An Interview with Chris Bassett on NIKE: Los Angeles Defense Area

LA-88C (Oat Mountain), 1956-1974

Tyler Calkin:: Thanks for agreeing to an interview on your NIKE project. I thought I would start with a couple questions, and we could see where the conversation takes us. Perhaps you could begin by giving some background on NIKE: Los Angeles Defense Area, and where the project began.

Chris Bassett:: This project actually started as a bicycle ride connecting several of the sites along Santa Clara Divide Road (3N17). It worked out to 120+ miles if I recall correctly. After trying it out, I decided that it would make for a better photo series than a set of directions. The ride/hike was just too long and difficult for more than a few people to get the experience. 

TC:: Though you created a photographic series rather than a set of directions, you still placed the viewer’s body in relationship to this information. The images are titled with their general location, and are installed across connected gallery walls in correct cardinal orientation, if I am not mistaken. A viewer can stand in the center of the space and have an approximate geographical understanding of these sites. What do you think of the body in this project?

CB:: That’s an interesting angle to approach it from. I had not really considered the presence of the body in my thinking about this project. The installation at UCLA was somewhat correctly oriented—the northernmost site was in the northeast corner, although it was more of a consideration about reading order (lowest numbered site, aka northernmost, on the viewer’s left, numbers increasing to the right) than about compass directions. I feel like in a different location, the orientation could end up rotated in any way to keep the reading order correct and starting in a logical place, but it was nice to have it as an extra layer of information. 

That said, the ordering of the photographs immediately recalls the geography of the area the sites defended—one side with coastal views, the other with mountains rising in the background or sweeping views of the city below. 

TC:: Immediately striking about these prints is the invisibility, or, where visible, the decay or concealment of the NIKE missile sites. It points to the odd tension between overt displays of power and simultaneous military secrecy in the US. What was your intent in revealing these sites? Were the installations in the public knowledge during their use?

CB:: The sites were generally known, although not open to the public when actively in use—at least the ones in urbanized/suburban areas. Those further afield were less so, although their existence was not secret. As defensive installations, visibility was important to show preparedness against the perceived threat of Soviet bombers striking against major American cities. I found one article that indicated at least certain bases had public tour days throughout the year as a public relations tactic.

I wanted to see what had happened in the four decades after deactivation, as they were small sites, and almost universally demilitarized after the end of the program. My understanding is when they were being acquired by the Army in the 1950’s, community complaints had actually moved the Hyperion location from one side of LAX to the other. Where possible, they were sited on existing military land, with several of them requiring deals to be made with the Forest Service to site them in the Angeles National Forest. The removal of the NIKE installations varied based on the original owner of the land and it’s viability for reuse. Unsurprisingly, sites in the ANF and those with high commercial value were indistinguishable from surrounding nonmilitary land, while land with less oversight or value received less remediation in general.

TC:: I looked for correlations in the deactivation dates of the sites with the type of site or level of remediation, but the series resists simple analysis. You have uncovered a complex history with your research. Do the deactivation dates contribute to this history of community, regulatory and capitalist forces? Did your research change your understanding of the project?

CB:: The deactivation dates happen in several waves. The first wave roughly corresponds with the transition from NIKE Ajax to NIKE Hercules missiles, which could cover more area with less launch sites. The transition to NIKE Hercules also brought with it the idea of using nuclear warheads to shoot down nuclear bombers. The second wave was budget driven, and the end of the bases really came with SALT I and the reduction of nuclear arsenals on both sides. Remediation seems to largely have depended on ownership and context of each site. Those with high land values or leased from a non-military agency were most thoroughly rehabilitated. Interestingly, I've seen at least one document that seemed to indicate a somewhat antagonistic relationship between the US Forest Service and the Army over remediation in the Angeles National Forest, possibly aggravated by the relationship of the military and the earliest incarnations of the national parks/national forest services.

TC:: By way of a conclusion, could you share how you would frame this work in relation to today’s political landscape?

CB:: I've been thinking of this work’s relationship with today’s military and political landscape as one of modeling future redevelopment. The NIKE sites were primarily distinguishable from other military sites in terms of scale and length of occupation. They were far smaller than most other bases in the continental US as well as mostly passing in and out of military use within a generation, well within living memory. As such, they provide the closest parallel to many new military sites which have appeared in the “War on Terror”, both in and out of the continental United States. I wonder what we will be able to see of Echelon listening posts, black sites, and not-yet-known outposts of the increasingly diffused military apparatus after it moves on to new methods and technologies. Can we use the outcomes of NIKE sites to predict the post-war future of sites, or can we learn something from the disappearance of NIKE from general memory and visibility in order to better preserve the memory of the risks posed by invisible military positions within the (nominally) civilian world?