Louise K Wilson
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Cold Art | 2018

In 2017 my programme 'Cold Art' was commissioned (30 minute documentary) for the arts strand for BBC Radio 4 (produced by Freya Helier for Loftus Media). 'Cold Art' explored contemporary artists' fascination with Cold War ruination and was recorded in Berlin and the UK. It was first broadcast on April 12th 2018 (and re-broadcast on September 4th, 2018) with an accompanying Sounds (iplayer) page (with film clips and a gallery of images) and a specially-written text about Teufelsberg.


Additional information

The programme interweaves interviews, extracts from artists' responses to bunker acoustics, film soundtracks and field recordings to explore the strange allure of Cold War buildings: "Whether it's childhood memories, the background hum of the threat of nuclear armageddon, or the futuristic architecture, many artists are creatively stimulated by the imagined possibilities of a war which never turned hot" (Cold Art, 2018). 

From the outset, we sought to examine how extent Cold War structures exert an undeniably compelling fascination. There is an affective power to such enigmatic architectures that are familiar in material but otherwise utterly alien in form. Gaining admittance to abandoned defence sites can be difficult even if they are not on active sites. Access to detailed information about the work undertaken is impossible since papers, photographs, films and other data may never be in the public realm. The places are generally left to 'speak' for themselves. Repeat visits are necessary, to collect layers of visual and auditory material and allow time for reflection. For this reason, Cold Art was 'bookended' by a brief personal reflection on the quay at Orford Ness (where my project 'A Record of Fear' was based), looking across to the silhouetted AWRE (Atomic Weapon Research Establishment) 'pagoda' buildings at dusk as they are increasingly shrouded in darkness. 

Three sites emerged in the planning of Cold Art connected by their playing distinctly different defensive roles in the Cold War and for attracting artists of different kinds, for very diverse reasons. The format would be the following of these artists as they gained admittance, an implicit aspect being the sites current state of care (or not). Cold Art was structured to hear the 'story' of each 'bunker' in turn, the story of the artist(s) and find out how the two came together.

The first story concerns artist Stephen Felmingham and his (currently) seven year personal research into the network of Royal Observer Corps (ROC) observation posts. Briefly, this network of 1,500 nearly identical posts throughout the UK were responsible for detecting and reporting nuclear explosions and associated fall-out in the event of a nuclear strike. Felmingham's (unaccompanied) visits inside these subterranean spaces are made with the purpose of creating evocative drawings of the forgotten interiors. As he makes work from the detritus found there, he has previously reflected on the palpable sense of being buried alive - a hypothetical grave in a future apocalypse. .... He explains his process of sitting and thinking, absorbing the atmosphere, allowing himself to feel alone and lonely, then starting to "feel the human presence soaked into the wall". At this point, he begins to draw, wearing visor or goggles so that only peripheral vision can be used. These places are a conduit he explains (in a place "where people still are"), and this practice explores what can only be partially sensed by "drawing what's around the edges of vision".  In an underground place of no vision, with a rationale based on (radioactive) detection, drawing brings "a human detection device". This practice in "drawing what you can't see", acknowledges that "the veil is thin between the past and now". 

The second site necessitated a move southwards to Suffolk. Scenographer and sound artist Kathrine Sandys has explored the atmospheres, properties and possibilities of numerous Cold War bunkers, Cold Art focused on her 2010 project Hush House. This had been produced about and for the Hush House aircraft hangar at the de-commissioned Cold War airbase, RAF Bentwaters. The building is a large hanger with a protruding concrete 'exhaust' tunnel, originally used to test jet engines and acoustically treated to absorb the massive amount of noise created by this process. Despite the RAF title, it was an American airbase that hosted a good deal of covert activity.  Sandys has spoken of childhood holidays spent camping nearby and the strong memories of the activity she and her brother imagined took place there. Whereas Felmingham's interest is less in material remains per se, the focus for Hush House clearly derives from the building and the sonic memories that have accumulated within. Sandys re-animated the building through the introduction of low frequency sounds akin to those produced when the testing was carried out. These give a sense of presence, turning the old testing complex into a bass drum - its low frequencies calling out to the test pilots who once worked here with "a creeping, low modulation of sound pulses that wrap their way around the head of the subject and steadily through the body cavities too". 

The third narrative concerns Teufelsberg, the decaying and ruinous former NSA Listening Station  in Berlin which regularly attracts sound artists and musicians drawn to its iconic aesthetic charge and rich acoustical possibilities. Teufelsberg (or 'Devils Mountain') is itself an artificial hill created from the debris and rubble of the bombed and despoiled wartime city. Hitler's architect Albert Speer had designed a flagship Nazi military college that was never completed and proved (partially) indestructible to demolition after the War ended.  The field station is located incongruously in the leafy environs of Grunewald Forest, a convivial space for joggers and dog walkers not far by S-Bahn from the city's hub. It has resisted many attempts at (leisure) gentrification and redevelopment. After decades of trespass, a stable period of usage (and designated monument status ) has been resolved. It currently has the feel of a "dystopian, industrial, arty squat" as Freya Hellier observed as it is home now - studio, gallery and even basic dwelling space - to a loosely marshalled collection of (mainly graffiti) artists. Brightly coloured graffiti covers every surface: images of political and cartoon characters vie with imagery of tangled forests. Troupes of young hip-hop dancers practice routines in what were office spaces. It is a place of layers - fresh spray paint covers older images (though some are resolutely preserved). While the T-Berg buildings are ominous, unmistakable Cold War relics, its lure as a base for artists is mainly due to the space, lack of regulation and very low cost. It seems to be a magnet for people wishing to exist outside of 'normal' society who are not necessarily too concerned with the extremely rich (layered) history they are literally standing on.  

© Louise K Wilson 2023. All rights reserved. Design and Programming Spencer Roberts