How to Depict Toxicity? On France’s Radioactive Remnants in the Sahara
On February 13, 1960, in the midst of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), the French colonial regime detonated its first over ground atomic bomb at Reggane in the Algerian Sahara. Codenamed “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa), it had a blast capacity of 70 kilotons, about 4 times the strength of Little Boy, the United States’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a month before the end of the Second World War. Blue Jerboa was followed by other atmospheric detonations, as well as various underground nuclear tests, which continued until 1966, four years after Algeria’s formal independence from France. With these toxic imprints, France became the fourth country to possess weapons for mass destruction after the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the United Kingdom. However, France’s nuclear program in the Sahara spread radioactive fallout across Algeria, North, Central and West Africa, and the Mediterranean (including southern Europe), causing irreversible contaminations among humans, natural and built environments. This talk exposes the toxicity of the norms and forms of this program, interrogates the classification of its archival sources, and searches for ways to depict that toxicity, which does not obey the authority of borders.
Samia Henni is a historian of the built, destroyed, and imagined environments, and an Assistant Professor at Cornell University. She is the author of the multi-award-winning Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria (gta Verlag, 2017, EN; Editions B42, 2019, FR), the editor of War Zones gta papers no. 2 (gta Verlag, 2018), and the maker of exhibitions, such as Archives: Secret-Défense? (ifa Gallery/SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, 2021), Housing Pharmacology / Right to Housing (Manifesta 13, Marseille, 2020) and Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French War in Algeria (Zurich, Rotterdam, Berlin, Johannesburg, Paris, Prague, Ithaca, Philadelphia, 2017–19). She received her Ph.D. in the history and theory of architecture (with distinction, ETH Medal) from ETH Zurich. This year, she is the inaugural Albert Hirschman Chair at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Marseille (IMéRA); a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Art History at the University of Zurich; and a Visiting Geddes Fellow at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh. She is working on a book titled Colonial Toxicity: The French Army in the Sahara and an edited volume titled Deserts are not Empty.