Kavanagh’s Career

A professor in Art Studio at the University of Lethbridge, Kavanagh’s photographic practice and archive is one that occupies civilian-safe yet restricted militarized areas and brings them into the public sphere through the exhibition of photographic and film works, collected artifacts, and installation works. Her attentiveness to capturing the interconnectedness of military preparedness and weapons testing began in 2012 with artist residencies at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) Wendover Air Base in Utah (2011) and at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska for the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP) (2012–13). In addition to exhibiting her work in public art galleries in Canada, Kavanagh has exhibited in significant military museums including the Canadian War Museum (Ottawa, ON), The Military Museums (Calgary, AB), and Canada’s Cold War Museum (Carp, ON). She is also a member of the Atomic Photographer’s Guild, a consistently growing collective of photographers that collaborates on exhibitions, screenings, lectures, art books, and publications concerning nuclear and atomic culture.

Her art practice centers on wandering, interviewing, and forging relationships with gatekeepers, who, despite her camera-wielding, may grant her access to other sites. Often photographing alongside the executors of weapons testing in their spaces of operation, Kavanagh reasserts photography’s power as a means of civic duty by bringing the restricted areas into the public sphere and making those violences known. Kavanagh’s subjects are those affected by nuclear and weapons testing and its residual effects in memory, and she reveals the direct applications of military force and presence on communities, sites of memorialization, and the body. Her work motivates continued archiving and consistent access to explore cold war-era and post-9/11 policy and military overreach through to the present day. Her residencies enable her to embed herself within civilian-safe areas of military exercise and operations. As she has put it, her identity as an “unassuming,” Canadian woman artist mirrors this safe area almost as camouflage – in Dorothy Lange’s language, a “cloak of invisibility.” Being embedded within civilian-safe areas of military exercise and operations allows some, but not entire, independence from the political domains that map onto the site.

The Trinity site and its attendant memorial requires deliberate attention and imagination. The makeshift gallery space along the perimeter bids visitors to imagine the blast upon its original landscape. The site’s volunteers mounted the pictures on the fence, which is a physical as well as creative labor; and making the trek, looking at the photographs, and imagining the black and white photographs’ events and reinserting those events into the landscape is physical and cognitive labor. Some of Kavanagh’s interviewees are ready for that labor. Some use the site as a place of spiritual meditation on a sublime event, imagining that event on the empty land – terra nullius – inserting their own experiences, and casting aside decades-held attitudes that inform their motives for traveling there in the first place. The site and its historic/al backdrop demand physical, emotional, and cognitive labor, labors informed by motives, informed by memories and individual and collective experiences.

[16] Peter Goin, quoted in T. Bamburger, “‘The bomb through two lenses,” Progressive 56, no. 3 (March 1992): 38.

These are the effects of research-road-trips, and not dissimilar from the New Topographics and their road trips throughout the landscape toward industrial parks and new suburban developments. Peter Goin submitted himself to radiation at the Burial Gardens at the plutonium finishing facility in the Pacific Islands, where he noticed his “guide did not leave the vehicle” out of fear of contamination. Despite his close proximity to his guide’s truck, “I called to him, asking if everything was all right, and he responded that I shouldn’t touch anything. … I went ahead and made the photograph. It took me about ten minutes,” about nine minutes longer than a “safe” extent of time.[16] Carole Gallagher has made a similar excursion where she endured ten years of physical, emotional, and cognitive labor. She sustained herself until her savings ran out and while her funding applications were declined; she was hospitalized for the effects of starvation; she relied on uncertain hospitality from religious landlords and harassing hosts who mistrusted her project; she often walked the miles to her interviews when unable to afford gas.

[17] Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams (Berkeley: University of California Press), 39.

Richard Misrach has also made such an excursion. After she was arrested for protesting the testing and use of weapons at the Nevada Test Site and returning to the protestors’ camp on foot, Rebecca Solnit describes Misrach “walking an equally straight line south. He was unmistakable at a distance, for he was carrying his view camera – a mahogany box the size of a small TV on a tripod as tall as he was. … He was himself burned brown and more at home in the desert than anyone else not born to it I knew. He explored remote and forbidden areas for weeks in his van and would walk around all day under a broiling sun hatless, in an undershirt. … Finally Richard told me that I had to go because the light was perfect.”[17] Traipsing through an arid or semi-arid landscape, with the clothes and sun on his back, and heavy equipment about his size – this is certainly labor, or what some could call atonement for mans’ obliteration of the environment and illegal acquisitions of others’ homes. Wielding a large camera, similar to the ones wielded by his nineteenth-century, survey-employed forebearers, he tasked himself with a Sisyphean assignment, enduring taxing conditions – for a person out of place – to detail and uncover environmental politics. Perhaps this is why Misrach’s projects are called cantos, after Dante’s in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, where he labors through the first two in order to attain some kind of arcadian, environmental equilibrium. He does this again and again.

Kavanagh might not have asked for her subjects’ incentives for making the journey if she had not made similar ones herself. In 2011 when she first visited the decommissioned Wendover Air Force Base, in Utah, she drove from Alberta. This trek alone requires deliberate attention to road conditions, mechanical and personal upkeep. After over twenty more hours on the road, alone, she found herself at the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s site. A little dazed from the drive, a police officer knocked on her car window, startling her, her body still humming from the car’s hydraulics responding to the road’s friction.

I too have conducted two research-road-trips to the west along interstate-10 from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles California, and the second trip included a twenty-four-hour detour from Las Vegas to Reno back on to Los Angeles. That second trip lasted from mid-June and mercifully ended in mid-August. If one were to map the excursion on Google Maps, they would see that a fragment of those eight weeks in the form of a 2,500-mile line, as well as the emulated curvature of Google Earth. I stopped in cities and towns along the way, visiting exhibitions, researchers, curators, and artists, and the planning the trip itself was arduous. Museums are closed on Mondays or Tuesdays, and one cannot plan for construction convoys and dust storms, or highways that do not offer gas, lodging, or rest services for more than 100 miles. Time on the road was totalizing solitude, the hums and bumps simulated a sensory deprivation tank on wheels and the static from the car’s hum, an anechoic chamber. I refrained from listening to music so I could pay attention to humming and bumping of the road. After a nine-hour drive to Reno from Las Vegas, I wound up driving the wrong way on a one-way street and parked briefly on the sidewalk to ebb panic. I didn’t afford myself the time to kiss the earth upon arrival in L.A., for a Los Angeles Review of Books publishing workshop, because I had to navigate a frustrating Trader-Joe’s parking structure, where parking cost $35 an hour. Again, like the pilgrims to Delphi, Gallagher’s, Misrach’s, Goin’s, Kavanagh’s, and my routes were disorienting as we formed our questions and sought the answers from the same landscape.

Kavanagh exhibits archival material and reveals to arts audiences the violence against communities and sites laden with following-orders protocols and operational siloing. She does not participate in restricting or sealing off the photographic gaze; rather, she is the interlocutor between unavailable sites and the public they are said to serve. Robert Del Tredici writes that secrecy and security depend on the adage, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. While he means that the relationship between weapons-production industries, we can extend that relationship between those industries and the public. Kavanagh’s work could be seen as the handshake.