Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Interview with Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser

Their immersive multi-screen experience “the bomb” explores the nature of nuclear weapons

Debuting at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, “the bomb” explores the poetic yet lethal nature of nuclear weapons through a wholly immersive viewing experience. Creators Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser cite Charles and Ray Eames’ experimental work with multi-screen films as inspiration for their 360-degree mixed media installation, which layers Kingdom of Ludd animations and live music by The Acid onto a rigorously selected stream of archival and contemporary footage. They describe it as “Dr. Strangelove” meets the Philip Glass-scored cult film “Koyaanisqatsi.”

Art directed by Radiohead’s longtime artistic collaborator Stanley Donwood and staged by London-based collective United Visual Artists, “the bomb” is set to be a groundbreaking tour de force whose aim is to leave viewers completely mesmerized. We spoke with the creators to learn more about this intricately layered project.

How did the project start?

Smriti Keshari: The project started around two years ago; I was reading “Command and Control,” Eric’s most recent book, and for some time had been thinking about what it would be like to put people inside of a film and really challenge this one-way, one-directional experience that we have with viewing—whether it’s a film or a live show. Instead of things projected at you, how would your perception be different if you were in the center of the story? Reading Eric’s book left a really deep impact on me and it was evident that my generation knew almost nothing about this issue [the threat of nuclear weapons]. There was this urgent feeling that something had to be done about it and I really wanted to create a deeper, more visceral and emotional relationship with the issue.

I was inspired also by some of the stories that Eric would mention about marches in Hyde Park in London or people getting together during the ‘80s, or in the ‘60s, and having a shared experience in speaking up against nuclear weapons. In that same way, we wanted to create a more present experience with these weapons.

Eric Schlosser: Smriti came to me with this idea of combining archival footage and live music and animation, and it was an incredibly bold idea but it really made sense for the subject matter. Over the years I had collected an enormous amount of footage pertaining to nuclear weapons and the technology and machinery of them. And visually, they’re so striking. Even some of the explosions—which, when you really think of it are horrifying—are quite beautiful. So as a subject matter it really lent itself to this sort of thing. But it’s not some old-time documentary based on archival footage. There’s some contemporary footage but then there’s also this amazing animation layered on top of it that is just something you’ve kind of never seen before.

How did you come to work with all of the collaborators?

ES: We started reaching out and it was so incredible how quick people were to get involved. One of them was a friend of mine, Kevin Ford; we made a short film about nuclear weapons when my book came out using the Radiohead song “Four-Minute Warning” as the background. He’s a wonderful editor and filmmaker. And Stanley Donwood, who’s Radiohead’s artistic director—and United Visual Artists, an incredible art collective—they just immediately said yes. And it wasn’t about making money off of it, it was about doing something really interesting and really bold and in a collaborative way. This really has been an incredible collaboration between very different people.

And The Acid’s work is a crucial part of it. One of the works that we found as an inspiration was the film, “Koyaanisqatsi.” It’s got a Philip Glass score and sometimes he played it live as the film was being projected. We kind of think of what we’ve done as sort of, “Koyaanisqatsi” meets “Dr. Strangelove.”

SK: In conversations with the band we spoke of a good DJ set—in terms of building and releasing tension and then building it again. And The Acid are really, really adept at creating space and magnitude and depth. Sometimes by holding back, where others might want to go bigger. They just really get how to connect with peoples’ emotions to take them through this journey.

Were you politically motivated or was it more a creative desire to push the boundaries of storytelling?

ES: In the early stages we went to an exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames. The film they’re best known for is “The Power of Ten,” but the Eames’ also did some incredible multi-screen stuff. So in terms of our interest in the form, we were really interested in seeing how multi-screen technology can be used in the 21st century. We definitely cared about it in terms of the formal aspects of it, and as a visual auditory experience. So it’s not just this political thing, but it’s art that tries to be engaged with what’s happening at the moment. It’s trying to get you to look at the world, not be in denial and open your eyes. So in that sense I guess it is political art but it doesn’t have a program, it’s not didactic. If it works, it’s really complex and works for you on all kinds of different levels.

SK: Going through it, there are a lot of beautiful compositions and there’s something really appealing and mesmerizing, especially in a sense of adrenaline. I think it was deliberately created—by all of the collaborators—to ignite this kind of emotional and visceral reaction and understanding of this nuclear reality. Before we even make a point on whether it’s good or bad, we’re just showing them for what they truly, boldly and poetically, really are.

It’s trying to get you to look at the world, not be in denial and open your eyes

ES: The film part of it does not have a narrator, it doesn’t have a plot. But it’s been very carefully structured to take you through this journey. And one of the striking things is, these machines can be very beautiful. But they’re also totally lethal.

“the bomb” is showing April 23 and 24, 2016 at Gotham Hall in New York City; tickets are available online.

Images courtesy of Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser