Not on display
The Radiant 2012 is a colour film shot in High Definition lasting just over sixty-four minutes and shown as a projection. It exists in an edition of five plus one artists’ proof; this copy is number two in the main edition. Commissioned as part of Documenta 13 in 2012, The Radiant explores the aftermath of 11 March 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake off the east coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that killed many thousands and caused the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The film is constructed from a wealth of historic and contemporary footage montaged together; this material ranges from film of people in earthquake simulators, state television announcements of the earthquake, footage from the quake shot by observers, footage shot by scientists testing the site for radiation five days after the blast, historic footage relating to the testing of hydrogen bombs on Bikini Atoll, and new interviews with scientists. In bringing together these different historical, social and aesthetic perspectives around one event, the film shines a spotlight on the situation, its precedents and potential future impact both nationally and globally, without taking a clearly defined position on the disaster. The soundtrack to the film references New Wave science-fiction films and radio plays of the 1960s and 1970s and, as such, heightens the sense within the film that an invisible threat has been unleashed whose impact cannot be measured.
The Radiant was researched, shot and edited in the period immediately following the disaster with the artists travelling from London to Tohoku in the aftermath of the earthquake. By weaving together found and new footage, they could play with a variety of techniques and registers relating to documentary film and, in so doing, encouraged the viewer to think not only about the narrative within the film, but also the way in which knowledge is disseminated. The Radiant relates to The Otolith Group’s overarching interest in what it means to be human both now and in the future, in how scientific developments in areas such as atomic energy, electronics and chemistry affect both the natural world and our place within it. They have talked about this idea in terms of ‘mutation’, or how the human species adapts to an ever-changing reality. The title refers to the events at the Fukushima plant and the radiation that has subsequently been present on the site, but it also alludes, as described by group member Kodwo Eshun, to ‘those people who feel themselves to be all-powerful because of their identification with the power of the nuclear.’ (Quoted at https://agratza.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/the-otolith-group-the-radiant-and-medium-earth-2/, accessed 10 January 2017). Eshun described the film in detail:
The Radiant has to do with unspoken forms of power and identification with energy that atomic power gives. The entire project of nuclear power is a Promethean endeavour in which science and technology gain control over fundamental processes of chain reactions for supposedly the good of humanity … The Radiant are those people who feel themselves to be all-powerful because of their identification with the power of the nuclear. The Radiant is Japan itself, and within that, Tokyo, the City of Light that you see early on in the film in an overhead shot from the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. Tokyo is something like the evil twin of Fukushima, way up there on the north-east – a provincial, local, old-fashioned town that Tokyo people are somewhat dismissive of.
It’s also an extremely animistic region. The Honshu coast, and Fukushima within that, holds on to the beliefs in an invisible layer of local gods, household gods, gods of sea, rain, soil, whom different households pay tribute to. The curator, photographer and theorist of photography Chihiro Minato … says that radiation adds a second level of invisibility to that of local gods, which creates what he calls ‘a double invisible landscape’. When you go there your camera is useless. It cannot perceive any of these dimensions. This is why we have this sequence where the camera is being dismantled. It is a demonstration of the limits and impotence of the camera. The film is like a gathering together of different attempts to make sense of something insensible but which must be grasped, whether through visual, sonic or tactile means.
We realized that the Geiger counter sounds used to measure different levels of local radiation can combine with bird sound, a kind of trilling, trebling sound. The Geiger counter is not just a sound; it’s a reading. It’s a sonic guide, which is maybe better than a camera. A camera can’t see hotspots but a Geiger counter can read the points where radiation connects – in drains, in gutters, in the points where water is stagnant. It’s where radiation is most intense and dangerous. A lot of Fukushima looks quite banal and overgrown; it doesn’t look like a terrifying catastrophe has happened. Minato calls this the ‘anti-ruin’. That’s because radiation doesn’t have a visual presence, unlike an earthquake. And so the sonic descriptions are more useful. In a sense the visual is blocking a lot of the understanding.
The Otolith Group was founded in 2002 by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Throughout their longstanding collaboration, its practice has centred around critical, collaborative and discursive practice, across disciplines and often engaging with archives to develop projects and films that question the nature of documentary and engage with issues of futurity and transnationality. The artists have described the breadth of their work as exploring ‘the moving image, the archive, the sonic and the aural within the gallery context’ (at www.otolithgroup.org, accessed 10 January 2017). The word ‘Otolith’ refers to an element of the inner ear that manages and processes the body’s ability to orientate itself. In using the name The Otolith Group, its members – Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – draw attention to notions of orientation and disorientation and the ways in which we physically, philosophically and aesthetically move through the world.
Helen Little and Katharine Stout, ‘The Otolith Group’, in Turner Prize 2010, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2010.
Kodjo Eshun and Ros Gray, ‘The Militant Image: A Ciné-Geography’, Third Text, vol.25, issue 1, 2011.
‘Interview with Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group’, weekly podcast by Bad at Sports, 15 February 2012, http://www.artpractical.com/column/interview_with_kodwo_eshun/, accessed 26 January 2017.
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