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“A worker's gloved hand holds a plutonium pit at the Rocky Flats production facility, U.S. Department of Energy." Introductory image and caption for A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado
hat becomes of a rock? The earth is rock. A weapon is rock. Our blood, our whole body even, is composed of rocks. Think of iron and magnesium, not to mention calcium, sodium, and so many others we consume. We are stardust, really. Everything is. Everything on earth is matter formed by distant suns bursting and colliding. We are here, all of this is here, because of nuclear explosions.
Rocks can seem like nothing, ubiquitous, harmless, or even nutritious. They are also incredibly serviceable, as in sturdy building materials for roads, houses, computers, and countless other uses. But a rock can be a weapon, too, without much intervention. Think sling shot or cannon. With more manipulation—down to the atomic level—rocks, or more specifically, the atoms that comprise them, can make and destroy the world. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado reminds us of the human dance around the fragility of life, the persistence of mortality, and the greater environment, extending beyond our planet, that we are just a small part of, yet impact so much.
In the Atlas’ introductory photo, the workers glove says it all. A worker, a hired hand, holds within their hand a rock. On the surface, the gray, marbled rock looks humdrum, like a stone one might see in a garden, a construction site, or a kitchen countertop material, were it not for the shiny brassy divets in the center. Therein is a sign of something otherworldly. The power of this rock, plutonium, is sublime in the Burkean sense, beautiful and terrifying.
“We are stardust” is a universalizing statement. It effectively says “we are all in this sublime soup together.” Similarly, the Atlas is a form that traditionally aims to confront the sublime with the notion of universality. Historically, creators of atlases arrange, categorize and organize the stuff of nature. When they collect this stuff in an atlas, it is to say that they have collected everything about the subject, right there in a neat volume. In other words, through human mediation, the whole of the earth is presented to you, the reader, at your fingertips.
In a strange way, it is fitting that Sarah Kanouse and Shiloh Krupar chose an atlas to confront the vast impacts of nuclear forces in Colorado. These forces, from the atomic to global, contained and not, are the forces of the universe, cosmically powerful and destructive. In A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado, the authors collect diverse perspectives from many people. Presenting this topic in scales from the micro to the macro, they hold for contemplation the contradictions and terror of this awesomeness in our hands.
Hillary Mushkin is an artist and a research professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Mushkin makes art, videos, and writes about landscapes, human perception, technology, and authority. She is founder of Incendiary Traces and co-founder of Data to Discovery.