11 October 2010

The Stars, Our Destination

Over at Kosmograd, Martin Gittins writes about his recent rattling encounter with Jane and Louise Wilson's video installation "Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard." Dating from 2001, the work was trotted out this past year as an inclusion in the Gagosain gallery's Crash exhibition -- a collection of artworks that, in some way or another, touched on themes relevant to the work of author J. G. Ballard.

As Gittins details, the installation involves a visual exploration of the former launch sites and military grounds at Baikonur, Kazakhstan; the center of the Soviet space program which first put Yuri Gagarin into space.
Unfortunately, I've missed out on a lot of the Wilson twins' work because it's never circulated widely on these shores. But from I have encountered, this appears to part of thematic cycle that the Wilsons have revisited a few times throughout their career. First there was 1999's "Gamma," a very similar diptych video project filmed at Greenham Common, an abandoned RAF military installation in Berkshire, England. The following year, the Wilsons produced "Star City," which -- focusing on the "hidden city" and cosmonaut training center just north of Moscow -- served as a precursor to "Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard." They've also done works that incorporated former Stasi headquarters in East Germany, as well documented (à la Paul Virilio) the abandoned WWII bunkers along the coasts of Normandy.

A number of Jane and Louise Wilson's works touch upon the Cold War race for supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the areas of weapons production and space exploration, and the massive resources that were annexed and created to bring these programs into being. Gittin cites a press release for "Star City," which states:

In their attempt to describe the psychology of the site, the Wilsons set out on an archeological quest, exploring the relics of recent history. They invite the viewer on a trip of discovery peppered with suspense and mystery, like chancing on a long forgotten city. They summon up the ghost of Communism and the utopian ideas formed during the Cold War and contrast them with the ‘run-down’ reality as visualised by the architectural setting. [...]

Viewers are caught up between juxtaposed shots of the same scene and images sliding across the four screens of the installation as the camera pans across the rooms and their contents. Feelings of discomfort and paranoia develop as the viewers positioned in the open cube of the screens are forced to be 'on constant alert … lest they miss something.' The endless loops of the roller coaster mystery tour through Star City create a 'sense of going somewhere and nowhere at once.'

While elsewhere, "Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard" is described as "a pure exploration of architecture." In this instance, the "pure architecture" in question is a purely functional one. "Black budgets" and the creation of secret cities and alternate societies -- all of it orchestrated and operating just beyond the periphery of everyday life, put in place (the ideology of the day had it) as the virtual-but-unmapped infrastructure that supported and insured the life of the primary/civilian society. So this thread of the Wilson twins' work amounts to a sort of Cold War "bunker archeology," effectively; one that engages the monsters under the bed of any child that grew up during those years. The spectral excesses of aspiring empires and the potential destruction and hegemony of power that they sought -- phantoms known, vaguely acknowledged, yet seldom spoken of in the public sphere.

I'd be curious to see the Wilsons do a project devoted the KGB's research into the possibilities of "psychic warfare." Instead, it appears one of their recent projects involved focusing on the the archives of Stanley Kubrick.

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