Vol.4, Number 2, July 2008
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If war is conducted largely on the field of logistics, how is the necessary level of involvement in the administrative staff maintained? How do those left behind on the ground remind themselves of how and why they fight? Abandoned office spaces on disbanded squadron facilities may give some clues. This new series of photographs was made at RAF Coltishall in May 2007. Contemporary artists and archaeologists are collaborating in an interdisciplinary investigation of the site during its closure.
KEYWORDS: military airfields, contemporary art, wall art, entropy, architecture, war, memory
GAIR DUNLOP MAKES ARTWORKS WHICH EXPLORE ENTROPIC MODERNISM: THE NEW TOWN, THE MILITARY AIRFIELD, THE FILM ARCHIVE, AND THE MEMORY OF PROGRESS. FINAL RESULTS VARY FROM WEBSITES TO HANDMADE BOOKS, LAWN DRAWINGS TO “EXPANDED CINEMA” EVENTS. HE IS INTERESTED IN COMBINING ELEMENTS OF SITE-SPECIFIC PRACTICE WITH DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES. SINCE MARCH 2006 HE HAS BEEN COURSE LEADER OF THE MASTERS PROGRAMME IN MEDIA ARTS AND IMAGING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF DUNDEE, SCOTLAND.
Cinema screen, flight crew briefing room.
This was an institution which, so we were informed, was of great, even vital importance to the defences of our country; but it was so well concealed that many visitors to our village have gone away from the neighborhood without ever having suspected its existence, although the sight and sound of perhaps fifty planes in the air at one time must have convinced them that some such concentration of force could not be far distant.
-- Warner, The Aerodrome
> THE WAR OFFICE:
EVERYDAY ENVIRONMENTS AND WAR LOGISTICS
Hidden in the north Norfolk countryside, important vestiges of modern UK militarism are slowly fading. RAF Coltishall is hard to find by road, but represents an entropic conjunction of the pastoral and the apocalyptic. It functioned from 1939 onward – a strategic Second World War and then Cold War interceptor station. The airbase is now closed; its assets dispersed. A few security guards patrol the deserted flight aprons, hangars, and perimeters. The Home Office have now confirmed plans for an overspill prison on part of the site.
Coltishall’s last aircraft – the Anglo-French Jaguar – was trans-ferred to Coningsby in Lincolnshire and then scrapped. Cold War-style interceptions of Russian reconnaissance bombers are now undertaken by its successors from more modern airfields. These highly stylized choreographies of intrusion and alertness once again suit both Western and Russian militaries (Blair 2007).
The military airfield is a modernist environment par excellence; it consists of an interlocking series of utilitarian structures, where highly codified behavioral cues prevail. Nuances of hierarchy and the class system are also embedded in the architecture and layout. Faint stylistic nods to the English country house appear in the Officers’ Mess, the married quarters, and the flight operations area, including the control tower and the briefing rooms. Edwin Lutyens was a consultant architect for these Expansion Era airfields, and a faint aura of Empire still persists among the 1960s cladding.(1)
In such a zone removed from most people’s experience, shrouded in secrecy, the visitor’s imagination takes over. The reality of keeping aircraft flying is not particularly mysterious, however. Offices, stores, relaxation areas, and waiting rooms coexist with the expected guardrooms, weapons ranges, and engineering facilities. Most of the rooms have been cleared, with lorryloads of office furniture transferred to other bases, scrapped, or burnt at the end of the runway. Faded carpets, cable ducts, and rattling windows remain – a near-familiar administrative and logistical environment.
Wall art gives us an insight into the ideal of military flight. In small offices and across hangar walls, aircraft are still flying their missions in the desert and out of the void. Wall art is expected in large spaces; what is less expected are the murals, details, and remains of graffiti in the offices and waiting rooms of the squadron facilities. The scale and intensity of the artwork can surprise: a dark Jaguar floats in space on a white wall, a perfect three-quarter perspective view floating near the electricity sockets and sprinkler head. A few doors down, the aircraft is seen in desert camouflage, a schematic Iraq – or is it Bosnia? – filling the wall around it. Nearer the hangar floor, imagery becomes more direct and loses its commemorative burden; simple outlines remind that the next door leads to the operations area.
An institutional half-life persisted after the airfield closure in March 2006. Third World War, Middle East invasion, and Balkans crises continued to take place on a regular basis in a nondescript industrial building on the site.
Once cutting-edge technology, the last Jaguar flight simulator in the world was approaching its endgame. Pilots drove there from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire for training. Unhappy with the move, and conscious of the imminent disappearance of their aircraft from service, pilots still insisted on “flying” from Coltishall. Dressed in full nuclear/chemical suits, they sweated their way through engine failures, missile attack, refueling scenarios, and attack runs. Carefree about airfield safety, pilots would careen across the “grass,” squeeze through impossible gaps between buildings, and fly through as many suspension bridges as possible on their way to “War.” Outside, as the base neared closure, structures were uprooted, signs taken down, and more buildings were sealed. The virtual Coltishall of the simulator increasingly became more “functional” and homely than the real one.(2)
The “electronic false-day” (Virilio 1991: 14) represented by the pilots’ ability to cling to the enduring virtual structure became a paradoxical locus for nostalgia. The engineers, guards, and ground personnel are left with more prosaic forms of memory and mark-leaving. The wall art and graffiti became all that remains on site of a multibillion-pound aircraft programme.
1. Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) was renowned for his Edwardian country house architecture (in association with garden designer Gertrude Jekyll), and subsequently for imperial projects such as the London Cenotaph, the British embassy in Washington DC, and the master planning of New Delhi.
2. For further still and video imagery of the airfield and the flight simulator, please see http://www.gairspace.org.uk/htm/dispersals.htm (accessed February 22, 2008).
Door to flight operations deck.
Blair, D. 2007. “RAF jets intercept eight Russian bombers.” Daily Telegraph, September 9. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/07/nraf107.xml (accessed October 25, 2007).
Virilio, P. 1991. The Lost Dimension, p. 14. New York: Semiotexte.
Warner, R. 1941. The Aerodrome, p. 17. London: Bodley Head.