Fire Watcher

On the night of January 31, the Old Nut, Bolt and Screw building in the West Bottoms — the vacant one you used to see off to the north as you cleared the 12th Street bridge — burned down. That’s old news by now, of course. It was a five-alarm fire that raged through the night, and firefighters were relieved that they’d been able to keep it from spreading to more than one other building in the old warehouse-and-railroad district. But it damaged the nearby space where the Office Exchange sold used office furniture cheap.

On TV, flames leapt into the air and uniformed men looked frantic. But the fleeting, dramatic close-ups of water hoses and firetrucks didn’t provide the loving eulogy I might have liked. As someone who spends a good deal of time in the West Bottoms — enjoying big street parties or milling about from gallery to gallery, hanging out with friends who live there and watching from industrial rooftops as storms pass overhead — my nostalgia for a building that hadn’t finished burning kicked in a bit prematurely. The familiar charm of that particular mountain of red brick was on its way to becoming rubble, and if I could have paid my last respects right then and there, I would have. It was toe-numbingly cold outside, and fire scares me so much that I can’t even light a match without flinching, but damn it, I would have gone.

Nate Bogert went, along with his accomplice and fiancée Rachel Eilts — and they took their camera. Bogert is a video artist, and because he’s known for capturing beautiful footage of urban destruction, a tipster who was driving down Interstate 35 and saw the fire called him immediately. This friend had bought a still from one of Bogert’s previous fire videos. “He knew I’d want to be there,” Bogert says.

The 12th Street bridge had already been closed. People in the West Bottoms were stuck there. People not in the West Bottoms wouldn’t be headed that way for some time.

Bogert and Eilts live in Kansas City, Kansas, in a neighborhood overlooking the West Bottoms. When they got the call, they ran outside, thinking they’d be able to see the flames. “It was foggy out, and you couldn’t see the fire, but there was a total dark spot where the smoke cloud was. The city was just muted out in a funnel shape,” Bogert recalls. “Once we determined that there was still a lot going on, we grabbed the video camera and took the quickest, sneakiest route there.”

Three cheers for the experienced urban explorers, who know the quickest, sneakiest route anywhere in town.

What Bogert captured amounts to pure sensory overload. Flames soar and glow, but through the smoke and fog they look wet, as though they’re dripping rather than burning. The bright lights — from the fire as well as from flashing emergency lights and spotlights shining on the building — reflect red, blue, yellow and even purple on the slick asphalt below. The swooshing sound of water from a high-power hose drowns out all but occasional crackling and whistling. When the stream succeeds in piercing a window, glass shatters. Smoke spews from the porous old brick like little snakes. Depending on where they stand, firefighters either glow in the light of the fire or are completely silhouetted by it.

Bogert’s technique deliberately emphasizes all of that. “I opened up the shutter speed because that gives you more color, and the fire looks like more of a solid rather than a vapor,” he explains. It also means that everything slows down — it’s almost like you’re watching a live-action slide show, one spectacular frame at a time.

This footage will most likely end up being in Bogert’s live video projections for Kansas City bands such as Sky Burial or TJ Dovebelly Ensemble. For these collaborations, Bogert mixes images from his video library, including his footage of a West Bottoms fire a few years back that — according to legend — was so big it changed weather patterns. Past presentations have included imagery from his video of workers suspended on cranes as they used torches to tear apart the Fourth Street Viaduct. “It was just this brief moment,” he says of the bridge’s dismemberment. “And something came down that had been there for so long. I mean, it moved trains.”

Bogert is drawn to these scenes partly because of the obvious spectacles they create. “You have to go,” he says. “That’s the whole deal. It’s instinctual. I definitely was not the only person there in awe of what was happening. These are just incredibly beautiful scenes. There are a lot of other emotions, too, but my first instinct is just to capture the beauty.”

But his videos are influenced by nostalgia and memory as well, capturing the obliteration of places he once enjoyed. “I feel so sorry for the West Bottoms,” he says. “It’s sort of the stepchild of Kansas City.” That these are not random places to him makes the scenes more personal as well as more sad.

When I first called Bogert to talk about his videos, he was enthusiastic but also slightly apologetic about being drawn — both emotionally and artistically — to these scenes of destruction. “It’s somewhat embarrassing,” he says. “Almost like I’m rubbernecking.”

I knew what he meant because I had spent the better part of a week calling friends and acquaintances to see if anyone knew someone who got any, you know, really awesome photos of that really awful fire. I didn’t want to see photos for shock value or anything like that. It was more out of reverence for a once-impressive building that’s now bombed out and because the fire that destroyed it was huge and probably quite beautiful. When I called people to ask about it, I felt compelled to say, “I swear I’m not Fox 4 News.”

Bogert’s guilt comes partly from the understanding that, from the perspective of the firefighters, he could be in the way. “I am, in essence, a hazard, an obstacle, another cattle to herd,” he says. “Obviously, I’m going to try not to be a problem, but you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

All I know is that what I didn’t get on the news on January 31 — that is, a visual tribute to a building, to a landmark in my city, and to the unstoppable power of the element that destroyed it — I got from Bogert’s video. In superslow motion, with the focus shifting from the fire to the building and back to the fire again, silhouettes of firefighters moving purposefully against a glowing background of flashing red and blue lights, the visual drama of Bogert’s video matches the emotional drama of the event.

“I’m a pain in the butt,” he says. “But I can’t help myself.”

Categories: News