Undoing the Black and White of History
Text from the catalog of the solo-exhibition at the Folkwang Museum, Essen (DE)
By Hester Keijser (Stead Bureau)
It all began when it was foretold(1) that the ice would melt faster than snowfall could replenish it, threatening to uncover what had lain buried for over half a century. Or wait. It began before that, when certain files(2) kept by the United States Army were declassified(3) and the information contained within started to leak to the press, the people and their governments, leading to a political scandal in Denmark. Or maybe it began even before that, when former workers from the Thule Air Base in Greenland involved in a clean up operation after an air crash had developed alarmingly high rates of cancer, and pressured their governments to investigate. In any case, a ball had started to roll and could no longer be stopped, unraveling in its wake a history of toxic waste, dangerously overconfident leaders, Cold War politics and the ruthless displacement of a people under colonial rule.
Russian-Swiss photographer Anastasia Mityukova (1992) belongs to the generation that grew up on the ruins of 20th Century modernism– ruins that they would not only inherit, but also have to clean up if they want to keep the planet habitable for their own children. By all means, it’s no small task to have the future of the entire world placed on one’s shoulders, yet this is the situation they have to navigate. One way of doing so, is by mapping out future conflicts that stand to result from our conflicted pasts, as an exercise in thinking through what it will take to entangle them, ideally without repeating the same mistakes made before.
This urgency, one that arises from present concerns, and not from a misplaced sense of nostalgia for an iconic bygone era, is what drove Mityukova to engage with the failed military projects set up by the US in the early 1960s in the north of Greenland. In “Project Iceworm” she explores their aftermath in several sections, including the B-52 plane that crashed in 1968 onto the sea ice not far from Thule Air Base, carrying four thermonuclear bombs, the resulting cover-up orchestrated by the joint American and Danish governments, and the fate of Camp Century, a US arctic military scientific research base intended as a cover for a vast underground nuclear missile launching site.
Built at a mere 800 miles from the North pole, the camp, powered by a mobile nuclear plant, operated from 1959 until it was abandoned in 1967 due to the instability of the glacier in which it was embedded. Instead of commissioning the deconstruction of the base and returning the site to its previously pristine condition, the settlement was left pretty much as it was, with the expectation that the ice growth on the glacier would ensure that the entire camp including harmful materials within would remain encased deep underground for centuries to come. Instead, within five years, the first Report for the Club of Rome on anthropogenic climate change and its effect of global warming would be published. By 2016, a group of scientists was able to estimate that Camp Century could resurface by 2090, releasing all of its toxic waste into the marine environment.
Even though Greenland is one of the world’s most thinly populated areas, the US military activities weren’t built on a no man’s land, nor did they leave the local population unaffected. The construction of Thule Air Base (executed in secret under the code name ‘Operation Blue Jay’) involved the forced relocation of an entire village of 130 Inuit to the new to be built town of Qaanaag, or ‘New Thule’. Contact between the villagers and the soldiers was discouraged, and Camp Century, due to its secretive nature, was entirely off limits, and is still a closed site.Not only were the previously Nomadic Inuit curbed in their movements on what had been their land for centuries, their environment and wild live stock would als end up contaminated by the nuclear payloads that had ruptured after the accident with the B-52 plane, inevitably affecting their traditional way of subsisting from hunting.
The way that this history has been (re)told, by me and by others, is itself a peeling back of layers in order to reconstruct events, based on reports existing in the public domain, scientific findings, government commissioned investigations, recollections of former employees of the Danish government or the US Aarmy and their contractors, and a slew of articles in the media on the political scandal that erupted in Denmark after the real purpose of Camp Century and the Americas presence in Greenland was disclosed. As often goes with history, it is written by the winners, and those are definitely not the Inuit population, who have not been given much opportunity to relate events on their own terms, and who still depend for their foreign policy relations on Denmark, its former colonial master.
Mityukova, aware of the inherent ambiguities of the photographic image, has chosen to enhance the uncertainties contained within the official narratives about Camp Century, and to juxtapose the archival reconstruction of the base with a series of present day landscapes, cropped from images taken by Greenland’s local population as found on social media. The archival images, made by mostly unnamed photographers, found online on historical blogs, in US Army photographic collections and various news sites, are reprinted with a yellow overlay to indicate the presence of hazardous waste: physical, chemical,biological and radiological. In contrast, the landscape images from the present day are left untouched.
It may appear odd that despite the multitude of archival images, with their implicit claim on indexical truth and factual recordings, the viewer still finds themselves unable to piece together a coherent mental image of the base as it existed. This is not due to the fact that so few records of the construction are preserved(4) , but it is the outcome of intentional selections - interventions in the archive - by Mityukova as artist. What seemed at first an almost documentary effort by a photographer to uncover an alluring story about the Cold War, experiments in extreme architecture and a failed optimism in nuclear energy and, warfare, turns out to be a fabric woven to unravel at the seams, undoing the black and white version of history as we know it, in order to begin making room for the alternative realities of the local population that must suffer the consequences.
Their accounts are to be woven into a next chapter of Mityukova’s arctic environmental epos, because their presence is needed for future talks on how to decontaminate and dispose of the camp’s remains once they start to resurface in less than a century - and who is to be held responsible for the clean up, politically and financially. If the local population are to have a say in this matter and shape the discussion, they should prepare for being a party equal to the Danish and the Americans, or whomever inherits the burdens of these nations’s pasts. This will take an effort that is carried forward on many shoulders - including Mityukova’s.
As viewers, we can support her in this by investing in letting the questions enclosed in the work rise to the surface of our minds, and resist the temptation to evaluate it only for its appeal to our senses. For it would be a waste if her efforts would be contained in the aesthetic domain only.
(1) “The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate.”
(2) “History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977”.https://web.archive.org/web/20071201125928/http://www.nautilus.org/archives/library/security/foia/USA/CustodyTb.PDF
(3) “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Deployments Disclosed”:
(4) On the contrary, it is easy to find a trove of images and even movies shared online about the construction phase an the finished Camp Century, albeit not from the covert areas intended as the missile base.