by Rob Tufnell


On 19 January 1915 two German Zeppelin airships bombed Norfolk in England beginning the first campaign of strategic bombing of industrial and civilian targets. The campaign continued until August 1918 during which time there were 208 bombing attacks on Britain - 5,751 bombs were dropped killing 556 and injuring a further 1,358.

The threat of aerial attacks on cities was perhaps first seriously considered in modern times by H.G Wells in his novel 'War in the Air' (1908) where he described an assault by airships on Manhattan. John Carey, in his 1992 book 'The Intellectuals and the Masses', describes Wells' novel:

"...the Germans wipe out the city with its 'black and sinister polygot population', then global war develops, destroying all the world's major cities. Economic systems collapse; millions die of starvation."[in England] London is a ghost city, full of skeletons, dogs and rats. The few survivors of the English people live in rural peasant communities, subsisting by primitive agriculture. They have returned, Wells observes, from 'suburban parasitism' to what had been the life of the European peasant since the dawn of history. 'Adverts for canned peaches survive grotesquely in a medieval landscape of waste land and starving vagabonds.'

John Carey's complaint that Wells was willing such destruction upon society has recently been echoed in the accounts of certain Lacanian thinkers of Hollywood disaster movies. Whilst I struggle to support Hollywood film-making it alarms me that there is now a call, however oblique, for censorship (whether imposed by self or State) from both the Left and the Right. As we move closer and closer to the scenario described in George Orwell's '1984' where the world is engaged in continual conflict there can be no question of imposing censorship ('respect', 'restraint' or any other byword) in a 'short-term' to protect it for a 'long-term'.

Thinking specifically about issues of national security and cultural policy in the context of White Box brought to mind a complex constructed in Britain at the start of the Second World War.

White Box is one of the more accessible spaces for contemporary art in that its contents are to be viewed from the street by everyone. At the same time it is physically the least accessible in that the public cannot enter the space. Such ideas of space being simultaneously accessible and inaccessible were explored by the National Gallery, London in 1940. The trustees of the Gallery, facing the threat once again of aerial assault, determined to relocate the collection to a place inaccessible to bomb bearing aircraft launched from continental Europe and yet easily accessible to the rail and road vehicles capable of transporting such fragile artefacts. The location was identified as a slate quarry dug into the side of Manod Mwr outside Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia, Wales.

The Governmental Ministry of Works prioritised the necessary nine-month building programme at Manod to ensure the paintings would be safe 1,750ft above sea level, beneath a 300ft thick slate ceiling. Six underground chambers were constructed, each with its own air-conditioning system, which ensured four changes of air an hour, and a constant atmosphere of 65 F. and 42% humidity. Five thousand tons of slate were removed from the mountain entrance increasing it from a 6ft square hole through which generations of miners had passed, to one 13ft. by 10ft. so that works could be unloade, unseen from lorries driven inside the mountain. The road surface under the railway bridge at Ffestiniog was lowered two and a half feet so that the truck bearing Van Dyck's portrait of King Charles I on horseback and Piombo's 'Raising of Lazarus' could pass underneath.

Like the National Galley 'annex' at Blaenau Ffestiniog the contemporary art space perhaps exists notionally somewhere between the exhibition centre and the prison (its heritage stemming in part from the Panoptican and the Crystal Palace of 19th Century Britain) in that it needs to both display and hide. The contradictory nature of spaces for art is one that has always fascinated me. The contradictory nature of censorship doesn't.

Carey, John; 'The Intellectuals and the Masses; Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880 - 1939'; Faber and Faber, London; 1992; p.132-133.


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