In the second half of the twentieth century, Rocky Flats was one of a network of seventeen national nuclear weapons facilities operated under the direction of the Department of Energy. It was the only plant that manufactured the plutonium detonation systems, or triggers, for the nation’s nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War.
In the summer of 1989, Rocky Flats was the subject of an FBI investigation. The resulting inquiry led to the suspension of plutonium operations and made public a history of gross environmental mismanagement, including the detection of sixty-two pounds of plutonium dust in the ductwork of the ventilation system (enough to build six nuclear weapons). To this day it is considered one of the most contaminated sites in the world.
My first artistic response to Rocky Flats was in the Summer of 1989, when I was invited by the Boulder Center for the Visual Arts to produce a work for the annual Sculpture in the Park exhibition in Boulders Central Park.
Meanwhile, I had my eye on a group of billboards that were located just outside the front gates of Rocky Flats.
Before I had arrived in Boulder, a group of environmentalists known as Citizens Against Billboards on Highway 93 had organized a successful boycott against the billboard. The ads, located along one of the most scenic parts of the drive along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, were considered an eyesore. Plutonium contamination is, of course, invisible. Unable to convince local businesses to advertise on the billboards, the owner was driven out of business and the billboard structures stood empty for several years.
This image shows the proximity of the billboard structures to the Rocky Flats plant, with the water tower, and the Denver skyline just twelve miles downwind. Aside from this nondescript water tower, which often appeared in television news reports, the invisible radio-toxic waste at Rocky Flats had no image.
I recognized the billboards potential for public art and began making proposals using early Macintosh desktop computing technology, for what would become the “Operation Greenrun II,” public art project.
The summer before we had brought digital art pioneer Esther Parada in to teach digital art workshops in the art department’s state-of-the-art Mac Plus lab. This was during the time she was working on her seminal digital artwork “The Monroe Doctrine.” She turned me on to a program called Poster Maker, which would divide a simple bitmap image into a grid and print the segments on an early office laser printer. Esther was a huge influence on my work and over the years became a close friend. She remains sorely missed.
When Greenpeace learned of the project they agreed to fund the production cost and I went to work in an old racquetball court at the University.
Each of eleven 10′ X 40′ billboard faces were made of over 2,000 individual bitmap images printed on a simple office laser printer. Keep in mind that commercial billboards were hand painted at this time. The technology to print a billboard would not exist for another five years.
A crane crew was hired to install the finished panels. The project was unveiled on November 14, 1990.
Operation Greenrun II, Eleven 10′ X 40′ mosaic laser prints on billboards. Highway 93, Rocky Flats, Colorado. November, 1990 through April, 1991.
Over the course of about a mile, the billboards read “Today,” “We Made,” “A 250,000 Year,” “Commitment.” The half-life of plutonium is a quarter of a million years.
Here are some images in sequence.
The fallout began when one of the original billboard protesters resurfaced and launched a campaign against our use of the billboards. It was news images like this that gave the project the spectacle appeal it needed to vault it into international media attention.
Read more media coverage and reviews.
The final decision to shutdown plutonium operations for good and shift the efforts at Rocky Flats to cleanup was quietly taken during the media firestorm that followed.
In the end we were able to negotiate the removal of the billboards, structures and all.
Think of the media as a kind of virtual reality, which it is, that can be intervened in. The decision to shutdown Rocky Flats for good was made in 1991, during the media firestorm that this project created, proving that art does have a role to play in tangible political change.
This project demonstrates an early interest in emergent technology as art practice and public art as Intervention, intervention in both institutions of high culture and intervention in government policy and the institutions of the nation state.