Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Living in a Fallout Shelter

Chosen Survivors

Happy Days: 'Be The First on Your Block'

Howard does civil defense. The Fonz doesn't.

The Twilight Zone: 'The Shelter'

Many bunker narratives take on the attributes of the siege or prison drama because entering the bunker is in the end a mode of self-incarceration. In this respect the bunker narrative works as a means of playing out broader anxieties about the ways in which everyday life, at least since World War II, has been commandeered by the militarized state. The continuation of life in these narratives is predicated upon access to a technologically-mediated environment that is itself an outgrowth of a militarized society. Being inside the bunker brings no relief from the terrors produced by it and the deceptions generated by a withdrawal from the outside world’s continuities of time and space instead cause a disorientation that is recognizable not as the exceptional condition of emergency but as an intensification of the conditions of control that the very idea of a bunker makes possible. Even as it offers a tentative promise of protection from assault, the bunker violently interrupts and destabilizes the state of security it is supposed to preserve.

This sense of the bunker as a weapon is evident in a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone called ‘One More Pallbearer,’ where the wealthy Paul Radin invites three people from his past to the bomb shelter he has built in the basement of a New York skyscraper. Radin’s objective is to terrify the three, against whom he holds a grudge, into begging his forgiveness by simulating a nuclear attack. An apology wins a place in the bunker while a refusal is certain death. All three refuse and leave, preferring an honorable death; Radin has evidently always been rotten. The elaborate ruse, however, turns out to have anticipated real events as a bomb blast shakes the shelter and Radin discovers that war really has occurred. In a further twist, however, the wreckage Radin wanders through above ground turns out to be all in his mind; the world has not ended and he has gone mad.

While the bunker seemingly gives Radin power over life and death, conventional values of right and wrong neutralise the grip he believes he has over those who have allegedly persecuted him. The imagined apocalypse clearly marks Radin as mad but the single-mindedness with which he has used his wealth to construct an environment of terror and coercion suggests that he -- and by extension, a culture that deploys civil defence a means of social control -- is a genuine threat.

The Twilight Zone: 'One More Pallbearer'

The Twlight Zone: 'Shelter Skelter'

The Omega Man

Electra Glide in Blue

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Agnès Varda and Susan Sontag

Sontag/Varda from Metrograph Pictures on Vimeo.

While we're on the subject of Varda and Demy in America, it's definitely worth including Varda's Black Panthers film here too: go to the Internet Archive.

Model Shop

Unlike Hopper's cowboy pastiche of Euro arthouse, this is a real French new wave film shot on Los Angeles. Jacques Demy's Model Shop (1969) does a great job on the city; there's no quest narrative here, only endless loops and circuits. Meanwhile, his wife Agnes Varda was busy shooting Black Panthers (1968) and one of the ultimate late-60s Hollywood oddities, Lions Love (1969). None of the films made much of a mark in the US and the pair soon returned to Paris. Together, Model Shop and Lions Love offer an idiosyncratic, oblique, and refreshingly underexposed outsider's perspective of an overdetermined moment.

Orford Ness

Reyner Banham Loves LA

The Principality of Sealand

Sealand Official Site

Monday, March 29, 2010

Vija Celmins


Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti: A Desert Oasis (Sony DSC-RX10) from Dan Carter on Vimeo.

John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)

John Latham

Coastal Erosion in Norfolk

Spiral Exhalations

From Edgar Allan Poe, "MS. Found in a Bottle" (1833):

We got under way with a mere breath of wind, and for many days stood along the eastern coast of Java, without any other incident to beguile the monotony of our course than the occasional meeting with some of the small grabs of the Archipelago to which we were bound. One evening, leaning over the taffrail, I observed a very singular, isolated cloud, to the N. W. It was remarkable, as well for its color, as from its being the first we had seen since our departure from Batavia. I watched it attentively until sunset, when it spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapor, and looking like a long line of low beach. My notice was soon afterwards attracted by the duskyred appearance of the moon, and the peculiar character of the sea. The latter was undergoing a rapid change, and the water seemed more than usually transparent. Although I could distinctly see the bottom, yet, heaving the lead, I found the ship in fifteen fathoms. The air now became intolerably hot, and was loaded with spiral exhalations similar to those arising from heated iron. As night came on, every breath of wind died away, and a more entire calm it is impossible to conceive. The flame of a candle burned upon the poop without the least perceptible motion, and a long hair, held between the finger and thumb, hung without the possibility of detecting a vibration. However, as the captain said he could perceive no indication of danger, and as we were drifting in bodily to shore, he ordered the sails to be furled, and the anchor let go. No watch was set, and the crew, consisting principally of Malays, stretched themselves deliberately upon deck. I went below — not without a full presentiment of evil. Indeed every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoom. I told the captain my fears — but he paid no attention to what I said, and left me without deigning to give a reply. My uneasiness, however, prevented me from sleeping, and about midnight I went upon deck. As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I was startled with a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next instant, a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and, rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to stern.

Partially Buried

Preparing for his stay at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau paid a visit to an Irish railroad worker, James Collins, with a view to buying Collins’s shanty for boards. “It was of small dimensions,” Thoreau comments, but not much could be seen of it since dirt was “raised five feet all around as if it were a compost heap” (29). Striking a bargain with Collins, Thoreau unearths the cabin the next morning, dismantles it and removes the materials to the pondside.

Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed was created at Kent State University in Ohio during an arts festival in January 1970. The shed, part of an abandoned farm owned by the university and used as a storage space for dirt, gravel and firewood, had twenty loads of earth from a construction site piled on top of it until the central beam snapped from the pressure. The outmoded farm building and the forms of social and economic organisation it invokes are almost but not entirely obliterated by the overturning of earth by modern machinery. The shed becomes an instant ruin, a memorial to the Jeffersonian conviction that the small-scale, self-sustaining agrarian community might be the foundation of American national virtue. Sitting in his own shed in 1845, Thoreau had an idea that such a notion was already history. The once sacred art of husbandry, he complains, is now “pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely [...]. By avarice and selfishness, a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber” (103).

“It’s a Mud Mud Mud World” read the headline of a dismissive article in the local press following the completion of Partially Buried Woodshed (RS, 307). Mud had preoccupied Smithson since at least 1968, though it was too cold at Kent State for mud to flow and earth had to be used instead. In an essay for Artforum, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), Smithson envisions a disintegration of the “earth’s surface and the figments of the mind,” with “[v]arious agents, both fictional and real, somehow trad[ing] places with each other –– one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call ‘abstract geology’” (RS, 100). “Muddy thinking” for Smithson does not mean confused thinking. Instead, mud works as a solvent that collapses the distinction between mental and physical processes to produce a kind of materialist negative capability, with thought a form of entropic power that acts upon secure knowledge and wears it down: "One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason .[...] This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries" (RS, 100).


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008).
Flam, Jack, ed. Robert Smithson: Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Impact Event

The resurrection of a credible theory of catastrophism among scientists during the 1980s to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs was in part, as Doug Davis has argued, made possible by Cold War technology. Davis posits a complex interrelationship between military-scientific work in impact-explosion craters caused by nuclear detonations and impact-extinction theory in geology and palaeontology. The study of bomb craters, for example, enabled the verification of the effects of impact explosions for palaeontologists, while the dinosaur apocalypse reconstructed from the geological record draws its vocabulary of destruction from Cold War rhetoric—“target properties”, “projectiles”, “fallout”, “bombardment”, and so on—as well as providing a plausible scenario of a post-nuclear world. Deep time produces evidence of the future anterior, the will-have-been: “The same regime of signs”, claims Davis, “is at work after a nuclear holocaust in the 1980s as after a catastrophic impact 65 million years ago” (497). Impact-extinction scientists were not funded by the military, yet their findings were inseparable from the work of Cold War science; as such, Davis concludes, the “state of conflict itself enabled the theory’s development” (506; original emphasis).


Davis, Doug. '“A Hundred Million Hydrogen Bombs”: Total War in the Fossil Record,' Configurations 9.3 (2001): 461-508.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Planet of the Apes

'Nature will surely come to her own again. Nothing human is of long duration. Men and their deeds are obliterated, the race itself fades; but Nature goes calmly on with her projects' -- John C. Van Dyke, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1901), p. 62.

'Enfranchisement was an historical event' -- Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso.1988), p. 112.

Vanishing Point

In Modern Arms and Free Men (1949), Cold War technocrat Vannevar Bush describes approvingly how U.S. car and ham radio subcultures meant that “[e]very corner garage, every radio club, was a sort of center of training, training that could be easily transformed in a short time, when the test came, into the ability to operate the complex implements of war” (20). This description, while referring to the pre-World War II generation, is even more pertinent post-war, especially with regards to the matrix of interrelated subcultures that flourished along the west coast during the 1950s and 1960s: the technological avant-garde vernacular of hot rod and biker groups “chopping” factory-produced vehicles into individualized mutations of lurid self-realization, independent radio DJs providing slang-encoded communications and self-reflexive commentary (Davis 1998: 65-6; Hickey 1997: 61; Miller 1999: 33).

As with Bush’s observation of an earlier era, this street-level expertise, put to the service of adapting fordist methods of production to an aesthetic of individual display, is easily converted back into the operation of the machinery of war, the exploitation of the masses’ “aptitude for movement as a social solution” as Virilio calls it (1986: 28). Such a view is, by the early 1970s, vividly interrogated in a number of elegiac New Hollywood productions, especially in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Lucas makes sure the interrelationship between California car culture and war is not missed by ending his film with information about what happened to his protagonists: one dies in a car crash, another is missing in action, another is a writer living in Canada, clearly one of the thousands who crossed the border to escape the draft (Miller 1999: 87-89). Vanishing Point doesn’t traffic in Lucas’s nostalgia for innocent times – the theatrical trailer for American Graffiti asks “Where were you in ‘62?” and a palpable sense of loss saturates that film – but there is a similar scrutiny of the destructive temporal accident seen to be somehow at the core of the American automobile.

  • Bush, V. 1949. Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Davis, M. 1998. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Pimlico.
  • Hickey, D. 1997. Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. Los Angeles: Art Issues Press.
  • Miller, S.P. 1999. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  • Virilio, P. 1986. Speed and Politics, trans. by Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e).

This is a modified extract from John Beck, ‘Resistance Becomes Ballistic: Vanishing Point and the End of the Road,’ Cultural Politics 3.1 (2007): 35 -50.

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave

Trevor Paglen

Chris Petit

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) is remembered largely for its famous closing sequence of slow-motion explosions, as his female protagonist Daria imagines the destruction of the Carefree development-resort in the Arizona desert and all it stands for. To the accompaniment of Pink Floyd's 'Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,' Antonioni presents the annihilation of buildings, furniture, clothes, food, television, and books with an exquisite eye for the aesthetic properties of things coming apart.

The Carefree resort is clearly modelled on the houses Frank Lloyd Wright built in the desert around the outskirts of Phoenix, and which became the fantasy homes for aspirational post-war Angelenos. (Most of the land, incidentally, to the south and east of Phoenix is comprised of Indian reservations). Daria's allegiance to native cultures-- the hippie paraphernalia of Sioux and Navajo jewellery, the long, uncut hair, the meaningfully empathic look exchanged with the Mexican or Indian maid -- clearly informs her discomfort at being in this place, and reveals her awareness of the subjugation and displacement of the region's indigenous inhabitants. Daria works for the Sunny Dunes Corporation, which is behind the desert development, and has arranged to spend time with her boss at Carefree. This tryst provides the pretext for her trip from LA to Phoenix, a drive of some three hundred miles, which temporally, however, takes Daria through millions of years, from the geological ground zero of Zabriskie Point to suburban wish fulfilment.

While Antonioni's film is generally not much admired, its stunning visual language is rightly celebrated. Zabriskie Point is fascinating precisely because it puts such a high premium on chromatic splendor and pictorial composition at the expense of plot, narrative, and characterization. It is a film that is supremely concerned with surfaces and quality of light; with looking. It is in particular concerned with looking at and visually representing landscape, as Dave Hickey writes, ‘by picturing the noncultural wilderness within a frame'(1).

As a specific cultural product of the Enlightenment, this 'viewing' of the non-human world from a privileged vantage point prefers a nature scrubbed of the tracklines of history -- of everyday life, of dramatic event -- in order to offer up the world as empty page upon which the prospector can scrawl his signature. The modernist formal dismantling of the sovereign perspective, according to Hickey, did not effectively challenge the authority of the gaze, but simply realigned its taste away from romantic luxuriance to pared down austerity. So, especially in its American modernist form, the landscape tradition favors the arid West, with its absence of 'atmospheric incident and decorative vegetation' that allows the view 'to mimic the reductive, formalist territories of European Modernism, upon which the works of industrial humans appear as decrepit blemishes on an equally abject (but essentially pure) armature of primal design’ (2). For Hickey, '[c]reatures of the eye' read but do not caress the world, and, as a consequence, 'the glass wall that the camera deploys between the body and the world, through which only the eye can pass, lends itself perfectly to our disembodied romance with the evacuated landscape that presents itself to us as a container of the spirit’ (3).

This is a not unfamiliar critique of the cold, cold heart of the Enlightenment: the Cartesian propensity for division and domination, the construction and enlistment of aesthetic categories -- beautiful, picturesque, sublime -- to service the interests of nation and empire building and private enterprise. As Hickey suggests, the American West is one of the nodal sites for the resourcing of expansionist, capitalist, and aestheticist projects.

The vision of the fruits of these projects erupting, fragmenting, atomizing at the end of Zabriskie Point is a willed return to the granular existence of geological history. It is a vision that destroys the notion of history as progress, that produces a catastrophic counterreading of 'nature' that rejects the organic modernism of the high-tech dwelling nestled comfortably in the supporting landscape and the prospect it supplies. The violence of civil disorder and industrial overlay that frame the film are, subsequently, revealed to be a mere prelude to the violence inflicted by the desert, to which the trappings of human existence are seen to return. The liberating potential written onto the vacant desert space by Daria and her confused drop-out protester friend Mark, whose death at the hands of the police prompts her vengeful vision, is at the same time endangered by the encroachment of a bourgeois leisure elite with visions of Edenic reclamation. Daria's redemptive romantic nature (an ersatz hippie primitivism) and nature as professional-managerial resource (utopian modernism in its postwar, postfordist manifestation as high-end trophy-home) are both exploded in the final scenes of the film. The dispersal of the signs of US culture into shimmering patterns of light and colour might be seen as a kind of radical formalist recoil from the commodification of modernism, as the geometric abstraction of nature at its most crystalline absorbs the sedimental garbage of conspicuous consumption back into part of its own elemental grandeur.

Frank Lloyd Wright's utopian interest in the possibilities of organic form in architecture was confirmed by the flora of the desert, where he finds in the Saguaro cactus the 'perfect example of reinforced building construction. Its interior vertical rods hold it rigidly upright maintaining its great fluted columnar mass for centuries’ (4). The inner ribs of the Saguaro were, indeed, used as structural elements in Papago and Pima shelters, and Wright senses a kind of natural duration in the.cactus which resists the vicissitudes of history. The Saguaro, incidentally, like the one sitting in the corner of the Sunny Dunes executive's LA office, bears in its scientific form the name Carnegiea gigantea, after steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose foundation established the Desert Laboratory in Tucson in 1903 for the study of desert ecology.

The Desert, published in 1901, the most celebrated of the over forty books published by John C. Van Dyke, is dedicated to one A.M.C., which, although not enlarged upon by Van Dyke, turns out to be Andrew Michael Carnegie. Van Dyke was the first professor of art history at Rutgers College, a well known art critic, friends with Sargent, Whistler and Mark Twain, author of a number of books of art appreciation, and a regular contributor to upmarket magazines (5). He was a prominent Rembrandt scholar, remembered almost exclusively in the obituaries of 1932 for challenging of the attribution of nearly a thousand Rembrandts around the world (6). In 1897, respiratory problems prompted Van Dyke to to visit his brother in southern California, and The Desert recounts his experiences during three years spent around what is now called the Colorado Plateau ¬¬-- which includes the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran Deserts -- between 1898 and 1901, equipped with a pony, a few pounds of supplies, and only a fox terrier for company. The book broke from the conventional distrustful view of the desert as barren, hostile, and unpleasant and, as 'the first work to praise the desert for its beauty,' claims Van Dyke expert Peter Wild, The Desert 'led the way in a major shift of the culture's outlook on the arid portion of its natural heritage' (7).

Van Dyke moved comfortably in the circles of preeminent industrialists and art collectors like Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Frank Thomson. According to Van Dyke, it was he who guided Carnegie's first investment of six thousand dollars in American art and who continued to acquire art for him during his later life (8). Like his friend Bernard Berenson, Van Dyke was a connoisseur of Renaissance art, and like Berenson, this skill was put to work in stocking the collections of wealthy industrialists and, subsequently, in shaping the taste of America's upper class (9). Van Dyke had, it appears, a standing invitation at Frick's house, and was well enough trusted to edit Carnegie's autobiography. Indeed, it has been suggested that Van Dyke's trip to the desert was, in fact, precipitated by Carnegie, who wanted someone to deliver conscience money to a former employee sacked, persecuted, and ruined after the Homestead Strike and who had taken refuge from the law in northern Mexico. Needless to say, nothing of this story makes its way into The Desert, which is solely concerned with disinterested acts of acute perception (10).


1. Dave Hickey, 'Shooting the Land,' in Peter E. Pool, ed. The Altered Landscape (Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1999), 22-32, p. 25.
2. Ibid., pp. 26-7.
3. Ibid, p. 28.
4. Frank Lloyd Wright quoted in Peter Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 73.
5. David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), p. 128; Peter Wild, ed., The Desert Reader: Descriptions of America's Arid Regions (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), p. 111; Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), p. 96.
6. Teague, p. 130. See also Alessandra Ponte, 'The House of Light and Entropy: Inhabiting the American Desert,' Assemblage 30 (1996):12-31, p. 19.
7. Peter Wild quoted in Ponte, p. 129. John C. Van Dyke, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1901).
8. Ibid, p.138.
9. Ponte, 'The House of Light and Entropy,' p. 19. 'Berenson's oeuvre must be placed within the milieu of the theories of visual perception developed in the aesthetics of Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Alois Riegel, and Heinrich Wolfflin'; that is, an aesthetics of 'pure visibility'. Ponte, pp. 19-20.
10. Van Dyke liked to present himself as the ideal composite of cultivated, urbane aesthete and Rooseveltian outdoorsman, as much at home in the Painted Desert as the galleries of Europe. To a large extent he was, yet the picture of self-sufficient nomad is somewhat compromised by the fact that many of his desert visits were made by train, he often stayed on his brother's ranch or in good hotels, and his knowledge of desert fauna was hardly sufficient to survive for long periods alone in harsh conditions. 'In 1901 [Van Dyke] sent the tearsheets for his book Old English Masters, Engraved by Timothy Cole back to the Century company not from a desert water hole but from the Hotel Almada, in Guayamas, Mexico, which its stationary proclaimed to be a "Hotel Moderno de Primera Clase."' He would not have lasted for long, observes Teague, 'under the delusions that rattlesnakes are in fact sluggish and that Gila monsters are harmless.' Teague, p. 130.

I offer a more extended discussion of Van Dyke and his relevance to British architecture critic Reyner Banham's reading of Western American space in John Beck, ‘An Over-illuminated World: Reyner Banham and Art History in the Wilderness.’ Everything 3 (2000): 26-33. Zabriskie Point has recently (finally) been released on DVD in the UK.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Monday, March 08, 2010