Elizabeth Ellsworth & Jamie Kruse: A Warning Sign to Last 10,000 Years

Artists and creative types are often looking for an idea with legs: something that can adapt and evolve to carry forth an enduring theme. With the Marking Deep Time Studio, the legs are everything.



Conceived in 2011 by smudge—a collaborative nonprofit design studio comprised of artist-professor Elizabeth Ellsworth and artist-designer Jamie Kruse, who create research-driven work about land use—the goal is to mark nuclear test sites across America in a way that could protect future earth-dwellers from danger for as long as the sites are radioactive.

Currently, several of these former underground nuclear sites are marked with nothing more than a wooden post riddled with bullet holes. Ellsworth and Kruse told me that containing nuclear waste might be one of the biggest design challenges we face. “As a species we have created a situation where it is essential that we learn how to design for at least ten thousand years.”

I came across the proposal for the Marking Deep Time Studio while I was searching through a database on the website for the Institute for Wishful Thinking, an organization that promotes and facilitates artist-in-residence programs with the US government

The Marking Deep Time Studio proposes a long-term collaboration between smudge, the Office of Legacy Management (a government agency established in 2003 by the US Department of Energy, charged with overseeing post-closure responsibilities associated with the legacy of WWII and the Cold War), and design students to create markers for the sites of ten underground nuclear tests conducted during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Smudge found their inspiration for the Marking Deep Time Studio from a US government design project established in 1991 in association with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. WIPP is a Department of Energy facility—the only one of its kind in the country—where the government has been storing the nuclear waste created by defense research.

The Department of Energy, who manages the plant, has been collaborating for years with a team of linguists, scientists, science fiction writers, anthropologists, and futurists to devise a warning system or site marker that will last for up to ten thousand years once the repository has been closed.

For smudge, the design process is a continuing one; their proposal calls for the project collaborators to reconvene every five years for at least the next half century to update the signage, making it responsive to changing times rather than creating notices intended to endure for thousands of years.

They view a continual process of engagement as a way to encourage people to think more deeply about the layer of material—nuclear waste—that humans have added to the planet. In the end, the ten enduring signs may not be posted in English, printed in emoji, or plastered with a rehashed Mr. Yuk. We may need to think entirely outside the norm in order to create a warning system that can endure millennia.

The fact that the Department of Energy has been engaging with a group of cultural producers for more than twenty years indicates that the government also believes in the power of the aesthetic experience. Ten thousand years may sound like forever to most of us, but for those dealing with deep time? It’s but the blink of an eye.

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