An event that didn’t quite happen

Been to see ‘Greenwich Degree Zero’, the installation by Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy at the Beaconsfield Gallery in London (and later, Rod tells me, in various other venues), which reconstructs an event in 1894 when a French anarchist was killed when the bomb he was carrying detonated outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Except that in this version, he also succeeds in blowing up the Observatory, which he didn’t achieve in 1894 (assuming that’s what he was aiming to do).

It’s a work with certain undeclared intertexts and resonances, since the event inspired Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent which Hitchcock adapted for his 1936 film Sabotage, and as a review in The Guardian mentions, there’s also Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which a V2 rocket lands on the Greenwich meridian. But what it evokes above all, of course, is 9/11, not only because of the echo of ‘Ground Zero’ in the installation’s title, but also because the choice of Greenwich Observatory as a target is metaphorically equal to the twin towers as a symbol of imperial power. Of course Bourdin, the historical culprit, was not a suicide bomber but an accidental victim of his own device, a French anarchist at a time of anarchist terrorist attacks in several European countries. Indeed another French anarchist had just been executed for the bombing of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in December 1893, and a bomb had been planted in a Paris café just three days before the event in Greenwich, in reprisal for his execution. (See National Maritime Museum.)
Dickinson and McCarthy present a series of press reports and various items of evidence, doctored to fit their poetic conceit of the attack’s ‘successful’ outcome. They round it out with a piece of film and a video. The video provides interviews on the event-which-didn’t-quite-happen with modern commentators. The film purports to be a contemporary newsreel of the aftermath – the Observatory on fire – which was shot using an old hand-cranked 35mm camera with the fire being added afterwards by means of digital graphics. This of course is another conceit, since the cinematograph only made its public debut the following year. But it’s entirely in the spirit of early cinema, which often presented reconstructions of events as if they were the real thing (like Smith and Blackton’s Battle of Santiago Bay in 1898, or James Williamson’s Attack on a China Mission of 1901).
In short, what the installation captures is the hysteria generated in the mainstream press – and the discussion in the Anarchist press – occasioned by Bourdin’s mishap. I once wrote, in my book on the beginnings of cinema, that it almost seems as if the modern world began with the birth of film, because before that moment even photographs are only static remnants of the past, whereas film presented living images. An historical illusion, of course. ‘Greenwich Degree Zero’ suggests to me a kind of parallel but inverse phenomenon which is more disturbing – that despite the huge advances in communications during the twentieth century, the distance between 1894 and 2006 almost disappears in the response of the media to violent acts of opposition to the body politic. A response in which, then as now, fact and ideological fantasy are all too readily intertwined.

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