In an essay recently translated into French titled A l’aube de la destruction (On the Dawn of Destruction), Alena Graedon sets herself the task, in thirteen points, of stating the paradoxical relationship between Americans and nuclear shelters. Their cost is one of the major reasons which explains, once and for all, the lack of interest they have aroused in the United States, in comparison with other countries which are, on the face of it, less exposed to nuclear danger. In the event of a nuclear attack, the owners of a private shelter would perforce be exposed, above all else, to attacks by their less well equipped friends and neighbours. The prospect of “gun-thy-neighbour” was as scary as the idea of underground reclusion. Among the factors in the paradox, Alena Graedon stresses the overcrowding implicit in this kind if attempt to survive with death: “I – The predominant logic of the bunker has it that, in order to survive, you are ready to live with the dead and simulate your own burial”.* “9 - The other paradox inherent in life in a shelter is the fact that the people being proitected in a private bunker are those with whom you will never be able to propagate the species, so you let all the strangers with whom you might have been able to mate die.”* At the very opposite end of the spectrum, Switzerland has not experienced the same reluctance: it has increased the number of public and private shelters to the point where there is a surplus number of shelters in relation to the number of inhabitants.
* Alena Graedon, “At the Dawn of Destruction, Cormac McCarty, Friedrich Nietzsche and the paradoxical importance of the Bunker in the American psyche”, in Le Believer, Editions inculte, Paris, no. 1, spring 2012.
2012, 5 mn 20
Trinity Site is an animated slide show of the day when tourists are given access to a military base where Trinity Site is located, this being the place where the first atomic bomb was exploded in July 1945. The bomb had exactly the same power as the one that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima not long afterwards. The exact place of the explosion is marked by a pyramid-shaped monument made of dark-coloured stones. AA
Mo Gourmelon: In what circumstances did you decide to film Trinity Site, and how did you go about filming it? What are the boundaries of the site like and how are they incorporated into the landscape? Did you travel by car, or in a chartered bus for that nuclear tourism stage? What do you remember about the behaviour and reactions of the other visitors?
Adrienne Alcover: As I got ready for my trip to New Mexico, I got interested in lots of military bases in the region, and I discovered Trinity Site. I got the dates of my journey to link up with the opening of the base to the public. I had already made some sculptures following the instructions and plans of American civil defence nuclear shelters during the Cold War period, so for me to go to Trinity Site was a logical sequel. My idea there was to take a radioactivity measurement with the help of a Geiger counter and keep a record of my passage with a few pictures. I was worried about problems at the airport with this kind of equipment, so I ordered a small dosimeter on the Internet and it was waiting for me when I arrived in El Paso, on New Mexico’s southern border with Texas. The package came from the Chelyabinskaya region, famous for its plutonium reprocessing complex built in 1945, which enabled the Russians to get the nuclear bomb. The American site is in the middle of a military base, White Sands Missile Range. As you can see in my film, this is a huge desert plain surrounded by majestic mountains. You come across a few military installations which I didn’t film. You cross that zone by car. Some people take the bus, but everyone has to enter the military zone at the same time with an escort, and follow each other to the place called Trinity Site. Most visitors are Americans. Everyone is very calm. The visit is like a visit to an open air museum, neither enthusiastic nor contemplative, except that the ground is slightly radioactive and there isn’t a whole lot to see.
MG: You decided not to use words but to associate a sound track with your images. In a site like that can you film anything? What do you have access to and what do you see? Two tourists, for example, have themselves photographed one after the other, beside the pyramid-shaped monument which represents the first atomic explosion…
AA: The point of impact is marked by a monument made of dark stones. But this just celebrates American military and scientific power of that period by way of the “Manhattan Project”. It is only the sinister look of the monument which reminds you of the consequences of that scientific “progress”, because it calls to mind a war memorial. The soundtrack I chose corresponds to that gtim, sombre character of the monument. It rings out like a disquieting background noise, reminding us of the site’s radioactivity, as well as an alarm with the sound of a synthetic bell which rises towards the end. I filmed everything I saw because I put myself in the place of an American tourist and I filmed with the same angle and the same gear. At the beginning of the trip, I let myself dwell on the beauty of the mountain range. Then I film everything, like someone who doesn’t quite know what is important to film. The issues are actually these: why come here? to see what? and with what images is this place to be depicted? First off, you have access to the military base itself, which merges with a vast desert plateau ringed by mountains. This desert is called “Jornada del muerto” /Day of Death because you risked your life by crossing it in the old days. So you have access to a vast and strikingly beautiful place, but one that is prohibited to the public. After driving for an hour, you reach the foot of the monument. You can walk about more or less anywhere. But you are advised not to pick up the very pretty little green pebbles made of radioactive “trinitite”. A few kilometers away, you can visit the old military barracks. A small exhibition with a few photos reminds you of the merry daily round of all those scientists; dips in the pool, smiles, posing with beer and cigarettes, a recent advertisement for the steel supplier of the day, who is nowadays a partner in the most state-of-the-art technologies. Outside, a metal plaque explains that the year 1983 saw the restoration of this building which saw the birth of the miracles of the atom, part of the necessities of war. It now saves lives, it is an honour for future generations to come here, and so on.
MG: Are there many listed sites connected with nuclear tourism? Alena Graedon starts her essay At the Dawn of Destruction* with a visit to the Greenbrier, a luxury hotel complex, located in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. Between 1962 and 1992 a two-storey nuclear shelter covering 10,405,140 sq,m. was built. It was designed to accommodate the whole of the US Congress in the event of an attack. Since 1995, the hotel complex has also been a nuclear tourism stopover.
AA: All you have to do is type in “atomic tourism” and you get a list of sites accessible to the public, including Trinity Site and Greenbrier. Most of them are in the United States. French sites are less documented, but there’s a disused power station that’s been turned into a museum. The most interesting country is probably Russia, because in addition to the Chernobyl site, which takes in tourist buses, people who are fond of radioactive dust will love the Mayak site where there was a serious accident in 1957, turning the adjoining town into a secret place.
* Alena Graedon, “At the Dawn of Destruction, Cormac McCarty, Frriedrich Nietzsche and the paradoxical importance of the Bunker in the American psyche”, in Le Believer, Editions inculte, Paris, no. 1, spring 2012.
Jeanne Susplugas & Alain Declercq
2011, 15 mn
Music Eddie Ladoire
This film appears as the logical sequel to the first film jointly directed by the two artists, called Plan Iode (which questions the distribution of potassium iodide, a vital medicine in the event of nuclear attack). Here it is Swiss nuclear shelters that they have gone to explore. The country is full
of underground shelters and each person has a place in one. From the private cellar to huge medicalized shelters, they are all part of a strict and efficient organization. The film then questions a possible presence under ground, the limits of living together, overcrowding, and the possible organizational problems raised by such a protection plan. In panoptic and systematic form we see, turn by turn, dormitories, kitchens, operating theatres… In some of these areas mutations occur, changes of use. So some shelters can act as eclectic storage places which can sometimes look rather incongruous. JS & AD
Mo Gourmelon: Switzerland holds the world record for the construction of nuclear shelters, applying to the letter the slogan: “Neutrality offers no protection from radioactivity”. Their installation is in theory secret. How did you gain access, and bet authorization to film? Civil protection and Pill boxes complement one another, from underground apprehension to surface camouflage.
Jeanne Susplugas & Alain Declercq: This fashionable slogan was part and parcel of Switzerland’s strategy in the Cold War period. We know, in any event, that neutrality offers no protection from a form of paranoia, because 100% of the population has a place in a shelter. There are public and private shelters. Private shelters are located mainly in the cellars of buildings, in the basements of houses, or attached to a room. Public shelters are more enigmatic. The population knows that they exist, because they are there to protect people, but everything seems rather mysterious. The constructions were started in the 1960s (the first legal basis, in this sense, dates from 4 October 1963). By law, each person had to have a place in a shelter. This shelter had to be situated “close to the dwelling place” and reachable “in a reasonable period of time”. Owners were not only bound to equip them, but also to maintain them. Switzerland has never abandoned its shelters and their function has developed depending on circumstances. Nowadays, the shelters are there in the event of nuclear accident or natural catastrophe. The public shelters are sometimes used to house political refugees, stateless persons and travelling shorts teams… while the private shelters have been converted to cellars and larders—waiting for the next war! The bunkers in Pill boxes are located in secret sites even if some are no longer secret because they’ve been detected. It’s also difficult to differentiate between collective fantasy and reality. What is certain is that there are kilometers of underground bunkers and whole mountains that have been hollowed out! For the filming, we worked with our producer and with an association trying to preserve this unusual heritage. Because it is a real heritage, that is unique in the world. Today, these kilometers of excavated mountains represent a new black gold for the country which is leasing these safe areas to companies installing computer servers in them, and selling storage spaces. What is surprising when you focus on this incredible organization is that, in the end of the day, the logistical and psychological difficulties are such that it hard to imagine this plan being introduced in certain shelters. This is the case with the Lucerne shelter, dating back to 1976, covering seven floors and capable of accommodating 20,000 people. It has been dismantled today, but it once housed, among other things, a hospital, an operating theatre, a command post, and a prison!
MG: You opted for panoptic views, emphasizing the effect of mechanical surveillance. Can you explain this choice?
JS & AD: In fact the choice to film things at 360 degrees tallied perfectly with our idea, it was a way for us to show things by injecting a dose of surveillance and secrecy. While the camera films, the scene continues to unfold off screen. The viewer has the impression of seeing everything, whereas a lot eludes him. This is even truer in our first film Plan Iode, because it is made up of abbreviated cameos which scramble any reading of it. This way of filming is also an aesthetic choice which hallmarks our shared work.
MG: Is there atomic tourism, as there is in the US?
JS & AD: You can’t really talk in terms of atomic tourism. A few shelters have been turned into bars, night clubs and hotels: the “Null Stern Hotel” (No Star Hotel) created by the Riklin brothers, opened in an old shelter at Teufen, turned into a museum a year after it opened. The shelters are Spartan and all look alike because they conform to basic regulation s: beds, heating systems, decontamination showers, toilets, water treatment system, food and medicines. Unlike in the USA, where there is a sort of individual pride, in Switzerland it would seem that the keywords are efficiency and discretion. It’s worth bearing in mind that almost all these shelters are maintained in working order and are operational. As previously mentioned, they can be used to house stateless persons, but also associations, and they can be used as storage areas for museums. In the film Civil protection, you can see a stock of stuffed animals belonging to the Museum of Natural History in Lausanne. They are supposed to be operational in a matter of hours.
Jeanne Susplugas & Alain Declercq
2012, 9 mn
Son : Eddie Ladoire
More than 3,000 bunkers were built in Switzerland between 1882 and 1995. Swiss military constructions have been camouflaged by amazing decorations, so well incorporated in the landscape that nobody notices them: from the metal fir tree (Fort Pré-Giroud, Vallorbe) to the rock gate (Güysch, Uri). Some of them were also camouflaged after the war so as not to spoil the countryside, like the two pretty villas of Gland! This unusual architecture, which illustrated Switzerland’s neutrality, raises the issue of the relationship between architecture and landscape. Nowadays, many of these small forts are disused and challenge the future development of this significant heritage. They are witnesses to a history, and they also question the collective unconscious about the number of legends which have circulated, and continue to do so, around these bunkers. JS & AD.