Atif Akin is an artist whose work explores and questions boundaries–physical, metaphoric, and linguistic–that exist around science, nature and politics. Akin’s ability to visually convey a host of critical perspectives on an issue is striking. In his ongoing project, Mutant Space, Akin draws out of the imbroglio of nuclear discourse a portal through which one begins to re-imagine and re-formulate concepts of time and space. Cutting across physical landscape, local mythology, anthropology, history, science, and politics, Akin’s Mutant Space codifies a new hierarchy of relations among strata of knowledge, with a poignant visual clarity. In this interview, I speak with Akin about Mutant Space, radioactive material, hyperobjects, and the concept of crisis in the context of nuclear discourse.
November 2016, New York
Hillit Zwick: Mutant Space is an ongoing research and visual art project that you started in 2010, and which looks at the cosmology of radioactive mobility. Can you talk about the work and define the possibilities imagined by your project?
Atif Akin: Mutant Space contemplates radioactive spaces through the investigation and documentation of four sites: Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Onkalo in Finland, the Hanford Site in the United States and Metsamor in Armenia. The project conceives of each area explored as encompassing vast amounts of time—past, present and future—from 3 Gya (approximately 3 billion years ago) to 240,000 years from now. I look at the mythical and scientific elements embedded in each of these sites as part of a web of relationships, a cosmology.
Radioactive material serve as a point of recognition and the core of each mutant space. Nuclear substance is, in fact, a human-made, durable, archaeological artifact. It is the starting point for my interest in locating the mutation, or the ongoing metamorphosis of space, time, politics, history, and science. I am particularly interested in the negation of time or space as fixed entities (this concept, hyperobject, was defined by Timothy Morton in his book, The Ecological Thought), which present new possibilities for thought.
Using the methods and practice of archaeology, Mutant Space offers a visual narrative through the presentation of relations among properties, a totality that can only be imagined through the portal opened by the massive, endless possibility of time and space inherent in the nuclear object.
Hillit Zwick: Are you referring here to the sublime?
Atif Akin: There is an element of the sublime that can be perceived in this project in the (Kantian) sense that Mutant Space offers a possibility of endlessness in time and formlessness in space. However, I see Mutant Space as the setting for a kind of dialogue between (philosophical) materialism and the possibilities beyond, which I do not want to fully define here (although the term “Anthropocene” is commonly used as a reference). In Mutant Space, I include mythology, history, and a human engagement with the earth as part of this set of possibilities.
Hillit Zwick: What is the discrepancy in knowledge that Mutant Space addresses?
Atif Akin: Nuclear stories are mythical and mystical in the sense that the science that relates to our understanding of nuclear concepts is tasked with transcending hundreds thousands of years, which is beyond the experimental timeframe in which science can operate. Scientific methodology can only provides us with experimental outcomes. Outcomes are, therefore, limited in timeframe and fail to correlate to a spatial framework. We need more thinking grounds, such as philosophy, literature, history, and visual exploration of nuclear time and space. Visual language has the potential to transcend the boundary between the scientific and other. Specially, art practice, itself, is a way of producing knowledge and demystifying science, which is inherently beholden to the politics of its environment.
Hillit Zwick: What are some of the concepts associated with the (geographical) areas you explore, which are challenged or examined in your work?
Atif Akin: Contamination is obviously central to the areas that I explore; the sites that I mentioned would have very little significance without the physical properties of contamination. One of the central aspects of Mutant Space is the visit to the site itself in order to conduct research. I consider this visit to be a kind of pilgrimage, a secular pilgrimage to a zone defined by the physical property of contamination. This concept of the zone is a connected and important concept. It is abstractly defined, reminiscent of the film, Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. As a viewer, you are aware of a closed zone in which the characters are trapped, but you have little understanding of its boundaries and how these are defined. I find the zones in my project to emerge from contamination, but their limits are ever-shifting in response to various concerns—political, environmental, financial, and other. This leads me to the concept of secrecy, which the political public at large associates with nuclear capabilities. In Mutant Space, I am not interested in engaging with this concept in the sense that I am not interested in “revealing” secrets. I am interested in fixed concepts that become moveable, including time and space, which we addressed earlier.
Hillit Zwick: In connection with your comment about secrecy, can you speak to the role of the nation-state/governments in framing each mutant space zone?
Atif Akin: Governments often take the lead in defining nuclear zones and sustaining facilities within these zones. Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that nuclear-related events have global political impact, and have, thus, posed a problem for governments. For example, the 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan had political consequences in Finland. However, because nuclear material is directly related to nature and ecology, it is nearly impossible to impose the will of nation-states/governments over it. This is the reason that nuclear political discourse remains elusive. It is, in fact, senseless, because national boundaries do not, cannot, apply.
Hillit Zwick: The material you work with is imbued with potential for the ultimate human catastrophe. What does this do to progress or our capacity to imagine other possibilities?
Atif Akin: This question brings up another important question about humanity and nature, especially the way you ask about ‘human catastrophe’. Why are humanity and nature detached from one another?
Hillit Zwick: Well, I would respond by saying that the idea of a human catastrophe concretizes an ultimate and immediate existential threat that implicitly shuts down any possibility for progress. In that sense, I am wondering if this affects our way of thinking about radioactivity and the nuclear—even the idea that nature and humanity are connected. Thus, the discourse is disjointed politically, but also scientifically, artistically, etc.
Atif Akin: Yes, I agree with you, and in the case of Mutant Space, like my other projects, I reject the idea of approaching a topic from a ‘crisis’ standpoint, which implies the delegation of power to one authority. On the contrary, I argue that it should be thought in correlation to other established disciplines of knowledge production, such as geology or archaeology.
Hillit Zwick: In fact, Mutant Space was recently exhibited at the Archaeology Museum as part of the Istanbul Design Biennial. How was the work contextualized in this setting?
Atif Akin: In general, I seek to create a set of visual correlations and visualizations through abstractions in drawings, photographs, and videos. Throughout the Archaeology Museum, elements of the research conducted as part of Mutant Space were exhibited in various museological formats: reconstructed artifacts in display cases accompanied a visual presentation of nuclear and geographic information; these were connected to the visitors through multimedia installations and a Virtual Reality application that invited viewers to ‘enter’ the installation. In general, the visual tone in Mutant Space is set through its suggestion of scientific and archaeologic methodology, which reveals the invisible through artifacts. Much like the research itself, containing the nuclear material, say the hyperobject, as source, is key to the visual strategy. All else emanates from there.
Atif Akin is an artist and designer living in New York. His work examines science, nature, mobility, and politics through an (a)historical and contemporary lens. Akın’s work considers transdisciplinary issues, through a technoscientific lens. He is Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University.
Hillit Zwick is a writer and art critic living in New York. She worked at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1997 to 2006, and holds an MA in Modern Art and Critical Studies from Columbia University. She currently oversees a portfolio of programs for a private foundation.