Radiohead and Glastonbury artist Stanley’s Downwood’s the bomb is an immersive multimedia installation waking us up to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Radiohead and Glastonbury artist Stanley’s Downwood’s new project, the bomb, is an immersive multimedia installation designed to wake us up to the continued threat of nuclear annihilation.
Artist and writer Stanley Donwood is best-known as Glastonbury festival’s artist-in-residence and for his close partnership with Radiohead, having produced all of the band’s iconic artwork since their 1995 breakthrough The Bends. He’s also a longtime anti-nuclear campaigner and his new project, the bomb is a terrifyingly immersive installation conceived to push the largely ignored threat of the aggressive use or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons back up the agenda.
Themes of destruction and alienation run through Donwood’s post-apocalyptic work – such as his series of covers for dystopian sci-fi writer JG Ballard – which could explain why he struck up an intense working relationship with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who he met while studying at Exeter University.
Donwood is art directing the bomb with co-directors writer Eric Schlosser, Smriti Keshari and Kevin Ford. The starting point for the bomb was Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Control, which questioned whether nuclear weapons can ever be operated safely and centred around a 1980 accident in Arkansas when a missile equipped with a nuclear warhead exploded. Had the warhead detonated, it could have wiped out the entire state.
Composed of haunting archive footage of nuclear tests, accidents and public information films, the bomb is a groundbreaking, narrative-free multimedia installation projected on massive floor-to-ceiling screens that surround the audience. It will premiere at New York’s palatial Gotham Hall with a live score by The Acid, as part of Tribeca film festival, April 23-4, before hopefully touring the globe.
We caught up with Donwood to find out more.
I heard your first act of civil disobedience was attending a CND rally in Hyde Park in the ‘80s, as a teenager. What do you remember about the experience?
Thinking about it, I reckon it was a smaller demo in my home town of Chelmsford when – if I remember rightly – it was announced that the US would be stationing cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth.
It was the first demo I’d ever been to – I wasn’t arrested, just dragged off the street (I guess we’d all sat down) by a couple of police. My awareness of nuclear issues increased very fast – we set up a CND group at school, and I guess it was around then that I began a series of pictures of my home town with mushroom clouds above.
The age I was must have been significant too – I suppose I’d just become aware of myself as a person (you know, rather than being a child) and it seemed to me that the life I’d just become aware of might not be very long. On reflection, it was also quite a positive time because I met so many people on marches and demos and meetings that I felt like I was a part of something, not just a lone scared kid.
Could you talk about how your post-apocalyptic style developed, your influences and why you feel your work took this direction?
Ha. I didn’t know I had a post-apocalyptic style… Well, I guess from just thinking about what I said about my formative years under the ever-present threat of imminent nuclear annihilation might go some way to explaining that…
But in many ways I suppose I’m quite a pessimistic character. When I was younger I had a sort of vague idea that the adults who were in government, who were high-level civil servants, top-ranking military or whatever, were more rational and sensible than I now know they are.
Now that I’m 47, I’m uncomfortably aware that this planet is in the hands of a gang of fucking idiots. Chimps with missiles. Human beings are naturally very territorial, highly aggressive inventive tool-users. When you add nuclear weapons it’s really only a matter of time before they’re used. And once you also factor in the possibility of accidental use the outlook looks even more bleak.
Are you afraid of a nuclear apocalypse? Do you think society as a whole is afraid – and should we be?
Weirdly, perhaps, I’m not. I just can’t be fucked. As for society as a whole, I don’t think so – it’s like with the problem of global warming, soil depletion, animal extinction – these problems are almost too large, too awful, too potentially catastrophic for us to fully comprehend. We are like a bunch of frogs in a pan of water over a flame. We should be much more concerned than we are; we are, after all, an intelligent species able to mould the planet and almost everything on it to our will, and perhaps it’s possible to do something about this very dangerous situation. But realistically, it’s far from simple.
Unilateral disarmament has never really taken off as a viable notion among the political classes – or perhaps even among societies as a whole – although morally I’d say it’s the correct course of action. Multilateral disarmament would of course be the ideal solution, but, for fuck’s sake, if the richest part of the world can’t even agree to look after a couple of million refugees from a war we fucking started, I’m not holding my breath.
Both you and Thom Yorke have used nuclear imagery in your work multiple times (Radiohead’s ’4 Minute Warning’ for example), but has the nuclear issue ever come up in conversation?
I guess we have, and many times, but it’s not like ‘let’s sit down and discuss the nuclear issue’. We’re the same age and grew up at the same time, under fairly similar conditions, so it’s really just a part of who we are.
“Four minute warning” was a phrase with very common currency in the 1980s – everyone knew exactly what it meant, and it’s a phrase with so many absurdities inherent in it. “What will you do when you hear the four minute warning?” was a frequent playground conversation. But it wouldn’t ever have really happened, and it never will. Not because there won’t be a nuclear war – unfortunately, it’s likely that there will be – but because, rather prosaically, we don’t have sirens all over the place. CCTV yes, but sirens, no. We’ll probably get a tweet: ‘OMG u r all going to die.’
I remember when we were working on the artwork for OK Computer looking out of the window of Thom’s house and having a strange semi-hallucinatory experience, seeing a post-nuclear attack landscape. Not ground zero, but as if we were fifty miles away. The twigs stripped from trees, a strange sky, an emptiness that was curiously pale. Something like a monochrome version of Paul Nash’s war paintings transported to suburban Oxford… We used a lot of white in the artwork, white as the colour of death, of bones, of ash.
Can you describe how you think it will feel to experience the bomb?
I keep thinking about an account I read somewhere that told the story of a woman who read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, and it triggered in her a two-year bout of depression. For sure, that’s an extreme reaction to an admittedly harrowing book, but I do have a bit of a worry that we’ve made a very disturbing film. Viewed in 360 degrees on enormous screens it may be very disturbing. Not a film for the easily upset.
Is the point of the bomb to make people really feel the fear of nuclear annihilation?
It’s really a public service film. Whilst we were working on it last October we would entertain ourselves by asking people in cafés and bars how many nuclear weapons they thought there were in the world. We got all kinds of answers, from ‘none’ and ‘I think they’ve got rid of all of them’ to ‘loads’ (which, when pushed, expanded to ‘Oh, loads. At least a hundred.’) I remember a very confidently expressed ‘four hundred and ninety-one’ as well. But no-one got it right.
No-one had the slightest idea that there are currently sixteen thousand active nuclear weapons on planet Earth. Oh, except Thom Yorke, who we bumped into in Soho. But apart from him, no-one had the foggiest idea. So really, the bomb is for those people. And all those like them, enjoying a life of blissful ignorance…
How have you engaged with fear in your personal work?
I reckon that I stagger from fear to nihilist acceptance of probable doom. I’m marinading in fear and/or doom.