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E.A. Dobbs

[- archiving the bomb

Author: ryan griffis

Topic: reading of
Keywords: archives, nuclear, sekula, garnett, bomb, war

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“Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”
General "Buck" Turgidson (from “Dr. Strangelove”)
Just when we thought we were safe from “The Bomb,” along came the fall of the (other) “Evil Empire” and a “new kind of war.” The fear of long-range missiles carrying a nuclear warhead has been replaced with the fear of a small, portable “dirty bomb,” an attack on a power plant and anthrax in the mail – North Korea and the Pakistan/India conflict aside. It seems that the strategy of “mutual deterrence” only works between equally armed opponents with an agreed upon “off-site” battleground on which to carry out the game of global Risk. But with the ongoing activities of the nuclear industry ( and the renewed interest in radioactive weapons like depleted uranium ( by the current US administration, it seems appropriate to once again consider the doomsday machines.
One of the more interesting investigations into the ongoing histories of “The Bomb” is Joy Garnett’s aptly titled “The Bomb Project.” Working as a dense accumulation of linked images, statistics and narratives, “The Bomb Project” compliments Garnett’s other artistic works (featured on the First Pulse Projects website) that delve into the intersection between science, technology, communication and war. Garnett’s works, like the “Trinity Suite,” a digitally animated sequence of the artist’s paintings of the first atomic explosive tests, and “Get Your Agit-Prop On,” a recontextualization of psy-op flyers used by the NATO in Kosovo, are part of a larger, continuing global text that “The Bomb Project” re-presents as a partial archive.
It is this relationship with the archive - combined with the sheer spectacle of the sublime offered by the nuclear - that propels me into Garnett’s project. Walter Benjamin’s (often quoted) assertion that documents of civilization are simultaneously documents of barbarism is certainly to be found in Garnett’s archives. But Benjamin wasn’t just being pessimistic about Western society:
“And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”
Benjamin offered a critique of the representation of “reality” as offered up by mechanical reproduction – there are no neutral transmissions of information.
Garnett’s other works, especially her different series of paintings – like the “Rogue States” and “Highjacker” series – indicate an extensive involvement with the barbaric document of which Benjamin writes. These paintings re-present the image archive of the international news services that provide a stock collection of news items as well as images. Some, like those of images as seen first-person on the TV, form a kind of stock directory of our own memories and experiences as information receivers. The aesthetic utilized in these paintings furthers this involvement with the documents of violence and technology that weave our experiences of contemporary communication. As paintings, they appropriate not just the look of mediated information (TV resolution, scan lines), but also recall recent painting history while anticipating current/future fashion. The Baader-Meinhof ( and murder victim paintings of Gerhard Richter are filed somewhere in this archive. The seemingly un-mediated process of replicating, with paint, obviously mediated information can’t help but call attention to the process of reproduction. Both Richter’s and Garnett’s paintings call attention to the process of representing information as much as the information being transmitted itself.
Alan Sekula wrote in his essay “Reading an Archive,” that a photographic archive “liberates” meaning “from the actual contingencies of use.” An archive then, provides the opportunity to assign new meanings to the objects it contains. But, there is also the danger that this liberation will produce an “abstraction from the complexity and richness of use, a loss of context.” Archives are storehouses of possible statements, like a lexicon of symbols that can be rearranged and ordered to construct meanings without reference to the original context.
Of the utmost importance to this critique is the recognition of the inherent system of exchange implicit in the object of the archive - an acknowledgement of the mutual dependence existing between the power of authority and the archival document. Such an argument is obviously still useful today, as we move further into an environment of digital and proprietary collections of information (as well as an environment populated with moments of resistance). The technologies underlying our newly aestheticized digital realms can certainly be said to have served as a “tool of industrial and bureaucratic power” as much as the camera Sekula questions. But there are also some differences that follow with the technological and social changes wrought by the “information revolution.”
“The Bomb Project” provides an exemplary starting point to question the current status of the archive and begin to formulate new criticisms and relationships to information. Here, Garnett’s archive counters the tendency of image collections to strip context from the images they contain. The images are re-presented within a web of connective tissue that binds disparate source material together. This process of connecting images to both direct and indirect information – in the form of links to “official” and “unofficial” sources, can slow down (reverse?) the process of erasing context. The “Master Narrative” and “official” story is replaced with the specific and local, many overlapping narratives from which to generate a more complex context, without falling into relativism. As the tired statements about the Internet go, this is what hyperlinks can do – link together seemingly unrelated and related things alike to form dynamic relationships. In this sense we could think of the “The Bomb Project,” functioning as a kind of anti-archive making the systems of power visible instead of masking it as authoritative. Subjectivity and social organization combine to break the necessary dependence of images on historical authority by providing multiple contexts from which to generate alternate meanings. We can establish contexts for the images in the US Department of Energy Photo Archive beyond the official story they provide - maybe even use them as part of a creative retelling of events. This is not an attack on history, but on the authority history commands, or rather on the command authority has over history.
Anti-archives could take up Sekula’s call to read the archive “from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced, or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress.” While the creative use of the current tools of communication has provided examples of practice – like “The Bomb Project” – there are still linkages under the surface, hiding in cable insulation and invisible frequencies. Both the danger and strength in links is that they are dependent on remote connections, and as the recent blackout in the Northeastern US illustrated, connective grids are susceptible to chain reactions and breakdown. We are constantly reminded that connections are still owned, and are subject to the desires of power. But we must remember that they are also subject to the failures of power, and when power fails, something usually takes its place.

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Submitted by ryangriffis
Posted on Sat Sep 27, 2003 at 2:24 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME

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