If the creators of the performance piece The Bomb sought to make an impact on their audience at their Broadway debut last weekend, they succeeded: At least three people fainted at the first show. (No one was permanently injured, and all recovered, the organizers said.)
Saturday, April 23, marked the worldwide premiere of this—how to describe it?—combination of film clips, live music, and other media, which sought to remind attendees on a sensory, gut-wrenching level of the sheer, devastating, overwhelming power of nuclear weaponry, at a time when there is talk of a Cold War 2.0 and the United States is poised to spend more than $1 trillion on new weapons systems. When reading articles that contain terms such as “megatonnage,” “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles,” and “collateral damage,” it is easy to forget that there would be very real, living human beings on the receiving end of a nuclear attack; this multimedia installation seeks to obliterate such forgetfulness.
The performance combines the senses of sight, sound—and to some extent even touch and smell—to get across the raw physical impact of the explosion of a nuclear bomb. I could feel the floor vibrate from the gigantic speakers as images of atomic bomb tests fill the 15-foot-tall, wrap-around screens in the grand atrium of a darkened Gotham Hall, at 36th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. At times, the air was dense with clouds created by smoke machines. Overall, the effect is one of standing inside the 21st-century version of a giant, old-fashioned cyclorama while weapons explode.
“We wanted to create as close to a live experience as we could get,” one of The Bomb’s co-creators, independent film-maker Smriti Keshari, said during a panel discussion earlier that day about the piece—which was performed on the closing weekend of the annual, 11-day long, Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. “By showing things like bomb blasts, footage of live animal tests at blast sites, and adding music, we wanted to get people to understand what these things are about on an emotional level. And by also including images of pristine nuclear missiles in military parades in places like Red Square, we also wanted to show the seductive power of the technology—and there is something seductive to the power they represent. That’s why countries are drawn to these immoral weapons in the first place.”
Her co-creator, Eric Schlosser—author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, and a regular contributor to the Bulletin—agreed, and added that the lack of a traditional structure and the absence of any statistics was deliberate. “We didn’t want this to be like a lecture; we didn’t want the viewer to feel like they were having to take their medicine,” he said. “To succeed, an artistic endeavor like this shouldn’t be ponderous, but must be thrilling, if un-nerving ... sort of like what Doctor Strangelove did a generation or two ago. And like Strangelove, we hope to at least create a national dialogue about nuclear weapons, which is the starting point for any change.”
Schlosser went on to add that there was a history of film having an impact on the country’s leadership: “The Day After was the the most widely watch film in television history. Ronald Reagan saw it, and he said it was what transformed him from a Cold Warrior.”
Not exactly a documentary—The Bomb has no narration, except for intermittent short voice-overs from incongruously upbeat old 1950s “Duck and Cover” film clips—this production by Keshari and Schlosser contains short passages that are interrupted by count-downs, propaganda images, and short news clips, along with live music from the four-piece British band The Acid. In a few remarks made later at a reception, moderator Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund described the event as being like a film version of a passage from a John Dos Passos novel. The Bomb, he said, marked “a resurgence of progressivism, and the anti-nuclear movement. It’s a new wave of artistic expression.”
The marble floors and high-ceilings of the venue where the premiere and the reception were held added to the sense of the surreal. Like many a Manhattan club, the front door was marked by a velvet rope guarded by large security figures armed with a wait list; inside the foyer came the red carpet, where a cluster of photographers snapped photos of arrivals. Beyond that: a sculpture made of wax impressions of human faces melting under the hot lights—a deliberate reference to the theme of the evening, said one of the sculptors, Erica Efstraoudakis, a graduate student in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. “As the wax melts, it erases the identities of the human faces, much like what these bombs do,” she said of what was dubbed the "Faceless Project."
And what was the impression of attendees?
“It’s not the usual thing for the three of us to do on a Saturday night,” Lauren Mariani said outside the hall immediately after the show, while her 20-something girlfriends got some air. “It’s very powerful, but I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed it … that’s not the right word. It’s a lot like going to the 9/11 Museum; I’m glad I went. I’m grateful for the experience. It makes you think.”
Editor’s note: There are plans for The Bomb event to be held in San Francisco, Paris, London, Berlin, and Sydney. More information can be found here.