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Issue 207

How Artists Are Changing the Way We See Landscape

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on 13BC and the artists using art, science and technology to map the world

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Features | 22 OCT 19

Artists have always tried to show what is hidden, even in plain sight, and so they have returned, again and again, to the act of mapping out the ground we stand on. They have continually found new, sometimes strange, often unexpected ways to visualize the landscapes we take for granted: the ground, the sky and the horizon between them, which are always there, yet always changing. However, at a time when digital technologies, media platforms and our experiences of both place and history are changing so fast – becoming so simultaneous, so heavily dictated by market forces – the works of contemporary artists that remap the world may become one of the few means we have to fix those moments and to allow us the time to consider the implications.

The opening shot of Straight Flush (2019) – an accomplished, haunting and elliptical 72-minute film by the collective 13BC (Thirteen Black Cats) – shows a curious desert landscape at night. Lights dot the horizon in a long, steady line that spreads out across two screens and divides the murky foreground of scraggly underbrush from a moody backdrop of low, dark hills outlined against a deep-blue sky. The tallest of those hills are clustered in the centre, at the seam where the two images meet. The two images are identical, one mirroring the other while creating the illusion of continuity and vastness, of a seemingly endless view extending from either side of one’s peripheral vision.

Devoted to both the study and the making of moving images, 13BC was founded four years ago by curator Vic Brooks, writer Evan Calder Williams and artist Lucy Raven. They worked together for the first time on 1/56 (2015), a short video for Frieze Film and the Channel 4 arts programme ‘Random Acts’, which was inspired by Roberto Bolaño’s fragmentary novel Antwerp (2002) and premiered at the 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana. (It also marked the start of an ambitious ongoing project to commission 55 more short films to be made by a different artist in a new city, each time based on one of the brisk chapters in Bolaño’s book.) Beautifully shot in the greenhouse of a Slovenian botanical garden, 1/56 intersperses the camera’s slow, languid path through lush vegetation with cut-up, collage-like images and illustrations of American race riots, European civil wars, the filming of Gone with the Wind (1939) and more. As such, the film inaugurated 13BC’s trinity of interests in land exploitation, the legacies of past conflicts and the creative deconstruction of cinematic conventions, including those that structure documentaries and mainstream feature films. In terms of formal and conceptual conceits, 13BC’s first effort also dovetailed nicely with Raven’s own playful yet fiercely intelligent work on the history of movie-making and the distribution of images through revelatory close studies of copper smelting, outsourced labour and geographically scattered post-production sites.

13BC (Vic Brooks, Evan Calder Williams and Lucy Raven), Straight Flush, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and 80 Washington Square East, New York

Straight Flush was filmed in the barracks of the Wendover Air Force Base, a decommissioned US military facility in Utah where, among other things, the B-29 pilots who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were trained. Wendover sits west of the Nevada state border and north of the Dugway Proving Ground, a still-active top-secret US weapons testing site, which is famous not only for its experiments with chemical agents and biological armaments but also for its sinister history of building scale replicas of German villages and Japanese towns to stage firebombing trials during World War II. Since 1996, the Center for Land Use Interpretation – based in Los Angeles – has run a research outpost from a complex of buildings in Wendover; 13BC was in residence there in 2017 and 2018. The lights twinkling in the evening distance at the start of Straight Flush are, in fact, the runway lights of Wendover Airport, which was hosting some intense military exercises at the time the film was shot, but they also evoke the last tempting string of casinos in easternmost Nevada, where gambling has been legal since the 1930s. The plot that subsequently unfolds in the film tells a rich and complex story about the fate (and meaning) of Claude Eatherly, the US air-force officer and B-29 reconnaissance pilot, who gave the ‘all clear’ to bomb Hiroshima in 1945. 

Eatherly was one of seven pilots in the skies above Japan that day. His job was to determine the weather conditions. A second pilot’s job was to drop the bomb. A third pilot was to measure the blast. A fourth pilot would take images – a mission that failed utterly despite the cutting-edge optics. The only legible image was an amateur snapshot taken by a crew member as the last plane banked away. None of the other planes had lingered; Eatherly had rushed back to base in order to make it to a poker game. The name of his plane was Straight Flush. The weather plane over Nagasaki was Full House. The bomb-dropping plane was Enola Gay, named after the pilot’s mother. The measurements plane was The Great Artiste. The image-making plane had no name at all.

The action of Straight Flush consists of three actors sitting around a poker table in the Wendover barracks, reading through a wildly creative, multi-layered and thought-provoking script while smoking compulsively and occasionally stumbling through their lines, doubling back to restart. 13BC weaves an abundance of detail and several fascinating digressions into the epistolary exchanges of Eatherly and Günther Anders, an anti-nuclear activist and theorist who had fled the Nazis, toiled away as an exile in Hollywood and then returned to a life of the mind in Europe. He began writing to Eatherly in 1959, after the pilot had been dishonourably discharged for cheating on a meteorological exam and fallen on hard times. Eatherly was arrested for botched robberies and petty crimes, caught up in a frenzy of Cuban revolutionary politics, mercenary plots and paranoid conspiracy theories. He was committed to psychiatric hospitals multiple times. And he was famous: comedian and actor Bob Hope had even approached him about making a movie of his life.

13BC (Vic Brooks, Evan Calder Williams and Lucy Raven), Straight Flush, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and 80 Washington Square East, New York

One theory held that Eatherly acted the way he did because he was racked with guilt. Another was more sceptical, arguing that he was merely a grifter and conman with no moral compass. Anders proffered a third theory: that Eatherly was symptomatic of a larger and more ominous cultural and political shift, towards a technical age in which ‘imagination lags behind production’, as he noted in the first volume of his 1956 book The Obsolescence of Human Beings: ‘We may be able to produce the hydrogen bomb, but we are not capable of visualizing the consequences of what we have produced.’ Anders thought that Hope’s film was a terrible idea and advised Eatherly against it in a letter dated 18 August 1959, writing that the clarity and seriousness of ‘the most “fatal act” of [Eatherly’s] life, the most fatal act of the epoch’ must not be muddied by enactment, falsification or fiction, nor should it be transmitted only to moviegoers seeking entertainment and make-believe.

The suggested zone of contradiction in Anders’s account (yes to imagination, no to make-believe) is one of the many territories, both mental and physical, which 13BC maps in Straight Flush and the related works comprising the collective’s first exhibition, ‘Fatal Act’. In addition to Straight Flush, the show includes the films Corpse Cleaner (2016/19), When Horses Were Coconuts (2019) and Act 1 (2019), as well as the installation Good Times (2019), which was inspired by casino decor; and a 15-minute loop of music composed by Jason Moran (2019) in the guise of Charlotte Zelka, Anders’s American wife, a pianist, who transcribed the letters of her severely arthritic husband. 

In tracing the failures of both image-making and imagination in relation to the bombing of Hiroshima, and in drawing tenuous but highly necessary connections to the long and multiple histories of appropriating indigenous lands, 13BC has taken temporary ownership of a formidable artistic legacy first established by Harun Farocki. In his magisterial 1989 film Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki considers the history of a set of aerial photographs, shot to record an Allied bombing raid on an industrial site in Germany in 1944, which by chance also captured the architecture of Auschwitz. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that CIA analysts, who were unabashedly inspired by the popularity of the American television mini-series Holocaust (1978), starring Meryl Streep, returned to those photographs and found actual hard evidence of the death camp. From there, Farocki pieces together a riveting sequence of associations, between enlightenment and illumination, illumination and reconnaissance, camouflage and makeup, physical poses and psychic displacements, buried traces and deliberate obfuscations.

13BC (Vic Brooks, Evan Calder Williams and Lucy Raven), Straight Flush, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and 80 Washington Square East, New York

Because Farocki’s lines of inquiry are so capacious – and remain so relevant – 13BC now occupies that space of mapping the hidden and unseen, of visualizing the impossible or unimagined, with a diverse group of artists. Some, such as Forensic Architecture, who since 2010 has examined the use of specific munitions in Palestine, or Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who in 2016 investigated the notorious Saydnaya prison in Syria, are explicitly concerned with evidentiary traces of war and what they mean in relation to jurisprudence, intellectual history, political thought and the healthy functioning of human beings. Others, such as Omer Fast in his films Continuity (2012) and Spring (2016), consider the dramatic slippage between geographies and states of being at home and at war, visualizing the experience of places seeping into one another as acts of violence committed in one location surreally erupt in another. In The Radiant (2012), The Otolith Group maps the physical, psychological and mythological effects of a natural disaster’s fallout – in this case, radiation – by moving back and forth elastically through time, from the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011 to the formation of ancient gods and goddesses, with the characteristically time-bending speculation that in the far future, radiation may come to be worshipped as a deity emanating from the distant past. (Before Straight Flush, The Radiant also took up the ideas of Anders, whose first wife was none other than Hannah Arendt; they were fellow students of Martin Heidegger.)

In their own ways, the works of both Eric Baudelaire and Naeem Mohaiemen trace the legacies of the ultra-left turning violent in the 1970s. Baudelaire’s film The Ugly One (2013) follows the story of the Japanese Red Army from 1970s Lebanon and Palestine, while Also Known as Jihadi (2017) is about 21st-century ISIS recruitment in Europe – all without entering Syria. (Both films also try to literally enact the landscape theory of Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi, known as fukeiron.) Mohaiemen’s longterm project, The Young Man Was (2011–ongoing), meanwhile, follows elements of the same story through the experiences of revolutionary movements in opposition and in power, falling apart and then sporadically resurging in the guise of contemporary protest movements.

Like all of the artists working in Farocki’s wake, the members of 13BC are interested in the stories that images tell, the things they purport to show and the ambiguities that arise from archival materials presumed to be factual or works of art premised on the fundamental idea of invention. One of the many interesting turns that Straight Flush takes is toward the first successful recordings of a nuclear test site in Nevada. In 1951, a news crew set itself up a safe distance away from the blast and was able to record a clear picture of it. But the sound was completely garbled. CBS gave Foley artist Robert Mott 20 minutes, three turntables and full access to the network’s library in order to create an audio track to match the visual footage, which he did, using slowed-down samples of a waterfall, a dynamite explosion and a collapsing building to mimic the sound of an atomic bomb being detonated.

13BC (Vic Brooks, Evan Calder Williams and Lucy Raven), When Horses Were Coconuts, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and 80 Washington Square East, New York

13BC’s six-minute film, When Horses Were Coconuts, imagines an alternative visualization of those already-approximate sound sources – not the classic mushroom cloud but a lurid, abstract, river-like rush of colours, forms and rhythms. It is as if the collective were mapping not the effects of war on a specific landscape or geography but, rather, the contours of an interpretive act, the shift in thought, a moving image of the imagination at work. What 13BC’s work proposes, in the end, is art as a way of knowing that is equal to hard science, digital technology and historical record; art that is creative, capable and audacious enough to tell some unexpected truths. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘The View from Above’

Main image: 13BC (Vic Brooks, Evan Calder Williams and Lucy Raven), Straight Flush, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artists and 80 Washington Square East, New York

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.