Americana: North Dakota

Would you push the button? A trans-historical initiation
September 28, 2010 to October 23, 2010

On February 2010, President Obama agreed to reschedule his State of the Union address, so as not to disrupt the three-hour premiere of the ABC show Lost. At the same moment, a group of travelers from Europe were on a pilgrimage to Bagdad, a remote city in the Mojave Desert, to visit the site where the movie Out of Rosenheim had been filmed. Among others, these examples demonstrate how reality and fiction tend to merge, creating a new social environment. According to writers Jonathan Lethem and David Shields, contemporary notions of authenticity and truthfulness have shifted. Their arguments represent one more attack against History as a master narrative based on these notions. What kind of self-reflexive discourse is able to respond to the increasing virtualization of everyday life and the proliferation of information? With its metaphorical structure, open to many levels of reality, this display proposes that fictional narratives such as the myth may be appropriate.

As exemplified by Lost, initiatory myths are about self-discovery. Typically, these myths take place away from the city and civilization, within Nature. The hero has to confront wilderness and experience fear. With its remoteness and hostile climate, North Dakota is an ideal location in which to stage such a hero's journey of self-initiation. The American historian Elwyn B. Robinson analyzed how the conditions in North Dakato "began to change [the first settlers] habits and attitudes," be they Native Americans or pioneers. "Anxiety about the weather," and with that isolation and loneliness, "was not for cowards." Edward Thomas Schafer, Governor of North Dakota from 1992 to 2000, went even further by saying that "you can still get lost here. And not necessarily lost on a map, but you can really get lost mentally here."

The current display revisits two aspects of the history of North Dakota that relate to this specifically American form of myth-making: the Old West and the Cold War. Since it was first explored by the French-Canadian trader La Varendrye (1738), and then by Lewis and Clarke (1804-6), North Dakota has become an icon of Old West imagery. However, it is also holds the largest number of nuclear weapons in the United States. The "Nixon Pyramid", the most powerful and yet most surreal symbol of Cold War paranoia can be found there. This giant radar system, built in Nekoma at a cost of 6 billion dollars, is part of a massive complex of nuclear missile silos. On October 2, 1975, only one day after the site became fully operational, Congress voted to shut down the program.

History encapsulates time in a linear narrative. Myths are different. Within them past, present and future merge. Through presenting opposing sequences from two fictional narratives, the movies War Games (1983) by John Badham and the American Frontier (1953) by Willard Van Dyke, this exhibition aims to create the conditions of an initiatory myth, haunted by fragments of the past. One of the questions asked by War Game is whether, in case of nuclear war, the person in charge would push the button launching the missiles? What would you do? Follow in the pioneers' footsteps and pit yourself against the Great Plains.

Benoit Antille

The Oakland based artist Ricardo Rivera (sculptor and video maker) has been commissioned to create the following work for the exhibition: "Drive By," performance, projections, 2010

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