Category Archives: News

Artist’s research informs new Cold War documentary

Newcastle University Press Release, 30th October 2019

Research carried out as part of a PhD has led to a new BBC Four documentary examining Britain’s response to the Cold War.

A British Guide to the End of the World came about after a TV producer heard Newcastle University researcher Michael Mulvihill speaking about his thesis, which looks at how creative arts can investigate the effects of the nuclear deterrent on society.

Michael was at a series of workshops organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership when he was asked to pitch his thesis to a group of television producers.

Now, he is an associate producer on the 80 minute film which is directed by BAFTA winner Dan Vernon and produced by award winning production company Erica Starling Productions. It is being broadcast as part of a Cold War season on BBC Four, timed to coincide with 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It is really amazing to see over four years of research come to life in this film,” says Michael, an interdisciplinary researcher from the University’s School of Arts and Cultures and School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. “Objects that had been just archive items have been given voices. It’s quite an amazing experience.”

Operation Grapple

The Arena film begins with Operation Grapple – a series of British thermonuclear bomb tests that took place in the south Pacific islands between 1957 and 1958. It offers unique access to footage, some of it which was previously classified, from ex-military personnel who filmed their arrival on Christmas Island to carry out these tests.

It then shows how over succeeding decades the British authorities tried to plan for the prospect of nuclear war reaching these shores – a devastating event that never happened. Long neglected broadcasts from news and government sources reveal a time when paranoia was stockpiled, leaving a generation traumatised.

“I think the film dramatically shows how the authorities struggled to conceive a system civil defence against a weapon of incredible power,” says Michael. “Weapons that still pose a threat today.”

The Unblinking Eye

The Cold War period has preoccupied him for years. As a child in the 1980s, he would time how fast he could run home from primary school in case the four minute warning, telling of impending nuclear attack, ever sounded. It took him six minutes.

Decades on, his fears of war between the East and West have informed his PhD in Fine Art and Geography. And as well as the documentary, his academic research led to him becoming the first ever artist-in-residence at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire – the UK early warning system where the four minute warning would be signalled. The residency led to a large scale museum exhibition.

“The Cold War was something that felt very real when I was growing up,“ he says. “Thirty years on, a lot of people have forgotten what that period felt like, that underlying fear that the world may be on the brink of nuclear war at any time.”

The exhibition at Whitby Museum, The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations on Fylingdales Moor, makes public for the first time previously unseen objects from the station alongside new artworks by Mulvihill. It also presents new research on the history of RAF Fylingdales in local, national and international contexts, highlighting the North York Moors’ integral role in international space monitoring and the cultural legacy of the iconic ‘golf balls’.

Rachel Woodward, Professor of Human Geography who supervised Michael’s PhD thesis says: “Michael’s work as an artist and a geographer shows how seemingly unorthodox approaches to studying military and security issues can really help us all understand their history and their present effects so much better.”

A British Guide to the End of the World will be broadcast at 9pm on Monday 4 November on BBC4.

The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations on Fylingdales Moor is on show at Whitby Museum until 17 November.

A screening of A British Guide to the End of the World and a conversation with Michael Mulvihill, director Dan Vernon and award winning documentary filmmaker Alison Millar, will take place at Newcastle University later this year.


A screening of films by the artists Rachel Garfield, Margareta Kern and Anne Robinson, followed by a discussion.

Thursday 7th November 2019, 19:30

Star and Shadow Cinema, Warwick St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 1BB.

Tickets are free, but please reserve a seat here.

Examining the persistent and pervasive presence of war in all of our lives: each artist engages with the complexities of militarism and conflict: Robinson ‘listening to the past’ through fragmented intergenerational memory, Garfield asking questions about 20th century certainties through subjective experiences in military outposts and Kern interrogating the presence of ships and war games too close to home.  The screening will be followed by a discussion with Rachel Garfield, Margareta Kern and Anne Robinson in conversation with Professor Rachel Woodward (Newcastle University)

Wakeful (2018) is a new artists’ moving image work by Anne Robinson. ‘If I Sleep, I May be Caught’: motto of HMS Wakeful a WW1 destroyer, built on ‘Red’ Clydeside in 1917 on which the artist’s father was ship’s cook. Drawing on a fragmented childhood memory and a ‘hidden history’ from a century ago, Wakeful is a project about listening to the past: a new film work with percussive sound, constructed with international collaborators and considering the ‘peace’ one hundred years on.  Wakeful uses film technologies to record the passing of time strangely as performers re-inhabit the past, the landscapes of war give up their dead and soundscapes of the past seep into the present.  More information about Anne Robinson’s work is available here.

Opening Up (Rachel Garfield, 2016) is the second film in a trilogy that reflects on the historical shifts in subjectivity through interviews with people who grew up in specific backgrounds such as politics, the military and religion. Opening Up merges shot footage from Catterick Garrison in Yorskshire and Otterburn, Northumberland with internet sourced combat footage. Garfield asks questions about the destabilization of 20th Century certainties through the people who grew up on various military outposts, stragglers to historical forces such as Northern Ireland and Germany.  More information about Opening Up is available here.

A sense of watching and of being watched, of being the agent and object of surveillance, permeates the film.  We are invited to consider what should and should not be seen, to wonder about the legitimacy of looking at the spaces of military domesticity and to ponder techniques of watching and observation used by Garfield, military forces, and of course ourselves as viewers.  Where do we look, and what do we see, when we consider the domesticity of Army life?“ Rachel Woodward, Newcastle University and Matthew Rech, University of Plymouth.

Thursday War (2019) is a work-in-progress by artist Margareta Kern, through which she documents the almost continual presence of warships and submarines outside her kitchen window. ‘Thursday War’ is a colloquial name within the Royal Navy for the weekly exercises of war-fighting and damage control, as they are a culmination of the training period, usually held on a Thursday. During an exercise, forces are asked to respond to a fictitious scenario that resembles what might occur in real life. Exercises can last from a day to several weeks involving aircraft, navy ships, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles and thousands of troops. Kern relocated to Cornwall from London, which has been her home since she fled the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, only to find herself witnessing a simulation of war from her new home.  More information about Margareta Kern’s work is available here.

A Research Agenda for Military Geographies

Edited by Rachel Woodward

(Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019)

ISBN: 978 1 78643 886 7

A Research Agenda for Military Geographies has now been published.  The book is an edited collection of thirteen chapters (plus a short introduction by me) which all deal, in some way or another, with the ways in which military phenomena and military activities are expressed and constituted geographically.  The intention behind the collection is to give readers new to the field a sense of the range of ways in which we can think about military geographies, and that intended readership is diverse, from undergraduates who may be starting to think through this basic ideas, to more established scholars within geography and beyond, who want to get a sense of the range of issues at play when we talk about military geographies.  If you’re interested in reading it, ask your library to stock a copy.

Editing a book is not without its difficulties, but this was a really straightforward collection to bring together.  I had been approached about the possibility of editing this book a few years ago by Edward Elgar Publishing (who, incidentally, I would highly recommend to any author or editor – the team there are both efficient and utterly supportive), but for various reasons didn’t get started on the book until early 2018.  The brief I gave to prospective authors was broad – to write about the military/geography connection in whatever way they saw fit.  Some authors chose to write a synthesis of current research and thinking with respect to a specific issue, and others chose to position detailed empirical analysis within a broader conceptual context.  Either way, I’m delighted with the chapters, because taken together they provide a really clear indication of the diverse ways in which we can think geographically about military activities and military phenomena.  It’s important, I think, that not all of the authors identify what they do in research terms as ‘military geography’, and nor do all of the authors self-identify as geographers.  This makes the point, implicitly at least, that when thinking about the geographical constitution and expression of military activities, we’re dealing with a very wide range of issues which require consideration from diverse viewpoints.

I’m also really pleased to have contributions in the book from scholars at a range of career stages, from early career scholars (including a couple who were still completing their PhDs at time of writing) through to established figures in the field.  We have contributions from around the world, too, as a means of trying to escape from the Anglocentricity of much writing in the field (though inevitably perhaps given my own positioning and knowledge, the UK and US experiences figure centrally).  Some of the contributors were well known to me as writers in this field (even if I’d never met them in person).  With others I took a gamble on the basis of only knowing very little about their research, and invited a contribution with the hope that they would have something interesting to say.  They did.  I don’t want to make rash claims that the book brings together absolutely all possible perspectives on the geography/military relationship – there are gaps, of course.  But I’m confident that collectively the chapters set out a fairly full range ideas about what military geographies might constitute and where we might focus our attention in the future.

I won’t list the chapters here, but if you go to the Edward Elgar Publishing webpage for the book, here you’ll be able to click on the ‘look inside’ button to see the table of contents and read the introductory chapter which contains brief chapter summaries.  In brief, there are chapters on the emergence of traditional military geography, on genocide and militarism, on nuclear warfare, on aerial perspectives, on the securitization of arid spaces, on the intersections between law, war and geography, on military geoeconomics, on everyday military geographies, on soldier deployments and spirituality, on military masculinities, on military theatre, on environmental politics, and on post-military spaces.   I really really enjoyed working on this book, and my thanks have to go to the 17 contributors who together made this book possible.

Rachel Woodward

News: Creative Methods in Military Studies workshop June 2019

Creative Methods in Military Studies


Newcastle University

Wednesday 5th June 2019

How do we do critical military studies? CMS has done much to explore the myriad sites, subjects and practices of military power, considering for example military memoirs (Woodward 2003; Woodward & Jenkings 2012, 2018), toys and video games (Martin & Steuter 2010; Woodyer 2012; Yarwood 2015), sport (Kelly 2012; Cree & Caddick forthcoming) and even food products (Tidy 2015). More recently, emerging work has begun to consider the creative and performing arts as lenses through which to explore militarised culture, including theatre (Basham & Bulmer forthcoming; Purnell & Danilova 2018), dance (Åhäll 2018), and music (Cree forthcoming; Baker forthcoming). This work gives texture to our understandings of the embodied and affective circulations of militarised cultures and ideas; as Leavy (2015) argues, “performance serves as a method for exposing what is otherwise impossible to reveal” (p175).

But, what can the creative arts and creative practice more broadly help to reveal, that we might struggle to approach otherwise? And how might we engage this creativity in our own research methodologies and practice? Victoria Basham & Sarah Bulmer tell us in their forward-thinking chapter in The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military (2017) that we must out of necessity think differently about what it means to practice critique in military studies, arguing that “[t]his recognition has profound implications for feminist praxis because it compels us to ask the question: What remains hidden if we fail to get closer to that which we critique?” (p68). The question that animates this forthcoming workshop is, then; how might a turn to creativity in military studies help us to get closer to that which we critique?

Theatre, dance, music, poetry, fiction, and fine art, among many other creative practices, have much to offer emerging research in critical military studies. This one-day workshop will bring together scholars and creative arts practitioners to explore what these methodologies can bring to our work. Some possible questions for consideration might include;

  • What can creative methods offer our understanding of military power and militarised cultures?
  • What constitutes ‘creative research’ in military studies?
  • What are some of the challenges of this type of work?

We invite expressions of interest in the following formats;

  • Abstracts for paper presentations (250 words).
  • Brief summaries of proposed activity (e.g performance, participatory activities, reading, screening) (250 words). Please include details of any specialist equipment or facilities required.

Please send all expressions of interest to by 5pm on 31st January 2019.

The Military, War and Security Research Group at Newcastle University have made some funds available for postgraduates and early career researchers wishing to attend, to go towards travel expenses. Please drop an email to if this is something you’d like to be considered for.