Viral Fictions, from Nuclear Threat to Social Media Threads


Agnes Villette

Discussing nuclear issues in regions hosting nuclear installations and repositories is always challenging. The issues are known to split communities between pro and anti-nuclear, while dialogue remains diffident. My artistic-led PhD research is rooted in nuclear aesthetics, a discipline fairly non-existent in France, where the nuclear territory I explore is situated. 


I approach La Hague’s territory from the perspective of the uncertain legacy of its toxic landscape, perceived as radioactive ruins that were informed by the slow violence of radioactive contamination around the installations.[1] The Norman peninsula of La Hague is a nuclear cluster that was crucial during the Cold War for the implementation of France’s nuclear program. The civil and military nuclear programme was initially instigated with enthusiasm as a political means to erase the humiliation of the military defeat during WWII. 


Dropping the title of my research among communities who live and work in La Hague inevitably results in puzzlement, as if the words aesthetics and nuclear are fundamentally antithetical. Secretive and destructive nuclear techno-politics have succeeded in internalizing forms of denials. France being one of the most nuclearized countries on the planet, the general public hardly questions its nuclear dependency, which is perceived as a nationalist agenda and understood as an energy requirement. In Invisible Colors, The Arts of the Atomic Age, Gabrielle Decamous (2019) provides an exhaustive analysis of art projects and art methodologies that investigate nuclear issues. The author underlies the paradox of its absence in France.


How can we mediate knowledge and information about nuclear waste repositories? How might we mark them for future generations? Nuclear markers, as monuments, texts, sculptures or any hypothetical system, conceived to transmit information far into the future, will crumble long before the waste’s half-lives would reach the end of their chemical journey. I worked on a nuclear marker for La Hague’s waste repository that enlists alternative forms of vernacular knowledge. Nuclear physical markers struggle to reconcile with the deep time of nuclear toxicity. La Hague’s underground is laced with Plutonium-239, whose half-life extends to 24,100 years, whereas Iodine-129, released by refuelling nuclear plants such as Orano-La Hague, is 16 million years. The long durational legacy of radioactive contamination encounters the aporia of existing languages, their vulnerability and their incapacity to guarantee that the memory of such sites will be transmitted in time.


Viral Fictions[2] is an immaterial fictional marker imagined for the low- to medium-waste repository of ANDRA, the French national agency dealing with nuclear waste.[3] I merge folk legends, AI software and social media, to create and disseminate a speculative tale. La Hague’s remote geography adequately provides ancient legends, such as the Trou Baligan, a grotto known to have hosted a dragon devastating the land. The grotto was destroyed in the 1970s to give way to Flamanville's two nuclear reactors. The uncanny encounter of dragon and nuclear reactors invites allegorical narrations that activate fiction's ability to transmit alternative knowledge. The juxtaposition of fictional projections with the existing landscape disrupts expectations. I produced a series of images with the help of AI algorithms that were fed with words, archive images and personal photographs. The visuals emanate from strange encounters between images, words, concepts and historical information. The process could be associated to the Surrealists’ poetic methods of drawing on improbability identified as ‘objective chance’.[4] Thus, the images offer various visual markers that embrace folk tales, La Hague’s rugged geography and its toxic legacy. The strangeness of the images and the disquieting quality of AI generated texts collapse together the past and the future of the land. Their encounter displaces our perception and understanding of the site’s nuclear legacy. 


The project emulates the uncertainties that are embedded in our nuclear age, what sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992) analyses as the perpetual reconfiguration of numerous threats that have become part of the risks of the society we live in. From threats to threads, the use of social media to communicate about nuclear legacies — itself posing several critical issues — enforces the lack of control about Viral Fiction social media posts’ reception. How the posts are read, understood, reposted and eventually liked repeats the way knowledge about nuclear sites is unevenly distributed. The incremental massive accumulation of social media posts, through media fatigue, erodes our sense of commitment to face urgent environmental issues. Thus, Viral Fiction’s attunement with social media re-enacts, within the digital realm of social media contents, the ongoing amnesia engulfing nuclear issues. The posts embedding Viral Fiction’s images and text extracts, once entering social networks, start circulating through algorithmical logics that alternatively inscribe and erase their existence. I am interested in interrogating the ambivalent relations between acknowledgment and forgetfulness. Both are part of the difficulty to explore knowledge production about nuclear legacy. In Viral Fictions, such uncertainties are amplified through the logics of social media networks. I intended to invite reflexivity in order to point out how Instagram’s readers and viewers are turned into actors. Thus, the experiment serves as a prism to interrogate the ways in which intertwined image and text, even at some low registering levels, engage with the production of knowledge about nuclear sites.


The project is an invitation to pay attention to La Hague’s damaged toxic landscape. It recalls the art of noticing that Anna Tsing recommends as a form of iterative attention towards environmental issues. With Viral Fictions I explore ways to engage with the uncertain futurity of La Hague through the random and algorithmic connections of social media posts. By embedding an immaterial marker — text and images — in social networks, Viral Fictions interrogate the porosity of knowledge as well as the fragility of creating nuclear communities.[5] 

The words were extracted from the original 19th century folktale that is at the core of the project. Once the AI generated image was obtained, words and sentences were pasted in the image.


[1] I borrow the term ‘slow violence’ to Rob Nixon's book (2011), which has a chapter devoted to nuclear landscapes. ↩︎

[2] Viral Fictions was created during a workshop that led to a group exhibition: ‘Topologies of Care’ took place at Art Exhibition Kunstgang, Leiden University, The Netherlands, 3 December 2019–31 January 2020; available at events/2019/12/de-kunstgang-at-leiden-university-topologies-of-care. The exhibition hosted three different artists who produced a nuclear marker for a chosen nuclear territory. Viral Fictions addressed the nuclear landscape of La Hague in Normandy, France. Grit Ruhland, who gained her PhD at the Bauhaus Art School, in Weimar, Germany, investigates the long-lasting effects of uranium extraction in the Gera/Ronneburg territory, which used to be part of the former GDR. Uranium mined by Wismuth company was sent to the USSR, where it fuelled the Soviet military atomic programme. At the time, the region had become the third most important uranium mining site in the world. Shortly after Germany’s reunification, the mine closed, leaving behind post-industrial toxic landscapes that necessitated important decontamination programs. The third project produced by Elise Alloin was created in connection to the decommissioning programmes of two past nuclear installations, that of Strasbourg University’s nuclear reactor at Schiltigheim, completed in 2009, and the current decommissioning of EDF Fessenheim’s nuclear plant in Alsace. ↩︎

[3] ANDRA is in charge of several waste repositories and is also currently building the Cigeo deep geological waste site in the Meuse region, which should, in the future, host the long-life waste awaiting at La Hague. ↩︎

[4] The Surrealists, and more particularly, André Breton conceptualized ‘le hasard objectif’, as a possibility to rely on chance to generate random though observable encounters with persons, ideas, geographies. ↩︎

[5] I am pointing to contamination as a form of encounter, which was developed in The Mushroom at the End of the World, On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, written by Anna Tsing. She states that ‘we are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others’ (2015: 27). ↩︎