A room in Naarm is awash with orange and blue light, party tassel curtains hang from the ceiling beams. Four fans push air around the space making the curtains dance and shimmer, agitating the light so that it spreads through the room. Headphones contain the sounds of Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and English; stories of pain, loss, strength and resistance. In the corner, a desk invites visitors to play Atomic Mix’n’Match, a twisted game of nuclear universals overlaid on sites affected by the nuclear industrial complex. Seven ceramic balloons lie on the floor, cast in footage from Maralinga and Blade Runner.
Did you know that Blade Runner was set in November 2019? This show is an inhalation, calm and terrifying. It opens a space to contemplate a juncture in time, to consider Ridley Scott’s speculative future in relation to our current nuclear reality.
In August this year, seven artists and friends travelled to Maralinga on Anangu Country, South Australia. We shared histories of documenting, campaigning and working alongside communities who have been impacted by the radioactive chain – from uranium mining to nuclear testing and the ‘management’ of radioactive waste – in this continent and beyond. We set out to learn from those impacted by nuclear tests at Maralinga and the radioactive fallout that spread all across this continent.
In 1950, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies willingly accepted the British request for land to carry out their nuclear testing program. It was an honour to enable Britain to acquire nuclear weapons that would place them alongside the United States and Russia as a global power in this new nuclear age. Land in the South Australian desert was annexed by the British, renamed and rebranded as Maralinga. That name meant thunder in an Aboriginal language from far away. The Anangu word for thunder is tuuni. An imported name was one of the infinite impositions laid on this country.
The Anangu people were forced to leave, prohibited from caring for their Country, from living, visiting or performing ceremony (inma). In an affirmation and perpetuation of terra nullius (empty land), they were dispossessed and moved South to begin a new community at Yalata. Our group was hosted by some of that community at Yalata, who took us camping.
We heard their stories of sickness and survival. We learned that many people were not notified of the impending explosions, that paltry efforts were made by those in charge. Walter Macdougall, the Native Patrol Officer appointed by the Weapons Research Establishment to warn Aboriginal peoples of the testing, was given only ten days to cover 250 square kilometres in one land rover. He only spoke English. When MacDougall asked for more time to complete his impossible task, the response from Chief Scientist WAS Butement was that Macdougall was ‘apparently placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations’. The workings of radioactive colonialism were on full display.
The British testing program in Maralinga involved seven major tests and hundreds of ‘minor trials’ that sprawled plutonium across the ground and spread clouds of black mist and radioactive fallout, poisoning the earth and water. Anangu people and desert peoples from the North and West were exposed to the initial blasts and contamination. Soldiers and workers who were stationed and worked there without protective clothing were also exposed. Their bodies, too, were contaminated right through to their DNA. The earth, sky, water, plants, animals – not discrete entities but one – all became sick.
Within this nuclear reality whose lives are seen as disposable? Whose bodies are rendered collateral? We do not yet have fully functioning artificial intelligence, nor replicants built to carry out the domination and appropriation of invasion. However, colonialism and capitalism have seen to it that androids have been made of humans: dehumanised, worked, hunted and killed. The survivors of apocalypses and nuclear disaster exist and continue to resist.
What is so hard to describe or fathom about radioactive fallout is its time frame. Nuclear events unfold forever. The concepts of ‘before’ and ‘after’ a nuclear explosion are intangible: there is no access to the before, and the after will never arrive. How can we process the 24 000 year half-life of Plutonium 239? Who will be around in 250 000 years, the time it will take some sites of nuclear testing to heal from radioactivity? What footholds does the mind take when we consider this compared to time immemorial of custodianship that First Nations people have had with that same land?
We consider this in the thin wedge of time that is November 2019.
The artists wish to thank Anangu people for having us on their Country, especially to Mima Smart, Rita Bryant, Sharon Bryant and Russell Bryant who took us camping and granted us a safe trip to the place that has become known as Maralinga. Recordings in the show were made on Kokatha, Anangu and Maralinga Tjarutja lands. The gallery is on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to all Traditional Owners of these lands and recognise that sovereignty has not been ceded and that we are living on stolen land without a treaty.
Blade Runner was set in November 2019 was hosted by Kings Artist Run in Naarm (Melbourne) until 16 November.