One Film, Two Epochs?

Curator's Note

As the first film of the nuclear age Trinity 1945 (US Department of Energy, 1945), hardly seems to register the historical eventfulness of its subject. The framings of the desert surround are unartful, the cuts are jarring, and the activities—arming and then hoisting “the device” to the test tower—are difficult to see. With the gadget still ascending the shot-tower under blue and sunny skies, the film abruptly goes black: have we arrived at the end of the world, or just the end of the reel? The detonation of the device is marked when the screen flashes from black to white. Then a glowing, soon-to-be iconic mushroom cloud forms against utter darkness. We see this same detonation not once, but three separate times, and the end of the film does indeed appear to be the end of the world.

As a nuclear film, Trinity 1945 forecasts the genocidal bombing of Japan. The ending also provides an image of total annihilation in the spirit of what would become the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The meaning of Trinity in the context of nuclearism is humanity at its most destructive. The pathos of this epoch—as philosophers Günther Anders and Jacques Derrida speculated—is that humanity itself would disappear without a trace. Nuclear war would be the first and last war of its kind, after which there would be no “after.”

The Anthropocene inspires a different interpretation. In 2015 the Anthropocene Working Group returned to the Trinity time stamp as one proposed start date for the Great Acceleration and thus the proposed Anthropocene epoch. The fallout from atmospheric testing introduced to the earth’s geological record artificial radionuclides that now provide a novel, globally synchronous, and uniquely anthropogenic signal. Atmospheric testing did not cause the Anthropocene; its unearthly traces merely serve as a stratigraphically clear marker. From an Anthropocene perspective, the meaning of Trinity is not humanity at its most destructive, but most unnatural. And the pathos of the Anthropocene epoch is not humanity’s disappearance without a trace, but the Earth as a human archive without any natural remainders. Trinity may be first film of the Anthropocene epoch. What it signifies, then, is not “the end” of the world, but what would become the almost daily event of nuclear detonation, an everyday catastrophe, just one of many planetary-scale human activities.







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