Vol. 1, No. 2, April 2005
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Research for an arts project is often as much about the experience of looking for information as the findings themselves. This article is about an investigation into the presence of submarines in British waters. The research was for a new body of work that resulted in the presentation of film, installation and interactive work at festivals, in galleries and online. In this case the fieldwork, into the inevitably political realm of nuclear submarines, led to a series of uneasy situations.
JOANNA GRIFFIN IS AN ARTIST FROM THE UK WHERE SHE HAS HELD LECTURING POSTS IN FINE ART AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON AND THE UNIVERSITY OF WOLVERHAMPTON. HER FILMS, VIDEO INSTALLATIONS, BOOK WORKS AND PRINTS HAVE BEEN EXHIBITED IN GALLERY SPACES, EVENTS AND SCREENINGS INTERNATIONALLY. CURRENTLY WORKING OUTSIDE THE UK, SHE IS PRESENTING AND DEVELOPING PROJECTS RELATING TO THE INVISIBLE ARCHITECTURE OF ORBITING SATELLITES.
> BREAKING THE SURFACE
There are two locations in the British Isles where submarines harbor: the Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth, in the southwest of England, and the Clyde Naval Base at Faslane in Scotland. From these two places I watched submarines make their dignified way around Plymouth Sound or up the Firth of Clyde and likewise watched their passage out. Somewhere, away from sight of land or other boats, they submerged; their whereabouts from then on known to very few. The families of submariners only find out when the men will return by reading the daily shipping movements in the local newspaper.
This is how I tracked them; my days for a period of six months were structured by the arrivals and departures of submarines, details of which were posted in the Western Morning News. At first I was simply curious to see what a submarine looked like – whether they had that intangible eeriness in real life that I had seen in films. From the shore, with my video camera and tripod, I filmed submarines coming and going from Plymouth Sound and I waited too, early in the morning and after dark, for submarines that for one reason or another didn’t appear at the times announced.
My investigation into the presence of submarines in the British Isles began as a foray into technomythology. I wanted to conjure the sea beast from the submarine, the damselfly from the helicopter. I once had a Sea King helicopter fly very low over me while I was walking alone in the English countryside. It turned out that the helicopter was preparing to land in a village school playground, as a treat for the last day of the school term, but as it flew over my head, huge and loud, it was a sublime experience, frightening but safe and without explanation. As an artist it made me rethink my practice. I began to work with the moving image as a way of translating compelling experience and exploring the creature-like presence that seemed to inhabit this colossal machine. With a video camera you can slow down the time you capture and reduce what you see to a small box in which these hitherto subdued references are revealed. Were they a subconscious creation of the engineers, these cartoon-like resemblances to creatures, a by-product of an overambitious determination to make rational killing machines, or did the designers deliberately draw on B-movie horror and science fiction to elicit irrational fear?