I put four photos into an exhibition curated by Cally Trench. Only The Sunny Hours; contemporary photography with a KODAK Brownie 127. At OpenHand OpenSpace, Reading, 20-24 June 2018.
I'm very grateful to Cally for including me in the project. I haven’t often used photography in my practice and it has been an interesting experiment for me.
|Greenham Common: towards the control tower - Dartford Warbler [Peter Driver 2018]|
People of my generation and older will recall that during the Cold War, in the 1980s, when NATO powers were locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the British Government agreed to site United States tactical inter-continental nuclear weapons in Britain. From 1983, over ninety ground-launched Cruise Missiles, with nuclear warheads, were sited at RAF Greenham Common, which was used by the United States Air Force.
Between 1981 and 2000 a Women’s Peace Camp was maintained at Greenham Common by a changing cast of many thousands of women. They were protesting against siting nuclear missiles on the base. Some of the women camped around the perimeter long-term (the longest-serving protesters camped there for nineteen years); others visited as often as they could to offer support.
Throughout the duration of the peace camp women were routinely evicted, assaulted by police and military, abused by passers-by, arrested, imprisoned, and vilified in the press. Undeterred, they maintained their protest. In December 1982, 30,000 women came together to surround the entire base in a hand-holding chain entitled ‘embrace the base’. The women staged a continuous range of non-violent actions, chaining themselves to the fences, blockading the entrances, cutting through the fences and invading the silos where the missiles were stored.
|Greenham Common: missile bunkers - Ring Ouzel [Peter Driver 2018]|
There are many documentary sources for the study of the Greenham phenomenon, including Sasha Roseneil’s sociological study, Disarming Patriarchy: feminism and political action at Greenham (Open University, 1995), and the film ‘Carry Greenham Home’, by Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson.
Many people, probably the majority of people at the time, disagreed with their stance and certainly disapproved of their tactics. But, love them or loathe them, the Women’s Peace Camp stands as one of the most significant acts of durational dissent in British history. Their achievement was to bring radical feminist direct action and civil disobedience into the public discourse. Greenham left a global legacy of activism, inspiring people and especially women, worldwide to new forms of critical engagement, protest and direct action. The Peace Camp and its repertoire of creative forms of resistance became the inspiration for later campaigns - including the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass environmental protests, and the Occupy Movement.
The Cruise missiles were eventually removed in 1991 as part of arms reduction agreements between Gorbachev and the West, and the base was decommissioned. It isn't possible to demonstrate any causal link between the protests and the decommissioning but with hindsight, public opinion about nuclear weapons has changed and has been informed by the courageous protests at Greenham.
|Greenham Common: remnant of the fence - Woodlark [Peter Driver 2018]|
The commons were officially re-opened to the public in 2000. The two-mile length of concrete runway was broken up and the huge site has now largely reverted to natural heathland habitat. It provides a haven for wildlife alongside cyclists, joggers, grazing cattle, and dog-walkers. Several endangered bird species have returned to nest on the site.
About a dozen pairs of Woodlark are now present. Wheatear and Ring Ouzel stop-over on passage to and from their upland breeding grounds. And for me, the most notable returnee is the Dartford Warbler. A species that was on the brink of extinction in Britain when I became a birdwatcher in the late Sixties, at the age of eight.
By this time last year numbers of Dartford Warblers had risen to over three thousand pairs in Britain, with eleven territories on the Common – a massive success story. Unfortunately, this year, the picture is different. The horrendous cold snap, dubbed ‘The Beast from The East’ almost wiped out some local populations of Dartford Warblers. The harsh weather came right at the end of the winter when birds were on the brink of perishing from starvation. Repeated surveys on Greenham Common have found only one breeding pair this year. Personally I have seen one bird all year. It’s a similar picture on the Thames Basin Heaths on the Berkshire/Surrey border. This is a major set-back from which there is just a glimmer of hope for another slow recovery.
So my work holds together these two themes of the social-historical significance of the site and its current ecological importance. I see the act of birdwatching and drawing on the site as a way of responding to what it once was, and now is.
I think it's important to recognise a risk for my work that I could be co-opting the history and the activism of those fierce and defiant women in an effort to make my work seem more radical or interesting, by association. But the urgency and power of direct action will always be more discomforting and demanding of a response than any artwork in a gallery.
My work alludes to the traces and memories of things that are no longer there and the fact of my presence to apprehend that absence. There is a kind of poetic dissonance created between the different times and their different uses of the site.
The work also carries my memory of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation I grew up in the ground-zero zone around RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia, and the nuclear threat was as an ever-present, but generally unacknowledged backdrop to my childhood and adolescence. Those memories remain part of my relationship with Greenham Common. In a way, this makes the act of birding on the site a celebration of human survival just as much as it celebrates the return of the Dartford Warbler. I am interested in presenting the social history, in a tangential rather than didactic way, reflecting on it, inviting others to do the same and in their own ways, to consider what implications there might be for their own lives and comforts.
|Greenham Common: fire plane - Wheatear [Peter Driver 2018]|
I have great respect for the Women’s Peace Camp movement that stood opposed to an unassailable global power at Greenham. I recognise my work's inadequacy to address such issues, or to affect any change. But I hope it can point towards what can be achieved by people united in common cause and collective action. If all else fails it could just highlight the changing fortunes of the bird populations, as a gesture of helplessness.
If art is able to achieve anything in the world then I hope the work can operate as a small beacon for the forms of resistance that we're all going to need in the impending future.