When visitors walk into the exhibition “Heavy Water” in the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, they are absorbed in a lush soundscape, accompanied by screens depicting wild dogs weaving through the woods. The question that follows is: what am I looking at?
Turns out, this kind of reaction is anticipated and deliberately designed by Erin Johnson, visiting assistant professor of art and digital and computational studies and the creator of “Heavy Water.”
“I’m really interested in having my viewers do the work of building connections between lots of disparate pieces. That’s kind of what I try to build, a long form puzzle,” said Johnson.
This video work uses footage of Carolina wild dogs from the Savannah River Site (SRS) to explore the sociopolitical reality of the region. SRS is a former nuclear reservation created in 1951 as a nuclear weapons production facility during the Cold War.
The radioactive liquid waste stored still in the Savannah River area could pose risks to human and environmental health. Since the site’s designation as a National Environmental Research Park in 1972, ecologists have been studying the plants and animals living on the land, including Carolina dogs that live on the site.
One of these ecologists, L. Lehr Brisbin, is featured prominently in “Heavy Water.” Video of him giving a slideshow presentation about his studies on the effects of radioactive waste on animals living on the nuclear site accompanies the footage of the Carolina dogs.
Johnson chose to include Brisbin in her project because of the unusual focus of his research and the creative ways he studies the island.
“The people who pay him to do this work are in the Department of Energy, who also has this really speculative way of thinking about the future of nuclear weapons,” she said.
Brisbin’s involvement in “Heavy Water” reflects Johnson’s ongoing interest in including others in her artistic practice.
“[My art] includes other people and it’s an avenue for me to both build communities for myself [and] to build communities for others,” Johnson said. “All of [my jobs] have given me the tools to have this bizarre confidence to knock on people’s doors and be like ‘Hey, wanna make a project together?’” she said.
“Heavy Water” was one of these opportunities for Johnson.
In order to gain access to the land, she had to receive many special permissions from the Department of Energy and Homeland Security and was under constant supervision once she arrived. As a video artist, the biggest challenge was that she could not bring any equipment onto the site, including a camera. The only time the actual surroundings can be seen in “Heavy Water” is at one point in the video when the content switches to hand-held and low resolution YouTube footage from the Department of Energy.
“It’s kind of pointing to the fact that the only people who can make images [of the land] are the people themselves and the site itself—we can’t really access it. We can only see the dogs,” she said.
As much as “Heavy Water” is about the nuclear reservation, it is also a way of exploring the human desire to distance oneself from things that are overwhelming, and instead directing attention elsewhere.
“As I was doing this research and found Dr. Brisbin and his research about dogs, I [had] this impulse to look away from the nuclear disaster and focus on these beautiful dogs,” she said. “Here’s this scientist who is at this site that is contaminated with nuclear waste, and he’s looking at these dogs, and that’s a beautiful thing and also a really dangerous thing, and so the dogs became the main lens to talk about this way bigger thing which … is human nature.”
“It’s hard for us to face things that feel cataclysmic and that makes sense. So we have a lot of strategies and tools for disassociation,” she added.
“Heavy Water” blurs the boundaries between rehearsal and improvisation, referencing different types of video styles, much like Johnson’s larger body of work, which often incorporates documentary, experimental and narrative video practices. Her projects are typically centered around everyday people who aren’t actors but are interested in helping her tell a story.
It’s precisely this unique narrative power that attracts Johnson to the medium of video.
“I like the unfolding [process] of video, that you can’t get all of it at once, [and] you have to wait and gather. I like to think of videos as puzzles that have to get figured out, and I like that kind of time-based nature of it,” said Johnson.
“Heavy Water” will be on view at the Telfair Museum until March.