I found a dead woman’s shadow once, while walking the streets of Nagasaki. She was forever frozen in a casual stroll, a parasol over one shoulder. I merely turned the corner, and there she was.
The sheer heat of the nuclear blast above the city was so intense that it burned the very silhouettes of people into what stone and brick wasn’t blasted into rubble. Fragments of lives indelibly etched onto structures even as the people who lived them were disintegrated by the obliterating light.
Those in meltdown zones elsewhere died slower deaths, their lives eclipsed by the invisible specter of fallout. They suffered in slow agony, illnesses taking months or even years to rot them from the inside out, the steady degradation of radiation poisoning seeping into the marrows of their bones, breaking and corrupting even their base DNA. If they left any ghosts behind, they were of the invisible sort, silently haunting otherwise perfectly intact structures in areas abandoned to nuclear blight.
Until the Collective started doing their work.
That was the only name for them: the Collective. I don’t even know if ever applied a name to themselves, or if they were ever truly a movement in the traditional sense. There was no organizational structure at work as far as anyone could determine. No leadership. Just a loose international coalition of guerrilla artists with a shared mission: to remind the world of the cost of environmental tragedies.
There was a portrait of a seal colony living atop the wreckage of the Exxon Valdez hidden in Prince William Sound; a graffiti portrait of a small, impoverished African child with no hands staring at a mobile phone airbrushed on a boulder outside of a coltan mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo; statues of Indonesian villagers swept out to sea during the Boxing Day tsunami mounted on the sandy bottom of the Indian ocean west of Sumatra.
And so on.
The Collective also had it’s hunters, those fans and collectors who tracked down and shared their works. We were organized, albeit only in the loosest sense; we had all of the apparent chaos of an ant colony without any of the regimental organization. We used the internet to communicate and share discoveries, or at least the rumors of discoveries. Eagle-eyed members kept vigil for the social media accounts Collective artists would create to broadcast new works into the world before shutting them down again, pushing the culled info to the rest of us vis text and email blasts.
The art was transient by nature; sometimes civic or government authorities would destroy or confiscate it the moment it was discovered. This was part of the point. The crusade of those such as myself was to catalog and record as best we could before this happened.
Art should be seen, even if only by one other person.
My mission was just a rumor, a simple graffiti painting left behind in the abandoned city of Pripyat. Though opinions varied, most agreed it was some version of a young girl, her hand outstretched for an electrical switch, desiring the same power the Chernobyl plant had killed the surrounding area trying to provide.
After days of searching, I was frustrated, and on the verge of admitting defeat. I’d researched the current radiation levels in the area, calculated the safe daily exposure for someone of my body size, and traveled to Ukraine, where I spent as many hours every day as I could hunting through the houses, camera in hand. Each morning I swallowed pills with my breakfast, prophylactic medication designed to minimize the damage of any accidental exposure. Each dose left me feeling dyspeptic and fatigued.
Pripyat is a modest-sized city, but it was great deal of ground for one person to cover by themselves. I was nearing the end of my calculated safe operating window and growing weary of the toll effort and medication were taking on me. I had found nothing, save for the abandoned personal effects the citizens had been forced to leave behind. I gave myself one more day, and was prepared to list the Pripyat art rumors about as “unfounded” in the Collective forums.
It was by happenstance in the last hour of my last day that I found the girl. On a whim I passed through an abandoned schoolhouse, strolling without really observing, ready to move on to my next task. And then I spotted her: a shadow of paint, frozen in the banal act of turning on the power for her fellow children.
I merely turned the corner, and there she was.