Cite this as: Dunlop, G. and Schofield, J. 2021 ‘The Technological Sublime’: Combining Art and Archaeology in Documenting Change at the Former RAF Coltishall (Norfolk, UK), Internet Archaeology 56. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.56.16
Since at least the 1990s, archaeologists and artists have been documenting military installations following the withdrawal of service personnel. They have usually embarked on these recording opportunities separately, experiencing these sites as derelict, lifeless places, with stripped buildings devoid of much of their meaning after their occupants have left. Archaeologists have typically created maps and made photographs. Artists have also taken photographs, but in addition made films and created soundworks. Wherever the medium and the motivation, the assumption is usually made that only those closely familiar with the rhythms and rituals of service life can begin to understand the emptiness of what remains. And being secretive military installations, creating a record during their occupation is never an option.
Uniquely, in the months leading to the closure of RAF Coltishall (Norfolk) in 2006, the RAF granted the authors unprecedented access to record the base's drawdown and closure. The project brought artists and archaeologists together to see what could be achieved in unison, while still maintaining some degree of research independence. In undertaking this survey, three related themes emerged: the role of art as heritage practice, new thinking on what constitutes landscape, and the notion of a 'technological sublime'. Following an earlier publication, we now reflect again on those themes. In doing so, we offer this collaboration between art and archaeology (traditionally considered two distinct ways of seeing and recording) as an innovative methodology for documentation, not least after the closure and abandonment of such military and industrial landscapes, where occupational communities had once lived. In this article, the words represent our ideas; the images and films are an example of the result.
Figure 1: Dawn, October 2006. Flight pan, hangar, early morning. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 2: Briefing room: layered screens for projection, interwar modernist font. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 3: Firing Range: Return to ESA. Enigmatic object; training round casings were returned via the rotating disc to the range controller. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 4: Arrestor markers. 100 metres from each end of the runway; arrestor wires attached to sprung capstans were laid across the runways. If jets landed too fast, this was the last chance to stop them. When the wires and capstans were removed, these markers remained. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 5: Fuel Pods. Eyecatching: one of the first things I noticed when out on the field. Wires are to reduce static while filling. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 6: Spotters. As flying wound down, the spotters gathered for the last time. Hot dogs, coffee, and a warm farewell from the Duty Officer. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 7: Dispersals - monolith. Angular walling breaks up the field of vision for incoming aircraft, confusing and making targeting difficult. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 8: Blast. October 2006. Loudspeakers on Dispersal blast wall. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 9: Double Dispersals. The airfield grew in the postwar period to house Meteors, Javelins, and was then renovated and extended to take Lightnings. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 10: Entropic blast walls showing airfield edge and radio tower. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 11: Flight maintenance on 6 Sqn Jaguar. May 2006. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 12: Empty toolbox, 41 Sqn hangar. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 13: Jaguar Office. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 14: Jag Desert Office. Another piece of wall art in an otherwise unremarkable office. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 15: Control Tower. After final stripdown, October 2008. An opportunity for a moment of repose for security patrols. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 16: Colt Mural 1. At opposite ends of one of the large hangars, these huge pieces of wall art were produced for a squadron dance on return from Iraq. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 17: Colt Mural 2. At opposite ends of one of the large hangars, these huge pieces of wall art were produced for a squadron dance on return from Iraq. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 18: Runway 22a. Time and plant growth take their toll on the pristine surfacing of runway 22. October 2006. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 19: Runway 22b. Time and plant growth take their toll on the pristine surfacing of runway 22. May 2007. © Gair Dunlop
Figure 20: Runway 22c. Time and plant growth take their toll on the pristine surfacing of runway 22. June 2008. © Gair Dunlop
Jaguar Flight Simulator: Wales Incident. Inside the flight simulator at RAF Coltishall, strange fantasy worlds were enabled; while it is impermissible to film sensitive terrain and real training missions, I filmed anti-aircraft missile avoidance in North Wales. The realtime terrain wrapping onto geographically accurate frames leads to strange village and field effects. The Menai Bridge flythrough was irresistible.
Simulator/Realtime: Footage of the path taken around and through RAF Coltishall by a pilot in the Jaguar simulator, paralleled by an attempt to take the same route in a vehicle in the real world. Stopped at gunpoint by a patrolling RAF Regiment Land Rover; this turned into a very fast 'justify your methodology' conversation.
Dispersals: Observations of the airfield as a lived environment, a major-scale industrial workplace, and as a balance between alertness and idyll.
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