The Kernel
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The Kernel

Abstract Art Brings Atomic Healing To Nuclear Power Debate

The work of a San Francisco artist is creating space for reflection and introspection about nuclear technology’s impact on society.

‘trinity’, 2020 by Angel Rafael Vázquez-Concepción.

I’ve long thought that, above all else, nuclear power suffers from an image problem. No amount of fact-dumping from excitable engineers on Twitter will change that. What’s needed is an exploration of the societal implications of this “special” technology — the good and the bad — and the emotions it generates within us. So when I discovered the work of Angel Rafael Vázquez-Concepción last year, I was both impressed and heartened.

Rafael is an artist and teacher living in San Francisco. His works are kaleidoscopes of patterns and colours that contain subtle messages about nuclear radiation, energy and weapons. It’s this subtlety that makes Rafael’s work so effective. To understand them, the viewer cannot be passive — they must participate, and thus are encouraged to find their own meaning. It’s the very opposite of bombarding people with “the facts” on nuclear and hoping they’ll change their mind.

I was recently lucky enough to interview Rafael about why he does what he does.

Rafael in his San Francisco studio.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.

“I am an artist, teacher and curator born in Puerto Rico. I have been living in California since 2011. I have completed graduate studies in curatorial practice at the California College of the Arts, and have a teaching degree in history from San Francisco State University. I live and work as an educator and artist, occasionally dabbling in curating the work of other artists for institutions.

“Since 2012 I have been deeply interested in the history of nuclear technology, inheriting from my partner’s grandfather, physicist Moses Greenfield (Grandpa Mo, as we called him at home), a treasure trove of papers. He died that year. I found in his papers, some of them once classified top secret, an ocean of inspiration for abstract works, that spoke to the historical period and the legacy of that age.

“I have since gorged on books and primary information about the history of radiation since the days of Becquerel and the Curies to today, visited places like the Trinity Site and institutions dedicated to the topic like the Museum of Nuclear History and Technology, and continue to build my cabinet of curiosities of the atomic age. It is important to also state that I am deeply interested in atomic age design and my work draws a great deal from that aesthetic. I wish to be a part of a new wave of atomic age artists and designers, a part of the artistic contingent of the ecomodernist movement.”

Much of your work draws on the science, technology and societal impacts of nuclear technology. What drew you to the atom?

“Like I mentioned before, Grandpa Mos amazing experience as a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and how he helped found the Nuclear Medicine Department at UCLA was a huge draw to the topic, but also my mother and uncle. My mother Jacqueline died of leukemia when I was a child, and I remember since then being deeply attracted to and interested by chemotherapy and “radiation” as a phenomenon that could have helped save her had the cancer been detected earlier than it was.

“My uncle Javier Antonio was also a radiologist, and I was a kid when he was in college getting his degree, filling my brain with the accomplishments of Roentgen, et al, as he babysat me and my sister. I was drawn to that world of invisible energy that paradoxically enabled us to see inside the human body. I found it intriguing since I can remember, but it was not until I got to art school that I began to draw artistic inspiration from it.”

‘once the atomic energy commission, 2021’, Angel Rafael Vázquez-Concepción

Your work is intriguing as it seems to portray nuclear as neither a force for good nor for bad, but rather as something morally neutral. Would you agree? Is this a conscious decision?

“Thank you for surfacing this. I like seeing that you have picked up on that. It is a conscious decision. We must remember that this technology requires stewardship that challenges our human lifespans, as the construction, operational life, and dismantling and cleaning up can span decades if not centuries. Some newer technologies that are smaller may require less time and oversight, but we need to respect the atom. Radiation is our friend, but it commands our respect.

“I want to be respectful of the fact that it is a complex technology, and it is inexorably linked to terrible events of the past. There are no shortcuts around that. I have had great success persuading folks about nuclear because I do not shy away from processing some of the basic concerns and apprehensions to the technology. Not everyone is a physicist, and I am certainly not one either, but through the study of Grandpa’s papers [on medical physics] I lost my initial fear of nuclear technology and embraced it fully as a promising healing technology and energy source.

“I have climbed and continue to climb the steep learning curve step by step — I have been ‘nuclearly evangelized’ and so I continue the chain as best I can. Also, cultural agents like Zion Lights, of Emergency Reactor, Bret Kugelmass of the Titans of Nuclear podcast, and model and influencer Isabelle Boemeke are a deep inspiration as they are doing the cultural work, the emotional labor, of reaching out to new communities of stakeholders in the rise of nuclear technologies — they are building up the dream of a nuclear future where we decarbonize our energy production and the growth of our communities in an ecomodernist manner.

“My work wants to bring the topic to the spectator’s radar and invite them to climb the learning curve as well, to make their own decisions based on facts, not feelings, as I do not have the credentials to do much more. I extend the hand to that spectator, and say, ‘yes’, to nuclear technology with my individual testimony and my interest in its heroic (and even ridiculous) history.”

You were born in Puerto Rico? How does your upbringing influence your work?

“I grew up visiting Playa Domes in Rincón, Puerto Rico. This is the site of the old Boiling Nuclear Superheater (BONUS) Reactor Facility, a decommissioned nuclear reactor. I have to say it left an imprint in my memory, and as I mentioned before there are family connections to the atom by way of my uncle Javier and mother Jacqueline, both deceased and terribly important to me.

“But I have to state that the white dome on this beach seems to me now a glowing promise, a possible solution to our unfolding energy crisis in Puerto Rico. How it would change the game for us if we were to embrace this clean energy source for our island after the passing of hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Given our complex geography and our proximity to atmospheric phenomena, we should be looking to learn from the Japanese nuclear industry, and build smarter, better reactors using newer, safer energy production specs. That is one of the motors of my abstraction, that search for a path to energy sustainability, for California, and for my family back home in Puerto Rico. The road will be a long one, for all our nuclear societies, but one worth walking I believe.”

Hurricane Maria created devastation across Puerto Rico, leading to power cuts that went on for months (Roosevelt Skerrit, Flickr).

Tell me about the work you do with LGBTQ+ artists.

“In the past I have collaborated with artists who seek to unearth and understand our obscured queer histories, and love to work with and explore queer archives like the GLBT Historical Society Archives and Museum. Other than that I love to represent our community in nuclear circles.

“I believe we are suited to the conversation as we sometimes have to be ‘in the closet’ about out views on nuclear to avoid alienating allies who have yet to come around to the vast benefits of embracing this technology. People who support nuclear sometimes lose friendships, and that is a shame. I guess what I am trying to say is that in light of our society stance on the lgbtqia2+ people, I relate materially to these substances and technologies, but that is just me personally, I would not speak for anyone else.”

You were recently commissioned to create a mural inside Facebook’s San Francisco offices. How did that come about? What is the piece about? What has been the reception?

“The curator at Facebook Open Arts is Jessalyn Aaland…She invited me to send in a proposal and I submitted my design for Atomic Awakening. I was thrilled of course at the openness with which they embraced the topic and the great location I was given in one of their spaces in Downtown San Francisco.

“The mural combines notions of deep geologic repositories, the peculiar repeating sound of a Geiger counter in the presence of nuclear radiation, and the effect of neutrons bombarding nuclear fissile material to go critical and initiate a chain reaction.

“The work sprawls on the wall and lures you into its suggested contours and valleys. It is both a visualization of the goings-on of the atomic realm and the complex history of nuclear power and weapons. The legacy of the Atomic Age, and the traumas it has left in the collective psyche after it began just over a century ago, pose fascinating questions as we again turn to nuclear energy to lower carbon emissions and stave off climate change, and explore options for providing clean, cheap energy to the developing world.

“‘Atomic Awakening’ is the byproduct of my deep interest and desire to motivate a conversation around the debate that surrounds the future of nuclear energy, and uplift anti nuclear weapon activism. The title of this work is taken from a book by physicist James Mahaffey that summarizes the history of nuclear technology.”

Rafael was recently commissioned by Facebook to create this mural, ‘Atomic Awakening’, at one of their San Francisco offices.

What future ahead do you see for nuclear power?

“I am very optimistic, positively excited about the future of nuclear technology. I see us overcoming our fear of fission like we overcame our fear of fire and electricity before it. We want energy, and we will seize this gift with intelligence and integrity, I am betting on that. Call me naive, a dreamer, a lunatic, but that is all I am at the end of the day, a visual poet, an artist. I also desire a future in which I am invited to produce a mural for the Headquarters of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and queer that space… lol.”

You have a painting called “Riding Asimov” — I’m huge fan of the Foundation books, and found it intriguing that Asimov’s measure of an advanced civilization is mastery of nuclear technology, or “atomics”, as he calls it. What is “Riding Asimov” about for you?

“I deeply appreciate this question. To your point, I adore Asimov, and subscribe and aspire to that which you so eloquently share about his futurist vision. Like you, I want us to achieve that. And like many others who feel the same way, we unite to give life to Asimov’s vision — we join in on the atomics ride.

“Progressively, and collectively, we will embrace our mastery of nuclear technology, and cross the threshold into new types of civilization. This work is conceptually inspired in that wild imaginary ride. Now that you mention it, a dream would be for my art to be used for a cover for one of his reprints of the Foundation books. That would be a brilliant day at the office.”

Is being an artist exploring atomic themes a lonely exercise, or is there a wider movement of artists with similar ideas and approaches?

“Being an artist period can be a lonely practice… one of my artistic inspirations is American artist James Acord, who also expressed his sense of loneliness in his investigation. He was the only artist to ever get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commision to make art using radioactive materials. I would never use these materials, but I share in his reflections on how niche our conversations are at the moment.

James Acord tells the humourous story of how he came to make art with nuclear materials.

“But we build community through important exposures like this interview you are conducting and sharing, which help us reach beyond the bubble of contemporary art, and draw stakeholders to the dreams we imagine and share.

“Slowly, as I become more open about the topic on my social media, the public have shared their deep curiosity about this field. I want to let our friends and new public know, and maybe other nuclear artists feel the same, that there is always space at our table for the curious.

“I want to take the opportunity to thank you openly for doing your part to bring us nuclear artists together via social media (My pleasure, David), this is such an important moment for us to coalesce. Efforts like yours could lead to a group show, hopefully, that can help bring our work together. We can bring our message to the white cube (as gallery spaces are sometimes known), a most fascinating dream factory that will help popularize nuclear technology, the importance of responsible land management and stewardship, and voice our total rejection of nuclear weapons and the use of these technologies to harm.”

‘riding asimov, 2021’, Angel Rafael Vázquez-Concepción

Thanks so much to Rafael for giving his time for this interview. Be sure to check out his work on his blog or Instagram. If you’re interested in arranging a studio visit or purchasing Rafael’s work, you can find details here.

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David de Caires Watson

Nuclear futurist, chartered physicist, safety engineer, amateur birder and pedal power enthusiast. Writer for The Kernel mag. Founder of Atomic Trends.