From the Nuclear Family to Cold War Projects
Published in Feminist Art Activisms and Artivisms, edited by K. Deepwell. The Netherlands: Valiz, p. 63-77
In the early stages of my career I believed that art could change the world. The turbulent social and political climate into which I was born instilled in me and, indeed, many of my generation, a strong sense of social justice and a desire to make a difference in the world. The book, Teaching As A Subversive Activity, published not long before I went to university, opened my eyes, both as a student and an educator in the making (Postman and Weingartner 1969: 4-16). It galvanised me to question everything I had been taught including the prevailing ideologies of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war bedevilled my generation from childhood. It was presented as an imaginary war animated by images of nuclear attack, underpinned by the conflicting ideologies of two super powers and yet fought in conventional terms in the Third World (Kaldor 1990: 4-6) . Unfortunately the nuclear threat continues, for no sooner did the Soviet regime topple, than the second nuclear age crept almost unnoticed into our world. A more complex situation exists today where there are an increased number of nuclear players and a shift in the geographical centre as more countries acquire nuclear capability. The French strategic thinker, Thérese Delpech, asserts that in addition to these factors, the term ‘second nuclear age’ signifies a period in which there are still nuclear weapons but that the old rules have changed (Delpech 2012:5) .
In the late 1970s and 1980s, feminism awakened me to many other political campaigns such as those against racism and nuclear disarmament (Chaplain 2018). I went to Greenham Common twice in the early 1980s, both times with my long-time friend Susan Timmins, once to participate in ‘Embrace the Base’ and on another occasion to be part of a human chain linking Burghfield, Aldermaston and Greenham, organised by CND (Moore 2017). In the late 1980s I joined the Shetland branch of C.A.D.E. (Campaign Against Dounreay Expansion) as a protest against the importation of nuclear waste from Europe.
Diverse strategies adopted by feminist artists also shaped my art practice during the formative early years of my career. Many events, including a major series of feminist art events at the ICA, London in 1980 were hugely influential, particularly the conference, Questions on Women’s Art. (Lippard 1980). I joined The Brixton Artists Collective, specifically the group Women’s Work, as it provided significant collective agency to organise projects, events, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. This ability to take action, initiate and lead has driven my practice ever since (Permar 1986).
In addition to feminism, my art practice is equally defined by places, London, Moscow and Shetland, all of which hold a particular resonance in relation to the nuclear issue and Cold War politics. In late 2000 I moved permanently to Shetland. My practice, and especially my politicised voice, manifests very differently in the context of this geographically remote, small island community. New technologies, increased mobility and collaborative working practices have utterly transformed my working and personal life. Today my art practice is embedded in the Shetland context and is probably not perceived as overtly political. However, it is social, and it is responsive to my local culture, community and society while sharing concerns about what are global issues.
The Nuclear Family (1983-1991), my first body of work around the nuclear theme, served to untangle some of the horror and fear embedded in my subconscious by the nuclear propaganda that permeated my generation's early years. The Brixton Art Gallery provided the first public space for The Nuclear Family in the exhibition Textiles: Making and Meaning, curated by Teri Bullen. In this essay I will look at this work and how it led to my current ongoing collaboration with artist Susan Timmins for Cold War Projects, starting in 2011.
The Nuclear Family used and presented objects, largely clothes treated with plaster and powder pigments in temporary installations to address both the aftermath of the nuclear bomb and the ideology of the nuclear family. By contrast Cold War Projects offers more explicit and varied ideas about cultural memory and employs a variety of media, including film, photography, textiles and sound. The working processes in Cold War Projects are also distinct from those of The Nuclear Family in that we actively employ methods drawn from socially engaged art practices, including the potential for co-authorship among collaborative participants.
My continuing interest in this theme is ironically triggered by and responds to the dismantling of the first-generation of Cold War installations in the UK as a visual archeology of memories and sites. What I had imagined would be a short-term exercise, has seamlessly snowballed into an on-going project. Several years into our work, world tensions began to increase again and suggestions of a second Cold War emerged. Fuelled by this new situation, we continue to unearth the largely invisible memories and ordinary stories from this era to explore our past in relation to the nuclear present and future.
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Chloe Chaplain, "From Poll Tax to the People's Vote March: The Biggest Protests in Recent British History – and the Impact They Have Had," Inews.co.uk, October 22, 2018, , accessed May 30, 2019, https://inews.co.uk/news/brexit/peoples-vote-march-poll-tax-political-protest- impact-list/.
Thérèse Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND, 2012). p 5.
Mary Kaldor, The Imaginary War: Understanding the East-West Conflict (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). p 4-6.
Lucy R. Lippard, Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1980). Cover image.
Suzanne Moore et al., "How the Greenham Common Protest Changed Lives: 'We Danced on Top of the Nuclear Silos'," The Guardian, March 20, 2017, , https://www.theguardian.com/ uk-news/2017/mar/20/greenham-common-nuclear-silos-women-protest-peace-camp
Roxane Permar, ‘Why Join the Collective?’ in Women’s Work: Two Years in the Life of a Women Artists Group, 5-8. (London: Women's Work, 1986). pp 5-9.
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Doubleday, 1969). pp 4-16