me, it is a given that coach travel is unpleasant. The lack of air,
inability to move around and jerky motion all conspire to make me
nauseous. The experience is not made any more tolerable by having
jumpsuited security staff bawl at you or separate you into male
and female groups, ordering you onto different coaches that are
headed for an unknown destination.
So begins the
latest piece of work by artist Rod Dickinson. 150 of us have gathered
at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on the Mall for a magical
mystery tour that will take us to an undisclosed venue outside of
the capital to witness his one-off re-enactment of the infamous
1993 Waco siege in Texas. 39-year-old Dickinson has previously re-enacted
part of the Jonestown massacre, where 914 cult members downed cyanide-laced
drinks, as well as Stanley Milgram’s behavioural experiments,
in which members of the public were encouraged to administer electric
shocks to strangers so that Milgram might find out how easily people
follow orders. Re-enacting Waco was the next logical step for an
artist fascinated by mind control and fringe belief systems.
Those on the
coaches are, of course, aware that the jumpsuited, shaven-headed
goons are all part of the show, but their presence, stares and the
echo of death squad tactics in the separation of the sexes serves
to subdue us. When the men’s coach draws away from the car
park at the rear of the ICA we are all sat upright and silent, our
seat belts buckled as we are told.
As the coach
travels along the north bank of the Thames, heading east, my fellow
passengers relax slightly and speculation begins as to where we
are heading. Rock venues and football stadia are mooted, though
industrial estates and factories start to look more likely as we
hit the A13. One passenger thinks that we are headed for Dagenham,
or maybe City Airport.
Just to ensure
that we don’t get too cosy a guard wanders up and down the
bus checking our seat belts and then handing out disclaimer forms
for us to sign. The re-enactment will revolve around the psychological
operations used by the FBI to try to oust David Koresh and his Branch
Davidian followers from their Mount Carmel compound at Waco, so
we will be subjected to loud noises and must sign to say we understand
that this could reach 110 decibels, the equivalent of a chainsaw
at close quarters.
The loud noise
is one reason we are speeding out towards Essex. Many London councils
didn’t want the noise or the dubious pleasure of an artist
re-enacting an event that saw 80 die, most of them in the fire that
consumed the Branch Davidian’s headquarters after the 51-day-long
siege. Dickinson came across similar problems with his re-enactment
of the Jonestown massacre, having to rethink his idea of a ‘die
in’ when he couldn’t find a public park that would allow
him to stage then event.
before the event Dickinson tells me it took a year to find the venue.
“I had a few aborted meetings with councils,” he says.
“Anyone concerned with community issues did not want it to
happen in their location.”
of taste may have been a problem for local authorities, but those
travelling to the event seem to have no such qualms, agreeing with
Dickinson’s premise that his work is more about learning than
any taste for the macabre. He calls it ‘experiential education’.
remember it from the news,” says Sajeel Kershi, an IT worker.
“I was surprised to hear that it was 51 days, for some reason
I though that it was over relatively quickly. I wasn’t aware
that psychological techniques were used. I guess that it will get
people to start thinking. So it is a good thing.”
We pass Dagenham,
bringing into view the huge supermarkets, leisure complexes and
‘big box’ retailers that dominate this strip of retail
heavy A-road. It resembles the outskirts of an American city. If
England were to have its own Waco then surely it would be somewhere
out here in the hinterlands of Essex.
We pass the
Lakeside shopping centre before turning off the main road. We have
arrived. Our Waco is to be at the Arena-Essex Raceway, a stadium
used for speedway and banger racing. I am just grateful that we
have completed the journey without the need for me to lean over
a brown paper bag. Perhaps it was the fear of what our guards might
into the darkness, with guards issuing brusque instructions. I stick
close to those in front of me so that I can see where I am going
before my night vision kicks in and I can see my feet.
the stadium we are ushered to the centre of the track, where we
stand huddled closely, not sure what to expect next. After five
minutes the lights go up. Spotlights pointing inwards from the perimeter
fence to replicate those shone onto the compound at Waco each night.
Then the sound begins as speakers around the stadium play helicopter
noise. Many instinctively look up as the sound shifts around us.
Such is the realism of the sound that I almost expect to feel the
down draught from the rotor blades.
The next segment
is a recording of David Koresh talking with an FBI negotiator. These
recordings of telephone conversations were played back at the compound
by the FBI to ensure that Koresh could not hide any facts from his
followers. The conversation is bizarre, with Koresh and the FBI
man discussing the bible. Koresh is clearly delusional, though,
as Dickinson explains, the Branch Davidians thought the FBI were
to Clive Doyle (one of only nine survivors of the fire),”
says Dickinson. “He said that they couldn’t understand
it. They thought that the FBI were crazy, which seems a reasonable
assumption to make. For me it is a great working example of the
conflict of belief.”
After ten minutes
of telephone conversation a loud, bass-heavy recording of Tibetan
prayer chants is played, at which point some of the affects of psychological
warfare become apparent. Within a minute of the chant beginning
about 50% of the crowd move towards the whitewashed tyres at either
side of the central area and sit down on them. Some shut their eyes,
others put up hoods against the night air, which is turning cold.
As more conversations
with Koresh are played audience members get up and start to amble
counter-clockwise around the race track, looking like extras in
a zombie film or prisoners in an exercise yard. Then comes the earplug
As a highly
amplified recording of a telephone left off the hook is played members
of the audience put their hands to their ears, some drop to their
haunches and others stop in their tracks. I fumble around in my
pocket for my earplugs. Elsewhere, other members of the crowd do
likewise or grab a pair from an assistant who has a bag full of
bright green foam-rubber nuggets. The earplugs reduce the noise,
but the effect is still akin to standing next to a car with its
of Koresh being badgered by the FBI negotiator to allow members
of his church injured in earlier skirmishes to receive medical attention
comes as a blessed relief. The Branch Davidians had to put up with
dentist’s drills, white noise and rabbits screaming played
for hours at a time to deny them sleep and speed their surrender,
but five minutes of high frequency noise is enough for most of us.
the time that Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of These Boots Were
Made for Walking is being played through the multiple speakers a
quarter of the audience are already up and striding around the track.
Those still at the centre smile in relief and mock dance moves whilst
couples embrace or sway in time with the music.
When Nancy sings
“start walking”, those on the track unconsciously speed
up. Then the music is slowed right down and distorted, so that “these
boots are gonna walk all over you” is delivered as a threat.
People slow down again, or stop altogether. The same track was played
at Mount Carmel, where the boots came in the shape of pyrotechnic
CS gas canisters backed up by armoured cars, in what some claim
was a massive over reaction by the FBI.
management of the performance highlights this point perfectly without
the need to resort to narration. It is impossible not to consider
what conditions and emotions must have been like inside the compound
and of those, 21 children amongst them, who perished in the fire
on the 19th of April. Whether the fire was, as the FBI claim, set
by Koresh or ignited by the CS gas, as some survivors claim, seems
As the performance
draws to a close Koresh and the FBI negotiator are once again locked
in theological discourse, with Koresh talking about the name of
God being pronounced by your very breathing and the fact that you
must therefore utter this word with your last breath.
you are blown to pieces everybody does it,” says Koresh presciently.
lights go out and we are once again left in the dark, in the middle
of a speedway circuit in Thurrock. My ears ringing and there are
goosebumps on my arms. It could just be the cold, but I think that
I may have just been experientially educated.