Atomic contract

Hormesis is the hypothesis that low doses of a toxic agent may be beneficial to human health—a concept RedLine artist Megan Gafford challenges visitors to contemplate while being exposed to a mild dose of gamma radiation emitted from a chunk of decaying uranium ore.

Her upcoming exhibition, “Hormesis,” runs at Gallery@OMH in Breckenridge April 5 to May 20. The title work, of the same name, utilizes a particle detector to reveal the subatomic world of the uranium’s slow radioactive decay, and video to project the resulting condensation trails on the walls, revealing the beauty of this mysterious and oft-feared phenomenon.

Accompanying installations include “Subatomic Chorus,” a set of sensitive Geiger counters that read background radiation to create a tonal chorus of chirps; and “Pushing Daisies,” a collection of live flowers Gafford grew from seeds exposed to radiation by an oncologist.

“Breckenridge has a higher radiation rate because of all the soil that’s been overturned in our mining history,” said Nicole Dial-Kay, director of exhibitions and special projects for Breckenridge Creative Arts. Thus “Subatomic Chorus” may be quite active. She stressed that radiation exposure from “Hormesis” will amount to less than that emitted from a smoke detector. “It’s really about playing with people’s perceptions and fears—no one’s actually ever in danger,” Dial-Kay said.

“My art is inspired by my passion for science,” said Gafford, whose work often questions preconceived notions about the natural world, such as the belief that uranium is bad, or bad for us. “Science is the conviction that we ought to try to prove our ideas wrong, over and over again, until we fail to prove an idea wrong so many times that we can feel some confidence in it after all,” she said.

At the same time, she noted that “science is a completely amoral tool, and it comes with no manual on how to use it to answer the question of where, precisely, scientific progress leads. I spend a lot of time wondering about the blind nature of science, and I use my artwork as a way to ask people to wonder about it with me,” she said.

Juxtaposed with Gafford’s work will be “Off Country”—a multimedia film, photo, and oral history project by Eric Stewart and Taylor Dunne that examines landscapes of nuclear weapons mining, production, and testing in the American West—to be exhibited during the same timeframe at Gallery@BRK, inside Breckenridge Theater.

“Off Country” centers on the former Rocky Flats Plant outside Boulder, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and the Nevada Test Site. The clips and imagery to be exhibited in Breckenridge will ultimately form a feature-length, bilingual, black and white film of the same name, featuring interviews with anti-nuclear-weapons activists and impacted individuals—like the radiation-exposed ranchers and Native people near the site of the Trinity atomic bomb test—whose voices are for the most part ignored by mainstream history.

“We want our project to be balanced, but there is a non-balance in what has been reported,” said Stewart, describing his personal politics as being opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The dominant narrative celebrates the atomic age, describes nuclear energy as safe and clean, and emphasizes “the amazing things science can do,” he explained. “I think that’s a false paradigm. It has forced people to live with environmental injustice and contamination. We are intentionally creating a counter narrative to this.”

For the same reason, the filmmakers are not including any footage of bombs, or the iconic mushroom cloud. “We don’t want to fetishize that history,” said Dunne.

Ultimately, the project speaks to the American West identity—one exemplified by “systems of land use that we can polarize in terms of national parks and national sacrifice zones,” explained Stewart, pointing to the current debate over Bears Ears National Monument as an example. “These two types of land use define how we look at the West,” he said. “It’s a unique niche of American identity— less focused on the individual and more on our collective identity, and how that is informed by resource extraction and the National Park system.”

“The artists in both of these exhibitions talk about nuclear science—a potentially controversial subject matter—from very different perspectives,” Dial-Kay said. “For Megan, it’s a material to play with; for Eric and Taylor, it’s incredibly personal and political. Together they should make for a very interesting juxtaposition.”

Megan Gafford //
Eric Stewart //
Taylor Dunne //
Gallery@OMH // 136 S. Main St. // Free admission // Mon + Tue, 3-8pm; Thu + Fri, 3–8pm; Wed + Sat, 9am–8pm; Sun, closed
Gallery@BRK // 121 S. Ridge St. // Free admission // Hours vary

Photos: Courtesy Megan Gafford + Eric Stewart