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A design show for the ages

Chosen as a radioactive dump, Yucca Mountain could be dangerous for eons. So dozens of artists have imagined a warning sign to match.

October 15, 2003|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

How do you spell D-A-N-G-E-R 10,000 years from now? That question was posed two years ago when Nevada's Desert Space Foundation challenged artists to submit designs for the ultimate no-trespassing sign. A system of markings is needed to scare away people who happen to wander into the vicinity of Yucca Mountain because the ridge, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was picked by Congress to serve as the final burial ground for 35,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste.

But the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Department of Energy to come up with a program that would last 10 millenniums before shipments of radioactive material can begin. Inspired by signage developed for the same purpose at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., Desert Space director Joshua Abbey issued a call for entries that would "deter intruders ... and effectively communicate over the course of the next 10,000 years that the integrity of the site must not be compromised in any way in order to prevent the release of the radiation contained within." He received 300 submissions, 50 of which are featured in "The Universal Warning Sign: Yucca Mountain." The show debuted last year in Las Vegas and runs through Nov. 7 at UCLA.

Ashok Sukumaran, a graduate student in UCLA's Design/Media Arts Department, won best of show with "Blue Yucca Ridge." His proposal would seed the site with genetically altered blue-colored Yucca cactus hybrids that reproduce over the coming eons until they completely blanket the radioactive ridge. Sukumaran, on hand at Kinross South Gallery as Abbey unloaded a van full of pieces after driving in from Las Vegas, explained his concept: "Nuclear technology is kind of a mutation of the atom -- the blue yucca would be a malignant manifestation of that.

"For example, the orange [fruit] has been modified in a certain way by genetic engineering, but it still falls within the larger image of an orange, so it's accepted by the public. It was my intention to tweak that equation, to have these blue yucca cactus plants represent the mutation that had occurred."

Contemporary symbols would likely be incomprehensible to generations a few dozen centuries down the line, just as Egyptian hieroglyphics, developed about 4,000 years ago, appear as gibberish to most people today. So, Sukumaran avoided conventional graphic design altogether. "My consideration," he said, "was that the language with which we perceive the world now is going to change, so how can we impose a visual sign that might not remain valid 10,000 years from now."

Other exhibition concepts represent the notion of a toxic zone by emulating the pictograms inscribed by prehistoric man about 8,000 BC.

Savannah College of Art and Design student Macho Kasha, for example, depicted a giant drill piercing the ground as a stick figure kneels alongside it. "The commission is leaning toward symbols like this one," Abbey said. "I think it goes back to the early cave drawings in France, the oldest messages we have, which talked about the hunting of animals. Simplistic, primal images that transcend language probably have the best chance to span the test of time.

"This message here is very evident: 'If you drill, you die.' "

Kasha's stick-figure symbolism was lost on UCLA professor Jennifer Steinkamp, who introduced Sukumaran and other students in her tangible typography class to the "Universal Warning Sign" project. "I guess I don't get that out of this image," she said. "It looks like he's bowing to it."

One other potential problem: Most of the submissions incorporate the triple-blade radioactive icon devised in 1946 by a group of Berkeley scientists. But, Steinkamp said, "I don't think the nuclear sign is going to last 10,000 years. To me, it looks peaceful. It doesn't scare me at all. Reusing it doesn't make sense."

In fact, Steinkamp has come to question the show's very premise: "The more I thought about it, the more I realized the impossibility of this notion. You almost have to take it tongue-in-cheek because it's so absurd: making a sign that, A, would last 10,000 years, and B, would be understood in 10,000 years."

Abbey emphasized that the exhibition is intended to be a purely educational effort, but his personal feelings about storing plutonium at Yucca Mountain were clear: It's a bad idea.

Many of the entries reflect that sentiment. "The show breaks down into practical approaches to the problem and then the more cynical commentary about the futility of the exercise," Abbey said. "Some artists approached this with a sense of humor."

That would include Las Vegas artist Lloyd Heslip, whose "Poppin Fresh" suggests that a huge thermometer would spring out of the Yucca Mountain site in 10,000 years to indicate the region has been thoroughly "cooked."

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