the total material and the plutonium that is left in the ground will remain toxic to the environment for 250-500,000 years. Despite the careful and methodical nature of this work, the dynamism and vibrancy of the waste itself is ultimately immune to human power.  How can we begin to comprehend, and respond to, the magnitude of this environment?

Images 2 and 3: drawings by Marc Allen Herbst, part of the publication ‘Under The Reactor’ part of ‘Holding What Can’t be Held’ 2018, in association with the Snake River Alliance

“There’s the potential for it to be a kind of grounding point,” explains Tim. “There's been so much rapid growth here [in Idaho] … a real population explosion which carries with it a lot of unsettledness. I feel it myself. It’s hard to sit with our world’s current realities. But when we consciously choose to suffer what is here instead of being distracted, we ground ourselves. It’s the last thing anyone wants to do, but the alternative is to forget, transcend, disconnect, become more ghost-like. And so, I have been seeing [working on and with the site] as a way to come back down to earth, to my own woundedness, to those places in me I’d rather not sit with. I see the contemplation of this contaminated ground as an offering to the unsettledness. After all, there’s no getting around it. It reminds me, ‘I am here. I am of-the-earth.’” For Tim, the more we see the natural world around us as animated, as ‘alive’, the less we are inclined to objectify it, instead becoming more receptive to lived experiences within these spaces and the need for care.  

Image 4: Idaho National Laboratory digging at the Accelerated Retrieval Project. Photograph courtesy of DOE (Dept. of Energy)

Tim’s current project ‘This Digging is Soulful Work’ is a crowd funding campaign to pay for workers who are “remediating” the buried waste at the INL to put down their tools and engage in a day of reflection together. “The gesture I wanted to make, is an attempt to insert some kind of pause,” he says. “For at least two hundred and fifty thousand years, this ground will have to be monitored… Can we just have a moment?” Nevertheless, there are barriers to the success of this project, not only in terms of funding, but in the uneasy relationship between the site and the visiting artists.  Tim has gotten the sense that “the site doesn't want to be engaged with”.

As an activist and board member of The Snake River Alliance, a local nuclear watchdog group, Tim feels that this problem of waste “challenges us to find ways of engaging other than just action.” Retreating from the urgency, from the need to find a human solution to a more-than human power, can itself open up a space for deeper understanding. The scales of time that come to light through this nuclear waste are hard to grasp, and yet, for Tim, there is a poignancy to this shift in our awareness – an intensification of the sense of being alive right now.  

This approach chimes with Tim’s broader curatorial role, as founder of ‘Holding What Can’t Be Held’, an arts program in which artists tour the radioactive ‘clean-up’ sites at INL and then reflect on and respond to the experience slowly - for at least a year - participating in meetings and workshops throughout that time. He describes the works in ‘Holding What Can’t Be Held’ as “a byproduct of holding the mind-bending time frames and impossible conundrums that go hand in hand with nuclear waste. As I see it, the waste itself is a teaching and the project attempts to create a culture that holds what can't be held.”

Image 5: Tim speaking at MING Studio for 'Holding What Can’t Be Held' 2019. Photograph: Uli Westphal

The word ‘holding’ is significant. To ‘hold’ is to grasp something, to support it or carry it in one’s hands. To hold a place and a history is, Tim reflects, to “live with the woundedness of our landscape as an externalization of something inside that hasn't been reflected on… Sometimes I think of “contamination” as a form of unprocessed pain – psychic or emotional pain that's been disregarded to the point that it appears before us as something solid – as part of the physical world.” Audiences, as much as the participating artists, are participants in this ‘holding’.  Rather than aiming for blockbuster success, Tim takes a cue from the waste itself and sets his sights on the long game. The value of ‘Holding What Can’t Be Held’ “is with those who are holding.” The “emphasis is on a few people being touched deeply”.

Image 6: Tim performing ‘ARP!!! (Advanced Reception Project)’at 'Holding What Can't Be Held' 2018. Photograph: Uli Westphal

Throughout our conversation, Tim refers to ‘the nuclear waste in our backyard’. There’s something chilling about a “radioactive backyard” – an acknowledgement of the ways, over the last 80 years, that nuclear fission has been embedded, often imperceptibly, within the everyday lives of people in Idaho and beyond: from wart-removal to health crises; from radioactive office spaces to the branding of potato chips. The phrase also carries a sense of the unreal or absurd, as if the clean, kitsch, shiny advertising of the 50s nuclear dream still dazzles us, leaving fuzzy sunspots in our understanding of our nuclear cultural heritage.

I’m curious about the role of artists in responding to nuclear waste sites, of which there are many across the globe.  We discussed the role of artists in responding to ‘crises’ of our time.  For Tim, acting from a place of urgency is often problematic.  “Everything is lost in the urgency of crisis,” he explains. “I guess when you're in survival mode, there is no space for beauty to land… when you act out of urgency, one crisis leads to the next.”  For example, the burial of nuclear waste at the INL was an action driven by the urgency of the Cold War, which has resulted in billions of dollars spent in remediation and the fact that there will now always be the threat of contamination lingering above the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 Idahoans.

Tim understands the remedial digging at the site as an opportunity to feel grief and pain, alongside beauty.  Perhaps beauty is possible only through the tenderness of grieving, of understanding the intertwining of loss, recovery and care. If this is the case, the role of artists is surely to share in and communicate this experience, to extend the space and time given to understanding. Of course, ‘crisis’ exists, in the sense that we live in an intense time of difficulty, but can we subvert the idea of crisis to find more space for understanding and a different sense of agency? From Idaho to Fukushima, and from the UK to Chernobyl, artists continue to work with stoicism and resolve to ‘make space for beauty to land’ and invite us to collectively reflect on our nuclear heritage.

note; * In his own work and understanding Tim offers acknowledgement to his teachers: Martín Prechtel, Joanna Macy and Hayao Kawai.