Atomic Tourist: Trinity starts with a time stamp, a date and time. The video starts midway through an explosion. Rendered on black and white film and presented as a diptych, Mary Kavanagh offers the viewer two views of the same event, one from seemingly far away, one up close and slightly off center. A mushroom cloud emerges simultaneously through both images, one of them with distinguishable and billowing smoke, and the other was darker and less discernable, perhaps due to the film’s over exposure. These are two pieces of the Trinity Test’s archival footage and in the blast’s shapes, color, and framing, both offer less-recognizable footage than the now icons of the mushroom cloud ubiquitous in American iconography. Then the two frames of the single blast fade to white, and the focus of the two screens shifts. The photographic medium’s chemical fabric comes into focus with film artifacts – surface anomalies like dust and relics from the processing procedures imprint themselves on the film, and thereby the film’s process and environment become part of the film. Emerging from this process, foreign vertical lines run perpendicular to the gnarled geological intercalations in the imagined, surrounding landforms, invisible with overexposure. Digitized archival film, rendered in black and white, transforms into digital film, rendered in full color.

A new segment begins as present-day visitors walk away from the camera in the left channel and walk toward the camera in the channel on the right. They walk on the same grounds seventy years after Los Alamos’s atomic test. Vanishing-point perspective puts the gallery visitor directly in the center, looking out above the tourists and out to the background landscape. A series of interviewees will describe their story or memory on one side of the diptych, and on the opposite, in order, the archival film rolls as the bomb is prepared, loaded, transported, and mounted on the top of the tower at ground zero, the future site of the hypocenter.

[1] The Trinity Test’s atomic bomb released ninety-two Terajoules (ninety-two trillion Joules, equivalent to twenty-two kilotons of TNT) of energy.

Mary Kavanagh’s work Atomic Tourist: Trinity (2014–ongoing) is a video collection of interviews and stills conducted with visitors to the Trinity site, White Sands Missile Range that stands on the unceded Tampachoa (Mensos) and Chiricahua Apache territory in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto Desert. For the bi-annual open houses, tourists make pilgrimages from all over the country, continent, and world to visit the memorial of the first atomic bomb test. One day in the spring and another in the fall, they come to testify to what remains of the event. What remains is a fenced-in enclosure, a bulldozed crater, a spattering of World War II-era buildings, and a monument. Visitors tend to arrive with the knowledge of the test’s spectacular release of energy;[1] they come with the knowledge that this test would significantly contribute to the end of the Second World War. Their motivations have personal significance, however, are informed by desire for connection with the site. Some visit because they want to experience a connection between themselves and their ancestors’ or family’s experience with the bomb; some want to know what has scared them their entire lives; some want to corroborate the science with the landscape; some want to bear witness to a piece of history; or some want, in some way, simply to experience the power of a past event that changed the course of a war. Physically, they experience the arduous conditions of the semi-arid, almost vacant site, nearly expressionless against the sparsely colored landscape, and they might cough as plumes of unpredictable and weather-fickle dust waft upwards as they walk.

A chain-link fence separates the visitors from the rest of the landscape. From the inside of the fence, a thin mesh of galvanized steel separates them from the dry backdrop, creating a makeshift gallery space. Archival photographs are mounted to the fence, and sightseers walk along the perimeter, self-guided and instinctually attracted to pictures of the detonation that many of the older visitors were trained to revere, or fear, during the years of the cold war. The steel lattice acts as a plinth upon which the white mat around the photograph of the bomb dissolve, and the viewers can imagine the bomb event in its original setting. Some of her sitters describe driving tens of hours to bear witness to the site, a boring and uneventful marathon. Not dissimilar from journeys to Delphi, the sleep-deprived and road-weary pilgrims seek out the site for some answers to their anxieties, euphoria, and spirituality, all of these connected to the land and the event it hosted. Some anecdotes the travelers share come from childhood duck-and-cover classroom drills, life-long fears of fallout, personal cold war-era experiences, and nuclear site working conditions. Kavanagh records and collects their experiences, adding another stratum to the natural archive with World War II-era records and time measured in geologic terms and physical decay. These issue forth in a palimpsest of narratives that, in Kavanagh’s compilation, the landscape attempts to tell.

Kavanagh is a pilgrim herself. After studying the atomic bomb and its geological and scientific history for a decade, she has set out to investigate on-the-ground testimonies from the site’s visitors. A resident of Lethbridge, Alberta, about an hour and a half drive from Calgary, she has weathered the capricious climate of the United States southwestern desert. Though longitudinally the site bears little difference from her Canadian home, the difference in latitude has allured her motivations for further understanding within the vacuous, unforgiving landscape. At Los Alamos, she has toured the site and its attendant structures, some of which are typically closed to the general public. She draws from the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s archive and pairs the photographs with their remaining, three-dimensional counterparts. Within the perimeter, she sits with her camera and interviews other tourists about their connection to the Trinity site and their motivations for immersing themselves in an otherwise empty landscape, so far from neighboring towns.

Kavanagh’s interviews, videos, and photographs express rich motifs, such as American exceptionalism, radiation toxicity, ecological concerns, militarism, and spirituality. Motifs, interviews, archival, operational, and tourist-like photographs accrete within her research and exhibition practice. Here, she interlaces the disciplines of biography, history, narrative, archaeology, geology, and science, and she allows intuition to be a guide. These, when brought together with her own methodologies, overlay personal perceptions and interpretations of space that map the magnitude of cold war-era policy and military overreach that continue to take a toll on the land and human bodies connected to it.