Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

More ruins, and a touch more retro-future. Here's a review by me of Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker installation at the Barbican. It was in Icon 078, and went online on Friday. Bunker is more subtle than it first appears - as I say in the piece, it's a highly ambiguous work. Emergency or wartime bunkers are symbols of catastrophe - the last resort, the futility of the Sheffield bureaucrats in Threads, the impotent rage and nihilism of Hitler's last hours. But as well as being a bunker, it's a ruin - another pessimistic environment, tied up with (stop me if you've heard this before) melancholy and the shadow of mortality.

Put those two negatives together, and what do you get? Well, an interesting installation for a start. But do they cancel each other out, or compound the darkness? A ruined bunker could suggest that the danger has passed and the bunker is no longer needed - or it could suggest that the war has gone badly, that the crisis is terminal, that the last refuge has been breached?

Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

Or a third alternative. The text accompanying Bunker stresses Kusmirowski's obsession with the past and the nostalgia that characterises his work - so the bunker may be obsolete, and one kind of danger might have passed, but it could have been replaced with other dangers that call for different responses. A quote from Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology is reproduced in the texts that come with the installation: "The essence of the new fortress is elsewhere, underfoot, invisible from here on in." Perhaps we can't even imagine a planned response to the dangers of the new world - we can't build bunkers, long-range rader networks and DARPAnets to anticipate it, so we dream of bunkers. Or perhaps we're already holed up in the fortress - a worrying thought as Virilio saw stepping into the bunker to be the first step towards the death that the bunker was ostensibly built to prevent. Whatever the cause, bunkerlust - or bunkernostalgia - certainly seems to be widespread right now.

Ruins, the future becoming the past, the disintegration of expectations of progress - these thoughts point in the direction of JG Ballard. This is from High Rise:

Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this - sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

Another stray thought from Bunker. I was wandering around the installation, nodding thoughtfully, stroking my chin and trying hard to look like I was thinking about Paul Virilio and the nature of melancholy and the horror of war and all that. But in fact, more often than I would care to admit, I was thinking: "Wow, this is very like Resident Evil/The Suffering/Silent Hill."

Those are all computer games in the "survival horror" genre. In a typical survival-horror game, the protagonist - that is, you, the player - stumbles around in dimly lit and poorly maintained spaces being pursued by monsters or zombies. You can generally speaking fight back, but the mood of the genre relies on a strong and persistent feeling of intense peril - there's never quite enough ammo, or you might as well be flicking rubber bands at the armour-plated drooling thingy coming towards you down a gloomy hospital/prison/insane asylum corridor. (The lighting is key. In "survival horror" games, the dimmer is always down, or the energy-saving bulbs never quite warm up.)

Silent Hill.

I've been thinking about these games a lot lately - I recently wrote a review of Christopher Payne's beautiful book Asylum and its photographs of 19th-century mental hospitals and long corridors in advancing desuetude also led to reflections on the genre. The review is still unpublished - I might return to the architecture of survival horror when it goes live in the New Year, since this blog post is long enough already.

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