Grant Imahara, inventor and star of the MythBusters television series, died in 2020. He was 49. The official cause of death was a brain aneurysm. He experienced excruciating headaches in the days before. But the underlying trigger of Imahara’s aneurysm is unknown. Aneurysms are, nevertheless, a known risk for stunt performers and actors on dangerous productions. This condition has plagued shows like Game of Thrones, Jackass, and Lord of the Rings. Read, for example, Emilia Clarke (star of GoT) in her excruciating testimony about two brain aneurysms (in The New Yorker).
The cast of MythBusters would often proudly declare that “no one was hurt” after explosions went wrong. Yet the unsolvable puzzle of Imahara’s condition complicates the temporality of injury. On one occasion in 2009, the “Knock Your Socks Off” episode ignited 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate (the same substance behind the catastrophic Beirut blast of 2020). The shockwave set off at a sheriff’s bomb range resulted in blasting windows and rocking the entire neighboring town of Esparto in Yolo County, California. One cast member was pregnant on the set.
Because they can strike long after injury, aneurysms can be seen as a discontinuous continuity with explosive artifacts – connected to an explosive chain of events and yet distended in space and time. Like suspicious artifacts, they can be a part of the logistics network of explosives, lying in wait — or they could be nothing at all.
According to the United States Bomb Data Center at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, in the United States there were 5,482 “suspicious/unattended” packages in 2020 (Explosives Incident Report, United States Bomb Data Center, which for reasons unknown, the USBDC took offline but I have a copy). In the data, there is a vast disproportion seen in the Center’s own numbers: functioning bombs, about 400 in that year, are dramatically fewer than the total number of suspected objects. There is a wide disparity between suspected versus actual bombs. The number of what they categorize as “hoaxes” was 287 in 2020 (a 5-year low).
In other words, most of the policing of objects and their human attendants revolves around mere speculations and yet happens to involve extensive policing: specialist training, experts, a cottage industry in surveillance technologies, and specialized armored vehicles and detonation equipment. What if the usually staid design museums would curate an exhibition around suspicion? Yet ascertaining what policing classifies as suspicious poses a collecting and curatorial puzzle because police routinely destroy what could be a valuable inquiry into the material culture of suspicion.
The LAPD bomb squad, recently in the news for mishandling a cache of confiscated fireworks with which they destroyed a neighborhood and permanently displaced several residents, state in an annual report that 22% of their calls involve actual ordnance or home-made improvised explosive devices. What happens with the substantial majority (the other 78 percent!) of artifacts, objects, and personal material that bomb squads routinely confuse, confiscate, and destroy without documentation, explanation, conservation or independent verification as to whether these artifacts constituted someone’s belongings (or poetic creations) swept up in the dramatic scenes of the bomb squad that play in complicity with the evening news shows?
Bomb squads deploy with great frequency. In one year, New York’s deployed over 3,000 times, including one instance that involved the arrest of a designer for a lighting installation they mistook for a makeshift bomb — and presumably destroyed without consequences for the police.
For a comparison, industrial dust explosions—even flour can combust if enough of it is in an enclosed atmosphere with a spark—are “a little-noticed danger that has killed or injured at least 900 workers across the country during the past three decades” according to the Center for Public Integrity.
The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a detached series of “stills” through my Instamatic into my eye.
– Robert Smithson (1967). “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.”
One of the FBI’s photographs of Judi Bari’s bombed car caught my attention, but I will refrain from describing the damage itself. A description would be irrelevant to this text, and worse, would yield to a visual culture that explosives facilitate for their handlers whereby the destructive outcome displaces clues of those very agents. Placing neck-craning attention upon the landscape left by a blast contributes to the nefarious purpose of the explosion. It eradicates the underlying forces that transported the explosive—that is to say, substances, wires, encasements, and a complex assemblage of other materials—to a certain time and place. In addition, the attention would validate the elegant photographic technique as neutral documentation. The photograph is another weapon in the police arsenal, one that functions when misapprehended as the only possible representation of the afterlife of the event and not as a mode of representation—out of many—subject to creative manipulation.
Even when reproduced by those who seek to question police explanations of the evidence depicted in the photo, the blasted wreck of Bari’s automobile can inadvertently lend authority to the photograph—and the police photographer. This is no new revelation. Investigative visuality has a role that erects forensics as possessing autonomy and detachment from the commissioning of the acts forensically recorded. Allen Feldman writes that, in photography, one visually consumes an “insensitivity mediated by the historical and political abysses cast by light.” I’d go even further. Photographs themselves are materially the result of the expanding energy of the exploding universe etched onto a chemical plate (not to mention, historically, industrial products with consequent chemical waste). Digital photography doesn’t drastically alter this relation. We think we see an objective image that anyone else would have to accept as faithfully true to reality, but what we see or read in a description is the material product of an ongoing universal explosion. We should know better: explosions desensitize, rather than the inverse.
The photo of Bari’s wrecked car calls attention to a need for ways to sense explosivity within explosivity itself, not through its mediation. It is quite complicated—impossible, even—to untangle our relationships with the weaponization of explosivity in the everyday of our modern lives through photography, a technology that fetishizes such explosivity, thereby aiding and abetting it. What is explosivity? Quite simply, it is more than the materiality of the explosive itself; it is, in short, our very own culture that has thoroughly consumed and propagated the mass-manufactured version of volatile chemistries, already latent in the universe, at unaccountable scales of devastation that threaten the human species itself.
Let me attempt to read the Bari car photo as a composition instead of the aftermath it centers, and turn to the incidental background: the MacArthur Freeway appears as a solid wall punctured by a gloomy tunnel. A narrow strip of yellow police tape cuts the image. Three Oakland police department motorcycles neatly recline on their kickstands and one blurry figure of a cop stands behind them. The tunnel perfectly frames a police van parked on the far side of the freeway. The Shell logo jumps out by its bright red and yellow colors at a gas station in the landscape beyond the van.
The image itself is peacefully brutal in its documentation of the bombing aftermath, so calmly composed in its aesthetics that it might be possible to imagine—just as it could be easily overlooked—that it may have been part of a plan. The skill of composing this image seems so artistic that it overcomes the distinction between an image used for training purposes and one used during what could have been an ongoing crime scene. I try to imagine if the photographer may have worried at all about any possible additional explosives at the scene that may have not yet been found at the moment of clicking the shutter. Even pressing the button on the device could have invited hesitation, as if expecting it to be rigged to a detonator. But the photograph does not hint at any signs of hurriedness or hazard; it is rather serene, instead.
The date on the photograph is May 24th, 1990 — the day of the explosion that nearly killed the Earth First organizer of that year’s historic “Redwood Summer,” Bari, and injured her co-organizer, Darryl Cherney. The foreground here—the performative focus of the FBI’s interest—is the evidentiary artifact, the bombed car, in their ill-fated investigation that would be discredited in court, and thus vindicating Bari and Cherney in the FBI’s arrest and attempt to turn them into the culprits of their own bombing. The two organizers won a 4.4 million dollar judgment.
The said photograph ostensibly captures a criminal blast inside Bari’s station wagon. And yet, behind the car, the gasoline station would routinely be dispensing combustibles for cars to explode inside their engines as they cruise on freeways like this very one—a big infrastructure for redistributing once (and future) explosive substances into the atmosphere. As if it wasn’t obvious enough, the freeway in the photo possesses a toponymic power of spatial conquest as it is named after a military general (MacArthur). Thirty years after this photograph, the last remaining California redwoods can combust due to overheating at almost any time of year in a catastrophic future that Bari and Cherney were contesting, running up against the imbrication of state power that is subservient to the maintenance of explosivity.
On the second page of files released through FOIA, the FBI refers to itself in a Freudian typo as “the FIB.”
Someone must have assembled and planted the Oakland bomb, but for thirty-plus years, whoever knows anything about this has not said a word. One name that appears in many conversations and social media is a retired FBI explosives specialist. I don’t need to mention his name here as I’m not out to start any new inquiries that have not been launched before. It’s easy enough to find out who I mean. He stands accused of complicity on Facebook pages.
The bomb expert jumps out as an important piece in the bombing puzzle because of his role in allegedly training other bomb specialists at the FBI and the OPD. Bari herself wrote a lengthy piece where she lays out how she found evidence through depositions that he was an instructor at the FBI’s “bomb school,” and mocked-up improvised explosive devices used in training that closely resembled the mechanisms found at her bombing as well as a second unsolved explosion two weeks later at a Pacific lumber mill. The Mythbusters’ consultant was one of the six FBI and OPD officers found liable for baselessly accusing Bari and Cherney. One FBI agent was cleared.
The agent openly leaves his credentials on LinkedIn, including an address on his résumé that leads to a typical suburban single-family home splayed out on a single story with a US flag proudly hanging over the garage, as seen on Google Street View. According to his profile, over the past twenty years, after retiring from the FBI, he has made a career in the consulting world. Of course, managing explosives as law enforcement takes the same skills as for entertainment (from a physics point of view), and it is no coincidence that explosive and media industries tie so well together.
The live-action filming of made-for-television explosions is a mythification of explosivity as a way of life: the explosion as represented in replays and the expansive illumination spreading through the universe as a medium of recording co-make each other, enthralling viewers with the entire sociality of the explosive that draws in experts off camera too — a special class of intermediaries between the larger universal physics of explosivity and its manufactured representational form.
The résumé items oscillate between manufacturing “inert” training bombs and making things explode for television productions like MythBusters. Through media, viewers can consume explosions while having usually very little exposure to being intimate with detonations themselves (although we are always much more spatially proximate to explosive substances and explosive natures than we tend to know or want to believe). In regards to the bomb planted in her car, Bari wrote, “I had felt it rip through my body. But I was considered guilty because I was right about it being a bomb.” How might one heed these words to become attentive to all that which is felt through our own bodies, rather than fixating upon partial and fragmentary mediations of explosivity? Could we reverse and slow down the process of an aneurysm into an extended political sensitivity against the naturalization of inhabiting in explosivity throughout all of our lifescapes?
Between 2004 and 2015, the expert worked as a “Production Explosives Consultant” on MythBusters. According to Wikipedia, this person:
assisted the MythBusters by helping load a cement truck with 850 pounds of explosives to cause its destruction. He also provided the tracer ammunition for the revisit of the myth that shooting a gas tank can cause it to explode “Car Capers” revisit (sic). He also supervised the making of the explosives for the “Exploding Pants” myth. [He] has since become somewhat of a regular on the show, helping with many explosives that are used.
In a letter reproduced on Facebook, bombing-victim Cherney challenged the MythBusters production team to determine if this agent had any involvement in schooling the bombers of the Redwood Summer, as the agent cryptically seems to suggest at the investigation scene. His voice is believed to be recorded in audio tape at the scene as saying, “this is the final exam.”
The favorite, "most important," and most used explosion location used to film MythBusters episodes was the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office bombing range in Dublin CA, an outer suburb of the Bay Area. I have not been able to tell if any of the explosions supervised by the bomb teacher were at this location that doubles as a production set, but nonetheless, the lives of the MythBusters, their explosives’ consultants, police, and environmental activists orbit close to each other, circulating through the same discontinuous spaces and infrastructures dedicated to managing explosivity.
The Alameda county bombing range was previously part of a larger military installation called Camp Parks. The easiest way to summarize Camp Parks for the purposes of this writing is as a vast radiation ranch. For over twenty years, Camp Parks served as a 5,000 acre spatial volume to rehearse for the post-apocalypse by experimenting with radiation on livestock and crops, and even more horrifically, by putting federal prisoners in fallout shelters to see if the bunker construction worked to keep radiation out. Burning, burying irradiated carcasses; decontaminating buildings; leeching the substances off into the ground — all such activities and more could be casually carried out at Camp Parks.
Camp Parks and the adjacent Camp Shoemaker, with a Shoemaker hospital, were a fleet city: an urbanism of explosivity. Segregated Black survivors of the 1944 Port Chicago explosion spent time recovering at this hospital, which is how I first came to know of this place.
I first began to notice the name “Camp Shoemaker” in documents while doing research on the Port Chicago explosion in 1944 during World War II. Black sailors loaded munitions at Mare Island and Port Chicago (near Martinez CA). I had a vague sense that the geography of present-day Santa Rita jail and the federal penitentiary were neighboring the Shoemaker area, but was not very well familiarized until taking a long walk around the entire perimeter. The continuities of explosive hazards across people’s lives, all while polluting on squatted tribal lands, connect these disparate and discontinuous Black and Indigenous geographies.
Could a lived practice that approximates a sensorial apprehension of the layers of explosivity, past and present, return something plundered from lives? How do exploded and polluted bodies continue forms of labor as they decline, or after death itself, including by securing land through forms of toxicity that prevent their reclamation for decolonized healthful transformations?
On the Discovery network’s YouTube channel is an edited roundtable discussion about the infamous MythBusters cannonball episode filmed at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office bombing range. In it, the show’s star says, “we have the same worst possible day ever” and that day has —the cast unanimously agrees— “gotta be cannonball.” The footage cuts to an evening news host narrating the cannonball event with a disturbing degree of deliberate concern combined with nervously exaggerated giggling as she talks about how a stone projectile, propelled by an explosion made by using massive amounts of black powder, apparently missed the target of a mocked-up castle wall (they were trying to test if indeed a stone could puncture a castle wall).
The projectile skipped off of a hill inside the range, bouncing into a suburb, landing through a family’s home, piercing the roof shingles, popping through the interior drywall and leaving a perfectly circular outline, flying over a napping toddler, crashing through a window, and landing outside on a minivan. This, the MythBusters allege, “saved us,” from apparently staging “worse” hypothetical explosions that never came about (not to forget that this base had already tested nuclear fallout, which is to say, worse is relative).
The objective of preparedness in mocked-up scenarios is not to better ameliorate for disasters that co-emerge with our worsening environment, but to continually test the boundaries of living with infrastructures of exposure to explosive risk.
Something similar happens when, rather than cautiously administering a vaccine in combination with many other measures to mitigate risk, governments administer the vaccine and then encourage everyone to test the limits of infectivity by intensifying risky activities. But I digress; as has been established in this piece, Cannonball was not the first time that a MythBusters explosion had caused community panic and disruption, while compelling these involuntary participants into the same situated logics of human experimentation that were already established martially at these sites.
Sydney Meyers and Edward Shanley describe black gunpowder as the “Adam of explosives,” as in, the first manufactured explosives in the world. They were gendering the destructive technology as male, Adam, irrespective of whatever Adam really identified as. And, “as most people know,” gunpowder is “an intimate blend of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal and sulfur” (I don’t think most people actually know this). I’m struck by the use of the word “intimate” here, like Judi Bari’s intimacy with the shockwave through her body, or the lingering effects of stunts with explosives — or the fallout of testing radiation.
What would a lived practice take to spend time with the everyday latencies of explosivity? How can one act so as to spend time with varying intensities of explosivity around us? Even if not feeling the up-close blasts that Bari or Imahara did, one hardly ever pauses to experience gravity, for example — to locate our bodies in the ongoing expansion of the universe, which is, after all, the original blasting of a tunnel through abstract space. While most of us do not hangout close to a powerful explosion on a day to day basis, we inhale, breathe, and move in relationship with different intensities and scales of explosivity, sometimes sonically ambient or distributed as particulate matter, and more.
Strands of academic discourse on environmental studies, chemical geographies, and feminist technosciences often make a necessary gesture toward “attunements” with the toxicities, materialities, and energy exchanges. Better tuning into the forces of explosivity and heliophysics, however, seems to call upon an unspoken able-bodied research investigator, and without much instruction to what such an “attunement” really demands as a bodily engagement, and indeed, as possibly a risky and disabling engagement, or one that is has been and will continue to be experienced through legacies of disposability, disease, and disability.
Would such an attunement be felt in one’s actual flesh, or is it to be surmised via the relatively safer distance of an ethnographic engagement with the subjects external to the idealized researcher? Do we come into contact with the expert social class that manages explosivity? Does the able-bodied research scientist extract that knowledge from the damaged, othered, and chemically-exposed subject—a knowledge which the undefiled researcher can make “better” sense of than the subject? The capable body that words the entanglements of the combustible landscape contrasts with the violently ontologized subject —already harmed—who is subsequently re-exposed through research trauma and memory.
The researcher remains a generic empty vessel with a view from nowhere, ready to receive the external knowledge rather than directly face the conditions of various speeds and intensities of explosivity. But what does the researcher owe their presence to upon seized and polluted lands, still maintained through past and present explosivity, and what forms of knowledge can emerge from such an uneven relation? A different intimacy with explosivity fully accounts for all of our participation in the chemicalization and mediatization of this environment, and fights for liberation from—and, inescapably, on—a weaponized planet.
I posted a previous version of this text last September. I re-share it here with subscribers because I had to update the stats at the top (the inconclusive suspicious artifacts were even more than I had noted before), plus I'd wanted to add links in. This text helps me think more about the meandering practice around sites of explosivity and this creative practice is starting back up after a long pandemic pause. I appreciate your messages!
My thanks to Elisabeth Nicula for feedback and to Diana Pardo-Pedraza and Gabi Kirk for research assistance.
Re: novel definitions of disaster – "(...)formulations that reject counting and naming as sufficient explanations of the social and environmental impacts of disaster. Disaster research today increasingly demands history, contextualization, and comparison." (...compare to the problematic naming practices of memorials)
Knowles, Scott Gabriel and Loeb, Zachary. "The Voyage of the Paragon: Disaster as Method." Critical Disaster Studies, edited by Jacob A.C. Remes and Andy Horowitz, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021, pp. 11-31. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812299724-002.
if the UAE pioneered the gamified edutainment model of exhibition design in the region, as recently exemplified by the Museum of the Future, Saudi seems to have perfected it
Read Rahel Aima (always read Rahel) on the NEOM exhibition
By exploring the sociotechnological imaginaries of Big Tech, we reposition the archive in terms of its legitimation and framing of humanity’s past, present, and future
Mél Hogan and Sarah T. Roberts in "Archiving for Extinction"
There are 170 million square feet of warehouses planned or under construction in the Inland Empire, according to a recent report by environmental groups. And despite fears of a recession, demand hasn’t ebbed.