THIS PLACE IS A MESSAGE

Camille Altay

May 3- June 30

It’s usually the case that the most important questions are the most unanswerable ones. They provoke the greatest quantity of answers. Asking doesn’t always mean answering. Asking can be a call to action in the face of a failure to answer.

The field of “nuclear semiotics” began at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a deep geological repository constructed within a salt bed in New Mexico for the purposes of isolating the growing amount of transuranic waste from US nuclear defense programs. The site is a government-sanctioned ambivalence of glacial proportions. In 1981, a committee convened there to develop long-term messaging systems for nuclear waste, to communicate to anyone who might come upon the site as long as the material remained dangerous - within or beyond a period of 10,000 years. The teams of researchers came up with everything from pictograms of Munch’s The Scream, to genetically-engineered glowing cats, to hostile land art. In the end, the committee only agreed to one message, to be posted in the 6 official U.N. languages, despite the fact that any language is unlikely to survive 10,000 years. The title of this show comes from it’s first line:

This place is a message... and part of a system of messages ...pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.

What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

To date, no signs exist at the site. Perhaps because it’s clumsy - in any language. It seems troubled yet unapologetic, abjected yet self-aggrandizing, presumptuous, curt and yet excessive in it’s failure to describe the materiality of the threat. Pay attention to this place. Be repulsed by this place. “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture,” and our deadly waste will be our longest-lasting monument. It will continue to mark us, and you, whoever you may be, for hundreds of generations. The form of the danger is “an emanation of energy.” It is formless, like a haunting. Yet it is “of a particular size and shape.” This counterintuitive message seems to shout nonsense, with due diligence, into the void.

For me, the unanswerable meets the absurd where language fails to approach materiality. This waste is neither yours, nor mine, but it is ours. How can we expect to answer this absurdity, or claim it? Have we, you, they, failed? Have we, you, they failed us? What would it mean for this message, or this place, to succeed?

Camille Altay, 2019