Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

2024-01-23 • 2024-06-10

Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb

Beatriz Caravaggio

Room 4

The BBVA Foundation and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum’s joint video art creation programme is pleased to present Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb, a commission from the BBVA Foundation to Beatriz Caravaggio.

The film’s common thread is declassified files which contain full details of the experiments conducted, but it also includes images of the campaigns targeted at citizens on how to protect themselves in case of a nuclear attack.

Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb contrasts the dry, factual reports replete with the precision, sophistication and control common in scientific experiments with images of the chaos of the nuclear race and the victims’ voices.

Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb 

On 16 July 1945, the first atomic detonation occurred in New Mexico; it was called the Trinity test, a 20-kilotonne explosion that revealed a destructive power unlike anything known until then. Just twenty-one days afterwards, the Little Boy bomb targeted Hiroshima, and three days later, Fat Man fell on Nagasaki. The bombs claimed the lives of 200,000 people in these two cities, who were later joined by people who died from burns, radiation, cancer, the lack of medicine and malnutrition.

Since then, the United States, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear tests. The governments have systematically filmed these trials and amassed thousands of audiovisual files. They were filmed in order to scientifically study the course of the detonations, and hundreds of classified reports dissecting the entire nuclear operation were written. Nothing was left undocumented or unmeasured in reports in which human beings, animals and life were only formal objects of analysis and intervention, banishing from those thousands of pages’ sphere of consideration anything that had to do with the domain of ethics, respect for the principle of dignity and conservation of life.

Today, we are well aware that effective and necessary solutions for pressing problems spring from power applied to knowledge, but in some spheres danger can also arise from that same power. The precision and control of the nuclear tests, captured in images and objectified reports—the core of the work Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb—led to gigantic arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, the outcome of an unstoppable, unchecked arms race. Science is a fundamental transformative and liberating force, but the continuity and improvement of life on Earth also depend on dialogue with other cultural constructs, from the humanities to art, and on the participation of plural social forces in decisions that involve existential risks on a global scale.

The artistic potential of a latent existential threat

‘When I received the commission, the BBVA Foundation suggested three topics, and of them I chose nuclear weapons because of the huge consequences they have had and continue to have for humanity, for life on Earth, as a latent existential threat, and also because I saw huge artistic potential in the topic’, says the artist. 

In Out of Control. Reports on the Atomic Bomb, the artist wanted to contrast the extreme precision, sophistication and control common in science—reflected in the countless declassified documents and films of the different nuclear tests—with the chaos exemplified by the arms race, which involves countries with distinct political and social regimes which continue to amass weapons. The outcome of the scientific research is wholly beyond the researchers’ control. 

The start of the artistic and film project was preceded by lengthy, extensive documentation and research of the different materials that existed, along with readings of the specialised literature on the development of the atomic bomb, its use on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent arms race: ‘It was an intense study process for me that was both revelatory and moving’. 

‘I clearly knew from the start what part or facet of the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to make your run-of-the-mill work, because the most common thing in video art and film is to focus on the research that led to the bomb, the complex figure of Oppenheimer and the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to stop there. I found the position of science compared to other fields more interesting, because at the beginning I found Oppenheimer’s words in which he explained that being a scientist did not make him qualified to determine what should be done or how the atomic bomb should be used. He fully accepted that the realm of ‘should’—of values, ethics and purposes or uses—was the purview of others: politicians and the military. That refusal to question yourself about values and the nature of objectives, that is, as you are developing a scientific project with potentially huge consequences, in real time and not just afterwards, truly caught my attention. That’s one of the reasons I think some major scientific developments should become like a dialogue with other cultural constructs, with the humanities and values, a dialogue in which the scientific community should participate alongside citizens through forms of consultation with plural social organisations.’ 

Images of the nuclear experiments

The nuclear experiments are the core of the film. ‘That's the common thread I used to touch on the different topics I was interested in. I wanted to talk about the effects of nuclear weapons first and foremost on people, but also on animals, ecosystems, nature and life’, stated the artist. 

From the formal standpoint, the artist has chosen minimalism: ‘To me, the works should hint more than educate or directly inspire calls for action, by allowing spectators to get involved, put together the pieces that are missing in their heads and take the meaning that the work has for each of them without trying to indoctrinate. Another constant feature in my work is that I am concerned with not falling into melodrama, especially when dealing with such a delicate issue on a human level as this one, because if you do you can end up with sensationalism and cheapen the meaning of the work. It's more interesting for spectators to see the images of the utter desolation in Hiroshima on the four screens as they listen to a voice in Japanese recreating real testimonials. When I give the protagonists a voice, I try to keep the phrases brief and short but make sure that they are eloquent. This may be an influence from Different Trains, where the script was minimal.’ 

‘One of the most important elements in the film is the contrast between the scientific sophistication and dehumanised sterility of the declassified documents on the one hand—represented by the voiceover which plays excerpts from them—and the human part of the Japanese survivors’ voices.’ This contrast is very palpable, for example, when the voiceover concludes that the bombs operated according to plan and with extraordinary destructive efficacy, while a survivor recalls that ‘amidst the rubble, corpses were peeking out with their hands raised, as if they were begging to be saved’. 

Creating a humanised work

‘Something that I have known clearly at all times is that I did not want to make a scientific or educational documentary. Instead, my goal was to create a 'humanised' work in which we see that we can all be victims, like even the soldiers who were used as guinea pigs in some experiments. It's a work that may spark empathy with those who were affected, potentially all of humanity.’ 

On the other hand, Caravaggio was also concerned that the aesthetics of some images would divert attention away from their meaning: ‘There are images that are beautiful, but it’s a misleading beauty; you cannot let yourself be carried away by the beauty because you would be banalising what the work represents. It would be frivolous. This beauty also stands in contrast to the information from the experiments, which detracts from this impression of beauty. This is why in the film I used data on the detonation’s performance, for example, and this puts the image in its proper place. Some of the more aesthetically striking images come from an experiment for which I also cite an incredible figure: it was one of thirty-five atomic experiments conducted in the same place within a four-month period. That is barbaric, an attack on the environment and animals. In fact, one of the screens shows an animal running away, representing life being threatened.’ 

Multichannel exhibition with four screens

The film is exhibited in multichannel format, with four screens, a carefully thought out decision based on the artist’s desire to explore new creative pathways: ‘In Out of Control, I wanted to do what artists always do: investigate, take a step further and figure out how far the use of archival material could take me, but on four screens.  And there I came upon a problem, which is how the spectator is going to absorb so much information without tuning out. So, to make sure that the visual information was manageable, I developed a mathematical structure: shots superimposed upon each other and related two-by-two. Actually, there are two nested diptychs in which screens one and three and screens two and four are related. It is extremely tricky to find images that you can pair up, because, for example, you need two similar camera shots that last long enough for this superimposition to work.’  

In fact, when explaining what the language of video art contributes to this story compared to conventional cinematography, Caravaggio says: ‘The boundaries among audiovisual languages are increasingly blurred. Experimental cinema has always existed, and I find it to be the most similar to what we call video art today. It is characterised by not using conventional storyline development and allowing you to experiment. But I don't experiment just for the sake of experimenting; I experiment to seek new ways to show what I want to say. Still, when I conceive and develop video art, not just anything goes; I don’t put in shots with no order or meaning. It's just that the power of experimentation is greater. The problem is that right now this type of work is excluded from cinematographic circuits. Sometimes this is justified by claiming that the audiences won’t understand it, but in my opinion that's not a good reason. Films like Out of Control are accessible for all audiences. And I say films because that breaks down the boundary between video art and cinema.’ 

The natural language of the film is English. The declassified documents and the archival materials used, that is, the raw materials (except for Japanese for the survivors) are in English, with subtitles in Spanish. 

About the author

 Beatriz Caravaggio 

She was born in Oviedo, Spain, and earned a bachelor’s in English Philology at the University of Oviedo. She later moved to Madrid and studied music and cinematography. Her artistic and professional activities have concentrated on the fields of video art and non-fiction films. Her work encompasses video installations, creative documentaries, photography and net.art. Her works have been exhibited at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum; the Fundació Joan Miró and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in Barcelona; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, La Casa Encendida, the Círculo de Bellas Artes and the Media Lab Prado in Madrid; the Museo Patio Herreriano in Valladolid; the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, United States; the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Soundstreams in Toronto, Canada; the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth, in Australia; and the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, in Massachusetts, United States, among others. She has received a variety of awards and grants for creation, such as the ICAA’s Grant for Cinematographic Production; the Creation Grant from the Centro de Creación Contemporánea Matadero Madrid; the Oscil·lant Award from the Festival Minima for the work ¿Por qué mutan las moscas mecánicas? [Why Do Mechanical Flies Mutate?]; and the Net.Art Visual Award for her work Cartografía de la sospecha [Map of Suspicion].