Thomas Dane Gallery presents CROSSROADS, a thirty-seven-minute film by American artist Bruce Conner (1933-2008) and is considered one of the most iconic works in the history of the moving image. It was produced in 1976 from archival footage of the first nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946. These are known as Operation Crossroads. For this film, Conner uses footage of the second test, which was an underwater detonation, known as Baker.
As terrifying as it is beautiful, CROSSROADS examines the detonation of a nuclear weapon with a yield equivalent to around 23,000 tons of TNT (identical with the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki) ninety feet below the surface of the ocean, under a fleet of decayed and abandoned naval ships – test subjects for the bomb’s destructive powers.
The test was filmed in its original film speed from various angles – footage that Conner used within the course of thirty-seven minutes, enabling the viewer to experience the detonation in fifteen repetitions – a provocative effect, reinforcing the event’s atmosphere in a mesmerizing sense of doom. For the purpose of its original documentation in 1946, sixty-four aircraft carried 328 still and motion picture cameras (some of which were radio-controlled drones). These cameras nearly formed a complete ellipse around the detonation site, allowing for a comprehensive documentation of the event from numerous angles. Some of these movie cameras were capable of filming at speeds of up to 8,000 frames per second. To paraphrase author Jonathan Weisgall, “Nearly half the world’s supply of film was at Bikini for the tests, and photographers prepared specialized equipment that would take a million pictures in the first few seconds after the… explosion.” One can therefore hardly dispute that “[t]he explosions were to be the most thoroughly photographed moment in history.”
During the thirteen minutes of part one of CROSSROADS, the nine explosions seem to appear identical. Due to Conner’s careful selection, combination, repetition and variation of each shot, he carefully re-establishes the transcendent effect of the explosion, rather than dulling our response through a “standardization of catastrophe.” Through variations of observation, anticipation, surprise, and contemplation, Conner has created an interplay in the tempo of the editing, in the timing of the explosion in each shot, in “the speed on the footage,” and in the relationship of sound to image. The slow pace of his editing (fifteen explosions in thirty-seven minutes) and the slow motion within the shots allow us to take in the effects of each explosion and repeatedly experience the terror and awe of the nuclear sublime. At its extreme, the slow motion extends one second of real time to more than three minutes of screen time thanks to the special high-speed cameras at Operation Crossroads. Conner takes advantage of that expanded time to intensify the effect of the Baker test.
The soundtrack makes an important contribution to that effect: The sound of the explosion in the first part of the film was created on a Moog Synthesizer by Patrick Gleeson, whereas the soundtrack of part two contains a minimalist composition that might be thought of as “slow motion music” gradually changing shape and texture like an exfoliating mushroom cloud. The music, a sixteen-track recording of Terry Riley performing on an electronic organ, “drifts” much like the clouds in part two. In their own way both soundtracks deepen and expand upon the perceptual and emotional experience produced by the images, whilst underscoring the sense of expanded time created by the varying degrees of slow motion on the visual track.
Bruce Conner was an unpredictable and inveterate trickster, whose body of work embraces sculpture, collage, film, print, drawing, painting, photography and light shows. He was an active part of the San Francisco counterculture and his aesthetic was typical of the bay area in the Sixties and Seventies. He was renowned for his use of de-contextualised fragments of any found footage he was able to obtain – ranging from newsreels, B-movies, stock footage, educational and industrial films to smut and most notoriously, celluloid leader and other filmic elements. He carefully orchestrated kinetic, rhythmic and frequently shocking montages, often relying on repetition to suggest how trapped we are in our patterns of destruction. The anonymous, universal quality of the generic footage and bare-bones craft of the editing gives the films the stature of myth, as does their epic themes. Conner is considered a pioneer in rhythm editing.
Bruce Conner (b.1933, Kansas- 2008) studied at Nebraska University and lived mainly in San Francisco. He initially gained attention for his assemblage pieces, but his practice also spanned sculpture, collage, painting, photography, printmaking and performance. Perhaps his most influential works were his films, often using collages of found footage to create short, experimental works, that inspired the style of many future filmmakers. He has exhibited at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently developing plans for a large retrospective of Bruce Conner’s work in close collaboration with the Conner Trust and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
CROSSROADS by Bruce Conner – Thomas Dane Gallery – until 18 Jul 2015