Monday, November 9, 2015

Abbey Hepner

Abbey Hepner investigates the human relationship with landscape and technology. She considers issues related to population growth, man-made disasters, as well as the complex and often contradictory roles surrounding technological progress. She addresses psychological motivations existing in the gray area between political extremes and morally complex subjects. Her work illuminates the increasingly common use of health as a currency. Hepner holds bachelor’s degrees in Art and Psychology from the University of Utah and is currently in her final year of an MFA program in photography at the University of New Mexico.

Interview conducted by: Laura Addison A curator at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and previously at the New Mexico Museum of Art. She is also an independent writer on contemporary art and photography.

Laura Addison: Through several of her recent projects, Abbey Hepner has interrogated the nuclear industry, whether photographing decommissioned plants in Germany or making environmental portraits of an anime-like “nuclear mascot” in Japan in the months following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant disaster. She subsequently journeyed to various sites in the United States that send their nuclear waste to southern New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and printed those photographs as uranotypes, a 19th-century uranium-salt-based technology that tests viewers’ comfort zones while viewing landscape imagery that carries the threat of contamination. In her final series, Control Room, Hepner gained access to the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant and the surrounding rural Georgia community to examine the nuclear industry’s “renaissance” in spite of stories of disaster and contamination.

It’s no accident that you chose to pursue your graduate studies in New Mexico: birthplace of the atomic bomb, home of the first atomic bomb detonation at Trinity Site, and final resting place for the nuclear industry’s waste at WIPP. Can you talk about your decision to journey to some of the significant sites of nuclear history, among them New Mexico and Japan? What have you learned about place and landscape from these encounters?

Abbey Hepner: I created my first project on the topic of nuclear energy in Germany at the height of the decommissioning of nuclear power plants across the country. I was interested in what the landscape becomes after the towers fall and the buildings become inoperable. The industrial landscape is suddenly rendered impotent, but the land often remains dangerous for decades. Creating this work in Germany opened my eyes to many problems with nuclear energy that I wasn’t aware of before. It made me conscious of how misleading many U.S. news sources are, especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown. That shift in awareness inspired me to investigate various facets of the nuclear energy industry.

In 2013, I volunteered in the Japanese disaster zone that was left from the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Eisenhower’s Atoms For Peace Program in the 1950’s helped build Japan’s nuclear energy industry and so I was really interested in how my own culture as an American had influenced Japan. Nuclear propaganda in the U.S., with cartoons such as A is for Atom or Astro Boy, always seemed strange to me. Just as bizarre, I discovered that each of Japan’s nuclear plants had their own cute mascot characters. This led me to create my own fictional nuclear mascot that I photographed in different situations that referenced current nuclear concerns in Japan. In an act of public art intervention, I had an image of the character screened on a digital billboard in Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. In this photograph the character points out at the crowd of onlookers and then back at himself, raising a question about the role of media and propaganda in manmade disasters.

After coming back from Japan, I moved to New Mexico for graduate school. I left a place fresh with wounds from the nuclear industry and moved to a place filled with scars from it. I had gained a heightened sense of discomfort while in Japan. Many people are concerned about radiation but it’s extremely taboo to talk about it. I never knew if the land around me, or the food I ate was contaminated. I constantly discounted my own fears because I was another pair of hands to help and ultimately I could return home to a place I believed was safe. Newly immersed in the dry desert of the southwest, I started to question this illusion of safety. I realized that I had spent my entire life unknowingly living near nuclear sites that were filled with radioactive waste.

I love the work of artists like David Maisel, who takes beautiful aerial photographs of toxic landscapes. They are hauntingly alluring but they always suggested to me a certain otherness. In their grandiose scale and the nature in which they are made, they remained at a safe distance. What I feared was not the toxicity that appeared visibly contained within the borders of a photograph, but the invisible toxicity that existed in my backyard. The mundane and easily dismissible sites that have become a part of our modern life. I attempted to capture this anxiety in the series Transuranic. This is a series of 13 Uranotypes, an archaic photographic process that uses the radioactive chemical uranium instead of silver, from all the sites in the western U.S. that ship radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is the nation’s only underground repository for radioactive waste. I traveled to each of the sites, documenting the locations and tracing the routes that radioactive waste is transported across our country on. In Transuranic I examine the citizen’s view of radioactive waste sites and their existence in the banality of everyday life.

Through these projects I have learned about the importance of going and bearing witness. I am increasingly aware of the connections between history and place and how often we repeat our mistakes. In February of 2014, an accident at WIPP forced it to shut down. Our nation has no solutions for the containment of radioactive waste and yet we are now in the nuclear renaissance, beginning to construct more nuclear plants. Two new nuclear energy reactors are currently being built at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, the first to be built in over 30 years. Interested in these issues, I spent time in Georgia photographing the residents, plant workers and inside Plant Vogtle. I was genuinely interested in the community and the influx of thousands of temporary workers constructing the plant.

LA: What do you see as the connective tissue among your various series? There seems to be more at play than nuclear legacy.

AH: I am interested in the human relationship with landscape and technology. I examine our demands on technology and the result when it fails us. In an ever-increasing technological world we rely less on nature and less on each other. Our health is often the currency in these transactions. My own cognitive dissonance plays a big role in my work, I love technology and I demand far too much of it. I am also fascinated by nuclear history and many of my closest friends are nuclear engineers. Ultimately, I aim to provoke the viewer. Through humor, absurdity and confrontation, I encourage an examination of subject matters that are often taboo.

LA: How has your background in psychology informed your artwork, if at all?

AH: My examinations come from concern about health but I am also interested in why people believe the things they do. In addition to provoking my viewer, I am also interested in rescripting mediums and experiences. “Imagery Rescripting” is used in cognitive behavioral therapy and uses imagined images to intervene on traumatic memories. I often choose my medium in an act of rescripting. For example, using a billboard to critique media and propaganda in Nuclear Mascot or using the radioactive element uranium to create prints in Transuranic. By rescripting, I suggest that it is not the material itself that is the cause of evil but the hand that controls it and I attempt to alter its pathology. This seems like a natural evolution, as I worked in a cognitive psychology research lab for years studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

LA: Your recent experiments with bioluminescence seem to be a departure from your photographic series. Can you talk about this series and the ways in which you use technology as process and subject matter?

AH: My primary artistic mediums are electronic art and photography. They are both tools in which I investigate the human relationship with the landscape and technology but they also speak to my fascination with light and electricity. Nuclear Illuminations is a series of biological street lamps. One street lamp is made with bioluminescent algae and two path lights are made with bioluminescent bacteria. The lamps have servos in them and they are connected to microcontrollers that are activated when nuclear-related keywords appear on Google and Twitter. The bioluminescent organisms illuminate when the microcontrollers trigger the servos and the liquid is agitated. Viewers see the biolights illuminate when the online conversations are active and they can also participate in the conversation on twitter and see the result in real-time.

After the Fukushima accident, scientists had discovered green microalgae in the waters around the plant. That strain of algae has the ability to accumulate radioactive nuclides including iodine, strontium and cesium, from water and soil in the heavily contaminated area in Fukushima. Algae may be one of nature’s ways of remediating the damage that has been caused by the nuclear disaster. After working with toxic chemicals in photography I wanted to create a project using organisms that remediate the environment. Once again I am thinking about methods of rescripting in terms of process. Technology plays a role in using virtual conversations to trigger the biological light. I am suggesting that perhaps we heal through conversation and through demanding transparency when it comes to our health.

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