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Bruce Conner’s artistic career is internationally renowned for its diverse and often oppositional practices, among them his surrealistic assemblage sculptures, his avant-garde films collaged from found footage, and his photography of the Beat Generation and later the Punk scene. Conner’s works are frequently informed by social, political, and historical themes, and subtly expressed through experimental, witty, and occasionally unnerving forms.
The visual content of Conner’s film CROSSROADS (1976) consists of declassified official footage documenting Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test conducted by the US at the Bikini Atoll in 1946 to investigate the bomb’s effect on warships. The footage of underwater detonations and the mushroom clouds that follow—filmed from many angles—are collaged together and slowed down to a crawling pace to create a mesmerizing effect. Accompanying the visuals is a psychedelic soundscape of ambient music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley: bird chirps, car engines, lapping waves… sounds that could evoke the image of a calm afternoon in the Bay Area on the California coast of the United States. The juxtaposition is uncanny—contradictory yet oddly harmonious. In this way, the work suggests a reversal of foreground and background: the Cold War paranoia about nuclear fallout surfaces to the visible foreground, while everyday life sinks back to a spectral, psychological realm. The work summons in the contemporary viewer a fear of nuclear weaponry, but it also reminds us of the double-edged nature of technology in general. Technologies, as exemplified by nuclear power, promise progress towards a utopian vision of the future involving conquering nature and achieving immortality. Yet progress in technologies also means the upgrading of our capacities to destroy ourselves, intentionally or not—consider not only nuclear weapons, but also incidents such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. The work thus fulfills a cautionary function: if we willfully neglect and alienate “death” in the pursuit of “immortality,” then unprecedented disasters await us.