Michael Mulvihill’s The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations on Fylingdales Moor

A black and white photograph of the construction of huge white domes that look like golf balls.
Archival photograph of RAF Fylingdales golf balls under construction, 1962.

President Trump’s commitment to relaunching the US’s ‘Space Force’ announced in August this year, was a reminder that world politics has a parallel dimension, suspended above us in a constellation of militarised satellite technology. The US’s ‘full-spectrum dominance’ is now being fully mobilised under Trump, reinforced by the decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty earlier this year. With ‘real time’ military operations dependent on satellites that can identify low-visibility targets and coordinate special operations forces and remote-control technologies such as drones, anti-satellite weapons now pose a major threat to national and global security.

The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations on Fylingdales Moor showcases research and artwork by Michael Mulvihill, produced during a three-year artist residency at the RAF Fylingdales Archive, near Whitby, North Yorkshire. A radar base formerly famous for its three white ‘golfball’ radomes, which stood out dramatically from the moorlands, Fylingdales Station was built as part of intelligence-sharing arrangements between the United States and the United Kingdom in 1963. Conceived during the Cold War Space Race as part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), its primary function, along with two other facilities in Alaska and Greenland, was to warn the UK and US of an impending missile attack from Soviet Russia.

A selection of objects, mostly pyramid-shaped, on a wooden shelf. The objects look like geologic samples.

Michael Mulvihill, ‘Jennie, Reggie, Cleo and Tony’, 2016 – 2017. © Michael Mulvihil

In 1992 the old radar system was upgraded to Solid State Phased Array Radar (SSPAR), a 5,000 km microwave beam that can see 360 degrees. The golfballs were demolished in 2006, replaced by a pyramid structure, and the base continued to operate early-warning and space-tracking systems (the latter has become increasingly important as the amount of debris increases and satellite collision a greater risk), as well as protecting everything from domestic spy satellites to GPS. There is no small amount of controversy surrounding the base, including improvements made to the SSPAR in the early 2000s that allowed it to see ballistic missiles from Iran. Some argue that it was only after the launch of the new radar system that these changes were made public, along with the news that the Station would continue to receive updates to bolster its war fighting capacity. While Fylingdales’ official role is missile deterrence (in partnership with US Air Force 21st Space Wing), providing enough time for US, UK and NATO forces to launch a counter attack, it remains unclear whether its collected data is shared with the US National Missile Defence system, operated by the US Army.

Curiously, the exhibition at Whitby Museum makes very little of the controversy surrounding the base, which has seen its share of peace and anti-nuclear protests organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Quaker groups (though not as consistently or intensively as Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, with which Fylingdales is often confused). Among other concerns, the Station’s position could make it a primary target in case of nuclear war, and, as YCND Yorkshire puts it, ‘although there are no missiles or bombs at Fylingdales, the base reflects modern war fighting methods of dependence upon long distance control and command systems’.[1] Despite the Station’s attempts to dispel myths and misunderstandings, opening its doors to the public (albeit under supervision) in 2007, its very existence remains, for some, directly in conflict with a remit for world peace and the abolishment of nuclear weapons.

Mulvihill’s residency, supported by RAF Fylingdales (along with ACE, AHRC, ESRC and Newcastle University), can be seen as part of a longstanding agenda to foster interactions between the Station and communities in the North Yorkshire Moors. This might explain why the exhibition and catalogue elude a critical position, or indeed comment on the controversy surrounding the station and its role in UK-US operations. Nevertheless, The Unblinking Eye offers some intriguing insights into the history of the base and is an attempt, in the artists’ words, to show ‘the way nuclear deterrence socially interacts, produces and modifies culture and ways of living’.[2]

Drawing inspiration from the archives, as well as cultural theorists and philosophers (Hannah Arendt, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari among them), Mulvihill’s works range from drawing and video to appropriating found objects from the RAF Fylingdales Collection and Archive. His position on warfare and military technology feels once-removed, and his main interest is in the overlaps between artistic and military production. ‘MM-w76-FTLP-012017 (Jennie, Reggie, Cleo and Tony)’, 2016-2017, is a collection of model ceramic warheads displayed on a piece of walnut wood, inspired by an archival photograph of a workshop where an American W76 was being refurbished. Mulvihill used 3D printing technology to mill a mould, from which the ceramic cones were made. These processes are demonstrated in an accompanying video, ‘MM-AV76-RCA-PP00052018’, which montages footage from Sandia National Laboratories Workshop of missile production and testing to the cheerful tune of David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’. The contrast is disturbing, especially as it isn’t entirely clear whether the works operate as critique or merely observation.

The link to 1960s and 70s Britpop is not accidental; another layer to the exhibition is the role of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), designers of the original tracker radars, satellite dishes angled toward the Soviet Union and housed in geodesic domes. Mulvihill produced a number of drawings based on SCAN magazine (1962-69), a periodical catering to RAF service personnel and featuring Fylingdales events and local interest stories alongside RCA’s better-known ventures in cinema, television and music. A 1969 issue reports that Fylingdales’ semi-conductors were administered from the same office as records by Bowie, Parton and Elvis Presley. Another military-arts crossover, there is an attempt here to map the complexity of the social, political and economic relationships that underpin the station and its activities.

A gallery with wooden floor and turquoise walls. A series of plinths and vitrines are arranged throughout the space containing objects and documents.

Installation photograph of Michael Mulvihill, The Unblinking Eye, Whitby Museum, 3 August – 3 November 2019.

Also included are a number of curated objects from the archive, such as a hexagonal section of the earlier geodesic radomes (later replaced with a less flammable material), designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller (see above image). Mulvihill points out in the catalogue – where much of the information and research underpinning his work can be found – that the architect taught at Black Mountain College in Carolina in 1947, where he may have brushed shoulders with the likes of Meyer Shapiro, Alan Ginsberg, Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg. His prototype was developed with Goodyear Aerospace for the BMEWS radar system, the domes becoming symbolic of both progressive, utopian visions of the future as well as pro-military, nationalist ones.

Here, as in other works, the focus is on parallels between the aesthetics and production methods of two very different industries. According to Mulvihill, his approach is ‘less about attempting to represent the archive’ and more about ‘using processes from missile warning and space monitoring to make things that are new and different from their socially fixed meaning’. Stemming from the artist’s doctoral research, The Unblinking Eye is dense and at times difficult to navigate; descriptions and context are not provided for every work and it is not always easy to discern artworks from archival objects, especially as some seem to operate as both. The destabilising effect is frustrating but it did (for me) act as an incentive to read the catalogue and beyond it. The more I learned, the more I got a sense that a complete picture of the Station and its history of operations was always just out of reach.

Nestled in the back of Whitby Museum’s remarkable collections (think Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum but smaller, with a maritime twist), the temporary exhibition space neatly contains the exhibition. I struggled to follow the intersecting lines that map what Mulvihill calls ‘processes of deterrence’ that can be found in the socio-political, personal, artistic and militaristic worlds that Fylingdales seems to occupy. For me, this idea feels ungraspable – I found myself searching amongst his findings and interpretations for a political position on nuclear war and the unimaginable violence and destruction it would cause. The image of warheads dropping from the sky is terrifying, as are the endless military acronyms (e.g. MAD = Mutually Assured Destruction), designed to normalise death and suffering on a mass if not global scale. Under our current world leaders this threat feels increasingly real, which prevented me from seeing warheads as sculptural objects, however beautiful or interesting they may be.

The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations on Fylingdales Moor is at Whitby Museum until 3 November 2019.


Lara Eggleton is a writer based in Leeds and Managing Editor at Corridor8.

[1] ‘A walker’s guide to Fylingdales’, leaflet, Yorkshire CND. Downloadable from https://yorkshirecnd.org.uk/campaigns/fylingdales/

[2] Mulvihill and Woodward, ‘Unblinking Eye’ catalogue, p. 29

Published 17.10.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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