Simon Faulkner

The artist as memory-worker

In his book Combat Archaeology John Schofield describes Angus Boulton’s recent films are a kind of archaeology.[1] Given the exploration of the material traces of the Cold War in the films Cood bay Forst Zinna and Stolzenhain Schofield calls Boulton an archaeologist with good reason. In what follows, I do not want to challenge this description, rather my intention is to focus on a particular aspect of recent debate around conflict archaeology: the relationship between archaeology and cultural memory.[2] Defining Boulton as a memory-worker places emphasis upon the broader cultural meanings of his artistic practice. Boulton’s work will be discussed as an example of what Schofield defines as archaeology with ‘discord value’- archaeology that enables critical reflection upon the conditions of the present.[3]

Stillness and memory

Between 1998 and 2006 Boulton took a series of photographs of different gymnasia at abandoned Soviet military bases in Germany. For all of these photographs the camera was positioned at the centre of one end of the gymnasium resulting in a symmetrical perspective of the rest of the room. The photographs are full of colourful detail, yet highly simple. This format frames the photographic act as documentation and presentation rather than active commentary. The combination of this simple frontal approach with the emptiness and stillness of the depicted scenes locates the gymnasia series within what David Campany has termed ‘late photography’.[4] Such photographs picture the aftermaths of violent events and historical processes, alluding to human activity through material remains rather than through the representation of people. Like other ‘late’ images, the gymnasia photographs are structured by a relationship between presence and absence. The presence of architectural structures marked by human activity and the absence of current human occupation. It is the exaggerated sense of stillness produced by the emptiness of the gymnasia that defines the evocative power and mnemonic function of Boulton’s photographs. These are still images of still places.

Although the aim of Boulton’s shift into video in 2001 was to introduce movement into his work, stillness is a defining characteristic of his films. The majority of the footage in both Cood bay Forst Zinna and Stolzenhain is constituted by static shots. The resulting images resemble Boulton’s photographs from the gymnasia series. Moreover, the overall effect of both static and panning shots is to emphasise the stillness of the locations explored in the films. Whereas the photographs are frozen moments, the films record the passing of time. But this is time passed without significant event. Trees move and doors bang in the wind, water drips or rushes from drainpipes, unseen birds sing, but nothing really happens in these places. The location is still while the camera moves, and through this contrast it is a sense of stillness and absence that is the key feature of the filmic experience of place. Vilém Flusser has commented that the still camera allows us ‘to “take” something from the stream of history’,[5] yet in relation to Boulton’s photographs and films it is the removal of actual sites from history that precedes the act of visualisation. Stillness is the property of place and not just image. Boulton’s practice creates the conditions for this stillness to have meaning.

Boulton’s photographs of disused Soviet bases present us with so little in the way of pre-coding that as viewers we are forced to either treat them as mute in the extreme, or engage in an active interpretation of place through the images. In comparison Boulton’s films are more complex examinations of location involving a sequence of multiple images. The films also involve the introduction of non-diegetic sounds that reinforce the contrast between ‘then’ and ‘now’, and enable a more active form of encoding on the part of the artist. At the end of Cood bay Forst Zinna Boulton plays Boris Alexandrov’s Song of the Civil War over images of the base at a time when it was operational. Stolzenhain ends with the sound of a Geiger counter. Yet I would suggest that there are more similarities than differences between his photographs and films. Both are more records of site than explanatory or critical commentaries. The panning shots in the films are simple devices used to reveal more of the locations under consideration. There is an experiential difference between static and panning shots, but the latter do not move us that far from the acts of simple presentation that define the photographs. The films provide an interpretation of military sites, but within narrow formal limits. As Boulton observes, his approach in the films is ‘meditative’ rather than declarative and involves the withholding of ‘clear answers’.[6]

Confronting such simple and reticent images of abandoned military sites, whether as photography or film, brings us face-to-face with the otherness of the past as something that cannot be grasped in its full complexity. This relationship to the past demands an ethics and politics of reading.[7] Boulton’s images have an iconic relationship to the sites they picture and thus have documentary value, but the simplicity of these images also enables viewers to transform them into metaphors for broader historical and political issues. As Boulton comments abandoned military sites are already ‘overloaded with metaphors’.[8] Picturing these sites through the limited formal strategies that he adopts enables this metaphoric potential to be actualised as a form of cultural memory.

Remembering the Cold War

Received political history has it that the protracted Cold War confrontation ended with the triumph of the United States. In this context abandoned Soviet military installations might function as metaphors for Soviet defeat and the ‘inevitable’ supremacy of US led liberal democracy. Boulton’s images of the decaying remains of these bases might therefore gain their meaning in contradistinction to images of contemporary military power. Yet such a comparison can also work by contaminating the present with the metaphoric potential of the ruins of the Soviet military system. The question this comparison might raise is: if this powerful system fell into ruin, then why not our own? The potential message of Boulton’s work is that there is nothing permanent about even the most apparently permanent forms, whether hardened concrete bunkers or epochal geopolitical systems. All of these are subject to the vicissitudes of time. Here Boulton’s images function as metaphors for the contingency of all military orders.

For decades the political imperatives of the Cold War were unquestionable and defined the broad political context of life in Europe and elsewhere. We now live in a different era defined by an apparently endless ‘War on Terror’. Like the Cold War, this new framework depends on fear and enmity, and a kind of permanent state of emergency. Bringing this new geopolitical order into a comparative relationship with the Cold War might allow for the development of a critique of the political and military agendas we are being asked to support. This would involve memory-work that rescues the Cold War past in an effort to produce alternative understandings of the present. Here memory is understood as activity that does not reconstruct the past ‘as it was’, but brings the past and present together in a new constellation. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, such a practice ‘leads the past to bring the present into a critical state’.[9] Boulton’s photographs and films of abandoned Soviet bases do not entail overt political messages, rather they make aspects of the past visible in such a way that we can re-imagine our relationship to the present through the past.

In his discussion of John Kippin’s series of photographs of the former cruise missile base at Greenham Common, entitled Cold War Pastoral, Ian Walker described visiting an exhibition of the photographs at Building 150 at Greenham Common in 2001. He observed:

The date of our visit to Building 150 was Sunday, 2 September 2001. Nine days later, we were again driving along the M4 and turned on the radio to hear that two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. Beyond the windscreen, the rushing traffic seemed unreal and the world uncertain. History hasn’t ended – it never does – but it was entering a new chapter and the war of Greenham Common slipped further into the past.[10]

It is precisely this sense of the Cold War slipping into the past and being forgotten that Boulton’s work can help ward against. This is a political necessity if only because political rhetoric around ‘9/11’ and its aftermath defined this event as a moment of historical rupture.[11] It is certainly true that new things have emerged since 2001, but has that much really changed? Noam Chomsky stated in 1991 that: ‘Viewed realistically, the Cold War has (at most) half-ended.’[12] Chomsky makes this statement on the grounds that much US foreign policy continued as it had for the past forty years.

As this comment suggests, there are significant continuities between the Cold War and the present, something that artistic acts of remembrance might help us understand. Boulton’s new film 08/26 makes this kind of dialogue between past and present manifestly obvious. If Cood bay Forst Zinna and Stolzenhain were entirely focused on the moribund world of the present-past, the new film combines the remains of the military past with the military present. Filming was undertaken at both the disused Soviet air base of Alt-Daber near Wittstock, Germany (the title of the film refers to the runway orientation at this base) and the operational RAF bases at Coltishall and Marham in East Anglia. The film begins with static shots of structures at Alt-Daber – derelict buildings, a crumbling statue of Lenin, the base theatre and gymnasia. A formal shift occurs with the picturing of the aircraft hangers. The camera focuses on the empty space of an unused hanger at Alt-Daber, it then fades into a shot of an operational RAF hangar and back again. This is followed by a close up of one of the abandoned hangers that fades into an image of a hanger occupied by a British jet and back again. From then on the disused and operational are intercut. This fading back and forth between sites creates a shift between the stillness of the present-past and the active present, while also creating a ghostly effect at the point of visual transition from one site to another through which the planes and personnel at the operational airfields seem to ‘haunt’ the abandoned spaces of Alt-Daber. Although a straightforward reading of the film would define the images of Alt-Daber as signs of the past and the images of Coltishall and Marham as signs of the present, it is also possible to read the film as a confusion of past, present, and future. Do the scenes at Alt-Daber so clearly represent the past? Could they not signify the future of the British sites under changed conditions? The shot of the crashed MiG fighter at the end of the film seems to reinforce this possibility.

In this way 08/26 allows us to consider not only the decay of the Soviet base, but also the temporal status of the RAF sites. Through this the film brings into question the relative stability of current military systems. This is clearly an act of memory-work, for it utilises the traces of the past to make meanings about the present. Such work is linked to, but distinct from what Schofield calls ‘prospective memory’ in his essay in the current publication. It might be possible to detect an element of nostalgia for the Cold War in Boulton’s practice, as well as the sense of melancholy that Campany identifies in much ‘late’ imagery,[13] but his work also presents the possibility for a critical harnessing of what Benjamin termed the ‘enormous energies of history’[14] in a politics of memory that is being worked out right now.

 

[1] John Schofield, Combat Archaeology: Material Culture and Modern Conflict, London: Duckworth, 2005, p. 79.

[2] Schofield gives support to this approach by committing one of the chapters in his book to the relationship between conflict archaeology and memory. Ibid., pp. 81-114.

[3] Ibid., p. 111.

[4] See David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on problems of “Late Photography” in, David Green, ed., Where is the Photograph?, Brighton: Photoforum and Photoworks, 2003, pp. 123-132.

[5] Vilém Flusser, ‘Image and History’, European Photography, 27:79/80, 2006, p. 6.

[6] Angus Boulton, ‘Film making and photography as record and interpretation’ in, John Schofield, Axel Klausmeier and Louise Purbrick, eds., Re-mapping the Field: New Approaches in Conflict Archaeology, Berlin and Bonn: Westkreuz-Verlag, 2006, p. 37.

[7] Tim Edensor has made a similar observation in relation to visiting industrial ruins. Tim Edensor, ‘Waste matter – The debris of Industrial Ruins and the Disordering of the Material World’, Journal of Material Culture, 10:3, 2005, p. 330.

[8] Angus Boulton, ‘Film making and photography as record and interpretation’. P. 38.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 471, N7a, 5.

[10] Ian Walker, ‘A Visit to Greenham Common: John Kippin’s Cold War Pastoral’ in. Reviews: Artists and Public Space, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005, p. 51.

[11] See Harry Harootunian, ‘Remembering the Historical Present’, Critical Inquiry, 33, Spring 2007, pp. 471-472.

[12] Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, London and New York: Verso, 1991, p. 59.

[13] David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness’, p. 132.

[14] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 463, N 3,4.

 

Simon Faulkner © 2007

Dr Simon Faulkner is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Manchester Metropolitan University.

This text first appeared in the publication Restricted areas – Angus Boulton, 2007.

 

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