San Clemente Island, the southernmost California Channel Island, is a wildlife refuge for endangered species and a fisherman’s paradise. It is also the U.S. Navy’s only active ship-to-shore weapons training facility in the world. Special Ops train here for special ops; Navy SEALs and allied forces (eg. British, Israeli, Japanese) envision joint port seizures, amphibious vehicle landings and drone attacks. Reservists come here en-mass to imagine what it would be like to take over a harbor city in a recently deposed dictatorship (think Benghazi). And it's 51 miles off the coast of Orange County. As such, it gives us an opportunity to think about the Southern California landscape, and specifically the Pacific, as a real and imagined theater of war.
Civilians are not allowed to step on the island unless they are contracted by the Navy, so to get an idea of what it’s like here we look to two men who have been deeply embedded in this place and the waters around it. Robert Wolf, biologist and photojournalist, regularly visits the island to work on avian habitat preservation. Tom McMillin, artist and sea captain, has been fishing these waters since the 1950s; his body of artwork about the ocean since the 1970’s has become part of Southern California’s land art history. Here, we will look at images documenting their personal, physical experiences tracing this island and consider the politically complex nature of seeing and recording this sometimes highly classified landscape.
Wolf’s work as a biologist is part of an effort to conserve the endangered San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike’s native habitat. This bird only lives on this island and resides exclusively within its canyons. Though Wolf probably wouldn’t call it land art, the lines he and his fellow biologists draw with fire retardant on the surface of San Clemente Island, as seen via bing.com’s satellite map feature, illustrate some of the fascinating dynamics at play between the natural landscape and the military that occupies some of it in Southern California.
Because the Southern California coastline is so developed and the U.S. Navy needs open space to practice and train, the Navy has become a steward of the wilderness. The Department of Defense, which must work with the mandate of the Environmental Protection Act to preserve endangered species, hires contractors (biologists and others) like Wolf to develop natural resource plans. Included are limits on the kinds of maneuvers the Navy can do, contingent on environmental impact. For example, as endangered foxes roam the island, military vehicles must keep low speed limits to avoid hitting foxes. As well, impact on plants requires limits on driving areas. However, as weapons have been tested here since WWII (prior to the passage of the EPA), tens of thousands of bombs litter the island. They range in size from two stacked trash cans to a ping pong ball, and many are embedded underground. It would be more harmful to the environment to clean them up than to leave them there.
Viewing the satellite images, one can make out the roads, fake airstrip, bomb targets, and bombardment scars within military testing range. (Also visible via satellite is a black burn scar from an accidental bomb fire that inflicted lasting damage on the landscape.) The red fire retardant lines laid out by Wolf and his colleagues prevent bombing fires from spreading into the shrike territory. The presence of these red lines, visually dissecting the island and evident from such a great distance above, speaks about the power held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which can shut down the testing site at any moment if they are out of compliance.
Sea captain and environmental artist Tom McMillin created a series of works in the 1970s focusing on San Clemente and the other seven islands off Southern California’s coast. McMillin’s works suggest something similar to the kind of information collected by scientists and the military, interested in understanding aspects of the island for how it can be used or preserved. Through models and documentation, McMillin aimed to illustrate the natural beauty of the ocean environment in this area. Working with sonar, scaled models and magnetite, and biodegradable dyes, he created visual records and simulations that mapped the sea floor, currents, and silhouette of the island’s landmass.
In the catalog essay from McMillins’s 1979 exhibition at the Arco Center for Visual Art in downtown Los Angeles, Fritz A. Frauchiger describes the art work. “Three large tanks contain water and models of three islands – Santa Barbara, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina. Hand-operated pumps allow the viewer to create silt buildup around the islands, which simulate nature.
McMillin spent months taking sonar readings of the ocean floor near the islands. When mounted on the wall, these readings resemble long scrolls of delicate charcoal drawings. He also placed biodegradable dyes at right angles to the current around each island and photographed the results in color from the air. The photos not only serve as two-dimensional designs, but document the current as well.“
As part of the national park system and recreational area, natural beauty is most commonly pictured in the popular imagination of the Channel Islands. However, San Clemente Island’s environment also helps armed forces imagine and practice violent international conflict in distant yet similar coastal topographies. The traces of both McMillin and Wolf’s work -- marking the island geography on the earth’s surface by boat, sonar, fire retardant, dye in the ocean current, and imaging it from above via satellites and models – provide insights into this unique Pacific island beyond nature photography and military photos. Wolf and McMillin offer us impressions of what it’s like to be on the ground (and the water) in this Pacific island landscape as civilians observing, witnessing and coexisting with the military.
Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist exploring contemporary and historical intersections of art, visual culture, social and political consciousness. She works in studio and post-studio forms including drawing, media, and interactive formats. Mushkin frequently collaborates with others from fields including poetry, architecture, and digital media.