La Tenda Rossa
Inkjet print on cotton paper
1255 x 830 mm
2004
Edition of 5

In 1926 an expedition led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (who in 1910 became the first man to reach the South Pole) and the American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth had crossed the North Pole in a dirigible piloted by Gen. Umberto Nobile. Had not Richard Byrd, three days before, made his controversial claim to have reached the North Pole in an aeroplane, Nobile's would have been the first flight over it. In 1928, encouraged by Mussolini's regime, Nobile made plans for another voyage to the North Pole in a newly designed dirigible - the Italia. In which he hoped to land at the Pole and return to base at Spitsbergen, as well as explore the still largely uncharted frozen landmass. Nobile made thorough preparations, including the selection of a potential rescue party of nine Alpine soldiers, chosen for their expertise in the snow. Having started in Milan, the Italia reached the North Pole on May 24, 1928, on board was a crew of 16. High winds prevented the Italia from landing, and then, as the crew began their return to base, an elevator jammed, causing the dirigible to lose hydrogen. The craft gradually became heavier, and 180 miles from base it began to drop with increasing velocity towards the ice. The resulting crash separated the gondola from the hydrogen envelope which, with six men inside, drifted upwards out of sight and was never found again.

There were nine survivors of the crash, almost all had multiple broken bones. They had some provisions, a four-man tent and a radio set, but were otherwise at the mercy of the elements and polar bears. After 10 days on the ice floe, their SOS appeal was heard by a Russian farmer listening on ham radio, and half a dozen nations - including Norway and Soviet Russia - sent out search parties. Their efforts to locate Nobile's party - by now drifting with the ice - were, however, largely uncoordinated, and nine of the rescuers lost their own lives, most notably Amundsen, whose aircraft disappeared over the Arctic Ocean.

The Italians were slow to respond, the petty jealousies of the army, navy and air ministries meant that Nobile’s rescue party of nine Alpine soldiers were not permitted to scout for the survivors until June 3rd, when they set out in two-man patrols. These patrols were sent to investigate a possible location of the "red tent", as Nobile's camp became known, from the aniline dye he had smeared on his bivouac in the hope of making it more visible. (The Red Tent was used as the title of the 1971 film about the expedition and rescue, starring Peter Finch as Nobile and Sean Connery as Amundsen). On June 12, much to the soldiers' frustration, a dispute between the service ministries led to their being recalled to the ship. Not until a week later did an Italian pilot manage to locate the red tent and drop supplies. Nobile was then picked up by a Swedish flier, but the aeroplane crashed when the Swede returned for the others and he had himself to be rescued. The remaining five survivors, by now stranded on a rapidly melting floe, were finally taken aboard a Russian icebreaker after spending 49 days in the icy wastes. Three survivors had set off earlier to try to walk to Spitsbergen, only two were later found by plane, one of their number having dug his own grave in the ice before lying down to die. The fact that the other two had survived for another 12 days without food led some to believe that they had subsequently dug up their companion and eaten him. In all 18 men died during Nobile’s expedition, and the subsequent rescue efforts. Nobile’s rescue party of nine Alpine soldiers were hailed as heroes on return to Italy, where the Fascist press otherwise portrayed the expedition as a serious blow to national pride. Nobile, however, was vilified - not least for having agreed to be rescued before his crew - and he ultimately emigrated to Russia. His reputation was not restored until after the fall of Mussolini.

This work, La Tenda Rossa, is the illogical, logical conclusion to a project concerning the current themed Survivor seasons, Survivor: Pearl Island and Survivor: All Stars, through a hybrid reframing of the failed imperial project that was Gen. Umberto Nobile’s attempt to land the dirigible Italia at the North Pole in 1928. The original project proposed a hypothetical where-to-next scenario for the series: Survivor: The Arctic. An absurd location no doubt, but essentially the last terrain available. In many senses it is ideal - a visually arresting location free of distractions, immunity challenges might present a problem, but not necessarily. The slim prospect of seeing scantily-clad young Americans on syndicated television is a serious obstacle to achieving the network's required Nielson ratings, but there are perhaps also ways around that. Now in season 7, the romanticised Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson franchise is still not over - Survivor has convincingly destroyed the idyllic deserted tropical island myth. This has led the search for new frontiers to become quite ridiculous. La Tenda Rossa synchronizes the search by Survivor series producers for new locations and themes with early 20th century exploration. Although not in terms of Alexander the Great's sorrow at having no more worlds to conquer, but more in relation to the ridiculous quests of contemporary explorers for new places to simply go to, new things to do - never mind explore. Mike Horn on a bodyboard in the Amazon River, Sir Richard Branson endlessly attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon or Sir Ranulph Fiennes walking across the Antarctic continent. These endeavours have a tragedy to them vastly different from the loss of life that characterised earlier exploration, usually due to projects that can only be described as rare combinations of stupidity, narcissism and danger. There is a total pointlessness of purpose - these men are too late, their projects and ambitions are dated and quite sad. Why are Westerners still doing these things? The appeal is obviously based, in part, on a nostalgic association with a specific past characterised by larger-than-life heroes and a time of possibility and optimism - the opportunity for 'worlds' to be discovered.

Today these acts of exploration are fundamentally second or even third hand, amply-sponsored narcissistic endeavours to perpetuate the great-man-of-history-template that so characterised the first half of the previous century. For the aegis of exploration is, today, more closely directed towards the individual than ever before - the role and association with individuated Western nation-states with regard to such projects is considerately less than during the Modern period. It is no longer the individual, with nation-state support, cataloguing vast tracts of terrain for his mother country. Today it is the heavily-sponsored and media-savvy white male motivated by misdirected ego, ambition and boredom. All traits that underwrote previous explorer's endeavours, but the explorers of today are made more vulgar and ridiculous through the absence of the naivety and optimism that characterised those of the Modern period. Today you would think white men would have learnt something from history - that this particular avenue of ego building and money wasting would have ceased. Yet, there continues to be endless projects with the singular distinction of achieving nothing, save for allowing white males to endure bizarre hardships for extended periods, and concluding with the act of sticking a flag in the ground somewhere remote. Or rather two flags - one, the mother country and the other, the sponsor.

It is the blurring of the fine line between entertainment and crap that makes the Survivor series such a uniquely American affair - or rather so American as to make it unremarkable. It is the opposing, but somehow synchronous, binaries of its approach and outcome that make it so. Being blindingly naive to a large degree but simultaneously underwritten by a process of scheming manipulation aimed at engineering saleable product, is a duality that defines most American enterprise. What is fascinating about the programme is that it constitutes a reversal of the normative responses to a survival situation, namely to seek and attain rescue at the soonest possible chance. Survivor participants compete to stay in this cycle of survival and in so doing, extend their exposure to malnutrition, physical hardship and discomfort. The basic premise of Survivor can be reduced and unpacked as follows: Take 16 Americans to a remote location, divide them into two groups and tell them to live in shacks, constantly bicker, eat poorly and compete to remain in this context for 39 days - then give the last one remaining one million dollars. All the while filming the contestants and actively manipulating how they live and interact. This produces raw footage which is further manipulated and constructed into saleable product, and in turn is broadcast, through syndicated licensing, across the globe. And lots of people watch it. Many, many more do not - rather than 'play' Survivor, they have to actually live it, without the possibility of financial return or media attention, but rather with the eminent reward of starvation and death.

 

Film Treatment:

Nobile Tribe
Sven Anderson, 34 - Accountant
Mitch Buchanann, 29 - Computer Programmer
John Covington, 23 - Office Assistant
Peter Keating, 38 - Marketing Executive
Ross Pritchard, 19 - Student
Matt Reinhardt, 25 - Advertising Sales
James Roark, 30 - Electrician
Bob Smithson, 45 - Mechanical Engineer

La Tenda Rossa is a 20-30 minute short film shot on HD video in colour with stereo sound. The film will feature eight principle characters gradually reduced in number to five, then three, then two. The cast will be white, North American males between the ages of 18 and 50. The look and feel of the film will be that of a contemporary television porgamme - the context and wardrobe will support the latter. With the narrative representing a 'highlights package' of a standard, eight week Survivor series - but there is no voice-over narration and few highlights. La Tenda Rossa represents a fictional, 'themed' Survivor series, in the mode of Survivor: Pearl Islands. The link between the Arctic setting and the title of Nobile's 1928 tragedy is merely applied, it is a superimposed theme - although the location, number of contestants and duration of the survivor's involvement do link back to the original historical event.* La Tenda Rossa is both a mock-Survivor series (Survivor: The Arctic) as well as a 'making of' documentary - the opening scene is from the point of view a person driving an all terrain vehicle heading through the icy wastes to the 'set' - the art directed and entirely stage-built 'red tent'. This scene introduces the context of the film and the nature of its subject matter - the Artic, the production of a reality television series and the contestants within that series. In this scene are briefly shown the mechanics of producing a big budget television series, the production crew and equipment feature as backdrop to the contestants being introduced to their new 'home'. The mechanics of production don't appear again until the final scene. In keeping with the testimonies of previous Survivor contestants, coping with the effects of boredom is the primary feature of the film - very little happens. Micro narratives unfold as the contestants sit around and talk but these have no real life - the men look forward to meals and immunity challenges that alleviate the sloth - they even become slightly animated before tribal council, but for the most part they remain in the tent waiting. By a peculiar twist of fate none of the contestants are voted out at any of the early tribal councils - each time a vote is tallied, each contestant receives a single vote.

The producers initially find it curious that each contestant would vote for themselves - but after several weeks they begin to get nervous and increasingly desperate to avoid making this series the most boring on record. Finally after six weeks the boredom reaches a critical point, and three contestants decide to leave the red tent and venture out into the white void in search of the production crew's base camp, convinced they can sometimes faintly see it on the horizon. From this point on, the film oscillates evenly between the survivors in the red tent and the three slowly dying of their own hubris out in the open. The survivors in the tent continue their silent protest by voting for themselves and are eventually removed from the set and sent home with the thanks of the network - the producers having decided to cut their losses and move production to the next themed series - Survivor: The Reagan Years - that research indicates as less likely to bomb. The three contestants out on the ice continue to search for the camp they are convinced was straight ahead of them. Having taken meagre supplies, and now in the beginning of their second week, their situation is dire. Sensing possible redemption from the network and the saviour of the series in the plight of the dying three, the producers don't have them recalled, but instead watch the inevitable with growing delight at finally the prospect of real drama and action. In the final scene one of the three, Peter Keating - a 38 year old marketing executive from Pomona, California - dies of exhaustion, having been walking aimlessly, to the disgust of the producers, for nearly two weeks. Yet now he is their star, a gruesome death might actually save the series. The final scene of the film starts as a close-up of the remaining two contestants with their backs to the camera, kneeling over the body of Keating. While they are eating him, the camera slowly zooms out - it takes in the second unit cinematographer, a sound technician, two grips, a producer and a 'script' supervisor standing nearby. Once the zoom out reaches 30 metres from subject, the credits begin to roll.

While piety is 'nice', it's human nature to think for one's own pleasure and survival - altruism is always a servant to self interest. Because, if a man can't think for his own good he is less likely, not more, to think of the good of others. Foregoing pleasure isn't pious, but sterile, and leaves only bitterness for the survivors. But, in the context of reality television this seems acceptable, since man needs some drama to highlight his own pitiful existence. Isn't that why men take to exploration in the first place?

 

Notes:

* The time period to be increased from the standard 39 days to 49 - the latter being the length of time Nobile's party occupied their red tent. The total number of contestants to be reduced to one tribe of 8 - the number of survivors that occupied Nobile's red tent.

 

   
 
REFERENCES –
 
 
Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans
Antartica : 1911
© Popper-Atlas
 
 
 
THX 1138
Directed by George Lucas : 1975
© UIP
 
 
 

Sir Edmund Hillary
Everest : 1953
© NGS

 
 
 
The Wreck of the Hope (detail)
Caspar David Friedrich : 1842
© Cologne Museum
 
   
  Survivor: The Amazon
Season 6 : 2003
© CBS Entertainment
 
Michael MacGarry