/27 Machine

Jules Spinatsch

Asynchronous I – X

From the Cold War to the Internet Age on the basis of several episodes in the history of nuclear technology: The series of works entitled ASYNCHRONOUS I – V deals with quintessential chapters in the history of nuclear technology, from the 2nd World War to the 21st century. Each episode is based on a specific event or non-event that appears important with regard to understanding the historical and technical developments, and represents the political and societal situation at the respective point in time. One thing that all episodes have in common, is that irrational factors played a major role, such as the fear of communism, political errors of judgement, and incompetence.
Asynchronous primarily examines the respective imagery that was used or produced in order to explain technical accomplishments and/or to propagate the corresponding ideologies.
This group of works contains self-produced images and videos, as well as found material. For chapter II and III a computer-controlled camera was used.

Asynchronous I: Red Mirage III S [1958]

Mirage, or the dream of flying to Moscow with the bomb. The story of Swiss nuclear energy begins with the end of the Second World War. The Swiss military command, much like that of the USA, was convinced that the Soviet Union aspired to occupy all of Europe.

In the Cold War era, through to the end of the eighties, Switzerland was dominated by a majority of liberals and christian democrats, constituting a broad intersection with the country's military-economic complex. Thus, in the late forties and during the fifties, efforts to establish a national nuclear industry were made in both military and industrial circles. The defence doctrine envisaged nuclear weaponry: on the one hand as a deterrent, and on the other hand, even though Switzerland saw itself as a neutral country, there was a desire to be able to fly to Moscow with high-speed aircraft in order to carry out preventative defensive nuclear strikes. One suitable transport vehicle was the Mirage III fighter jet. The French manufacturer modified the aircraft, giving it the required mechanisms to carry nuclear bombs.

Despite the Mirages never being used in an emergency, their suitability remaining doubtful, the procurement ending in a major scandal, and an average of one machine per year crashing, they were nevertheless revered by the Swiss public: even after the last official flight in 2003, the little, elegant triangles in the sky are seen as an impressive representation of the Swiss fighting spirit. This is evident, not only in the aircraft's changing coats of paint, but also in a multitude of postcards depicting the individual jets.

Asynchronous I comprises two images of an enlarged and processed postcard. They hang in portrait format beside each other: the Mirages usually flew in pairs. The pilot in the image is looking into the camera of the co-pilot, who is photographing him from the second jet (a two-seat Mirage RS). The overpainting of the Swiss cross, resulting in a red spot on the wings, adapts the postcard image of the Mirage to the changed reality. Among other things, it relates the fact that the aircraft have now been relieved of their national function and no longer need to represent the country. No they stand on point against the sky like a monument on their own behalf.

Asynchronous II: Depot ABC [1969]

After several delays, the Swiss test reactor in underground caverns near Lucens was put into operation in 1967. Upon the first attempt to obtain maximum output, a serious accident occurred. The explosion and subsequent core meltdown meant that the Swiss engineering industry's dream of being able to participate in the world market with its own line of nuclear reactors was already brought to an end in 1969. After the incident, which was classed as INES level 5 out of 7, the reactor and caverns were sealed shut. Lucens signifies the end of Swiss efforts to use self-developed nuclear power, both economically and militarily. (The Mühleberg and Beznau nuclear power plants, completed in 1969 and 1971, were planned to have American reactors from the onset).
The final report from the Parliamentary Investigation Committee PUK was published in 1979, meticulously examining, describing and illustrating the catastrophe's course of events. In 1992, the Vaud government decided to convert the reactor's operation buildings and access tunnel into a depot for cultural assets. Since 1997, these have accommodated cultural assets from almost 20 cantonal institutions.

The video projection includes visual material from all three official documents that were released, as well as new images:

  1. Commissioning report, 1967
    (without photographs included).
  2. Accident investigation report from the Parliamentary Investigation Committee PUK, 1979
    (photographs of details and damaged parts from the reactor).
  3. Information brochure from the opening of the cultural assets depot, 1997
    (architectural and editorial style photographs).
  4. Own images, January 2013. Extracts from a photographic panorama on the site in Lucens.
    A computer-controlled camera meticulously scanned the buildings and surroundings on the Lucens site and generated a panoramic image from 315 individual images.

The reproduced visual material from the official documents and individual images from the panoramic photographs were used to create a portrait-format silent video. The chronological sequence with intertitles resulted in a visual time travel through the story of the Lucens nuclear power plant and its photgraphic images produced between 1967 and 2013.

On the basis of the change from 1967's hermetic specialist report without images, through to 1997's PR product (or even through to the art project), not only the course of the accident, but also the various respective functions of the images can be identified and deduced. However, the changes also indicate a shift in how the authorities deal with information and the public. In the pre-digital era, authoritarian decisions determined what reached the public, whereas today it is rather the opposite: marketing departments produce an abundance of target-group-oriented information. However, the intention remains the same: to steer public opinion and to produce suitable material for this purpose.

In detail:
The non-illustrated report from 1967 is a sober description of the commissioning, geared towards scientists. It includes some technical diagrams and tables but no photographs.
In the accident investigation report PUK from 1979, the pragmatically cropped and arranged documentary close-ups of reactor parts remain abstract and the design pragmatic, like in 1967, conveying the precision and objectivity of the investigation. The target group was initially the politicians and later the media. The third publication is a lavishly designed and printed brochure from the opening of the cultural assets depot. This is now mainly directed at the public; the intention was to explain to citizens how their tax money was being spent, by means of professional architectural photographs and journalistic images from the interior. The last part of the video constitutes the fragments of the panorama. The gaze remains fixed on the exterior building envelope and the surrounding forest. The cropped nature of the images suggests that indications of the site's history and current function are evident. At the same time, however, they also reflect the silent absence thereof.
Asynchronous III: Zwentendorf – The Missing 20 Minutes, [1978]

The large photographic floor installation "The Missing 20 minutes" shows a chronological sequence of 289 photographs from inside the reactor of the nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf, Austria, which was completed in 1978 but never put into operation.

Back then, the Kreisky government wanted to have the public approve its policy against the opposition, so it organised a public referendum. But it was a fatal error of judgement: operating approval was rejected by 50.47 %.
Since the government was sure of the referendum’s outcome the plant has been technically ready and, after commissioning, only around 20 minutes away from producing energy: this is how long it would have taken to lower the fuel rods into the reactor and to trigger nuclear fission.

These missing 20 minutes were completed 35 years later by a computer-controlled camera, mounted on the fuel rods' lowering device – a journey to the place of the prevented nuclear fission. While moving into the reactor's interior, the camera tilted 90° downwards and panned 45° to the left and right. While doing so, it captured an image once every four seconds, constructing a time-space panorama of the still-uncontaminated reactor – a panorama that tells about the journey and recalls the unique history of the reactor.

The Zwentendorf nuclear power plant was built as a power plant and declared a democratic sculpture by the voters. Instead of generating electricity, it functions as a museum of the future. Exhibited here are idle, albeit uncontaminated, nuclear facilities, where disassembly training takes place and guided tours are offered.

Asynchronous IV: Normal Operation – Dose of Confirmation, 2013

In 2012, Jules Spinatsch unsuccessfully attempted to record a panoramic photograph in the control room of the Beznau nuclear power plant during normal daily operations. The operating company Axpo refused to allow this, saying that his photographic surveillance panorama method, which uses chance and loss of control as a creative principle, was dubious – and that it contradicted the security requirements. What was actually meant, was the security of control over image production.

Spinatsch found a new approach: a public visitor centre is an analogy of the functioning nuclear power plant. In Switzerland, every nuclear power plant also has a functioning visitor centre, due to public pressure for justification. It is the power plant's justification mechanism. Laws of nature and phenomena are demonstrated there, comparisons are presented, technologies are explained, but assertions, pearls of wisdom and refreshments are also offered.
Spinatsch visited the Beznau, Leibstadt and Gösgen nuclear power plants, taking photographs in the visitor centres from the perspective of a visiting citizen. There taking photographs is permitted, or even desired, so that what is learnt and experienced is passed on, because the operators are convinced that comprehension of a technology also leads to increased acceptance thereof among the public. Here, the propagandistic connotation is that explaining the functionality also naturally conveys the relevance of a technology.

The "Dose of Confirmation" section examines the didactic material that the operators of Swiss nuclear power plants offer their visitors. Here, the images and installations are subjected to a didactic reinterpretation, or rather "de-interpretation", e.g. via selection, extraction, or the elimination of environment and context. Presented as double-sided printed panels, they stand crowded together on wall-mounted brackets. The visitors can pick up the panels, turn them around and recombine them; some images become visible, some become invisible and others are partially or entirely covered, because there is limited space on the "PR stage" and it is not enough for all at the same time. The visitor selects and constructs their version of things.

Asynchronous V: Obsoleum [ 1984 + x]

The current debate surrounding the disposal of radioactive material is plagued with terminological confusion. A final repository with retrievability is a contradiction in itself.
Thus, Jules Spinatsch coined a term of his own: "Obsoleum", which refers to the (communication) dilemma of Switzerlands NAGRA, The National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste, or of the topic in general. Obsoleum (from obsolete and museum) describes the fulfilment of the wish associated with the final repository, namely the topic vanishing into the eternal darkness underground, into oblivion. The relatively new retrievability requirement, pertaining to radioactive material that has supposedly been stored away for the last time, turns every final repository into another intermediate repository, but for a duration that is now unknown.

Although radioactive waste has been produced for over 50 years, not one single final repository for highly radioactive waste is completed or functional anywhere in the world. The material is stored and cooled for 20-30 years in Castor containers, often on the sites of the nuclear power plants themselves. In Switzerland, all highly radioactive waste is brought to the Zvilag intermediate repository in Würenlingen, in a simple, well-guarded hall on the Swiss Plateau, near the Beznau and Leibstadt nuclear power plants and close to the German border.
The Nuclear Energy Act stipulates that radioactive material (and thus the problem) can no longer be exported. The NAGRA, founded in 1984, is in charge of developing and implementing solutions for safe disposal of the radioactive waste produced in Switzerland, with a commitment to people and the environment. NAGRA is also obliged to inform the public about its work. Since a few years ago, retrievability of the material from a final repository must also be guaranteed, in case new technologies for processing the radioactive material become available in the distant future.

The plates depicting a final repository model in a visitor centre is intended to convey the current concept of a final repository with retrievability.
The argumentation is based on the analogy between a fossil and radioactive waste:
600 meters below the surface of the earth, enclosed in a particular sedimentary rock an ammonite fossil has remained unharmed for 100 million years. Therefore, this sedimentary rock (Opalinus clay) is also suitable for storing radioactive material until the radiation has abated.
The obsoleum plates adopt this NAGRA narrative primarily without comment, repeating the linear account with a hard beginning, but with an end in obsoleum. Even if the plates are rearranged, this story can hardly be varied at all: NAGRA's one (and supposedly only) possible marketing narrative remains. Only the black panel offers interpretational resistance; as a consequence of this narrative and fulfilment of the wish associated with the final repository, it can be seen as an illustration of obsoleum. Or indeed as evidence that the retrievability requirement is in fact inadvertently causing light to penetrate the eternally dark obsoleum once again – an obvious contradiction already manifests itself within the concept.