"On The International Shadows Project: 1990" by Karl Young

By Karl Young, Curator

The Manhattan Project was a microcosm of the nuclear age. It was conducted in secret. The American public did not know it was going on, nor did the majority of military and political personnel. Only two of the twelve men aboard the plane that dropped the first bomb knew what they were carrying when they took off. The American people were not asked if the bomb should be used -- they were not trusted to make the decisions that the president and a small circle of cohorts wanted. At the same time, the elite Manhattan Project scientists weren't trusted either: a secret army of spies kept them under surveillance.

There you have three of the main characteristics of the nuclear age: secrecy, elitism, and exclusion. The next element, terror, also surrounded the Manhattan Project. The ostensible reason for using nuclear weapons was to terrify the Japanese into surrender. Japan's surrender, however, took a back seat to the need to spread greater terror in the Soviet Union. That worked so well that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have spent the succeeding forty five years terrifying the world by inventing ever more fiendish ways of terrifying each other.

But opposition has also been characteristic of the age. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, many of the Manhattan Project scientists wanted to stop work on the bomb. Although their protests were muzzled, it is clear that opposition to nuclear weapons began BEFORE the first one was tested and before the bombing of Hiroshima.

The 1990 International Shadows Project represents a particularly appropriate tradition of opposition. For over a decade people around the world have gone about their communities outlining each other's bodies in memory of those Hiroshima residents who had been vaporized by the first bomb. Performance artists have joined this tradition. In the U.S., John Held, Jr. has been indefatigable in such efforts. Ruggero Maggi of Milan, Italy has not only been active in performances, he and Held have united Mail Art and Shadows Projects. Maggi sponsored several shows in Italy in the mid '80's, and took part in organizing a major show in Hiroshima in 1988. Work from this show passed on to a 1989 show in Calexico, under the curatorship of Harry Polkinhorn. The Calexico show in turn formed the nucleus of this year's expanded Milwaukee show.

Mail Art is intrinsically opposed to the secrecy, elitism, and exclusion of the nuclear age. It is thoroughly unhieratic. It is not localized in centers of power and authority, but emanates from everywhere and can go anywhere. Mail Art matured and continues to have a large following in the Fascist dictatorships of Latin America, the totalitarian countries of Eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R. and other places where political commitment has been strong and the need to avoid censorship has been great. Many American Mail Artists see the genre as a means of confounding economic censorship. In addition to making a case against nuclear weapons, the show argues the case for freedom of every sort, including freedom from censorship, freedom from repressive governments, and freedom from class, race, and social prejudice. It does so by offering complete freedom of expression to participants.

Although freedom from the terror of nuclear annihilation is foregrounded in this show, the desire for freedom from other forms of terror is also represented. For nearly half a century the human race has been enslaved by nuclear weapons and the world they have created. The nuclear virus has spread everywhere. Consider, for instance, that freedom from hunger is the most basic of freedoms. If the enormous resources devoted to nuclear weaponry had been directed toward agriculture and food distribution, we would live in a world free from hunger. If the ingenuity lavished on nuclear delivery systems had been used to develop alternative energy sources, we would be free from dependency on fossil fuel. Fissionable materials remain lethal for thousands of years. That means that we are not free to restructure society along different lines: someone will have to tend our nuclear wastes for millennia. Freedom from sociopolitical terror is also a basic freedom. Had we not carefully laid the foundations for terror as panacea forty five years ago, we would be closer to freedom from terror today, and terrorism would not have been elevated to the status of an ideology or a religion.

The nuclear age has been alive with proposals for the elimination of nuclear terror. Ours is simple: to answer slavery with freedom; to answer elitism with universal enfranchisement; to answer exclusion with openness; to answer expensive weaponry with art that can be produced inexpensively; to answer terror with honesty, decency, responsibility, and visions of peace. In any society that pretends to be free, silence implies consent. Those of us who have participated in Shadows Projects have most emphatically refused to consent.

Press here to go to samples of mail art from the show.
Press here to go to a survey of the show, with panorama of works in place on walls.
Press here to go to poetry contributed to this show.
Press here to go to a list of contributors to the 1990 show.
Press here to go to an essay on Shadows Projects by Karl Young.

Return to International Shadows Project home page.
Return to Light and Dust Poets.

Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.