Research project examines atomic tourism at site of the world’s first atomic bomb blast

A visit to New Mexico and the test site of the first atomic blast led Mary Kavanagh, a professor in the Department of Art at the University of Lethbridge, on a new multi-year project that explores atomic tourism in the context of the emergent nuclear Anthropocene.

Photo by Terry Ownby
Her project recently received nearly $150,000 over four years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the first Insight Research/Creation Grant awarded to a faculty member at the U of L.

“Since the end of the Cold War, atomic tourism has been on the rise, with millions of visitors each year travelling to significant sites of atomic history, industry and accident,” says Kavanagh. “My project, Atomic Tourist: Trinity, explores nuclear anxiety in the post-Cold War era through a series of interviews with visitors to the site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation.”

Under the auspices of the Manhattan Project, a secret wartime consortium led by the United States with the support of Britain and Canada, the development and use of atomic weapons presented new orders of destructive capability. Codenamed "Trinity," the test took place deep in the desert on July 16, 1945, south of the Manhattan project's headquarters in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Every living thing within a mile of the blast was obliterated. A rehearsal for the bombing of Hiroshima three weeks later, and Nagasaki three days after that, today the significance of Trinity site as a marker for the birth of the atomic age is widely acknowledged socially, culturally, and psychologically.

Photo by Tyler Muzzin

Kavanagh has been making annual trips to Trinity, New Mexico, since 2012. Building upon interviews gathered during a highly successful pilot study, Kavanagh will continue to gather participant testimonials from a broad spectrum of tourists during bi-annual Trinity Open Houses.

"This audio/visual material will provide a spatial-temporal archive, consisting of an accumulation of voices, perspectives and experiences all addressing the unique meaning of Trinity site," says Kavanagh.

She anticipates the results of her study will have implications for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, or for anyone engaged in post-atomic studies, especially as the Trinity test nears its 75th Anniversary (2020) and interest in the subject ramps up.

Interview participants have offered a variety of motivations for visiting the test site, ranging from the deeply personal to the curious. There are war veterans, history buffs, scientists, nuclear industry workers, filmmakers, activists and cancer survivors. They arrive in the thousands, some travelling from far-flung places to experience firsthand where the atomic age began.

A series of art works or "chapters" including moving-image vignettes, photographic works, book works, and installations will be produced over the four-year period of the grant, while a culminating experimental documentary filmwill offer an extended meditation on the research and annual fieldwork.

“The most important thing for me as an artist is the question of vulnerability and what’s at stake. This project specifically focuses on the vulnerable human and animal subject, and on the slow violence unleashed through the vast and unstoppable nuclear experiment,” she says.

Kavanagh's project will construct an archive of voices that reveals the profound global embodiment of the nuclear era as collective and cumulative. Considered alongside the historic, ethical and ecological dimensions of Trinity site, this drilling down or deep mapping of the site will uniquely contribute to the growing body of scholarship on urgent questions of the nuclear age.