As part of Ars Electronica 2020: Festival for Art, Technology, & Society, NEoN is hosting a live screening of two new films by artist B.D. Owens and Q&A with NEoN Director, Donna Holford-Lovell, exploring the complexities of living near the Faslane nuclear submarine base.
Over the course of 50 days in 2018, B.D. Owens undertook a daily preformative pilgrimage from his house to the main gate of the naval base – in total covering 224 miles. During the daily walks he drew an ‘Undesired Line’, with his body, along the ground next to the perimeter fence – with the fence, the surveillance operations and the ecosystem surrounding the Base all becoming part of the artwork. He continues to expand this artwork using video, sound and writing – of which the two films are the latest iteration – and previously presented his work at Nomas* Projects.
The viewer can follow, and engage with, the interactive element of this work on Twitter at the hashtag #UndesiredLine. We caught up with B.D. Owens ahead of the live screening to talk to him about the project.
Why did you decide to do the walk?
I walk every day. Walking is part of my art practice in terms of a place and time to think, write and develop ideas. I had previously only walked away from the Base because it is a hostile and intimidating place. But, my family members and I began to notice the increased military surveillance that had ramped up during 2017. That year we all had some scary encounters with the MoD Police, whether on the beach, on the street or in our garden. I decided it was time to claim back some territory. It felt appropriate to make a performance-sculpture and claim part of the fence, the land next to the fence and all of the interactions on the journey as part of the work.
I also wanted to have a reason to be close to the fence to figure out consciously what it meant to me, how it shaped my life. It was a kind of exploration of emotion, as well as an exercise in pushing boundaries, observation and listening. I made the line right in plain view of the surveillance cameras, and I was upfront with the MoD Police (in the many stop & questions sessions) that I was a local artist making a durational artwork. This opened up some unexpected conversation. As 2018 was also the 50th year of the nuclear submarine base on the Gare Loch, I had an additional reason (and excuse) for making my pilgrimage in that time period.
When did you move to Shandon and why did you decide to live there? Was the Faslane nuclear submarine base a factor?
The Faslane nuclear submarine base was not a factor in my reasons for living on the Gare Loch. My family have lived in Shandon for around 19 years, and previous to that within a 16 mile radius of Faslane since 1978. Even though I lived in Canada for a number of years, and also Dundee, I always return to Shandon. It is where my family is, it is my home. I am also better suited to rural living.
Were you at all influenced by other land art/environmental performance pieces, such as Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967) or Francis Alÿs’s The Leak (2004)?
Yes, Richard Long’s work has definitely had an impact on my approach. A couple of months before I began the pilgrimage, I had been reading Tim Ingold’s book Lines, and I was reminded about A Line Made By Walking (1967). Ingold places this work within the context of drawing lines, mark making and making a temporary impression in/on the landscape. While I was walking the 50-day, daily pilgrimage I actually tweeted about Long’s line and process. Long made that work one year before the Faslane Base was officially opened. And yes, certainly Francis Alÿs will have had some influence on me, his work is immensely powerful in poetic gesture. But at the forefront of my mind was Yoav Admoni’s performance Plant Migration 2014.
Yoav Admoni was the curator of the betOnest artist residency in Germany when I was a resident there in October 2017. In his performance-sculpture Plant Migration 2014, Admoni had the brass neck and stamina to disguise himself as part of a reed bed, then wade along the bed of the Tijuana River in Mexico, in order to briefly cross the USA border and encounter US border enforcement. If he could do this, then I could drag my feet for 50 days, drawing an ‘Undesired Line’ with my body over time, under the eye of the surveillance cameras in my own neighbourhood.
In the photographs, the #UndesiredLine is a literal line in the grass alongside the fence. How did you make the path? Was it just created by your shoes walking the route so many times or did you use additional tools?
Initially I was just walking, but it was the height of the growing season and I wasn’t making much headway with developing the path. I then worked out a slip and slide technique dragging my feet, almost like cross country skiing. After about 18 days I had made a beautiful line that contoured the undulating land, but the Ministry of Defence greens keeper vandals with lawn mowers erased it before I could sneak a photo. After that, I then developed a more intense and challenging technique of gouging the double line. I wore short-toothed urban crampons on my boots, and the small metal teeth on my soles clawed at the ground and made parallel shallow grooves. Still the slip and slide manoeuvre, but with much greater resistance, and because it was harder to balance it was a much slower movement. I received so much more scrutiny from the MoD Police when I was moving slowly, and that was really quite stressful. Eventually I got some walking poles to steady myself, and I was able to move more quickly. The parallel line grooves that I made were just deep enough to prevent the lawn mowers from erasing the line the next time they tried. I do not recommend that anyone try this groove gouging technique because I totally trashed my knees and it took a while for them to recover.
What relationship – if any – do you have with the guards and personnel at the Base, or with the protesters at the peace camp?
One of my neighbour’s son’s is one of the MoD Police officers that patrols the fence. Thankfully, I did not see him while I was walking the Undesired Line. It would have been awkward for both of us. I do not have any connection with the current incarnation of the Peace Camp residents. I know people who were involved in the Peace Camp in the 1980s and 90s, including some international queer punks, and some Church of Scotland elders from a nearby village. Also, several of my school friends’ fathers were submariners. My friends spent some of their childhood living on the Base or nearby military housing. I also know a few retired British Naval personnel and a couple of naval engineers who worked on the Base (most of them are now against nuclear weapons). If you live in the Gare Loch & Loch Long area, you’re going to have personal connections to people who work for the military and civilian operations at Faslane & Coulport, and you’re going to have connections with people that have lived at the Peace Camp at some point or another. Life here is complicated.
What would you like to see happen with the Faslane naval base?
I would like the nuclear military occupation in Scotland to end. I would like all of the nuclear weapons to be removed and the Trident Weapons system to be scrapped. I want Scotland and the rest of the UK to be free of all nuclear weapons. And, I would like all of the British Armed forces to leave the Gare Loch & Loch Long (and any other part of Scotland for that matter). Scotland has been a playground for the British Armed forces for too many decades. They have been careless, thoughtless and utterly disrespectful to the pre-existing inhabitants of Scotland’s fragile ecosystem. They have left their military trash, radioactive materials and toxic waste (cobalt-60 and tritium) littered across the landscape and waters, poisoning and terrifying both human and non-humans alike.
Whatever happens to the Faslane & Coulport Base, the fact that it is sitting on the Highland fault line must be taken into account. Earthquakes do happen. Yes, the entire cache of the UK’s nuclear weapons is stored in a hillside on an active fault line. If the ground and water in and around Faslane Base & Coulport can be cleaned up then perhaps the Base could become a nautical college campus for merchant (non-military) navy. It would also make a great location for a movie studio with a water soundstage. Perhaps the military housing could be turned into low cost cooperative housing, and the site turned into an eco-village or some kind of renewable energy experimental facility. But even if Faslane Bay was to remain a military headquarters (that is after the nuclear weapons of Mutually Assured Destruction and nuclear reactor submarines were removed) there would not be the need for such obnoxious, invasive levels of surveillance. There would not be the same stressful tensions causing disruption and unease within our community. At this point, this last option might be the compromise that people are willing to agree upon.
Why did you decide to use Twitter to document the walk?
On the first day of my pilgrimage, I was told by the MoD Police that it is technically prohibited to take photos, shoot video or even make drawings near the Base. I had already decided to keep a journal log of what happened daily on each walk, and some of what I was writing made natural tweets. I had used Twitter in a previous artwork to enable viewer interaction with the work in the gallery space, but at that time I had used an existing hashtag. When I was considering my options, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that anyone had used the hashtag #UndesiredLine on Twitter. Therefore, I could make a durational text artwork using this hashtag and it could be somewhat contained in that online space. In addition, tweeting is ideal for a gradual reveal, and the Twitter platform allows an immediate option for the viewer to participate if they wish.
Do you tweet while you’re walking or once you get home?
Generally, I don’t carry my mobile phone when I go walking. But more importantly, while I was performing the 50-day pilgrimage next to the fence of the Base, I was concerned that my phone would get confiscated by the police. The only thing that I carried in my pocket was my driver’s licence, to prove I was a local. So I tweeted when I got home, after I made a journal entry.
What has the response been like on Twitter?
The Twitter analytics show that there has been high-ish viewer traffic on some of the tweets. So far there have been really specific people engaging with the tweets and some of these people live near the Base. I am not concerned with the numbers of people that engage on the Twitter #UndesiredLine. It is quality rather than quantity that is important. I am more interested in who is engaging and why, why it matters to them to follow the tweets, like, comment and retweet. It matters to me that the people who live near the Base have an opportunity to interact with this work, and hopefully it will resonate with them.
How have you incorporated photography and video into your documentation, if at all?
In terms of the 224-mile pilgrimage, I have only gathered limited visual documentation, because of the legal restrictions. I resorted to writing and field recordings as the way to get around that rule. I did however sneak a few photos of the line, but most of them are a bit blurry because I had to hide the fact that I was taking a photo. In 2019, I decided to reactivate the Twitter hashtag and also to broaden the focus of the work to highlight the ‘Gare Loch Duality’. I have been making videos, stills and sound recordings of the naval traffic on the loch from the vantage view from my garden.
What was it like having a show at Nomas* Projects during the lockdown? What did the show entail and did you have to make any adjustments due to quarantine?
It was all very strange. In the first few days of the lock down, it became illegal for viewers to stop and look at the show. In a sense the viewers were being surveilled by the police. A show that examined surveillance was for a time being surveilled. The show consisted of a video piece on a monitor, three backlit window texts, a sculpture and four frosted vinyl surveillance camera icons pointing down at the viewers. But a few days into lockdown, the video monitor had to be turned off in case it overheated and went on fire. There was of course nobody who could check in on it. So it was just the text and the sculpture that was up for the most part of lockdown. I was very disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to present my artists talk at Generator Projects. Most of my friends from other parts of Scotland had planned on seeing the exhibition on the day of my talk, so only my friends based in Dundee and Fife actually saw the show. The curator, David McCulloch, switched the video and lights back on for the first two weeks in July, so there were some more people who got a chance to see it.
How are you presenting the work during Ars Electronica and how can people get involved?
NEoN is presenting my two videos and a live stream Q&A on YouTube on Thursday 11 September. The videos will be available to view on the NEoN landing page in the Ars Electronica online Festival from the 11-13 of September. In the live event chat, and on the Twitter #UndesiredLine, I will be sharing some links to satellite maps and Google Street View locations that relate to the field recording segments and the dialogue in my video. Also, look out for the map links on the landing page in a downloadable document. You don’t need a Twitter account to view the #UndesiredLine tweets, but if people do have a Twitter account I’d encourage them to engage with the tweets. All of the Twitter interactions on #UndesiredLine will become part of the artwork.
The live screening of Gare Loch Duality and the #UndesiredLine can be watched on YouTube here on Fri 11 Sept 2020 10.30AM-12PM (BST) 11.30AM-13.00PM (CEST).