“How can we contain some of the deadliest, most long-lasting substances ever produced? Toxic remnants from the Cold War remain in millions of gallons of highly radioactive sludge, thousands of acres of radioactive land, tens of thousands of unused hot buildings, and some slowly spreading deltas of contaminated groundwater. Governments around the world, desperate to protect future generations, have begun imagining society 10,000 years from now in order to create warning monuments that will speak across time to mark waste repositories.” Thus opens the award-winning documentary, “Containment,” (2017) directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss.
Yet as early as 1992, the United States started collecting interdisciplinary teams (well before “interdisciplinary” became a key word), to visualize and design material communication scenarios for a deep nuclear waste repository in New Mexico known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). “The Sandia National Laboratories charged a panel of outside experts with the task to design a 10,000-year marking system …” The message: IF YOU STAY HERE YOU WILL DIE. To date, there are no viable material solutions anywhere in the world.
It is estimated that languages deteriorate at the rate of 95 percent over the course of 10,000 years. Explicit to the terms of the nuclear marker communication system is that the message must not rely on words. Instead, a continuous durational material system must be designed. It is thought that this material system must include an immersive environment, a social ritual, and a way of evolving a linguistic message that the body can understand through experience. In other words, design, science, art, language, and technology must converge into a mesh of interwoven materiality to articulate an intractable ecological, human condition that will exist with certainty in all possible uncertain global futures.
During the semester, the studio partnered with Just Moms STL, a nonprofit group uniting against a radioactive waste site in their community of West Lake in Bridgeton, Mo. Students were paired with members of the community, people whose lives are immediately affected by the burial of nuclear waste. These ethnographic encounters formed the spine along which research and design for each material narrative emerged. Final projects took the form of immersive installations and video trailers.
This studio was supported in part by a 2018–2019 St. Louis Project Grant from the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, Washington University in St. Louis.