Wandering invisible ruins – radiation, steel, photographs and footprints

Earlier today I attended the ‘Ruins and Radiation’ workshop at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The event opened with Jane & Louise Wilson talking about their film The Toxic Camera inspired by Vladimir Shevchenko’s documentary film Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks. The Wilson’s explained that their own journey to the Ukraine was in the footsteps of the now deceased Shevchenko, to meet the few remaining living members of his film crew. They also visited the lead lined repository into which his film camera was thrown once (too late for Shevchenko) it became clear that that film camera itself had become a poisoned thing, a toxic reservoir for the radiation emitted by the ruins whilst the crew filmed.

The other speakers – Paul Dobraszczyk, Tim Edensor, Bradley Garrett and Dylan Trigg followed in the Wilson’s wake with thoughts upon ruins, urban exploration and the culture of broken places and their buildings. It was all very interesting, but it is the material reverberation of radioactive contamination that caught my attention. Ruins have had more than enough thought lately. Contamination needs the attention.

Therefore what follows is not a summary of the talks or even anything beyond the briefest second hand account of the ruins of Chernobyl and its associated model-town, Pripyat. For I can’t better Paul Mullins’ (2012) recent blog-essay on the resonance of Chernobyl’s ruinscape through popular culture or Paul Dobraszczyk’s own (2010) published account of his visit to these ruins.

No, my contribution will ultimately take a different walk, and in a different city. And that walk will be more concerned with the circulation of invisible contamination than with immobile visible ruins.

Visible ruins and radiation: Chernobyl / Pripyat

The Chernobyl/Pripyat ruins are testimony to a state-scale techno-fall, they resonate with sublime import, they reveal the post-human and the ‘survive without us’ face of the natural world. This is radiation as damage to civilisation, rather than eco-catastrophe. Dobraszczyk situated the roots of ruin aesthetics within notions of the uncanny – the ‘world turned upside down aspect’. He described how at first he found the ruinscape of Pripyat stimulating through its juxtaposition of heterogeneous items and foregrounding of processes normally unobserved in the background. But ultimately this gave way to a feeling that a city composed solely of ruin and disordered assemblages of artefacts presented a place of ubiquitous abnormality – resulting in a monotonous normality of its own.

So – I was left thinking – if a tour through a visibly ruined city can suffer experientially from an excess of disorder, perhaps a more subtly contaminated – more distributed –  ruin would have greater uncanny possibilities?

Chernobyl/Pripyat’s dust, abandoned playgrounds and empty street scenes are proxies for what cannot be seen, for radiation has no taste, colour, physical presence. It is ‘visible’ only through its effects on living organisms, its absorption in things and the knock-on effects of human response to contamination, the ruins of hasty abandonment.

Radiation was a haunting background presence in both the Wilsons’ and Dobraszczyk’s presentations. Each foregrounded the seen (ruined people, buildings, scenes) and presented their visits as safe, managed, almost incidental. But in the Q & A sessions each acknowledged that visit to those places, amidst the conscious ‘ruin gazing’, involved a sublimated, haunted awareness of the presence of the radiation (glimpsed indirectly through the mediating technology of the dose meter and instruction from guides on ground friability and where not to tread). Dobraszczyk confessed that after his trip to Pripyat  – despite the assurances of safety – he had thrown his shoes away upon returning to the safety of his hotel. These presenters revealed that being in the presence of an invisible contaminant required an untrusting, cautious orientation towards clothing and the dust, dirt and matter walked amidst during their tours. There was a concern about what they might bring back.

In his presentation Bradley Garrett reminded us of the standard urbex mantra of ‘take nothing but photographs, and leave nothing but footprints’ (and noted that this is not as straightforward a dictum as ‘the community’ might contend). But what if we invert that, what if the act of walking the ruins has material effects upon the explorer? What if the radiation enters the photographs? What if the feet taking the footprints take up and carry onward contamination? In short, what if the place bites back, and leaves with the visitor?

The Wilson’s described the radioactive particles’ damage to the film stock used by Shevchenko as an instance of material as a witness to events, and then paused to consider. No, perhaps in such processes of contamination, material itself becomes the event.

What I therefore want to look at is radiation as material traces of a journey. Let’s vicariously walk the invisible ruins of a bustling irradiated city.

Invisible ruins and radiation: central London, 2006

The walk I have in mind is a wander around the high-class international haunts of central London and its polyglot hubbub of hotels, restaurants, bars and lap-dance clubs. This is a walk in the footprints of Alexander Litvinenko in the autumn of 2006.

After unwittingly consuming a polonium infused pot of green leaf tea, Litvinenko lived his final days touring the high end real estate of central London, mapping out a network of sophisticated places, leaving a chemical ghost trail image of his journeys, at the very moment that life itself was leaving his body. On 23 November 2006, at University College Hospital, Litvinenko finally succumbed to his horrific poisoning, a dose 200 times larger than a lethal measure.

But it is the aftermath that takes my attention. For Litvinenko acted as a vector, spreading the polonium amidst this world, by touch, sweat and excretion a trail of contamination was laid in his wake. A trail which has received remarkably little attention – perhaps because of the fear that allowing words like ‘luxury hotel’ and ‘radioactive contamination’ to associate is to bring about a blight that would corrode the sheen of this world of premier property investment.

Buried away in technical journals are fragments of the steps taken to eradicate the contamination, tales of floor to wall tiled bathrooms ripped out of high class hotels, of decontaminated taxis, sushi bars, restaurants, aeroplanes and a cushion at a lap dancing club (BBC 2007 – from which the above image is reproduced). This trail mapped out Litvinenko’s affairs, his business and it’s venues. Like thousands of businesspeople before (and since) Litvinenko instrumentally (and incidentally) used the city, and his use would have passed without record were it not for the alien substance poisoning his body.

Once discovered, a quiet hunt was launched for the polonium traces scattered across the city, a glow visible only to the initiated.  A small cadre of the serious and concerned searching amidst the hubristic and carefree throng of the pre credit crunch city, a cadre of environmental health officers and specialists from the Health Protection Agency and the Government Decontamination Service – a unit quietly established in 2005 as an executive agency of DEFRA. They found, and dealt with, 50 locations around London. And according to Gill (2007) much of the contamination was dealt with by sealing it, in situ, beneath layers of paint or varnish. The contamination was literally brushed over, left immobilised within the fabric of these establishments. Other items like furniture were taken into storage, from which they will be retrieved and destroyed once polonium’s short half life (138 days) has achieved sufficient decay.

And thereafter? Well, life will go on as normal. Few will know what happened there, and there and there: in these invisible ruins. The stations of Litvinenko’s final days and hours will leave no evident traces. Nor would the owners of those places wish there to be any traces. For here lies fear of two invisibles: radiation and blight. Value is a type of desire, it can dissipate if the mood swings away. These sites are prime real estate, and much of prime sites value is desire based. The harder they come, the harder they fall. Sites like this have most to lose from public association of the words ‘radiation’ and ‘[add here name of a hotel]’. Blight is such a potent factor that even I don’t want to start naming names. They have all been certified as decontaminated and safe to occupy.  They are named in others’ publications (e.g. BBC 2007). And yet.

Our anxieties about radioactive contamination are so primal. The words themselves cause harm.

The ubiquitous world of radioactive sources

The map of Litvinenko’s final journeys, marks out points of radioactivity within mundane cityscapes, just like the environmental data maps that I used to use when in practice as an environmental lawyer. These maps, purchased for a fee, would show me the location of every photographic developer, every density gauge, every conveyor belt flow meter in the city. For all these (and smoke detectors too) can contain licensed radioactive sources. These maps would present a nodal array of atomic sources, sleeper cells awaiting discovery by an unsuspecting public.

Confronted with such data, I learnt to screen it out. These things were ubiquitous. But if anyone ever mislaid them there was hell to pay. The words ‘radioactive’ were enough to trigger a large fine, regardless of the size of the source, or of its strength. No one wants to lose a radioactive source. And the court records show that occasionally these small capsules did get lost. Small items with big anxieties attached.

We inhabit a world where matter circulates to the rhythm of money and consequently many lost radioactive sources gravitate towards scrap yards. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Authority (2012) calls for greater vigilance by metal reprocessors, and lists incidents and their clean up costs from around the world, notably the contamination of consignments of structural steel due to inadvertent crushing of a radioactive source in a scrap reprocessing yard in Juarez, Mexico in the 1980s. As a result 814 new homes in the US were condemned and demolished due to the use of the contaminated steel.

Discarded Chernobyl/Pripyat footware, Alexander Litvinenko and the Juarez steel each show us radiation’s ability to hitch a ride on matter, travelling with it on everyday journeys that tell us much about who we are and how we live. And if we become aware of those fellow travellers, it is at the brink of an urge-to-blight that we fleetingly glimpse invisible ruins.


BBC News (2007) ‘The polonium trail: key locations’, website feature, 17 August http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/6267373.stm

Dobraszczyk, P. (2010) ‘Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city’, CITY 14: 4 pp. 370-89

Gill, V (2007) ‘Polonium clean up leaves trail of destruction’ Chemistry World http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2007/August/Poloniumcleanupleavestrailofdestruction.asp

IAEA (2012) Control of Orphan Sources and Other Radioactive Material in the Metal Recycling

and Production Industries – Specific Safety Guide SSG-17 http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1509_web.pdf

Mullins, P. (2012) Negotiating disaster and apprehension: representing Chernobyl  at http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/negotiating-disaster-and-apprehension-representing-chernobyl/


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to Wandering invisible ruins – radiation, steel, photographs and footprints

  1. Fascinating piece Luke and and quite topical for Fife given our radioactive beach at Dalgety Bay: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-20034654 Also wondered about the possibilities of positive radiation/ contamination – how places may leave with the visitor in form of the non-material – ideas/memories/feelings and how these may somehow radiate outwards through the traces we leave or in our attempts to communicate.

    • Thanks Fifepsy, always great to get your thoughts in reaction, and your kind encouragement.

      Yes, ‘radiation’ is a word with some pretty rich connotations – and certainly not all of which are dark or bad. You point to the idea of an encounter with material radiating out from that moment/event. You’ve now got me thinking about sand. Sometimes painful when it gets in the wrong places, but the stuff of fun whilst in play, and then a pleasant jolt to memory when discovered in a pocket or falling out of a shoe days after reluctantly heading home from the beach. Yet too much sand on the carpet is just annoying ‘dirt’.

      Clearly the sand doesn’t cunningly hitch a ride from the beach, it has no intentionality, but somehow it does become a fellow traveller, and it can help weave material memory effects.

      Radioactive contamination is a less pleasant hitch-hiker, but the idea of stuff jumping aboard the traveller and then causing ripples out from the moment of encounter points to a range of nicer, warmer forms of ‘radiation’.

      And yes, radioactive sources have their positive – life affirming – side too. Medical therapy and diagnostics, x-rays, film processing, smoke alarms, gauges and meters. All have their value and importance – both in assisting life, and in creating or preserving memories of life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: