Area 51

Here's a picture of Ray Goudey, "the dashing, daring, Lockheed test pilot" who "flew the U-2 spy plane's legendary 'Ship One' at Area 51, starting in 1955". In the photo he's preparing for a flight whilst reading More Adventures in Time and Space (1955), a science fiction anthology edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. The book is the 'sequel' to Adventures in Time and Space, (1946) a massive 900+ page book of "non-fiction stories of the future world of atomic power, rockets etc". The first volume contained stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Alfred Bester and Issac Asimov whilst in the second, Goudey would have encountered all these and more. 

I came across this image when researching a short article for Monolith on the recent declassification of information relating to Area 51. It appears in the documentary Area 51: I Was There which has links to Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base (2011). Goudey plays a key role in both and the image as well as the above description appears on Jacobson's website.  

This photograph pretty much crystallizes the nature of my interest in ufology, conspiracy theory and the grey room that is the history and culture of the post-1945 period. I'm not a UFO investigator, Ufologist or for that matter a UFO debunker. Instead, I'm interested in ufology as a cultural discourse that assumes a particular form at a particular time. More specifically, I'm interested in the way in which ufology intersects and establishes a generative feedback loop with such parallel spheres as popular culture, cinema and science fiction. In this respect, whilst I work with texts by Morris K. Jessup, Charles Berlitz and John Keel, I find the methodologies and analysis of Philip K. Dick, Craig Baldwin and Ken Hollings to be a more productive approach to the topic. 

This is the interstitial and intertextual territory I was trying to map in the Invisible Horizons talk at Nottingham. Using the title of Vincent Gaddis’ 1965 book Invisible Horizons: Strange Mysteries of the Sea I was interested in how he described himself as a “freelance writer who specializes in exploring the borderlands where fact emerges from myth and legend”. Arguing that Atlantis represents a "triangle formed out of the extreme edges of folklore, oceanography and archaeology" I suggested that it occupies an inverse borderland to that which Gaddis posits, a borderland where fact becomes myth and legend. 

Goudey’s photograph is one such borderland. It neatly presents the sedimentary overlap that forms the imaginative economy of the UFO phenomenon: aviation, science fiction paperbacks and recontextualized photography. It also works as a signpost marking out the complex of narratives and interlocking reference points that constellate around the idea of Area 51.

Case in point is Jacobsen’s book. It was initially praised for the detail of its research but a wave of negative criticism greeted a number of its later ‘revelations’. The source of the most vociferous criticism was the claim of an unnamed informant that Area 51 played host to the remains of the 1947 Roswell crash. This is not in and of itself extraordinary. What is odd is the twist Jacobsen reports as part of the ‘real’ stories that make up the book.  Here’s how Earl Swift of Popular Mechanics tells it:

"The bottom line of the traditional Roswell story is that the purported extraterrestrial UFO wreckage was taken to Area 51 and subsequently became the object of a massive government coverup. Relying on the testimony of a single unnamed source, Jacobsen's book repeats the claim that some sort of UFO crashed at Roswell. But in her telling, the craft wasn't of alien origin. Instead, it was a saucer built by the Soviets using technology they'd obtained from German engineers at the end of World War II. And there's more. According to her unnamed source, the craft was manned by human teenagers who had been medically altered to look like aliens, with giant heads and eyes like wraparound Oakleys. 

Who would do such a thing to children? Why, notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, Jacobsen writes, quoting her source quoting another source or sources, also unnamed. Seems that Mengele was working for Soviet boss Josef Stalin, who needed the mutants for a special project: scaring the daylights out of America with a fake alien visitation. Yes, it was all a hoax; the most lavish prank in history."

Swift goes onto interrogate this story by trying to locate Jacobsen's source. What's more interesting to me is the peripheral criticisms he offers. He argues that this well-worn vision of small grey aliens is an anachronistic appropriation of imagery from Close Encounters, somewhat at odds with the popular Wellsian vision of extra-terrestrials that would have been in circulation in 1947 (thanks in no small part to to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds) Similarly, he also raises the example of James Blish's short story 'Tomb Tapper', from the July 1956 edition of Astounding Science Fiction In Blish's story a flying saucer crash lands and is suspected to be of Soviet origin. When the craft is opened it is found to have been piloted by a female child. 

These references do more than merely debunk Jacobsen's text. Whatever the level of truth value she attaches to her source, the criticisms point to the intermingling of cultural artifacts and historical accounts. More precisely Area 51 reiterates how the the archetype of the UFO is a hybrid of imaginary, symbolic and 'objective' evidence that has the effect of producing a retro-chronal phantasy. Contemporaneous references to and representations of the UFO phenomenon underscore the foundation of the myth by being re-projected as points of origin. This is not a revisionist perspective so much as an attempt to delineate the synchronous loop that has revolved at each stage of UFO history. Astounding Science Fiction, we might remind ourselves, was the main source for the material that made up More Adventures in Time and Space.   


LA X-Ray

Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) has had a strange afterlife. It’s not as popular as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) or Corman’s Poesploitation oeuvre, but for sheer hallucinatory energy it’s certainly a lot better than his overrated LSD movie The Trip (1967). Corman says more about his other films in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood (1998) but X has nevertheless persisted as a “cult creepie” not least because of its appropriation by contemporary film-makers particularly Amanda Beech and Craig Baldwin.

X ostensibly keys into all the comic-book phantasies promised by 25-cent x-ray specs. Ray Milland stars as James Xavier, the archetypal scientific over-reacher who, frustrated with his limited perception of the wave spectrum, self-administers the experimental Compound X. This grants him the power to see through walls and clothes as well as the ability to assess and intervene in risky surgical practices. So far, so good – nothing particularly interesting here. However, once Xavier realises that Compound X is cumulative in its effects, the film takes on an unexpected level of proto-psychedelic intensity. He’s robbed of darkness, sleep, shelter from the glare of the sun until finally, wandering in the desert on the outer limits of Las Vegas, he confronts the terminal horror of the universe fully revealed.

X belongs to Corman’s subset of nihilistic, eschatological movies, films like The Day the World Ended (1955) and The Last Woman on Earth (1960). Whereas films like It Conquered the World (1956) mirror the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), these films are full of Cold war fear and loathing: not the anxiety that something awful might happen, but the dread and ennui that comes with having living through the actuality of such a disaster. Although X doesn’t take place on a ruined Earth, it nonetheless plots a (literally) post-apocalyptic scenario because it shows the immolating consequences that follow a moment of intense revelation.

Part of what makes X interesting is its reliance on the structure of the road movie. Xavier moves from downtown LA to the wastelands of the desert; from urban rationality to the hysteria of an evangelical tent-meeting and his final epiphany. Along the way he sees Los Angeles as an x-rayed accumulation of skeletal architecture, a “city unborn, with its skin dissolved in an acid of light […] a city of the dead”.

That Xavier is able to perceive the scaffold that underpins the svelte exterior of Los Angeles and later, Las Vegas, gives his x-ray vision a critical trajectory. At the start of the film, Xavier’s exploration of the wave spectrum is epistemological. It provides a means of discovery as regards the spaces that carry sedimentary content. Walls are seen to enclose rooms that hold private dramas and clothes cover bodies that carry organs held in place by skeletons. By the time of his urban excursions, Xavier’s insight has become ontological. He is able to see that which constitutes the material – and in the film’s closing moments the phenomenological – fabric of ‘reality’. His view of LA as the “unborn” city “rising in the sky” full of “signs without supports” announces a paradigmatic shift in the trajectory of his vision. An awareness of architectural and corporeal dissimulation gives rise to a perception of these surfaces as simulations, membranes of false plenitude that cover abysmal vacancy.

Beech draws on this aspect of X in her multi-platform work Sanity Assassin (2010). Commissioned by Spike Island in Bristol, Sanity Assassin is a three-channel video installation that incorporates a “sculptural [1] element: a spotlit mirrored plinth which displays a series of polished chainsaws situated in a custom-designed waiting area”.

The ‘showroom’ is based on the premises of the McCulloch chainsaw company in LA and the parallel video depicts a series of cityscape scenes cut to a noise soundtrack and a draconian editing rhythm.

Sanity Assassin offers Los Angeles as a geographical ossification of the neo-liberal agenda. Reality is presented a particularly violent form of hegemonic realism whereby space, policy and capital maintain dominance (despite inefficiency) through the projection of freedom and security as non-contradictory utopian ideals. Mike Davis offered a similar critique of LA’s political architecture in City of Quartz (1990) in which he analysed such late-capitalist symptoms as the city’s ‘fortress’ aesthetic and its gentrifying public transport facilities.[2] By contrast, Beech’s work draws this critical identification of postmodern irony into its analysis. Sanity Assassin works to interrogate the process of critique. Her study of LA operates as part of a wider investigative field in which the humanistic bias of critical theory is positioned as an agent in the production of the politics it seeks to question: “exposing power and making it visible simply reminds us that power exists as such”.[3] In the light of this position, Sanity Assassin takes as its representational modus operandi the contingency of power:

The work explores the various contradictions that are produced as a consequence of theorizing how to act when there is no absolute power to target and no centre from which to operate. Most particularly, the work attempted to explore the aestheticization and theorization of this infinitude as the real of the political and how it informs and shapes politics.[4]

In Sanity Assassin, the book that accompanies the installation, Beech includes a series of research images that informed the composition of the work. Amongst this montage of interiors and monoliths there’s a small still of Milland as Xavier taken from the closing moments of Corman’s film. Gazing with obsidian eyes into the agony of the revealed void, attempting to comprehend “the eye that watches us all”, Xavier exemplifies Beech’s project. As Marie-Anne McQuay suggests, the “horrific consequences” of Xavier’s “collision with the Real” signpost the trajectory of the project towards the interrogation and removal of the anthropomorphic subject in the work of critique.[5] By aligning Xavier’s vision with the Real, “the umbilical cord of the symbolic”[6], the subject of his gaze is recast not as that which is ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’ but that which is negative; the sense of difference rather than correspondence that normative perceptions work to exclude. What the film couches in terms of sin and transgression is presented in Sanity Assassin as momentary proximity with the kind of conceptual heat that closes Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

The oscillation in X between the physical and the metaphysical evokes the “cult stratum” that Davis highlights in the rise of Southern California as a science state. From the mid-1920s, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena played host to a rolling faculty of pioneering scientists who helped to establish “an emergent techno-structure” that fueled a post-war science based economy.[7] However, in the case of John ‘Jack’ Whiteside Parsons, this intellectual labour intersected with a dense matrix of seemingly dissonant interests. 

Parsons was a key influence in the establishment of the Pasadena Jet propulsion Laboratory and contributed to the development of solid rocket fuel. He was also a student of the occult and in 1942, under the guidance of Aleister Crowley, he assumed leadership of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). In addition, he was a member of the Los Angeles Fantasy and Science Fiction Society where he met Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. His association with Heinlein gave the latter important pointers for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) whilst his ill-fated connection to Hubbard arguably informed the “amalgamation of black magic, psychotherapy and science fiction” that Hubbard peddled as Scientology.[8]

In Davis’ discussion, this web of connections that move across the “vast wheel of public-private research” represent “bizarre” detours in the otherwise “seamless continuum between the corporation, laboratory and classroom” that characterised the economic rise of post-war Southern California. Certainly in the case of the ascent of Dianetics and Scientology, the persistence of this distant Cal-Tech offspring exists as a “discouraging reminder of science’s fate in the local culture”.[9]  For San-Franciscan film-maker Craig Baldwinthis web is not a historical aberration but is instead representative of the actual matter of Southern California. The “local culture” is entirely constituted of these spirals of conspiracy, post-war science, espionage and ‘trash’ aesthetics.

In his film, Mock-Up on Mu (2008) Baldwin embarks upon a similar excavation of Southern California’s Mock-Up on Mu is a speculative analysis of the biographical intersections that existed between L.Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron and Lockheed Martin. In essence, this group symbolises the same triangle of culture, science and industry central to Davis’ analysis. However, Baldwin’s collage approach – the creation of a ‘documentary’ using clips from obscure b-movies and ‘found footage’ – seeks not to pull away the veils of myth in order to foreground ‘truth’ but instead exaggerates the imaginary lives of the characters as a means to analyse the construction of the myth.
future as that performed by Davis, but rather than analysing the concrete terrain of significant structures, he explores the imaginary environment of genre cinema and mythopoesis.

Within this approach, X plays a small but significant role. Corman’s film is one of the many that Baldwin absorbs into his cut-up network that structures the film. In Chapter 11, ‘Desert Crossings: A fugitive Parsons sets off a manhunt’, we see Parsons, (played by Kal Spelletich) fleeing across the desert having been shot by Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke) as part of a wider Hubbard engineered plot to gain control of a solar energy device. Parsons’ flight is inter-cut with that of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) and Milland in X. Over the top of this montage Baldwin adds a voice-over that reads from Parsons’ essay ‘Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword’ (1950): 

The inertia and acquiescence which allows the suspension of our liberties would once have been unthinkable. The present ignorance and indifference is appalling. The little that is worthwhile in our civilization and culture is made possible by the few who are capable of creative thinking and independent action, grudgingly assisted by the rest. When the majority of men surrender their freedom, barbarism is near but when the creative minority surrender it, the Dark Age has arrived. Even the word liberalism has now become a front for a new social form of Christian morality. Science, that was going to save the world back in H.G. Wells' time, is regimented, straitjacketed and scared; its universal language is diminished to one word, security.[10]

‘Freedom’ is essentially a libertarian tract that posits the concept as the product of self-ultimacy, whereby the exertion of the individual will can help cultivate the appropriate territory in which “man” can live. However, in the quote above its hard not to see some echoes of Beech’s project. Putting aside the implied desire for an Ayn Randian creative oligarchy, the connection of “liberalism” with the restrictions of “security” evokes the critique of neo-liberalism and the security state in Sanity Assassin.

Baldwin’s use of X is also similar. Ostensibly the montage seeks to equate Parsons’ near death pursuit of a Temporary Autonomous Zone with the transcendent vision of Xavier. Both appear to willfully strive for an apprehension of a space or entity that lies beyond normative limits. However, this Nietzschean individualism is subverted through the proliferation that Baldwin creates via the application of his assemblage technique. Despite the self-assertion of Parsons’ words, at the level of the image, ‘Parsons’ is a fluid persona, one the drifts from the actor Spelletich to any number of substitutes: Milland, Grant and elsewhere in the film Kris Kristopherson and Hugh Marlowe The character thus holds no stable subjectivity. Instead, there is only a strange kind of dub identity, one that constantly navigates the length of a wave spectrum from reconstructive performance to speculative association. If X represents the horror of the LA Real in Sanity Assassin, in the matrix of Mock-Up on Mu, the stroboscopic expanse that forms the narrative of Corman’s film offers a complimentary metaphor. Baldwin’s conspiratorial web gives no glimpse of an occulted ‘reality’ but offers the networks of conspiracy as the Real that informs the symbolic structure of his obsessive characters.  

[1] Marie-Anne McQuay,‘Introduction’ in Sanity Assassin (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2010), pp. 7-11 (p.7).
[2] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), pp.223-263.
[3] Amanda Beech and Jaspar Joseph-Lester, ‘Reason Without Reason’, in Sanity Assassin, p.92.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Beech, p.66; McQuay, p. 8.
[6] Alan Sheridan in Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 279.
[7] Davis, p. 59.
[8] Ibid, p.60.
[9] Ibid.
[10] John Whiteside Parsons, ‘Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword’ in Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword and Other Essays (USA: New Falcon, 2001).