Atom Town: artworks and writing about people places and technology by Gair Dunlop

Taking Leave: art and closure


Centred around an action research project in collaboration with English Heritage at RAF Coltishall, this book chapter reflects on the experience of documenting the closure of an iconic military airfield. It also looks at the relationship of the pastoral to Cold War technology and self-image in the military. I suggest that a ‘toolkit’ based around four conceptualisations became a useful framework for the project,.

First, Sign Into Abstraction referred to the changing qualities of signs and functional objects, which become enigmatic over time as personnel familiar with their functionality receded. This process became key to my main photographic production on-site.

Second, a green world/closed world dualism denoted the combination of tranquillity and alertness embodied by the rural fighter interception network, which was particularly intense at Coltishalldue to its history. Pastoral, technological, networked and entropic tendencies all combined, forming a very particular genus loci. These elements are also useful in consideration of landscapes of training, as for instance in the work of Patrick Wright.

Third, GeoMirroring as Geography referred to the disposition of individual sites in a Cold War system where each side reflects the other,sometimes in surprisingly exact ways. Former Russian airfields in East Germany echo the architectures and design of NATO facilities in an extraordinary super-symmetry.

Finally, Mirroring as Simulation referred to the virtual airfield and missions conducted in the Jaguar Flight simulator, operated as a privatized concern by Thales Defence contractors and staffed by former RAF personnel.



Looking back on Modern Living


Visual archive material from the heyday of one of the UK's greatest megastructures: Cumbernauld Town Centre. Interviews with architects, planners and the town artists are interwoven with personal recollections. Visual material comes from the North Lanarkshire Archive, RCAHMS, Brian Miller(town artist).



Code Book


Bletchley Park outside the heritage compound, seen as a key site in the fantasy of digital space.



Relics of Acceleration


Scale, mass, solidity and haunting bulk are factors that are unavoidable when thinking about twentieth-century military and experimental scientific structures. Whether sites of state science or defence, they have many aspects in common: secrecy, a cultivated sense of unknowability and a paradoxical relation between intangibility of subject and solidity of structure. This chapter reflects on some of these places as key sites in the modern history of speed in the UK. Acceleration takes on different guises in each. The specific historical contingency of these sites also leaves space for re-imaginings and alternative possibilities to be considered without the pessimistic inevitability that a focus on contemporary military futurism would yield.



Gateways to Bletchley


Bletchley Park is a former country estate, with a large house in an undistinguished late Victorian style. During its time as the Headquarters of UK cryptanalysis efforts in WW2, its grounds began to fill with huts, followed by massive information processing blocks. In the postwar era, elements of the intelligence services remained until much of it became a telecommunications training school.

It can be seen as an underacknowledged cauldron of information processing experimentation, a cinematic cypher, and a prism through which we can view British senses of wartime, class, transatlantic power, stunted modernity, the military roots of the information age, and relations to ruin and redevelopment.



Sites and strategies selected artworks 2003-2011






Visual representation of a photographic project at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk. The photographic elements of the piece are accompanied by texts from a paper in Journal of Social Archaeology which I co-wrote, and other material



Thresholds and the nuclear imagination


This photo essay summarises some investigations into the imagery and architectures of British nuclear research, in particular the fast reactor programme. I am interested in the interaction of the ‘nuclear imaginary’ and the actual sites in which the experimentation took place. My background is as a visual artist and researcher, with a particular interest in ‘entropic modernism.’ I define this as the exploration of modernism as lived experience, where the fading of 20th century ideals takes physical form. I consider the ‘nuclear imaginary’ as a constellation of anxieties, optimisms, technocratic and patriotic emotions and motivations, which leaves traces in factual material, the cinema and fiction of the time, and in propaganda and public discourse. The ‘imaginary future’ is a product not only of the tangible physicalities, the new infrastructures, the demographics of a rural population doubling and mutating into a scientific powerhouse; it’s inside our minds. It is important to consider the imagination as a part of the recruitment process to a specific kind of modern citizenship. When the actual future has rolled on by, and slower rhythms of a country town re-assert themselves, the idea of the future lingers on. The vestiges become rusty.

Atomic fission has ceased. “The Atomics” remain.



The Aerodrome


English Heritage and others are often called upon to record historic aviation sites, along with a range of other comparable (in scale and complexity) former military and industrial places. Recording typically takes place once the site is abandoned and prior to its redevelopment. RAF Coltishall (Norfolk, UK) presented a rare opportunity to record the site while it remained in use, and to continue to record it during the period of drawdown and closure; to watch as things were packed away and as families left. This seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and to take full advantage English Heritage decided to share the task, gathering together a team of artists and archaeologists whose interests were focused on the types of material culture and methodological issues which Coltishall presented in abundance. In this article we describe the background to this project, the methodology we developed, and ultimately our various (and at times very different) responses to the site.



The War Office


Discussion article on RAF simulation facilities and the potential for new understandings of institutional sites.


Referencing the paradoxical nostalgias of high-tech computer simulations during military obsolescence processes. Visits to RAF Coltishall during the closure process revealed fascinating parallels between the actual site (which was becoming more and more shuttered and abandoned) and the virtual flight simulator site which remained pristine. The insistence of pilots on ‘flying’ from the virtual base during training was contrasted with other more obvious forms of regret on leavetaking. 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.



Atomic Scientists News


Backwater Republic


Images and texts from the worlds shortest-lived and smallest republic.

An imaginary community in the River tay






Option D