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One of our favorite quips by the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s director Matt Coolidge is: “what happens in the Basin stays in the Basin.” It’s an ironic reference to mentality behind land use practices in the Great Basin of North America–the site of nuclear weapons testing, bio-warfare proving grounds, military experiments in mind control, incineration of nuclear waste, and disposal of toxic byproducts of mining. It captures the false assumption that because nothing leaves the Basin, such activities are thinkable and even justifiable here.
Toole County, Utah is home to the Aragonite Hazardous Waste Incinerator, U.S. Magnesium, Dugway Proving Ground, and the Toole Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. It is the site of historic Wendover Air Force Base, where the crew that dropped the first atomic bomb trained in the 1940s.
It’s also the bottom of Lake Bonneville.
The CLUI has a residency unit in Wendover, UT for artists and land use interpreters. Named “Clean Livin,” by its designers, it’s also known as CLUI’s South Base.
According to CLUI director Matt Coolidge, it enables
“a broader audience to go to South Base and experience one of the most interesting and stark landscapes in America. Because it is located off the grid on the edge of a landscape void, the project is also about autonomy, isolation, making do with a bare minimum, making something from next to nothing and exploring the basement of one’s will…I see the project as about starting over from the ruins of the military, about the birth of the atomic age, and the possibility of global Armageddon. It’s about making lemonade from lemons.” – SIMPARCH website
Welcome to Wendover.
As artist-residents here for our “Below the Line” project, we feel we have literally and metaphorically sunk deep into the basin, especially in Wendover. Places like this both exist at and create new intersections of deep and powerful human and geologic forces. That’s what makes them incredibly fascinating and inspiring.
Charter planes ferrying tourist-gamblers arrive and leave twice a day from the historic airfield. Artists move into CLUI’s residency support unit every few weeks from far flung places such as Canada and New Zealand. Locals somehow keep the place running in a place that is remote and in a climate that is intense. History is preserved both by the desert environment and by human effort.
The area is haunted by human acts–from ancient rock paintings, to decades of extracting indigenous peoples and raw earth materials, to the dreams and illusions of generations of casinos, to the launch of the atomic age (a third atomic bomb was actually being engineered in Wendover in 1945 and the Enola Gay took off from just outside CLUI’s residency unit on a journey that ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima).
Split right down the middle by the state border between Utah and Nevada, Wendover/West Wendover is a small border town that is endlessly new to returning artist-residents.
On our third visit here, we focused on and traveled along the distinct trace of ancient Lake Bonneville–a monumental “bathtub ring” of various carvings: benches, terraces, and precise, water-cut cut lines that mark the inside walls of the Lake’s basin, a huge portion of the Great Basin. The Lake’s “strand lines” and its walls form a curvilinear backdrop to Wendover, one that stretches to and falls off the edges of the visible horizon.
Like a ball sent rolling around the basin of a roulette wheel, we felt the unnerving sensation that one can only sink deeper here. Outside Clean Livin’, absolute silence and stillness can end in an instant with the unheralded arrival of a wall of wind. Our skins dry out, shrink, and crack in patterns that mirror the playa floor.
About halfway through our stay in Wendover, we realized that to conjure and maybe sense the forces of Lake Bonneville across the 15,000 years that distance us from it, we had to connect our imaginations to the even larger force that shaped Lake Bonneville itself: the Great Basin.
A phrase from Baudrillard’s road trip travelogue (America), “the happy depression of its birth,” helped us connect Lake Bonneville to the Great Basin that held it. His words aptly describe the area’s literal and metaphorical psycho-geography:
“And the silence is something extraordinary, as though it were itself all ears. It is not the silence of cold, nor of barrenness, nor of an absence of life. It is the silence of the whole of this heat over the mineral expanses that stretch out before us for hundreds of miles, the silence of the gentle wind upon the salt mud… A silence internal to the [Basin] itself, the silence of underwater erosion, below the very waterline of time, as it is below the level of the sea. No animal movement. Nothing dreams here, nothing talks in its sleep. Each night the earth plunges into perfectly calm darkness, into the blackness of its alkaline gestation, into the happy depression of its birth.” — from Baudrillard’s America
Toward the end of our stay, we sat below the lake line in the CLUI residence support unit in Wendover. Turning our heads slightly from left to right, we could look through the unit’s large windows and see benches and strand lines of ancient Lake Bonneville on the rocks that border the town; a beautifully rusting bomb casing-as-sculpture that sits in the unit’s backyard; a WWII watch tower overlooking one of unit’s closest neighbors: the Enola Gay hangar; grey-brown desert stretching beyond the horizon to the south past island mountains stranded in the dry lake bed; ore and mineral trucks rumbling past on the semi-dirt, semi-asphalt road; rows of tinder dry skeletons of identical wooden barracks–now the color of the desert floor–that housed thousands of airfield personnel and their wives during WWII; and the roaring touch down of a charter jet delivering gamblers, who would soon disembark only to reembark on the huge air conditioned bus named “MillionAire Express” for their quarter mile ride to the casinos.
In a stream of consciousness moment, we said out loud into the iphone voice recorder:
Wendover is ground zero of all of the forces that surround it: socially, culturally, economically, psychologically, and of course geologically.
When you’re here, you’re in direct confrontation with it all. If you’re open to it, and don’t come here with a fully defined project keeps you preoccupied, you will begin to see and sense all of this. It’s quite an abrupt wake up when you do.
The area is palpably haunted – because of what happens here now, and the complexity of the history of what happened here in the ‘40s, and the complex geologic forces still shaping it all. We’re in a basin– where it’s all collecting and we’re surrounded, it’s all out there swirling and sinking. It’s hard to imagine coming here and not responding to the forces at play right here, at the crosshairs. After 48 hours it’s all we can see and feel, and the impression lasts long after we leave.
Anyone who comes here must sense, on some level, that there’s this background energy interfering with what they came do see/do. The forces are pushing in on the Basin. Even if you don’t turn around and look at it directly, you can almost feel its pressure. When we look out the window: it’s the Enola Gay hangar. It doesn’t get much more real than this. Our culture is really bad about making sense of these complex histories, which is why this particular place might simultaneously be forgotten but totally vivid once you open your eyes.
How do you share the story of the deep time and deep future of this place within a culture that often understands geologic change self-referentially (stories about humans) rather than in terms of its much vaster time scale? That’s the design problem for our Below the Line project: how to tell the story without activating a narrative that’s self-referential. We can clearly see–today–the traces of Lake Bonneville’s fluctuations over thousands of years. And we can imagine how all things changed with it in the time between then and now. The Lake came and went, and at least once, it went as a catastrophic geologic change. But the challenge to us as artist-designers is to provoke a larger shift–to sensing that the planet is always doing this, and it’s not about thwarting humans. It’s about a larger question: how to move in accord with the forces of geologic time?
Lake Bonneville is a proxy for vaster geologic changes that occur on the planet all the time: other rising seas, other volcanoes, geologic forces of all kinds. The so-called “historic Lake Bonneville” is right here at the surface of our contemporary world. Over the course of this trip, we learned that the powers of the Great Basin are the big forces that shaped Lake Bonneville. And we learned that those powers and forces are at play right now. At this very moment, they are in the process of splitting the continent up the middle here again–in extreme slow motion. So the design challenge is to somehow find a way to make our response to the forces here very specific and very general at the same time. Somehow we need to tell a story that visualizes how the change is contemporary, continuous and not just about this one specific place and time.
There’s something incredibly seductive about water stories. They’re aesthetic because they absolutely require that us project our imaginations into them, into a space that we humans can’t inhabit or control. Instead of a space race, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could have had a deep ocean race. We could have raced each other to the bottom of the oceans on earth. That would require just as much technical prowess as landing on the moon. But we chose to explore up instead of down.
If we had landed on the ocean floor instead of landing on the moon, today, forty years later, we might have better ideas about what to do about the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Or would have avoided it altogether.
Deep water is still impenetrable to us today. So maybe it’s a way to tap the subconscious and tell the story about Below the Line. The story will be real, this Lake happened, it isn’t speculative, it isn’t making it up, it was–and is still–here. And while in Wendover, we are living 100o ft under water for a week, to see what we could make from there. We are performing being here–withthe Lake as “alive”–and then there’s the next: the water is going to continue to rearrange itself in accord with the movements of the Great Basin, and it will return again.
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