In rural Hokkaido, in the town of Toyotomi, we are seated around a table with a group of dairy farmers that actively oppose nuclear power and the legacy of radioactive spent fuel that may, in the future, compromise the integrity of the land they farm. At once they rightfully question the intentions of an art project in relation to their livelihoods; one farmer decrees that this is a matter of life or death for him and not something that is to be used as we wish. This is important, for we must acknowledge these concerns and avoid the negative connotations of cultural appropriation. A connotation that evokes the colonial method of taking rather than learning from the grass-roots activity that has emerged out of necessity or long-term lived experience that need not concern itself with any notion of art.
This is not an issue to glance over with ease, such appropriation methods have long been brandished as tools to accrue ‘cultural capital’, which directly or indirectly may disregard these complex histories and origins, as if possessing an authority to speak on behalf of or flattening them with a reductive, singular perspective. In more simple terms, cultural appropriation can be understood as taking the form of something, removing it from its context and emptying it of meaning. With this understanding, it is important to consider this is not a chance encounter, or one that we have picked up to suit trend.
In 2015 we initiated a long-term project centred around the context of the Blackwater Estuary, Essex; the site of one of Britain’s earliest nuclear power stations, now in a decommissioned state under the management of Magnox Ltd. With the current proposal of a new nuclear power station that would be the first of it’s kind in the west, the site has also been identified for the storage of intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW) from additional sites from across the region, namely Dungeness and Sizewell. In view of this significant and dangerous possibility, the communities of the Blackwater Estuary have formed numerous protest groups that recognise the risks at stake here.
In a broader sense, the estuary also exemplifies a spectrum of energy production and consumption across a varied landscape, which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Around the periphery of the power station an off-grid community has existed since the end of World War II; stood along the shoreline from here, the horizon is lined with wind turbines that signal the beginning of the London Array, the largest operational offshore wind farm in the world.
Kuse Shigetsugu, the dairy farmer we had the pleasure to stay with in Toyotomi, urged us to ‘think global and act local’. The relationship between Japan and the UK’s nuclear activities foregrounds this sentiment. The UK reprocesses high-level nuclear waste (HLW) for Japan by vitrification, it is then returned by sea. What’s more Japan and the UK have signed a memorandum of understanding, which sees the possibility of Japanese reactors being built in the UK some point in the future, however probable this is we do not know. So the question remains, how can these issues be borne in mind whilst addressing the direct concerns within local communities? The UK and Japan are perhaps much closer than initially thought.
Art projects in this context can give a unique perspective of the site in question, offering insights into, and making visible, the legacy of nuclear culture and the possible futures that may lie ahead. The application of curatorial and artistic methods ‘in the field’ allows for a way to identify what is at stake in the area and the forms of knowledge that pass through as well as inhabit it. The first implementation of this method is currently explored within the context of the Blackwater Estuary, UK.