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Johnston Island Saturday Night

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Cake celebrating the destruction of all chemical weapons on Johnston Island, including: Mustard Gas (H), Sarin (GB), and VX Nerve Agent. | Photo: US Army.

This video essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. Incendiary Traces is holding a series of site-specific draw-ins, which will take place across Southern California in the coming months, as well as collecting related historical and contemporary materials, like this video essay. Artbound is following the draw-ins and publishing related materials as the project develops.

This post is one of four looking at contemporary and historic visions of the military-imperial Pacific landscape. These posts are in conjunction with a draw-in focused on California's San Clemente Island Naval Weapons Testing Range.


Johnston Island (also referred to as Johnston Atoll) is a decommissioned US Naval base 800 miles west of Hawaii. During the 1960s and 70s, it was the site of numerous high altitude nuclear test launches, including Operation Dominic, in which plutonium was scattered across the island from one of the failed Thor rockets. Between 1985 and 2000, stockpiled VX nerve gas, Sarin, and Agent Orange were incinerated on the island at the U.S. Army's first chemical weapons disposal facility. Johnston Atoll is now, once again, a national wildlife refuge, 86 years after it was established as such by President Coolidge. The video includes historic photos of disused launch gantries, incinerator demolition / removal, and final closure of the island as a military reservation. Also featured are nostalgic images of bbq parties, scuba diving, tiki bars, palm trees, shark feeding, and members of the military hanging out in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, drinking cans of beer, all set to the tune of "J.I. Saturday Night" a Jimmy Buffet inspired tune by singer/songwriter Larry La Riviere who spent 11 years on Johnston Island, charged with dismantling "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (another song of Larry's). Completing the piece are two short extracts from silent footage shot in 1924 by Smithsonian ornithologists, featuring two birds that are now extinct. Development in the post-WWII years introduced non-native species to the island that, along with the chemical and nuclear experiments on the Island and in the region, dealt the final blow to many birds that were struggling to survive in an already inhospitable place.

Questions abound for places like Johnston Island -- once remote, pristine places which have been transformed geologically, chemically, and radioactively; built and blasted beyond recognition; up-ended and re-sealed. Can such profoundly altered landscapes ever be natural again? It seems that, in this case, the U.S. Department of Defense has tried to undo the past 60 years, at least on the surface. Re-natured sites such as this will, for the foreseeable future, bear signature marks of their land use. Perhaps the most honest way to preserve sites such as this is to leave reminders of what occurred. A full erasure of the defense-related history of Johnston Island would be destructive and only serve to conceal the past. Extinction, decay, destruction, and remediation (natural or otherwise) are temporal, entropic events and should be realized and memorialized, made tangible and appreciable, by the site itself. Extreme interventions on the natural landscape, such as what occurred here on this remote Pacific atoll, should never be obscured, lest they be forgotten. Johnston Island is another exemplary ruin of the 20th century.

"Johnston Island Saturday Night" is a video piece assembled by Steve Rowell and appropriated from 4 sources:

  • A slideshow found on Youtube featuring photographs and amateur video footage taken by veterans during missions from the 1960s-2000s.
  • Archival, declassified US military footage edited by National Public Radio to accompany a radio story about atmospheric nuclear tests.
  • Archival silent footage from the 1924 Tanager Expedition, a joint survey by the Smithsonian Institution under the auspices of the US Navy.
  • A song by a veteran who served on Johnston Island.

Steve Rowell is an artist, curator, and researcher, working in Los Angeles, Berlin, and Washington D.C. over recent years. His spatial practice involves overlapping aspects and perceptions of technology, culture, and infrastructure on, beneath, and above the landscape - contextualizing the built and the natural environment, appropriating the methods and tools of the geographer and cartographer. Photography, video, and audio field recordings are the media of his projects, often exhibited as installations or as public interventions.

In addition to being Program Manager at The Center for Land Use Interpretation since 2001, he collaborates with SIMPARCH and The Office of Experiments.

Incendiary Traces considers the political nature of representing the palm-dotted southern California landscape. It focuses on our landscape as a tool for understanding seemingly remote wars, particularly in similarly subtropical areas where the U.S. is involved, for example, the Middle East, Latin America and North Africa. Visit Incendiary Traces for more information. If you're interested in contributing or participating in Incendiary Traces, read the Call for Submissions

Follow Incendiary Traces on Facebook.

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