At the behest of President Harry S. Truman, and under the leadership of King Juda, the Bikini islanders were evacuated from their Atoll in the Marshall Islands during March of 1946, and safely placed beyond the reach of what was about to occur.
The tropical peace of their little corner of the North Pacific was going to be interrupted by something not many places in the world had experienced at first hand. Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, who supervised the “temporary” removal of the islanders from their home, declared that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” Named Operation Crossroads, this latest nuclear testing exercise would change the legacy of the Bikini Atoll forever.
While the 167 Bikinians were safely removed from the islands, some 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation-recording devices and the Navy’s 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs were deposited for the tests. Over 42,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel were also involved in the program. It stands to reason, with this much effort and resources being poured into the operation, it was going to be documented as accurately as possible: noted by Jonathan Weisgall as one of the most “thoroughly photographed” events in history, due to the 328 still and motion picture cameras carried on up to 64 aircraft, the Baker detonation was a controlled explosion 90 feet beneath the ocean surface. Identical to the one used on Nagasaki in 1945, the bomb had a yield equivalent to 23,000 tons on TNT, so the effect was going to be spectacular. Recording it was paramount, and this required equally modern technology such as the cameras capable of filming at speeds of up to 8,000 frames per second. Indeed, some of the planes used to record the event from above were radio-controlled drones.
Despite their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientists responsible for the nuclear program were still in the process of learning what effects nuclear weapons had beyond the initial blast and fallout. Even before their use on Japan, there had been warnings from all sides about deploying weapons without fully understanding their capabilities. It wasn’t until after the war, in December of 1945, President Truman issued a directive to Army and Navy officials that joint testing of nuclear weapons would be necessary “to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships.” To determine how they would affect the humans on those warships however, pigs were tied to the repurposed naval vessels positioned around the detonation zone. In a dark twist of fate, the 33,000-ton battleship called Nagato was also positioned close to the detonation zone, being the flagship of the Japanese Navy, it had formerly led the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
The Baker detonation is impressive for all the wrong reasons; it is a truly sublime moment to watch on film, using the original footage ingeniously cut into rhythmic sections by American artist Bruce Conner in 1976, it captures perfectly the glorious horror of the atomic dream. This flash of combustion and enormous mesmerising expansion shot on grainy black-and-white film has lost none of the disturbing complexity in today’s slick visual landscape. Witnessing the event in Thomas Dane Gallery’s pitch-black space resulted in goosebumps; neck hairs stood to attention and the pulse altered. Faced with such beautiful ferocity on a magnitude and scale beyond comprehension, the eyes, brain and flesh are set to argument.
Conner’s work with Crossroads, 30 years after the event, and now in London 39 years later still, is just as impressive. As capturing the extraordinary explosion itself was a ground-breaking feat, so too was Conner’s enchanting editing of the appropriated footage, compressing it back down to 36 minutes complete with two separate musical scores by Patrick Gleason and Terry Riley. Clearly a work of art that intends to question the nature of man’s will and ambition, an underlying idea in the film is that all warfare is a repetitive act, and so too is all photography. Each frame that pulled the radioactive light from the scene that day, could stand for each bomb that was dropped during World War II. And what better way to encapsulate all the power and fury of those bombing campaigns than to do so in such a singularly expressive manner with the Baker test explosion of July 1946. As if an artwork in its own right, the towering, watery sculpture that erupts speaks not alone of military might but also human fear and our innate violence towards one another. Re-presenting the biggest act of manmade violence as a readable, conceivable, quantifiable object and positioning it in the peacefully sterile setting of the comfortable gallery is both unsettling and provocative.
Crossroads is a masterpiece of moving image art. It is the kind of film that will influence your conscious and unconscious world, haunting your faculties like the shipwrecks do in the still waters of the Bikini Atoll today. Again and again the witness sits in total captivation at this explicit act as it is presented from so many angles and speeds as to wonder just what part of our conscience is being betrayed by simultaneously enjoying it and being repelled by it. Watching it we question our own morality along with the men in clean laboratory coats that invented the damnable bomb; we question the vengeful generals and the men in clean suits that damned the world to an ensuing war of rhetoric and threat.
Thomas Dane Gallery is right to show the film alone, within its own space, for we need that darkened space to fully appreciate the terrible prospect and magnificent disaster that Conner wanted us to. Faced with such disorientating information, the ideal space should be an empty well, a psychological vacuum where only the witness’ imagination can control the influx of data. With the haunting, repetitive notes of the Moog Synthesizer and 16 track score that play above the bomb’s continuing detonation and the never-ending wall of water that follows; the past, present and future landscapes of humanity’s technological cannibalism confounds our thinking – Crossroads is a timeless classic because its very subject is a timeless paradox of a very human kind.
Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS runs at Thomas Dane Gallery until 1 August 2015.
All images: Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976. © Conner Family Trust, unless otherwise stated.