In the early hours of July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was detonated in the desert of New Mexico at the Trinity site as part of the Manhattan Project. A monument at the site of the detonation, located on the White Sands Missile Range military base, is now open to tourists twice a year, in April and October. Thousands flock to the site to learn about the Manhattan Project and the bomb during these open house events. The installation at the site characterizes the surrounding area as “remote and uninhabited,” yet census data shows that there were thousands of people living in a 50-mile radius of the test site in 1945, some as close as 12 miles to the test site during the detonation. Some of these people, and their children, who identify as the Trinity Downwinders, can be found on open house days outside of the Trinity Site, protesting the open house with signs that say things like “We were the world’s first nuclear victims” and “I lost six of my family members to cancer, will I be next?”
This is how I met Tina Cordova and the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC) a little over a year ago. Her organization advocates for the unwilling and uncompensated victims of the Trinity Test, the tens of thousands of residents who were impacted by it either directly or through genetics, and those who were living or presently live on contaminated land in the surrounding areas of New Mexico. Nowhere at the Trinity Site is there mention of the negative impacts of the bomb detonation and specifically that the 24,000 year half-life of plutonium continues to persist in the environment, community, and the bodies of those who live there, leading to heightened cancer rates (6-8 times the CDC average) and other health impacts. The Downwinders and the negative story of nuclear weapons have been completely written out of history.
Since 2018, I have been collaborating with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, victims of the first atomic bomb test, to produce a series of sound works utilizing field recordings, archival material, and audio testimony collected from the Downwinders. I’ve worked closely with the community to collect, transcribe, and archive these oral histories. During the Trinity Open House, these voices bring the narrative of the community who was harmed by the atomic testing to the ears of visitors through broadcasts and dissemination of audio CDs.
In 2019, the project expanded through a collaboration with Australian artists working with downwinders in Australia. We traveled to former nuclear test sites in Western Australia and produced resulting works (audio, video, and radio installations) as the Half Life Collective, some of which is documented here.
This project was supported in part by a MAAF grant from NYSCA Electronic Media/Film in Partnership with Wave Farm: https://wavefarm.org/grants/maaf-artists/about
below: images from the Trinity Open House (1) interviewing downwinder Paul Pino; (2) FM antenna mounted on a former windmill at a local ranch (3) visitors to the Trinity Open House ; short audio samples of oral histories, used for the transmissions