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bell For Whom the Bell Tolls

Divine Strake Project, a sculptural installation by Bay Area artist David Gurman, is an intricate, collaborative project that addresses several complex issues: institutional land use, military strength, and unseen forces that have the power to irrecoverably shape our lives. The project consists of bells that are rigged to chime when software detects seismic activity at the Nevada Test Site, a desert facility where the U.S. military has conducted nuclear weapons testing since 1951. Named for an actual large-yield, nonnuclear, high-explosive test slated to happen earlier this year but since halted, Gurman’s Divine Strake is a hybrid of new and old technologies that addresses the complicated fact of war.

Exhibit dates and locations for 2008 are available online at davidgurman.com.

What was the initial impetus for Divine Strake?

I was spending a lot of time in the Great Basin Desert and learned about the Divine Strake test. [This high-yield underground test has since been cancelled, due in part to a public outcry to stop it.] So far, 1,258 nuclear detonation tests have been performed at the Nevada Test Site to date, creating these massive craters as large as 3,000 feet across and 600 feet deep. A lot of people don’t realize that subcritical nuclear weapon testing is still happening.

I wanted to create a sculptural installation that would allow people access to something they may know exists but can’t readily see.

What is the signal, and where does it come from?

Seismologists have set up arrays at the Nevada Test Site to track potential violations of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Divine Strake is set up to receive data from the University of Nevada, Reno array. Real-time data is streamed to a network that uses a seismic monitoring software package, Antelope, donated by Boulder Real Time Technologies. A reasonably tested origin and magnitude are furnished to Antelope, which sends it to a Max/MSP [environment] that triggers switches and turns on the actuators to strike the bell.

Based on the coordinated information, you can only speculate whether it’s a weapons test or latent geological seismic activity. What I’m interested in is how the information is obscured and that the power is held in the potential threat — the knowledge itself as opposed to the actual event.

Tell me about the bell.

I thought the bell as a beacon and a call to worship was an ironic way to signal nuclear activity. The bell was cast in 1908 at the Andrew Meneely and Benjamin Hanks foundry. I wanted to use a bell from a foundry that had ties to the revolutionary era when Manifest Destiny and westward expansion were set in motion. This particular foundry opened in 1826 and cast cannons in wartime and bells in peacetime, so all these histories are embedded in the very alloy of the metal.

How is the bell rung?

I designed a robotic arm to resemble a gross appen-dage as a way to highlight the digital age uniting with an analog historical object. The arm is made from water-jet-cut aluminum, linear actuators, and four tolling hammers. A Teleo module receives a signal from the computer to turn on one of the four actuators. Each one has a designated seismic threshold: the smallest registers 0–1, the next 1–2, then 2–3, and the largest 3+. The sound bow near the bottom and thickest part of the bell is the lowest frequency. As it moves up the tollers and hits the vertical axis, the tones are higher, which coordinates to smaller seismic events.

What’s next?

The ultimate manifestation is to monitor weapons testing on a global scale and to have the piece sited at various international venues. Bells would be hooked up to register seismic activity at every nuclear weapons testing site in the world, such as North Korea, Russia, France, China, and so on. When the bells chime, it won’t be clear which country it’s coming from.

Katie Kurtz

Katie Kurtz writes art previews, art reviews, and artist profiles for various publications.


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