By nature, presenting information visually involves simplifying: cleaning up complicated data sets or bits of information, so you can more clearly demonstrate a main point.
For example, while a chart of stock prices might show that a company is doing well and it might provide the context of related events (such as the recession), some elements that have affected that stock price are left out: a very warm winter, speculation, political strife in a competing company’s country, and so forth.
The act of presenting information visually can, ironically, obscure information — for the sake of making that information more easily digestible.
Atomic Surplus, a brand-new interdisciplinary exhibition at Santa Fe, NM’s Center for Contemporary Arts, is a reaction to streamlined visualizations. In this case, the National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored exhibition shows how our nuclear legacy has shrunk to be much smaller visually than is demanded by the magnitude of the subject matter.
For most people, the atomic bomb is captured in a few bleak images — lab-coated Manhattan Project scientists, a mushrooming test detonation over the New Mexico desert, Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffering in black and white, cooling towers of nuclear power plants, ubiquitous atomic symbols — that don’t come close to telling its elaborate history, nor ensuing legacy. Indeed, the arms escalation led not only to immense human and physical destruction, but also to universal reflection, that at least made people consider the legitimacy of the enormous power we wield.
“I wanted to complicate our nuclear legacy with more images in order to deepen our questioning of it,” Erin Elder, CCA Visual Arts Director and Atomic Surplus’ organizer Erin Elder told Visual.ly, as the crew bustled to finish setting up the exhibition. “It’s not just the bomb and pro or anti war, it’s about the environment, waste management, clean power — it’s more complicated.”
For Elder, this meant including not only documentary images but also artistic interpretations of a series of events that had the world at the edge of its collective seat.
Black and white photos of scientists provided by the Los Alamos Historical Society share space with artist Nina Elder’s graphite and radioactive charcoal drawings of the first bomb, nicknamed “The Gadget,” and the ensuing fissure it left in landscape.
Luca Zanier takes chromatic digital photographs of a Swiss powerplant that show the nuclear-powered future depicted in nuclear power ads from the ’50s and ’60s (shown above) to be a reality of the present.
Bettina Samson replicates an experiment by physicist Henri Becquere that shows how uranium can develop photos without light — in Samson’s case, photos that look a lot like constellations in our universe. The Center for Land Use Interpretation offers a series of landscape photos of areas in our country where nuclear waste is stored above ground.
“Artists are really good at translating complex ideas visually and leaving a lot of room for interpretation,” Elder said. “Art is a great avenue for looking at complex issues, but it can’t tell you want to think or what not to think.”
The pieces come from many different places, in location, opinion and choice of medium. For example, Japanese reggae band Rankin and Dub Ainu Band screens a video that deals with the legacy and the future of radiation in their country, while French photographer Eric Lusito captures the residue of the Red Army in places formerly part of the USSR. A series of workshops accompany the exhibition, as does film screenings of atomic-themed films like Dr. Strangelove.
Despite the abundance of media, visual and otherwise, every visual or design will surely leave out parts of the story. The trick is to figure out what’s most important to show.
Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe
Through Jan. 5, 2014
Photos by Ryan Villarreal
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at GigaOM. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.