[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur].
Earlier this year, Venue published an interview with Los Angeles-based photographer Alyse Emdur discussing her project Prison Landscapes. I thought Emdur's work—a look at the unexpected landscape paintings used as photographic backdrops in prison waiting rooms throughout the United States—deserved a second look, so I am re-posting the interview here.
Some of the most unsettling examples of contemporary landscape painting in the United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as visual backdrops for family photographs.
[Image: James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout].
Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for later display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.
With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study (PDF)—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops—which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates—are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias: scenes from an abstracted and perfect elsewhere, painted from behind bars.
[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur's own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast].
Several years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posing in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this surprising body of vernacular landscape imagery, tracking down examples across the United States.
[Image: Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].
At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, asking inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops; through this method, Emdur eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.
Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published in January 2013 by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation follows.
• • •
[Image: Alyse Emdur's large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue].
Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?
Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.
Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.
[Image: Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].
Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?
Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.
One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.
Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.
One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].
Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to. And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.
Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?
Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.
For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.
[Image: Small prints of Emdur's backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Note the hand-painted cityscape featuring the Statue of Liberty on the left].
Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.
Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.
[Image: Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].
Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.
Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.
During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”
[Image: Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].
I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.
Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.
[Image: One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].
One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but, then, there are all these exceptions.
At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then, some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.
[Image: Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].
This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.
It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!
[Images: Sixteen binders' worth of letters and prisoner portraits have been mailed to Emdur over the course of her project; photographs by Venue. Several of Emdur's pen-pals adopted the so-called "prison pose"—a low crouch—while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles].
Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?
Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.
In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.
A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.
[Image: A binder of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].
But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.
The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.
• • •
For more Venue interviews, focusing on human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments, check out the Venue website in full.
Meanwhile, Michael Parker—the artist who showed us around the studio space he shares with Alyse Emdur—has some projects of his own worth checking out, in particular, his work Lineman, which documents, in film, photographs, and interviews, "an electrical lineman class at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College" where adult students learn "how to become power-pole technicians."
While still exploring the sound's WWII origins, Tompkins describes "ghost armies" conjured from nothing using sensory technologies as part of a "sonic deception strategy" practiced on the battlefield. "During World War II," he writes, "artifice—the illusion of conflict—was a weapon in itself. There were wooden bombs, fake factories, inflatable tanks, synthetic fogs, electronically generated ghost armies, psychoacoustic ventriloquists, and magicians hired to make the coastline disappear."
Technologists from places like Bell Labs unleashed hi-fi wizardry against the adversary, including misleading sound effects built into torpedoes and "artificial screaming bombs" that, to put this in somewhat Friedrich Kittler-like terms, turned warfare into a kind of lethal, all-encompassing, international discotheque of blinding lights and disembodied shock waves, a carnivalesque over-investment in technology's fatal side-effects, distracting people long enough that they could be destroyed.
[Image: Signal Corps officers look at militarized turntables in Paris; via the Audio Engineering Society, and featured in Tompkins's book].
So it was interesting to see last week that PBS has produced a documentary called Ghost Army:
In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of G.I.s landed in France with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves. They staged a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, aimed at Hitler’s legions. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops—the Ghost Army—conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war’s end.
Amongst their crew were "sonics experts" who "made an early use of multi-leveled mixing to replicate the sounds of a massive military unit on the move."
You can watch the full episode in the embedded video, above.
[Images: From a map of the San Andreas Fault, cutting through the Carrizo Plain, by T.W. Dibblee (1973), courtesy of the USGS].
This collaboration-at-a-distance between BLDGBLOG and the Disquiet Junto comes as a kind of sonic follow-up to the San Andreas Fault National Park architectural design studio I taught this past semester at Columbia, part of which involved designing architectural "devices" or "instruments" for the San Andreas.
However, the Disquiet Junto challenge literalizes the notion of the "instrument" a bit more, specifically listening for the sonic implications of the Fault.
Partially inspired by earlier graphic and musical explorations, by such composers as John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, among many, many others, the basic idea is that geologic maps of the San Andreas can themselves be "interpreted"—or perhaps willfully misinterpreted is more accurate—as a musical score.
They are, in Marc Weidenbaum's words, a "faulty notation" for pieces of music that do not yet exist.
[Images: From a map of the San Andreas Fault, cutting through the Carrizo Plain, by T.W. Dibblee (1973), courtesy of the USGS].
You can find out more about how to participate over at the Disquiet website. However, compositions are due Monday, May 27th, so, if you're interested, you need to dive in straightaway.
Listen to previous Disquiet sound challenges on the group's Soundcloud page (and consider following Marc Weidenbaum on Twitter for reliably interesting sonic news and world reports).
An incredible example of what can be done with laser-cutting, Amanda Ghassaei's project "Laser Cut Record" features music inscribed directly into cut discs of maple wood, acrylic, and paper, resulting in lo-fi but playable records.
For what they are, the otherwise scratchy and off-kilter audio quality is actually quite amazing, and the sounds themselves are made all the more haunting and strange by the crackling noise and resonance of the material that hosts them.
Some technical details are available at Ghassaei's Instructables page, and you can see the laser-cutting itself at work in the following video.
I'm reminded of a short letter called "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity," written to the Proceedings of the IEEE in August 1969 by a man named Richard G. Woodbridge III. The somewhat eccentric Mr. Woodbridge explains that he has been researching accidental recording of sounds found, after careful analysis, on the surfaces of physical objects rescued from antiquity—in particular, pieces of pottery originally shaped on potters' wheels (seen here as a kind of primordial record platter).
Woodbridge even claims some sounds have been "recorded" as re-playable waves in the slowly drying shapes of oil paintings.
To listen to these lost recordings, the letter suggests, you simply hold a record cartridge near the work of pottery in question, such that the needle of the phonograph can "be positioned against a revolving pot mounted on a phono turntable (adjustable speed) 'stroked' along a paint stroke, etc." When this was done properly, he claimed, a "low-frequency chatter sound could be heard in the earphones."
That is, the voices of people present in the room during the making of the pot could be re-played from the surface of the pot itself.
Woodbridge suggests that this might have alternative applications: "This is of particular interest as it introduces the possibility of actually recalling and hearing the voices and words of eminent personages as recorded in the paint of their portraits or of famous artists in their pictures." So an experiment was orchestrated:
With an artist’s brush, paint strokes were applied to the surface of the canvas using “oil” paints involving a variety of plasticities, thicknesses, layers, etc., while martial music was played on the nearby phonograph. Visual examination at low magnification showed that certain strokes had the expected transverse striated appearance. When such strokes, after drying, were gently stroked by the “needle” (small, wooden, spade-like) of the crystal cartridge, at as close to the original stroke speed as possible, short snatches of the original music could be identified.
Through this technique, the overlooked—overlistened?—acoustic qualities of various objects, beyond high-brow pottery and oil paintings, can thus be revealed:
Many situations leading to the possibility of adventitious acoustic recording in past times have been given consideration. These, for example, might consist of scratches, markings, engravings, grooves, chasings, smears, etc., on or in “plastic” materials encompassing metal, wax, wood, bone, mud, paint, crystal, and many others. Artifacts could include objects of personal adornment, sword blades, arrow shafts, pots, engraving plates, paintings, and various items of calligraphic interest.
Woodbridge calls the pursuit and revelation of these sounds "acoustic archaeology."
Suddenly, wood, rock, metal, even exposed geology in situ can host visual content. Indeed, perhaps it already does, but we haven't invented—or we simply haven't applied—the right technologies for decoding it. In other words, we have DVD players; we just haven't, learning from Richard G. Woodbridge III, used them to "read" other materials.
In August 2015, you and some friends hike up to a rock wall in the middle of Utah, and there are DVDs printed all over the surface of the hillside, full-length albums laser-burned into White Rim sandstone, and audio-visual pilgrims carrying deconstructed laser-lens systems, scanning for hidden film fests and warbling soundtracks, swarm every surface all around them.
Fort Irwin is a U.S. army base nearly the size of Rhode Island, located in the Mojave Desert about an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, California. There you will find the National Training Center, or NTC, at which all U.S. troops, from all services, spend a twenty-one day rotation before they deploy overseas.
Coincidentally, as we explored the Painted Rocks located just outside the gate while waiting for the tour to start, an old acquaintance from Los Angeles—architect and geographer Rick Miller—pulled up in his Prius, also early for the same tour.
We laughed, said hello, and caught up about a class Rick had been teaching at UCLA about the military defense of L.A. from World War II to the present. An artificial battlefield, beyond even the furthest fringes of Los Angeles, Fort Irwin thus seemed like an appropriate place to meet.
We were soon joined by a small group of other visitors—consisting, for the most part, of family members of soldiers deployed on the base, as well as two architecture students from Montréal—before a large white tour bus rolled up across the gravel.
Renita, a former combat videographer who now handles public affairs at Fort Irwin, took our names, IDs, and signatures for reasons of liability (we would be seeing live explosions and simulated gunfire, and there was always the risk that someone might get hurt).
The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.
In the plush lecture hall used for "After Action Reviews"—and thus, Renita apologized, air-conditioned to a morgue-like chill in order to keep soldiers awake as their adrenalin levels crash—we received a briefing from the base's commander, Brigadier General Terry Ferrell.
With pride, Ferrell noted that Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base's 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow what Ferrell called "great maneuverability"; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.
Oddly, it's worth noting that Fort Irwin also houses the electromagnetically sensitive Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of NASA's global Deep Space Network. As science writer Oliver Morton explains in a paper called "Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics" (PDF), "when digitized battalions slug it out with all the tools of modern warfare, radio, radar, and electronic warfare emissions fly as freely around Fort Irwin as bullets in a battle. For people listening to signals from distant spacecraft on pre-arranged frequency bands, this noise is not too much of a problem." However, he adds, for other, far more sensitive experiments, "radio interference from the military next door is its biggest headache."
Unusually for the American West, where mineral rights are often transferred separately, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin, which means that they have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.
This 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base's own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy. According to Ferrell, their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: they receive specialized training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to "reduced grooming standards," while their mission is simply to "stay alive and wreak havoc."
If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong.
In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training. Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations, Ferrell told us. What's more, in the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base at Fort Drum, New York, to California, and back again.
Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for twenty-one days, fourteen of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as "The Box" (as in "sandbox"). This is the vast desert training area that includes fifteen simulated towns and the previously mentioned tunnel and caves, as well as expansive gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas.
Following our briefing, we headed out to the largest mock village in the complex, the Afghan town of Ertebat Shar, originally known, during its Iraqi incarnation, as Medina Wasl. Before we re-boarded the bus, Renita issued a stern warning: "'Afghanistan' is not modernized with plumbing. There are Porta-Johns, but I wanted to let you know the situation before we roll out there."
A twenty-minute drive later, through relatively featureless desert, our visit to "Afghanistan" began with a casual walk down the main street, where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat. Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin, although Ferrell explained that they are still trying to recruit more Afghans, in order "to provide the texture of the culture."
The atmosphere is strangely good-natured, which was at least partially amplified by a feeling of mild embarrassment, as the rules of engagement, so to speak, are not immediately clear; you, the visitor, are obviously aware of the fact that these people are paid actors, but it feels distinctly odd to slip into character yourself and pretend that you might want to buy some bread.
In fact, it's impossible not to wonder how peculiar it must be for a refugee, or even a second-generation immigrant, from Iraq or Afghanistan, to pretend to be a baker in a simulated "native" village on a military base in the California desert, only to see tourists in shorts and sunglasses walking through, smiling uncomfortably and taking photos with their phones before strolling away without saying anything.
By now, with the opening act over, we were stopped in front of the town's "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" to take stock of our surroundings. In his earlier briefing, Ferrell had described the simulated villages' close attention to detail—apparently, the footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.
Dimensions notwithstanding, however, this is a city of cargo containers, their Orientalized facades slapped up and plastered on like make-up. Seen from above, the wooden frames of the illusion become visible and it becomes more and more clear that you are on a film set, an immersive theater of war.
This kind of test village has a long history in U.S. war planning. As journalist Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book Survival City, "In March 1943, with bombing attacks on cities being intensified by all sides, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction at Dugway [Utah] on a series of 'enemy villages,' detailed reproductions of the typical housing found in the industrial districts of cities in Germany and Japan."
The point of the villages at Dugway, however, was not to train soldiers in urban warfare—with, for instance, simulated street battles or house-to-house clearances —but simply to test the burn capacity of the structures themselves. What sorts of explosives should the U.S. use? How much damage would result? The attention to architectural detail was simply a subset of this larger, more violent inquiry. As Vanderbilt explains, bombs at Dugway "were tested as to their effectiveness against architecture: How well the bombs penetrated the roofs of buildings (without penetrating too far), where they lodged in the building, and the intensity of the resulting fire."
During the Cold War, combat moved away from urban settings, and Fort Irwin's desert sandbox became the stage for massive set-piece tank battles against the "Soviet" Blackhorse Cavalry. But, in 1993, following the embarrassment of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Fort Irwin hosted its first urban warfare, or MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) exercise. This response was part of a growing realization shared amongst the armed forces, national security experts, and military contractors that future wars would again take the city as their battlefield.
Massed, professional, and essentially symmetrical armies no longer confront one another on the broad forests and plains of central Europe, the new tactical thinking goes; instead, undeclared combatants living beside—sometimes even with—families in stacked apartment blocks or tight-knit courtyards send out the occasional missile, bullet, or improvised explosive device from a logistically confusing tangle of streets, and "war" becomes the spatial process of determining how to respond.
At Fort Irwin, mock villages began to pop up in the desert. They started out as "sheds bought from Shed World," Ferrell told us, before being replaced by shipping containers, which, in turn, have been enhanced with stone siding, mosque domes, awnings, and street signs, and, in some cases, even with internal staircases and furniture, too. Indeed, Ertebat Shar/Medina Wasl began its simulated existence in 2007, with just thirteen buildings, but has since expanded to include more than two hundred structures.
The point of these architectural reproductions is no longer, as in the World War II test villages of Dugway, to find better or more efficient methods of architectural destruction; instead, these ersatz buildings and villages are used to equip troops to better navigate the complexity of urban structures—both physical, and, perhaps most importantly, socio-cultural.
In other words, at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin's facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin's roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment).
In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: we were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.
Appropriately equipped with ear plugs and eye protection, we filed upstairs to a veranda overlooking one of the village's main throughways, where we joined the "Observer Coaches" and film crew, taking our positions for the afternoon's scripted exercise.
Loud explosions, smoke, and fairly grisly combat scenes ensued—and thus, despite their simulated nature, involving Hollywood-style prosthetics and fake blood, please be warned that many of the forthcoming photos could still be quite upsetting for some viewers.
The afternoon's action began quietly enough, with an American soldier on patrol waving off a man trying to sell him a melon. Suddenly, a truck bomb detonated, smoke filled the air, and an injured woman began to wail, while a soldier slumped against a wall, applying a tourniquet to his own severed arm.
In the subsequent chaos, it was hard to tell who was doing what, and why: gun trucks began rolling down the streets, dodging a live goat and letting off round after round as insurgents fired RPGs (mounted on invisible fishing line that blended in with the electrical wires above our heads) from upstairs windows; blood-covered casualties were loaded into an ambulance while soldiers went door-to-door with their weapons drawn; and, in the episode's climax, a suicide bomber blew himself up directly beneath us, showering our tour group with ashes.
Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The smoke died down; the actors reassembled, uninjured, to discuss what just occurred; and the sound of blank rounds being fired off behind the buildings at the end of the exercise echoed through the streets.
Incredibly, blank rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day; if you are curious as to where your tax dollars might be going, picture paid actors shooting entire magazines full of blank rounds out of machine guns behind simulated Middle Eastern buildings in the Mojave desert. Every single blank must be accounted for, leading to the peculiar sight of a village's worth of insurgents stooped, gathering used blank casings into their prop kettles, bread baskets, and plastic bags.
Finally, we descended back down onto the street, dazed, ears ringing, and a little shocked by all the explosions and gunfire. Stepping carefully around pools of fake blood and chunks of plastic viscera, we made our way back to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.
Our hosts there were an interesting mix of earnest young boys who looked like they had successful careers in politics ahead of them, standing beside older men, almost stereotypically hard-faced, who could probably scare an AK-47 into misfiring just by staring at it, and a few female soldiers.
Somewhat subdued at this point, our group sat on sofas that had seen better days and passed around an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior—a kind of design fiction of military injury.
A few of us tried on the MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) harnesses that soldiers wear to sense hits from fired blanks, and then an enemy soldier demonstrated an exploding door sill.
While the film crew and Observer Coaches prepared for their "After Action Review," our guides seemed talkative but unwilling to discuss how well or badly the afternoon's session had gone. We asked, instead, about the future of Fort Irwin's villages, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. The vision is to expand the range of urban conditions into what Ferrell termed a "Decisive Action Training Environment," in which U.S. military will continue to encounter "the world's worst actors" [sic]—"guerrillas, criminals, and insurgents"—amidst the furniture of city life.
As he escorted us back down the market street to our bus, one soldier off-handedly remarked that he'd heard the village might be redesigned soon as a Spanish-speaking environment—before hastily and somewhat nervously adding that he didn't know for sure, and, anyway, it probably wasn't true.
The "town" is visible on Google Maps, if you're curious, and it is easy to reach from Barstow. Tours of "The Box" are run twice a month and fill up quickly; learn more at the Fort Irwin website, including safety tips and age restrictions.
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For more Venue content, exploring human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments through 16 months of travel around the continental United States, check out the Venue website in full.
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my friends, editors, employers, publishers, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated.