Nancy Buchanan, Fallout from the Nuclear Family, 1982. Installation view (with Benny Powell), Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York (Photograph: Ransom Rideout)
Fallout from the Nuclear Family (1978-1980)
'My father [nuclear physicist Louis N. Ridenour, Jr.] had been Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] and then he was asked to take a job as the first Chief Scientist for the Air Force at the Pentagon. While we were living in Washington, DC, I got tuberculosis at the same time that the whole anti-Communist “red” thing was heating up and the university became a very unpleasant environment. Lockheed [the airplane manufacturer] had been courting my father to work with them because he had been on a lot of studies after the war with think tanks like RAND and they really wanted him working on missiles in space. Finally he gave in and went to work at Lockheed. Just after the war, he and a number of his colleagues spoke out about how there’s no defense against atomic weapons and that they shouldn’t be left in the hands of individual governments, not even the United States. That conversation was quickly squashed, “atom spies” were named, and it became very uncomfortable for people to speak out.
My father died very suddenly and unexpectedly when I was thirteen. My sister once asked him why and how he could continue to work on these things, these weapon systems. He said, “Oh well, man just needs war. He’d get real bored without it.” He had become cynical. He’d given up his faith and his idealism.
My family had boxes of old papers and my grandmother had my father’s childhood papers. My mother died when I was eighteen, so then my sister and I had her papers. So finally around 1978, I thought I should look at these things because I didn’t know who my father really was. I started going through the boxes. First I made a book about my mother, who had left a cache of papers. She had wanted to write poetry and I think she was absolutely miserable being a wife and a mother. I looked through her pitiful group of papers and I made peace with her. I had a technique for juxtaposing her words with just the photos and papers that were left. That gave me the courage to look at my father’s papers and devise a system for dealing with them because there was so much material from his birth to his death. He always thought of himself as very patriotic, so I did interviews with people that knew him and talked to my sister and thought about my own memories. All of those fragments, those deep, personal things were excerpted on blue tissue paper. I also typed excerpts from the history of the times on red paper, to highlight the fact that here’s a person who lived through these really important turning points in American history: World War II, the development of atomic weapons, the anti-Communist crusade, the development of computers… Instead of seeing these ten books as being about one person, you can see how one person’s life is affected by huge forces converging at the time.'