Kristian Laemmle-Ruff: Woomera

Over the past 70 years, many have heeded the warnings posted along the perimeters of the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), the largest and most technologically advanced weapons testing range in the world. However, with restriction comes curiosity. In ‘Woomera’, Kristian Laemmle-Ruff sheds light on this questionable and highly confidential place.

Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, Nurrungar, 2017, C-type print in red frame, 85 x 65 x 3cm. Courtesy the artist and Araluen Arts Centre, Northern Territory

The core of your practice lies in the ‘investigation of contemporary sites of colonialism and militarism in Australia’. What drew you to Woomera?
I feel a calling to explore these places partly because of how little they are talked about in mainstream culture. The fact that defence areas are remote, highly secretive and restricted means that a void exists around them. It is in these ‘off-limits’ spaces where I find opportunity to start a conversation and create awareness. I want my work to be part of a greater dialogue around learning our true history. I think it’s important as a nation to choose understanding over ignorance. Art can help us make this choice. The subtext underlying much of my work is encouraging people to question the role these military facilities have in our society. Who do they really serve? What impact do they continue to have on people and ecology? How could we transform these spaces to support life and future generations rather than the ‘progress’ of military corporations and empire?

What were you hoping to capture, and what was the result?
Inside the WPA I found surprising tranquility and beauty: rolling red sand dunes, brilliant salt-lakes mirroring open skies, mobs of emus roaming through Mulga scrub. However, all of a sudden, aggressive signs of military occupancy imposed themselves on the land – weapon launching facilities, abandoned satellite dishes, observation towers, storage sheds and bunkers. I was hoping to capture places like this; places that show the secretive ongoing military activity. There was certainly an element of shock and fear in discovering signs like ‘Radiation Hazard Ahead’. Given my short window of opportunity to be inside this area I only scratched the surface of what’s really going on.

Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, Evetts Field I, 2017, C-type print in red frame, 85 x 65 x 3cm. Courtesy the artist and Araluen Arts Centre, Northern Territory

Through putting ‘Woomera’ together I had the opportunity to spend time with Kokatha and other First Nations people around the Woomera area. Hearing stories about the missiles, bombs, radiation fall out and deaths further motivated me to develop and share this work. The exhibition includes an interview with Kokatha elder and activist Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine. The title of this sound piece is Munda Yumadoo Iliga, meaning ‘leave the land as it is’.

What preparation and processes were involved?
This body of work required significant research and risk. Being in an active weapons testing range I did not want to go there ill prepared. Google Maps made navigation and research of specific areas possible, and the Department of Defence’s website was also helpful in gaining vital information on when and where activities would occur. Knowing when certain areas of the WPA had active testing was absolutely critical – only a few weeks after I travelled through the WPA there were reports of a huge explosion at Lake Hart, close to the area where I was camping. I also had to be prepared for the potential consequence of being caught and arrested.

While I had ideas of what to capture before arriving, I needed to remain open-minded to the experience of actually being there. All the imagery for Woomera came together in a matter of three or four days. Having prepared as much as I could, it was now about being present. Days were spent driving, exploring by foot, photographing and collecting, while evenings involved setting up flash and laser lighting on the salt lakes.

Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, Aerial, 2017, digital prints in light-box with red aluminum frame, 110 x 125 x 7cm. Courtesy the artist and Araluen Arts Centre, Northern Territory

What other elements have you included in this series in addition to photography?
Laser technology is utilised in weapon systems so I wanted to incorporate laser into my work to suggest the presence of military activity on the land. Photographs of salt lakes captured at night are segmented by a crisscross of red laser lines, which mimic the trajectories of the rockets through the sky and explosions scarring the land. They reference military violence – the colour red symbolising warning and threat. Lasers are also part of the exhibition design creating ‘X’ patterns in the gallery space. The black walls behind the works help suggest the secrecy that surrounds Woomera.

There are several signs from the Woomera area included in the exhibition, displaying warnings like ‘Live Bombs, Laser Hazard Beware’ and ‘Road Closed – Live Firings In Progress’. These signs, in combination with the large light-boxes, lasers, bold colour palette and sound recordings of Kokatha people, aim to create an immersive experience. I want the audience to walk into the gallery space and experience the work with a sense of unease and danger.

Araluen Arts Centre
13 July to 19 August, 2018
Northern Territory