The Radioactive Circus

Nervous anticipation was always part of the thrill of going to the carnival. Huge machines with names like The Spider, Flying Dutchman, and Gravitron were exciting not only because of the sensation of movement; but because they were manned by a crazy person, had a decent chance of making you sick, and could fall apart at any moment.

That fear doesn’t even come close to the presentiment surrounding The Liquidator, a radioactive amusement ride and kinetic sculpture by installation artist Ryan Doyle, who raided the heart of the fallout zone at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant—the sight of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history—in search of scrap metal to build his demented circus ride. If that alone doesn’t make you question Doyle’s sanity, consider that the front page of his blog is a picture of him wearing a bandana of an American flag and cutting the head off a chicken. Doyle told me that the plan to make off with contaminated metal from the eerie fairground at Prypiat, Ukraine began while drinking at the oldest absinthe bar in Barcelona with the Italian digital hijacking outfit The next summer, they assembled a crew of artists and stuntmen—plus some hazmat suits and gas masks—and entered into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Tell me about the fairground at Prypiat.

It was supposed to be completed on May 1, 1986—the workers’ day of rights. It was a gift from the government to the people. The celebration was going to have these big amusement rides. They were just finishing up when the explosion happened. The people weren’t told anything. It wasn’t until a few days after the explosion that the people started a public outcry, demanding to know why people were showing up in gas masks. At that point, some of the government officials decided to turn on the amusement park to pacify the uprising. That was the only time it was ever turned on. From what I’m told, they turned it on for four to six hours. The next day, they evacuated everyone.

“The government would give them crates of vodka and tell them that it would help flush out the radiation.”

Why did you want to go there?

The plan was to go and get pieces of this amusement ride—this deceptive tool/gift to the workers—and pieces of the hospital beds. There are some pretty detailed accounts from the wires of the first 28 men who went in [after the accident] and what happened to them—how their bodies and minds deteriorated. They had radioactive burns inside their organs, and their organs started congealing. I was up for nights crying, thinking about these men who went in to put out the fires. The government would give them crates of vodka and tell them that it would help flush out the radiation. While we were there, people continued to tell us, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Just drink some vodka.” 

Was it hard to get into the explosion area? 

We had to do a full background check two months beforehand to get into the zone. It’s run by the military. I was really paranoid the whole time. A guard took us to the places we needed to go. He would be like, “This is a pretty highly radioactive area. I’m not going to stay here for two hours.” He would leave, and then we would run through like kids in the candy shop—but it was a lot heavier than that. We were filling our bags and dragging stuff off into the woods. I thought for sure they were letting us get away with it until we got to the exit. We were surrounded by military—not only military who is not from my country, but from [a country] whose language I don’t speak—who probably had nothing better to do than royally screw us over for stealing radioactive scrap, which I later realized was just crap to them.

That sounds dangerous.

The danger didn’t fully hit me until we got there. We went in August, and there were brushfires everywhere. All this radioactive spoilage was on fire and spreading radiation. It was so powerful to be in that place. You wonder what this tasteless, invisible radioactivity has done to everything around you.

How great was the risk of contamination?

We’d be driving through the middle of what seemed like normal woods, and all of a sudden our alarms would start going off. I brought two analog Geiger counters and digital ones that had alarms. We set the alarms to 50 mSv—not a lethal dose. New York is at about 0.13.  In Manchester, there were buildings where it went up to 0.19. Outside Prypiat, it was at like 0.23. Reactors are not point anything, but like 2,000. So if you’re getting 50, you’re going to be toast pretty soon.

So you got contaminated?

I promised my wife that I wouldn’t take my mask off. As soon as I caught myself doing that, I panicked. “Wow, I’m going to get radiation poisoning,” I thought. My natural worry was my reproductive system. The radioactivity shoots these little rays out that cut through your reproductive cellular structure. It scrambles your DNA. Once, I fell through a floor. I got scraped up—not super-bad—but I got mud on me. I took a test that confirmed it was radioactive dirt. I tried to wash it off, but couldn’t get it off. Now I had all of these stolen things, some of which were highly radioactive, and I had to go through security. My head went to a really negative place. I started swearing at myself. Not only was I contaminated, but I had led my friends into it too. I had told myself I wasn’t going to get caught up in it, and I did. When I got back to the van, I showed Yuri [the guard] the mud on my leg, and he was like, “Yeah, you’re probably contaminated.” 

“You wonder what this tasteless, invisible radioactivity has done to everything around you.”

What did you do with the radioactive material afterward?

When we got to England, we unloaded the truck. They gave us an area underneath the train tracks built of four-meter-thick stone and concrete—exactly what we needed to work with radioactive material. We sorted through what was highly radioactive and what wasn’t. We were looking at Russian constructivists, especially [El] Lissitzky, and decided that we wanted to do a tower-type swing that mimicked the original swing from Chernobyl. We’re hands-on. We don’t hire people to build our sculptures for us. We conceive them and learn how to build them. That’s part of the process—learning how to do something. We started grinding and welding. I think we had about 10 or 13 days to build it.

Did you run into any trouble with the officials?

The Health and Safety Department was like, “No way you are going to be able do this.” So another production team was hired to help us deal with them. The first thing I said to those guys was, “Hi. We went to Chernobyl and I have radioactive stuff on my person right now.” They were like, “Do you have insurance?” And I was like, “I’ve never had insurance. I think it’s a scam.” At the time, I was working on another sculpture about radiotrophic fungus too, which is a black mold that thrives off radiation the way that regular plants live off the energy of the sun. I was like, “I’m gonna mix this fungus with my sperm, my blood, and my bacteria; and it’s going to become this radioactive life form that we, you know, can send off to space.” They both looked at me like, “Oh my god. We’re going to have to deal with this guy and the police at the same time.”

Where has The Liquidator been shown?

They let us do it in the park next to a big art gallery in Manchester, which was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We’ve since shown it in Sheffield. I’d like to bring it back to the States and move it around more. Now it’s sitting in London. It was supposed to open in a solo show there a couple of months ago, but the city would not let us set it up due to the radioactivity.

What were you trying to say with the ride?

Just the fact that we were able to do it–that we were able to carry radioactive material around in a sack. I can’t really tell you what I wanted people to get out of it. I just wanted to put it into some sort of documentation. I brought heavily radioactive stuff into Canada, America, England, Holland; pretty much everywhere on my way back. How the fuck can that be possible? That shouldn’t be okay, should it? The half-life of Cesium is about 30 years. The half-life of Strontium 90—one of the major contaminates from Chernobyl—is about 30 years. Those will be around for hundreds of years. Plutonium, Uranium, and other elements with high half-lives take tens of thousands of years. They’re not going way. I mean, in 10,000 years, languages change. Civilizations…


…are completely gone.

Does Chernobyl haunt you? Is there anything that still gets under your skin? 

A few years after the explosion, people came in and found all of these gas masks for children at a school three to six kilometers away from the reactor, which were never distributed. I saw the gas masks and knew that they blatantly ignored protecting the children, who are the most susceptible to radioactivity. As soon as we need to put gas masks on children, there’s a problem. People continually fuck each other over as long as they’ll make more money. That’s a hard fact of life. The bottom dollar really rules, and greed is the most bone-chilling part of Chernobyl. There’s something that won’t go away about turning on this amusement ride to shut people up. That’s what I wish I could un-remember.

Photographs by Tod Seelie. Additional reporting by Kent Szlauderbach