Art, activism and the nuclear sea: an interview with Wallace Heim

the sea cannot be depleted‘ is an online artwork that uses sound and spoken word to call attention to the Solway Firth.

Why? Because of the depleted uranium (DU) buried beneath its surface. Because the UK Ministry of Defence fired many tonnes of artillery shells into the Solway Estuary over 30 years or more, from the 1980s onwards.

Essays and further information about the firings are also available here.

After encountering this stirring piece of work online, we put the following questions to the piece’s writer and producer, Wallace Heim.

Wallace Heim

Wallace Heim

1) How do you believe art can change the world for the better?

Humans have always made art of some kind, and this is fundamental to the world.

I don’t think, though, that art alone can change the world. That’s too much to ask of it. But I wake up every morning thinking that art and art-making is one of the strongest ways to shape a world, to make a world that is always moving towards being better.

The experience of art is about change, a change in perception, a change in how one feels about things, a change in how one sees one’s place in the world, a change in the conditions of life.

It both goes deep into your own life and moves you out into the lives of others, including the other living beings and environments with which we live.

Art can take on the most difficult and terrible conditions of life, and it can give great, laughing delight. There are so many ways to do this – the familiar forms of theatre, visual arts, music, design, engineering, architecture, gardening

And now, the many kinds of projects by artists that work directly with communities, and with the land and the seas.

Making sure the change is for the better depends on the artist and the artwork, and crucially, on the audiences and communities involved, and on how they take the artwork and make it their own.

Military firing range, from a public road on the Kirkcudbright Training Area. Source []

Military firing range, from a public road on the Kirkcudbright Training Area. Source

2) Would you say your work is for a general audience or just certain groups or individuals?

My great dream is to be able to write something strong and with integrity that would be important for the most general of audiences.

But the reality of how most art is made and communicated means that most projects will find their audiences in the individuals and groups that already have an affinity with the subject matter or with the artform, like theatre, film or poetry.

I hope the words and music in ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ can be meaningful for a wide audience. I wanted it to be as open as listening to a friend, or like listening to one’s own thoughts. But I know not everyone will hear it, or want to hear it.

If the piece has a strong meaning even for a few people, that’s fantastic.

the sea cannot be depleted []

3) What are your current projects?

Several are bubbling away in their early stages. I’m writing about climate change. I’m also collaborating with others on two projects in Cumbria: a performance piece about mining and tourism, and on a more academic project on women scientists in the Lake District.

4) How did you come to focus on depleted uranium in your work? What are your concerns about it?

I came to write ‘the sea cannot be depleted’ more out of outrage that the government approved the illegal dumping of DU into the sea than an interest in DU in itself.

I admit to being motivated by anger, disbelief and sorrow at the stupidity and absurdity of firing any kind of weapon into the sea, much less a radioactive one.

Nonviolence, of course, extends to our relations with natural environments and other-than-human living beings.

I am concerned about the political, military and scientific contexts that have made the use of DU acceptable to this government. I want to investigate the kinds of ideas and values that make that possible, and how these can be changed. It will take more than scientific evidence.

I’m concerned about the effects of DU as it is used in wars, and the continued and unrecorded harm it may cause. I’m also concerned about its continued, unquestioned production as a waste product of the nuclear industry.

I recently read that its potential for harm if it is stored in a deep, geological repository may extend for a million years. This is crazy.

5) What do  you think needs to happen for there to be less depleted uranium in our environment and in munitions around the world?

Greater awareness? Targeted activism?

‘The front is long’, the philosopher Arne Naess used to say – about environmental issues, but also in relation to his lifelong work on nonviolence.

Arne Naess. Photo credit: Ole Kristian [Losvik]

Arne Naess. Photo credit: Ole Kristian

Awareness, information, lobbying, governmental and institutional resolutions, and activism of all kinds – there are so many ways of addressing these issues, and each of them is vital.

The effects of an artwork or activism may not be direct or immediate. For example, for decades, artists and photographers have been making work about plastics in the oceans.

It’s as if they were preparing the ground, building the networks of understanding, for the revelations to wider society that the television documentary Blue Planet achieved.

All forms of action have the potential to seed new ideas and make changes possible.

Internationally, there may be more understanding of how the manufacture and use of DU weapons is unacceptable, as seen in the United Nations resolutions on banning uranium weapons, or in the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

But there is much more hard work to be done to get this UK government to align with these ideas, or to come up with safe, viable plans for the long-term storage of DU. All the work for peace, and for the banning of nuclear weapons, is necessary to make a culture in which their manufacture and use is an impossibility, unthinkable.

One thing that can help is for people to have conversations about these kinds of issues. And not just with like-minded friends, but with people who may have differing views.

That’s been an important part of the research for this Solway project.

Also, it’s necessary to open up all avenues to making the military more publicly accountable. This is necessary for keeping an open, thriving democracy alive in difficult times.

6) Do you know yet what projects you’d like to take on in future?

Not yet… Nuclear issues, though, just won’t let me go. Nor will the sea.

 7) If you had the chance to address a global audience with a speech of around 100 words, what would you say?

I’d love to have conversations with people across the world and come up with ideas together, but if I have to make a speech, here goes:

To people across the world:

 Wherever you are, look at the person closest to you.

Look at their hands. Looks at their ears. Look at their forehead.

Ask them their name. Listen to their voice as if it was music.

 Now, look at the animal or plant or tree closest to you. Touch it. Let it touch you.

 Now, imagine a place on another continent. Imagine the colours and sounds and smells, the trees and animals. Is it noisy? Is it safe? Imagine someone in that place, their hands, their ears, their forehead.

 What would you like to say to this person? Say it out loud. Twice.

Sandyhills, Dumfries and Galloway. Source []

Sandyhills, Dumfries and Galloway. Source

Wallace Heim writes about how experiences of performance and art shape ecological understanding. Her recent essays are on conflict and theatre, on extinction and on a sense of place. She also writes for theatre and radio, curates events and holds workshops on climate change. She lives in Cumbria.

Credits: ‘the sea cannot be depleted
Written and produced by Wallace Heim
Music and sound design by Pippa Murphy
Voices: Camille Marmié (The Diver), Vincent Friell (The Man), Lisa Howard (The Woman)
The project was funded by Future’s Venture Foundation.