Leslie Thornton’s They Were Just People (2016) is the third installment in the Moving Image Commissions, a series that addresses works by key artists in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. They Were Just People will be presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016. It will also be screened April 9, 2016 in the Walker Cinema, alongside films by Bruce Conner and the world premiere of Crossing (2016, video, 25 minutes), a new moving image collaboration between Thornton and previous Moving Image Commission artist, James Richards.
Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb test conducted by the United States Joint Army/Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, was one of the most documented events in 20th-century history. The explosion was caught on film, shot at multiple slow-motion speeds, and captured in 50,000 still images. During the test, 1.5 million feet of black-and-white film stock was exposed, and the comprehensiveness of the documentation triggered a global shortage of film stock.
Afterwards, eyewitnesses of the event struggled to describe their visual experience of the explosion. In an official report of Operation Crossroads, its author, William A. Shurcliff, wrote: “One reason why observers had so much trouble in retaining a clear impression of the explosion phenomena was the lack of appropriate words and concepts. The explosion phenomena abounded in absolutely unprecedented inventions in solid geometry. No adequate vocabulary existed for these novelties.”
Thus the documentation of Operation Crossroads became the primary material through which a new vernacular and narrative for the event could be established. Indeed, the official pictorial record of Operation Crossroads refers to cameras as the “star witnesses” of the event, citing an aerial camera with a telephoto lens capable of taking a legible photograph of a wristwatch from a quarter of a mile away. After two months of “verbal groping,” a conference was convened to agree upon a set of 30 special terms, which settled upon words such as: dome, fillet, side jets, bright tracks, cauliflower cloud, fallout, air shock disc, water shock disc, base surge, water mound, uprush, and aftercloud.
It is this original film documentation from the event that American assemblagist, painter, and filmmaker Bruce Conner (1933–2008) used to create the longest film of his career—CROSSROADS (1976), a bravura piece of cinema that examines the Bikini Atoll explosion over 36 minutes. In preparation for making the work, Conner successfully petitioned the US Defense Department for its declassified yet unreleased film material, and appropriated the footage to compile a work saturated with visual ruptures and editorial sutures. The artist’s careful sequencing creates a vision of horrific enchantment. At points, effect and experience seem indistinguishable from each other, and the violent plumes of water produced by the huge underwater explosion of the second test at Bikini flood the cinematic frame to the point of abstraction and eventual obliteration.
Commissioning sound for his films for the first time, Conner worked with two musicians, Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. While both soundtracks are equally eerie, Gleeson developed a score that aped diegetic sound for the first half of CROSSROADS, replete with bird sounds and distant thunder, and Riley created a radically different, dreamy, composition for organ.
Despite its charged material,CROSSROADS elides any singular political comment, serving instead as a complex meditation on memory, death, and the attempt to find a visual vocabulary that is both appalling and hypnotic. It is a work that deals in and makes sequences out of a space of incomprehension. The nuclear bomb was, after all, the absolute terminus of communication, not simply in terms of eyewitnesses’ verbal incapacity, but also as an action that carried the threat to wipe out life from which all language could possibly emerge.
This vexed relationship between documentation and processes of comprehension is a key aspect of CROSSROADS and of Leslie Thornton’s new video They Were Just People (2016), the last installment in the first season of Walker Moving Image Commissions. They Were Just People was produced in direct response to the influence and inquiry of Conner’s film. Thornton has described the late artist’s work as an “enabling force, a point of departure, a fundamental reassurance.” Like CROSSROADS, Thornton’s video also dwells on forms of abstraction in barbaric acts and the melting away of material into voids. But rather than focusing on the energetic and decisive moment of a single horror, her work builds from a slow dread—the persistent half-life of violent histories.
They Were Just People is a video that draws together a stereoscopic image of the La Brea Tar Pits in California (where one shot is the slowly blistering surface of the asphalt lake, and the other is a prismatic refraction of the same image rendered as a kaleidoscopic image) and an oral account that describes the distressing moments of human trauma in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. This latter found sound comprises a largely unedited interview with “Miss Palchikoff,” a Russian-born medical missionary, whose impassive language of administration gradually reveals itself as a series of appalling abstractions of human suffering.
Thornton sought to place the sound of They Were Just People in a highly ambivalent register—an effect given off by Palchikoff’s even and matter-of-fact tone, which temporarily masks the shocking scene she describes. Consequently, the viewer’s experience of sound vacillates between the feeling of eavesdropping on a banal conversation and what the artist calls the slow “horror of listening.” The grainy quality of the found sound is significant here. Just as one physically strains to make out the details of the oral account despite the archival chafes and abrasions to the record, the nurse’s descriptions provoke a disgust of the imagination. What this eyewitness has to say, and the administrative ease and comprehensiveness with which she says it, is likely at odds with the eavesdropper’s desire to hear completely. (The artist noted that she only removed a few sections that she found “too gruesome, too unbearable.”) Through both form and content, the difficulty of comprehension is embodied.
At points too, the artist mirrors and intensifies the experience of listening, finding visual metaphors within her stereoscopic image which perfectly illustrate Palchikoff’s highly visual descriptions of “head swellings” and “water blisters.” With its oily pustules popping on the surface to reveal momentary holes revealing only darkness, the oozing pit at La Brea is dense and engulfing. Its bubbling translucency is momentary, its sluggish activity relentless. The pit becomes the over-expressive counterpart to a narrative of violence and, rendered as a pair of eyes, the image stares back at the viewer, unblinking. Thornton describes her stereoscopic technique (one which she has used in her work previously, though she argues it is used here to the greatest effect) as “a mechanical gaze, but it seems so full of life to me, so intimately ocular, related to the way a binocular as a technical extension of our eyes isolates and frames.” The image of the pit is both an image of a void and its technological abstraction—a metaphor for the ineffability of the bomb and its refraction through the language of administration.
In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the capacity for comprehending traumatic events, noting:
Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.
The idea that comprehension might both face and resist reality is a close summation of the tactics of CROSSROADS and They Were Just People. That the material of horror would come to Conner and Thornton as readymades is symptomatic of the periods both artists live through. Here, Arendt’s “shock of experience” is found footage and found sound, respectively, where each is carefully redeployed with additional manipulations of duration—expansively, in terms of historical relationships, and specifically, through the material qualities of the edit and the cut. But while CROSSROADS is a careful sequence that exhaustively examines the test explosion from multiple angles, speeds, and scales, The Were Just People is a comparatively enervated piece. With sparing edits and interventions, it possesses the paradox of slow alarm. “There is a bomb that goes off in the experience of the piece,” emphasizes Thornton. “You are in an accident.”
The speed of both works is fundamental in considering not simply their relationship to one another, but to the subject both seek to articulate: the duration of a weapon and the experience of it. In their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss the constitutive parts of a weapons system or “assemblage,” arguing that the primary component of such a system is speed: “The more mechanisms of projection a tool has, the more it behaves like a weapon, potentially or simply metaphorically.” Deleuze and Guattari’s assessment is compelling in both assessing how technology might describe a weapon and its effects and as a commentary on how the very apparatuses of image capture might come close to resembling the characteristics of a weapon itself (where cinema, too, is a “mechanism of projection”). It is this porosity between the technologies of annihilation and technologies of description that lend CROSSROADS and They Were Just People the capacity to represent and incite horror—in short, it is their access to the shock of comprehension.
Technology, and its capacity for harm and pleasure, has long been a source of productive and personal fascination for Thornton. Her most iconic work, Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985–2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale suffused with Cold War anxieties, which the artist describes in relation to her own formative experience of living in the world of the atomic bomb. Thornton’s reference to an autobiography of nuclear foreboding is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is a useful indicator for the primary impulse of They Were Just People. Interwoven into this new video is Thornton’s complex emotional response to her own family history. Both the artist’s father and grandfather (unbeknownst to each other at the time) were engineers in the Manhattan Project, and it was Thornton’s father who encased and fastened the last screw in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Before loading it into the plane, he wrote his name, his father’s name, and his mother’s name on the bomb casing—an inscription of familial dedication, legacy, and authorship. For the artist, then, this is a deeply personal origin story with consequences—one that recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s haunting refrain, “Weapons and tools are consequences, nothing but consequences.” But They Were Just People is not simply about how technology (whether tool or weapon) is a complicit witness in events. It is also about how its ghostly recall and capacity for cultural distortions might bear the shock of comprehension.
They Were Just People is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support provided by the Bentson Foundation.