Tag Archives: Creative Methods

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.

Creative Methods in Military Studies… What Next?

On Wednesday 5th of June 2019, the Military War and Security Research Group at Newcastle University hosted an intensive one-day workshop on ‘Creative Methods in Military Studies’.

This event emerged out of an awareness that there are so many of us doing really interesting creative projects that in some way approach military power and experience, creative in the sense that projects were finding new ways of using established approaches, or were developing creative practices as methods in themselves. And yet, despite all this great work being done in military studies, there hadn’t been much opportunity for real conversations about what these creative approaches could bring to our research. So, what we really wanted to do in this workshop was bring some of this work together, and explore a few key questions:

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

We ended up with a huge amount of interest in the event (which I think is indicative of how open to this way of working critical military studies folk are!) and on the day had 45 participants from as far away as Norway and the United States (you can see the final programme for the event here). This included academic researchers of all career stages, veterans (or those who identify instead as ex-military), artists, creative practitioners, and psychologists – so, it was a really diverse group. The range of creative approaches we heard about included military theatre (such as Alice Cree’s collaborative work with Workie Ticket Theatre Company  and female veterans in ‘Women Warriors’) and Sarah Bulmer, Victoria Basham and David Jackson’s work on Lola Arias’ ‘Minefield’), sound installations, model making, photography, song-writing (you can read about Hannah West’s work on this here), dance, fiction, creative approaches to teaching Critical Military Studies, and more. We had some great conversations around ethics (is there a distinct ethics to making military experience ‘interesting’ through creativity?), data and analysis (what do we consider to be our ‘data’ in these creative works, and how do we analyse them?), representation (who gets to speak for whom?), and collaboration (what is the ‘value added’ of collective creative engagement?).

Across the presentations and conversations, several threads emerged.  Relationships are important, between academics and practitioners, between academic-practitioners and audiences, and with different types of audiences, which might be civilian or military or both.  There are always issues around military involvement in research practice, and issues of control, accountability, transparency, gate-keeping, involvement and non-involvement.  The spaces of creative engagement and creative practice, and of engagements with audiences, are multiple and varied, and we wondered how these different spaces shape or allow engagements of researchers with military phenomena, and shape relationships between academic-practitioners and audiences.  There is also the question about the ultimate purpose of activities that identify as ‘creative’; is it to find new representational forms, or new audiences, or new ways of addressing research questions, or all these in combination?

There is something we’ve been left mulling over though…What is it about creative approaches that can help us specifically in our work on and with military power? After hearing about all of this really interesting and critically engaging work that people are doing in critical military studies, it seems that there is definitely something useful in looking beyond typical modes of research and representation in this work. One of the common threads that connected many of the presentations related to embodiment and lived experience. Melanie Friend’s work on the militarised landscape of Salisbury Plain for example considered how different people experienced the ‘militarised’ sounds of the space, while Lindsay Clark’s ideas around ‘drone dance’ considered how choreographed bodily movement might help us to think differently about embodiment in disembodied warfare. In both of these examples, as with many of the others that we heard from, creative methods or forms were used in some way to explore aspects of military power and military experience that are not otherwise accounted for. Victoria Basham & Sarah Bulmer (2017) tell us 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). Is part of the value of creative approaches in military studies therefore that they can help us to get closer to that which we critique, by tapping into the lived, the felt, the embodied, and the sensory experiences of military power? If we are committed to deepening our critical engagement with militaries and their practices of power then it seems that creative methods have a lot to offer, and so maybe we should be doing more of it.

We’re currently thinking about what to do next, and in particular whether we should develop a publication of some kind bringing together different stories about approaches which in some way use creative methods or practices to address military phenomena.  If you’re interested in joining the conversation, get in touch.

Alice Cree and Rachel Woodward