Critical Mass. Nuclear Power in Germany

A book review by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

Michael Danner, Critical Mass. Video © Kehrer Verlag. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass. Video © Kehrer Verlag. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

“I wanted to document these sites because to a lot of people they are just a name or an idea,” said Michael Danner after more than four years of visiting and documenting seventeen nuclear power plants in Germany. The photographer was allowed access to the deepest corners of the plants, including the pools where spent nuclear fuel is cooled and stored. Acting almost as a visual hand-held silent tour through the plants, the photographs lead us from outside the facilities and the usually rural context of the countryside to inside, revealing the photographer’s artistic and documentary concerns. Danner’s intention to show the human side of the plants offers different perspectives on the massive, stodgy, and potentially menacing structures, presenting us with the rituals of everyday activities and an introspective view of the facilities’ interiors. [1]

Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants has determined Danner to photograph the facilities in an attempt to investigate the immediate past and restore considerations about how these facilities which once powered several generations have fallen into disfavour. Photographs taken from the Unterweser facility on the North Sea coast or the Isar power station in Bavaria picture a time and social conditions which have made Danner reflect on how the 1970s and an environmentally-conscious Germany extend their concerns to investigate the present. In an interview for Deutsche Welle, the photographer said his role is to contribute to the debate on nuclear power. It is not the evident, manifest power that Danner investigates in this series; instead, his focus falls on the normativity portrayed by these enclosed spaces, the rituals and routines that shaped the workers’ everyday views of the structures, as seen through an anonymous, absent eye. “I didn’t include people in the pictures,” says Danner, “but there are small items – backpacks or trophies, for instance – that give an indication about those who work here. Some staff members have been working at nuclear sites for decades.” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement on May 29, 2011, that Germany would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2012 thus concluding over four decades of nuclear power supplying and nuclear energy experiments has enabled Danner to set the project into a historical perspective, at the dusk of an age. The book is a documentary and an archive at the same time, balancing the past and the present only to raise questions on how will this epoch survive its future. The overlapping of past and present can be observed starting with the book cover and the retrospective look over environmental activist Günter Zint’s historical pictures and archive photographs of anti-nuclear demonstration. Looking through the times of heated confrontations between anti-nuclear power activists and governmental forces, one can only reflect on how past aspirations have shaped the present or how will the present be pictured in the future. Designed in collaboration with the Dutch graphic designer Sybren Kuiper and shortlisted for the 2015 edition of Deutscher Fotobuchpreis, Critical Mass is more than a document: it conveys a message for the generations to come, a plausible story of how ordinary routines may meet their decline, and an untold reflection on the photographic medium as archival document.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The history of nuclear power in Germany is also a history of its division after 1945, an asynchronous race for technologization illustrative of post-war politics and aspirations. In March 1956, the Third SED Party Conference had reinforced emphasis on high-technology development by endorsing a Second Five-Year Plan that made numerous references to “scientific-technological progress” and “socialist reconstruction.” The industrial transformation of the GDR was based on rationalisation, mechanisation, automation, and nuclear power, setting ambitious goals to “catch up with and surpass capitalism in terms of technology” [2] largely based on the country’s machine-tool, machine-building, and electrical-goods sectors. However, productivity in the machine-tool branch declined throughout the 1950s, “mainly because of continuing overreliance on designs dating back from before 1945, insufficient attention to new automation technologies, and overinvestment in development of a heavy-machine sector.” [3] In addition to the sustained development of a domestic semiconductor industry and heavy commitment to the chemical industry, Germany’s traditional source of technological strength, the first nuclear reactor in East Germany was open in Rossendorf, near Dresden, in December 1957. While the reactor’s design and construction was Soviet, it was to be used by East German researchers at the Institute for Nuclear Physics “to develop domestic capability for producing atomic power.” [4] The GDR continued to linger behind the West in terms of economic and technological development, but smaller triumphs such as the 1958 introduction of the Trabant, with its futuristic design and Duroplast body, attracted worldwide attention, in connection with the launch of the first Sputnik by the Soviets on October 4, 1957. [5] Such technological euphorias would of course allure the admiration of the eastern bloc, but the struggles to overtake and surpass the capitalist system through science as mass production force put in the service of automation, precision machinery, electronics, organic chemicals, or nuclear power failed to fulfil utopian aspirations. The ambitious and optimistic perspectives of the late 1950s, where socialism would finally demonstrate its superiority over capitalism, were precipitated and accelerated in the wake of the Second Berlin Crisis, the 1958-1961 attempts by the GDR with the support of the Soviets to regularise the ambiguous state of Berlin. Efforts were made to identify, develop, and implement organisational structures and technologies by which the GDR, often relying on Soviet technology, sought to recover the disparities onto Western developments and balance the position between the blocs in terms of technological tradition. Concentration on leading-edge technology also meant a growing inability to provide “the thousand objects of everyday need.” [6] After the 1945 division of Germany, the GDR was left with less coal, and of poorer quality, than was available in the West, with short supplies of raw materials apart from uranium, which was vital for the dawning nuclear age yet strictly controlled by the Soviets throughout the GDR’s existence. [7] This history alone would entangle a series of conflicting developments that surface in Danner’s photographs even if only as a distant or quiet echo, in the momentums the photographer seeks to reveal through the ordinary rituals of the everyday or the specific differences between the various facilities.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Danner has previously said that the use of archive pictures in his book was important to give his modern photos some context. As one opens the book, a sense of Germany’s modern history and the protests against the use of nuclear power or storage of nuclear waste punctuates the historical pictures from environmental activist Günter Zint and the photos of anti-nuclear demonstrations Danner obtained from police archives. This helps understand a forgotten historic tale that expands beyond energy debates in Germany, a narrative of forgotten countrysides, lands, and places that remain largely unknown to the most of us. “Many of these areas are a long way out of town, in places that we Germans have heard of from the media but know nothing about,” Danner explained. Black and white documents of past events in Brokdorf, Gorleben, and Wackersdorf, shown from the perspective of the anti-nuclear activists, reveal the battlegrounds and territorial sites these municipalities are in recent history: helicopters circling above, water cannons pointed against anti-nuclear protesters, police officers armed with riot shields barging through the doors of a residential dwelling, or barbed-wire reinforced enclosures help the viewer revisit the violent protests of the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. [8] Like urbanisation, industrialisation is an auto-perpetuated process, in close connection with trade and the electric industry. The historical overdevelopment of industrial cities entangled social and territorial mutations, awakening regionally defined resistance movements. In Danner’s book, they show the precipitous grounds on which current silence rests. Unnumbered pages show sequences of images passing abruptly from the past into the present and back into the past, transporting the viewer in and out of history. The present is always stranded – what comes after is a question of what is left; what will be left behind when these plants will be closed down? The iconography of these facilities, the thousands of people left without a working place, or the future of human settlements surrounding each power plant raise unanswered questions on the fate of an industry and the life built around it. Through all their apparent coldness and stillness, the photographs reveal the dramatic resilience of the ordinary and the routine, the significance of daily rituals, and a glimpse into these massive industrial innards which might remain to tell a story of modern nuclear Molochs.

In her essay Traversing controversial territory. Michael Danner’s images of nuclear power stations, [9] Susanne Holschbach begins by outlining the nuclear power battlegrounds as sites that have in some way been mythologized as a consequence of the “squabbles” they’ve caused. The numerous clashes throughout the ’70s and ’80s between protestors and the police marked emphatic attitudes toward the construction of nuclear power plants and sought to counter both fears of escalating nuclear arms race and fears of environmental destruction. Danner’s visit to all seventeen of the anti-nuclear power sites in Germany, as well as the Asse II terminal repository for radioactive waste and the exploration mine at Gorleben, yet marks a distinct photographic approach. By photographing the exterior surroundings and the interior of the plants, his visual exploration becomes a moving landscape deeply inscribed within the topography of these bare terrains and operative territories. Sweeping through the unnumbered pages and empty sites pictured in the photographs, readers may be intrigued by the constant play between the familiarity and unfamiliarity of spaces, everyday rituals, and activity protocols, for together they create a sense of quiet disquietude. The complex layering of industrial architecture and facilities are expressive of the era’s aspirations and the dawning trust in technological progress. As pictured in Danner’s opening photographs, these industrial plants are reminiscent of the migration of people from rural to urban spaces and the technological transition to the industrial system of early capitalist production. Susanne Holschbach adverts to how Danner’s sequencing of his photographs evokes a continuous relationship of causality and interdependence mirroring the interferences between social, political, and cultural environments. A certain nostalgia installs: we are not shown ruins of long past histories, but those of our immediate past – ruins of unachieved promises that might reflect our current strives to construct the future. Identifying with a silent, almost noble decay, these industrial plants serve to question the narratives of the mono-industrial settlements close to these facilities. Here lies Danner’s subtle approach: his photographs express both the evident site of what is shown for seeing and the inapparent narratives one can only imagine in relation to these sites. If architecture and technology tell the story of what can be seen, the details and everyday objects belong to the dimension of the unseen, telling the forgotten narratives of absent subjects. The complexity of these facilities and the continuity in the photographic approach reveal the living ruins of the past, the dooming architectures and narratives of both capitalist and socialist industries that have yet become the landmarks of failed modernisms.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Danner observes that his friends “were surprised that there are people who have worked at the plants for 20 years and that they’re alive and happy,” a reflection of how we often misinterpret or misjudge the way people accommodate (within) their environments. Objectivity is used here less to make a statement and more to unmask the constituent controversies these plants hold within the history of their sites. Observance assumes a distant stance to allow the viewer an indirect investigation and evaluation of the sights. In what Susanne Holschbach has called a “landscape with cooling towers,” [10] a series of photographs construct an objective narration that mingles exterior and interior spaces to further emphasise a continuous field and the continuity of histories. The passage through distant landscapes, buildings, and facility entrances resumes the daily journeys one takes and the accompanying sights; to step into the changing rooms or offices, canteens, gyms, or medical examination rooms is helpful in that it helps us understand the practised rituals and intimacies. While the control centres are most expressive of praised technology and the adjacent surveillance complex that imposes organisation norms and conduct standards, it is the machine rooms and secret areas of reactors that reveal the seething innards of the facilities. From the pictorial sights of countryside settlements at dusk, with the nuclear power stations almost monumental in the background, through the compartmented activity areas, to the interiors of facilities, the sequencing is based on a filmic and documentary approach that allows both a clear and a digressive look. The rare details make one constantly review their context.

Formulaic motifs of nuclear power iconography, mostly based on didactic landscapes with cooling towers centred or off-centre so as to instruct the gaze, have been subtly reinterpreted here. “This iconography,” says Holschbach, “is based on the conflict inherent within the paradox of nuclear energy: on the one hand, the promise of clean energy that does not pollute the countryside with fumes and is produced in power stations erected far away from industrial conurbations, but, on the other hand, the potent reminder, in the form of these very power stations, of the lurking danger of nuclear catastrophe.” [11] The symbolic imagery of nuclear power stations is set against the innocent landscape of concrete surroundings and the photographer constantly changes perspectives by “alternating close-ups and distant views as well as the change in seasons and times of the day that Danner captures.” [12] This is more than a mere reflection of nuclear power iconography; the photographs illustrate how transitions to a modern era, marked by territorial reorganisations and insertion of industrial buildings within intact environments, continue the discourse of modernism as memorial markers. Yet these are memories of a recent past where magnitude and emptiness, potential and waste, aspirations and rude awakenings share common grounds underlying the principles of industrialisation and modernist obsessions with the machine, more than questions of serialisation or the scientific rationality of production.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

At first view, the power stations seem indistinguishable from typical industrial sites – this helps Danner extend the photographic discourse over the routine views of all industrial buildings. As the boundaries between the exterior and the interior are subtly dissolved, allowing the viewer an insensible passage inside the facilities, elements of the surveillance-control complex such as electronically secured metal barriers or single-entry access control doors advert us that we are looking at areas usually shielded from public view. These containment areas reveal their specific rituals, especially in the uniform room: rituals of cleansing and changing outfits unmask how individual identity/subjectivity is put to the service of a collective and opaque functional corpus. As one turns the pages and enters deeper within the facilities, control rites are revealed through the photographer’s deliberate details of rows of keys and lockers, allowing both the eye and the hand to open views and venture within. The viewer will have reached at this stage what seems to be a standard work environment: “We see a writing desk with Post-it notes, coloured notepads and wall calendars, a flip chart with management-speak platitudes, atrophied indoor plants, grey fitted carpets and filing cabinets – the banality of an office environment. Rather than exploring the types of activities performed here, however, Danner draws our attention to the manifestations of a corporate culture which strives to forge a common bond among its members. We see a crucifix on the wall, a sign of the Bavarian identity, a decorated Christmas tree in the canteen, glass display cabinets filled with cups and other trophies signifying team victories, bulletin boards illustrating overseas partnerships and a humorous sculpture indicating that you can, at times, laugh about your job.” [13] These apparently undifferentiated settings nevertheless advert to how standardisation of working environments are articulated attempts not only to regulate the activities but also create an aura of ordinariness. Danner has created typological sequences that help the viewer perceive the similarities and differences between particular power stations; this typological approach does not simply explore the particularities of these facilities but creates a historic document of the protocols and contradictions underlying daily realities. By carefully balancing the distant shots and closer views, the photographer deconstructs the monumentalism of these industrial facilities and reconstitutes the individual and the subjective: it does so by stating the sheer and manifest physical presence of the facilities against the absent subjects who are yet present through unseen activity rituals and tiny objects invested with signifying powers. Whether a trophy case, a messy desk, or a forgotten briefcase, they equally act as random hints pointing to the potential risks inherent in working at a nuclear power station. This visual and historical archive does not only materialise the neglected narratives of people working at these power plants, it consolidates a broader social commentary questioning the politics and aesthetics of everydayness.

Danner’s memorial approach is a retrospective look and an archival document that creates a sensory intuition between the recent past and the present. Seeing through the empty spaces and daily routines is also a means to address questions about the present, what might happen in the near future, and how society has transformed over the past decades. Photography unveils here the meaningful and interpretative power of/over space in unraveling politics, histories, and narratives at the same time. It reconstitutes the power of place by dismantling the representations of a post-industrial age, with its dominant landscaping, architectural and control setting, thus questioning the political intentions which legitimated the pursuit of technological advancement and attempts to discipline social attitudes. The history of nuclear power in Germany and its East-West divide in particular, is an expression of how real socialism and state capitalism collapsed only to mark the end of an incipient cycle of global capitalism and its characteristic type of modernity. Danner’s photographs show how disciplinary and hierarchic structures mirror new types of work organisation and the new protocols of social life. While today we witness a capitalism based on work ‘flexibility’ that reflects consumerist constructions and ideologies, the ‘heavy’ age of modernisation as conveyed by the nuclear power plants is a history of integrative social projects where disciplinary strategies of capitalist organisation of production were extended to the scale of society as a whole. The plant is therefore a metonymical expression of society as a whole and gives meaning to the life of each and every individual within a general project where the individual and the collective are to be perceived as one. Danner’s photographs constitute a cartography of collectivity, hierarchy, duty, sacrifice, solidarity, security, and control that are ultimately put to the test of a social discipline and a particular metaphysics of history. The closing of these facilities marks the end of a social project: care for all and every member, the firm social contract and widely shared sociability, the structures of predictability are slowly becoming a distant memory. While ideals of multiple middle classes inter-articulated so as to obscure new class divisions have altered the current social landscape, photographs such as these reflect a recent past where industrial plants were a means to produce more than just energy – they produced power and society and were a part of integrative rationalist structures based on scientific planning.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Crossing through the large number of rooms, we unexpectedly find ourselves in the control room. As Susanne Holschbach analyses, the antiquated name of the control room (Warte in German approximated as “watchtower” in English) “spans an entire semantic field and transposes associations with medieval fortresses, military surveillance and look-outs onto this high-tech environment.” [14] With their numberless panels and monitors, rooms such as these are emblematic, as the author points out, of post-industrial production processes and signify the transformation of manual labour into computing operations. However, computing operations in nuclear facilities rely on analog protocols and hierarchic chains of command. There is a particularity to Danner’s approach of these retro-futuristic scenes: “A bottle of mineral water on a side table and a discarded rucksack left carelessly next to a chair are not only signs of absent engineers; they also suggest these absent people’s corporeality – and thus their fallibility.” [15] Closing in on the turbines, capacitors and generators where the reactor’s heat energy is converted into electrical energy, the photographs dismantle the technological assemblage to unveil its particular aesthetics: while comparable to conventional power stations, these facilities share close to nothing with those of the coal and steel industry, whose aesthetic is “inseparable from the black and white photographs of Bernhard and Hilla Becher […]” [16] The different chromatics and specific colour design of each plant facility also reflect the meta-hierarchy of these industrial buildings. Here as well, the photographer alternates detailed views of tubes and wires with long shots that picture the monumental nature of the plants, to culminate in an aerial view into the depths of a reactor’s pressure tank and a succession of tunnels that lead to large doors and grilles. “Although the photographs thus follow the technical flow of operations, the language of the shots does, however, change both visually and metaphorically, from the technologically sublime to the underworld. After seemingly endless meanderings through a network of tunnels, which signify, both actually and symbolically, the long-deferred – repressed – issue of storing radioactive waste, we find ourselves in a dark space of ambiguous dimensions. […] At the end of the journey, we have left the organisational and security regime of the changing rooms, medical examination facilities and control centres, as well as the brightness and spaciousness of the engine rooms, far behind us.” [17]

The machine is a metaphor of society – it is an object invested with social role and is the mirror of society itself. While industrial sites have been built on strong belief in infinite progress, Danner’s photographs illustrate how massive and monumental sites such as these are subject to historical oblivion when seen in the perspective of economical growth and societal transformations. The photographer’s attention to building aesthetics and the relation between structure and ornament reflects the ever changing relationship between materiality, mass, and technology, but also the architectural apparatus of object and environment and its influence over the constitution of place and the creation of habitation patterns. These complex assemblies are expressive of the material formation of building and activity altogether, and its power to inform habits and rituals through structured protocols. Critical Mass is equally a question of (contemporary) gaze – as Danner’s camera wanders over the power stations and switches from close-ups to long distance views, it does not follow any particular pattern, allowing free slips between details and the distance: “The camera allows itself to be drawn in by the surreal aesthetic of colourful piping, colossal machines and hyperbolic spaces,” says Holschbach. “It captures the conceptual rigidity of a serial arrangement of work overalls, hard hats or circuit diagrams, the cool atmosphere of glossy modernised canteen kitchens, and the trendy chromaticity of electrical generators, turbines and spent fuel pits – only to draw our gaze, abruptly, to an inconspicuous corner filled with banal objects. At one level, our perceptions of high tech and the nuclear-power danger zone are certainly confirmed, but we are also repeatedly taken out of the comfort zone of our preconceptions by wholly unexpected images: an ice cream van parked outside, a chair chained to a wall, a sheet of plastic held together with adhesive tape, covering a mysterious object. Nothing is explained, but much is shown. We are asked to form our impressions, come to our own conclusions and follow up on our own questions about the images put in front of us.” [18]

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

It is highly possible that these once menacing facilities will serve the new interests of the contemporary upper class and the new global fluxes of capital, which will reinterpret them as heritage and transform them into museum attractions. But this comes with the price of forgetting these are places representative of where and how society and history were produced. Serving as instruments of modernisation and visible agents of propaganda, they have contributed to rendering the landscape technical by emphasising the grandiose production of means of production and modernistic belief in the powers of technology that continue to inform economical-political agendas. Ideas that technical progress automatically triggers social or humanistic progress advert us to the fortune wheel of these histories and how the future might eventually return to refined mechanisms of the past. In Critical Mass, the image of complete systematisation or systemic machines extending their mechanisms of spatial control and information reflects how spatial mechanics determine social homogenisation and continue to feed the fears of natural disasters. As time passed by, disposition of individuality within a collective system transformed into disposition of individual property: while the land had less monetary value per se after the ’50s, issues of property now trigger ever more conflicting reactions.

Industries relying on technological change are also subjected to modernist politics and their extensions. The perpetual acceleration of time embroils nostalgic attitudes and common desires to return to the slower pace of the past in the pursuit of social coherence and cohesion. But any nostalgic view upon the past reflects the abysmal oblivion we might fall into again. While both the capitalist and the socialist industrial modernity opposed modernist aspirations, creating hostile environments for the human life, the complete transition towards a globalised Western capitalism will replace industrial modernities with a global diffused modernity. It is not accidental that Michael Danner has chosen to photograph these facilities in the absence of people – by focusing the camera on the materiality and substance of these environments, he shows that economical reorganisation determines changes or the gradual dissolving of human relations and their sense of space materiality. The restructuring of these industrial sites entangles urban ruralisation and the future metamorphoses of natural continuity. The relevance of Critical Mass goes beyond photographic or documentary considerations, though the analogue ruins of industrialism certainly reflect the transitions of the photographic medium too. The project is relevant because it discusses the critical project of modernisation by questioning the (State) social and political projects based on industrialisation and technological progress. It unveils the contradictions and ambivalences of Modernity and how they affect the constitutive nature of space, time, and the types of human relations they breed. In an age of globalisation and deindustrialisation, post-industrial cities and their adjacent industrial facilities demand the rethinking of environments and consistent socio-political strategies.

Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Michael Danner, Critical Mass, 2007-2011. Image © Michael Danner. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In Critical Mass, the organic and the inorganic share a symbiotic destiny, amassing histories and narratives. This makes any definitive judgements on nuclear technology as such impossible: their intertwining points to hierarchies of life and life politics that need to be questioned in order to fully understand the social, energetic and natural processes behind the dynamics of energy production. Michael Danner did not document the operational processes as such, but spatial organisations, remnants of activities and signifying symbols. In the closing of her essay, Susanne Holschbach makes reference to Bruno Latour saying “rooms and objects, just as humans and the forces of nature, are agents in the processes of creating knowledge or fostering technical innovation,” [19] and pointing to networks of different human and non-human forces at play that Danner would isolate so as to bring the activity of these rooms and objects into focus. But Critical Mass is a memorial archive which documents the inapparent life and rituals that make any questions of agency possible in the first place. The disciplinary apparatuses portrayed here can only exert their function in the presence of humans – in their absence, their power suffers the destiny of commodities and is subjected to the wilder threat of modernist aspirations, reckless politics or future propaganda. We do not know for sure whether these facilities show us what the future will look like in the coming decades, but it is safe to say with Alexander Strecker [20] that “the real conclusion of nuclear power will be totally silent but just as empty.” Through all apocalyptic visions and unimaginable destruction, mislead politics and utopian aspirations, amidst the burned out and the empty – what is it that remains?

 

April 2, 2015

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