Discursive Strata

[3] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 99. See also: Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable (London: Verso Books, 2016).

During the second half of the twentieth century, international human- and civil-rights-centered programs distributed photographers and cameras to areas prone to disaster – any weapons-related or human rights-related disasters – to better control the photographic gaze, to control the story.[3] The United States Army, for its part, sent photographers to Hiroshima to document and measure the destruction caused by the first atomic bomb’s deployment. Photographs, in this case, are data and evidence for testing, and not, until recently, material advocates for airing grievances in the face of crisis and in the service of crisis management. The resultant archive and access to that archive is critical in revealing information about the nuclear condition and constructing a body of knowledge with which to rectify decades of secrecy and obfuscation that culminated in acts of violence against communities and against the body.

[4] The spatial humanities (SH) is a subdiscipline that yokes data with cultural issues specific to time and place using geographic information systems (GIS) and timelines. Deep mapping  takes into account material, discursive, and GIS data and its relation to specific sites.

Accumulation of evidence into an archive or exhibition makes injury a discursive object, which lends it “discursive visibility.” Kavanagh’s collection of images, objects, artifacts, and methodical attention to tourists is an archive of nuclear violence that she brings into the public sphere through her photographic, artistic, archival, and research-based practice. Atomic Tourist represents a “deep mapping” of the Trinity Site, a concept borrowed from the spatial humanities[4] that interlaces the disciplines of biography, history, narrative, archaeology, geology, and science, as well as self-guiding intuition. The practice of deep mapping, when brought together with her own practices, overlays personal perceptions and interpretations of space on the site’s existing discourses in what Kavanagh terms “discursive strata.”

[5] More on photography’s discursive spaces, see Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View,” in Art Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 1982): 311–319.

The “discursive strata” of the Trinity Site is not just the piece of land or the monument erected on top of it. It is the interweaving of geography, historical events, histories, and collective memories. It incorporates the visitors, groundskeepers, open-house organizers, displaced peoples, and military personnel. Discursive strata entangle transformations. Chemical transformations (e.g., Trinitite, the residual green and red glass formed when the heat from the blast met the gypsum sand), entangle with emotional and ecological transformations. These transformations include the built structures and operations of the test, its accompanying organizations, bureaucracies, and militarization, and the site’s communities of scientists, historians, and families. Discursive strata also engage intellectual and scientific pursuits and their resulting discussions, studies, and publications within, for example, a sub-discipline like post-atomic studies. The framed archive, itself another intercalary fold within these overlaying experiences, explores how Kavanagh’s photographic and research-creation is a civic performance, wherein the visitors, photographer, and audience are participants in the discourses specific to this site.[5] In interviewing visitors, she perpetuates the discourse of the site, and as she has said, “feminist imperative to constellate the narrative,” she has said, beyond military culture and affect, economics, rationalizations, and ethics.