Unseen Terror: The Bomb, Other Bogeymen, and a Culture of Fear

As Parkville Elementary student on Long Island during the 1950s, every so often, a siren would wail and our teacher would call out, "Take cover!" We were lead into the hallway and in front of our lockers, got down on our knees, put our hands over our heads, and waited to find out if this was drill or the end of our world. Nobody felt safe, even in Lincoln Nebraska, where my future father-in-law built a family fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In that era the fallout from the continuous above ground nuclear tests raised the levels of strontium 90 to such dangerous concentrations that my junior high school stopped serving milk. In his book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), Todd Gitlin interviewed people who grew up in the Fifties who often vividly dreamed about nuclear war. Such circumstances unleashed all sorts of random, internal terrors and made me an existentialist before I ever heard of existentialism or read Being and Nothingness, (1943) in which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

Atomic Playing Cards

"Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth."

Despite my affluent and educated existence, science and technology failed me because our culture's reliance on the Bomb meant there was no future I wanted to participate in. President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program has never delivered on its promise of power too cheap to meter or on the safe deposal of nuclear waste. I quit experimenting in my basement chemistry lab and abandoned my microscope to get involved with art and social issues of the Sixties. I connected with other small cadres of like-minded people who thought that if humankind was to evolve it was a necessity to explore "Alternative" paths in all avenues of life, art, and culture.

Hence the contribution of Michael Bosworth and myself with technical support from my assistant Molly Jarboe to Pluto's Cave. People are afraid of what they cannot see. Collectively our subconscious is on constant alert for sudden and unexpected danger and death, which can take numerous and ever-changing shapes from the Black Death to terrorism to AIDS. Now the threat of Avian Flu has caused some of my in-laws to adopt survivalist attitudes of storing surgical masks and gloves, food, and weapons for the impending doom.

The hub of Unseen Terrors is tower made from 1950s plastic Girder and Panel toy sets set on a floor stand that illuminates the structure from below. It evokes a dichotomous contrast between stability and fragility while offering an idiosyncratic micro and panoramic visual mini-history of 300 such invisible and innate cultural fears using the history of atomic theory and The Bomb as it focal point.

These thematic images are re-enforced by 400 Unseen Terror Calling Cards, which have been attached to mini-alligator clips that have been glued on to finishing nails and arranged in a grid-like sculptural band on the wall around the Tower. The front of each card features an image of a cultural dread while the back of each card has a printed "atomic fact" as complied by The Brooking Institution. Every visitor is invited to take one card at the gallery entrance.

Below the calling cards is a series of 8 wall-mounted microscopes in which tiny transparent images dealing with atomic history, from the early Greek thinker Democritus who is credited with proposing the Atomic Theory of Matter to Robert Oppenheimer who ran the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bombs, can be viewed at various magnifications to show how scientific instruments, especially lenses, mediate and affect our notions of reality.

Key images also have been printed on a deck of Atomic Playing Cards, which are presented in the form of a Baker's Dozen, a simple yet strategic open solitaire game on an old-fashion folding wooden card table.

All these images direct viewers into a darkened chamber where a dimly glowing black, alien-like projector, containing 25 lenses, each with a transparent image of an atomic test stands. Pressing a big, glowing red button triggers an electronic flash at the core of the piece, which briefly projectors all the pictures on the walls, ceiling, and floor. The photographs are seen as only as afterimages, an optical illusion closely related to the phenomenon known as persistence of vision, the perceptual processes of the brain or the retina of the human eye that retains an image for a brief moment of time. This provides the illusion that makes all optical devices from the wonder turner to cinema possible and reveals the subjective personal nature of vision. The sound within the room is a collage of audio generated from radio telescopes mixed with a re-edited recording of a NASA Apollo Space Mission. The piece functions as a cross between a interactive science museum display and a Milgram experiment. [last-atom.mp3]

These collective subconscious terrors, going in and out of fashion, represent a societal neurosis concerned with ever-present peril of the moment that is constantly reported on and discussed in the media. It has become a cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of unease about our place in the world.

Our lives are dominated by competing groups of fear entrepreneurs who promote their cause, stake their claims, or sell their products through fear. Through the media, politicians, businesses, environmental groups, public health officials and advocacy groups are continuously warning us about something new to fear. When fear is wantonly promoted it loses its relationship to our actual experiences and breeds an unfocused sense of anxiety, which can attach itself to anything and in turn disorient and distract us from our very own lives. Challenges are not presented as problems to be solves, but as doomsday scenarios. The reckless use of apocalyptic terms like 'epidemic' 'plague', and 'syndrome' stress the precarious nature of human existence and convert unusual events into a normal risks. This triggers our apocalyptic imaginations, especially those concocted around religious myths of the Rapture, martyrdom, or jihad with their promises of heavenly rewards that in reality promote a hopeless future. The effect reduces our personhood by inferring we lack the resources necessary to cope with life's challenges, making fear entirely an negative in that there are no lessons to be learned from our past.

This sense of powerlessness turns problems into issues of survival and promotes an atmosphere in which various fears compete with one another for public attention. Since 911, politicians, businesses, advocacy organizations and special interest groups have attempted to further their agendas by manipulating public anxiety about terror. By provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat leaders can supply a focus for gaining consensus and unity around an otherwise disconnected elite by enforcing the notion there is no alternative. Groups also use this strategy for issues they fear most: crime, corporate abuses, global warming, immigrants, pedophiles, or Bird Flu. The more powerless we feel the more we are likely to be drawn in by the Sirens of fear.

As anxieties about uncertainty overwhelm us, we feel as vulnerable. Yet the human imagination can engage and learn from the risks it faces. Art can raise people's awareness, but it is not a substitute for individual action. History records our blunders and offers empirical ways for us to identify, evaluate, select and implement practical options for reducing risks. If we define ourselves by our capacity to be resilient then we can cultivate a culture of alternative options.

- Robert Hirsch
Robert Hirsch