Ola Pehrson's Hunt for the Unabomber (2005) is a recreation of a documentary film on the notorious American terrorist Ted Kaczynski. Though the subject is dark, the video's black-and-white images have an eerie, ethereal quality of their own: one slowly realizes that the filmed scenes are not in fact real, but rather created entirely of small maquettes made of polystyrene, cardboard, string, and other odds and ends. These false documents—some similar to the originals, others not—take on a truth of their own. The film will be displayed along with the objects in the Hammer's lobby. This exhibition was planned before the artist's recent untimely death.
Ola Pehrson (1964–2006) was born in Stockholm, Sweden. He studied art at the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin, and received a master of arts degree in 1997 from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm. Pehrson’s solo exhibitions include those at Galleri Lars Bohman, Stockholm; Galeria Noua, Bucharest; and Collective Gallery, Edinburgh. His work has been included in group exhibitions in Sweden at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and the Malmö Konsthall, and in Japan at the Yamaguchi Museum of Art. Hunt for the Unabomber was included in the 9th International Istanbul Biennial in 2005 and the 27th São Paulo Biennial in 2006. This is the first solo exhibition of Pehrson’s work in the United States.
By November Paynter
From 1978 until his arrest in 1996 Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber (university and airline bomber), targeted individuals with a campaign of mail bombings. In all he sent sixteen carefully crafted bombs to academics and scientists, members of the air force, airline officials, and individuals working in public relations and in computer stores, killing three and injuring a further twenty-nine people. The mistake that led to Kaczynski’s capture was his demand that his anti-technology manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” be published for full public scrutiny in a major national newspaper. In the end the US Department of Justice agreed to the publication in the hope that it would help with the capture of the Unabomber, and the text was excerpted in the New York Times and published in full in the Washington Post on September 19, 1995. It was Kaczynski’s younger brother David who recognized the arguments against an industrialized society and the style of writing as those of his brother. Based on this evidence, the suspect’s identity was finally reported to the FBI.
In 1998 Kurtis Productions Ltd. and Towers Productions Ltd. produced a half-hour documentary based on Kaczynski’s notorious bombing campaign and life story entitled The Hunt for the Unabomber. Ola Pehrson spent several years re-creating this documentary in his own unique way. Pehrson’s process was theoretically very simple. He selected a series of stills and animations from the original documentary and then modeled them in a variety of everyday materials such as clay, junk, thread, and polystyrene. Nearly all his creations were formed as three-dimensional objects, and they included everything from newspaper clippings, which he made and then drew and wrote on by hand, to environments, locations, and photographs that all became intricate three-dimensional models. Even the documentary’s on-screen quotes took the form of handcrafted speech bubbles, rather than being applied via computer during the editing process. Although the number of objects kept rising—because, as Pehrson stated, “the reality of the quantity and form of models required for this remake remains elusive and utopian”—he eventually assembled enough handmade re-creations to shape almost every detail and scene to be found in the original documentary, and he personally acted out all the included interviews. Once these elements had been filmed in the correct order, and the original soundtrack had been added, a new documentary that is just one step further away from reality and yet no less authentic than the original was created.
When exhibited, Hunt for the Unabomber is shown as an installation, which includes Pehrson’s version of the documentary, as well as around 120 models used in the video. By including these delicate but often scrappy sculptures, Pehrson raises a number of allusions to the practice and philosophy of the Unabomber. Even before the publication of “Industrial Society and Its Future,” it was known that Kaczynski was obsessively concerned with the advancement of technology and its application in society. He feared that while humanity gained power through technological tools, the individual was losing the ability to freely make personal decisions. To somehow reiterate these concerns, he began to construct personalized bombs from extremely basic, found materials, which led to his secondary FBI code name: “Junkyard Bomber.”
This interest in playing with or subtracting the technological devices used in certain modern-day processes is apparent in a number of Pehrson’s earlier works. In two installations from 1999, Desktop and Yucca Invest Trading Plant, Pehrson presents a new way to imagine the relationship between a virtual world of computer programming and a possible physical embodiment of its existence. In Desktop, a 10:1 scale re-creation of a standard Windows 95 interface is painted on one wall, in front of which hang plastic models of the desktop’s icons. This arrangement is filmed and shown in real time as a 1:1 image on a computer screen on the opposite side of the exhibition space. In a similar way to the installation Hunt for the Unabomber, the process of intricately creating a step away from reality results in a more physically present and personally heartfelt interpretation of the original subject. In Yucca Invest Trading Plant, Pehrson’s subjective approach to dealing with technology is materialized via a yucca plant wired up to the stock market. As all living organisms, including plants, emit electric impulses, here the yucca’s amplitude readings are translated into currency via a computer. Based on the plant’s success, it receives in different doses its own essential currencies: water, air, and light. While the yucca plant replaces a young urban businessman, in a later work, NASDAQ Vocal Index 2003–04, graphs tracking share prices of companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange are translated into sheet music, and members of local choirs are invited to vocally interpret the current situation in each market.
It is a clear development in his practice that Pehrson selected the subject of Kaczynski’s life as presented in a “produced”’ documentary format. For Pehrson a documentary such as this, based on historical events, is no more than a re-creation of reality anyway. He sees it as a combination of memories, ideas, and representations of the world that can be embodied via found photographs and mimicked events, or just as honestly described by reproductions of these occurrences modeled in clay. Talking about the overlaps in reality and fiction, as well as the combination of the objective and subjective in documentary making, particularly in Hunt for the Unabomber, Pehrson said: “Some of the representations, in both the original version of the documentary and in my remake, are highly subjective visual statements, which carry little visible resemblance to the original subjects. In contrast other moments present minutely precise copies of say a house, or a photograph of a relevant person. Many scenes, in both versions of the film, are highly neutral in relation to their connection with the actual events told. A specific airplane for instance, which in the original film has to become any airplane, since it is impossible to show the actual plane from the earlier event, is in my version represented by a winged detergent bottle.”
Ola Pehrson tragically and prematurely died in a car accident near Ljusdal, Sweden, in 2006.
Theodore Kaczynski is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the federal prison in Florence, Colorado.
Note: All quotations from the artist are from e-mails sent to the author in the spring of 2005.
November Paynter is curator of Platform Garanti CAC in Istanbul and is currently on leave to work as a consultant curator at the Tate Modern in London. In 2005–6 she was assistant curator of the 9th International Istanbul Biennial.
Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.
Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, L A Art House Foundation, the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles, and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.