“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here this is the war room.”
There is a scene in the 1960’s Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove that has become part of the lore in my life since I was a child. In the scene the fake American president played by Peter Sellers verbally attacks a general in the ‘war room’ regarding casualties if the country comes to full out nuclear war with Russia. The general played by George C. Scott, in what must be the best and most surprisingly funny turns ever taken on screen, defends his gregarious belief that a war wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. The president admonishes him for not mentioning the enormous amount of Americans that would die as a result of nuclear war and Scott replies, “I didn’t say that we weren’t gonna get our hair mussed.”
In one line Kubrick underwrites what is exactly wrong with war mongering regardless of its motive – that those in charge just don’t think people dying are a good enough reason to not enter into military conflict. And it was really funny. Dark, brilliant and funny, definitely three of my favourite attributes for any art form. I should also add that the movie was timely and subversive, another couple of things that might apply to my favourite art works.
This summer I got a chance to actually experience what preparations for such a war might have entailed. I visited the Diefenbunker on a drizzly day in mid August in Carp, a lovely place just outside of Ottawa. Surrounded by pastoral fields, greenery and small Ontario town charm, the Diefenbunker is hidden below the surface with only a parking lot, fence and small auxiliary looking out buildings to give it away. The place is cavernous, vast and the tourism organization that now runs it has done a very good job at keeping the Cold War fallout shelter very much like it would have been when it was first built in 1961/2.
You can get a guided tour but I hate that kind of stuff because then I don’t feel free to explore the exhibits on my own terms. The Diefenbunker was built during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world literally teetered on an all out nuclear war between the US and Russia. With a private quarter for the Prime Minister and offices for foreign secretaries and other ministers, you see who got priority in the thinking behind “lets build a shelter for all the important people and let the rest of the world get blown to smithereens.”
Fifty years later the whole place has a comfy, Dr. Stangelove feel to it. Whatever terror might have been associated with the place has vanished. People now have office parties at the Diefenbunker and get their wedding pictures taken among the Mad Men-esque furniture and technology. Now it’s totally fun!
What does remain however is its legitimate experience as an art installation. Intention aside, and in fact I would argue that such places, like Stonehenge, are built for reasons we will never completely understand. They belong to a different time and generation. The Diefenbunker is as relevant an art going experience as you are likely to have anywhere. Immersing yourself in real time, into real corridors, meeting rooms, screening rooms, a CBC studio, a command center, an ad hoc hospital and a wonderful cafeteria complete with parquet checkered floor and a mural of Banff(??) or just generic Canadian mountains; it is easy to think that you are in a laid out installation constructed by an artist and not just a department of the Canadian bureaucracy over zealously heeding the fear of the bomb.
The lack of poetry is perhaps made up by one’s joy at playing Dr. Strangelove’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper while realizing that these things were taken deadly serious at one point. If you read alternative journalism you might also pause to think about the many unstable countries of the world that in fact have nuclear war capability right now. There are exhibit rooms in the Diefenbunker which stoke such fears. They are filled with Hiroshima survivor testimony and frank examinations of the various consequences that could result from engagement with these kinds of weapons. Too sobering; I admit to not completely taking in many of these exhibits.
The Diefenbunker is one of those things somebody did right. It was built under certain circumstances that today may seem arcane but it was saved intact. It relays a brief but stunning moment in time. And a significant moment it was when you think that the next most astonishing world event was the moon landing; an event funded by a government and for no overarching specific purpose, just because we could imagine it. Kind of like making art.