Archeology of Deterrence

Archeology of Deterrence  

Nadine Barth, 2009

An archeologist investigates. He investigates a specific epoch, cultural contexts, or the human activities of a given period. Based on his findings he is able to make statements about the daily life, the culture, or the existence of our ancestors.

Thus, Martin Roemers is an archeologist. In this case his subject happens to be the Cold War, but that is not all, that would be too easy. His subject is the interaction between landscape and the remains of an era that, at best, still haunts political and military minds as an abstract mind game: the period of military buildup, of the NATO Double-Track Decision, and the specter of the Warsaw Pact—although history from the other side of the Iron Curtain looked, to be sure, just as spooky. When a photographer now ventures there, pushes this curtain aside, and casts light onto these gloomy dungeons of deterrence, then he has—if it turns out he’s not a soldier or wasn’t someone directly affected, i.e., is not involved in working through private memories—actually only one option: that of the objective investigator.

And so Roemers climbs down into underground bunkers, erected to protect from the enemy, and trudges over meadows and through forests until he comes across scrapped tanks and munitions casings. Of those he knows exist, he investigates secret command centers, getting guards to open them up for him—to document them cautiously and with great diligence. According to a master plan. From a particular point of view. With the eye of a cartographer.

He checks things off, on this or the other side of the border, finds signature pieces with a strong connection to his theme, like the wreckage of an airplane in Eastern Germany, rising up into the sky, on which the red Soviet star can still be recognized, or the illustrated chart in a Dutch bunker depicting the stages of an atomic bomb explosion. They are transformed into solitary, self-composed independent forms, which, whether crashed or not, assert themselves with sculptural presence within their surroundings. And the surrounding environment is a damaged one. Bomb drops were tested over nature preserves, craters were torn open from troop maneuvers, and tanks left trees pulverized.

Today, unexploded ordinance of all calibers slumber underground, and locating and defusing them will be the task of an entire generation. Yet Roemers concentrates on what is visible; he leaves out the stretch of landscape and closes in on his subject, to bring the location of the terror within reach, to make it comprehensible.

There’s always another tunnel that fascinates him. It’s the draw that leads to the past. He maps their structure, their nature, and illuminates their dimensions. Within the extensive Cold War series the tunnels are like a small series in themselves. Each country, each side had their own tunnel forms; they become signifiers for the game of secrets that has played out since the fall of the Wall.

In their seriality and almost typological similarity, the tunnels refer back to the time of New Objectivity when a soberness of the photographer vis-à-vis his subject was demanded, and masters like August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Karl Blossfeld were busily inventorying people, cities, and owers. When Bernd and Hilla Becher then began to photograph industrial buildings, they elevated the credo of portraying objects in their simplicity and beauty to the next level: alongside aesthetic representation they were also concerned with creating a document for marking time. Many of the water towers, blast furnaces, and silos captured in their photo series no longer exist today. Their methodical approach to photography using set angles, a slightly elevated point of view, and centering objects, as well as slightly overcast skies, i.e., washed-out light, devoid of people, as if the only thing left standing was this abandoned industry, which was then sorted into tableaus or rows—this approach finally cast the barriers to documentary photography aside for artistic photography. On the one hand, it had produced the social documentary vein (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange), which was also present in Germany, for example, in what was known as Trümmerfotografie (the photography of ruins) during the postwar era, and which stills lives on in today’s classic photojournalism. On the other hand, there was the artistic-subjective work of an Otto Steinert, whereby the author always also cultivated his own point of view, i.e., participated in what was happening. With the Bechers, conceptual documentary photography became acceptable as its own mode of expression.

These days, Roemers’s primary occupation is documentary photography. He travels all over the world to make picture stories, to Afghanistan to the Dutch troops, to the pilgrims in Lourdes, or to the Siberian oil fields. He captures the rites of Romania’s rural population or the final days of Trabant production in Zwickau. He supports himself through the publication of his photos in newspapers and magazines, but that’s not enough for him. Roemers thinks up his own projects and gives himself assignments that he meticulously carries out. Thus, he made portraits of veterans from World War II who had fought on opposite sides—a work that was awarded a prize by the World Press Photo 2006—or in The Eyes of War, people who lost their eyesight in war. For Metropolis he traveled at his own expense through the largest cities of the world to capture their dynamic energy. And Relics of the Cold War was also a project that he pursued with considerable energy and unmatchable tenacity for more than ten years without any specific commission.

Perhaps one has to be obsessed in order to be able to maintain this kind of work series over such a long period of time. One definitely has to be passionately interested in his subject, and Roemers’s passion involves, globally speaking, world conflicts and how people deal with these conflicts.

And so his Relics of the Cold War series goes beyond purely conceptual documentation. Roemers transcends the demand to deliver an objective account of a societal epoch by choosing his objects (apart from the tunnels) in a highly selective way. He gets inside the barracks, rather than just portraying them from the outside, selects this wall and not that one, this grave and that barrier, and thus in the end, introduces his own perspective into the overall composition that seems so neutral at first view. Thus, the launch pads and fallout shelters become signifiers not only for a period in time when the Cold War dominated countries in the East and the West, but even for the warlike side of man, who, for reasons of deterrence or defensive measures, is able to invent subtle, highly technological systems, which, in emergency situations, can annihilate, destroy, and kill.

In order to make the architecture of war comprehensible, the French philosopher Paul Virilio photographed military sites from World War II. In Bunker Archeology he writes: “The bunker . . . alerts us less of yesterday’s adversary than of today’s and tomorrow’s war: total war, risk everywhere, instantaneity of danger, the great mix of the military and the civilian, the homogenization of con ict. Contemplating the half-buried mass of a bunker, with its clogged ventilators and the narrow slit for the observer, is like contemplating a mirror, the reflection of our own power over death, the power of our mode of destruction, of the industry of war. . . . The bunker has become a myth, present and absent at the same time: present as an object of disgust instead of a transparent and open civilian architecture, absent insofar as the essence of the new fortress is elsewhere, underfoot, invisible from here on in.”1

Martin Roemers’s Relics of the Cold War is the reflection of a militant society that prepared itself for a war which, in detonating all existing atomic weapons, would have also insured its own demise. But they are also the reflection of a will toward deescalation—in whose wake the Cruise missiles were then scrapped, the bunkers boarded up, and the barracks abandoned. And perhaps they will even be good as monuments that could, at least, remind nations of the possibility of engaging one another peacefully. Time has long since inscribed itself on the ruins and equipment, and nature has won back vast stretches of the landscape via its ever-consistent rhythm of emergence and disappearance. In the only picture of the series in which human beings are present, two children are painting yellow and blue hearts on the weathered and already moss-covered entryway wall of a missile silo in Poland. Hopeful signs.

Archeologist Martin Roemers also brought these to light.

Nadine Barth is a curator and editor. With her agency barthouse culture concepts she organizes exhibitions of contemporary photography.

1 Paul Virilio, Bunker Archeology, trans. George Collins (New York, 2008), pp. 45–46.