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Beirut, Mixed-Up Files, bombing

The Immortality of Digital Explosions

Our digital gaze on catastrophes is taking away our ability to humanize the damage — and hold governments accountable.

Words: Lovely Umayam
Pictures: Christelle Hayek

Ever scrolled through your social media feeds and wondered how the latest art, culture trends or memes are connected to national security and foreign policy? We have! So, we introduce to you our new column: The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media (inspired by From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), an outlet for us to explore whatever cultural phenomena, sometimes heavy and sometimes light, that is shaping the way we look at and live in this world. This new column will come out once a month and feature articles from Lovely Umayam and Molly Hurley.

Art can give death and anxiety a definite shape. In the 1950s, artists threw glass bottles of paint on paper sprawled across the floor as a visual response to the Cold War and the Atomic Age. Drips and splatter of color became portraits of the invisible yet palpable fear that the next nuclear attack could trigger the end of the world. A Japanese painter at the time, Kazuo Shiraga, pushed this concept further. For a series of paintings, Shiraga dangled a rope on the ceiling, held it with his hands, and stepped on the canvas to paint with his bare feet. The resulting work reflected the spirit of his generation: The harsh strokes of black and red pigments mimicked debris after a bombing, or deep wounds on flesh.

Shiraga Kazuo demonstrating his signature painting style, 2nd Gutai Exhibition 1956, printed 2012 Kiyoji Otsuji 1923-2001 Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2019

Shiraga was a member of the Japanese avant-garde group “Gutai,” a word that loosely translates to “concreteness.” The Gutai cultivated a talented group of artists, all of whom came of age during the carpet bombing of Tokyo, and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They were enthralled by the idea of decay — the way matter withers from the natural passage of time, or torn apart by a singular flash of disaster to reveal its purest state. Gutai artists wrestled with mud, burned wooden planks, stabbed paper, and mixed chemicals until they fizzed into flamboyant arcs. Gestures that gave anger and grief tangible form. 

I wonder how the Gutai’s credo translates to today’s version of devastation and decay. There is no material imprint of the COVID-19 and its variants: The rising number of the hospitalized and the dead — figures that once anchored us to the sobering reality of the pandemic — are beginning to fade in the backdrop of our new routines. And in the throes of a pandemic, police murdered Black people, strangers attacked Asian elders, a mob breached the US Capitol grounds, fires ravaged forests, and hurricanes sliced through coastlines. While real to those whose bodies, homes, and livelihoods have been destroyed, these crises often reach the world as bytes converted into pixels on computer screens. I, along with everyone else watching, partake in digital grief — an outpouring of emotion detached from concrete experience. 

As we watch these tragedies unfold online, the lack of physicality takes away the depth of experience and our understanding of groundtruth. We enter the digital ether seeking to empathize, but we come out feeling more contrived and tired.

In his essay “Death in the Browser Tab,” Teju Cole writes, “A video introduces new elements into the event it records.” Capturing the moment of death with such precision risks blurring the boundaries dividing truth from spectacle. “The star is likely to be death itself and not the human who dies.” Once tragedy is uploaded online, it spreads like contagion, appearing on all platforms instantaneously, and playing on repeat for billions of people to watch from afar. This simultaneous experience of proximity and distance, of connection and detachment, is how the world felt the tremors of Beirut. 

In the afternoon of August 4, 2020, a fire appeared in the port of Beirut, consuming a warehouse on the water’s edge. The fire morphed into an angry column of smoke, catching the attention of passersby who instinctively reached for their phones to film the scene. Without warning, the fire exploded. A cloud of debris and overpressure barreled through the streets, flattening everything in its path. A few days later, the Lebanese government revealed the culprit: Abandoned ammonium nitrate, a chemical ingredient found in fertilizers and bombs. The chemicals sat idly at the port for six years as politicians shuffled paperwork to determine what to do. The source of this tragedy is frustratingly immaterial. How does one grab ineffective, negligent bureaucracy by the neck? Or punish wasted time? 

Aftermath at the Beirut Port in August 2020. Photo courtesy if Wikimedia commons.

That same week, the New York Times published a report about the incident based on 70 crowdsourced videos from varying angles and heights. News outlets and Twitter accounts poured over the footage, hoping that frame-by-frame commentary would illuminate new clues, or offer messages of solidarity and condolence. Immediate access to this tragedy just moments after it occured is testament to the incredible connectedness the Internet affords people around the world. But to bear witness in this way betrays reality. The moving image of the fireball pummeling towards the viewer simulates death; the audience is spared, all the while knowing that the wreckage is terrible and tangible somewhere to someone. Local photographers captured the tangible ruins of the aftermath: A field of inedible grain scattered around the mangled grain silo at the port, or ill-fated galleries with precious Lebanese artworks shattered on the floor. But the replicated video of the explosion, in slow-motion and high-definition, became the preferred way to gaze at Beirut’s suffering. 

Screenshot of New York Times Visual Investigation, “What Footage of the Beirut Explosion Tells Us About the Blast,” published Aug. 5, 2020.

After the incident, the world moved on to stare at the next crisis on their Internet browsers while survivors salvaged what was left of their city. Locals looked for life against the odds, hopeful for possible heartbeats under the rubble. Hope mingled with anger and grief. Today, Beirut struggles to find closure as investigators battle through more bureaucratic roadblocks and political maneuvering from officials attempting to elude accountability. Meanwhile, experts all over the world extracted metadata out of their tragedy by picking apart and splicing together crowdsourced images. Some analysis created clinical renderings of ammonium nitrate in haphazard piles, confirming that they were carelessly stored against international standards. While useful as an arbiter of truth, it is a digital catalog of the crime without the promise of justice. When will it translate to atonement that can hold the heavy loss survivors will carry for the rest of their lives? 

Left with images and discourse without definitive resolution, the Lebanese people express themselves in blunt proclamations —  the words “THE GOVERNMENT DID THIS” in black graffiti scrawled across the remaining solid surface of the wrecked port. Or through carefully curated objects — twisted metal, crushed glass, donated keepsakes — sculpted into a woman holding the Lebanese flag up in the sky, an embodiment of the people’s resistance. These creations share the same spirit Shiraga and the Gutai conjured in their art to resist the despair of their post-war existence. The direct confrontation with matter — shaping dirt, spraying graffiti, or sliding one’s soles on a smooth canvas — offers a sense of agency amidst the brokenness of political systems. Lebanon’s system continues to fracture; exactly a year after the explosion, its citizens are grappling with a governance collapse and financial meltdown that has led to fuel shortage and the possible closure of critical services. We live in a world where injustice, abuse, and corruption are easier to see — a privileged view — but concrete solutions remain obscured in the dark.

Sculpture by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer from CNN article, “A Lebanese artist created an inspiring statue out of glass and rubble from the Beirut port explosion,” published Oct. 25, 2020.

As we watch these tragedies unfold online, the lack of physicality takes away the depth of experience and our understanding of groundtruth. We enter the digital ether seeking to empathize, but we come out feeling more contrived and tired. For a time, I tried to avoid the videos of the Beirut blast during the one-year remembrance, but the algorithm has a way of finding me, auto-playing the footage on my social media feed next to other content I should be outraged about. I, along with everyone else, are forced to watch a recycled montage of mushroom clouds and digitized catastrophes in our lonesome corners, left to wonder when these compounding crises will truly feel real and actionable to us. 

Lovely Umayam

Editorial Board Member

Lovely Umayam is the founder and chief writer for Bombshelltoe, a blog featuring stories about nuclear history/politics, art, and media. Bombshelltoe is the first-prize winner of the U.S. Department of State’s Innovation in Arms Control Challenge in 2013. Lovely’s work under Bombshelltoe was featured at the 2013 SxSW Interactive, FastCompany, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the 2013 U.S. Department of State’s Generation Prague Conference in which she interviewed Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller.


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