ARC Fellows: Refiguring Toxic Ecologies: Radioactive and Chemical Futurity

ARC Fellows: Refiguring Toxic Ecologies: Radioactive and Chemical Futurity

Submitted by our 2018 ARC Fellow Team:

Natalia Duong (TDPS) & Daniel O’Neill (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

At the start of the semester, we sought to explore inter-medial artistic representations of toxic ecologies that complicated the legibility of scientific data about radiation and chemical exposures. While Dan approached the topic from critical media ecologies focusing on the connection between media infrastructures, biopolitics and human life, Natalia drew from theoretical biology bringing together theories of embodiment and “new” crip materialisms to collectively consider how art contributed to visual models of anthropogenic change. Throughout the semester, we were surprised by the overlap between our interests and the research projects of other ARC Fellows: whether investigating questions about verity and accuracy in manuscript reproductions as a research practice, or dwelling on questions of temporality as represented by historic cultural and literary connotations of ice and it’s modern day referents in contemporary ice sculptures. Discussions about temporality as indicated by the crossovers between data visualization and artistic representation remained central to our inquiry throughout.

TracesIn particular, Natalia is interested in how the visual sense has become dominant in expressions of toxicity in cultural media. Writing against a genealogy of documentary photographs and films that aimed to make the chemical compound Agent Orange legible, she is interested in how movement—of human and non-human bodies—at all scales, offers a sensual way of “knowing” contamination on a different register. Part of her critique of this visual dominance, what Natalia refers to as scopic violence, is the manner with which visual methods have often led to extensions of violence against nonnormative bodies as the image of a nonnormative body becomes conscripted within state-narratives that locate these bodies as sites of medical intervention. However, during the discussion with the ARC Fellows, Julia Bryan-Wilson wondered what role the visual still played, if any, in the story being told about contamination. One artist Natalia is interested in further researching, Nguyen Tran Quynh//Richard Tran, engages with visual sensuality as he takes reproductions of images about Agent Orange exposure, and installs them within a room full of turmeric filled balloons. Tran then invites viewers to move throughout the space- reanimating the maps by situating them precariously alongside the unpredictable movement of bodies. Often, the balloons pop and burst the yellow pigment across the map. In this way, Tran offers another sensual engagement with the mapping (and consequently, the knowing) of exposure.

Like Natalia, Dan is interested in emergent forms of inter-medial artistic experimentation, precisely for the ways in which these works provide a model for grappling with toxic ecologies. Though these works employ a range of media, technique and styles, each can be seen as an attempt to re-envision humans’ relations with damaged environments. In the photo project Traces, Takeda worked with the contaminated soil he had collected from the surrounding areas of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to produce images that look like constellations but are actual evidence of lingering ground radiation. In the short film Sound of a Million Insects, Light of a Thousand Stars, the spectator is submitted to a series of dense textures and vivid colors sutured from an original 35mm negative that Nishikawa has buried for six hours at a place 15 miles from the Fukushima Power Plant. Working for years under the skies of Chernobyl, the illustrator Hesse-Honegger collected insects and produced bright paintings that magnified the slight abnormalities in the anatomy of these registrants of radiation, a brightness that all the more suggests the body’s ability to absorb its surrounding environment.

InsectsAs forms of environmental knowledge and practice, these works enlist the contingency between environments and bodies to bring awareness to the ways in which toxicity connects us forward in time into expansive interdependencies. As Kath Weston has argued, with each breath we take in, we are recomposing our bodies in an embrace of toxic intimacies both desired and unwanted. Though the locality of toxins may matter when defining their toxicity, the assessment of toxins’ harmfulness or usefulness can hinge on their very mutability and mobility. As such, we are continually reoriented to specific social and biological ecologies that are highly mutable, to the infrastructures of the elemental that move with the winds and currents across and beyond social and territorial boundaries, stretching forward in time, where bodies become something else, altered by the environmental aftermaths of war and industry in profoundly uneven ways. Such a reconsideration of the human body in relation to toxic ecologies and the uneven distribution of environmental harm will continue to evoke methodological and theoretical challenges concerning time and space, knowledge production and practice. The ultimate value of these harrowing art works of toxic relations lies, perhaps, in just such an invitation to re-imagine otherwise.


Natalia Duong is a performance artist, choreographer, and writer, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her research interweaves performance studies, disability studies, and critical race theory to examine embodied transmissions of the herbicide Agent Orange across human and non-human bodies in Vietnam and the United States. Natalia is a company member of The Lonely Painter Project and Poetic Theater Productions. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Dance from Stanford University and a Masters degree in Performance Studies from New York University. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Berkeley in Performance Studies with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Dan O’Neill is an associate professor at UC Berkeley.  His research interests include modern Japanese literature and criticism, global modernisms and postcoloniality, critical theory, cinema and media theory, environmental media and affect studies. His current book project traces an intermedial history of the 3.11 disasters and explores the capacity of expanded media forms to generate strong intimacies between the living and the dying.

Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2018 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.