guys in caves
My MFA thesis exhibition, Guys In Caves, was exhibited at the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum, near Ottawa, in August and September, 2010. Situated in a vast, subterranean Cold War bunker, the show was to be experienced as a descent into the underworld of the human mind in a militarized, defensive posture.
The show's title conjures the imagined mountain lair of Osama bin Laden. But we, too—like Bin Laden—live in a cave, a psychological and ethical cave representing the current obsession with security in which we conjure up enemies for ourselves and hide away from the real world. The Diefenbunker, itself a kind of cave, can serve as a metaphor for our most fearful impulses, especially given its Cold War past.
The exhibition consisted of four site-specific installations mounted in locations where they would be encountered by touring visitors. Each installation is documented below. Please scroll down and take your time.
Also please download, print and fold the visitor pamphlet.
INSTALLATION #1: VIGILANT
Vigilant featured dozens of engraved plastic nameplate-style signs affixed to doors and other features of the Diefenbunker’s 400 level. Each bore a place name, neologism, or other linguistic commonplace rooted in the so-called “War on Terror”—from “THEY HATE OUR FREEDOMS” to “FALLUJAH” to “WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION” and, indeed, to “GUYS IN CAVES.”
The Diefenbunker is literally alive with signage; from top to bottom, it is an instructional, bureaucratic aggregate of official posted verbiage. Into and under cover of this context, Vigilant inserts the past decade’s post-9/11 militarist lexicon, compelling visitors to reflect on how traumatic events and sudden political change can produce rapid transformations in our everyday language, which in turn can drastically reframe our political and ethical assumptions. In this sense, language itself becomes the conceptual architecture of our mental bunkers.
INSTALLATION #2: ADVERSARY
Located on six television sets in various places on the Diefenbunker’s 300 level—a space liberally punctuated by television monitors—the six videos that comprise Adversary draw footage from movies and T.V. shows to produce a meditation on the idea of “the enemy.” The paranoia of the Cold War may only be kept alive by replacing our former existential adversary, the Soviet Union, with new adversaries. Recalling that the term “adversary” is used in the Bible to denote Satan, these six videos reflect upon how we as a society construct dichotomies of enmity: the “us” and the “them.” Demonization, too—like bunker architecture—is a built environment.
One video uses images of the forest from the 1990s series Twin Peaks to represent the primordial human fear of the unknown. Others use footage from James Bond 007 films and the 1960s television cartoon series The Mighty Hercules to address how we dehumanize the enemy most effectively by superhumanizing him. Another uses footage from the 1980s anti-war movie The Day After showing Americans witnessing Minuteman missile launches to elide or negate differences between “us” and “them.” And yet another turns footage from the 1960s Yogi Bear television cartoon series into a reflection on how the imperative to create the us-versus-them dichotomy can, if permitted to do so, become a dysfunctional model for relations between government and people.
INSTALLATION #3: INFERNO
Visitors to this installation encounter a small, darkened office lit only by a neon sign displaying the word “INFERNO,” in red, suspended from the ceiling. A desk and chair rest on the floor just before the sign, and upon the desk, a large, glass ashtray. The air supports the stench of stale cigarettes.
In his own Inferno, the poet Dante Alighieri descended through the levels of Hell encountering numerous categories of devil and sinner. As we descend into this Cold War underworld, we, too, ought to reflect upon these categories. For every war-hawk devil who wants to push the button, there are a thousand sinners dutifully, patriotically going about their jobs, failing to ask enough questions—and, at least in the 1950s and ’60s, smoking cigarettes.
A visitor to the Diefenbunker may quickly notice that every office space contains at least one ashtray—mostly big, heavy ones formed of brown glass. Inferno responds to this implied olfactory vocabulary, as the combination of neon sign and stale stench invokes the macho office culture of the 1950s and '60s. Thus, Inferno cuts past the usual militarist tropes, sideswiping the looming context of nuclear Armageddon and instead activating the Diefenbunker as a workplace—a sternly gendered, rigorously hierarchical, workaday world of workers and bosses.
INSTALLATION #4: GAUNTLET
Approaching the Bank of Canada vault in the Diefenbunker’s 100 level, visitors enter a narrow, tall, inhumanly proportioned hallway bathed from above in baleful red light. In this space plays a soundtrack: the theme song from the popular 1960s television show Get Smart.
Deep in the nethermost depths of the underworld, we expect to find the greatest enemy of all, whether that be known as Satan, Hades, or by some other name. Thus, with some expectation—and hemmed in on all sides by thousands of tonnes of sepulchral concrete and rebar—the visitor moves forward into the unknown. In such a place, the installation’s soundtrack, which includes the booming sound of a series of large doors slamming shut, is certain to provoke anxiety. Meanwhile, the music, with its blaring horns and frenetic surf guitar, function self-consciously as “spy music”—almost a parody on itself.
Emerging at the other end of the passage, visitors find themselves back where they started, perhaps dimly aware of having been made the butt of an oblique joke. The greatest evil, it seems, is not to be found here—merely some modest anxiety, laughter, perhaps nostalgia … and, of course, our selves.
© 2010 by Edwin Janzen. All rights reserved.