When we consider a place long since abandoned, we look to its material components for clues; to the landscape, the stage; and to the architectonic, built forms that occupy it. Within the realm of an ancient or otherwise departed space, the elements that constitute all forms, and thus their meanings, are time and movement; orientations and direction; available energy; use, retirement and ruin; maintenance, care and sacrifice; views to and from; passage and penetration; light and dark; landform; location; fixity and markedness; building materials ordered and worked; centres and boundaries; acknowledgement of celestial activity; order, rhythm and sequence; dimensions and shapes; surface manipulation; inhabitation by the one and the many; enclosure and openness; and parts and wholes.
These components constitute a gestalt narrative. They at once communicate the story of that place, and are its story. They stipulate meaning by doing just that: meaning.
We try to decipher historical place under the supposition of retrospect, the presumption being that detectable elements of meaning were activated in the past by the people who inhabited the place at the time of its construction. But some constituent elements are carefully constructed to speak to us across time, and these we do not so much look back upon as they look forward to us, calling out across time. Some places, and their constituents, cry out to us with urgency and insistence.
time and movement; Future studies, as proposed by H.G. Wells, is an “experiment in prophecy” grounded in anthropological and scientific methodologies. However, an attempt to divine the future – and that is to say futures, as the future is not a single, progressive project any more than the many histories that have criss-crossed before it – is always speculative, and in that sense an academic study of the future is more an art than a science. Neither observation nor modelling can resolve the uncertainties of our manifold futures, and if we are honest there is very little enlightenment that experimentation can provide.
orientations and direction; It may seem logical for foresight to assume that technological development will continue at or outstrip its current rate, but determining what path it will follow will be difficult. Slippery futures of radical discontinuity are likely, in which societies seesaw through political, social and technological changes against a shifting and often turbulent climatic environment. Will we continue to exhaust our natural resources in a quest for technological transcendence? Will vast subterranean waste repositories threaten the health of our species and its freedom to explore? Or will autonomous robots execute exotic chthonic exploration on our behalf, whilst sophisticated advancements in medicine render cancer obsolete? Although our imaginations possess the tools to envisage a hyper-technological future that may yet eventually materialise, they remain woefully unequipped for predicting cultural, political and societal developments that may radically alter our information structures. Should such oscillating societal currents impact upon our knowledge bases—our languages, belief systems, our myths and our collective memories—we may forget why places call out to us; we may no longer understand the language of their cries.
use, retirement, and ruin; The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located a half hour’s drive east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the USA’s only operational deep geological repository for the permanent storage of transuranic nuclear waste; that is, highly dangerous waste generated by arms production. The W.I.P.P is a network of rooms and tunnels 2,150 meters below ground, carved out of the 250 million-year-old Delaware salt basin as and when needed. Salt is an ideal sarcophagus; very little water permeates it, bacterial life cannot exist in it, and it is self-sealing, as any small cracks or fissures fill with saline that will harden under pressure. Over time, salt formations will collapse in on cavities, and so once the W.I.P.P reaches capacity and the last shaft is sealed, the repository will be left to slowly disintegrate upon itself, sealing its stash forever. Whilst we might imagine canisters of green sludge and rods glowing with radioactivity, the bulk of W.I.P.P’s consignments are of contaminated tools, items of clothing, residues and soil, many dating back to the Cold War. The delicately-hued crystalline rock salt that is extracted to accommodate these wastes becomes quotidian efflux, either scattered across roads and pavements during cold weather, or bleached to a sanitary white and used for preservation and the enhancement of flavour. This symbiotic process of extraction and burial, of geological deconstruction and restratification, will continue at this site until the late 2030s.
maintenance, care, and sacrifice; Michael Madsen’s 2010 film Into Eternity took viewers deep inside a repository similar to the W.I.P.P in Onkalo, Finland, to examine the nuclear legacy of 20th century Europe. Madsen explored the ways in which future generations might be protected from Europe’s mounting piles of radioactive waste, and tabled some critical questions on the very nature of permanence, protection, and scientific certainty. Much of the waste currently stored in interim facilities has a radioactive half-life of between 10,000 and 100,000 years. The film underlines the fact that deep storage facilities are not to be disturbed, and the dilemma of how we might communicate to humans a hundred centuries and more in the future. The notion of institutional control across deep time has occupied governments for decades. In 1992, the predicament was posed by Sandia National Laboratories to an appointed “Expert Judgement Panel” of specialists from the fields of anthropology, astronomy, linguistics, material sciences, engineering, architecture and archaeology, with specific reference to the W.I.P.P. Split into two groups, the panel was charged with researching and developing “a passive marker system to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant)… that will remain operational during the performance period of the site— 10,000 years”. This was a system with a considerable remit and zero historical parallels. Communication of its intended meanings: danger to the body, darkness, fear of the beast, loss of control, dark forces emanating from within, the void or abyss, and parched, poisoned or plagued land, has no record of deep time endurance through the built form. In fact, the obstinate nature of human ambition tends rather to gravitate towards the sealed away and interred, as the embodied myths of buried treasure and entombed wealth are sustained through literature. Within these narratives, authoritative warnings and threats of curses, blithely unheeded, are par for the course.
views to and from;
passage and penetration; We found ourselves standing on the sandy floor of a vast, cathedral-like cavern. The ceiling was too high to make out in the dark; even our torchlights couldn’t locate it. We had been lowered 150 meters down No. 5 shaft, to find an open-top vehicle waiting to transport us along A Tunnel. At twenty meters wide, eight meters high and just over a mile long, A Tunnel was just a matchstick within a 183-mile network criss-crossing deep beneath the plains, and growing at a rate of eighty metres a week. Rumbling slowly along the passage, immense columns of salt rose up out of the darkness, their surfaces coarse and rough-hewn. More avenues stretched out from the tunnel at right-angles, the occasional entrance hung with a great white polypropylene curtain. Automatic steel partitions stretching the width of the tunnel rose on our approach and descended again behind us with a crunching rumble that danced through the hollow. In the dark, crystals formed on our skin.
Many men still worked here, and women too, guided by systems of floodlights and beams that gave a sense of theatrical absurdity. They were lowered down No. 5 shaft every morning to take up their places in multi-story subterranean office blocks or cottage-like canteens serving tea and crumpets. Meanwhile, at the limits of the tunnels, reptilian mining machines and remote-controlled robots lunged and tore at the rock, chewing up four metre squared areas at a time and spitting the fragments on to a conveyor.
From our buggy we saw endless rooms, created by partitions erected between the columns, and within the rooms were more rooms and within those rooms were rows of shelves, ordered with clinical precision. In the chambers of Avenue 1 amid the scent of old paper, robotic retrieval systems buzzed efficiently from barcode to barcode, turning, lifting and sorting. And along Avenue 4, behind a set of heavy white curtains, was a complex of rooms housing towering ledges of tightly packed white sacks. There was no bustle of robotic activity here; just a carefully orchestrated once-daily delivery of sacks, glowing in our torchlight against the russet rock.
light and dark; The humans of 10,000 years ago were hunter-gatherers slowly adapting to a more sedentary lifestyle in the early millennia of the Holocene. Cultural universals were already deeply embedded: language, primitive society, lithic technology and species-wide mythic themes, such as the creation of the world from chaos to cosmos; the great mother, the land of the dead, the return to chaos by way of the flood or deluge, the dying or resurrected god or hero, and redemption through sacrifice and suffering. Mythic refrains have endured better than any built structure from that distant age, and have indeed been built upon, reinforced and still permeate the texture of life today. The artist is the superior emissary of these themes, as it is they who have carried them across time in their dance, sculpture, pictography and song.
location; The notion of landscape as innate releasing mechanism has me thrilled and terrified, but it is an experiment that has its foundations in solid evolutionary psychology. Landscapes speak effortlessly to us in a language we have always known. It is an imprecise, lambent language; more felt than comprehended. Our ability to interpret a landscape based on its hazards, shelters and potential for supporting life is what allowed the human species to prosper in, let’s say, the African savannahs, and so, as we developed a intellectual consciousness through sensory participation with nature, these landscape archetypes became profoundly embedded within us. To successfully imbue a landscape with a synthetic narrative faculty would be to call out to and stimulate the deepest elements of our human nature. But human nature is not a fixed issue, as neither is landscape. Just as vast deserts that have shrouded this earth for millennia still shift, erode and are rebuilt anew at Aeolian whim, over time our archetypes will adapt to our changing relationship with the land.
fixity and markedness; The Herma began as a pile of rocks where two roads met. The pile grew with each passing convoy, as travellers idly tossed another rock on top in tacit deference. The face of a man slowly began to emerge at the crest of the pile, which had, over time, evolved into a rough-hewn column, taller now than its attendants. The bearded man at first spoke plainly: “This is here, and that is there”. Passers-by looked to him for protection, and soon formed new piles of rocks at their thresholds, and on the borders of their lands. A slick of green olive oil could be seen flickering on these rocks in the afternoon sun. The columns eventually grew taller and their surfaces smoothened; they now stood before temples, along ramparts and outside homes. The Herma began to display a new, unambiguous potency, as phalli materialised half way up the smooth pillars; and still the pillar grew, and the phalli grew, and Hermes was named. With little need for hands and feet, the Herma simply witnessed and stood to be witnessed, like a wand, a mast or an aerial. Both a scattering of stones and a granite monument say it clearly: “Stop. Consider this.”
building materials ordered and worked;
center and boundaries; The report commissioned by Sandia, and researched over a period of two years, concluded that the land above the W.I.P.P., and within a quarter-mile “buffer zone” around its perimeter, should be marked in the most permanent way possible, by both surface-level earthworks and surface-level and subterranean monoliths and chambers, produced from local stone. Numerous alternative marking systems were explored in the report, models and diagrams constructed, and probability elicitations compiled in an attempt to determine which system might a) survive the longest, and b) successfully communicate the intended message. Information about the site and its dangers was organised into four levels, each increasing in complexity, from “This is a message, pay attention to it! This is not a place of honour…” to highly complex chemical and elemental information and laboratory data. This information would be inscribed on to the markers, and on to panels within the chambers, alongside pictographs designed to symbolise terror and sickness: an asexual face, contorted into a naively-rendered grimace, and next to it a reproduction of the stricken figure from Munch’s The Scream. The marking system would be contained by 30ft high earthen berms, massive enough to survive the mauling of desert winds. These jagged berms, although menacing, would be constructed with the assumption that curiosity and a love of challenge would bring humans to their summit, and so the corner berms would be higher, to provide a vantage point over the whole wretched area. An explorer might see, looking across the keep, multiple message kiosks of granite, protected by curving concrete motherwalls to counter the sand in its mission to grind over the engraved text. A further four rooms, buried within the towering corner berms, would contain the most complex data about the buried waste. As the berms eroded, these chambers would emerge from the earth.
acknowledgement of celestial activity; Our Earth, like a top, wobbles as it spins, its polar axis tracing a 26,000 year cycle across the stars. At our current point in the Holocene, the star Polaris remains in the same position in the sky – at true north – as other stars seem to rotate around it. However, over the millennia, due to the precession of the Earth’s rotational axis and the star’s own proper motion, Polaris will gradually migrate away from true north. Approximately 10,000 years from now, the earth’s axis will be pointing away from our current North Star, toward a position almost midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. An understanding of this rate of precession and celestial proper motion, which is generally assumed of even technologically retrograde future societies, could be used to estimate durations across deep time – if the location of Polaris is measured and recorded. An instrument could be constructed at the W.I.P.P. to track the positions of Polaris over such vast periods of time; a huge granite instrument, mirroring the angular monoliths of the unholy keep, so that no matter how many disruptions in civilization and science might occur, the date the facility was built and sealed could be deduced. This millennial marker would find its exemplar in the 16th century Jaipur observatories of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, where eclipses and other astrological events were accurately predicted and keenly observed. Back in the basin, a soaring triangular monument would rise from the sand, one side angled precisely at 32 degrees, which is the latitude of the plant. Because the angular height of Polaris above the horizon is approximately the same as the observer’s latitude, one would need only to peer up the towering slope to be looking directly at the North Star.
order, rhythm, and sequence;
dimensions and shapes; The built form, too, is infused with archetypes and myths dating from our earliest technical endeavours. Ever since tool-forms have been utilised, we have been erecting monuments; steles, monoliths, obelisks, standing stones, and memorial columns. The vertical stone marker speaks a natural language; it is an aspirational link between us (mortal, on earth) and the sublime (a deity or departed soul, up there; the guidance of the cosmos). The monolith is always a symbolic commemorator of honoured phenomena, and memorialisation is the fate of all vertical markers, whatever their intended purpose. Their material forms, usually of stone or aggregates, suggest strongly that they are to be maintained, and their commemorative or memorial subjects are recognised hereafter; as such, stone monuments find their true function across deeper time than the lifetimes of their founders. Sky-reaching stone markers are often inherently tied to place, marking a significant event within that location; the site of something that has ceased to exist, or a distance from some other important place. The way we perceive stone monuments, both haptically and symbolically, is always based on their context and their implied relationship with something else, something honourable. Vertical stone markers positioned as sites of grave danger therefore pose a semiological problem.
The experts at Sandia thought this could be overcome by avoiding perfect forms, symmetrical geometry and crystalline structures in favour of irregularity: a return to chaos. Aspiring forms would be jagged, leaning, horizontal even, in a deliberate shunning of perfection and order. They would employ crude craftsmanship and low-value materials in the hope that they might not become museum acquisitions for a future culture whose alphabet had diverted too far from our own. Despite their once-gilded crests, the Great Pyramids of Egypt were designed to impose upon the landscape a sense of power, domination and threat –
“As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird…” – and yet, they were undermined; their chambers cracked and plundered
surface manipulation; The report contains an illustration of another proposed marking system: a spike field, or landscape of thorns. Toothy and staggering, these stone spikes and spindles lurch from the ground at terrible angles, seemingly active, darting and intent on injury. They emanate for miles, dwarfing the explorer and interrupting the horizon line so that a respite from their leering menace feels almost beyond reach. It is only from high above, from the window of a passing plane, that they seem at all natural; a square of forest floor, carpeted with pine needles. Another sketch shows a second system, called the Black Hole: a sea of black basalt coats the Delaware basin like an oil slick. Another version is shown with black-dyed concrete – how beautiful! I think – an enormous and immense nothing. In this system there are no monuments, no upward-gazing eyes. There are no berms or earthworks, nothing to scale or decipher. Just an uninhabitable land remains, its deep blackness absorbing the southern sun and radiating it back. The idea was that the area would be a biological vacuum, simply too hot to support any kind of life. It would become instead a searing coffin-lid, a scorching bed of black absence.
inhabitation by the one and the many;
enclosure and openness; At 11.00am on the 5th February this year a truck carrying mined salt from the W.I.P.P. caught fire underground. The facility was evacuated, but tests ruled out a radiological leak. Just over a week later, on February 14th, the alarm was raised again after air monitors recorded unusually high levels of alpha and beta radiation within the facility. An investigation soon found traces of radiation, primarily americium-241, plutonium-239 and plutonium-240 particles, above ground for up to a half mile around the plant. On 15th April, a report was released that suggested the leak had originated in one or more of 258 containers of medium-level toxic and radioactive waste located in Room 7, Panel 7 of the W.I.P.P. Room 7 is approximately 1,500 feet away from the air monitor that initially sounded the alarm, which led investigators to realise that the contaminants were spread through more than 3,000 feet of the underground network which also incorporated a 2,150-foot exhaust shaft reaching up to eastern Eddy County. Twenty-two employees of the repository tested positive for non-lethal radiological exposure, and human activity has ground to a halt at the site. Deep beneath the ground, robots are slowly probing Room 7, where it is thought a ceiling has collapsed, damaging waste canisters. A 90-foot robotic boom arm has been installed, allowing a camera to tentatively peer into the furthest depths of the chamber.
This leak was the first of its kind in the 15-year operational history of the W.I.P.P., but it seems inevitable that further releases, perhaps only moderately dangerous, will occur at other points in the future. The option of not marking the site of the repository post-closure, with the hope of not attracting any further attention to this otherwise unremarkable stretch of desert, was posited by the Sandia panel and has been given credence by other experts since. Might the most effective marking system ultimately be a relatively limited amount of sickness or death caused by released radiation? That is to say, a marking system may not be able to communicate the inherent dangers of the site as effectively as a modest record of localized deaths. The narrative of these deaths, against the backdrop of an unforgiving landscape, could then enter into myth and engender, consequently, a gradual process of self-correction.
parts and wholes; And so it was that I began to imagine what we left as a blue whale, thrown up on to the beach in a contortion of fins, flukes and dorsal ridges; flailing, the low groans of its death throes rumbling up from its belly. Villagers would gather around the carcass, trying to figure out what to do with it, as gases accumulated beneath its flesh and purge fluid slowly seeped into the sand. They would salvage what meat they could, and the rest they would cut off in large chunks and take away to be burned elsewhere; and all the while the body would still belch and shake with activity. Eventually, when it seemed that no more could be done to shift the huge and twisted beast, the villagers would pile sand on what remained, which by that point would be putrid and dangerously toxic. They would pile up the sand, piling it on in heaps, until the body was completely buried, and with a stick they would draw a skull and crossbones into the damp brown surface.
This text is much indebted to Trauth, K.M., Hora, S.C. and Guzowski, R.V.; Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an Expert Judgement report commissioned by Sandia National Laboratories in 1991, published in 1992.
I also reference Wells, H.G., Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought; An Experiment in Prophecy, first published in Fortnightly Review, London, April to December, 1901
Lillian Wilkie is an artist, educator and bookseller based in London. Her work incorporates photography, sculpture and installation with writing and quiet performance.