ANN ARBOR, Mich. — How’s this sound for a fun getaway: visiting toxic landscapes and radioactive hot spots around our great nation? Artist Joan Linder has made it her business over the last three and a half years to explore and document some of the industrial waste disposal areas of the Great Lakes region, surveying and cataloguing her observations while sitting in her car at a safe distance, as indicated by the dosimeter that is her constant companion.
“I’m kind of interested in just a really simple documenting, bearing witness in a really slow way,” said Linder, in a process video created by Donald Harrison on behalf of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, where Linder’s materials from the last year and a half are currently on display in Atomic Highways and Byways.
Linder’s project is a series of 135 drawings, to date, collectively titled Toxic Archives 2013–present. Materials include long scrolls that feature hand-drawn, panoramic views of affected areas in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and, in the project’s most recent iteration, the US Ecology landfill at Willow Run Airport in Bellville, Michigan. Linder was initially inspired by her interest in the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, wherein an entire neighborhood development was built on toxic ground, impacting the health of hundreds of residents. Outcry about the situation peaked in the late 1970s, resulting in a Superfund cleanup that concluded with the neighborhood’s demolition in 2004.
“If you look, you find continuously that schools, ball fields, parks — all of these things tend to be built in proximity of the nastiest sites,” Linder says in the video. “So none of that has really changed.” On display in Atomic Highways and Byways are three of Linder’s panoramic scrolls, several display cases full of research materials (painstakingly re-rendered by hand), and a rubbing taken from a radioactive parking lot on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
“Many roads and parking lots in Niagara Falls have radioactive slag, waste from the Manhattan Project, mixed into the road beds and under the backfill of the parking lots,” Linder told Hyperallergic over email. “Rapids Bowling and Greater Niagara Building Center are well-known hot spots.” Linder’s detailed pencil panoramic drawings underscore the innocuous and quotidian nature of these landscapes and locales, and the ways in which an unknowing public is constantly exposed to their effects — on your toxic sites getaway, be sure to stay at the apparently radioactive Niagara Falls Best Western Summit Inn!
The supporting research for her documentation projects is compiled into display cases (for the purposes of Atomic Highways, all the works on display are from 2016 and 2017), and organized according to yellow drawings titled “Checklist,” which are checklists for the other drawings in each case. Materials for the Niagara Boulevard drawing include pages from 1980s Army Corps and Department of Energy reports detailing simple maps of Niagara Falls radioactive hotspots, an advertisement for radiation clean-up materials from a an issue of Health Science Journal in the ’80s, a list of acronyms from a government report, and an old ad for radon mines used as “places of healing.” There is something both tender and obsessive about this reproduction of data by a human hand, which bridges the abstracting distance of digital information and the real world, occupied by humans. One of these cases features two newspaper articles that discuss the Niagara Falls hot spots and slag pile that was moved to Michigan.
“I wanted to connect [the project] up with Michigan,” Linder said, “and then when I discovered a few weeks ago that the materials that we are trying to get rid of are coming here, I thought that this was a really nice connection.”
Perhaps “nice” in the poetic sense, but of course not nice at all for a region that has already been beleaguered by mass toxic events — most notably the ongoing Flint Water Crisis, where budgetary cuts made by an emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder caused lead contamination in the water supply, affecting a massive swath of Flint’s citizens. The situation, which has been ongoing since 2014 and grabbed headlines throughout much of 2016, still has not been resolved. It is bad enough to think that horrific environmental contamination might happen as an accidental side-effect of poor or short-sighted governance, but Linder’s project makes it clear that America operates on a business-as-usual practice of intentionally obscured public health hazards. Conflicts over future public health hazards like the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrate that the government has no compunction whatsoever about moving forward with projects that endanger its populace — to say nothing of extending the brutal legacy of seizure by force of Native lands.
Linder’s meditations are disturbing, engaging, and ultimately quite beautiful, but one cannot shake a sense that the time for simple documentation and bearing witness in a slow way has long passed. If we cannot act to protect our own entitlement to clean land, air, and water, the documentation may serve as little more than a eulogy.
Joan Linder’s Atomic Highways and Byways continues at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities (202 South Thayer Street, Suite 1111, Ann Arbor, Michigan) through March 10.