What Can Art Do About Nuclear Weapons? The Tribeca Film Festival Examines ‘the bomb’

If nuclear weapons fragment human experience, can art unify it?

Like the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove, the evolving rhetoric of a new nuclear arms race — between the U.S., China, and Russia — appears to be unstoppable now that it has launched. This weekend, a front page article in the New York Times described a revived mutual deterrence as both a possible threat and a maturing fact; in either case, an increase in nuclear armament is fueled by a clash of national perspectives worthy of Kubrick’s satire:

American officials largely blame the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, saying his intransigence has stymied efforts to build on a 2010 arms control treaty and further shrink the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers. Some blame the Chinese, who are looking for a technological edge to keep the United States at bay. And some blame the United States itself for speeding ahead with a nuclear “modernization” that, in the name of improving safety and reliability, risks throwing fuel on the fire.

As the article progresses, it becomes obvious that the renewed zeal for nuclear proliferation is found not so much in the cracks between these accusations as in the anxiety behind them: they’re all true. For America’s part, even as Obama denounces the “whole new escalation of the arms race,” he’s making way for three decade, $1 trillion “nuclear revitalization program” that will focus on smaller, faster delivery systems. Many believe this approach will increase the likelihood of a nuclear attack or accident.

Given that “the nuclear question” is famously impermeable to civic debate, the concern for culture is how it might intervene in consideration of the question. If the Cold War produced a range of responses — artworks and nonfictions that might be placed on a spectrum from modernist works (Hiroshima mon amour) to satire (Dr. Strangelove) to straightforward “message” narratives (The China Syndrome) — what response will the 21st century bring to an intensified global threat, especially in the absence of a clear ideological conflict? If the 21st-century arms race can’t be understood as an argument between communist and capitalist states, what will shape its cultural narrative, for and against?

On a weekend when the New York Times all but declared a “revival of the Cold War” and a renaissance of nuclear proliferation, it seemed both fortuitous and strange that the Tribeca Film Festival would close with the bomb, “a groundbreaking multimedia installation that immerses you in the strange, compelling, and unsettling reality of nuclear weapons.” A 55-minute installation work comprising 360-degrees of projected video, a live band, flashing lights, and smoke effects, the bomb, if anything, offered a glimpse into the present cultural conversation about nuclear weapons.

Directed by Eric Schlosser, Kevin Ford, and Smriti Keshari, the installation layered spectacular footage of exploding (and reverse-exploding) nuclear tests with illustrated images (via Stanley Donwood), technical overlays, and clips of “duck and cover” propaganda in a “non-linear” format. (In other words, the arrangement of these elements was experiential rather than narrative.) Meanwhile, the audience stood or sat in the center, dwarfed by several 30-foot screens, inundated with image and sound.

According to Indiewire, this recipe of spectacle and immersion is the intended takeaway of the work. “I knew creating a live experience that takes you into the center of the story of nuclear weapons — and takes you through this deeper, visceral experience of what these weapons represent — emphasizes the fact that we are living with these machines designed to erase our existence,” Keshari explained. And in the spirited logic of shareability, the idea is that the bomb’s experiential quality will bring people out to see it. It will now embark on a tour of global cities that includes “San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin.”

But my complaint with the bomb is not that it failed to achieve an overwhelming sense of spectacle. It was rather that this spectacle had the effect of removing the viewer’s agency, both by way of tedium and brute force. If the idea, put forward again by Keshari in a panel discussion that preceded the talk — one that included Michael Douglas — was to show the viewer that the bomb is a machine for “erasing human existence,” the installation, along with its attendant EDM-like music, became a machine for numbing it with the stuff of media.

The deepest artistic considerations of “the nuclear threat” acknowledge that it has a way of fragmenting and deterring straightforward experience instead of unifying it. In the case of Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, the aftermath of the bomb was shown to disaggregate memory both collective and personal. With Doctor Strangelove, Kubrick famously strayed from his original plan to direct a thriller. And in the case of nonfiction narrative: John Hersey’s landmark Hiroshima, one of the premiere works of New Journalism, relied on a mutated form of nonfiction to tell a story of atomic violence.

Recent scholarly works, too, like Elaine Scarry’s pathbreaking Thermonuclear Monarchy — arguably the most important nonfiction work on nuclear weapons to appear in recent years — show that military-controlled nuclear arsenals negate the agency of democratic citizens. In Scarry’s work, the fact of nuclear weapons proves that we are not even being governed:

If we get rid of nuclear weapons, people in the future will look on this period not as a period of governance. You know, I use the term “thermonuclear monarchy,” but Hobbes would say it’s a ghastly, obscene form of anarchy. Because day in and day out, they’ve made arrangements for the slaughter of the citizenry. How can that be a form of governance?

The decision to show the bomb at Tribeca is admirable. The publication of the Times article, in conjunction with the event, suggests that a new discussion is possible — and necessary. But it seems to me that we first need to examine the psychological damage wrought by years spent under the rule of nuclear weapons. It’s not just a question of whether art can arrange a spectacle that emulates or counterposes the bomb; it’s a question of our limitations in the face of it.