In preadolescent days, the bunker is a safe space, one that protects you from being found out, where you can commit thought crimes. Whether a tree fort or basement playroom, the bunker is where you can hide the things you have stolen, look through your dad’s porn collection and smoke his cigarettes. In the metaphorical space of the bunker, the rules of the outside world do not apply; you make your own rules.
The terms and conditions of the actual bunker are quite different. The stark contrast between these two spaces is obvious once you pass the threshold. You feel the enormity of the excavation that had to take place in order to make a massive tunnel; the smell of diesel emissions persists; the sound of heavy equipment still seems to hum. Paradoxically, the terms of the metaphorical bunker do not cease to exist once you enter an actual bunker. The metaphor lingers like a specter, queering reason and historical analysis, blurring fact and fiction.
On a crisp April morning in 2011, Wolfgang Hauptman and I ventured into Tito’s Arc, a seventy-five-thousand-square-foot concrete structure set into the side of a mountain in the small Bosnian town of Konjic, just outside of Sarajevo. The bunker, dreamed up by the former Yugoslav dictator and built by his corps of engineers in the late 1970s for $4.6 billion, was intended to reconstitute the bureaucratic register that ordered life under Tito in case of a nuclear attack. The attack never came, and so the attributes of the bureaucracy—the numbered, identical lockers lining the decontamination showers, the seemingly endless rows of offices each equipped with the same standard-issue desk, microphone, rotary-dial telephone, map of Yugoslavia, and various technical manuals—appear frozen in time. The bunker was used by military forces as a hospital during the civil war in the mid-’90s; in the intervening years, it was refurbished by the Bosnian army, and in May 2011 the bunker opened its doors for an art biennial.
After years of neglect, some signs of the readiness that originally characterized Tito’s Arc had been restored. There was a small office where passage into the bunker tunnel was policed; fire extinguishers and hand trucks were strategically situated in the cavernous tunnels; the copper wires of the telecom network were still intact. Over two days we wandered the underground horseshoe of bloks (compartments) and passageways, which were flanked by tiny rooms with bunk beds; we sat on the floor of Tito’s suite. These spaces were not built for living: There was no cinema or library, no air or light. Preparation for the ultimate disaster was revealed to be a fantasy—as it is in life generally. But because nuclear war never came, the buried bureaucracy was never activated, and the fact of its impossible use was never revealed.
I was invited to explore the bunker as part of my participation in the art biennial opening there the following month. I invited my friend and collaborator, Wolfgang Hauptman, to join me in this self-directed tour. Hauptman was born in the German settlement of New Düsseldorf, on the off-world colonies, in an artificial space much like a bunker. His training and writings as a nuclear archaeologist have profoundly deepened my understanding of architecture in the nuclear age, as have his own recollections of being raised in a bunker-like structure. I was trained as a visual artist, and have spent many years researching and visiting atomic bunkers, mining their control centers, crew quarters, and passageways for visual details that might inform the aesthetics of my own deliberately shoddy, large-scale installations. Since Hauptman and I met in 2001—he responded to a Craigslist studio-share ad I had posted—our conversations have been mostly theoretical. It is a rare thing to travel to a nuclear bunker and discuss its structure while walking through it.
The following conversations between myself and Hauptman took place behind the huge blast door of Tito’s Arc, somewhere between the metaphorical and actual spaces of the bunker. In them we talk about architecture for the end of days, feminism in former Yugoslavia, the toilets favored by Nazis, and whatever else we could come up with to fill the space between what we saw and what we could understand.
Lisi Raskin: I was just clicking though uninterrupted, as if my footsteps and their echo would reverberate for all of time—an infinite marking of one person’s journey through the tunnelway. A human metronome forever receding into the distance tempered only by the sound of the wind.
Lisi Raskin: It’s really hard to feel another human presence in the space.
Wolfgang Hauptman: I suppose it can be magnified and amplified in either direction, right? There’s the aural reverberation of the sound of others, or whatever, when you assume you are alone, that consolidates and confounds this feeling of isolation. And then there’s this other quality, which I’m completely here experiencing with you, where there’s a deadening of the space, of the comfort that one might take in other human utterance. It’s vacuumed out.
Wolfgang Hauptman: For me, always when I’m in a shower of any kind, I cannot help but think about those photographs from Auschwitz.
Lisi Raskin: Oh, Hauptman, we don’t have to go to Auschwitz today.
WH: You don’t have to go down this road. But, for me, it is always the second when I see the shower, particularly this kind of fixture where it is a ninety-degree elbow. …
LR: Well, I guess I do understand how in your situation showers themselves do become loaded to a certain extent. I just kind of wanted to keep our conversation a little bit focused on the fact that we’re here inside the decontamination showers at the bunker.
Lisi Raskin: Fiberoptic wires are resistant to electomagnetic pulse and that’s how they withstand the atomic blasts. And this is the secret to how the digital war machine can remain operational even in the middle of an atomic war. But at the time of this bunker’s construction, like the 1950s through the late 1970s, that wouldn't have been the case at all.
Wolfgang Hauptman: Yeah. From what you are saying, it sounds like the EMP would render the facility useless.
Wolfgang Hauptman: I am wondering about this notion of the user, the body—and which bodies? Whose bodies? How many bodies? …
Lisi Raskin: I’ve been wandering around the bunker for a couple days now and I have yet to see a ladies room. So for me the design of this space is almost completely homosocial. It’s pretty obvious.
WH: Yes, but how could you say this? On the left side of the bathroom, there are so many stalls. It would be very easy as a woman to come in here and have privacy.
LR: Well sure you could sit in a stall and lock yourself in and pee or whatever, but the instant you come out, you’re essentially in a men’s room, and there’d be dicks everywhere.
Lisi Raskin: I gotta admit, I’m a little bit foggy on this, but there was an advantage to the telex machine, and I think it’s that the receipt of the message by the recipient could be confirmed with a higher degree of certainty by an “answer back” system. … The sender would transmit a WRU, a "who are you?" code. And the recipient machine would automatically initiate a response that was usually encoded with these little rotating drums with pegs.
Wolfgang Hauptman: Hmm, this sounds to me like a music box—a rotating drum with pegs?
Lisi Raskin: We are looking at the lungs of the entire bunker installation here in this space. If you can imagine the sheer force of the fans and filters necessary to pump fresh air through out almost seven thousand square meters of space inside a mountain, you might get a sense for how massive this baby actually is. That includes vents and ducting in more than one hundred bedrooms, two large conference rooms, five operational communication centers, two kitchens, twenty-one maintenance systems outfitted with pressure- and temperature-sensitive instruments, and one hospital equipped with an operating room. It just boggles the mind. This is the largest HVAC system I have ever seen in my life.
Wolfgang Hauptman: What I thought would be a map of Yugoslavia or the world, for sure, and it is revealing nothing but a blank piece of canvas.
Lisi Raskin: Yes, that in and of itself is pretty telling.
Lisi Raskin: For me the only plausible likeness would be the place you stand before they rip your ticket in the movie theater. …
Wolfgang Hauptman: And what movie are we situated in?
LR: We are situated in the endgame neurosis movie of a communist leader. They called this place Tito’s Arc.
Wolfgang Hauptman: The architecture here, again—it is procedural, or only useful; nothing stately, nothing decorative.
Lisi Raskin: I think you'll find as we go up the stairs that it’s slightly more decorative than it is down here. Here, we’re still among the office blocks, these tiny little rooms where soldiers would do God knows what. Listen to other people's conversations maybe?
WH: Do you think the place was bugged?
Lisi Raskin: Anything that you see is not particularly historically accurate, or it’s restored. … For example, look at that technical manual on the desk, or, like, the world-map blotter—I think there’s just a massive warehouse of these objects and they should be taken as filler, not content.
Wolfgang Hauptman: So it might not have been necessary, for example, for there to be three phones on this desk? … Here I think the thing that strikes me as crazy is the way they’ve hung the portraits! You can never escape the glare. You are always gazing at him and you have this reflection from the fluorescent light. You must have noticed this when you were taking the pictures. …
LR: The reflection of the light in the plexiglass puts him in the present moment. It situates him.