Towering Inferno | Video Installation | 2013


we may never love like this again: Disaster & Desire
by Joan Hawkins

This is not a traditional catalogue essay, in the sense that it does not provide one sustained argument about the work, New World Disorder: Disaster and Desire. Rather it provides meditations on different aspects of the work, meditations which will, I hope, help the viewer to think about the installation in productive ways. To begin, the essay is composed of fragments, and in that way, can be said to be organized much like the installation itself, around a series of thought-provoking “scenes.” In large part, this segmented structure derives from the way the piece was written. I wrote “We May Never Love Like This Again” while Christopher Lowther was developing his installation, rather than after it was completed. And so it is less an analysis of a fully realized artistic piece, than it is an attempt at what filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha would call “speaking nearby.”1 It represents my attempt to put myself in the work, to make my own stake in the artistic enterprise clear, and to give some background which the viewer may find helpful as she makes her own relationship to this very interesting piece. Psychoanalytic scholar Leo Bersani argues that some of the most interesting moments in Freud’s theoretical work are the moments in which the author suffers a “textual collapse,” the places where the narrative arc seems fragmented. Such fragmentation is inseparable from “psychoanalytic truth,” Bersani argues, because a “theory of desire cannot be separated from some recklessly self-defeating moves in the performance of theory.” While I certainly do not compare myself to Freud, I hope the reader of this essay experiences the hesitations and redoublings in this essay to be equally inseparable from a kind of theory about desire and disaster.2 Like Freud, I begin with a case study.

Part One: The Seventies: Collective Memory and Nostalgia
Even more than most decades, the seventies occupy a liminal space in the cultural imaginary. On the one hand, they represent the apotheosis of the radical revolutionary project that we usually associate with the 1960s.

It was the era when the Counter Culture’s dream of nonviolence ultimately gave way to something primal, to what Bataille might have dubbed “the accursed share” of violence.3 An era when America seemed to lose her political standing, both at home and abroad. In 1974, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Later that same year, with the threat of impeachment looming, Richard Nixon resigned from office, a move that would later be subsumed under the all-encompassing term of “Watergate.” The Vietnam War ended in 1975, bringing home many wounded and traumatized Vets to a nation that had turned its attention elsewhere. In September of that same year, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Seventeen days later, COINTELPRO operative Sarah Jane Moore also mounted an assassination attempt against the president.4

On the economic front, too, things looked grim. The OPEC energy crisis of 1973-1974 resulted in U.S. gasoline rationing. In 1977, Jimmy Carter made his famous “sweater” energy speech, and urged Americans to turn down their thermostats. In that same speech, he announced that he planned to de-regulate oil. Inflation was at 20% and throughout the decade predicted shortages and forecasted price hikes caused Americans to hoard staples like sugar and coffee. There was mounting anxiety over religious cults and frantic middle class parents hired professional “de-programmers” to kidnap adult children away from religious communities. In 1978, gay men began showing symptoms of what later came to be known as AIDS.

On November 18, 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan was assassinated in Guyana and the adherents of the People’s Temple committed mass suicide. On November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot by Dan White, a former cop who blamed the assassination on his addiction to junk food (the “Twinkie defense”). That same year, Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades in Italy and subsequently found dead. In 1979 the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran. Later that same year, 66 Americans were taken hostage in that country and held for 444 days.A 1980 attempt to rescue the hostages ended in ignominious failure for the United States and further weakened President Jimmy Carter’s national and international prestige.

But while international political violence increased during the 1970s, and while what was to become a severe energy, health, and financial crisis caused market and consumer panic, there was very little direct political action of the kind that had marked the 1960s.The Vietnam War had left people exhausted and even the celebrations to mark the end of the conflict were disappointing affairs.Surprisingly few people came to the celebratory gathering in San Francisco, and, for those of us there, there seemed to be little energy left for the kind of take-it-to-the-streets democracy that had so roiled the nation a few years earlier.

The 1970s saw increased use of heroin and cocaine, and a return to the kind of consumer culture that the 1960s Counter-Culture had abhorred. It was the era of the Hollywood Blockbuster and the Star Wars franchise. Many of us former hippies and radicals settled down, got real jobs, began making money and began having children. In California, where I lived, there was a real estate boom that coincided with white flight to the suburbs. In the cities, gay club culture and disco flourished. It was an era of fern bars and nouvelle cuisine. Fitness was a new craze, and there was steady growth in the jazzercise franchise throughout the 1970s. Even movie star and political activist Jane Fonda realigned her social activities with fitness; and in 1982, she released her first workout tape. Affirmative action opened many previously restricted jobs to women and minorities, and political activism around “liberation” movements was rechanneled as a result.

In January 1979, Christopher Lasch published Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, a book so influential that President Jimmy Carter used it as the basis for a major Cabinet reshuffling. Avital Ronell has argued that the “re-narcissization of the polity” was itself a kind of violence.5 But that was not how it felt at the time. At the time, it felt as though as the title of one Hollywood movie promised we were “coming home” (Hal Ashby, 1978). But beneath the surface return to normalcy, and a kind of postwar ideological retrenchment, there were cultural rumblings. Rumblings inudicating that even mainstream re-narcissized Middle Americans subconsciously knew that we couldn’t go back to business as usual or, as in the case of women and minorities, move ahead.

At this historical remove, it seems that 1970s Middle America shared some underlying assumptions with radical groups like the SLA and the Red Brigades. At the time, conscious knowledge of this shared Weltanshaung was repressed, but like all repressed fantasies, it kept returning in the form of popular culture (most notably in the No Wave, Punk and Downtown scenes).6 While network TV shows like Happy Days and Wonder Woman celebrated a kind of 1950s camp nostalgia, films like Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the sci-fi cult classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original Don Siegel, 1956), hinted at other, darker links with America’s Golden Age. In Kaufman’s version an EST-like, self-help philosophy replaces Communism as the principal pod-threat.7 And in this version, as in the original, the cautionary line is “they get you while you sleep.” Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) heralded the beginning of a new cycle of horror films that came to be known as “slashers,” films in which the past literally comes back to haunt, terrorize, and attack the present. And throughout the decade, disaster movies became a box office staple. As Steven Keane notes, “a veritable ‘swarm’ of 56 disaster movies were released in the 1970s.”8 It is that swarm of films that this exhibit revisits and reimagines.

New World Disorder: Disaster and Desire consists of pieces based on some of the most famous disaster films: Airport (1970), Poseidon Adventure (1972) Earthquake (1974), and Towering Inferno (1974). As artist Christopher Lowther describes it, “the work is an interrogation of the perverse pleasure of disaster/ruin” and the experience of that pleasure “as mediated via film representations.” But like much of Lowther’s work, it’s also a meditation on the role of the cinematic in our lives and in art, a meditation on the way that the cinema both reflects and constructs our social and individual identities.

This is a very personal work, by which I mean a work about personal memory. The piece is conceived as the interrogation of the artist’s “intimate” individual relationship with film and media, the artist’s intimate personal relationship with specific media texts. This is most evident in the video pieces and static images, which are not re-enactments of scenes from the films, but rather are re-creations.

They are new vignettes inspired by Irwin Allen’s disaster films, original movies organized around specific structures of feeling. And these structures of feeling, in turn, are very much dictated by Lowther’s memory of watching these films as a child.

But as Maurice Halbwachs forcefully argues, the question of personal memory is tricky. No media memory can be purely individual. All cultural memory operates through shared social discursive frameworks, and memory is generally recalled in reference to other people or groups who also hold it dear. For Halbwachs, this seems to be the case with all memory. But it is especially true when individual memory attaches to a public phenomenon—an historic event, a film- -and, by needs becomes part of a much larger cultural memory, a much broader social conversation.9 Halbwachs calls this “collective memory,” an odd term to attach to remembrances which we may well experience (as Lowther does here) as profoundly individual and personal.

The tension between the personal and the collective is essential to Halbwachs’ conception of cultural memory. But it is also very much a key theme at the heart of Irwin Allen’s films (and trace elements of that tension certainly remain in the installation). Typically, these disaster movies open on a kind of heterosexual couple-crisis, often precipitated by a job offer in another place, a job offer which the woman has received and which would advance her career. This opening tension between career and marriage is then reflected or played out in various ways in other couples who also come to figure prominently in the film. Typically there is the couple on the skids and the devoted, happily-married-for-years couple (in Poseidon Adventure the couple on their way to see their grandchild in Israel).

But all of these relationships are ultimately re-mediated (often couples are reunited and relationships are repaired) by a catastrophe which calls for cooperation and collective action. That is, the message of the films is not only that the couple is the bedrock of society, but that it is only within the larger society (the collective) that individuals in a couple come to realize the true meaning of their relationship.

The fact that it is most frequently the woman who must renounce individual ambition for the good of the couple and, by extension, of society at large, will be taken up later. But for now what interests me is the degree to which the film narratives are heavily invested in the same kind of negotiation between the personal and the cultural that drives Halbwachs’ argument about collective memory.

In addition to thematizing the same kinds of negotiations that memory scholars theorize, the films themselves were consciously marketed as repositories of a certain kind of cinematic cultural memory and nostalgia. In that sense the films are about cultural memory as much as they are about love, family, ethics, and community. These are all what media scholar Maria del Mar Azcona has called “multi-protagonist” films, films that “abandon the single- protagonist structure on which most film narratives have traditionally relied and replace it by a wider assortment of characters with more or less independent narrative lines.”10 As such, they are also multi-star films, and they “depended to a great extent on the star power of their ensemble casts.”11 Airport starred Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Jean Seberg, Dana Winter and Van Heflin. The Towering Inferno gave us Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson and Susan Blakely. Posters for the films featured the use of boxed-in photographs of the all-star cast at the base of the one-sheet, a publicity strategy that carries over into the DVD packaging of at least some of the films.

The fact that most of these stars pre-dated The New Hollywood and were reminiscent of an older, studio era, only heightened the nostalgia appeal. The presence of so many Golden Age stars seemed to promise a return to the kind of storytelling for which Hollywood had been traditionally known. They were films designed to appeal to a wide audience demographic, films designed to lure older viewers back to the theaters.

But the ensemble structure of the cast also seems indebted to certain contemporary trends in television. Romantic comedy anthology series like Love American Style (September 1969-January 1974, ABC) and The Love Boat (September 1977-September 1986, ABC) were popular throughout the 1970s.12 These shows typically featured an ensemble cast, but each week advertised guest “stars,” usually stars that older viewers would recognize.And the TV programs’ structure is remarkably similar to the overlapping domestic and romantic vignette sections of the disaster films.

This TV comparison is important because Irwin Allen, the producer-director of many of these films, worked extensively in television before becoming “The Master of Disaster.”13 And many of the disaster films have a kind of television aesthetic about them, especially in the quiet domestic or romantic scenes. Here the camera tends to be static and the framings are close, tight. The cinematography and mise-en-scene in these shots are flat. It’s a very intimate feel, and one very familiar to television viewers who had by now grown accustomed to welcoming stars into their homes. These televisual moments contrast mightily with the wild cinematic effects that occur when the flood waters pour in or when the screen itself seems engulfed in flames, during the crisis points of the movies So even in terms of formal style, the disaster series seems to negotiate between the private (small, intimate televisual) and the collective (wide angle, medium to long range shot, cinematic). Even in terms of formal style, they seem to invoke and inhabit a multivalent cultural media-memory space.

Lowther’s use of monitors throughout the gallery emphasizes the intimate memory-feel here.Certainly, the boxing-in of disaster images on small monitors and in clocks, as well as the interplay between moving and static images, reflects both the way we typically experience disaster (via television, computer screens, public screens, the print news), and the way in which we hope that the framing mechanism itself will help to contain it. Will reign it in. Will give us some sense of mastery over and intimacy with crisis.