One of the scariest traits of the human race is our ability to make insane moments appear normal.
This unsettling thought forms the backdrop to Fallout, a new photographic exhibit at the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum, by Ottawa artist Leslie Hossack, which tackles the paranoia and fear surrounding the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War.
The exhibit, which runs until October 21 and is part of Festival X, Ottawa’s photographic festival, showcases pictures of the Diefenbunker – a 100,000 square foot, four-storey underground bunker built between 1959-61 to protect key members of the Canadian government in the event of nuclear war. Located in Carp (about 30 minutes from downtown Ottawa), the Diefenbunker is now a museum.
“I was born in 1947, the year when the term ‘Cold War’ was coined,” explained Hossack during a presentation at the exhibition opening. “I have more vivid memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am a child of the Cold War.”
It is this background that inspired Hossack to take photos of the Diefenbunker to capture some of the terror and irrationality of that era. “Maybe you will get a feeling of being suspended in time and waiting for the bomb to drop,” Hossock told the audience members who gathered for the vernissage.
In an interview with Apartment 613 following her talk, Hossack said that her photos are meant to highlight the almost creepy sense of normalcy within the building: “The human capacity to normalize that which is not rational,” she said.
This sense of normalcy in an era gripped with fear is evidenced by the complete absence of people in the photos. Instead of human faces, we are presented with cold, sterile-looking rooms that feel mechanical.
The lack of human figures can be interpreted in a couple of ways. First, that the Diefenbunker was (thankfully) never used for its main purpose due to the avoidance of nuclear war. Second, the feeling of emptiness can represent the banality of the entire project, for if nuclear war ever did occur, and key members of the Canadian government went underground, what country would they “govern”? In time, as food and water run out, these government members could have died out in a post-apocalyptic barren world.
For those who were too young to experience the Cold War as adults, or who were born after its end, it’s difficult to understand the sense of paranoia and fear during those times. This point came to life vividly during the vernissage, when the voices of children were heard in the distance as part of a birthday party that had come to the Diefenbunker.
Listening to these children, I asked Hossack what meaning young people could get from her exhibit.
“There is something in the human psyche that reacts to the expression of power,” she replied, in reference to one of her photographs which show empty chairs where leading government members would have sat during a nuclear war. “Even though 25 and 12-year-olds don’t know much about the cold war, they do respond to images of power.”
An interesting part of Fallout is the sense that the pictures do not document the history of the Diefenbunker, but rather aim to evoke feelings. This, it turns out, was deliberate.
“I was looking for someone to interpret the space, not just document it,” said Megan Lafrenière, guest curator for Fallout. This goal was met by the slightly creepy photos that captured the insanity of the Cold War era.
“It’s so rational it’s irrational,” said Henriette Riegel, executive director of the Diefenbunker.
Fallout runs until Sunday, October 21 at the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. For more information, check out the Festival X website.