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Kim’s nuclear threat no one’s talking about

The Strip was positively packed with cars, so even though it was a few blocks too early General MacManus tapped his driver on the shoulder and hardly waited for the jeep to slow down before jumping out and hoofing it towards the Lucky 38. His dogrobber followed suit in a clumsier fashion, lugging a bag and briefcase.

MacManus was big and broad, and had never given a shit about people he didn’t know, if it came down to it, so despite the crowd he was inside the casino within moments, snapping his aviators off and thrusting them backwards for Corporal Smythe to grab. When his glasses disappeared MacManus waved a paw of a hand at the liveried elevator boy, who dropped into a crisp bow and held the elevator door.

MacManus was on a mission, an important one. Of the two major projects he was working on, the first had ended early and the second was starting late. With that in play, he had managed- at great expense of money and mental effort- to carve out a teeny tiny fraction of vacation time for himself, and he was not going to hesitate at achieving it.

During the brief ride up he studiously avoided the elevator boy’s attempts at pleasant conversation, dwelling instead for a moment on the difficulty at hand. The last project he’d have to put his stamp on was ludicrous- a monkey’s job. A few of the eggheads kept wanting to tinker with the M42, adding blast shields and ammo variants. Which meant that he personally had ended up in the godforsaken desert south of Las Vegas at a makeshift observation deck, listening to the junior officers ooh and ah and quote Hindu scripture like it was the second coming of goddamned Trinity. He really pitied the poor grunt down there in the valley who had to nuke some cardboard targets from a grenade’s throw away.

It was a waste of money, and he’d said so, but he put his stamp on it anyway to get the eggheads to shut up, but he’d taken his aide Colonel Tidewater aside to let him know that the budget for the project could be safely decimated. Literally.Tidewater was out doing the legwork on the next project- some relatively practical idea about setting up newly built prisons, hospitals and such so that they could be quickly converted into useful military sites in the event regular bases were targets. Otherwise, he’d be here and there would be someone interesting to talk to.

MacManus felt the elevator slow as they neared the Presidential Suites, but he lashed out with a craggy finger in the elevator boy’s face and waggled it very deliberately. The unfortunate lad blanched but made the right choice, ignoring whatver VIPs had called the elevator.

Here they were at one of the most important targets in MacManus’ sight right now- the Lucky 38 Cocktail Lounge. He pushed out of the elevator before the door was barely opened, leaving his perpetually embarrassed dogrobber to tip and console the elevator boy.

This was it. The Holy Grail. Shangri-la. There were better bars in Vegas, of course, and Robert House’s taste in decorating would never match the Ultra Luxe, for example, but… MacManus peered through rills of cigarette smoke backlit by the sun through the tower’s windows. The view. The thrice-damned view.

He made a quick circuit, taking it in. He didn’t get to come in here often enough. The genius of this view, was that unless you got right up close and peered down, you couldn’t see the filthy city of Las Vegas at all. Seated on his usual chair- which he regretfully bypassed for the moment- he looked out at the mountains, at the thin clouds as they were driven across the sunny sky. Soon enough. Unfortunately, business never ceased.

MacManus made a departure from his routine and sat down at the bar. He reached inside his jacket and removed his pipe- a scuffed, stubby Irish bulldog- and his tobacco, which he had made by Kramer’s whenever he was in LA. It was a dark English blend, and he was sure that the smell of it straight from the pouch would keep anyone from sitting next to him. Once lit, though, it would be a smoke to rival any cathedral’s incense.

The bartender limped over and discreetly handed him a shotglass full of matches. MacManus took them and began to pack and light his pipe without acknowledging the man. Once he was steadily puffing, he looked over and gave the bartender a smile.

“Thank you, Chet.”

“My pleasure, General.” He blinked a bit more than was necessary. The power of latakia. “What will it be this morning, sir?”

MacManus looked past him, behind the bar, and chuckled. The beer taps on display were a joke, the rube’s idea of good beer and whiskey. Horowitz? Dirty Fenster? Jesus wept. House made a mint by catering to the poor schmucks who didn’t know any better. But when dealing with an arrogant sonofabitch like House, of course it was a trap.

The only thing Robert House hated more than a rube was a poser. If you asked for some top shelf booze that wasn’t shown, you’d be served it and made to feel like a king. But then the quality of service would plummet and your luck at the casino would disappear. Your punishment for putting on airs.

General Roderick MacManus was an arrogant sonofabitch as well, and ten years ago he’d made a sort of friendship with Robert House by escaping the trap the only possible way. He had cheated.

“The Satrap 1851, of course, Chet.” It was his family’s whisky, brewed for a short time and raved about by serious imbibers for some time, but discontinued before the Great War and never seen outside of Scotland. His first time at the Lucky 38 he’d asked for it, knowing they wouldn’t have it. He’d endured the embarassment and apologies with a wry smile, but on his next visit there’d been a bottle of it waiting, as well as a discreet invitation up to the penthouse, to talk business.

Chet nodded and went to fetch the drink. MacManus tucked his tobacco pouch back into his jacket and almost relaxed.

His friendship with House had turned into quite the mutual arrangement, and he’d spent many a pleasant afternoon with the man, solving… well, some of the world’s problems. At least until a couple years ago. House had always been eccentric, but at some point at least one of his gears had slipped, and he’d become a recluse. He didn’t leave the penthouse and nobody was permitted in. They’d kept in touch over the defense network (a RobCo product, of course), but electronic letters were a pale substitute for the company of your peers.

“Your Satrap, sir.” Chet brought the glass over to him like it was full of plutonium. Probably as expensive.

MacManus took a contemplative puff, before grabbing his pipe and using it to point vaguely… up. “Is… he taking visitors yet?”

“He is not, sir.” It was quite a poker face. Chet’s talents were wasted in this part of the Lucky 38. MacManus nodded with what he hoped was a reasonable expression, and without looking signaled for his dogrobber. The Corporal responded by swiftly slapping the briefcase on the bar and then stepping back into helpful distance.

MacManus snapped the catches open and reached inside for the souvenir snowglobe he’d had made for his friend. A little joke between the two of them. He set it down on the bar in front of Chet.

“Give this to Robert, with my regards, Chet.”

“I will do, sir.”

“Give Corporal Smythe a drink, please, Chet. Not the good stuff.”

“Indeed, sir.” MacManus grinned and crammed his pipe back in his mouth. He picked up his glass of whisky and stood up from the bar.

“I’ll be in my chair. Enjoying the view.”

Operation Plumbbob :: U.S. Navy Goodyear ZSG-3 Blimp with the Stokes cloud in background. The dirigible was in temporary free flight in excess of five miles from ground zero when collapsed by the shock wave from the blast. The airship was unmanned and was used in military effects experiments on blast and heat. Nevada test Site, August 7, 1957 / source: Department of Energy at Wikimedia Commons

animated
Nuclear Firework in Nevada Test Site

Groom Lake, Nevada

An aeriel view of the MCity test site.  Navistar is the latest truck maker to get involved in autonomous vehicles, with its involvement in a new test site at the University of Michigan designed to test connected a

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Fallout New Vegas snow globe replica. Test Site.

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Dizzy seduction
Carsten Höller: Test Site. Unilever Series - Tate Modern, London

I find it extremely significant to have come to know of the existence of Carsten Höller’s exhibit at the Tate Modern not thanks to one of the usual press invitations, but through a blog. It was in an enthusiastic post, almost childish, which somehow forced anyone who might be scheduling a trip to the British capital to share that experience.

Pretending I absolutely wanted to take my son, I took advantage of a business trip and I placed a visit to the Turbine Hall in my agenda. This is the name of the space destined by the Tate Modern to the enormous works of the Unilever Series: gigantic commissions that annually attract thousands of people from all over the world; also thanks to the practicability of the works, their theatrical spectacularity, the media ear saying and – why not? – the absence of entry tickets for the Tate Gallery. I previously walked up and down the stairs of Louise Bourgeois’ disturbing sculptures animated by visual and materic surprises, guarded by a gigantic spider placed in the center of the museum; more recently I explored the basement’s shapes and sizes, the cavities and the secret passages, invaded by casts of boxes by Rachel Whiteread, as if the basement itself were a cathedral. I missed the mesmerizing sun by Olafur Eliasson drowned in a typical London fog, Juan Munoz’s geometric trapdoors and curious characters, Anish Kapoor’s red and solemn conic curves, but most of all Bruce Naumann’s sound and mind sculptures, though. This time I couldn’t miss out: I was attracted both by how I came to know of the event and by the intelligent talent of the Swedish naturalized Belgian artist. I wasn’t only expecting huge slides on which to have fun along with (and just as) a reckless ten year old. As every work by Carsten Höller, Test Site is an extremely powerful mix of psycho-emotional, perceptive and cultural stimuli. The whole is formed by a series of metallic slides, covered by transparent and dizzying tubes, each one of which connects a different floor of the museum to the basement. These shiny serpents create rather original visual patterns, which perfectly fit among the geometries of the former electric plant, resulting in a gigantic elegant and minimalist formal composition. But the fulcrum of the exhibit are the public’s psycho-physic experiences. The artist – who is also a biology doctorate – has always created works which are experiments of confusion and exhilaration of the public: ludic devices with the sole purpose to make the public the matter and mind of art. To analyze in a lucid but non-aseptic way the mutative emotions of the human being that lets go: this is what you call utopia; and it’s towards this design, chaotic and stimulating, that the Belgian artist dedicates all his creative energy.

In the beginning of his artistic parable Höller – soon after made part of the main contemporary art venues: Biennial of Venice, Documenta, Manifesta and by now at the center of important one-man shows in museums, foundations and collections all over the world (the latest at the Tate…) – had already set an original tie between play and peril, between seduction and fear. In 1994, for example, a ready to use tricycle was loaded and primed like a chemical bomb. No later than in the year 2000 slides, carousels and other amusement park attractions had already been seen, all destined to the often nervous and numb art spectators. At times his artistic experiments reveal their purpose by showing the playfulness of artist and spectators; the stake is always, even choosing fantastic devices, a more acute sense of reality. In London the game is terrible: thanks to the considerable height, the speed attained sliding down inside the canvas bags issued puts under a considerable strain people’s knees, elbows, courage and aplomb. And if already from the beginning it proved necessary to place large mats to soften the landings, it is also true that to descend it is necessary to brave a long queue and reserve the ride often hours in advance. On the web site of the London museum, thanks to a webcam, it is possible to see the often overwhelming reactions of participants. And it is the latter which inevitably, making it out safe and enthusiast, don’t remember ever having had such a crazy, fun and shared artistic experience: in sum, real. Which was to be demonstrated.

The work, we were saying, is the seventh of the eight colossal installations to which Unilever, the just as gigantic British-Dutch food and hygiene corporation, has reserved a 3,4 million euro sponsorship, which returned up to now an attendance of 13 million visitors (Unilever data). Merit of the director of the Tate Modern, Vincente Todoli, is having found the link between Unilever’s mission: «Add vitality to life» and Höller’s: «Seduce by clarifying the mechanisms of seduction».

© Augusto Pieroni
(MUSE Magazine, #7, 2007)

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Seduzione vertiginosa
Carsten Höller: Test Site. Unilever Series - Tate Modern, London

Mi sembra estremamente indicativo il fatto di aver saputo dell’esistenza della personale di Carsten Höller alla Tate Modern di Londra non grazie ad uno dei soliti inviti stampa, ma attraverso un blog. Era in un post entusiasta, quasi infantile, che in qualche modo obbligava chiunque fosse destinato nella capitale britannica a visitare la mostra, a condividerne l’esperienza. Facendo finta di volerci assolutamente portare mio figlio, ho colto l’occasione di un viaggio per motivi di lavoro ed ho messo in agenda la visita alla Turbine Hall. Così si chiama lo spazio destinato dalla Tate Modern alle enormi opere della Unilever Series: commissioni ciclopiche che annualmente attirano migliaia di persone da tutto il mondo; complici la percorribilità dei lavori, la loro teatrale spettacolarità, il tam-tam mediatico e – perché no? – l’assenza di un biglietto d’ingresso per entrare alla Tate.

In precedenza avevo camminato su e giù nelle inquietanti sculture di Louise Bourgeois animate da soprese visive e materiche, sorvegliate dal ragno gigante posto al centro del museo; più di recente avevo esplorato i pieni e i vuoti, gli anfratti e i passaggi segreti del seminterrato invaso dai calchi di scatole di Rachel Whiteread, quasi fosse una cattedrale. Avevo mancato però lo strepitoso sole di Olafur Eliasson affogato in una nebbia tutta londinese, le botole geometriche e i personaggi curiosi di Juan Munoz, le rosse e solenni curve coniche di Anish Kapoor, ma soprattutto le sculture di suono e di pensiero del grande Bruce Naumann. Questa volta non potevo non esserci: ero attratto tanto dal modo in cui avevo saputo dell’evento quanto dall’intelligente talento dell’artista belga naturalizzato svedese. Non mi attendevano solo mega-scivoli coi quali sollazzarsi con (e come) uno spericolato ragazzino di 10 anni. Come tutte le opere di Carsten Höller, Test Site è invece un potentissimo intreccio di sollecitazioni psico-emotive, percettive e culturali. L’insieme è formato da una serie di scivoli metallici, coperti da tubi trasparenti e vertiginosamente tortuosi, ognuno dei quali collega un diverso piano del museo col livello interrato. Questi serpentoni sfavillanti creano dei pattern visivi piuttosto originali, che si incastonano nelle geometrie moderniste dell’ex centrale elettrica, risultando in una gigantesca composizione formale elegante e minimalista. Ma il fulcro dell’esposizione sono le esperienze psico-fisiche del pubblico. Da sempre l’artista – che è anche dottore di ricerca in biologia – crea opere che sono anche esperimenti di euforizzazione e confusione degli spettatori: dispositivi ludici tramite i quali il pubblico diviene materia e pensiero dell’arte. Analizzare in modo lucido ma non asettico, le mutevoli emozioni dell’essere umano che si lascia andare: questa sì che è un’utopia; e a questo disegno, caotico e stimolante, l’artista belga dedica tutte le proprie energie creative.

All’inizio della sua parabola artistica Höller – poi inserito nelle principali kermesse d’arte contemporanea: Biennale di Venezia, Dokumenta, Manifesta, e ormai al centro di personali importantissime in musei, collezioni e fondazioni di tutto il mondo (ultima la Tate…) – aveva già posto una singolare relazione tra gioco e pericolo, tra seduzione e terrore. Nel ’94, ad esempio, un triciclo pronto per l’uso era caricato e innescato come una bomba chimica. Non più tardi del 2000 già si erano visti scivoli, carousel e altre attrazioni da luna park destinate agli spesso pavidi e torpidi spettatori dell’arte. A volte i suoi esperimenti artistici mostrano il proprio stesso funzionamento palesando il gioco dell’autore e degli spettatori; in gioco c’è sempre, anche se attraverso dispositivi fantastici, un senso più acuto del reale. A Londra il gioco è terribile: grazie all’altezza considerevole, la velocità che si acquista scivolando giù dentro ai sacchi di tela forniti in dotazione, mette a dura prova le ginocchia, i gomiti, il coraggio e l’aplomb della gente (mio figlio giura sulla ineguagliabilità del brivido, però). E se già nei primi giorni si è resa necessaria l’aggiunta di appositi materassi per frenare gli adrenalinici fine-corsa, è anche vero che per scendere occorre fare la fila e prenotare la corsa a volte con ore d’anticipo. Sul sito del museo londinese, mediante una web-cam, si può perfino osservare la spesso incontenibile reazione fisica degli spettatori-partecipanti. Sono proprio questi ultimi che poi inevitabilmente, uscendo sani ed entusiasti, non ricordano di aver mai fatto un’esperienza artistica tanto coinvolgente, folle, condivisa: insomma, reale. Quod erat demonstrandum.

L’opera, lo dicevamo, è la settima delle otto colossali installazioni a cadenza annuale cui Unilever, la non meno gigantesca multinazionale anglo-olandese del cibo e dell’igiene, ha riservato una sponsorizzazione di circa 3,4 milioni di euro, ripagata fin qui da ben 13 milioni di visitatori (dati Unilever). Il merito del direttore della Tate Modern, Vincente Todoli, è aver trovato l’ennesimo trait-d’union fra la mission della Unilever: «aggiungere vitalità alla vita» e quella di Höller: «sedurre chiarendo i meccanismi della seduzione».

© Augusto Pieroni
(MUSE Magazine, #7, 2007)

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