by Sophie Jerram
"The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle
that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves
with weapons they couldnt possibly use without committing
suicide". So says British scientist Julian Osborne (played
by Fred Astaire), when asked to explain how the entire population
of the Northern Hemisphere has been annihilated in On the Beach,
the film based on the anti-nuclear novel by Neville Shute.
On the Beach was made in 1959. Nuclear deterrence was to be used
by the five original nuclear nations as a legitimate explanation
for the proliferation of nuclear weapons for at least another thirty
years. And peace was maintained. We no longer live at five
minutes to midnight, discussing with our neighbours the best
ways to dig our private fall-out shelters. Deterrence, we could
say, has been successful.
When On the Beach was made, the prevailing thought was that after
a nuclear war, fall-out or radiation clouds would inevitably make
their way around the world and expose any survivors to such toxic
levels of radiation that no-one would be able to live. A complete
apocalypse. This too, has been shown to be mistaken. Humans are
immensely adaptable, and can survive and breed under trying conditions.
Exposure to high levels of radiation will affect a persons
genetic makeup, and that of their children, but it will not necessarily
Public perceptions of the effects of war and weaponry are imminently
malleable. We perceive current evidence to conveniently fit our
existing ideologies, whether they are the pro or anti-nuclear cause.
The French urban architect, political theorist and peace strategist,
Paul Virilio wrote at the close of the Cold War: "the history
of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields
of perception. In other words, war consists not so much in scoring
territorial, economic or other material victories as in appropriating
the immateriality of perceptual fields". This is
particularly true of the Cold War, where the development of new
weapons by the US or Russia was never revealed or proven, but always
suggested. New technologies were constantly invented and the old,
improved to defeat the imagined and real arsenal of the enemy.
Following September 11, the enemy for the US has become the potential
enemy. Frank Gaffney, a member of the US Center for Security Policy,
recently defended the US leaked announcement that it would
be willing to use nuclear weapons against a number of countries:
"Its a plan for reversing some of the disconnects that
the Clinton administration adopted...This is an approach which says,
Were going to think about the kinds of weapons we might
need to use. We dont want to. We hope we wont have to,
but were going to think seriously about what might be involved,
and were going to make sure that weve got those -
that theyre ready, that theyre reliable, that theyre
safe and that the infrastructure to make sure all thats possible
is in place as well".
Of the five original nuclear nations, the United States nuclear
strategy continues to be the most prominent and widely debated.
As the worlds only remaining superpower, the United States
continued development of tactical nuclear weapons and
its planned missile defence system sets a dangerous example to nations
desiring to increase their own military power. Yet the United States
criticism of other countries desires to test and use nuclear
weapons is a do as I say, not as I do approach. There
are many contradictions in the U.S.s portrayal of its weapons
program, evident in the testing film used as raw material for Bombs
It is worth repeating here that the films used in Bombs Away are
testing films. They therefore allude only to the potential human
devastation of the nuclear bomb, rather than to the absolute and
real destruction of life as witnessed, for example in Japan in 1945.
The testing film cannot be explicit; the films refer latently to
the damage that atomic and hydrogen bombs might inflict. It is up
to the viewers to extrapolate the damage that could be incurred
by the bombs in a non-testing context.
Testing Nuclear Weapons, the film made for the US Department of
Energy in 1978 and updated in 1989, describes the United States
underground nuclear testing program at the Nevada Test Site. It
depicts the employees of the site as members of a considered and
sensible scientific community. Its images are 25 years old, but
it is the most recent US government film available to the public.
It has an air of disclosure, and a friendly, everyday feel. The
scientists at the base are shown integrating with the broader community
in Las Vegas; and the explanations of the images are set to normalise
the activity of the site. The emphasis of the video is on safety
measures employed at the testing site; the tone of the videos
narrator is moderate and reasonable.
America as pioneer, pushing the boundaries of science, progressing
consumerism for the sake of world peace - these impressions
of the superpower are seductive and well practised. And the reasonable
American has pre-packaged answers at hand for any objection
to war and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. Fiona Jacks
Miasma series consist of large digitised images of billowing grey
clouds. They are beautiful, glossy smokescreens, abstracted and
ostensibly benign - until we understand that they have been
created by the combination of toxic chemicals. The apparent safety
of nuclear testing is belied by the vapours in these works-
gases that creep insidiously and cannot be contained.
Over the past five years, Jacks work has moved from the appropriation
of American-style advertising to a more abstract salute to the murky
territories of commercial and governmental messaging. The grey vaporous
masses in Miasma, like acid rain clouds threaten to seep into our
minds and muddy our clear thoughts. Jack describes her dense childhood
memories of the fear that paralysed her in her dreams:
"I often had nightmares where my body would be falling apart
and things around me were melting. These dreams were always monochrome,
and it is the only time in my life I remember smelling in my dreams
- a clean and sharp acid smell that makes me feel sick even now-
20 years later- if I smell something remotely similar. But the thing
I remember being most scared of was this invisible gas that would
attack my body. I imagined that nuclear war would be very quiet,
and that I may not even know that it had happened; that things would
just be overcome by this insidious gas."
In contrast to the apparently candid American film, the 1962 Russian
film Test of a Pure Hydrogen Bomb 50 Megatons in Capacity appeals
to a Romantic, courageous spirit. The Russian film makers have no
qualms about presenting an enchanting, visionary tale of the test
of the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated - the superbomb,
shot with Tarkovsky-style cinematography. It is by far the most
beautiful of the atomic testing films, constructed in melodramatic
shots and accompanied by a Romantic musical score. Three motifs
recur: the isolated, wintry landscape, the impressive gleaming metal
bombs under construction, and groups of uniformed officers standing
around fuzzy maps of the Siberian peninsular, using rods to rap
meaningfully at points here and there. Without knowing the films
verity, these images could well be read as a spoof on the Russian
spy film. It is this impression of the Russian and his map that
Jo Randerson has chosen to embellish.
Jo Randersons Untitled presents a view of an entombed Russian
comrade, complete with bear, guidebook and vodka, seeking to place
himself on the world map, a man yet to secure his place in the world.
As an encased figure, behind a perspex box, he is now an object
of curiosity, a thing of the past, no longer the hero of 19th and
20th Century wars but a displaced figure, alone and somewhat unsure
of his responsibilities with the bomb. Randerson may or may not
have been influenced by the travels of her mother, Jackie Randerson,
who went to Russia in the early 1980s as part of a Christian peace
mission. Jackie describes her own coming to terms with the Russian
perspective on nuclear weaponry. The Russians would rather
have bombs than trousers, and exhibited a simultaneous desire
for peace, but also to never again experience the phenomenal loss
of human life experience in the Second World War.
In a recent solo theatre piece, Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong,
Jo Randerson has explored marginalised, aggressive identities. Jo
Randerson plays a lonely Danish punk exploring the world in search
of fellow rebels. Like the magpie in the work, Bird of Doom, the
Russian in Untitled is depicted as a stateless bird, a politicised
animal attempting to forge a new identity under the shadow of the
The last words of the UK film, This Little Ship, made in 1952,
are a stark acknowledgment of the potential human destruction of
the atomic bomb. But This Little Ship deflects the potential human
consequences of the UKs first nuclear detonation by focusing
on the sacrifice of a ship, the HMS Plym, to the nuclear cause.
"For now war is self destruction, and who will dare attack?"
This pithy explanation of the penultimate line of the film of deterrence
is in keeping with the poetic style in which the film is narrated.
It is told by Jack Perkins as a Boys Own story of drama
and sacrifice. By allowing the viewer to get to know the HMS Plym
before she is destroyed, our emotions are drawn to her loss, rather
than to the impact of the bomb.
This Little Ship is told with a heavy inevitability; as if the
UK naval services are following an ordained path into doom. On a
national level, this is pure deception: the UK was leading the development
-it was the first country to make serious inroads into the
feasibility of nuclear weapons, and established the "British
Mission", a significant group of contributors to the Manhattan
Project that developed the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
In Monument 2002, Tony de Lautour places his ubiquitous British
lion atop a monument to death. The lion clutches a bomb in one hand
whilst holding above his head the HMS Plym as one would hold a lamb
to the altar. The base of the monument comprises sheer mountains
embedded with skulls - this is a lion who has climbed over a lot
of slippery slopes to get to the top. He is still proud, though,
this lion, even as he threatens to be toppled by the size of the
battleship or blown up by the bomb in his hand.
Monument poses the question: Where are our monuments of today?
Do we no longer construct them, hamstrung by our recognition that
todays heroes can be tomorrows villains? Monuments capture
history in a form that books, paintings or films cannot - in permanent
material and in public, they are hard to erase. In Monument, De
Lautours lion is a foolish hero; his proudly thrusting chest
a visual block to his precarious foothold. How long can he remain
at the top of this pillar? Will his head be knocked off, his ship
stolen by a marauding vandal? De Lautour reminds us that the ability
of the British to embellish, to create heroic narratives, to make
the horrific appear romantic, remains unsurpassed.
Megan Adams, with Paul Redican, in Little Red Dance, has created
a video capturing the refined, celebratory aspects of the Chinese
armys highly practised military exercises by creating a fictitious
comrade who doubles as a cultural performer (dancer Liana Yew).
They draw on the remarkably joyful, celebratory aspects of the highly
elaborate preparations for the 1964 nuclear tests as shown in Maos
Little Red Video of 1966.
Of all the nuclear nations, probably the least is known about the
Chinese nuclear programme, both in 1964 and now. In 1960, the Soviet
Union cut aid to China, so the level of resource made available
for the nuclear programme within China was unknown. The mystery
surrounding its programme has sparked fear more recently in the
West that China could be lending nuclear development support to
other nations, and it is understood to have assisted Pakistan with
its recent nuclear testing.
Maos Little Red Video was made for internal use in China,
procured by American Intelligence and a selective American translation
dubbed over the top. We are told that the Chinese are determined
to prove that they can do as well as the imperialist
nations. The pageantry of the military preparations are grand and
impressive, and soldiers depicted as futuristic warriors pouring
from their space suits gallons of sweat after an arduous trek around
the desert. Cultural performances are used as stimulating
activities for the comrades at the nuclear test site. These
cultural performances are as tightly practised as the army drills
and scientific processes shown in the film; all in all, the socialist
nation is presented as highly polished and disciplined. Of all the
government atomic testing films, it is in this Chinese film that
we see women taking an active role in the military work, and the
commentary suggests pride in this equity.
The character created by Adams represents both an emancipated female
comrade and a replicable member of Maos army. She is available
for sacrifice, but as a tightly trained comrade she would die, not
as a rough pawn, but with beauty. In the countdown sequence
of the Little Red Dance, the comrades precise movements create
the shapes of numerals, a gesture to the inevitability of human
loss through the use of nuclear weaponry.
Unlike the US, China and Russia, the French have consistently tested
outside Mainland France, first in Algeria, then in the South Pacific.
It is fitting, then, that Richard Reddaways wax coral works
are growths found in spaces that art would not habitually reside.
These are fascinating excretions, made from forcing one substance
Making the film of Nuclear Testing at Moruroa in 1995 as they broke
the International Test Ban treaty signed only three years earlier,
the French provide a coolly scientific explanation of their use
of the coral atoll. We are to be reassured by the films animated
images of the drilled core of rock that these explosions will not
impact on the wider environment - save for a brief minute or two
on the surface of the water. Reddaways No-one Believes They
are Evil suggest otherwise - that it is not possible to contain
such force without a ripple effect or movement elsewhere. The possibility
of their action causing displacement is, to the French, apparently
not worth considering. Like their attitude to the peoples in the
Pacific, the French assume they can manoeuvre the physical environment
without discernible impact. In one grand display of social and physical
manipulation in Nuclear Testing at Moruroa, the French have assembled
the two to three thousand people who live and work on Moruroa...on
the platform specifically designed to withstand the secondary effects
of the shockwave.
Richard Reddaways brittle waxen works are, like the coral
of the atoll, too unstable to maintain their form after exposure
to huge climatic changes. Unlike coral, the wax works appear to
spawn themselves, like fungus, glowing brightly amongst the unexpected
debris of a gallery setting. These mutations are beautiful but oddly
disturbing in their fluorescence. Like the French themselves, it
is possible to be both charmed and frightened by them.
If New Zealand were to make a film about nuclear testing, where
would it be set? I would suggest that it should be set in the land
of the 80s - when fears of obliteration, nuclear winters
and great masses of refugees from a nuclear war, ran rife. Where
are these fears now? For some, the fear of the nuclear threat has
been transferred to global warming, for some, to genetic modification,
for others, to rogue state terrorism.
In interviews with New Zealanders concerning their memories of
the nuclear threat of the 1980s, one aspect is common: the constancy
of the imagery of the bomb and its effects. Tony Cairns, who co-wrote
a book entitled New Zealand After a Nuclear War, says that "for
the first 20 years of my life I was convinced that I was going to
be destroyed by a nuclear bomb... I was dreaming from an early age
of being followed by a very huge, Dinsdale-like bomb, about 500
foot long". Books such as his appear anachronistic in the post-Cold
War era. But it was alongside images from films including The Day
After and On the Beach, and documentary footage of the devastation
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that these books maintained a fear at
the subconscious, as opposed to unconscious level, of the New Zealand
public during the 1980s, and contributed to a galvanising of action
- a rejection of nuclear weaponry.
The international nuclear threat is perceived to have been diverted
since the Cold War. In fact, the threat is ever more present as
an increasing number of countries are either developing or purchasing
nuclear arms. Their reasoning, that it is unfair for only five nations
to keep the secret to the most powerful weapons yet known, when
abolition has not yet commenced, seems reasonable.
In a recent interview, Paul Virilio suggested that nuclear deterrence
has been superseded by a second deterrence: "the information
bomb associated with the new weaponry of information and communications
technologies". He goes on to say "the age of the locally
situated bomb such as the atomic bomb has passed. The atomic bomb
provoked a specific accident. But the information bomb gives rise
to the integral and globally constituted accident".
I would argue that if this is a post-nuclear age; one in which
the immediate threat of global destruction is no longer present,
there are now multiple threats, particularly in the control of the
content of our information and communications systems. As the imminent
signing of a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and
Russia is heralded by the major press agencies, new weapons, including
a bunker busting nuclear penetrator are still being
proposed by the U.S.
Scepticism regarding the commodification of war imagery is not
new. The effects of the media on war are well noted by writers including
Baudrilliard, Noam Chomsky and Virilio: the twentieth century is
regarded as having been the century in which war was re-defined
to fit the television screens. However, what is being hidden from
sight is as important to New Zealand as the framed pictures of war
The invisibility of the potential consequences of nuclear attack
poses a great risk to New Zealands stance opposing nuclear
weapons. During the last fifteen years, the rise in economic power
of New Zealands ex-ally, the United States, has been paralleled
by the predominance of global newscasts controlled out of the United
States. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in our receiving little
affirmation of New Zealands anti-nuclear pursuit. Whilst it
is deemed of lesser strategic importance on the global newsdesks,
it is harder to maintain it on the New Zealand news radar. But the
threat remains, like Fiona Jacks insidious gases, ever present.
The need to manage our own imagery of this and other threats is
paramount to our independence of position.
This essay originally appeared in
Away the catalogue
Published June 2002
Centre of Land
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