The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future: three sessions proposed for RGS 2017

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I’ve today submitted the formal proposal for a three session bunker strand at this summer’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference (29 August – 1 September 2017, London). Once fully approved and adopted by the RGS I will publish all of the abstracts here. But in the meantime here’s the proposal summary and contribution titles:

Proposal summary

The last two decades have seen increasing public interest in, and engagements with, the abandoned remains of Second World War and Cold War era military and civil defence bunkers. Academics have been busy analysing the motives and forms of this engagement (Bennett 2011; Maus 2017) and also charting the origins and affective-material impacts of those 20th century waves of bunker-building mania (Bartolini 2015; Klinke 2015; Berger Ziauddin 2016). Such engagements and studies have tended to figure the bunker as a now-deactivated form – as a form of contemporary ruin – and as a phenomenon of the (albeit recent) past. This set of sessions seeks to supplement this scholarship by examining the bunkers’ futurity: through considering the bunker as an immanent contemporary and still-yet-to-come form of place. This concern to examine the bunkers’ futurity will be examined in two different, but complementary, ways: first by exploring the ways in which the 20th century’s bunkers are being reinterpreted and/or repurposed for the 21st century and secondly, by analysing what contemporary bunker-building looks like, and here exploring the anxieties and desires that drive it. As John Armitage (2015) has recently argued, Paul Virilio (1994) did not see bunkers as having a singular, fixed meaning or purpose and he instead saw early signs of their semantic evolution and repurposing. The assembled presentations will each consider this evolution, but will also acknowledge that the cultural foregrounding of denatured, “funky bunkers” (Strömberg 2013) is problematic both as regards how it presents (or erases) the bunker-form’s dark history or its ongoing contemporary replication. This unease will be debated in the final session, in which contributors to the recent edited collection In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield International, Luke Bennett ed. 2017) will be interrogated by John Beck.

Session overview

Session 1: The Future of the Bunker: finding new uses and new meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers

1. Xenia Vytuleva, Columbia University (architectural historian) – Rethinking the Atlantic Wall: art, death and minerology.

2. Drew Mulholland, University of Glasgow (composer) – Listening to the concrete: re-composing the Atlantic Wall and Scotland’s Nuclear Bunker

3. Michael Mulvihill, University of Newcastle (artist) – The BMEW radomes: reimagining RAF Fylingdales as as military contemporary art complex

4. Kevin Booth, English Heritage (Senior Curator, North) – Re-stocking the bunker: curating creative re-uses at York Nuclear Bunker

5. Rowena Willard-Wright, English Heritage (Senior Curator, South East) – De-bunking the bunker: managing myth and misinformation in the bunkers beneath Dover Castle

Session 2: The Bunker of the Future: how we materialise our contemporary anxieties and desires in the new bunker-building of the 21st century 

6. Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment) – What do we want from our bunkers? ruins, reinvention, anxiety and power.

7. Emma Fraser, University of Manchester (sociology) – Bunker play: Possibility space and survival in the Fallout series

8. Michael Adams & Carrie Wilkinson, University of Wollongong (geography) – Bugging out and bunkering down: on the sheltering tactics of survivalists and preppers in the 21st century

9. Theo Kindynis, University of Roehampton (criminology) – Subterranean sanctuaries? secret underground spaces today.

10. Session 1 and 2 Q&A and discussion.

Session 3: In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: a panel discussion

John Beck, University of Westminster (english) in conversation with Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment), Kevin Booth, English Heritage (curator) & Kathrine Sandys, Rose Bruford College (scenographer) about their contributions to the edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making (to be published July 2017, Rowman & Littlefield International).

Writing in 2011 Beck declared that the bunker was incapable of cultural recuperation, and that to attempt to do so might put us in thrall to the bunker and cause us to lose sight of its dark exceptionality. Beck also argued that bunkers engender an ambivalence which makes it very difficult to ascribe any stable meaning to them. In the Ruins is an attempt to explore Bennett’s differing interpretation that it is the bunker’s ability to foster multiple parallel, but internally coherent, forms of representation (i.e. multivalence) rather than its ambivalence that calls to be investigated. Accordingly the book explores the myriad ways, practices and logics by which these concrete structures are engaged by a wide spectrum of academics and others and given stable-seeming meanings. This ‘in conference with’ session will enable Beck to engage directly with Bennett about the book’s approach, and to debate with its authors whether the book avoids being in thrall to the bunker: and whether through its focus on multivalence (Bennett), artistic appropriation (Sandys) or heritage curation (Booth).

The panel discussion will be chaired by Nadia Bartolini, University of Exeter (geography).

 

Picture credit: WWII bunker at Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey USA from: http://www.futurenostalgia.org/index.php?showimage=218, some details here: http://www.artificialowl.net/2008/10/abandoned-cape-may-giant-concrete-ww2.html

New Uses for Old Bunkers #42 : Schadenfreude in the swanky bunker-hotel

Here’s a teaser from the final chapter of my forthcoming edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making…

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“Cheap holiday in other people’s misery”

Sex Pistols (1977) Holidays in the Sun

As Per Strömberg notes, abandoned bunkers have become a ‘cultural playground’ (2013, 67), repurposed via the ‘well-established art practice of borrowing or stealing, making new uses for and changing the meaning of objects, images and artefacts of a culture’ (2013, 67),  and these interventions are usually spurred by economic agendas of re-use and re-generation (driven by a fear of what might happen if any building is left unused: Bennett 2017), thus (so the logic goes) ‘the cultural alchemy of appropriation turns the materiality of bare concrete walls into new economic value’ (Strömberg 2013, 78).

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Strömberg (2013) provides a striking example of a Swedish bunker refurbishment scheme that tries to reconcile economic regeneration, affective authenticity and heritage conservation. The result reveals something very strange about what we appear to what from the bunker. The scheme concerned the Swedish coastal battery fortress of Fårösund on the northern tip of Gotland. The Swedish State’s National Property Board was keen to repurpose this former military site, and to stimulate local employment to redress the job losses of military closures. Accordingly, it supported a proposal for a ‘sympathetic’ heritage-focussed luxury hotel: one where (as Strömberg 2013, 69 notes):

“you can sleep in one of the former bomb shelters furnished as fancy hotel rooms and enjoy a gourmet dinner prepared by fashionable chefs at the place where artillery pieces once were positioned to command the sea. The whole concept is adapted to a military theme. Everything is low-key in colour, scale and finishes: grey and green. Raw materials of local limestone and steel, articulated in a severe minimalism, arouse ‘post-military’ relaxation in the bunker lounge.”

Meanwhile, the perimeter of the site remains ‘authentically’ edged by rusting barbed wire and deserted defence obstacles (presenting as ‘fossils of the military era’ – Strömberg 2013, 70), all now co-opted into the themed hotel’s ‘design scenery’ (69).

This semantic confusion appears to be a vindication of John Beck’s (2011) ‘ambivalence’ thesis: it seems that we may want contradictory things from the bunker, and resolve that incongruity via a wilful conflation of tastes and registers: military – holiday – future – past, all rolled together to service the taste for novel experiences. Our relationship to bunkers, their past, present and future is complex. Perhaps we can detect some evidence of a sublime nostalgia at play – that we can scare ourselves safely now by invoking the atomic- or military-sublime by choosing to visit these places for a short break: safe in the knowledge that this abjection is temporary, of our choosing and that we can choose to leave this experience at any point. Such experience is sublime because we feel that ultimately we are safe – the Cold War has ended, and we have chosen to dabble in this reminiscence or this abjection-lite. This is the ultimate tourism, safely visiting a sanitised version of the past, tasting a remembrance of a childhood fear whilst sipping fine wine.

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Jonathan Veitch (2010) takes the point even further – reflecting on his visit to the remains of Survival Town, the mock up cluster of buildings and their mannequin inhabitants, blasted in the civil effects tests held deep in the heart of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the 1950s. He admits that there is something erotic in the fascination he feels there: ‘these test houses at the NTS convey, more palpably than any other place I can think of, our longing for apocalypse, the desire to bring everything down around us’ (335).

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Meanwhile Marc Lafleur’s (2007) ethnographic study of the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima / Nagasaki bombings at the National Atomic Museum, Los Alamos, picks out the ‘intimate spectatorship’ and ‘fleeting pit-stops’ (2007, 211) characteristic of touristic/heritage spectacle at Cold War attractions. For him these sites ‘constitute the fleeting and emptied out moments of politics siphoned through shock, sympathy and schadenfreude’ (214). Schadenfreude – because part of the experience is the (sublime-based) knowledge that yours was not the body that was hurt. Shock in the sense of an aestheticized spectacle, the ultimate effect of which is to anaesthetise through overstimulation (in the sense described by Walter Benjamin). Finally, in Sympathy, Lafleur leaves us some glimmer of hope: that such places have the potentiality at least to be ‘gathering points in the new public sphere, places where a ‘we’ can form, however temporarily, in the bloody haze of one more disaster your body has averted’ (215).

References

Beck, John (2011) ‘Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex’ Cultural Politics 7: 79-102.

Bennett, Luke (2017) ‘Forcing the Empties Back to Work: Ruinphobia and the Bluntness of Law and Policy’ in John Henneberry (ed.) Transience and Dereliction in Urban Development and Property Markets, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Lafleur, Marc (2007) ‘Life and Death in the Shadow of the A-Bomb: Sovereignty and Memory on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ in Nico Carpentier (ed.) Culture, Trauma, and Conflict: Cultural Studies Perspectives on War. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 209-228.

Strömberg, Per (2013) ‘Funky Bunkers: The Post-Military Landscape as a Readymade Space and a Cultural Playground’ in Gary A Boyd & Denis Linehan, Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 67-81.

Veitch, Jonathan (2010) ‘Dr. Strangelove’s Cabinet of Wonder: Sifting through the Atomic Ruins at the Nevada Test Site’ in Julia Hell & Andreas Schönle (eds.) The Ruins of Modernity. London: Duke University Press, pp. 321-338.

Image credits: (1) Barbed wire stands, Fårösund Fortress in Malmros, Sophie (2008). “Fårösunds fästning: från Krimkrig till lyxhotell” (PDF). Kulturvärden (in Swedish) (1): 24–29 : ill (2) Green roof, grey edges, Fårösund Fortress – http://farosundsfastning.com/ (3) Nevada Test Site Dummies – http://falloutshelternyc.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/nycs-atomic-mannequin-veterans.html; (3) Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum -http://twilightzone518.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/atomic-bomb-museum-nagasaki.html

 

 

“The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future”: Call For Papers: Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, London: 29 August – 1 September 2017

Call For Papers

Royal Geographical Society  Annual Conference,

London: 29 August – 1 September 2017

The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future

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“Anachronistic in normal periods, in peacetime the bunker appears as a survival machine, as a shipwrecked submarine on a beach.” (Virilio, 1994)

The last two decades have seen increasing public interest in, and engagements with, the abandoned remains of Second World War and Cold War era military and civil defence bunkers. Academics have been busy analysing the motives and forms of this engagement (Bennett 2011; Maus 2017) and also charting the origins and affective-material impacts of those 20th century waves of bunker-building mania (Bartolini 2015; Klinke 2015; Berger Ziauddin 2016). Such engagements and studies have tended to figure the bunker as a now-deactivated form – as a form of contemporary ruin – and as a phenomenon of the (albeit recent) past. This Call for Papers seeks to supplement this scholarship by examining the bunkers’ futurity: through considering the bunker as an immanent contemporary and still-yet-to-come form of place. As John Armitage (2015) has recently put it (writing of Paul Virilio’s seminal first-encounter with a bunker of the Nazi Atlantic Wall in 1958): “when we face the bunker, we need to periodize our feelings of lurking danger – to insert them into historical time and to identify the periods of relative serenity, when not only the fixed content of the military bunker but also the relation between oblique architecture and the sudden appearance of this object on the beach remain relatively tranquil”.

This call invites proposals for 15 mins presentations originating in any discipline, that speak to this concern to examine the bunker’s futurity. This call is not intended to be prescriptive, as consideration of the bunker’s (benign or malevolent) potentialities requires a degree of speculation and cross-disciplinary thinking. The following list of potential themes is therefore indicative, rather than restrictive:

  • How are the 20th century’s redundant bunkers repurposed, and is this re-appropriation always playful or “funky” (Strömberg 2013). What does the variety of re-uses tell us about the multivalent resilience (or obstinacy) of the bunker-form?
  • How, specifically, has the bunker-form influenced the ‘new military urbanism’ observed by Stephen Graham (2011) at heart of contemporary urban infrastructures and the bunkerisation of otherwise conventional buildings (Monteyne 2014)?
  • How is the bunker-form evolving in its contemporary suburban manifestations as drone command centres, government crisis command rooms and fortified emergency stores?
  • How might the “perpetual architecture” (CLUI 2013) of seed banks, nuclear waste and fissile material repositories and server farms be seen as the bunker’s latest iteration? And following Van Wyck 2004, how can we analyse the time-capsule role of such bunker-forms?
  • How can the present and future of the bunker be publicly presenced? Do the techniques of bunker-hunting applied to the recreational surveying of the last century’s now-abandoned bunkers work for their extant, and forthcoming 21st century variants?
  • How is the image of the bunker evolving in popular culture?
  • Is the intimate association between concrete and bunkers breaking down, and if it is what are the implications of this material change to the bunker-form? Is a bunker defined by it’s poured-concrete construction or by the exceptional, power-concentrated and emergency-driven reasons for its existence?
  • Given the rise of commercial panic room and bunker-builders like http://www.terravivos.com/ has the bunker become privatised, and prospects of survival commodified? What are the emergent inequalities of protection against 21st century existential threats?
  • What and where are the bunkers of future? Space bases, underground or undersea living-stations, cryogenic capsules?

Please send abstracts (maximum of 250 words) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) (Reader in Space, Place & Law, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, UK) by 1st February 2017.

 

References

Armitage, John. 2015. Virilio for Architects. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bartolini, Nadia. 2015. ‘The Politics of Vibrant Matter: Consistency, Containment and the Concrete of Mussolini’s Bunker’ Journal of Material Culture 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, Luke. 2011. ‘Bunkerology: A Case Study in the Theory and Practice of Urban Exploration’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29: 421-434.

Berger Ziauddin, Silvia . 2016. ‘(De)territorializing the Home. The Nuclear Bomb Shelter as a Malleable Site of Passage’. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, advanced publication online 12 November, DOI 10.1177/0263775816677551.

CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation). 2013. ‘Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America.’ Lay of the Land Newsletter, Winter 2013 (online) http://www.clui.org/newsletter/winter-2013/perpetual-architecture

Graham, Stephen. 2011. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso.

Klinke, Ian. 2015. ‘The Bunker and the Camp: Inside West Germany’s Nuclear Tomb’ Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 33(1): 154-168.

Monteyne, David. 2014. ‘Uncertainties: Architecture and Building Security in the 21st Century’ in Benjamin Flowers (ed.) Architecture in an Age of Uncertainty. Abingdon: Routledge.

Maus, Gunnar. 2017. ‘Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Playing, Hunting and Recording Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany’ in Luke Bennett (ed.) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Strömberg, Per. 2013. ‘Funky Bunkers: The Post-Military Landscape as a Readymade Space and a Cultural Playground’ in Gary A. Boyd & Denis Linehan, Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 67-81.

Van Wyck, Peter. 2004. ‘American Monument: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’, in Scott C. Zeman & Michael A, Amundson (eds.), Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, pp. 149-172.

Virilio, Paul. 1994. Bunker Archeology. New York: Princeton Architectural Press (translated by George Collins).

 

Image Credit: Svalbard Seed Vault, Norway via http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/syria-war-forces-first-withdrawal-artic-seed-vault-n433471

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #41.

(Almost…) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker – materiality, affect and meaning making

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Nearly there – the manuscript will be with the publisher by the end of this week. Here’s a sneak peek at the 14 essays that make up my bunker book (due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in August 2017, as part of their Place, Memory, Affect series…

Part I – Introducing the Bunker: Ruins, Hunters and Motives –  features a general introduction followed by a second chapter written by me, Entering the Bunker with Paul Virilio: the Atlantic Wall, Pure War and Trauma, in which I discuss the importance of the seminal bunker hunting of French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who between 1958 and 1965 systematically visited, photographed and researched the imposing bunker formations of the Nazi Atlantic wall, and who did so at the height of the Cold War. I outline Virilio’s affective engagement with these bunkers, their impact upon his later theorising and argue that this compulsive hunting can be shown to be the product of traumatic wartime experiences. I then use this finding to argue that compulsive bunker hunting of the Cold War’s shelters, may also be understood in this way, with even Virilio having described the nuclear anxiety based trauma of the Cold War as greater than that of the Second World War.

Part II – Looking at the Bunker: Representation, Image and Affect – then presents three chapters written by artists, who each explore how established and newly emergent practices of representation engage with the Cold War’s bunkers and what they formerly, and may now, stand for (both for them and for others). First, in Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen Felmingham discusses his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so Felmingham shows how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling. Next, in Sublime Concrete: The Fantasy Bunker, Explored scenographer and sound artist Kathrine Sandys, explores the atmospheres, properties and possibilities of the Cold War bunker, situating an account of her own installation-based works, within a wider discussion of the fact vs fiction confusion of these places, and their link to an emergent military sublime. Sandys finds in these remains, a blankness which calls for meaning making to be undertaken actively by those who engage with the bunkers and their phenomenological properties. Finally, in Processional Engagements: Sebaldian Pilgrimages to Orford Ness, Louise K. Wilson considers the ways in which a variety of artists have engaged the iconic Orford Ness site, and the extent to which those engagements have come to be conditioned by certain strong, framing tropes. Specifically, Wilson considers the enduring influence of W.G. Sebald’s melancholic reading of this site and its most iconic remnant structures. Whilst attentive to recent departures from this representational mould, Wilson chronicles the persistence of engagements which seek to foreground (and/or create) an inaccessible (and open, plastic) ‘mystery’ for the site – thereby producing art ‘about’ the site which relies more on imagination than upon deep engagement with its archival or material facticity.

In Part III – Embracing the Bunker: Identity, Materiality and Memory – the concern is with how an emergent attentiveness to the physicality of the world and our ‘entanglement’ with it (Hodder 2012) (this being the sense in which ‘materiality’ is used in this collection) affects the way in which we can account for human engagements with the remains of Cold War bunkers. The first two chapters in this part examine the entanglement of the material world and the identity of the explorer within the act of interpreting Cold War remains, with each author using experimental writing techniques to destabilise seemingly conventional forms of investigatory narrative. First, in Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape, artist Matthew Flintham uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.

Then, in Bunker and Cave Counterpoint: Exploring Underground Cold War Landscapes in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, anthropologist María Alejandra Pérez uses techniques of counterpoint and ethnographic surrealism to juxtapose her autoethnographic accounts of visits to the US Congress bunker built beneath the luxury Greenbrier Resort with the remains of a far more rudimentary public nuclear shelter located within the Organ cave complex, 14 miles away. In doing so Pérez emphasises the iterative, unsettled process of meaning making, infusing her account with the bleed between these places’ multiple histories and uses and also the provocations of her own identity: both as an immigrant with a very different cultural experience of the Cold War, and as a caver.

Thereafter, two chapters address the role of affective-materialities in the production of collective identities via practices of recuperation enacted at particular material sites of encounter. First, in Recuperative Materialities: The Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival, cultural geographer J.J. Zhang explores the important role of the material properties of the Zhaishan tunnel complex, part of a defensive network of fortifications protecting the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from Chinese invasion. Only a few miles from the Chinese mainland the island was the scene of repeated exchanges of artillery fire during the Cold War. Now decommissioned, the tunnel is the site of a classical music festival, which Zhang analyses in terms of the affective-material recuperation afforded by the acoustic properties of the tunnel itself, ascribing to it a sensuous agency and showing how ‘rapproachment tourists’ find the tunnel to act as a healing sensorium – an externalized seat of sensation where humans and tunnel come together. Finally, in Once Upon a Time in Ksamil: Communist and Post-Communist Biographies of Mushroom-Shaped Bunkers in Albania, archaeologist Emily Glass considers the seemingly ambivalent relationship of Albanians with the material legacy of the hundreds of thousands of small bunkers constructed upon their landscape during the Cold War – the physical embodiment of Cold War era Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s defensive, isolationist paranoia. Glass shows how a strict control over knowledge about the bunker production during the Cold War era gave way to a multivalent afterlife for these structures, in which locals appropriated them for mundane and illicit uses whilst tourists and the tourism industry adopted them as a symbol of Albania.

In Part IV – Dealing with the Bunker: Hunting, Visiting and Remaking – the attention shifts to how meaning making is organised.  In the first pair of essays, the focus is upon heritage practices and specifically the lay/professional divide. First, cultural geographer Gunnar Maus, applies Theodore Schatzki’s practice theory to an analysis of the parallel bunker hunting by heritage officials, bunkerologists and geocachers in the former West Germany in Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Hunting, Recording and Playing with Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany. Maus finds structural affinities in the ways in which these three communities of bunker hunters seek out and interact with Sperrmittelhäuser: demolition charge storage bunkers that formed part of West Germany’s ‘preconstructed obstacle’ system of Cold War defence. Maus explores the important difference between motivations (which here were divergent) and methods of practice (which both demonstrate affinities and evidence of collaboration between these diverse communities of bunker hunters). Then in Why the Cold War Matters: Exploring Visitors’ Identity Constructions at Cold War Sites in Britain, tourism studies researcher Inge Hermann, reports her study of the ways in which visitors engage with UK Cold War bunker ‘attractions’, highlighting the ways in which individual visitors actively form their own interpretations of Cold War ‘attraction’ sites. Hermann contrasts the vitality of this active reading by audiences with, what she regards as a rather closed approach imposed by heritage professionals, arguing that the effect of an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ in relation to the rendering of Cold War bunkers as ‘heritage’, pays insufficient regard to how individual visitors react to these places.

Hermann’s analysis is then followed by Rachel Bowers’ and Kevin Booth’s discussion of the decisions necessitated in their curation of English Heritage’s York Cold War bunker in Preserving and Managing York Cold War Bunker: Authenticity, Curation and the Visitor Experience. This both sets up a counterpoint to Hermann’s argument – with Bowers and Booth presenting an insiders’ account of the emergence of the Cold War as heritage’ discourse, and also their attentiveness to matters of affect and materiality (alongside discourse) within their reflexive analysis of their own experience of presenting this place as a heritage ‘attraction’. In their focus on the physical limits of curation, and the affective potentialities of place (re)making, Bowers and Booth then set the scene for Dutch architect, Arno Geesink, who considers the spatial possibilities and limitations of his proposals to redevelop a Dutch former nuclear shelter into a public events space in The Anomalous Potential of the Atoombunker: Exploring and Repurposing Arnhem’s Ruins. Geesink shows how his search for sites for redevelopment is informed by his interest in military history, once more disrupting a simplistic dichotomy of enthusiast vs professional bunker hunters.

In the concluding chapter, Presencing the Bunker: Past, Present and Future I pull together the book’s themes and contributions in order to examine the tension between on the one hand the politically-inspired desire to reveal and preserve the bunker as an unmasked cypher of state power, and on the other hand, pressures (and enticements) to re-appropriate bunker-ruins and to move beyond Cold War memorialisation. This enquiry into the question of the bunker’s futurity pits concerns for authenticity and sincerity against the opportunities of plasticity and playfulness, a quandary that appears to affect many contemporary engagements with the ruins of the Cold War bunker.

Image credit: Matthew Flintham, Torås Kommandoplasse (2010) (four frame captures from Lehmann’s footage of Torås). Digital video. Reproduced by kind permission of Matthew Flintham.

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #40.

Old Uses for New Bunkers #38: the post Cold War rise (and occasional fall) of underground lairs

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Whilst working on the editorial for In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (Rowman & Littlefield Int, to be published August 2017) I’ve been increasingly thinking about the bunkers’ post-Cold War reverberations. The following is an extract which may or may not end up in the book…

Stuart Elden (2013), has written recently of the need to conceive of the ‘volumetric’ dimensions of political spaces: of the physical “depth of power”. The 20th century increasingly saw military and civil governance moving underground to escape the risk of actual or anticipated aerial attack. During the  Cold War bunkers were a contingency – ready in waiting but rarely used. But the end of the Cold War did not see the end of the Cold War bunker, and indeed the designs perfected in that superpower standoff, came to be the active conflict bolt-hole of client states and once-sponsored insurgents. Thus in the sense of actual use, the Cold War bunker came into its own after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If we look closely at post 1991 conflict zones the bunker is alive and kicking, providing an actual (and/or imagined) locus of sinister political power, fortified hideouts that resist the hegemonic West. In turn, the persistence of these resistant places spurs the US to develop ever more potent ‘bunker-busting’ technologies with which to threaten their eradication. By considering these bunker sites we will see how military and political engagements with such places oscillate between two powerful, persistent bunker imaginaries (Bennett, 2011): the bunker as omnipotent command centre, and its inverse, the bunker as an abject place of final defeat.

The bunker as resistant, oppositional space

The image above is simultaneously an articulation of an atavistic fear of the subterranean and attempt to depict a real bunker complex. It shows how the Tora Bora mountain bunker complex in Afghanistan was described by Western journalists in November 2001 in the run-up to the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected redoubt. In pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom saw the US facing a:

“virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are a product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a heavy dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.” (Wines, 2001)

The story, as traced by Josh Rothman (2011), of how Tora Bora came to be depicted as a sophisticated Bond villain’s lair is an instructive one – it tells us much of the fact/fiction interplay with our bunker imaginary, for the cave system came to be described in increasingly elaborate terms, and was ultimately said to feature its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms and hydroelectric power supply capable of sustaining 1,500 fighters. The trail starts with a 26 November 2001 New York Times article (Wines 2001) based on an interview with an ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kusenko who had described his recollection of an elaborate cave complex at Zhawar featuring “iron doors” beyond which lay “a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order”. These were his recollections from the Soviet campaign against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. The article then added “Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s” (allegedly drawing upon bin Laden’s civil engineering training). It also pointed out the 57 days of aerial bombardment and fierce hand-to-hand fighting effort required to capture the Zhawar fortress in 1986, and that even though the Soviets had eventually blown the place up, it had been restored within a year. It had then been blasted again by multiple US cruise missiles in 1998 after Al Qaeda linked American embassy bombings in Africa. On 27 September 2001 The Independent transposed the description of Zhawar to Tora Bora, portraying it as extant and virtually impenetrable. The Associated Press then syndicated the story around the US, and The Times (of London) produced a cut-away schematic of the Tora Bora lair, and its Ken Adam-like styling on 29 September 2001.

The US Government did little to dampen the elaborate and escalating speculation. In an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 December 2001 interviewer Tim Russert referred to The Times’ elaborate schematic, and its depiction of a multi-tiered complex replete with ventilation ducts, power plant, ammunition caches and entrances large enough to drive a car through. To which Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001 – 2006) replied that the Tora Bora redoubt was but one of many such complexes to be faced – and not just in Afghanistan. This was not an off-the-cuff remark: Rumsfeld had announced in a Pentagon briefing on 11 October 2001: “A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground. It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post” (quoted in Wines 2001). The mountain bunker thus became equated with the War on Terror’s campaign against ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Therefore, in Autumn 2001 it seemed that the US was facing a villainous foe of cinematic proportions. The inflation of the story – the conjecture about how elaborate Tora Bora would be – started with historical fact, and seemed credible. However, once finally overrun by US Forces, Tora Bora proved to be far less sophisticated, as a US Special Forces Staff Sergeant put it when interviewed by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service in 2002 about the battle for Tora Bora:

“…they weren’t these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren’t real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there’s really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.” (PBS 2002).

But the fear of (and corresponding faith in) underground fortresses remains a live issue in post-Cold War geopolitics. The Korean War (of 1950-1954) never officially ended, and North and South Korea remain frozen in a military standoff. When Rumsfeld was talking of underground lairs beyond Afghanistan, North Korea was likely to have been at the top of his list, and since 2001, the ‘rogue state’ status of North Korea has been bolstered (in US eyes) by North Korea’s nuclear programme, and in particular its claim in January 2016 to have successfully carried out an underground H-bomb test.

Writing in 2003, Barbara Demmick (a Los Angeles Times East Asia specialist) portrayed North Korea as the exemplar of Rumsfeld’s of rogue nations digging-in. She explains that the North Koreans started tunnelling after the Korean War – when US bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. In response, in 1963, North Korea founder Kim II Sung declared that “the entire nation must be made a fortress. We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves” (quoted in Demmick 2003). Demmick reports that, as a consequence of this, everything important in North Korea is now underground: with several hundred underground factories, and thousands of smaller facilities. The mountainous topography lends itself well to this – and makes North Korea the world’s most fortified (or bunkerised) country, its population of 22 million people, supporting the World’s fifth largest army. Demmick reports that 13,000 artillery pieces are secreted in mountain bunkers within the (supposedly) demilitarised zone.

The bunker as abject space of defeat

Jonathan Glancey (2011) declares that “no self-respecting dictator can bear to be without a bunker” – but it seems that the reality often falls short of the dream (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Writing in 2011 in the aftermath of US Navy Seals finally tracked down Osama bin Laden to a nondescript residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan fellow Guardian journalist Steve Rose (2011) asks why “the world’s no.1 villain” ended his days “in a lair with no flair”, concluding that bin Laden’s downfall shows us that “life isn’t like a Bond movie”. It seems the narrative for the vanquished is that the bunker must become “the hole they dig themselves into” (all quotes from Rose 2011). Via this inversion of the hyperbole of the omnipotent modernist bunker, the abject bunker looks back to the era of the cave man. The leader who invests in such places – who feels the need for them – has already lost touch with reality and his people, he (or she) exhibits a reality denying “bunker mentality” (Bennett 2011). Originating in the representation of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in May 1945, a potent political metaphor now exists, whereby vulnerable political leaders can be caricatured: see for example the dubbing of scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful dramatic account of Hitler’s demise, Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004), to reference contemporary leaders and their failings.

In keeping with this motif, (and additionally channelling the despotic collusion of both Marie Antoinette and Eva Braun) a 2013 profile piece on Asma Al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader, who is described as “as the country collapses around her…sheltering in a bomb-proof bunker…said to be obsessed with her weight and looks, [and] stocking up on luxury furniture, health products and food” (Bentley, 2013). Whilst this fits the trope wonderfully – it does rather gloss over the sophistication modern bunker building: a 2016 feature in the Times of Israel (Solomon, 2016) reports Syrian rebel sources claiming to have probed ‘Assad’s Neighbourhood’ an underground town beneath Damascus – a combined military and political command – extending seven storeys underground, and featuring a maze of (escape) tunnels extending to nearby mountains – with tunnels said to be big enough for vehicles, huge gates, and secure against chemical attack (recalling here the villain’s lair features ascribed to Tora Bora).  The rebel video even presents an animated 3D fly-though of the complex, some footage of rebel fighters driving and walking around the recently penetrated complex (from 37 mins into the following):

Meanwhile, in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein commissioned Yugoslavian contractors to build him a duplicate a vast Cold War Belgrade bunker beneath one of his palaces to protect him against nuclear and chemical attack at a cost of £50 million. Construction took eight years, with the project completed in 1983. The palace above was destroyed by the US’ bunker busting bombs in the air attack of April 2003 – but the 20 metre thick concrete roof of the bunker held firm. After US Rangers cut their way in through the thick steel door, the bunkers’ fate lay in the hands of looters, and to be occupied by squatters. Oliver Poole (2006) presents his journalistic bunker hunting thus (combining the ‘downfall’ trope and a cross-reference to the truth-grounding familiarities of fictional bunkers in doing so):

“When US Rangers burst in as Baghdad fell there were still sheets on Saddam’s bed and the maps lay in the command centre. Saddam had already fled…Walking through the maze of corridors was like entering a post-apocalyptic film. Some of the fluorescent lights were still blinking, water from smashed pipes oozed over the carpet and wires hung from the ceiling. Torches picked out abandoned and torn chemical weapon protection suits amid the debris littering the corridors.”

And in Saddam’s case the abjection trope would prove to be further topped-off, by the fact that Saddam’s last refuge was a bunker-hovel – an adapted cellar, with room for one crouching occupant – as presented in this CBS News report from 2003:

Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi’s cornering also played out the same way – his October 2011 capture after being found hiding in the confines of a storm drain in Sirte, his home town, a short distance from his family compound (and its bunker – which had been the subject of an RAF bunker-busting raid in August 2011 to deny Gaddafi his Sirte fall-back). This endgame – like that of Saddam – contrasts to depictions of his elaborate “underground fortress” (reportedly one of many) built beneath the vast Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli which was captured by rebels in August 2011. This complex is said to have tunnels extending for over a kilometre beneath the city, and – as Jessica Dacey (2011) reports – was built by Swiss bunker engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, modelled on the designs for Swiss civilian bunkers, and fitted out with Swiss ventilation equipment (manufactured by Luwa).

It’s a hallmark of the media age that reportage fresh from the 21st century battlezone is available near-instantaniously, and notable that one standard trope in the portrayal of the defeat of an enemy is to show laying bare of his bunkers. But there’s something else too that can be witnessed now on social media – a touristic urban exploration, as captured for example in bunker-hunting excursions reported on You Tube, specifically that of ‘SISTIC1’ who appears to have wandered many of the Gaddafi bunkers within a few weeks of their capture by rebel forces. SISTIC1’s 1st person POV video wandering around the undamaged bunker found in the Ben Ashour area of Tripoli feels, like a video game, but it isn’t: its carried out in an active warzone, with the very real possibility of lethal wounding by an encounter with a fighter or a looter around the next corner. But is this bunker hunting political or is it recreational, a timely instance of “dark tourism” (Lennon & Foley, 2000)?

Bunkerology’s origins lie in anti-nuclear protestors – like the ‘Spies for Peace’ activists of the 1960s, who sought to penetrate the secrecy of a state’s nuclear scheme – and to defeat it by gathering and disseminating systematic knowledge of its existence (see Bennett 2013). But the iconography of roaming grey-walled subterranean corridors in SISTIC1’s video is chilling because of how closely it chimes with adventure movies and video games, rather than because it unmasks the raw face of political power. Searching the long grey corridors of newly-discovered secret facilities are a ubiquitous feature of popular culture, a motif in every ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game since 1993’s DOOM. Indeed juxtaposing SISTIC1’s footage with a promotional video trailer for Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2016 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III plays, produces an uncanny effect: fact and fiction side by side. The fiction portraying a cast of modern day political leaders wandering, and animating very similarly styled light grey subterranean corridors of power, and the fact of SISTIC1’s video of the Ben Ashour bunker, an evacuated space, stripped of its people and purpose. Inevitably, the animated, populated fictional space feels more ‘real’, and the real space feels the more uncanny.

The fact/fiction interpenetration in popular culture makes it difficult for us to keep noticing the bunker in a critical political sense – cultural saturation tips the attention over into the theatrical, the touristic or the fantastical.

 

 

References

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

Bennett, Luke (2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (3), 502-521.

Bentley, Rick (2013) ‘Syrian dictator Basar Al-Assad’s wife Asma on luxury spending spree’ Daily Express, 2 September.

Dacey, Jessica (2011) ‘Swiss parts helped build Libyan bunkers’, Swissinfo.ch online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss-parts-helped-build-libyan-bunkers/31014136

Demmick, Barbara (2003) ‘North Korea has a deep, dark secret known by all’, Orlando Sentinel, 7 December.

Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34: 35-51.

Glancey, Jonathan (2011) ‘From Hitler to Gaddafi: dictators and their bunkers’, The Guardian, 27 August.

Hirschbiegel, Oliver (dir.) (2004) Downfall [Der Untergang], Constantin Film Produktion: München.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcolm (2000) Dark Tourism. Thomson: London.

Poole, Oliver (2006) ‘Inside £50million nuclear bunker that couldn’t save Saddam’, The Telegraph, 12 January.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2002) Frontline: Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 572, interview transcript at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/572.html

Rose, Steve (2011) ‘Why did Osama bin Laden build such a drab HQ?’ The Guardian, 4 May.

Rothman, Josh (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s (Fictional) Mountain Fortress’, The Boston Globe blog, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/05/bin_ladens_fict.html

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February: http://www.timesofisrael.com/report-assad-able-to-wage-war-from-underground-bunker/

Wines, Michael (2001) ‘A nation challenged: caves and tunnels; heavily fortified ‘Ant farms’ deter bin Laden’s pursuers’, The New York Times, 26 November.

 

 

 

 

 

New Uses for Old Bunkers #37: the many lives of Greenham’s GAMA silos

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Sitting in the cinema watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) I was suddenly surprised. As Resistance fighters ran around their base on the planet D’Qar readying X-Wing fighters for launch there was something about their bunkers that looked strangely familiar. Then the penny dropped – I was actually looking at USAF Greenham Common’s GAMA (GLCM Alert & Maintenance Area) cruise missile ‘silos’: these silos were horizontal in form, not vertical, they were hardened garage-bunkers from which cruise missile launch vehicles would drive out and deploy when prevailing geopolitical circumstances required. During the 1980s GAMA was the focal point of what Eric Hobsbawm called the “Second Cold War” (1995: 244), triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arrival in 1983 of US ground launched cruise missiles in Europe, 96 of which were stationed at Greenham Common.

Greenham Common was one of only six European GLCM bases, and for a UK audience at least was by far the most well-known. ‘Greenham Common’ soon came to be synonymous with this stage of the Cold War and of opposition to it, with its world-famous Women’s peace camps ringing the sites perimeter fences. As a result, the site’s GAMA silos are now protected against alteration or destruction via their designation in 2003 as a Scheduled Monument. But the GAMA silos are now effectively all that remains of USAF Greenham Common, they are iconic but isolated, redundant grass-humped tumuli set in two rows, served by decaying concrete aprons. The base was handed back by USAF in 1992, and Ministry of Defence closed the site in 1993. In 1997 it was bought by a public/private sector consortium, The Greenham Common Trust (for £7 million), which then sold the open land to the local council (for £1), and converted the base’s service buildings into a business park. The former base’s runway (the longest in Europe) was also grubbed up, its one million tonnes of asphalt and concrete then being consumed in local road building projects. Meanwhile, the former base’s open land was returned to its pre 1941 common land status, much of the site’s security fencing was removed and sheep now graze upon it.

In their timeline of the changing face of Greenham Common during its military era (1941 – 1992) John Schofield and Mike Anderton (2009) show how the site continually fluctuated between phases of use and abandonment; between significance and insignificance. Indeed, even within this site’s GAMA phase was remarkably short – spread between NATO’s decision in 1979 to develop European GLCM capability to counter the already deployed Soviet SS-20 mobile launchers, the early 1980s preparatory works to create the compound and the receipt of the site’s 96 GLCMs in the mid-1980s. But then in 1987 the US and USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating all GLCMs from Europe and by 1991 all of GAMA’s GCLMs had repatriated to the US for decommissioning.

At Greenham Common, the sustained attention paid to the GAMA silos by the women peace campaigners who occupied make-shift protest camps around the site’s then-fenced perimeter between 1981 and 2000, has had a significant influence upon GAMA’s ongoing valence. The peace women sought to challenge GAMA by presencing and subverting its form and its functioning through direct action ranging across obstructing site traffic, symbolic actions involving the perimeter fence (cutting it; attaching pictures, pledges and weavings to it; joining hands around it) and incursions into the site. In 1983 50,000 women encircled the site, and pulled down sections of the fencing. Earlier that year a cadre of protestors had made it into the GAMA compound, joined hands and danced on top of one of the part-built silos. Raissa Page’s iconic photograph of this trespass announced to the world both the protestors and silo’s soon to be earth-covered thick concrete roof. As Anne Seller put it:

“…we have done two or three things at Greenham. We have made the abstract concrete in the silos of Greenham, pinned it down to place and time, so that it is no longer part of the unremarked but debilitating atmosphere we breathe. We can now see and name. And we have made our response sane – brought it out of ‘foolish tears, silly emotional women’ – so now those who fail to weep are the inadequately matured.” (1985: 28)

Greenham-Common-007

Meanwhile Ann Snitow (1985: 49) testified to the affective heightening caused by living in close proximity to the GAMA silos: “Immense London, with its illusion of solidity: we imagined it melted in a moment. In fact, living next to the silos at Greenham stirs the imagination in all directions. One’s fear increases, but the direct action always possible there keeps down despair.”

As Tim Cresswell (1996) has shown the essence of the women’s protest was to emphasise their difference to the masculine-military complex they faced, a strategy aimed at inflicting “cognitive confusion” (Snitow 1985: 47) upon those running the base: or as Schofield and Anderton (2009: 107) have put it “to subvert the fence; to make it less male, less military, less functional… and more ridiculous”. But the protests also showed a bunker-hunting affinity, captured in Snitow’s observation that the women:

“breach base security daily, symbolically enacting their belief that the missiles do not represent security for anyone. Slipping under or cutting doors through the wire, they wander around inside, painting women’s symbols, picking up secret memos from office desks (an important one on preparedness for chemical warfare was filched and widely distributed among the women while I was there), and fiddling with mysterious machinery” (1985: 47).

But, it is now over 15 years since the peace camp left, and nearly 25 since the GLCMs were removed. It is clear that whilst mindful of the valence given to GAMA by the peace women, those now occupying Greenham Common and in charge of deciding its current and future uses, wish to broaden the site’s connotations, and the framings have moved on to matters of economic development, wildlife and recreation. However, even within this altered discursive terrain there is some value to be found in pointing to the site’s Cold War heritage and the essential qualities (and connotations) of residual bunker architecture: for example, where organisations emphasise their resilience by pointing out that their IT severs are safely ensconced within the former command and control bunker at Greenham Common, acquired by The Bunker Secure Hosting Ltd in 2004.

The transformation of GAMA into Cold War ‘heritage’ started soon after the site was decommissioned, and negotiations for the Greenham Women’s departure in 2000 included agreement for a memorial, to commemorate their presence there. But (apart from scheduling the GAMA silos as protected Scheduled Monument) there appears to have been little will to actually turn the GAMA site into a Cold War museum-type ‘attraction’. As Ronald Hinchliffe (1997) laments (in relation to the failure to secure sufficient political and financial support for a proposal to turn the former USAF Upper Heyford air base into a Cold War museum) it appears that many regard such sites as suited better to new uses, and that the Cold War is too ambiguous to ‘celebrate’.

Surprisingly, GAMA has never attracted the same level of post-Cold War attention as Orford Ness, despite access to the site having been afforded to artists from the early 1990s, with John Kippin (2001) and Frank Watson (2004) featuring the GAMA silos in their photographic surveys of the Cold War’s “deactivated landscape” (Watson 2004). But it is installation and video artists Jane & Louise Wilson who claim to have had first access – entering it when it was still Ministry of Defence property in the mid 1990s. In their resulting work, the 1999 Turner Prize nominated Gamma, the sisters explore the atmosphere of the abandoned GAMA silos, and in doing so they inevitably projected their own meaning making endeavour upon GAMA. Art critic Matthew Collings (1999), reviewing Gamma, noted how the Wilsons chose to film the bunkers in an alienated, disconnected style – as though with roving security cameras – making it seem like a science fiction film, confounding our expectations because this place was real. He also remarks on the absence of any celebratory ‘the war is over’ air, and detects instead the intention to create an unsettling atmosphere, a feeling that something malevolent remains even though the cruise missiles have gone. Thus, whilst enacted within a Cold War bunker, the resulting work speaks more generically to a sci-fi movie-inflected world in which surveillance CCTV, and modern ruins are proliferating. The work, then is (inevitably) of its time: as much expressing millennial angst as it is Cold War trauma.  But, perhaps here the Wilsons are accessing that transcultural sense of the bunker’s essence – returning us to Virilio’s first impressions as he entered his first bunker at Saint-Guénolé and felt assailed by “cultural memories” of “the Egyptian mastabas, the Etruscan tombs, the Aztec structures” (1994: 11).

Our ability to make sense of the bunker is inextricably bound up with our popular cultural framings of such places. And so it was that I recognised the GAMA silos brief appearance in the Star Wars film because they have – in their slightly run-down form – previously featured in episodes of the BBC Top Gear series, in particular a 2008 feature in which the irreverent presenters raced around the GAMA compound pitting ‘communist’ cars against their Western counterparts. This is as close as the site owners have got to establishing a Cold War museum at the site since purchasing it in 2003 for £315,000. Their efforts to make GAMA remunerative remain ongoing, and planning permission is needed to enable the compound to be used permanently as a storage yard, it having previously had time-limited permission for the storage of up to 6,000 cars on GAMA’s extensive concrete apron. In 2011 a planning inspector refused an application for permanent storage use, based on heritage grounds: the importance of preserving the open character and clear views of the GAMA silos. Thus the Scheduled Monument status of the silos enables this ‘blocking’ of new uses, but it cannot itself compel a heritage-led redevelopment of this iconic site. So, the site limps on via a succession of occasional uses – such as driver training, classic car rallies and film shoots. And the latest instalment in the site’s history of female infiltration and creative resignification of the GAMA compound, is Beyoncé attendance in 2013, to record scenes for a music video within one of the, now ageing, silos.

 

References

Collings, Matthew (1999) This is Modern Art. Seven Dials: London.

Cresswell, Tim (1996) In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression. University of Minnesota Press: London.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1995) The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century 1914-1991 Abacus: London.

Hinchliffe, Ronald (1997) ‘The Cold War: the need to remember or desire to forget’ History Workshop Journal  43 234-239.

Kippin, John (2001) Cold War Pastoral. Black Dog Publishing: London.

Schofield, John & Anderton, Mike (2009) ‘Greenham Common Airbase’ in John Schofield, Aftermath: Readings in the archaeology of recent conflict. Springer: New York pp 99-112.

Seller, Anne (1985) ‘A concrete reality’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 8 (2): 26-31.

Snitow, Ann (1985) ‘Pictures for 10 Million women’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 8 (2): 45-49.

Virilio, Paul (1994) Bunker Archeology. Princeton Architectural Press: New York (translated by George Collins).

Watson, Frank (2004) The Hush House: Cold War Sites in England. Hush House Publishers: London

Images:

Raissa Page, 1983 (via https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/sep/21/raissa-page-obituary)

Stray off the path, 2015 (via http://www.strayoffthepath.co.uk/raf-greenham-common-gama.html)

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

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

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31