Los Angeles

Tracing the San Clemente Island Weapons Testing Range

Installation view of Documentation as Art.jpg

This image essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. As part of Incendiary Traces, a series of "draw-ins" will take place in Southern California in the coming months. They will be followed here on Artbound, along with related posts on historical and contemporary topics like this one.

San Clemente Island is the subject of a draw-in on the deck of a sport fishing boat named "The Fury". The next few posts will look at visions of that island alongside other contemporary and historic representations of the military-imperial Pacific landscape.

San Clemente Island, the southernmost California Channel Island, is a wildlife refuge for endangered species and a fisherman's paradise. It is also the U.S. Navy's only active ship-to-shore weapons training facility in the world. Special Ops train here for special ops; Navy SEALs and allied forces (eg. British, Israeli, Japanese) envision joint port seizures, amphibious vehicle landings and drone attacks. Reservists come here en-mass to imagine what it would be like to take over a harbor city in a recently deposed dictatorship (think Benghazi). And it's 51 miles off the coast of Orange County. As such, it gives us an opportunity to think about the Southern California landscape, and specifically the Pacific, as a real and imagined theater of war.

Civilians are not allowed to step on the island unless they are contracted by the Navy, so to get an idea of what it's like here we look to two men who have been deeply embedded in this place and the waters around it. Robert Wolf, biologist and photojournalist, regularly visits the island to work on avian habitat preservation. Tom McMillin, artist and sea captain, has been fishing these waters since the 1950s; his body of artwork about the ocean since the 1970's has become part of Southern California's land art history. Here, we will look at images documenting their personal, physical experiences tracing this island and consider the politically complex nature of seeing and recording this sometimes highly classified landscape.

Wolf's work as a biologist is part of an effort to conserve the endangered San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike's native habitat. This bird only lives on this island and resides exclusively within its canyons. Though Wolf probably wouldn't call it land art, the lines he and his fellow biologists draw with fire retardant on the surface of San Clemente Island, as seen via bing.com's satellite map feature, illustrate some of the fascinating dynamics at play between the natural landscape and the military that occupies some of it in Southern California.

Fire retardant lines, San Clemente Island, screen shot. | Courtesy bing.com

Because the Southern California coastline is so developed and the U.S. Navy needs open space to practice and train, the Navy has become a steward of the wilderness. The Department of Defense, which must work with the mandate of the Environmental Protection Act to preserve endangered species, hires contractors (biologists and others) like Wolf to develop natural resource plans. Included are limits on the kinds of maneuvers the Navy can do, contingent on environmental impact. For example, as endangered foxes roam the island, military vehicles must keep low speed limits to avoid hitting foxes. As well, impact on plants requires limits on driving areas. However, as weapons have been tested here since WWII (prior to the passage of the EPA), tens of thousands of bombs litter the island. They range in size from two stacked trash cans to a ping pong ball, and many are embedded underground. It would be more harmful to the environment to clean them up than to leave them there.

Fake air strip, San Clemente Island, screen shot. | Courtesy bing.com

Targets made of shipping containers, San Clemente Island, screen shot. | Courtesy bing.com

Bombardment scars, San Clemente Island, screen shot. | Courtesy bing.com

Burn scar, San Clemente Island, screen shot. | Courtesy bing.com

Viewing the satellite images, one can make out the roads, fake airstrip, bomb targets, and bombardment scars within military testing range. (Also visible via satellite is a small amount of ash left from the blast, that with a single growing season will be nearly completely indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape.) The red fire retardant lines laid out by Wolf and his colleagues prevent bombing fires from spreading into the shrike territory. The presence of these red lines, visually dissecting the island and evident from such a great distance above, speaks about the power held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the power to shut down the testing site if they are out of compliance.

Sea captain and environmental artist Tom McMillin created a series of works in the 1970s focusing on San Clemente and the other seven islands off Southern California's coast. McMillin's works suggest something similar to the kind of information collected by scientists and the military, interested in understanding aspects of the island for how it can be used or preserved. Through models and documentation, McMillin aimed to illustrate the natural beauty of the ocean environment in this area. Working with sonar, scaled models and magnetite, and biodegradable dyes, he created visual records and simulations that mapped the sea floor, currents, and silhouette of the island's landmass.

Tom McMillin's 'San Clemente Island', from the 'Island Series,' magnetite on plexiglass, circa 1979. | Photo: Hillary Mushkin

In the catalog essay from McMillins's 1979 exhibition at the Arco Center for Visual Art in downtown Los Angeles, Fritz A. Frauchiger describes the art work. "Three large tanks contain water and models of three islands - Santa Barbara, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina. Hand-operated pumps allow the viewer to create silt buildup around the islands, which simulate nature.

McMillin spent months taking sonar readings of the ocean floor near the islands. When mounted on the wall, these readings resemble long scrolls of delicate charcoal drawings. He also placed biodegradable dyes at right angles to the current around each island and photographed the results in color from the air. The photos not only serve as two-dimensional designs, but document the current as well."

Tom McMillin's 'Undersea sonar recordings,' circa 1980. |  Photo: Hillary Mushkin

As part of the national park system and recreational area, natural beauty is most commonly pictured in the popular imagination of the Channel Islands. However, San Clemente Island's environment also helps armed forces imagine and practice violent international conflict in distant yet similar coastal topographies. The traces of both McMillin and Wolf's work -- marking the island geography on the earth's surface by boat, sonar, fire retardant, dye in the ocean current, and imaging it from above via satellites and models - provide insights into this unique Pacific island beyond nature photography and military photos. Wolf and McMillin offer us impressions of what it's like to be on the ground (and the water) in this Pacific island landscape as civilians observing, witnessing and coexisting with the military.

Follow Incendiary Traces on Facebook.

Dig this story? Vote by hitting the Facebook like button above and tweet it out, and it could be turned into a short video documentary. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook and Twitter.

Top Image: Installation view of Documentation as Art/Art as Documentation, exhibit at ARCO Center for Visual Art, 1979. | Photo courtesy Tom McMillin.

About the Author

Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist and researcher. She leads "Incendiary Traces," an art and research initiative that she started to consider how landscape imaging helps authorities and the public visualize conflict zones. She fre...
Previous Post
Next Post

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

section header: disciplines
icon, Architecture/ Design discipline

Architecture/ Design

California becomes an international export by redefining the concept of city and home.

icon, Community Arts discipline

Community Arts

Through workshops, education and placed based projects, art is the connective tissue of a community.

icon, Cultural Politics discipline

Cultural Politics

Funding bubbles, cultural deserts and the politics of access to the arts in the 21st century.

icon, Film & Media Arts discipline

Film & Media Arts

At the shadow of the entertainment industry, video artists and underground filmmakers take a stand.

icon, Literature discipline


Noir, sunshine and dystopia create a multi-ethnic narrative that is read, watched and admired around the globe.

icon, Multi-Disciplinary discipline


Multi-hyphenate works that combine disciplines, remix dogmas, and reinvent the wheel.

icon, Music discipline


A dialogue between cultures, the music of our state serves up the California dream like no other artform.

icon, Performance discipline


Staging the drama of California through dance, music and theater.

icon, Visual Arts discipline

Visual Arts

Breaking away from the European and New York vanguard, California reinvents the art world.

Featured • More Columnists
Loading Columnists...