I have spent my week listening to secret tapes from Kennedy’s office during the Cuban Missile Crisis and reading the transcripts of Reagan and Gorbechev’s Cold War dinner parties in Reykjavik, Iceland. It all boils down to espionage, really, and the bug the Russians put in the U.S. seal at the American embassy in Moscow. That seal, plus fifty-year-old listening devices and gold halos in historical art: that’s the jist of this project.
It doesn’t necessarily make sense, and that used to bother me, back when I was suspicious of postmodern art, before I started making serious art myself. Yet it does make a kind of sense when you see it all in context. This project we’re working on is called The Listening Array: a term that refers to a series of microphones connected in different intervals that correlate data to determine position. It’s a device used for spying. It’s also exactly what it sounds like: an arrangement of things that are used to listen. In this project, it references both meanings.
Here’s how Kennedy gets involved: the United States was doing a lot of spying during the Cold War. We were trolling the seven seas pulling these towed multi-line arrays behind our boats, trying to gather information about “the enemy.” We were putting microphones in government seals and pretending to be somebody else so we could find out what the other side had on us and when they might use it. If you go to the archive at the Kennedy library, you can listen to edited portions of secretly taped conversations about what was happening in Cuba during those thirteen days. They’re missing about five minutes for reasons of national security. It’s like a top-secret commercial break.
Murray and I went to the U.S. Navy Sub Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut over the weekend. Partly it was to celebrate his 35th birthday — he’s a secret military junkie under deep cover as a pacifist artist and professor — and partly so we could go inside a Cold War-era submarine. The U.S.S. Nautilus was the first submarine to make it to the North Pole. It’s spending its retirement docked at the museum, manned by bored Navy personnel who will gladly tell you that the person with the shittiest job on a submarine is the cook, because they can’t please everybody.
This old sailor at the museum who had a vest full of bright colored patches representing all the successful missions he’d been on during his service was a docent. He told us that before they left on missions, the hatches were welded shut from the outside. If a depth charge went off near the boat, he said, it could weaken the seals — that’s why they welded them. He told us that once, on a top-secret mission to the Norwegian Sea, it would have been too loud to run the heaters. So the night before they left, a big truck pulled up to the dock full of World War I-era woolen uniforms. Every man got issued heavy winter gear. They spent their voyage to the frozen north huddled in blankets, never surfacing, in order to complete their mission undetected.
Have you ever listened to the audio of an actual submarine breaking its seals, flooding and sinking? It’s got to be one of the most terrifying sounds you could ever hear. At the turn of the new century, 118 Russian sailors lost their lives on the Kurst submarine in the Barents Sea. It’s estimated that 23 sailors survived for several days until they ultimately died from an accidental encounter with a superoxide chemical cartridge in the seawater, which caused a flash fire that used up all the oxygen. The captain left a note, which read in part: It’s dark here to write, but I’ll try by feel. It seems like there are no chances, 10-20%. Let’s hope that at least someone will read this. Here’s the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the ninth and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to be desperate. Kolesnikov.
It’s hard not to be impressed by what we’ve been able to accomplish with regards to submarines. They can circumnavigate the globe without surfacing, chemically produce enough oxygen for a crew of 150, and produce hamburgers and soft-serve ice cream every six hours to the personal taste of each crewmember on board. It wasn’t long ago that simply crossing an ocean in a surface vessel was a remarkable feat. Today, these metal sharks silently troll our waters using their own nuclear power.
According to the Navy, “the U.S. Submarine Force provides pivotal service by deterring conflict through stealth, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and the use of its powerful offensive capabilities.” What this really means is that submarines go around listening to what’s happening in the world and can shoot incredibly powerful missiles unexpectedly, should the need arise.
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Navy was dropping “signaling depth charges” on a Soviet submarine at the quarantine line. Soviet signals intelligence officer Vadim Orlov later reported that it felt like “sledgehammers on a metal barrel.” What the Navy didn’t know at the time was that the Soviet submarine had a nuclear-tipped torpedo and orders to use it if one of those depth charges created a single hole in the submarine’s hull.
Many of Reagan and Gorbechev’s peace talks took place over stiffly scripted dinner parties in carefully chosen neutral territories where even the menu was classified top secret. While submarines gathered their sonar pings, these men, their smiling wives and an army of intermediaries charted the troubled waters of a mutual threat of global impact. While gifting each other with surveillance-laden largesse, they drafted agreements and exchanged pleasantries.
There is an old notion, not so in vogue today, called noblesse oblige: it’s the French idea that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of the egalitarian idealism that I used to have: that sweet faith in socialism common in youth. When I came across this idea, it seemed appropriate, responsible, even righteous. The truth is that we avoid the nuclear tip of a missile by the grace of a well-mannered woman or man at a formal dinner table. Each phrase, well-considered, can lift a finger off a trigger. Each gesture of hospitality that reaches across the table can keep that final depth charge from dropping.
In the symbolism of baroque art, saints were identified by a golden halo, or nimbus, surrounding them. In the video and photographs that make up The Listening Array, a group of six individuals sit at a formal dinner table, surrounded by an array of golden pipes. At the end of each pipe, a regular person stands listening. Whether they are venerating the partygoers or gathering information to undermine their efforts is up for grabs.