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Amnesia Atómica NYC: Times Square art installation draws attention to nuclear risks

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From May 17-24, 2022, Times Square Arts presented Amnesia Atómica NYC, a public exposition commissioned by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists centered around artist Pedro Reyes’s ZERO NUKES: a 30 foot tall, mushroom cloud-shaped inflatable sculpture. The sculpture stood in Times Square throughout the week, serving as the centerpiece for a variety of public programming designed to spotlight activists, artists, scientists, and community organizations in the nuclear field, and drive conversations around non-proliferation and disarmament. Passersby who found themselves in Times Square at the right moment may have also received one of the 12,075 rocket-shaped balloons which Reyes created for public distribution, to symbolize the dismantlement of today’s global nuclear arsenal.

Other programming included a “mobilization expo,” where NTI set up a public exhibit to present the Horizon 2045 project, a collaboration between NTI, N Square, and the Center for Complexity at the Rhode Island School of Design. Horizon 2045 has the ambitious goal of scoping out an alternative, nuclear weapons-free global security system that could be implemented by 2045, one hundred years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many people and governments worldwide seek a world without nuclear weapons, but these diverse actors have struggled to make progress because there is no agreement on exactly what their collective goal is, or how to get there. That is where Horizon 2045 comes in—the project adopts a systems-based approach to define that goal, asking, “What does the system that perpetuates nuclear weapons look like, and how can we change it to one where nuclear weapons are no longer considered necessary for security?” Considering the explicit nuclear threats surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conversations with the public in Times Square on risks surrounding our current nuclear-reliant system proved more salient now than any time in recent history.

This event was also a unique opportunity for NTI to engage in person with other organizations in the nuclear field, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a global coalition focused on mobilizing civil society around the world to support the specific objective of prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons; The Tank, a Manhattan-based non-profit arts presenter and producer serving emerging artists; Games for Change, an organization that supports using games for social change; Global Zero an international movement dedicated to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; and Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems. They collectively provided hands-on activities, a VR experience, information booths, and merchandise to engage the hundreds of thousands of visitors who pass through Times Square every week.

But this was not the first iteration of Amnesia Atómica—the ZERO NUKES sculpture made its public debut in February 2020 at Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico. There, it commemorated the 53rd anniversary of the first nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean established by the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1967. Originally slated to journey to New York City in April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put plans for the sculpture on hold until this year.

Choosing New York City as the expo’s second destination was no accident, however. 40 years ago, the largest anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in American history brought over one million people to Central Park, coinciding with the United Nation’s Second Special Session on Disarmament. Though the protests did not immediately lead to new arms control treaties, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty five years later—the first time the two nuclear powers agreed to shrink their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Four decades later, the risks surrounding nuclear weapons remain, but it is the hope of all who participated in Amnesia Atómica NYC that efforts like it can help reduce and, eventually, eliminate those risks.

A WNYC radio broadcast covering Amnesia Atómica NYC can be heard here.

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