William Drenttel | Essays

Catastrophic Imaginings: The Design of Disaster

A still from Refraction, a video by Aernout Mik.

A decade ago, we were living in a loft on a quiet park in the shadows of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. One spring evening, I took our dog for her late night walk — it was probably 2:00 am — and an equally sleepless neighbor warned me to move our car quickly. "They're towing every car within a ten block radius," he warned, "for some secret event in the morning." There were police visible on every corner. I moved our car back into the garage, assuming there was a festival or parade the following day.

The next morning I woke up, made coffee, and went to the windows overlooking the park. Still groggy, I was not prepared for the chaotic scene below. Ambulances. Police. People in those blue Hazmat body suits. Firemen carrying stretchers with bodies — real bodies with bloodied heads wrapped in gauze.

As frightening a scene as I've ever witnessed, there was no chance I was leaving the safety of my home. (As I write this now, I am reminded of Saturday, the stunning new novel by Ian McEwan, where the main character imagines disaster from his window, also overlooking a quiet park. He wonders if there is anything he can do to help.) I watched for another ten or fifteen minutes, and then it hit me.

This was a test, a fake disaster, a totally designed experience.

The following morning I read in The New York Times about how the Chambers Street subway station, a block from our quiet park, had been chosen as the site for an all-hands-on-deck New York City catastrophe-response test. I never read whether they passed or failed. That 9/11 would happen only a few years later in the same neighborhood was a coincidence I still can't quite fathom.

I hadn't thought about this experience for some time. Until I read the newspaper a few days ago.

SCENE: In an abandoned highway tunnel in West Virginia, people are screaming for help in what is the aftermath of a savage attack by "a weapon of mass destruction." There are bodies everywhere. No one really knows just how bad it is. Seventy men from the New York City police and fire departments work together (unusual given the animosity between the two departments) to save mannequins in this mock disaster. This same team, working from an undisclosed location in Manhattan, lost 51 men on 9/11. They take their work seriously. One is quoted as saying this experience is better than "Fear Factor," a reality television show where players confront snakes, eat maggots, and come perilously close to drowning. This tunnel is the Center for National Response: it is a site that in recent years has been responsible for the training of some 23,000 rescue workers.
(The New York Times, page B3.)

SCENE: "An overturned bus lies on a rural highway, split open like a disjointed limb. Emergency workers slowly mill about, but the purpose of their activity is not clear. A line of cars stretches into the distance, their occupants gazing nonchalantly on this putative accident. ...men dressed in protective white bodysuits, wearing green vests are plucking, with tweezers, at the detritus inside the toppled bus. They appear to be placing the debris into clear plastic sample bags. A possible bioterrorist attack? No other cues provide an answer." This accident in Romania is a scene in a new video, "Refraction," by the Dutch artist Aernout Mik, opening at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Chelsea, Manhattan. It also is a mock disaster — filmed in Romania, like many movies requiring large casts, because of cheap labor. It is even a book.
(The New York Times, page E1.)

For me, these unrelated events are linked by more than their appearance in one day's newspaper. Neither are real, yet in their artifice they are surprisingly similar. Both involve actors and a stage set. Both are sited in a foreign location. Both explore the reactions of unrehearsed participants. The first scene chronicles real anxiety, response time, stress, and the frenzy of being immersed in a large-scale disaster. "Sure, your adrenaline gets going. You're being watched and being tested, and you don't want to look stupid," admitted one participant. The second scene explores anxiety, the "narrative arc" of disaster, the inevitable human response to danger, and the way catastrophe is framed within an alternate context: in this case, a museum space. As a work of art, it is a constructed experience that pushes against the boundaries of realism.

In the end, both are artificial disasters designed to elicit and test the responses of participants. In their recording, both allow for a post-mortem evaluation. How did I do? How would I respond? Would I sit patiently in my car a mile up the road? Would I watch from my window, safe in my home?

It used to be that public warnings adhered to a politeness that, while persistent, was easy to ignore. The Surgeon General's warning on cigarette packs. The occasional interruption in a television or radio broadcast, the prolonged "beep" followed by a sober voice announcing that "had this been a real emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in for more information." When was the last time you actually paid attention to the flight attendant's instructional video on how to evacuate an airplane? Have we become so inured to the dangers around us that we actually need epic re-enactments to restore our faith in our own fragility, our own mortality? It is at once reassuring and somewhat ridiculous that design has come to play a role in something so terrifying — yet so very inevitable.

[I can't help but wonder whether any editor at The New York Times saw the similarity in these two stories, both featured and highlighted — 138 column inches of news. The tension between these two stories is a different story.]

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Media

Comments [10]

Mark Tucker

At Boy Scout Summer camp when I was fourteen years old, I took a merit badge class called Emergency Preparedness. I had heard stories about this badge from older scouts — several days of learning about shock, CPR, courses of action in emergencies, etc., and then an event that would make sure we really understood the material. On the last day, we were all nervously awaiting something bad to happen, where we could put our skills to use. Sure enough, we heard a muffled voice over the walkie-talkie. Our panic-stricken camp counselor looked up and said, "Holy fuck..." and told us to follow him.

After ten minutes of running, we came upon the worst accident I've ever seen. At an area where the counselors like to rock climb, we came across a few bloody bodies moaning and in pain at the bottom of the rock. One of them was in a stretcher — apparently they had been practicing a mountain rescue. Ropes were strewn everywhere. One person was unconscious. At first, all of us scouts were thinking, "Okay, we can handle this, this must be the test." It quickly turned into more than we expected.

A female counselor named Andi had been apart of the rock-climbing team that fell — she was the only one that was able to tell us what had happened. Our Emergency Preparedness instructor started questioning her violently. She was making excuses, crying, and confused. She couldn't get her story straight. He kept saying, "What the fuck happened Andi!? What the fuck did you do!?" A few of us tried to tell him that it wasn't her fault, and that we needed to focus on the injured people. He told one of the scouts to "shut the fuck up," then he pushed Andi to the ground, screaming at her. We couldn't believe it. He violently resisted us and a few people had to forcefully remove him from the situation. Andi went into shock and started screaming uncontrollably.

Meanwhile, the person who fell from the cliff lay unconscious with a serious head injury. I ripped off my shirt and wrapped his head to try to get it to stop bleeding. I checked his pulse — it seemed like his heart was barely even beating — his heart rate was unbelievably low. I started to panic. I remember looking around at some of the other kids. We were all getting nervous that this might be real, and not an exercise. We spent ten more minutes scrambling, getting blood all over us, desperately trying to help the victims. A few of the kids were fighting tears as they tried to help out. Suddenly, our instructor yelled out "STOP!" We all looked up. All of the injured bodies opened their eyes and smiled.

It was only a test.

Apparently, one of the camp counselors had been practicing lowering his heart rate all summer for this very reason, and was getting really good at it. The instructors swearing, shouting, and crying had given it an overwhelming air of believability. It was one of the most designed experiences in which I've ever taken part. We had all expected it all week, but when we got to the actual scene of the accident, it was more realistic than we thought possible.

These "fake emergency" tests seemed pointless to me until I took part in one. If designed well, they have a really powerful effect.
Ryan Nee

Mark Tucker's reference and link to Gregory Crewdson's photographs, especially the "Hover" series he linked to, is an important reference for this post. I thought of making this same reference, but was trying to stay focused on the contrast between the two stories in The New York Times last week.

It's hard not to see the photograph by Gregory Crewdson, made in 1997, and then the still from the video by Aernout Mik made more recently, and not go, "Hmm." But I could pull a still from the plane crash in the movie U.S. Marshals, or the train crash in Unbreakable, and we'd be in the same land of "Hmm."

This said, we've come a long way from the disaster movies that simply play on audience fears, whether it's an airplane crash with Tommy Lee Jones, or Bruce Willis trying to stop someone from bringing down a skyscaper. Simple fear-mongering is now being replaced with a new experience -- where we practice for disaster, designing the experience, exploring our more complicated reactions. Not since the l950's, have such tests had a sense of urgency and realism: when elementary school children did drills where they got under their desks, not just for earthquake drills, but to practice for the upcoming nuclear attack. (Not like it would have done any good, but I remember the fear in the air.)

Against a contemporary backdrop of these tests, practice sessions, large-scale rehearsals, artists creating modern disasters is a new realm. (Or perhaps it's on the same plane as Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove.)
william Drenttel

"Experience a disaster simulation so real, so wild, so exciting, it will leave you breathless, exhausted and ... prepared."

Disaster simulation is a thriving topic of study and, indeed, a business opportunity.

The US has a national network of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). Citizens are trained to provide assistance for the emergency services and to cope with disasters in their absence. Anyone can get involved. Small-scale disaster simulations, located in your own neighbourhood, form part of the training.
Rick Poynor

Sounds to me like a bunch of designers wish they were part of something really important and exciting.
Walter Mitty

Great example of writing a text in order to generate even more interesting comments back.

Maybe the point is West Virginia is the Romania of the U.S.? I mean, at least along your "cheap labor" line. Leaving aside strictly formal comparisons of the two cases, I would say that they only share the fact they exploit a topical trend to help out their own lack of any significant statement, and which satisfies their specific audiences into feeling some kind of responsible reaction to the "contemporary". Does West Virginia really believe it has to worry about being bombed or attacked before L.A., N.Y.C., D.C. etc.etc.? Surely, they know that, but it will make for good politics and press, and I guess each state has to spend that government money for such things as training.
Mik is just extending the logic of his kind of artwork, finding any thematic container to help make some meaning out of what he likes to do, er... making assemblages.

What did come to my mind reading about these less-cerebral or for that matter savvy variants: Godard's "Weekend" is ready to become a theme park ride.

Only two weeks after writing this post, I am still distressed by the news from London. These attacks — in which real people died and thousands were filled with fear — should not be aestheticized or turned into art or described in easy prose. Finding a language to describe such horror, or artforms to memorialize it, should be a struggle.

In my original post, I mention the anticipation of disaster lurking in Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday. He reflects further on this issue in a powerful essay, written on the day of the attack, in The New York Times. Read it here.
William Drenttel

McEwan's question "How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?" sums up the horror perfectly.
Michael Bierut

I'm reading this on the day the media is struggling and angling for ways to present the death of 14 Marines in Iraq to a public as numbed by repeated acts of violence as the mock disasters are meant to numb the first responders.

Designed "real" mock disasters make the aftermath of violence more ordinary, less shocking, and so lower the adrenaline rush of first responders who can then more effectively respond to real people in real trouble. When does repeating this training, and repeatedly responding to real violence, blunt a responder's ability to respond as a human being, one individual to another? Or view a real disaster as real--just as the climbing incident blurred the two?

Is the staged, museum disaster pushing the boundaries between art and reality, or contributing to us viewing violence, and our response to it, as staged? Or pointing out how the media stages violence for us everyday and contributes, like the mock disasters, to constraining our response.

On CCN this morning, the anchor interviewed a Marine whose job it is to break bad news to families. (His training was the subject of the broadcast, the new angle CNN had found to present another war tragedy, unique to the 14 families, but not unique to the public.) The Marine said when he knocks on the door his adrenaline gets going but then his training kicks in and remembers it's just a job he has to do. (I've heard soldiers similarly describe their actions.) He can then deliver this heart-wrenching news to families without....what? Breaking down himself? Or jumbling his lines? The CNN reporter kept pushing the Marine to acknowledge the emotion of this encounter, as if the Marine were the foil the anchor needed to stage the emotion of the situation. The Marine stuck to his script.


A response - and expansion - of this was just posted on BLDGBLOG. Check it out...
Geoff Manaugh

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