Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach

Adam Sekuler, Karn Junkinsmith

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Adam Sekuler and Karn Junkinsmith, Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach (still), 2009.

Artist Cinemas presents Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach
Adam Sekuler, Karn Junkinsmith

Artist Cinemas
Week #3

June 28–July 4, 2021

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Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Adam Sekuler and Karn Junkinsmith's Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach (2009), streaming from Monday, June 28 through Sunday, July 4, 2021.

This short film is set in one of the most interesting places in the world, the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington. Here in this Disaster Eden (the dust of downwinders, lasers detecting the collision of black holes, the graveyard of nuclear reactors), the dancers, choreographed by Karn Junkinsmith, dance on a radioactive landscape photographed by Benjamin Kasulke.

The film is presented alongside an essay by Charles Mudede written in conversation with the director.

Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach is the third installment of Planet C, a program of films and essays convened by Charles Mudede, and comprising the seventh cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Planet C will run from June 14 through July 26, 2021, with a new film and essay released each week.

Disaster Eden Cinema: : Adam Sekuler and Karn Junkinsmith’s Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach
Charles Mudede

You will find few places in the US that are as singular as the Tri-Cities, which—like a proton, which consists of three quarks that are distinct but cannot be separated—are composed of three closely packed cities (Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland). The urban area as a whole is surban in appearance and located where three rivers meet (Yakima, Snake, and Columbia) in southeastern Washington State. One of the things you will find here, among the erratic boulders deposited by an unimaginably huge flood that, at the end of the Ice Age, came crashing down on what is now Washington State from what is now Montana (the Missoula floods), is one half of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)—the other half is in the woods of Livingston, Louisiana. Together, the two labs listen to the universe with lasers.

In 1916, the math in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity revealed the existence of gravitational waves in spacetime (the form of the recognizable, or unblurred, universe) produced by some unbelievably massive discharge of energy (two black holes colliding, for example). Almost a hundred years later (January 4, 2017), these long-predicted waves were heard by LIGO as a chirp. This confirmation was to be the second-greatest physics event of the previous decade. (The first happening in 2012 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and concerning a key particle of the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, which was mathematically revealed in the early 1960s[1])

The observatory in the Tri-Cities that contributed to the hypothesis-to-theory transformation of gravitational waves is in Hanford, a nuclear waste site that is a part of Richland. This city owes its entire existence to a US government project that began in 1943 with the goal of producing plutonium. Before that date, it was merely a farm; after, a secret city that eventually grew to 50,000 souls. On August 9, 1945, Hanford’s plutonium was used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, instantly killing 40,000 people. The site was picked because it appears to be in the middle of nowhere and is next to a powerful river, Columbia, which owes its shape and size and force to the ancient Missoula floods, which, by the way, happened around the time the body of a man ended up in the mud there and did not resurface until 1996. We call the remains of this person (dead for around 10,000 years) the Ancient One or Kennewick Man. (Kennewick is the largest city in the Tri-cities.)

The Columbia River cooled the reactors, and the radioactive waste from this industrial process was either just pumped into the ground directly or stored in the ground in flimsy containers that have been leaking into the river for decades.

In the year that many consider to be the last of the twentieth century, 1989,[2] Hanford became a superfund site. The bold plan was to clean up the mess (53 million gallons of waste in 177 buried tanks) once and for all. This plan, however, is still a plan today. There has been talk about moving the radioactive waste into the heart of a mountain, or transforming it to glass (vitrification), but it’s still just there as is—still leaking into the river, still poisoning a city that also has a graveyard of nuclear reactors.

Today, Hanford is one of the great Disaster Edens of the world. True, it doesn’t have the star-power of Chernobyl, which boasts a movie before it even happened, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and a miniseries streamed by HBO a little over thirty years after it happened, Chernobyl (2019). But Hanford also has animals and plants[3] that have adapted to the super-toxic environment. As I wrote in 2010:

“This place is still dangerous, but evidently not dangerous enough for wildlife. What's more dangerous for animals than radioactive waste left by humans? Humans themselves. This is the real horror. Despite all of the radioactive waste out there (over 50 million gallons of it), it's not as toxic to animal life as humans are. Nature can deal with the externalities of plutonium production, but it cannot deal with humans and their ceaseless activities, their unending desires, their golf courses, wineries, boat races, multiplexes, giant hotels, thirsty lawns, and so on and so on.”[4]

Hanford’s pre-existence (unlike Chernobyl’s) did not capture the imagination of a great pre-war American director; and because its catastrophe was gradual (and its explosion happened elsewhere), it will certainly never find its way into the streams of HBO. Hanford is condemned to be a feature film that’s been brewing in my head for a decade (called Not Even a Satellite[5]), and a beautiful short film by Adam Sekuler and Karn Junkinsmith (called Hanford Reach).

“The film is part of a trilogy that basically investigated sites around Washington that had been impacted or destroyed in one way or another by the state,” says the director Adam Sekular, who now lives and teaches in New Orleans. “Hanford was an obvious choice for this trilogy because, as we all know, this was the place where the state produced the materials that were used in the nuclear bomb, the Fat Man, dropped on Japan. So, I was interested in the fact that, again, here's the state coming in to take over an entire town—displacing people, poisoning people, and putting people into use for a big energy project.”

The clock starts. The dancers, directed by Karn Junkinsmith, enter the one and only frame set by the cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke. Two of the dancers are in hazmat suits; two are dressed in black. One is D.K. Pan, a Seattle artist with roots in butoh. He is in the center of this work, much like the proton is at the center of an atom. The other dancer in black, Fae Phalen, is evidently the neutron. There is the rustle of the wind, which is famous in these parts for having, over the decades, carried radioactive dust from Hanford to area towns, ranches, and cabins in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the dangers of plutonium. The contaminated humans became known as downwinders.

Also in the shot is Snake River. It’s on its way to the Columbia River. There is also, in the distance, a farmhouse, which in my imagination looks like the one the state purchased to create Richland, America’s first fully nuclear city. The other dancers (Monica Gilliam, Jenna Veatch) who enter and exit a frame are the electrons. They buzz around the strong-force-locked proton and neutron. These are the elements of an atom dancing on an atomic disaster.

[1] Because this particle has a fundamental symmetry-breaking function, it is called the God Particle.

[2] “The 80s were the end of a world. Its hours and days detailed the sunset of the 20th century, which opened in 1917. The 19th century, which ran from 1789 (the French Revolution) and closed with the end of the First World War and the birth of the Soviet Union, was the platform from which the dreams and nightmares of 20th century were launched. These dreams and nightmares, rocketed by the newly established super powers, each imagining itself to be “the legitimate heir”# of the 19th century, came to end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall—an event that was accompanied by other great events of that astonishing year: after 27 years of imprisonment, the process of releasing Nelson Mandela was initiated; the first bursts of the Japanese bubble began to let the air out of the economic giant; after invading in 1979, the Soviets complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan; the Tiananmen Square massacre; the assassination of King Tubby in Kingston, Jamaica; and much, much more.” Charles Tonderai Mudede, “The Black Elegance: Escape from the ‘80s,” After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration, (Museum of Monder in Warsaw, 2017), 193-198.

[3] Harry Shukman writes: “The world beyond the apocalypse may not be so great for humans, but for the other denizens of the planet it looks like a bonanza. Today there are around 5,000 adult wild boars in the Chernobyl Zone. In 1995 there were many more, but they suffered an epidemic and have now stabilized. There are 25 to 30 wolf packs, a total of maybe 180 adults. Many more lynx live here than before, along with foxes, barsuks (a Ukrainian badger), hundreds of red deer, and thousands of roe deer and elk. Out of the disaster comes a paradise of wildlife. The Garden of Eden is regenerating.” Henry Shukman, “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden,” Outside Online, 2011 https://www.outsideonline.com/1924991/chernobyl-my-primeval-teeming-irradiated-eden

[4] Charles Mudede, “The Landscape of Irony Hanford Site is not just a radioactive catastrophe. It's an ecological paradise.” The Stranger, April 22, 2010 https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-landscape-of-irony/Content?oid=3899210

[5] Charles Mudede, “Not Even A Satellite: Notes on a Cosmic Motion Picture,” e-flux lectures, April 7, 2017 https://www.e-flux.com/video/152652/e-flux-lectures-charles-mudede-not-even-a-satellite-notes-on-a-cosmic-motion-picture-nbsp-nbsp/

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.

Accidents & Disasters, Choreography, Pollution & Toxicity, Environment, Landscape, Cold war
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is a filmmaker, curator, educator, and editor based in New Orleans. Screening in forums and film festivals throughout the US and internationally, his many alternative films strike a delicate balance between stylization and naturalism, creating a poetic and lyrical form of visual storytelling.

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