MY ARTS PRACTICE:
My work is about the ongoing, shifting and inescapable relationship I have with the place in which I grew up and the influence of our early environment upon the formation of identity. It is often only through absence and our return to a place that we can challenge and re-invent our own ‘sense of place’ by generating ‘new senses of the same place’. Living in London and returning to Guernsey periodically, enables this as I revisit and re-document the places of my youth which for me as an Artist enables greater understanding of my unique and ongoing personal journey.
I do not attempt to reconstruct the places of my youth, but rather to convey elements of my personal experience; the strangeness, absurdity and contradictions of a place marked by war. French war theorist Paul Virilio has written extensively upon the subject of the redundant fort and its decomposition within the landscape. Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology is a very insightful personal account of his life-long association bunkers on the Atlantic Wall and describes his experience as becoming aware of the ‘space of war’. He says that military space is not spoken about very often, that people talk about war history, battlefields, deaths in the family, but not about military space as a constitution of space with its own characteristics. Today they only battle the elements; erosion and their gradual decomposition back within the landscape; a poetic reclaiming of the land. With the passing of time it is ‘nature’ that triumphs over ‘man and his war machine’.
BODIES OF WORK:
Achtung Baby is a 1991 U2 studio album produced by Island Records which was inspired by the 1990 German reunification. [A U2 is also a spy plane]. A music reference is important because during my teens when I was growing up in Guernsey the only LGBTQ icons I was aware of were through listening to the lyrics of songs by bands such as Bronski Beat (later Communards), Soft Cell, Erasure, Frankie goes to Hollywood, Petshop Boys etc. My interest in music as continued throughout my life so as a homage to this influence I have given all my untitled works surrogate song titles that have been significant, if not a life-line, at this time.
I have frequently found the word Achtung! (which means attention!) stencilled onto the interior of bunker walls. To me, Achtung Baby! has a ring of playfulness and kitsch-ness about it which resonates perfectly with my work.
I have given all my untitled works a surrogate song title from the musical soundtrack of my youth; from singer-songwriters, musicians and LGBTQ activists such as Jimmy Sommerville, Richard Coles, Andy Bell, Vince Clarke, Holly Johnson and Mark Almond. These ‘out’ bands were really the only access to queer culture and positive and inspiring role models during the homophobic Tory Thatcher 80’s era. They are all male as I do not recall any female ‘out’ singers. Like a film noir or psychological thriller set in a bleak Scandinavian town, the redundant fortifications provided the perfect atmospheric backdrop to reflect our fight for equality as they represented loss of freedom, fear, isolation and an uncertain future.
I was an impressionable teenager during Thatcher’s 1980’s right-wing Conservative Anti-Gay Politics – and felt the consequences of the introduction Clause 28 (section 28) in May 1988 which was the banning of material viewed as the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. In Britain’s Schools teachers were not allowed to discuss same-sex relationships with students and Councils were prohibited to stock libraries with literature or films that contained gay or lesbian themes. This is why I, like many other young people, was forced to look elsewhere for educational material hence music and song lyrics becoming so important. So it is hardly surprising that not being allowed to address sexuality in the classroom like everyone, else led to a heightened self-harm attempted suicide, poor mental health and low self-esteem amongst LGBTQ’s.
Although my work is not about making LGBTQ Art or Art with a clear LGBTQ subject, my experience of growing up especially within in a small and insular Island community within this context is present within my work through analogy and metaphor. In this wider sense I have come to view the bunker as a melancholic ‘symbol of the self’ in those early years of isolation and displacement. In their initial short-term militarised state they were artificially camouflaged which reflects a pre-coming-out need to blend in with our heterosexual cis gendered counterparts; which is a form of artificial social camouflage in order to hide our sexual orientation or gender identification in order to fit in.
Fortuntely fashion generally followed the popular music dress codes and during the 1980’s the New Romantic era due to the positive and empowering influence of androgynous Artists such as David Bowie, or by affiliating yourself to a specific music genre or progressive ‘out’ musician/s, singer/s-songwriters or bands you could maybe just about get away with camping or butching it up on occasion if you mustered up enough courage.
“We live in a paranoid world of barriers and masks in which the processes of protection and empowerment become synonymous and blurred” Michael Bracewell, Art Critic.
So I am interested in the concept of camouflage, and in particular, its limitations. In a wider LGBTQ context, the failure of artificial camouflage can be viewed as ‘man the aggressor’s failure and defeat’ due to the triumph of nature – metaphorically, through the lapse of time creating a positive shift in social tolerance on a journey towards acceptance and equality. No we are not there yet.
‘War is the mother of invention’ - Paul Virilio, French Philosopher and War Theorist.
Another significant part of my Arts practice is my use of found objects which I associate with the resourcefulness of the Islanders under Occupation as they were forced to adopt a ‘make-do-and-mend’ ethos when imports had ceased to arrive into the Islands.
These objects can literally be anything from a kitsch ceramic ornament that I find in a charity shop, or a thrown-away plastic drinks bottle that I come across in the street. The common factor is that they have a certain aesthetic quality. I also like the idea of using what we have at our disposal.
KITSCH. Something that appeals to popular lowbrow taste and is often poor quality. Tacky. Garish. A souvenir aesthetic. Bad Taste. German word meaning ‘worthless’ or ‘trashy’. But Kitsch can also be experienced as very cool .
‘My taste for kitsch is a taste for subversion’ - Glenn Brown, British Artist.
So why ceramic ornaments? My grandparents collected ceramic ornaments.
Also another connection between the ceramics and the bunkers is that they were built using casting methodology. By placing a tiny ornate kitsch colourful shiny representations of cute or quintessentially innocent creatures on top of the huge dull monotone grey gritty foreboding carcasses in my paintings – which maybe to reference the unsuccessful artificiaty of artificial camouflage, or there to undermined the savagery of warfare. My appropriation of casting methodology and casting materials such as concrete demonstrates my commitment to the iconography of the bunker.
It was also very popular to keep budgies in cages on top of the fridge in your kitchen. The colourfully sprayed budgie head that cheekily turns to the side, like when passing the queen whilst marching on parade, playfully undermines their killing potential by becoming non-symmetrical and thus un-aerodynamic which renders it useless as an projectile. I decided to make an installation of these to create a small army. It is interesting to consider if their repetition either re-enforces their strength through numbers or weakens their strength due to all being so similar and less unique.
A re-occurring theme within my work is the male phallus. I depict the dildo as opposed to the erect penis for its artificiality (another consistent theme) and that it, and its sister the vibrator, are tools of sexual empowerment for women. (Yes I know they are used by men as well). I am also interested in the sexualisation and genderisation of weaponry - bombs, missiles, torpedoes, bullets, rockets etc. ‘Standing to attention’ is a military posture which is also a term for a male erection, which demonstrates that we can not get away from the fact that the projectile is a phallus. By featuring the phallus I reference issues of gender, gender-identification, sexuality, and sexual-orientation. My phalluses appear as naked, vulnerable, impotent or unashamedly vulgar or grotesque which is intended to undermine weaponry, not the male penis
My paintings start as collages, either digitally or on paper. They feature bunkers (and other imagery) that I have either photographed myself or found in books or online.
Conscious of a 1980’s palette of pastel, bright or neon colour, I use various painting processes, techniques, and types of paint and mediums to achieve a multi-faceted surface. I like the juxtaposition of blocks of flat household paint, the rich luscious mixing and swirling colour of oil paint and illustrative or gestural mark-making. I like the isolated relationship between a matt and high-gloss surfaces and I may use glitter on a kitsch element to heighten its tackiness. My intention to increase tension between the depicted objects. The bunkers are isolated; taken out of their anchored geographical context and forced to float in flat monotone colour, upon seaside stripes, glow-star or mosaic-like shapes to build an alternative narrative; a ‘contradictory space’.
Either bunkers or other elements of warfare: kitsch animal ceramic ornaments, toy soldiers with their faces covered with neon stars, a judges wig (appropriated from the cover of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta – Iolanthe, that I have collected mostly due to the artwork on the cover), a life-size model of an ice-cream (that I came upon during one summer at a pop-up Ice-cream vendor in Victoria Station), stylised artificial foliage, a drawing of a head of a Bichon Frise dog (that resembles a comical sun in the sky with a face), fearful deers, and two odd-looking wild beasts - and an alarmed tiger and a confused bear (appropriated from Victorian cut-outs, prints that presumably were made from a pioneering travellers account of wild animals as opposed to the draughtsman having actually seen them himself!) to create a narrative of mocking resistance.
Similarly, my sculptures; an unlikely army of budgies bullets, a forest of missiles camouflages a trees, cat and dog-headed objects that resemble sex-toys (butt plugs) just as much as they do to handgranades or bombs. The ceramic cat my grandmother had now scales a missile rather than a glass. A rocket made from an aluminium lager can (that I drank the lager from) rises from a candy-coloured pink and white striped pole embedded in a tiny concrete-filled swan ornament that resembles a carousel fairground ride for children. The ceramic cat my grandmother had now scales a missile rather than a glass.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
My new work for BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE is a series of digital collages, prints and paintings. I combine and/or substitute images symbolic of weaponry and warfare; such as bunkers, fighter aircraft, bombs and missiles - with kitsch, amusing or unrealistic images of ceramic ornaments, animals, toys, the artificial phallus, or foliage, to playfully build a humorous narrative that undermines and ridicules oppression and control.
I work from images that I photograph myself; such as the bunkers I re-visit and re-document on my frequent returns to Guernsey, or interesting objects that I feel have relevant poignant and/or kitsch qualities – and/or existing images which I appropriate and re-work (and reference); such as the photographs of bunkers taken by the French War Theorist, Paul Virilio for 'Bunker Archeology'. In my paintings I use different types of paint and different methods of paint application such as spray paint, watercolour, acrylic, oil and household paint to achieve different surface qualities and textures.
Although my work is not about making LGBTQ Art or Art with a clear LGBTQ subject, my own experience of being a young LGBTQ person growing up in Guernsey is present within my work through analogy and metaphor. In this wider sense I have always viewed the bunker as ‘a symbol of the self' because I feel there is a parallel between growing up pre-acceptance of homosexuality and gender diversity with that of the isolated bunker being widely viewed as a blot upon the landscape scattered amongst dwellings; their architectural brutalism stripped bare and their solitude making them stand out.
I am interested in the concept of camouflage, with reference to the Occupation of the Channel Islands during WW11, and in particular, its limitations; that the bunkers as architecture-of-war, such as the MIRUS Battery with their huge guns, were artificially camouflaged, crudely and therefore largely unsuccessfully, sometimes even as houses in order to blend in with the rest of the residential landscape. Over time through natural erosion their decomposition back into the landscape (especially considering the concrete was made by the sand from the beaches) can be viewed as a poetic metaphor of the triumph of nature, and man as aggressor's failure and defeat. In an LGBTQ context this is journey towards acceptance and equality.
Coast paintings feature the domestic and redundant-military architectural landscape of Guernsey’s west coast where I played and explored as a child. Views up the beach from the waters edge at low tide evoke memories of stolen glances away from the innocence of rock pool adventures. Beyond the foreground of sand and seaweed debris; the outcome of a recently violent storm… (an allusion to it’s dark historical past or a hermetically-sealed present?), massive blocks of granite- to keep out the sea, and steel-reinforced concrete anti-tank walls- to keep out a no-longer-existent enemy, partially conceal domestic and military buildings. Our view-point is that of the enemy from the approach of the sea, a first encounter maybe from out of the ‘no-where-ness’ of the oceans abyss, to ‘some-where’, a periphery, a no-mans land of appearing and disappearing land that is the beach. Generally devoid of human activity, the buildings themselves become anthropomorphic. From the idea of ‘homelike’ (belonging to the home) is the development of something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers, something concealed, secret… ‘heimlich’ now easily becomes ‘unheimlich’- unhomely as the notion of something hidden and dangerous. Within this eerie stillness, an atmosphere of subtle melancholy, these beholders of secrets, meet our gaze to dare or implore us to venture further (a warning or a cry for help?) Yet the barrier of the wall as well as the paintings lack of illusionistic depth prevents us from entering into them- an emotional as well as a physical boundary. This mutilated space with its dramatic positioning is still, however, unable to command the dominant presence of the buildings beyond. These paintings imply a passing of time, of a knowing based on observation, study and experience… a sense of familiarity that threatens to reveal something unbearably disturbing. These paintings convey a sense of moral as well as ecological decay.
Anka Dabrowska and Jeni Snell
My name is Ellie Phillips, I would like to let you know about a forthcoming joint installation ‘blockhouse’ by Anka Dabrowska and Jeni Snell at Jealous Gallery, London. Anka Dabrowska’s work has been previously written about by Rebecca Geldard for Guardian Guide, and has been reviewed in Time Out. Anka has exhibited with Seven Seven Gallery, and at the 4x4 show at Sartorial Contemporary Art. Jeni Snell has recently completed an installation at the Delfina Foundation and has previously exhibited in Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren’s Anticipation exhibition at Ultra Lounge, Selfridges and at Whitechapel gallery in group show Iceberg Enters Obelisk. The installation will be Anka and Jeni’s first collaborative project since their joint drawing show in the Baltic Centre in 2005.
Jeni will be presenting an ongoing installation called MIRUS which is a modular assemblage of flat interlocking plywood pieces which Jeni describes as “like giant Playplax pieces”. Playplax was a late-1960’s child’s-building-toy which evoked the imagination of a nation to construct fabulous fantasy cities. Jeni made MIRUS as an adult-sized version of this. In its recent incarnation at the Delfina Foundation visitors to the gallery were invited to ‘revert back into a state of play’ by building and decorating the structure with an array of paint, foam, tape and mark-making implements using imagery associated with military buildings. Desert camouflage netting was also used to transform the gallery space into a series of improvised tunnels and dens. This brought together the contrasting ideologies of child’s play and military warfare to reference Jeni’s personal experience of play amongst redundant military buildings in Guernsey as well as the stark reality of children today playing in war zones during current conflict. Exploring the themes of children’s games such as ‘building and construction’, ‘hide and seek’ and through activities like ‘drawing, painting, tracing and colouring-in’, the work aims to explore the potentiality of play as a political gesture.
Anka reinscribes the Eastern Bloc architecture, street signs, shop fronts and military paraphernalia of her past in Warsaw onto found packaging such as paper bags and champagne boxes collected in London. Her delicate line drawings and cardboard architectural models combine unlikely sites and sources; communist and consumerist, private and public, past and present, memory and archive.
Both artists will also be producing a limited edition screenprint print to coincide with the show, made and published by the Jealous Print Studio.
MIRUS is an installation project named after the German gun battery on which the school the artist attended as a child was built. The installation comprises of modular assemblage pieces of flat plywood that can be built to achieve various formations due to their interlocking parts. Jeni describes this as “like giant Playplax pieces”. Playplax was a late-1960’s child’s-building-toy which evoked the imagination of a nation to construct fabulous fantasy cities. Jeni made MIRUS as an adult-sized version of this. In its recent incarnation at the Delfina Foundation visitors to the gallery were invited to revert back into ‘a state of play’ by building and decorating the structure with an array of paint, foam, tape and mark-making implements using imagery associated with military buildings (such as natural/ artificial camouflage, natural decay and erosion- moulds, mosses, rust, military stenciling and graffiti ) in conjunction with using desert camouflage netting (bought second-hand from the British MOD, so bringing it’s ‘mystery’ history to the work) to transform the gallery space into a series of improvised tunnels and dens to bring together the contrasting ideologies of child’s play and military warfare. MIRUS references Jeni’s personal experience of play amongst redundant military buildings in Guernsey as well as the reality of children today playing in war zones during current conflict. Exploring the themes of children’s games such as ‘building and construction’, ‘hide and seek’ and activities like ‘drawing, painting, tracing and colouring-in’, the work aims to explore the potentiality of play as a political
MI-R-US Delfina, Installation-performance, 2008.
The Delfina Foundation cordially invites you to:
Playground/Battlefield Artist Talks (Part I): Jeni Snell in conversation with Pr. Barry Curtis, Emeritus Professor at Middlesex University, Fellow of the London Consortium & Visiting Tutor at the Royal College of Art.
Thursday 13 November, 19:00 – 20:00
Free event, limited spaces available, booking required
Inspired by her experience of growing up and playing amidst redundant military buildings in the Island of Guernsey, Jeni Snell's architectural installations bring about the state of play to an adult audience, within a gallery context. Weaving together two contrasting realities, that of childhood innocence and the architecture of war, Jeni's work aims to break down pre-conceived notions of gender and sexuality to prompt us to consider the impact that our early environment has upon the formation of our identity.
Installation from 17 to 21 November
Daily performance: 18:00 – 20:00
Free event, no booking required.
Jeni Snell's MI-R-US (installation-performance) is a multi-piece wooden structure, which uses the tactile language of modular construction games such as Playplax.
Join the artist and take part in an imaginary nation-building exercise: every evening, Jeni invites you to revert into a state of play and add your mark to the fabulous MI-R-US edifice.
Jeni Snell graduated from Central Saint-Martins College of Art and Design with an MA in Fine Art in 2007. She has recently exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery, BALTIC, Ultra Lounge at Selfridges (Anticipation, curated by Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren) and Contemporary Art Projects. Her work can be found in private collections in Sydney, Hong-Kong, Tokyo, London and Los Angeles.
Playground/Battlefield and MI-R-US are part of ‘with a small p’, a season of new commissions and events at the Delfina Foundation.
For more information:
The Delfina Foundation,
29 Catherine Place, London SW1E 6DY
tel: +44(0) 207 233 5344
FORTRESS - Inflatable bunker
Fortress - inflatable bunker is a soft sculpture that presents the viewer an opportunity to ‘take part in art’ or to be ‘physically engaged with an artwork’. Reverting into a state of play we are re-united with an important part of ourselves which so often becomes lost along with our youth. Fortress prompts our re-consideration of space, place and the effect that our environment has on how we perceive and interact within.
In isolation as an independent sculptural form Fortress is ever-so-slightly in perpetual motion due to the air-inlet that keeps it blown up. The audible humming of the motor and the inflatable’s exaggerated proportions gives it an appealingly comical character that becomes highlighted when activated by the viewer. Reclining, sitting, or jumping inside Fortress provides a visual-spectacle for the onlooker as well as the all-important inner-spectacle for those participating.
Referencing military inflatable decoys whilst using the accessible language of the bouncy castle, Fortress is a playful yet political work that undermines the inherent meaning of the represented object of military aggression. The air-filled form, swollen with sexual connotation, contributes to make impotent the objects of war and in doing so stand in resistance to the use of weaponry and oppression. This work contributes to the debate of happiness as a tool for protest.
This work was inspired by the artist growing up in Guernsey, the Channel Islands, which was the only British territory to be occupied by Germany during the Second World War. Long since de-militarised, these redundant fortifications still dominate the Island’s coastal landscape. The experience of going to a school built on top of a bunker brought the opposing dynamics of childhood innocence and the architecture of war together in the playground. Fortress is modelled on an existing redundant WWII German Battery Command Post.
Feedback from visitor Jim Shieff.
“Just wanted to say again how much I enjoyed leaping about on your exhibit ‘Fortress’ – and how great its artistic impact was on me. ‘Fortress’ is now for me the definition of the word ‘tactile’. When I first saw it, I thought immediately of the opening of the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and straight away I wanted to feel and touch ‘Fortress’ and play war-games on it. The way it quietly twitches seems to be a sort of come-on message to the spectator. I see you were born in Guernsey, so I expect you grew up with a lot of military architecture around. At my primary school in Lancaster in the 1950’s, there was a mouldy, decaying bomb shelter in the field next to the playground. It was out of bounds during the day, but they couldn’t stop us going there after school. I have memories of it, happy but also disturbing. ‘Fortress’ manages to counterpoint the carnage of war with the joy of active play and so combines the tragic and the comic, as does life itself. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s so true that ‘you don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing’”.
The Juliet Gomperts Trust University of the Arts London - Artist and Collectors Bursery Kim Grierson
FORTRESS SARTORIAL GRAFFITI EVENT
Jeni invites visitors to Graffiti her inflatable bunker at Sartorial Contemporary Art. This audience-interactive event will take her inflatable bunker to a new point of conclusion that explores the more illicit relationships between community and environment, in this case young people and derelict buildings; graffiti, illegal parties, sex and drugs. Jeni is interested in the re-animation of redundant military buildings and urban architectural space. The Fortress Sartorial graffiti event aims to prompt our reconsideration of space, place and the effect that our environment has on us and consequently how we perceive and interact with it.
Fortress Inflatable bunker RESEARCH Essay
Military construction has had a significant technological impact upon the development of civil architecture, yet it has been largely ignored by art historians that have predominantly recorded modern architectural history as a series of ‘art movements’ and ‘personalities’. The defining character of military construction is that it responds to the latest developments in weaponry and military techniques. With the introduction of gun powder and the cannon in the Middle Ages, the ‘feudal castle’ was developed into the ‘bastioned fort’. With increased mortar power during the nineteenth century, guns were given overhead protection with casemates to combat shells falling vertically. Due to the increased accuracy of firepower, the 1860’s saw the rise of the ‘detached fort’ to protect cities under invasion. Between 1885 and 1890 the French invented the explosive shell which brought about fundamental changes to the very fabric of structural design from brick and masonry to concrete and then steel-reinforced-concrete. By the end of the nineteenth century all European forts were detached with overhead protection and guns mounted in metal cupolas. As well as singular, several together formed ‘girdle’ or ‘barrier’ protection to defend sites of strategic importance. The political events between 1900 and 1945 coincided with the birth of the modern movement in civil architecture, which culminated in two world wars and the most extensive and costly military operations ever undertaken. More recently, the United States cold war nuclear weapons development programme designed military structures to enable survival in the advent of a nuclear attack. To date this has been the most extensive and expensive military undertaking for a war not fought.
The Redundant Modern Fort
With the end of WWII came the rapid mass-decommissioning of the German fortifications that had been built throughout Europe under Nazi rule. This resulted in abandoned bunkers to be viewed by those who had survived the war as repulsive blots upon the landscape…. ‘symbols of soldiery’ that were a permanent and painful reminder of the mental and physical hardship endured under oppression. French war theorist Paul Virilio has written extensively upon the subject of the redundant fort and its decomposition within the landscape. Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology is a very insightful personal account of his life-long association with the WWII European fortresses upon the French coast. He describes his experience as becoming aware of the ‘space of war’. He says that military space is not spoken about very often, that people talk about war history, battlefields, deaths in the family, but not about military space as a constitution of space with its own characteristics. Virilio describes the bunker being built in relation to the new climate… to assure survival… its meaning being to hold up under shelling, bombing and asphyxiating gases. And that in peacetime this survival machine appears shipwrecked on the beach. He recalls his clearest feeling as one of absence… that this was an abandoned frontier… a deserted battlefield. These heavy grey masses with sad angles and no openings except air inlets and staggered entrances are now just left for children’s play. Virilio felt like a long-awaited guest. He felt empathy for this inanimate object, but it was empathy of mortal danger and if the war was still here this would kill him, so this architectural object must therefore be repulsive. He states, “it recalls its warlike project and you identify with the enemy who must lead the assault… this simulacrum so close to children’s playful warring…. after the real warring.”.
Pneumatic technology and the military
Since the invention of the hydrogen and hot-air balloon in France in the 1780’s, pneumatic technology was quickly adapted by the military to be used for protection as well as escape. It was not a coincidence that the early pioneering attempts of the Montgolfier brothers to conquer the skies occurred just prior to the revolution… as people were in fear of what would next occur on the ground. The French military were quick to utilize the balloon’s strategic potential by using them as observation platforms and established a ballooning unit called Aerostiers. In doing so they began what has come to be ‘a progressive relationship between the military and pneumatic technology’.
Within a hundred years of development the balloon gave rise to the airship that, unlike the balloon, could fly against the wind. In Germany in 1910 Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin’s ‘blimps’, originally providing the first air-passenger-service, soon became one of the most effective weapons of WWI. Their success was their ability to drop bombs, but with the disadvantage of their cumbersome size, and the shift in aeronautical focus onto the capability of the airplane, as well as a series of highly publicised accidents, ballooning popularity declined.
By WWII the hindrance of size was used to advantage by the British military in the form of the barrage balloon. These effectively prevented enemy aircraft from making low sorties to seek targets. Lightness, durability and mobility were recognized as necessary in what was viewed a ‘mobile war’ and these qualities provided practical solutions for inventions of collapsible and space-saving tactical-devices and equipment. Inflatable decoys were made in an attempt to deceive enemy surveillance. Anti-aircraft-artillery, tanks, trucks, and marine-landing-craft known as ‘wet bobs’, were made by Dunlop from rubber-impregnated-cloth and assembled in parts upon a frame. Fortitude South was one of the larger-scale British deception campaigns and in 1944 a vast fake army called FUSAG was deployed in Calais to take attention away from Normandy, the real site of the D-day landings. The success at Normandy is considered to have been a very important turning point in the war.
Essential to the success of the decoy is that they cast realistic shadows to be believed from above, and they were painted and camouflaged to appear genuine if seen from close range. An amusing story from WWII is that a farm labourer was out riding his bicycle near where decoys were made and on seeing four soldiers carrying what appeared to be an armoured tank with seemingly little effort, he became overcome with shock and promptly drove into a ditch!
Deception tactics have continued to be developed by the military over the last sixty years because they have proved such an important component to an effective integrated defense strategy. The inflatable decoy is still the most realistic and flexible decoy today and it’s surprising to see them openly available for sale on the internet. These images (green inflatable tanks above) are testimony to the extent of their advancement since their 1940’s predecessors. Not only could we be mistaken for thinking that they are the real thing, but apparently so can today’s aircraft and satellite detection systems… which is exactly their point. This also highlights the fact that the world-wide-web has an active role in contemporary warfare.
Post-WWII pneumatic technology focused upon ‘detection’ as well as ‘deception’. The US Air Force, assisted by Walter Bird (Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory) experimented with light-weight and mobile ‘early-warning-systems’. This resulted in the invention of the radrome… a spherical membrane pressurized with air to house a radar antenna. In 1956 Bird established Birdair Structures to pursue the potential of inflatable buildings. One of his most acclaimed air-supported buildings is the colossal fifty by sixty metre Telstar Radrome, which now functions as a museum in France.
As with the first conquest of the skies in the late 1700’s, pneumatic technology played a significant role in the ‘space race’ to put man on the moon during the 1960’s. Inflatable-space-structures as well as the spacesuit, which is a sealed and pressurized inflatable habitat unit, enables astronauts to travel, as well as adapt to living, in space. Today NASA and other space exploration organisations use highly sophisticated inflatable technology in space exploration and the conquest of other planets.
Pneumatic technology and popular culture
Also during the 1960’s, as a reaction against the reconstruction of cities devastated during WWII, radical and avant-garde architectural groups such as ARCHIGRAM formed to opt-out of the ‘architectural establishment’. Comprised primarily of young London architects; Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron and Michael Webb, ARCHIGRAM began as a manifesto, producing a journal outlining their ideas for progressive architecture that was ‘futurist, anti-heroic and pro-consumerist’. They drew inspiration from pneumatic technology and the space-age in order to create a new reality that was solely expressed through ‘hypothetical projects’. Championing a playful, pop-inspired vision that advocated a building being ‘throwaway architecture’, inflatable structures presented ARCHIGRAM with the perfect vehicle to demonstrate these ideals. They were committed to a high-tech, light-weight, infrastructural approach focused towards ‘survival technology’. They experimented with ‘the modular’, ‘mobility through the environment’, ‘space capsules’ and ‘mass-consumer imagery’. ARCHIGRAM’s stated that, “a new generation of architects must arise with forms and spaces which seem to reject the precepts of ‘Modern’ yet in fact retains those precepts. We have chosen to by-pass the decaying Bauhaus image which is an insult to functionalism”. This ‘decaying Bauhaus’ was a diluted extreme of functionality that resulted in the mass-construction of ill-conceived concrete estates and tower blocks that were very unpleasant places in which to live. These oppressive environments reflected the very ‘symbols of soldiery’ from whose destruction they sought to move on. Amidst such widespread discontent many town planners failed to achieve the quality of architecture defined by those from whom they drew inspiration… their Modernist predecessors such as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus design school. ARCHIGRAM significantly influenced contemporary architects such as Richard Rogers, Bernard Tschumi and Norman Foster, and as I worked on the Archigram Exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art between 30 July- 31 Oct 2004, which undoubtedly influenced the making of Fortress too. Interestingly, from Baltic’s gallery floors I watched Norman Foster’s The Sage Gateshead being constructed.
Artists such as Richard Hamilton were challenging the distinctions between popular culture and high art around the same time. Hamilton’s collages placed advertisement imagery into the realms of the art gallery in the same sentiment that ARCHIGRAM were stating that the ‘light-weight and the temporary’ are just as valid as the ‘heavy and the permanent’. Artists wanted to move away from the constrictions imposed by the permanence of conventional materials such as bronze, steel and stone, and air-filled-forms provided a solution to reflect this trend. The Haus-Rucker-Co were a Vienna-based collective of artists and architects founded by Gunter Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner and Klaus Pinter in 1967. They developed a series of total-sensory experimental artworks using inflatable structures in an attempt to address the imbalance between human evolution and technological advancement. They were very interested in the relationship between ‘architecture and the body’ and demonstrated works of inflatable architecture as being ‘extensions of the body’. In 1971 Artist Hans Walter Muller created ‘air supported domed environments’ such as an inflatable house in which he worked and lived. And throughout the 1980’s Maurice Agis experimented with inflatable enclosures that attempted to provide a calming experience to counterbalance the turmoil of city life.
Contemporary Swiss artists Sabine Lang and Daniel Bauman use inflatable forms to make soft sculpture because pneumatic technology has enabled them to manage much larger and accessible works than traditional materials generally dictate. They say, “Working with air allows you to make pieces that are huge but not heavy and this is a statement within itself.” Common concerns with artists that make inflatable forms are ‘the accessibility of art’ and the ‘interaction between the artwork and the viewer’. Lang and Bauman’s soft sculpture present an opportunity for visitors to sit and lye upon them. They state that the familiarity we have with the tactility of inflatable objects makes us forget that they are art and that this encourages interaction. And French artist Sylvie Fleury’s inflatable handbags draws parallels between the fashion business and the contemporary art market. Interested in the interchange-ability of high and popular culture, Fleury explores the fetishisation of objects in a culture where cycles of fashion reflect an increasingly ‘speeded up society’ due to the accessibility of information available from the world-wide-web. This ‘need for speed’ is reflected in the rapid transformation in the form of the inflatable from the inert to the blown-up. It is my intention that Fortress references, as well as contributes to, this rich history of inflatable art works.
It is stated that the original concept of a ‘people interactive inflatable structure’ specifically catered for the amusement industry, came from John Scurlock in England in 1959. He was experimenting with tennis court coverings when he noticed the fun his employees were having whilst jumping upon them. Envisaging the mass-market-potential of this activity, he developed the ‘walled castle structure’ with which we are familiar today. Apparently in 1961, university students (also in England) were designing inflatable structures specifically for fundraising events. Baring this. as well as the other creative uses for pneumatic technology at this time, in mind, the exact origin of the Bouncy Castle is unclear. The principle of the Bouncy Castle is that it is made of thick, durable and brightly coloured PVC, vinyl or nylon. To keep fully inflated, air is continuously blown into the structure’s cavity by an electric or petrol-powered fan. This compensates for the ‘constant leakage’ of air. Inflatables are commonly rented for public and private functions for children’s amusement. In that the bunker is a contemporary castle, Fortress is therefore an updated a bouncy-castle…. a ‘bouncy bunker’.
It is likely that as children, or even as adults, we have drawn cartoons where a bubble expresses a character’s ‘thought’ or ‘speech’. The writing inside the bubble is universally understood as the externalization of inner consciousness.
Party balloons and inflatable beach toys are likely to have been our first contact with air-filled forms as their tactility and light weight encourages children to lift an object much less heavy than its size would normally suggest is possible. This is very appealing to young egos and if the child blows up the inflatable themselves, he or she can experience and delight in the understanding that their ‘own breath’ has enabled the transformation from the inert to the animated. Being brought up in the Channel Islands, I regularly played on the beach during the summer and have memories of playing with beach-balls and using arm-bands, lilo’s and dingys.
Sex and sexual identity has also had a long-standing relationship with the inflatable. The blow-up doll is one of the earliest manufactured inflatable products to be sold commercially and fetish wear has become a very lucrative market. The ‘swollen’ air-filled forms clearly resemble the aroused state of sexual organs and even the smell of the material itself can be a trigger of arousal for some ‘inflatable fetishists’. Fortress’s subtly sexual presence is in-fitting with the redundant bunker taking on new meaning- its adoption by teenagers as a place of experimentation with sex and drugs.
Bunker Archaeology, Paul Virilio, Princeton Architectural Press, 1976.
Walls of War-Military Architecture of Two World Wars, Mallory & Ottar, Astragal Books London, 1973.
BlowUp- Inflatable Art, Architecture & Design, Sean Topham, Prestel, 2002.
Disruptive Pattern Material- An Encyclopedia of Camouflage, Hardy Blechman, Firefly, 2004.