Station

Michael D. McCormack
Show runs until March 31 at aceartinc.

Cold War politics and paranoia have, in recent months, become more relevant than they’ve been since perhaps the fall of the Berlin Wall. With Russia’s continued annexation of Crimea, seemingly daily reports of collusion within the American government and a ramping up of both nations’ respective nuclear arsenals, the news can sometimes look like a soft reboot of the atomic age. 

While that historical conflict has often been painted as one between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., Michael D. McCormack’s Station explores how Canada’s Cold War past illuminates our uncertain present.

McCormack’s inspiration for his multi-faceted installation exhibit is the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, an interconnected system of radar stations built in the late 1950s. The DEW Line stretched across Canada’s Arctic, using radio communications to warn of approaching Soviet bombers or troops. The line also had long-lasting negative environmental effects and forced massive cultural changes on the Inuit populations it touched.

Central to McCormack’s installation are photographs taken by his grandfather, Berton Cosman, who worked on the DEW Line as a radio operator. Flickering like a strobe light inside a Stevenson screen shelter are Cosman’s photos, which fly by with overwhelming speed. The Stevenson structure itself scatters their light, becoming a bizarre lantern. Only on closer inspection is it clear that this lantern is broadcasting images.

The artist uses both these photos and that idea of broadcasting as thematic jumping-off points. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a semicircle of odd devices. Built in halved oil barrels, the devices use both sound and light to broadcast archived DEW Line radio signals. Their light projects onto the walls of the gallery, while their sounds swirl and shift, beginning as abstract percussion, slowly becoming musical and eventually become cacophonous.

By using aural and visual projection to explore a dead form of broadcasting, McCormack calls into question the present’s relationship to the history of broadcasting and its many dead media. Turning the Stevenson screen into a lantern brings to mind the magic lantern, one of the earliest ancestors of cinematic projection. 

The presence of radio, radar and the evocation of the obsolete DEW Line itself seems to suggest that the entire history of broadcasting is present in the room. The installation becomes an analog séance, conjuring up the spirits of a dozen dead media at once.

Their presence also serves as a reminder that dead media is never truly dead. In the same way that Canada’s Arctic still reels from the DEW Line’s environmental and colonial impact, humanity still unknowingly converses with dead forms of broadcasting. While modern people may have no idea how to interpret the sounds of those decades-old radar blips, present reality is informed by the fact that they once indeed blipped constantly, communicating to people like Berton Cosman whether nuclear war was imminent. 

Just like the famous scene in Carl Sagan’s Contact, in which the first human broadcast intercepted by aliens is the Nazis’ 1936 Olympics, Station removes politically-charged broadcasts from their historical context and forces us to confront them and ask how far removed from them we really are.

Published in Volume 71, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 9, 2017)

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