Bruce Conner’s iconic 1976 film ‘Crossroads’ is presented by Thomas Dane Gallery whose Duke Street space is transformed into a cinematic experience with the projection covering an entire end wall and the soundtrack all-encompassing, immersive. In its 36 minutes duration, the film presents footage of one of the first nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in 1946; Conner shows the underwater explosion from fifteen different angles, in extreme slow motion – at some points one second of real time becomes three minutes of screen time. The effect is like watching a disaster movie, eyes transfixed by the impending doom as massive waves move achingly slowly towards the tiny battleships (these were, in fact, abandoned naval ships but it is easy to forget this in the drama of the moment).
The quality of the image betrays its age, the slightly shaky black and white film reel a reminder that this is history in the making – but the ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure is infused with a strangely psychedelic, hallucinatory feel. At the same time, the movie-style soundtrack lifts the imagery from scientific documentary to emotional drama. The first part of this was created on a Moog Synthesiser by Patrick Gleeson, the second part by Terry Riley on an electronic organ – and both coalesce with the imagery to such an extent that one cannot dissociate one from the other, the music seeming to echo the throb of the plane wings and the texture of the drifting clouds as you look down on the atoll from the sky, and to give full force to the slowly erupting mushroom cloud of the explosion.
Conner gained notoriety as a member of the San Francisco counterculture in the sixties and seventies, initially attracting attention with his assemblages of ‘found’ objects, which later fed into his experimental approach to film-making. Considered a pioneer in rhythm editing, Conner perfected techniques such as repetition to turn his ‘found’ material into something arresting and unnerving, which in ‘Crossroads’ achieves the status of epic.
Considered as ‘a meditation on the atom bomb’, ‘Crossroads’ could easily have become outdated as the Cold War threat receded; yet as critic Phil Anderson asserts, it still has explicit resonance today: “Conner explores the supposedly familiar past in order to reach new perceptions” by emphasising the transcendent effect of the explosion, the ‘terror and awe of the nuclear sublime’. It is a timely warning.
By Kitty Hudson
‘Crossroads’ is at Thomas Dane Gallery, 3 Duke Street, London SW1Y 6BN, 12 June – 1 August 2015