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)
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.
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
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)