James Acord was the only private individual in the world licensed to own and handle radioactive materials. He is likely to remain so since the authorities closed the loopholes after he achieved his license. His work was a story of a 20-year performance, a cat and mouse game with the nuclear regulatory authorities, in which he pursued his dream of converting highly radioactive waste into inert metal for use in art. Along the way, he created sculpture and events that probed the history of nuclear engineering, often incorporating radioactive materials. His astonishing story shines light on the secrecy and security with which society cloaks the nuclear industry.
In 1998 James Acord was involved with the project Eye of The Storm – Artists in the Maelstrom of Science, Arts Catalyst’s first International Art & Science Conference. The debate considered the question: 'What are the big conflicts in science and what have artists got to say about them?’ The debate was presented at the historic Royal Institution of Great Britain (the site of Faraday's first experiments), the conference focused on some of the major controversies in modern science, with eminent scientists and artists from various areas discussing and debating the issues that will dominate the news of the next decade. James Acord was accompanied by other panelists included scientists Sir Roger Penrose, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, neurologist Prof. Susan Greenfield, astrophysicist and ditor of Leonardo, Roger Malina, biologist Prof. John Maynard-Smith and Prof. Grahame Bulfield of the Roslin Institute (progenitors of Dolly the Sheep), and artists Stelarc, Julian Maynard-Smith, Del LaGrace Volcano and artist-astronaut Kitsou Dubois, with broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. In this conference, James Acord talked about his life on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and why he began to sculpt with fissile materials.
1998 also saw James Acord join Mark Aerial Waller and Carey Young in the Atomic exhibition and talk ‘Art and the Atomic State’ held at the Imperial College London. Atomic considered our fears and assumptions about science and the nuclear industry. The exhibition challenged the tricky issue of the idealism behind the 'white heat of technology' of the fifties and sixties and attempted to break down the wall of secrecy which has shielded the nuclear industry since the cold war.
Acord had an ambition to build a 'nuclear Stonehenge' on a heavily contaminated site at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home of the atomic bomb, an ambition that led him through a tragi-comic dance with the US Department of Energy. Atomic led us through his perilous 15-year journey to a site-specific display of his nuclear reliquaries, specially commissioned for his UK residency at Imperial College London.
Between 2008 and 2010, Acord was involved in a Nuclear Forum organised by Arts Catalyst and SCAN in partnership with RSA Arts & Ecology. The forum explored the impact of nuclear power in art and culture and ran alongside the Nuclear: Art and Radioactivity exhibition.
In 2011, Arts Catalyst dedicated a tribute to the life of James Acord who passed away on Saturday 8 January 2011. The evening, James Acord: A Life in the Nuclear Age, "You can't make this shit up", included an exhibition of the artist work, stories, film clips, photos, and a reading from The Book of Ash, a novel based on Acord's life, by James Flint.