Atomic Suite (2012)

Atomic Suite is an exhibition project that addresses the history of the atomic weapons industry and culture through video projection, seventy-two Los Alamos National Laboratory archival photographs arranged in a grid, and thirty-two works on paper. During an eight-week residency at The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Kavanagh interviewed residents and workers, explored the region, and tracked her movements by collecting soil and rock samples, and military detritus. It culminated in a multi-faceted investigation into the Nuclear and its militarized support. The videowork that accompanies Atomic Suite comes in four movements. Movement I is parachute training; II is controlled-environment ordnance disposal; III is a tumultuous and abstracted view of inside the center of the Enola Gay hangar; and IV is a Japanese Butoh dance with Techan Imai in Hopi, Arizona.

[17] I talk more about Kavanagh’s attention to rate of growth when I discuss her work Tumour Timeline in the section Daughters of Uranium (2019–2020).

In Movement I, in slow motion, paratroopers emerge from a C-130, a transport aircraft. The movement ends at what would be the beginning, with the paratroopers, in slow motion again, boarding the carrier plane. Movement II begins with a wide angle shot of the Utah Test and Training Range, and trucks and smaller vehicles exit the frame to the right. The background noise reveals some rustling caused by the wind. An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Minuteman explodes on the ground, just below two-and-a-half-miles away from the artist. The explosion starts with a small star of light at the center of the shot, and over the course of thirty seconds, this small cluster of white rays convulse and expand, in slow motion, into a plume of dust-colored smoke. Before the smoke, the star’s first blast grows but pauses for a brief moment after six seconds, and again, grows and pauses after three seconds, and then again, grows and pauses, four seconds after that. Each pause contours the expanding blast radius, and each pause posits a plot point to the rate of the explosion’s growth. Thirty seconds after the initial star appeared, the detonation releases in real time, marked by a visible shockwave over the ground. About thirty-seconds after the appearance of the initial star, the detonation’s shot is heard. Kavanagh allows us to see the detonation slowly and deliberately, acoustically accompanied only by a single tone that ends with the crack of the soundwave finally reaching the artist’s ears. Slowing down time allots for Kavanagh to show her viewers this rate of growth, a motif in her work.[17]

Like Bruce Conner in Crossroads (1976), the sound in Atomic Suite is manipulated to suggest distance. Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley composed Crossroad’s ambient sound, a sound that emulates the passage over different distances – distances between the cameras’ location with respect to the atomic tests. Kavanagh, too, manufactures a sort of Doppler Effect  by slowing down time and extending the time between the blast’s expansion, a stop-motion effect. This allows the viewer to slowly take in a disposal blast, much smaller than the one manipulated and re-cycled by Conner. The slow motion defers the shockwave postponement and suspends its crack in order to manipulate our perceived distance from the explosion.

[18] Berlyn Brixner, “A High-Speed Rotating-Mirror Frame Camera,” Journal of the SMPTE 59 (December 1952): 503.

Movements III and IV take place inside the Enola Gay hangar and in Hopi, Arizona respectively. The camera quickly spins clockwise as the room spins counter to that centripetal movement, matching the movement (but nowhere near the speed) of the cameras developed for the Trinity Test. The high-speed rotating-mirror frame camera, developed by Berlyn Brixner in preparation for the test, would have used a rapid-oscillating mirror to reflect the light input from the lens onto the film. To do this, the objective lens directs the beam of light to the rapidly oscillating mirror, which in turn splits the beam of light along two paths to the final relay lens to form the image on the film plane, a process that produces a series of pictures.[18] Kavanagh’s spinning technique might be a nod to the mechanics used to develop the weapon that the hangar would later house, and the use of digital film might emulate some of the effects made possible by the spinning mirror; a long exposure of steel beams, corrugated walls, and light from the clerestory windows makes blocky refractions on the surface of her lens. Merging the past mechanics and contemporary digitization influence a conceptual image of how sites of conflict retain certain measurements of aggression, and photographs taken at those sites today can recall some of those measures.

[19] Vicki Sanders, “Dancing and the Dark Soul of Japan: An Aesthetic Analysis of ‘Butō’,” Asian Theatre Journal 5, no. 2 (Autumn 1988): 152.

Another discursive stratum intersticing the viewer’s experience comes in the form of Movement IV. The Japanese Butoh (舞踏) dance was formed in postwar Japan as a reaction against traditional forms of theatrical expression, specifically the beauty and skill involved in the Noh dance tradition.[19] As part of the larger Avant-Garde movement in Japan, irregular jerky movements bind the dancer to the ground; his movements are in attempt to ground him as they, in equal measure, try to enable flight. The earth is the literal grounding point for Butoh, the expression of emotions and remembrances, where the body is not moved consciously, but in unchoreographed reaction to place and the sensations it emanates. Kavanaugh’s Atomic Suite, with its nod to Western conceptions of classical narrative conventions, closes with the subversion of those conceptions. The film supplies another space for unrecognized grief and abstracted remembrance in order to represent indescribability.

[20] Kim Sichel, “Deadpan Geometries: Postwar Aerial Photography and the American Landscape,” in Reframing the New Topographics, ed. Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach (Chicago: Columbia college Chicago Press, 2010), 89.

Atomic Suite’s seventy-two photographs maps a vast area of landscape, from Hopi, Arizona to Wendover, Utah and from Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Her photographs depict an equally broad domain of motifs, such as living, decaying, or dying things and artifacts of former Air Force structures and materials. Evident in almost all of them is some segment of land, horizon, or far-reaching sky. Indeed, Kavanagh’s research-road-trip from Alberta to Utah requires diligent attention to the road, highway exits, and landmarks, and the attention to the road extends to contentious picture-taking on stable ground. From the perimeter to the center, she charts points along the site’s map: warning signs, barracks, a row of Wonder Bread trucks, an interior of an administrative office, neighboring Wendover, Nevada’s skyline, active military workers in training. While, for example, Lewis Baltz of the New Topographics refrained from outright critiquing humankind’s manipulation of the environment and instead “made quiet comments on the imperfections they observed,”[20] Kavanagh transparently demonstrates a keen social awareness, sense of international nuclear politics, and ecological conservation in her photographs.