“the bomb“ is a groundbreaking multimedia project that immerses viewers in the strange, compelling, and unsettling reality of nuclear weapons. The cinematic installation premiered in Europe at this year’s Berlinale at Haus der Berliner Festspiele, where the wider fields of immersive arts are also presented within the ongoing programme “Immersion“.
Nearly simultaneously with the opening of the “Limits of Knowing“ programme on the 1 July – which focuses on experiences with the borderlines of immersion and is accompanied by an installation from Rimini Protokoll and performances from Vinge / Müller – “the bomb“ will be finally available as video on demand on 30 June via Vimeo.

This interview has originally been published in Lodown Magazine’s latest issue “Future Shock“, which deals with different artistic explorations about what lies ahead – moving forward in time and space.


© the bomb

There are about 15,000 nuclear weapons on this planet. More than 90 percent of these weapons are owned by the United States and Russia in similar parts, the others belong to France, China, England, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. These 15,000 weapons are able to destroy our whole civilization not just once, but several times. A nuclear war is a constant, dormant threat since the arms race between the USA and Russia during the Cold War. In terms of facing this threat though, where is the awareness, where is the discussion about it and where is the outrage and fear? Nearly every kind of examination seems to be buried with the bombs in their nuclear missile silos. Long absent, soon forgotten. Whereas terrorism or climate change are way too visible to be ignored, the buried nuclear weapons seem to be too ungraspable to keep in mind. It’s so 80s.

Still, everyone has a clear idea about the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The names of these two cities are indispensably connected to the implementation of the nuclear bomb and its disastrous consequences. Images of the overwhelming yet abstract mushroom clouds on the one hand and the contrarily specific pictures of all those injured and dead people, of all these deadly scared faces and the extinct eyes, on the other hand have been burned into our collective memory. But all this seems to be yesterday’s news, a historical event of unthinkable violence that we left far behind.

Or did we? On January 26, 2017 the symbolic doomsday clock switched on 2 ½ minutes to midnight, which is the closest the clock has been to the end of humanity since 1953, after the USA tested its first thermonuclear device. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists behind the clock notes that “the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.” And for the first time in history the bulletin decided to advance the clock also in special regard to one single person, Donald Trump, who is now the leader of the wannabe free world, and who has assured to impede due process in both matters. All 15,000 nuclear weapons may be dormant now, but this shouldn’t seduce us into thinking they are gone, especially in a world filled with Trumps and Putins, in a world of terror – and in a world known for disastrous human mistakes.

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In his book “Command and Control” Eric Schlosser describes the risks of nuclear weapons by revealing several accidents and near-misses that convey a feeling of the danger, which is connected to every stored nuclear weapon on this planet. Schlosser builds his narrative around the story of an accident with the Titan II (a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the USA) near Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980 that would have nearly caused a serious atomic catastrophe right in the middle of the United States. Focussing on this historical accident, the famed investigative journalist assembles a wide variety of meticulously researched facts and anecdotes and tells thereby a bigger story about the control of nuclear weapons and its failures.

Coming from this very factual report on nuclear weapons it seems like a complete reversal that the multimedia installation “the bomb”, which was shown during this year’s Berlinale and premiered at Tribeca last year, evades most words and facts, going for uncommentated imagery and a rich soundscape instead. Even though the footage is mainly historical, the experience of the cinematic installation is not at all a distanced one, but a rather immersive and highly emotional ride. “the bomb”, co-directed by Eric Schlosser, Smriti Keshari and Kevin Ford, plays with the fascination and the beauty of this most dangerous manmade weapon, showing military parades from different countries demonstrating their nuclear power, illustrating the phallic appearance of the bomb and its transformation into these well-known terrifying beautiful mushroom clouds. The film allows the audience to indulge these feelings of beauty and fascination, but it thereby gives a deeper sense of the perversion in its very heart. The non-linear montage confronts the representations of power and control with never-before-seen archival footage of accidents and experiments where whole houses are torn apart and tied animals go furiously and die. Besides these hidden documents the installation juxtaposes footage of the devastating effects of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their victims with the strangely naïve “Duck and Cover” safety films that introduced the US citizens in the 1950s to security measures in case of a nuclear attack.

In its original setting “the bomb” places the intense slow-burn of electronic band The Acid in the middle of several screens, where simultaneous projections open up a kaleidoscope of filmic images, all underlined, carefully directed and sometimes even drowned by the partly hallucinative, partly very clear and strong yet always completely overwhelming live music. The audience finds itself right in the center of the happening, becoming part of this stream of consciousness that is carefully increased by the visual work of celebrated artist Stanley Donwood. Far away from numbers, facts and words this opens up a different kind of awareness for the subject, an awareness that gives reason to hope for things to change.

© the bomb / Stanley Donwood & The Kingdom of Ludd / Atomcentral

Lodown hooked up with Smriti Keshari at this year’s Berlinale. The filmmaker and co-creator of “the bomb” gave us a very personal view on her work for this stunning and challenging cinematic work.

Coming from Eric Schlosser’s book “Command and Control“, which is a rich and precise investigative report on nuclear weapons – what made you decide to use this vast knowledge only as a backdrop for “the bomb“, and work mainly with filmic images and sound/music instead?

Smriti Keshari: While reading “Command and Control”, it became evident to me that we’re living under this most awful nuclear cloud. We live in a world with 15,000 nuclear weapons. Yet, there’s a complete ignorance of them. These weapons are buried underground, they are out of sight and out of our consciousness.
The idea of nuclear war is abstract and unfathomable. The human imagination is incapable of encompassing all the psychological variants of this reality. And it’s really hard for an individual to have an emotional connection to something that they can’t see or feel. I really wanted to create a deeper, visceral experience of nuclear weapons, so people could feel the gravity and reality of living with these weapons.
There’s an entire system, processes, timing, reasoning that led us to this reality. In order to understand how we’ve gotten to this reality, we must first recognize the emotions nuclear weapons evoke — their allure, their beauty, their construct, and the ultimate death wish at the heart of them.
“the bomb” was made to deliberately ignite an emotional and visceral understanding of the nuclear reality we are living in right now. Eric and I brought together the experimental spirit of Kevin Ford, the bold and political art of Stanley Donwood, the technological and visceral viewing ethos of United Visual Artists (UVA), and fused it all together with the haunting live soundtrack by The Acid.

Obviously there are a lot of strong images of terrifying beautiful mushroom clouds, which refer to the collective memory of the audience, but then there is this rare footage of accidents and animal experiments with nuclear weapons – where did you find all those hidden documents?

I think I can safely say that collectively Kevin Ford (co-director), Eric and I have waded through more nuclear weapon footage than any human being on earth. Some of it had never been seen before since it was provided to Eric while he was researching and writing his book.
It always struck me how nuclear weapons could be terrifying and haunting, or beautiful and seductive, at the same time. They certainly have a mesmerizing quality to them, that is deeply rooted to an attraction to machines and their universal significance as symbols of power.

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The live score for “the bomb” is played by The Acid – how did you get involved with the band in the first place?

Adam Freeland and I had met many moons ago through our mutual friend Chad Blankenship, during his DJ set in a three story Los Angeles venue. (laughs) I have particularly vivid memories of meeting Adam’s mom who was visiting from England that night. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, Chad and I were talking about “the bomb” and playing through some of the music reference that Eric and I would often discuss. He recommended that I listen to The Acid’s “Liminal” album, which had just been released, and I had an immediate, visceral connection to it.

Did working with the musicians change your perspective on the theme or certain sequences?

As a filmmaker, before thinking of any scene I often think first of the music that would help to convey the emotion. In the process of making the film and the original score, Eric, Kevin and I often discussed with Ry, Adam, Steve and Jens from The Acid how nuclear weapons tapped into different emotions – of adrenaline, of fear, of celebration, of chaos, of sadness, etc. — and how the music can heighten those feelings. Through a powerful underlying simplicity, The Acid propel the listener into an emotional journey. In early creative conversations with Adam while hiking in Griffith Park, he often spoke of the art of a good DJ set in terms of building and releasing tension and then building again. The Acid are adept at creating space, magnitude and depth by holding back where others might want to go bigger.
And silence was certainly a favorite topic of mine that we discussed. Silence can sometimes be viewed as the antithesis of sound, but silence needs to exist for one to experience sound. It consists of it, you need one to experience the other. Kind of like dark matter in the universe. So, we would often debate what silence sounds like.

Even though “the bomb” files under documentary, I would prefer to call it an immersive cinematic installation, as it places the audience right in the middle of several screens and the band on a centered DJ booth, which breaks the classical and pretty distanced setting of a cinema. How does the audience react to this immersive experience?

“the bomb” certainly feels like something that happens to you, versus something you passively watch. If you think about it, we spend a lot of time moving through simultaneous open windows in our computer. All of us live in this new kind of space — a space that provides a fixed view of the world — a space that has become more controlled and seemingly more isolated. And “the bomb” breaks away from that, and invites you into this strong, shared experience without the traditional roles and cues of being an audience member.

As great as it was to see “the bomb” at this year’s Berlinale, I can imagine that it must be a bit frustrating for everyone involved to see it being screened in this rather classical setting?

In New York, you were inside the film; it was haunting and unsettling. In Berlin, we had the film inside the grand Haus der Berliner Festspiele theater with the Acid performing a live score. We had no idea how it would be received as a single screen experience, but someone said it was an “abstract wonder and a literal nightmare,” so I think it certainly resonates.
At every step of the way, each part of “the bomb” — whether it’s the film, the music or the 360° live build — it was created so it could, individually and collectively, be bold and poetic — and could convey a sense of contained chaos.

© the bomb / Stanley Donwood & The Kingdom of Ludd / Atomcentral

Please tell me a bit about how you convinced Mr. Stanley Donwood to get involved in this project.

Both Eric and I have been a great admirer of Stanley’s work. The powerful visual identity he created for Polyfauna, and how brilliantly the music intersects with the visual world, speaks to the depth of Stanley’s work. When we first approached him about “the bomb”, we spoke at lengths about his connection to the nuclear issue, and attending his first CND demonstration as a teenager, and the gravity of those terrifying times. The same urgency and inescapable reality exists now. Yet, there’s almost a denial of it.
Stanley’s illustrations have a bold and political nature, underlined with modesty and humor. So of course when we first approached him to be the art director — he mentioned having no knowledge of moving pictures. Alongside his brother, the talented animator The Kingdom of Ludd, he has provided “the bomb” with a hallucinatory and visceral quality that combines archival film, government documents and bold animation.

Rumors have it that “the bomb” will hit a few other screens this year… can you already tell us at which other festivals it can be experienced?

The rumors are indeed true. We had the world premiere in New York last year, and just last week “the bomb” premiered in Europe during opening weekend of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. The spirit of collaboration between all of us involved is wonderful and energizing. All the different collaborators come from such different mediums, whether it’s art, film, music or the installation space, and “the bomb” resonates strongly within their worlds and types of showcases.
We’re in discussions with key music, art and light festivals around the world, as well as museums for having a longer exhibition type showcase. The film will be in festivals around the country this spring and summer. And we’re very excited that it’s headed to Netflix in the fall.

Being one of the driving forces behind a project like this certainly is a major accomplishment – could you already refrain a bit from “the bomb” and spin your mind around forthcoming projects? Will you stay true to non-fiction films or is it time for a change for you?

“the bomb” has this living, breathing aspect to it that is incredibly powerful, and it draws me into going further with live mediums. I certainly love mixing different disciplines, whether it’s light, or sound with moving images. I’m currently creating a land based art installation, and a science fiction narrative is in my future as well. I’m quite excited by these new planets, and galaxies that astronomers keep discovering – and my next piece is definitely inspired by space.

„the bomb“ / directed by Smriti Keshari, Kevin Ford, Eric Schlosser / artistic direction by Stanley Donwood / music by The Acid / USA 2016