Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Gallery: Jamie Kruse & Elizabeth Ellsworth

Look Only at the Movement

Tommy Cash, driver of a transuranic waste shipment, at a rest stop on Interstate 25, Colorado. From Look Only at the Movement, 2013. [Courtesy of smudge studio]

Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us. If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.
— Jiro Yoshihara, “Gutai Manifesto,” 1956

What you do not see is the material itself: the vast quantities of spent nuclear fuel, uranium mine tailings, radioactive medical waste, and contaminated soil, debris, clothing, tools and equipment transported routinely along American streets, highways and railroads. As it crosses jurisdictional lines, this material bends political, economic and environmental realities around itself. It reshapes geologies and reconfigures landscapes now and into deep futures. And it does so almost entirely without notice. For 12 days last fall, we traveled routes taken by transuranic waste headed for burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, New Mexico, to see what it would take for two humans to acknowledge, and briefly move with, this most abject material. 

Seventy years into the Atomic Age, designers, engineers, governments and the public have not been able to adequately imagine or build infrastructures for the long-term containment of materials that are too dynamic to be named, or understood, merely as “waste.” The United States is currently processing, shuffling and storing nuclear byproducts at some 20,000 sites throughout the country. About 70,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel are held at power production sites in 33 states, an amount that increases annually by 2,000 metric tons. Another 13,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste is left over from weapons production and other military activities. You could say that high-level waste is “sheltering in place,” waiting for the first infrastructure — perhaps a deep geological repository like the cancelled Yucca Mountain project — capable of containing it for the span of time mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency: one million years. No such storage options are expected to be available for at least the next century. 

Less potent than high-level nuclear waste, but with a long half-life, transuranic waste is considered dangerous for 24,000 years. Since the 1940s, the U.S. has accumulated one million cubic meters of transuranic waste, mostly materials contaminated during weapons production. After being retrieved from legacy pits, trenches or temporary storage, and then processed, these wastes are queued up for shipment to WIPP, where they will be buried in a 250-million-year-old salt dome. This deep geological repository is expected to reach capacity around 2030.

Map and site key, Look Only at the Movement, 2013. Click image to enlarge. [Courtesy of smudge studio]

The nation’s four main routes for transporting transuranic waste — from sites as far apart as Washington, New York, California and South Carolina — converge on Highway 285 in southern New Mexico. We began our field research in Utah, visiting infrastructures and engineered landscapes that facilitate the movements of nuclear waste along interstate highways, including production sites as well as low-level waste storage facilities, uranium tailing piles, and earth and riprap mounds for shallow burial of contaminated tools and objects. We met humans who regularly move with nuclear materials, and interviewed a truck driver, a shipment tracker at the TRANSCOM office, and citizen monitors at the Rocky Flats Site near Denver. We encountered four waste shipment trucks and shared the road with them for short stretches. All told, we shot 20 hours of video on a car-mounted, wide-angle HD video camera, as well as 800 photographs and four rolls of Super 8 film.

The resulting exhibition, Look Only at the Movement, includes a three-hour, two-channel video, as well as photographs, graphic design, map, and written audience responses. Looking only at the movement of nuclear waste, we have tried to avoid the polarized discourses that often “cloak” nuclear materials, hoping to encourage new angles of civic exchange. We invite audiences to engage with contemporary material realities that are simultaneously of us, and far beyond us.

Editors’ Note

For related work on Places, see Infrastuctural Tourism, by Shannon Mattern, which discusses the project Repository: A Typological Guide to America's Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructures, also by Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth (smudge studio).

Look Only at the Movement premieres October 3, 2013, at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons the New School for Design, in New York City. In 2014–15, the exhibition will travel to the Santa Fe Institute of Art (Santa Fe, New Mexico), Center for Land Use Interpretation (Wendover, Utah), Rocky Flats Cold War Museum (Arvada, Colorado), and Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art (Reno, Nevada).

Field research for Repository and Look Only at the Movement was funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Share This Story


In Motion: The Experience of Travel

The Future of Mobility: Greening the Airport

I Watch Slacker to Read Austin in the Original

An Un-flushable Urinal: The Aesthetic Potential of Sustainability

Landscape Photography: New Visions, Part 5

RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (1)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I find this an intriguing but somewhat frustrating piece. Certainly nuclear waste is an important and often neglected issue, but paying attention only to its materiality kind of misses the point. It is the invisible radiation that makes nuclear waste not only deadly but ontologically terrifying. Kind of like the picture at the truck stop where the barrel-shaped nuclear waste containers are obscured by a tree, one wonders why the authors are deliberately avoiding looking at their subject. Perhaps, as they say, in order to avoid the "polarized" discourse, but here they do not even present the issues under debate: whether this material should ever have been created, who bears the responsibility for those past decisions, who shoulders the risks the material poses today, and how answers to those questions influence choices over what to do with it in the future.

As president of ADPSR (Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility), I too have inherited a connection to the issue -- ADPSR was founded in opposition to nuclear weapons. The risks of nuclear waste are part of the same Cold War nightmare as nuclear winter. On this side of the "polarized" debate the position dating back to the 1980s was to stop making more nuclear waste and find appropriate and renewable sources of energy. With current evidence bearing out our position -- nuclear plants unbuildable without massive subsidies, two plants closed this past year for safety concerns, wind now the cheapest new energy source to install, solar prices falling even faster -- a clear-eyed look at the nuclear waste legacy is a good idea. While the snapshots of places around the physical locations of waste handling convey some charge, I'd propose that the changing political and economic landscapes that drive this system can not simply be ignored.
Raphael Sperry
10.21.13 at 01:41

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


Scenes from a multimedia documentary on the materiality of nuclear waste transport.
View Slideshow >>


Jamie Kruse is an artist, designer and part-time lecturer at Parsons, The New School for Design, and co-founder of smudge studio.
More Bio >>

Elizabeth Ellsworth is an artist and Professor of Media Studies at the The New School and co-founder of smudge studio.
More Bio >>


MORE ON American West

From the American West to West Berlin
On Places, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the "border crossings" of Wim Wenders — the director's cinematic journeys from Paris, Texas to the West Berlin of The Wings of Desire.

800 Miles: Photographing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Peter Bo Rappmund, who has documented nearly every mile of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Heavy Metal
On Places, photographer Dennis DeHart traces the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes through one of the world's largest and most contaminated historic mining districts.

Walking the Darkness Home
On Places, Adelheid Fischer recounts a journey to the Grand Canyon — to a dangerous and redemptive place that by turns epitomizes and defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

Resurveying the West
On Places, a slideshow of images of the American West by the New York-based photographer Victoria Sambunaris and the 19th-century pioneer William Henry Jackson, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Camino del Diablo
On Places, photographer Mark Klett journeys along the Camino del Diablo in the Sonoran Desert, much of which is now a bombing range, and finds a landscape of forbidding danger and compelling beauty.

Nowhere and Everywhere: The Landscape of the Colorado Delta
On Places, planner Armando Carbonell explores, in aerial photographs, the fragile yet resilient landscapes of the Colorado River Delta.

Above Lake Las Vegas
On Places, aerial photographs of the bankrupt luxury communities of Lake Las Vegas, by Michael Light.

We Are in a Western Town
On Places, Aaron Rothman explores the enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams, and what they reveal about the paradoxical landscape of the American West.

Drylands: Water and the West
On Places, an essay and slideshow by Peter Arnold and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, on what they call "the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century."

If There Be Such Space
On Places, a slideshow drawn from a collaborative exhibition by two photographers who share an interest in the perception and representation of natural landscapes.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

The Hills Are Alive
On Places, Michael Branch reflects on how deeply photography and film shape our landscape aesthetics (and how much he detests the Alpine-worshipping The Sound of Music).

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City
On Places, Andrew Ross analyzes the contradictory political and economic forces that once made Phoenix the fastest-growing city in the U.S. — and today a prime casualty of the crash.

Water in the West
On Places, a slideshow from the collaborative photography project Water in the West, with an introduction by Mark Klett.

The Half-Life of History
On Places, writer William Fox and photographer Mark Klett document the semi-ruin of the WW II military airfield at Wendover, Utah, where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Views Across Time
On Places, an interview with photographer Mark Klett and a slideshow from his ongoing rephotography project, with views across time of the American West.

The Edge of Light: Wendover
On Places, photographs by Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder document the nighttime mysteries of Wendover, where military history, land-speed racing and the casino industry make for unexpected juxtapositions.

Soundscapes: Burning Man
On Places, a selection of soundscapes — ranging from dust storms to diesel generators — recorded by architect Nick Sowers at the latest Burning Man.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Land, Speed and Bonneville
On Places — coinciding with Speed Week at Bonneville — a gallery created by architect Martin Hogue documents decades of land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah.

Las Vegas
Writer and critic William L. Fox reviews Las Vegas, by Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, probing the improbable success of the gambling-entertainment world-city constructed in the midst of the Mojave.

Urbanizing the Mojave
America's greatest boomtown has gone bust. Architects Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the cultural and environmental consequences of the rapid expansion of Las Vegas into the Mojave Desert, tracing a troubled history of mining, militarization, tourism, and water politics.