In Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity exhibition and publication, artist Mike Stubbs explores Britain’s Imperial Airship programme, as well as reflecting on our sense of place, belonging and ownership of our society and its direction.
With the climate catastrophe now evident worldwide, you might be forgiven for thinking airlines and governments might be steaming ahead with the only alternative for low-emission long-haul travel, the airship, the 20’s and ’30’s lighter-than-air (LTA) technology tragically cut short by the Hindenburg Zeppelin and the R101 disasters, the ‘hopeful monsters’ of the early 20th century.
There are in fact, several companies developing airships, such as the rather secretive project by Sergey Brin of Google wealth, LTA Research and Flying Whales in France and Holland, which is hoping to develop zero emission cargo airships. But the only licensed passenger airship right now is the Zeppelin LT in Germany which mainly operates scenic tours and novelties such as getting married in an airship. Airlander, built by Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK, is hoping to fly in 2025 but suffered a major setback when it’s £25m prototype vehicle the Airlander 10 crashed in 2017. In Bedford UK, in the shadow of the huge Cardington Sheds, where the R101 was manufactured and hangared and where Airlander is also based, a new exhibition and forum ‘Airship Dreams – Escaping Gravity’ is happening this autumn, organised by artist/producer Mike Stubbs, former director of FACT Liverpool who has recently returned to his artistic practice.
Mike Stubbs travelled to Star City, Moscow in the early 2000s and flew, along with myself and the editor of Makery in various flights in the Ilyushin MDK-76 Zero gravity plane, organised by The Arts Catalyst and Marko Peljhan. How did Zero gravity influence his desire to do this project? “Going into Zero gravity, is not the same as imagining what is Zero gravity. The reality of disorientation, stomach upset and vomit is different from that of a belief or imagined sense of floating and weightlessness as a concept and so in terms of endeavour and failure, I guess that a personal level, when we imagined something through to experiencing the reality, the processes which lead maybe conceptual perfection follow quite a rocky road”.
“A bumpy road, often ending in death. Similarly I’m interested in art, science technology, innovation, modernism and future science fiction – other worlds, be they the other side of the Iron Curtain or the other side of the world or the distant universe. This was somehow was captured for me within my research trip to Star City. It was a big moment being personally able to go on the Yuri Gagarin bus, its patina and the layering of history, modernist retro-futures as I called it in ‘Airship Dreams – Escaping Gravity’, a combination of nostalgia and future days”.
Going onto the potential commercial use of airships, had he made contact with the company building Airlander about participating in the project, which aims to link the past with the future? “As part of the research, or artist enquiry, we had some good contacts with Hybrid Air Vehicles who had issues with the crash of their prototype. They were initially very happy to discuss the project with us. But they tried to persuade us to talk less about the disaster around the R101 and more about the kind of utopian vision of lighter-than-air travel. The marketing department wanted us to not use the term ‘airship’ and again this is to do with the perception, or association with of the R101 being a disaster. It was kind of problematic – likewise the local community were angling for HAV to remain in the sheds at Cardington, but they moved to offices and were without a craft following the crash, which was a write-off.
There was this growing concern from local airship enthusiasts, that the amount of housing that was been constructed around Cardington sheds would mean that airship construction could never return there and subsequently this has arisen with affordable housing proliferating as land sold off, maybe necessary and important, but ultimately driven through a different economic regeneration agenda, likewise with Universal Pictures taking on both sheds, for film studio purposes. This meant the place became more private again, with high security protecting celebrities and identities and HAV moved away from Cardington.
I think the move for HAV towards luxury travel was so to say a slightly pre-pandemic manoeuvre. The environmental aspect of cargo transport came quickly after that, during the pandemic and during a successful crowd-funding campaign. However let’s not forget that their initial investment came from the American military, so they have come a long way. Particular individuals at HAV contributed time and knowledge to ‘Airship Dreams’ and I thank them for that.”
Mike Stubb’s artistic work in the past, such as ‘Donut’ ((also commissioned by Bedford Creative Arts in 2000) has come from a fascination with ‘petrolhead’ culture and explores ‘the emotional levers available to the motor industry‘ (he used to customise vehicles before becoming an artist) Given that fossil fuel industries are plummeting us into an planetary emergency, would he reflect on this differently today? “Yes these are ongoing themes. ‘Climate Emergency Services’ is the other work that I’ve been making in the same period as ‘Airship Dreams’. We did a conference this weekend at the Folkestone Triennial with an environmental scientist and a cultural thinker to discuss some of these ideas. Looking at specifics of carbon usage by different transport systems, Lighter Than Air did not feature in the statistics quoted from Tim Berners-Lee.
“We discussed how much should art be providing a solution versus, art as provocation and engendering curiosity. ‘Climate Emergency Services’ was a conflicted fake hot rod blending a 70s style flame job with images of real forest fires in New South Wales. Somehow this conflict is how I generally feel for someone who is a product of a society whilst wanting to deconstruct it. What are the combinations of personal behaviours as a member of society whilst as an artist raising question and debate through different approaches?
“My personal relationship to technology oscillates between techno-positivism to deep ecology and the idea of the human race as a virus. Fossil fuels have had their day and we now wait for consumerism capitalism and government policy to put in place the necessary regulation to shift mass behaviour above and beyond personal decision-making and progressive thinking about some sectors of society. For me it becomes increasingly important to be speaking to people who are not in the know or simply don’t care and there appears to be an increasing gap between those with resources and knowledge and those who have not. Many people are trying to interface with new knowledge but still being sold a pack of lies.”
It seems a pity the magnificent sheds at Cardington have been sacrificed to money and not turned, for example into a museum space such as the Art Explora airship hangar in France. Could he comment further on this? “Yes there is disappointment that the sheds are now studios. Of course Shed number two was the first home of the Airship collection before Den Burchmore, curator of the R101 memorabilia moved it to his garden shed. I think there is a real will for Bedford to be the home to the airship history of Britain. It’s highly unlikely that Cardington Sheds will be the site for that in the near future, however there is a growing body of people working towards a major event and initiative for the hundred-year centenary of the launch and crash of the R101 in October 4, 2030.”
After the COVID lockdowns, it seemed that people might not be so tempted to fly around the planet at the drop of a hat. However, air travel is beginning to boom again. Could he forsee a future of slow travel, where an airship journey to, say the US or India might take 2-3 days, with non-combustible propulsion technologies, as feasible? “Yes very much so, I think that the acceleration of climate emergency, instability of the price of oil, new legislation especially about the taxpayer’s subsidy of aeroplane fuel will further accelerate the need for better alternatives. Certain sections of the community in the richer world are certainly making decisions to travel less, use bicycles, take the train and stop taking short-haul flights.
“However in Brexit Britain this is against the backdrop of a pandemic in a small island. Initiatives such as HAV’s Airlander are very much working towards more effective innovations of air transport. Virtuality having become ubiquitous since the pandemic also makes individuals less reliant on physical meeting. However culturally, we’ve still been sold the notion of foreign holidays and adventure and different notions of globalisation will take some time to be fully picked up within younger generations. Their lust for travel is as much conceptual than just warm beaches. As adults we have been bad examples, mostly.”
The exhibition depicts male hobby culture, shed culture, in a fascinating way. But how would he get women and girls engaged with the Airship Dreams project? “The education project with Dr Sita Thomas certainly aimed at working with female young people and many of the donors of Airship histories to the museum exhibition were female. We also made a point of including the work of Hilda Lyons who developed the nose shape of not only airships but also seagoing vessels but certainly more needs to be done. Interestingly we also discussed men in sheds, there is a conversation to be had about male identity, geekdom, communication and loneliness, but in this instance it’s hard not share an affection for these communities and their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for technology and engineering. Much male identity has been created in relation to work or machines. My films GIFT and Little England explore these themes.”
The gaming-influenced installation in Airship Dreams based on the software that created Fortnite, must hopefully have attracted Generation Z to the exhibition. Was that a success? “It’s been a stumbling pandemic start, for the show and public opening, but we are witnessing younger audiences enthuse, as the message gets out there and the full-on games and techno-aesthetics are experienced but also we are hoping that the philosophical intent pervading the work reaches those people too. We hope as we leave pandemic period to make stronger connections with gaming culture. In November, we will make a live performance version, in Unreal Engine, working with the collaborators, Roland Denning, Sam Weil and Dave Lynch.”
Other artists, of course, have been obsessed with lighter than air travel. The Mexican artist Tania Candiani, who explores engineering technologies of the past, created two new works during a residency and exhibition I co-curated in the Lot Valley, Exoplanet Lot, ‘Flying Boat’ and ‘Balloon Competition, Lyon 1784’. Flying Boat was a live performance documented by a diver and a drone and was based on the flying boat LTA vehicle of pioneer of aeronautics Francesco Lara de Terzi in 1670. There is also the ongoing Aerocene human solar-powered LTA project of Tomas Saraceno, which first flew in White Sands desert in 2014 and established records with Aerocene Pacha in Argentina just before the pandemic.
Finally in the Airship Dreams publication Stubbs comments on the potential dystopias arriving with increased reliance on technology in society. “When you think about Elon Musk, robotics, AI, in terms of the conflict between what innovation can lead to, and a route out of chaos and destruction, I’m still excited by that promise. I have this inherent hope that technology will save us, from the climate emergency for example. However, at the same time I feel very conflicted. I have a natural disposition to engage in the dirty, analogue world of mud and matter. Without directly saying it, I think this tension is in the work. Maybe Airship Dreams has become more about escaping into other worlds. Escaping dystopia. But it’s not dystopian. It’s critical. I want people to see the work and ask questions.”
Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity – Book Publication