By Benedict Burbridge
I was eight when the Berlin Wall came down. I can vaguely recall my Deputy-Headmaster standing at the front of a morning assembly attempting to explain the significance of the event to a hall of blank-faced children. For me, the Cold War exists only as a received and half-formed memory of events which I will never experience first hand. The Bay of Pigs is the stuff of school history lessons. Word of Glasnost and Perestroika reach me via Billy Bragg songs. The Cuban Missile Crisis lives only through Hollywood films.
My recent life has been shaped by a different conflict that, despite its supposed immediacy, seems equally distant, similarly unreal, incompletely understood. When I turn on the television politicians flanked by stars and stripes warn me of a new and ominous threat that has risen in the East. Radicals who despise our way of life. A people intent on destruction. I stare, transfixed, at the low-fi imagery of Al-Jazeera, hand-held footage and static-ridden pictures which seem to confirm what I have been told. In ancient landscapes, bearded prophets surrounded by followers and Kalashnikovs declare their bloody intent. Hooded gunmen direct their weapons at the heads of quivering hostages, spelling out their warning. There is word of training camps and suicide bombs, Jihad and W.O.M.D. A discourse of terror, a culture of fear.
Make no mistake, we are at war.
I watch on, unable now to peel myself away from the drama that unfolds. More unfamiliar words, but sounding closer now, more imminent. Radical clerics and terrorist cells. Poisonous gasses and lethal spores. Anthrax, Small Pox, Bubonic Plague. Letter bombs and exploding buses. There are numbers too. Nine, eleven, seven, seven. An incomprehensible sum. Three suspects arrested in dawn raids. Shootings on the underground. Vague murmurings of false intelligence and pre-emptive measures.
This is something weıre going to face: Itıs not a matter of if, but when.
How do we arm against a guerrilla threat that exists, bar a small number of notorious and devastating incidents, in the form of promises made through this perpetuation of media imagery? In his recent photographic series Securityı, Paul Shambroom has focused on the efforts made on the part of the US government to prepare for what we are continually assured is the inevitable moment when this enemy bares his head again. Several areas of mainland America have been commandeered for this purpose – abandoned mining towns transformed into war zones where the threat of terrorism is lived out in imitative microcosm. These are simulated worlds in which fancy-dressed forces extinguish car bombs detonated by their colleagues moments before and SWAT teams raid houses of actors employed for the day to take up the role of Terroristı. Even their names – Terror Town, Disaster City - carry the unfortunate ring of Disneyland attractions. In Shamroomıs photographs, they resemble some kind of half-world under siege, posited on the line between reality and fiction, shrouded in the same sense of surreal theatre that has shaped my own experience of the war on terrorı.
The peculiar stillness of Shambroomıs photographs casts these scenes as a series of curious tableaux or intricately staged happenings. Armed teams in anti-radiation gear jar against the serenity of immaculately kept suburban lawns. The remnants of car bombs stand before concrete slabs to demonstrate their explosive potential. Each appears a strangely controlled environment, wholly lacking the bloody hysteria and human casualty we expect of a war zone. Despite the efforts of governments to understand this threat, to render it predictable, concrete, physically tangible, what we witness in Paul Shambroomıs photographs can only ever remain an absurd and strangely sanitized parody of the promises that meet us everyday via television broadcasts.
Shambroom punctuates these scenes with a series of portraits of Americaıs first-respondersı – the heroic characters willing to risk their lives in the event of attack. Yet, in the strange detachment of these figures from their backdrops, and the performative connotations of the photographsı art historical allusions (think Gainsborough, Reynolds or Camille Silvy), we sense something unsettlingly theatrical in their chivalrous self-imaging. In extraordinary costumes, their heroic postures resemble the valiant stances adopted by the good guysı of popular culture – part GI Joe, part Buck Rodgers, with a touch of the Marvel comic superhero. Once again, we are met by the unreal.
In his 1985 novel, White Noise, Don DeLillo envisaged a small US town suddenly contaminated by a billowing cloud of poisonous gas. In addition to police and medics, the fleeing inhabitants are met by a troop of figures dressed in hooded radiation suits baring the signature SIMUVAC – a government-funded organization specialising in simulated evacuations. When questioned about the success of their operation, one representative expresses his concern that ³the insertion curve isnıt as smooth as we would like. Thereıs probability excess. Plus we donıt have our victims laid out where weıd want them if this was an actual simulation.² In DeLilloıs darkly ironic world, the reality of the disaster can only confirm the perceived inadequacy of the real; its failure to live up to the predictability of its simulated alternative. In our brief experience of terrorist attack in mainland Britain or the US, we have similarly witnessed the bloody and unpredictable truth that lies behind the make-believe world of Paul Shambroomıs photographs. Yet, for the moment at least, like the residents of Terror Town or Disaster City, we must resign ourselves to a strangely illusory state and wait for the promises of television broadcasts to again prove themselves true or false. Threats that grow nearer, or further, with every broadcast. Go in, Stay in, Tune in.
But make no mistake, we are at war.
Ben Burbridge is a writer and project assistant at Photoworks