April 23, 2013 Leave a comment
Last year I had an academic paper published that offered up some thoughts and reflections on why some people (predominantly male) invest considerable amounts of their spare time cherishing the dank concrete ruins of defensive emplacements. In part of my paper I ruminated on bunkerologists observed restoring their prized structures, and the pervasive desire to resurrect these places and their stories from the mundane background into which it was felt that they had slid. Their fear was that these structures had become imperceptible – whether through ubiquity or physical and informational decay. There was also an evident faith in the power of the materiality of these buildings to convey something above and beyond what books could achieve.
Thus, often driven by the dedicated efforts of amateur enthusiasts, individual pillboxes, bunkers, tank blocks and so forth had became foregrounded via local initiatives – an interpretive sign added here, a memorial plaque there, a coastal walk leaflet, a local history book or talk, a re-enactment or other event day now and again.
Such projects appeared to meet little if any opposition, they were seen as a valid (if at times a little nerdy) example of localism and community spirit.
But what if the attempt to rescue a site from obscurity is carried out by an individual and involves affixing artwork to the fabric of the structure itself. Should that be lauded any less?
This was the issue I found myself grappling with after becoming aware of War Department’s ‘Posting Sentries’ Project. War Department (WD) is a Scottish street artist who stencils life-size sentries and other period-inspired images onto and into the fabric of abandoned pillboxes and related structures. The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by me with WD earlier this week. WD is aware that it is being published here and has given permission for the use of photographs of his work.
LB – How do people react to your work (e.g. visitors, site owners, heritage groups)?
WD – Very positively with some heritage bodies recently asking for work to be produced for them especially at their own sites and events. I get a lot of emails with photos taken by people who have found a piece which are always great to see and I do get the occasional email from other artists and urban explorers wanting to come on a mission with me which is something I don’t allow. The only negative comment I had was that someone thought that one of my prints featured the wrong model of Bren Gun for that location…they were right and I replaced the print at the site a few weeks later.
LB – What types of people do you meet in these places?
WD – I have met a few people on site and they are generally either hikers or geocachers. Once they see me, they tend to hang about and watch me work and have a chat about the project which is good.
LB – How does your project approach the issue of respect for place and authenticity?
WD – I avoid any sites that have a very documented past, maintained in any way or are in private ownership – I look for the forgotten and do my research in to its past before I create a piece. I try to find out unit names/tasking/equipment etc to give the work some accuracy for those in the know. The majority of the sites I work with are in ruins and are in no way maintained, a fact I am very careful about. For example I do not work with Royal Observer Corp (ROC) posts as they have groups dedicated to their upkeep and I would not wish to upset them as they do a great job in keeping the past alive.
LB – Is there a tension between selling prints and declaring yours a noncommercial project?
WD – Not at all. The prints went on sale after I received dozens of requests from followers of my work who wanted to own a print themselves. The money raised from the sales of prints pays for the materials I require (which are rising in price every day) and a percentage of each sale goes directly to a UK armed forces charity I support. I don’t make any ‘profit’ from the prints and that will remain the case for the length of project. The company who sell the prints on my behalf make no money from the sales either and have been a great supporter and promoter of the project.
LB – Has your work ever been vandalised / ‘written over’ by others?
WD – Not as far as I know, but I am not too worried if they do.
LB – What prompted you to add the safety disclaimer about the inherent dangers of visiting your sentries?
WD – Unfortunately some people are not prepared for exploring such sites and although the majority of the sites are safe, I would hate for anyone to get hurt looking for a Sentry. So I thought it wise to highlight that safety should be uppermost in the mind of the would be Sentry hunter. It is also partly for that reason I do not list the locations on the website.
LB – What got you interested in targeting bunkers in particular (i.e. why not similarly re-populating abandoned farms, derelict mills or old quarries with stencil people?) – was the attraction the bunkers’ non inner-urban locations, their ‘forgotten ruins’ status, their link with militarism/defence or was it family or other interest in wartime heritage?
WD – In the area that I live there are hundreds of wartime structures strewn throughout the landscape. I realised that although I knew what they were (thanks to summer holidays with Grandparents) many people didn’t and they were at risk as being regarded as just a lump of concrete and having no significance by future generations. I began looking into the history of the structures and found that the stories and the people behind them were fascinating so I started the project as my way preventing the loss of these stories.
So, what’s going on?
WD appears a well meaning enthusiast, driven by the same memorial urges as the more ‘mainstream’ bunker-savers. Both seek to re-remember these abandoned structures and the time and seriousness of their deployment. Both invoke the language of research and public engagement. Both co-opt popular graphic styles to achieve their aim, neither are ‘high art’, conceptual or otherwise obscure in their intention or execution.
And yet, I initially found myself uncomfortable about WD’s project, and that unease hasn’t entirely gone. One anxiety was that of copy-catism, WD’s designs are very well executed and there appears to be a restraint (borne of respect) in both choice of site and approach. But does such re-energising attract adverse attention to these sites, encourage them to be seen as canvasses for a variety of others? But then I remind myself that bunkers close to urban centres were targeted by graffiti long before WD came along, and graffiti is itself an archaeological artefact (see www.grafarc.org for example).
Issues of ‘authenticity’ lingered in my mind too – would these stencils spoil the original structures?
But then I thought about it further. What are the differences between WD’s augmentation of these derelict hulks, and putting up interpretative boards, guides, directed pathways, and/or restoration activities that seek to portray a moment in time during the 1939-45 war? The only differences that I can think of are (1) how well does the intervention conjure something beneficial to the experience of the encounter and (2) who is the doer – the site owner, a national custodian or self-appointed enthusiast?
Two essays by conflict archaeologist John Schofield are helpful here. Schofield argues that such sites have little value without interpretation, and that contemporary approaches to interpretation take a wide view of that term. These places are not beholding a single essence, one that can only be extracted carefully by expert investigation. No, there are many possible meanings and the act of foregrounding one of them, is a necessary act of choice, and will reflect the preoccupations of the host society in which the interpretation takes place. Few places lend themselves well to a flat, ‘facts-only’ presentation, and certainly not crudely build defensive emplacements which even in their operational life had few home comforts or other ‘trimmings’.
What good (i.e. effective) public realm art can provide is what we might call ‘positive provocation’: confronting the visitor such that an intellectual and/or affectual response is summoned by the artist’s appropriation of place, structure and signs and the relations summoned between them via unexpected juxtaposition: and the stumbling upon a lifesize image of a crouched sentry in an otherwise overgrown and desolate abandoned outpost certainly fits the bill.
Schofield quotes fellow combat archaeologist Graham Fairclough thus:
“sense of place is not a given, and therefore cannot necessarily be passed on only by interpretation. It is created by individuals, and the aim of displays should be to give people the means to develop their own appreciation of significance…The sense of discovery is vital.” (Schofield, 2009: 46)
Schofield tables the notion of artists as ‘incavators’: that whilst the archaeologist finds meaning by excavating the layers of materiality at a site, an artist can add matter to a site (incavating) thereby adding, or drawing out, greater understanding, experience, engagement, meaning, significance, value (choose your preferred term).
Schofield’s writings here summon a refreshing view of the mutability of material culture – these structures cannot stand still. If left untouched they will eventually decay to nothing, any intervention – whether with preservation or interpretation at the fore, involves change and choices, opening up one possibility, whilst necessarily closing down (or at least subduing) others.
So, if I end up concluding that WD’s interventions are successful augmentations, then that only leaves (2) to work through, and that tumbles into the politics of who should be the custodians of ‘heritage’ and how such assets should be both preserved and presented.
I suspect that my initial adverse reaction was a classic Romantic ruin-porn one, that to discover a site warped in this way would be to not find an ‘authentic’ site. Yet, when out exploring I sometimes come across other street art augmentations of non-military ruins and feel that I’ve come across something delightfully surprising, something that has added to the experience of the trip.
I think, ultimately for me it comes down in large part to this issue of augmentation – adding something of worth – but also issues of community engagement, is the intervention done with the approval of the local community? But here that gets complicated, who are the local community and how should approval be measured? Is the local community only those enthusiasts who already know of these structures, or does it include the unknowing mass, whose engagement with these structures will only be triggered by such interventions?
Perhaps the only difference that ultimately matters is that WD is doing this without permission. It is interesting to hear that WD has been approached by heritage groups seeking to co-opt him into ‘legitimate’ interpretative work (a step which he doesn’t appear to have any ideological opposition to). To my mind there is nothing inherently wrong about WD’s interventions in an aesthetic or interpretative sense but if done without the place owner’s permission (and without regulatory sanction in the case of sites designated as listed buildings of protected monuments) it is probably criminal damage. The legislation looks to preservation of the fabric of these buildings (no matter how dank or decayed). The application of paint, paper or any other materials to these surfaces is an infraction.
It was particularly interesting to see WD’s answer above to the question of site selection, that he would not target sites that appeared in private ownership. This comment seems to equate private ownership with habitation or use, the reality is – of course – that everywhere is owned by someone, even if there are no apparent signs of use.
In pulling this piece together I find myself with a left/right brain tension. The lawyer in me says ‘clearly unlawful’, the other part of me says this is an interesting way of appropriately augmenting these forgotten structures. I’m left stuck on the fence on this one…
Bennett, L (2012) ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’ Gender, Place & Culture: a journal of feminist geography iFirst article, 2012, 1–17, DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197
Schofield, J. (2005) Combat Archaeology: material culture and modern conflict, Duckworth: London.
Schofield, J. (2009) ‘Constructing Place: when artists and archaeologists meet’ in Aftermath: readings in the archaeology of recent conflict; Springer: New York.
WD’s website: http://www.war-department.com/
Another interview with WD: Issue 4, twohundredby200 magazine at: http://www.twohundredby200.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/twohundredby200-issue-4.pdf