Living beyond the limits of survival: five articles on ongoing cultural production in abandoned bunkers

Image result for polish bunker ants

“the wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe [of this abandoned Cold War bunker]. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.”

Czechowski W., Rutkowski T., Stephan W., Vepsäläinen K., (2016) ‘Living beyond the limits of survival: wood ants trapped in a gigantic pitfall’. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 51, 227-239 at 237.

As previewed in last month’s blog post, all of the contributions to my guest-edited special issue of the Journal of War and Culture Studies are now available on the journal’s website [here]. The five papers (plus my extended editorial essay, portions of which were presented in last month’s blog post, and further extracts below) are all concerned with the after-life of Cold War bunkers, and particularly with the ways in which these obstinate places refuse to disappear, either from the space that they inhabit or from the cultural milieu that they still haunt. Like an automatic beacon faithfully continuing to transmit long after the ship has been abandoned, or in the survival instinct of a colony of ‘lost’ ants, the modes and means of abandoned bunkers endurance (and of life and meaning-making playing out within them) is subjected to analysis by the contributing – multidisciplinary – authors, with each interpreting this endurance as a form of ongoing cultural production.

Still alive: ongoing cultural production in the abandoned bunker

The Journal of War and Culture Studies’ aims include promoting exploration of the relationship between war and culture during conflict and in its aftermath, and examining the cultural production and circulation of both symbols and artefacts of conflict. Bunkers are very potent and enduring symbols and artefacts of conflict, which are deeply embedded in contemporary culture (Bennett 2011). To draw out this embeddedness, this special issue takes a very broad view of the bunker’s cultural production. As Raymond Williams (1983, 87-93) notes ‘culture’ is not a settled term. The contributors to this issue tend towards using the term in its anthropological sense – with cultural production thus here being regarded as the processes by which social groups produce shared meaning about abandoned bunkers, and whether that arises within small groups of enthusiastic bunker preservationists or across wider society via popular culture. Therefore, the narrow, elitist, sense of ‘culture’ promoted by Matthew Arnold (1960) as the production only of the fine arts is elided.

Additionally, the expression ‘cultural production’ is used here in a way intended to emphasise that that the generation, modification and circulation of cultural symbols and artefacts is always ongoing. Meanings evolve – therefore the cultural production of the bunker is not a one off, originating event. The meanings and uses of these places evolve over time, and in response to a variety of broadly societal trends (e.g. how bunkers are portrayed in popular fiction) and in how individual actors actively engage in a process of appropriation within the bunker, each projecting and inferring upon the bunker in accordance with the needs of their own purposes and practices. Thus Sean Kinnear portrays the variety of actors, motives, and resulting re-use schemes, brought about recently in four Scottish bunker sites. Meanwhile Phil Kokoszka and I investigate the medley of stakeholders and their entangled cultural logics at play in the stilted after-life of the former cruise missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Furthermore, the articles by Louise K. Wilson, and Becky Alexis-Martin, Michael Mulvihill and Kathrine Sandys, show how the phenomenological qualities of the abandoned bunkers appeal to them as artists, as largely ‘blank canvas’ sites which they can appropriate (albeit often only temporarily) and are used in their production of site-specific installation and performance works. Notably, Wilson – as an artist working mainly in the medium of sound – shows how the bunker can be valorised for its acoustic, as well as its visual, atmospherics. Matthew Flintham (also an artist) appropriates an even more unusual cultural feature of the abandoned bunker: its mould. In doing so he productively pushes the notion of cultural production to its extreme – for mould is a culture which replicates itself, taking hold within the bunker’s stale air. As Williams (1983, 87) notes, one of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’ is “the tending of natural growth”. Flintham’s then is a view of the more-than-human enculturing of the bunker – if the mould culture can be said to be self-tending of its own growth. Alternatively, a human cultivator or sorts can be identified in Flintham’s own semantic cultivation, his human valorisation of the mould’s bunker colonising expansion drives by subjecting it to meaning making, by rendering it aesthetic.

Survival cell: the bunker’s battle against entropy

Flintham seeks to show, through his attentiveness to these cultures of mould, that bunkers are ultimately ironic spaces. For within the heart of their hermetic isolation, decay and degeneration (as instances of the entropy – the drive towards loss or energy – that afflicts the eventual dissolution of all things), derelict bunkers are found to be generative, living places. Thus they are ironic because they are both hostile and habitable. Engineered originally as survival cells for humans, these places are now abandoned and inhospitable to their intended denizens. They have been rendered toxic to humans through the proliferation of these moulds and other entropic processes of decay. And yet, the mould, and those wider processes of change, are themselves a form of dynamic change – and if viewed in a wide frame of reference – signs of survival and endurance. In short, the bunker endures and has an existence (and cultures of sorts) even when fully abandoned. Flintham links his ruminations on the resilience of mould to the Cold War-era theorising of cybernetics, the science of distributed systems and self-organisation. Cold War theorising (and the art and fiction that Flintham identifies as influenced by this anxious milieu) was influenced by existential questions of how – and where – to best face-down the accelerated entropy to be witnessed in the face of a nuclear blast. And the best answer to that question was usually ‘the bunker’. Conceived as a sealed survival space intended to facilitate the autonomous survival of Cold War human bodies and other culture-preserving vessels of information, Flintham’s Cold War bunker is largely bereft of human life and apocalyptic scheming. But conflict and survival are both still enacted there, for the bunker is now host to daily battles of territorial expansion and defence waged between extremophiles deep inside this now hostile-to-human terrain.

Meanwhile, approaching decay and degeneration from a more avowedly human (and heritage preservation) standpoint Kinnear makes an impassioned plea for greater attentiveness to Scotland’s Cold War-era bunkers, presenting that call within the context of a narrative of loss (through sites falling victim to both material decay and unsympathetic redevelopment). He argues that increased attentiveness to the architectural significance of these places could spur their greater protection. However, Kokoszka and I show that setting out to save an iconic site may require more than protective heritage and land-use planning designations. We show how the interplay of drives for demilitarisation, heritage preservation and sustainable economic re-use have led to the Greenham Common cruise missile site being stuck in limbo (neither fully alive nor fully dead) since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 2003. Thus regulatory intervention may have slowed GAMA’s entropy but by no means has it been halted or reversed.

Still transmitting: the bunker’s ongoing resonance

Paul Virilio collaborator Sylvère Lotringer, writing in support of Virilio’s claim that the Atlantic Wall bunkers had a strong mnemonic resonance for him,  has recalled drawing up close to an abandoned Nazi bunker as a child, placing his ear upon its concrete flank and listening to hear the “roar of war still trapped inside” (Virilio & Lotringer 2003, 10). This depiction both acknowledges the distinctive acoustics of cavernous bunker-spaces, as the sound of waves echoes within them, and also their affective, mnemonic quality, whereby they trigger his memories of the war. It seems unlikely that Lotringer means us to take his statement literally (i.e. that the bunker itself somehow holds memories of the war independent of its human interlocutors), and Nadia Bartolini (2015) has recently argued persuasively against suggestions that bunkers themselves have a historical and/or militaristic essence which they store and transmit independent of the projections and inferences of particular visitors.

But certainly, the acoustic properties of bunker-spaces are affective, and can be utilised by artists and musicians in their work. Wilson shows how the distinctive acoustic signatures of sites like the domed Teufelsberg listening station in Berlin have been preserved digitally, such that the very distinctive reverb of that structure can be used as an ambient sound-shaping technique in the production of wholly unrelated sound recordings. Thus, an acoustic mapping of a bunker and its echo characteristics may outlast the site itself, its virtual form preserving and transmitting an aspect (but only an aspect) of the bunker’s being. Commenting upon the possibility of virtual preservation and/or recreation of long-lost bunkers Kinnear suggests that virtual recreations inevitably lose a quality that only the bunker itself can deliver – the affective charge of being there as a fully embodied visitor, picking up the musty smells and sense of confinement that Flintham also depicts in his explorations into the Torås mountain-bunker complex.

But to acknowledge these affective charges is not the same as believing that these places are haunted by their histories. Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys note the affective charge of abandoned bunkers but conclude that the contemporary cultural interest in abandoned bunkers more rooted in their ‘blank space’ affordances – their semantic openness – than it is in any firmly determining past essence. They argue that abandoned bunker sites do not throw an obstinate military essence at any visitor. Indeed, Mulvihill finds that even when operational military sites may not seem very distinctive at all. Furthermore, Alexis-Martin reports that despite working daily within a former local government Cold War bunker, it was many months before she came to realise that the basement offices in which she was working had started life as a facility designed for nuclear war.

Alexis-Martin, Mulvihill and Sandys show how such places are increasingly sites of free-form play and projection rather than clear communion with an immovably encoded past. Kinnear would take issue with the desirability of such free-play and in his article argues for the importance of preserving (or sympathetically adapting) these structures as a way of retaining both their mnemonic connection to the Cold War past and to their distinctive atmospheres and taxonomic forms. For Kinnear taking the bunker former into the future requires a delicate balance to be struck between preserving the embodied mnemonic traces of the past and finding ways to bring about an enduring preservation via new-found uses. Kinnear believes that there is a resonance from these places – but it could be easily missed if not carefully sought out and protected. Meanwhile, Kokoszka and I find an ambivalence at the heart of attempts to find an enduring heritage status for the GAMA site at Greenham Common. On paper the site has a very strong claim to internationally significant heritage status, but we find heritage significance to be but one shaping influence in the battle for its after-life. The past, per se, is seemingly not an ultimate dead-hand controlling influence over even this iconic bunker site.

Meanwhile, Wilson shows us a second type of resonance – a cultural reverberation. She describes how anxiety about the heightened risk of nuclear war in the early 1980s insinuated itself into popular culture (and popular music in particular), often using bunkers as a motif. This conflation of nuclear anxiety, bunker-talk and new wave synth-pop has in the last decade seen a wry, nostalgic revival; a cultural production that merges a new-found attentiveness to the once-unattainable shelters with the lo-fi musical stylings of the early 1980s, by pop-ironicists such as Luke Haines. These ironic pop-cultural appropriations of the Cold War bunker are perhaps the most playful appropriations of all.

 

Luke Haines interviewed in 2015 about his British Nuclear Bunkers LP.

 

Image credit

Wojciech Czechowski (2016) photograph of the ant-trap bunker: an abandoned ammunition bunker (part of the ‘Special Object 3003 Templewo’ Soviet nuclear weapons complex, western Poland) via https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/05/cannibal-ants-escape-soviet-nuclear-weapons-bunker-11044125/

References

Arnold, M. 1960. Culture and anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bartolini, N. 2015. ‘the politics of vibrant matter. Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’. Journal of Material Culture, 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, L. 2011. ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’. Culture and Organization. 17(2): 155-173.

Virilio, P. and Lotringer, S. 2003.Crepuscular dawn. New York: Semiotext(e). Trans. Mike Taormina.

Williams, R. 1983. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.

About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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