Barnard’s Student Artist in Residence Nami Weatherby (BC ‘23) showcased her installation They Never Told Us These Things, an audio-visual historiography centering indigenous and colonized people affected by the United States’ nuclear weapons program, in the Movement Lab this week. Deputy Arts Editor Marino Bubba reviews.

The floor of the Movement Lab was illuminated by a projected animation of global ocean currents, bleeding into each other like neon paint, while the rest of the room lit up with three LCD rings that pulsed to the beat of electronic music pumped through speakers. Powerfully, a recording began reciting a spoken word story detailing a personalized perspective on the destruction brought by the United States Marshall Island nuclear tests. The few bodies milling about the space sat cross-legged on the floor and listened.

This was the scene at Nami Weatherby’s (BC ‘23) installation They Never Told Us These Things on Wednesday, March 29. The showcase, which “is concerned with the way that we think about nuclearization– or perhaps more accurately, the ways in which we don’t,” ran this week from 2:30 to 4:00 pm in Barnard’s Movement Lab.

They Never Told Us These Things is structured as a repeating, fifteen-minute audio loop with accompanying abstract image projections, as well as an animation of global tides created by Weatherby. The main auditory component is a piece of spoken word by Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner that tells the story of how she discovered new atrocities perpetrated on the Marshallese people by the United States government’s nuclear test programs while working on a school project at fifteen years old. She talks of “her people” mistaking radioactive fallout for snow, of cancer and miscarriages, of lies and justifications told by military personnel. In one particularly impactful moment, Jetn̄il-Kijiner describes the public outrage the American public felt when goats and pigs were used as test subjects, even as human beings suffered in silence. The poem concludes when a still fifteen-year-old Jetn̄il-Kijiner enters her project into a school contest and is immediately dismissed by the judges.

“Electroacoustic music,” which has “roots in Cold War technologies,” underscores the poem. Weatherby crafted this music from the sound of flowing water beneath Prentis Hall, which was installed to cool the nuclear reactor Columbia built as part of the Manhattan Project. In this way, Weatherby not only exposes Columbia’s culpability in the brutal history of nuclear weapons, but immerses the viewer inside of it by building the very soundscape of the installation out of a holdover from Columbia’s past which still affects the school’s problematic present. 

After its conclusion, more indigenous and anti-colonial activists—such as Bobby Seale and Marie Clements—describe the link between racialized dehumanization and western imperialism in all its forms, whether that be through the Dene people being forced to mine uranium ore in Canada without safety measures or the Marshallese people suffering from radioactive contamination caused by nuclear testing conducted on their shores. Combining these disparate voices shows that these imperial injustices are not isolated and cannot simply be written off as mere history. Rather, the effects of past colonialism and dehumanization still reverberate today even as human rights violations continue. 

By highlighting history’s living legacy, Weatherby reframes the narrative surrounding nuclear weapons from the common conception of a potentially disastrous future—horrendous yet distant—to a tragedy that has already occurred and must be reckoned with today. Summarized succinctly in the zine that Weatherby crafted to accompany the installation, “THE DISASTER HAS ALREADY HAPPENED AND THIS IS ALL AFTERMATH.” For many people around the globe, these weapons have already brought on a nuclear armageddon. They Never Told Us These Things forces us to confront this unsettling reality.

They Never Told Us These Things will run for one more day on Friday, March 31 from 2:30 to 4:00 pm in Barnard’s Movement Lab. It is free. Walk-ins are encouraged.

Illumination via Marino Bubba