Brian Dailey’s Strange Odyssey From Art to Terror and Back Again

A babbling tower of war and peace — and all that’s in between


I’ve interviewed a diverse spectrum of artists over the years but had never before heard one expound on the importance of the “Cooperative Threat Reduction Program,” which addressed concerns of nuclear proliferation as the Soviet Union collapsed, in the early 1990s. Nor, before I talked to Brian Dailey, was I aware that the metallurgy in Russian rocket engines is superior to our own. Such revelations are not surprising, however, when one considers that Dailey spent almost a quarter-century as a nuclear-arms-control negotiator, a detour from his artistic career that he has sometimes wryly referred to as “the ultimate performance piece.”

Dailey’s most recent work, a large-scale multimedia installation titled “Words,” is on view in Washington, D.C., a town notorious for twisting, parsing, mincing, breaking, and otherwise abusing every word in the book. Dailey’s project, however — which took him to 89 countries and all seven continents — seeks to discover the humanity at the heart of a baker’s dozen of crucial social concepts: Peace, War, Love, Environment, Freedom, Religion, Democracy, Government, Happiness, Socialism, Capitalism, Future, and United States. Dailey set up his lights, cameras, and green screens in public spaces as far afield as East Jerusalem, New Delhi, Venice, Tunis, Port Lockroy in Antarctica, and other cities and towns around the globe, and asked people to give one-word answers to those thirteen one-word prompts, eventually collecting more than 24,000 responses from roughly 2,000 people. If the numbers don’t quite add up to the expected 26,000, it’s because some participants were reluctant to respond to specific words, with “Government” the one most shied away from.

Dailey was born in 1951, in Pittsburg, California, and in his youth traveled with his mother and sister to New Zealand and England before returning to the States, eventually settling in Santa Monica. He had always been interested in art and, as he told me in our interview, had entered the Otis Art Institute in California with “a traditional portfolio, mastering the skills of painting and drawing. But that quickly evolved into activism as art, which led to exploring such issues as government surveillance of U.S. citizens.” He came of age during a politically restless period, when you could find artists protesting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, in 1970, unsuccessfully calling on the institution to close its doors in solidarity with “The New York Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Repression.” Around that time, sculptor and conceptual artist Robert Morris demanded that the Whitney Museum close his solo show two weeks early, because of a need “to shift priorities at this time from art making or viewing…to unified action within the art community against the intensifying conditions of repression, war, and racism in this country.” The critic Robert Hughes would later note, “ ‘Radical’ artists, especially in America, were apt to mistake the art world for the real world, in ignorance of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s chilly but true dictum that the politics of art is a tiny parody of the politics of real power.” Hughes went on to question the efficacy of Morris’s Whitney action: “As though Nixon and Kissinger were sufficiently impressed by the social hunger for Morris’s logs and boxes to ground the B-52s lest Manhattan be deprived.”

This was the era of the domino theory, which posited that all of Southeast Asia would go Communist if America did not win the Vietnam War. After the violent deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, this proved not to be the case. Nixon gussied up America’s ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam as “Peace with Honor,” a rhetorical sleight of hand that couldn’t save him from his own paranoid pettiness and corruption, which finally led to his resignation, in August of 1974. Along with many other citizens, Dailey cheered Nixon’s political demise, and he made art installations that reflected the abuses of individual privacy and the public trust the Watergate scandal had revealed.

Dailey graduated from Otis in 1975, and in 1976 he installed “Performance in Viciousness” at the Roger Wong Gallery, in Los Angeles. The viewer was invited to walk down a narrow passage between trained attack dogs, a scenario that revealed both the way in which fear can be used as social control and how security designed to protect citizens can also oppress them — quite the concept for America’s Bicentennial year.

In that same year, Dailey traveled to Japan, hoping to meet with and work for one of his heroes, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Although that bit of youthful bravado didn’t pan out, Dailey’s quest did lead to a journey across the Soviet Union, where his innate interest in history and concern about humanity’s perilous future eventually led him to an unusual day job. He began formally studying international relations at U.S.C., and one of his first assignments, in 1984, was at the Pentagon, working on chemical-weapons negotiations. In 1987, he received a doctorate with a dissertation on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty titled, “Deception and Self-Deception in Arms Control: The ABM and Outer Space Treaties Reconsidered.” Soon afterward, he became a staff member of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and Nuclear Deterrence. In 1939, Winston Churchill had described the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Five decades later, Dailey found himself in the belly of that enigmatic beast, negotiating treaties with his Russian counterparts to control the most fearsome weapons the world has ever known. “If you knew all the details,” he told me during our interview, “your hair would go gray really quickly.”

One photograph Dailey showed me from this period confirmed the strange perils of his endeavor. In 1992, as part of the “Cooperative Threat Reduction Program,” Dailey’s team traveled to Russia to survey that country’s nuclear-weapons program after the fall of the Soviet Union. The concern was that Russian scientists and engineers — who were no longer being paid, as their country plunged into political chaos — might go rogue and offer their services to the highest bidders in countries trying to attain nuclear-weapons expertise. Part of the American program was to provide funds to help the Russians transition into more peaceful industries. In the photograph, Dailey can be seen behind two U.S. senators (Democrat Carl Levin and Republican Connie Mack) who, in a display of bipartisan concern for America’s safety that feels quaint in our hyper-partisan moment, traveled to a previously secret installation to assess the risk. Dailey told me that when they left the closed city — Chelyabinsk-65 — the gowns and hats they wear in the photo were burned, because the entire facility had been contaminated by decades’ worth of haphazardly handled radioactive materials.

Such undertakings explain the gap in Dailey’s artistic résumé, from 1977 — when he orchestrated a performance piece in L.A. titled “Vice,” in which viewers individually engaged with actors who tried to elicit confessions of immoral deeds — to 2011, when he exhibited “America in Color,” portraits of U.S. voters posed on colored backdrops representing their political affiliations. Since then Dailey has worked on a number of ambitious projects, such as “14 Stations of the Crossroads,” which combines surreal self-portraits with intensely colored abstract paintings that meld Ad Reinhardt’s compositional severity with Soviet Constructivist vitality. The series also contains intimations that the devil, who likes to hang at crossroads both geographical and metaphysical, might also be found in the details of arms-control agreements. And while 2016’s Dichotomy of Barbarity seems at first a contrasting amalgam of exuberant pop color and hard-edge abstraction, a closer look reveals maps of the Middle East and midtown Manhattan, a visual rumination that conflates terrorists destroying ancient artifacts with the concentric blast zones of a nuclear explosion centered on the Museum of Modern Art.

Dailey’s current exhibition, “Words,” might be seen as a marriage of his dual lives. As a high-stakes negotiator, he needed absolute clarity when hashing out treaty limits for weapons of mass destruction. As an artist, he appreciates that most human affairs are best marinated in ambiguity. For “Words,” Dailey constructed a three-sided tower supporting 13 video screens stacked in rows of four, four, and five. Each display is labeled with one of the 13 words to which participants were asked to respond — ideally, with just one word of their own. Dailey then edited together and subtitled the thousands of answers to each prompt into roughly 25-minute videos.

His editing techniques at times engender a surprising amount of suspense, as viewers have to wait for answers that are by turns sweet, anxious, practical, whimsical, banal, enigmatic, provocative, and anguished. In one clip, a cheerful young woman from the Maldives contemplates the prompt “Love,” glances upward in thought, and then says, “Death,” followed by a luminous smile. Next comes a Chinese woman who replies “Parents,” then a Japanese dude in Ray-Bans who sways a bit before deciding on “Forever.” After pondering “Freedom,” an Israeli man wearing a massive crash helmet solemnly intones, “Children,” succeeded by a Palestinian, equally serious, who replies, “Non-existent,” followed by an earnest Jordanian woman’s “Foundation” and an Iraqi man’s succinct “Yes.”

Dailey hit occasional hitches, as when a group of students in Jordan, hearing that he would later go to Israel, demanded that he erase their answers. Dailey explained to me that he told the vice president of the university, “Well, that’s absolutely fine. My interest is not to make people participate in this. If they don’t want to participate, I’ll delete it, as much as that was good footage and really interesting dialogue and I think they should be in it.”

A not insignificant percentage of the 2,000 people who took part clammed up over particular words — “Government,” “Socialism,” and “Capitalism” scoring the highest rates of nonresponse. At other times, participants could barely contain their true feelings. One Russian woman, when asked her first thought on “United States,” said, “America, to me?” and then spit. “Democracy” fares poorly in the former Eastern Bloc, with a Bosnian asking, “What’s that?,” a Bulgarian replying “Fraud,” and a Croatian lamenting, “Unattainable.”

The videos are strikingly colorful, having the advantage of national flags for backdrops. Dailey adds another layer of visual verbiage to the show’s mix with a series of 13 prints, in which responses to each prompt are weighted by an algorithm that determines the most cited answers. Hence, “Trump” scores the biggest point size in the print “United States,” followed by a slightly smaller “Freedom,” then “Power,” “Country,” “Dream,” and “War.” “New York” also lives large on the international response scale to our homeland, while among the hundreds of shrinking answers, “Beautiful” and “Fantastic” are both beat out by “McDonald’s.”

In another life, Dailey spent decades sorting through intelligence reports, seeking to verify compliance with various treaties. He and his counterparts in Russia were always looking to avoid a war that, unlike World War I, would actually be “The War to End All Wars” — simply because there wouldn’t be anyone left to fight. But now we live in perhaps even more perilous times, when President Trump looms over not just Dailey’s “United States” but also that huge nuclear button he claims to have on his desk. Arguably, Trump is our first president who rattles minds as much as sabers.

Brian Dailey’s art led him to contemplate the unthinkable, and his arms-control career actually did something to forestall it. During our interview, I asked him if he could envision — today — the sort of bipartisanship that led to implementation of the successful “Cooperative Threat Reduction Program” in the early ’90s. He spoke of U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle back then who stood up to their party leaders and demanded the legislation and funds to deal with the complexities of proliferation. Then he concluded, “I gotta tell you, if it wasn’t for people like that, who were there at that time, no one would’ve done anything. And who knows what the world would’ve been like?”


‘Brian Dailey: WORDS’
American University Museum
4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, D.C.
Through March 11