Updated Wednesday,31May2023-21:34

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Far from being a topic of the past as we would like, the threat of atomic conflict returns again and again to the forefront of the present. Only a year ago Russia boasted of destructive muscle with its Satan 2 missile, loaded with 10 nuclear warheads, in the middle of the war in Ukraine. And a few days ago the G7 summit was symbolically held in Hiroshima, the Japanese city reduced to ashes by Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped by the Americans to force Japanese surrender in World War II.

That historical moment is present in the start of Out of Control. Reports on the atomic bomb, the film that the video artist Beatriz Caravaggio has made commissioned by the BBVA Foundation. Therefore, it has something of a bunker against fanaticism the room where this work will be screened free of charge from June 2 to December 30 at the Palace of the Marquis of Salamanca in Madrid.

The history of Hiroshima is known to all, but the originality of this proposal lies in the author's decision to put science, capable of the best but also the worst, at the center of the narrative. "When the first nuclear test was done, the Trinity test of July 16, 1945, the scientists involved were amazed by the devastating power of that first 21-kiloton bomb," explains the artist about that historical moment.

By then the Nazis had already been defeated and the use of that deadly weapon had lost its original meaning, that of anticipating Hitler in the race to develop the first atomic device. But the fierce fighting continued on the Pacific front. "The U.S. government then asks Oppenheimer, the head of the project, and other scientists whether or not the bomb should be dropped on Japan. And they answer that being scientists did not qualify them to answer that question," explains the interviewee.

That hand washing, he says, inspired him to define the tone of a film that is structured, fundamentally, as a narrative dialogue between the massive destruction caused by nuclear explosions (what we see) and the aseptic vision of scientists when documenting their experiments (what we hear).

Hundreds of bodies lay in the streets and floated in the river. The pain of the burns was excruciating and when I reached the bridge, I fainted.

This macabre contrast between laboratory language and human drama can be seen in several parts of the film. As when a voiceover in Japanese recreates the testimony of a victim on the images of the ruins of Hiroshima: "Among the rubble were corpses with their hands raised, as if begging to be saved. I walked over the still-burning remains looking for my sister, but I couldn't find her. I returned to Miyuki Bridge. Hundreds of bodies lay in the streets and floated in the river. The pain of the burns was unbearable and when I reached the bridge, I fainted."

And, in contrast to the inferno of fire unleashed by a nuclear deflagration, the scientists' icy description: "Report entitled: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conclusions: The pumps work exactly as intended. The bombs were dropped at such points that they could not have caused further damage to either city."

But it was not only in war that scientific ingenuity and the power of annihilation went hand in hand. After that, in the context of the Cold War, tests continued to be carried out to increase the destructive power of nuclear arsenals. From those tests came more and more documents where a meticulous inventory of everything was made.

'Out of control. Reports on the atomic bomb'BBVA

Thus, one of the reports included in the film gives an account of the hundreds of animals that were sacrificed in the detonations: "The pigs were chosen because their skin and short hair are comparable to those of man. Goats were chosen because their weight is comparable to that of man and the amount of fluids is equivalent."

Another describes how the first hydrogen bomb acted on nature: "The heat generated by the detonation charred plants even on the distant island of Bijire. The explosion destroyed Eluklab Island where it detonated leaving an underwater crater large enough to house 14 Pentagon buildings."

I contacted the agencies of the countries in charge of carrying out the nuclear tests and from there I extracted everything that appears in the film.

Reports of this kind, many already declassified by governments, are the basis of the film. Caravaggio decided not to pull the camera: he had enough with the filmic force of the audiovisual material he found in official archives. "I went directly to the sources, contacted the agencies of the countries in charge of carrying out the nuclear tests and from there I extracted everything that comes out in the film," he says about his exhaustive documentation process.

He then explains that what have been facilities on the part of the United States have been difficulties in the case of its historical opponent in the Cold War. "Before the war in Ukraine started, I was in contact with the Russian archives, who were providing me with raw watermarked materials for the film," he recalls. "But the moment the conflict broke out, I had no more contact with them, among other things, because the commercial relationship with them could no longer be maintained."

Did Putin's invasion change the focus of a film you had begun preparing months earlier?

No, the truth is that I would have done something very similar because one of my objectives was to give visibility to this latent threat that is nuclear arsenals, only now we are more aware that it looms over us.

From the former Soviet Union he was finally able to include images found in American archives of the tests carried out with the so-called Tsar Bomb in 1961. And the montage also includes some curious images of China after the success of its first atomic detonation: "There are chants, people celebrate with joy in the squares. It may seem that these images correspond to another event. But no. It is when China celebrates that it has managed to build its own bomb and they feel that nobody is going to be able to throw an atomic bomb at them, because they also have one to throw at them."

His conclusion is that there are not many differences in approach between the countries he has been able to investigate. "I think everyone knows what they're developing, weapons of mass destruction, and they're willing to participate in this deterrent policy of 'if you have it, I have it.' For these countries to be a nuclearized country is to be a country of first division."

Science can trigger unsatisfactory situations if it is not accompanied by a dialogue with other cultural constructions

Therefore, although fleeing from indoctrination, the author of Out of Control wants to enrich the debate on how society can counterbalance its own technical-destructive capacity and prevent the nuclear threat from getting out of control. "I was interested in reflecting how science itself can trigger unsatisfactory situations if it is not accompanied by a dialogue with other cultural constructions, such as the humanities, art or even religions," says the artist.

Oppenheimer himself, Caravaggio stresses, "subsequently opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and fought to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons." Her figure acquires relevance for the video artist because she embodies the genius capable of illuminating the deadliest weapon conceived by man, but also the scientist who delegated to others the moral decision whether or not to launch the atomic bomb.

Caravaggio therefore decides to use the enormous symbolic power of the testimony of a downcast Oppenheimer to fasten the message of the film. The famous scientist, recalling his reaction and that of his colleagues after the success of the first atomic test, says: "We knew that the world would not be the same. Some laughed. Some cried. Most remained silent. I remembered the verse of the Hindu writer, the Bhagavad-Gita. 'Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he must do his duty and, to impress him, adopts his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'"

And then he adds: "I guess we all think that one way or another."

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