Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity
An immersive artwork and community-curated exhibition exploring the spectacle and utopianism of UK airship heritage. On display at The Higgins, Bedford until 28th November 2021
Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity is a commission by Bedford Creative Arts in partnership with The Higgins Bedford and the Airship Heritage Trust exploring Bedford’s identity as the historical centre of the UK’s airship industry, past and present. Lead artist, Mike Stubbs, has worked over a three-year period getting to know the community and the history that has inspired the project.
The outcome is a new immersive artwork created collaboratively with a team of artists in a computer games engine, Unreal, that invites the viewer on a spectacular journey like floating through space. The artwork is on display at The Higgins’ William Harpur Gallery until 28th November 2021 and is exhibited alongside an exciting new community-sourced display of airship artefacts, stories, inspiration and memorabilia donated by airship enthusiasts from the local community and around the world.
About the history
In the 1920s the airship was considered the future of aviation and Bedford’s role as the UK’s global airship hub seemed certain. The giant Cardington Sheds were home to the R101, which at the time was the largest airship being developed. However, the greed and folly of men led to its downfall as the first international flight of the R101 was pushed ahead too soon after its development and on the 5th October 1930 (over 90 years ago), the R101 crashed on its way to Karachi. 48 men died. It was the end of the UK’s airship programme and Bedford’s airship dreams.
You can see a short documentary we’ve created about the history here.
About the artwork
Lead Artist Mike Stubbs was brought up in Bedford and leads in a collaboration with artists Dave Lynch, Rob Strachan, Roger Illingworth, Roland Denning, and Sam Weihl. The work presents as an audio-visual immersive artwork and newly composed symphony that rises and falls as a metaphor for the life of the R101 airship. The images within the work are suggestive of the R101 and Cardington sheds with the themes birth, death and rebirth echoing the lifecycle of the airship.
The artwork is created in Unreal Engine, the gaming software that Fortnite is built in. Audiences enter a sculptural space, with the video projection filling one wall of the gallery. Choral voices combine with audio reminiscent of airship engines and wind, creating a mythical and meditative journey, as though sailing through an imaginary space on an airship.
In making this work, Mike Stubbs interrogates the tension that existed between the optimism of pioneering endeavour and the consequences of hubris, ambition and folly behind the Imperial Airship Scheme of the 1920s, as a reflection on our contemporary political and cultural landscape.
About the community’s involvement
Mike Stubbs, the Airship Heritage Trust, The Higgins Bedford, Bedford College and Shortstown Primary School with an extended team of artists, scientists and historians including Dr Sita Thomas have involved local people of all ages in Bedford to make new artwork, explore, collect and curate archive and newly sourced airship heritage material & memories.
Videos of people sharing their stories and “unboxing” their artefacts are available on our blog page.
Their inspiration is showcased in the Connections Gallery of The Higgins, Bedford and will remain on display until 20th March 2022 and has inspired the creation of the Airship Dreamers Club, a set of creative films that encourage young people to explore the heritage. A set of school resources are available alongside.
BCA would like to thank the public for sharing their own experiences of Bedford’s airship heritage and showing us the depths of their imagination.
Covid-19 has seen international flights grounded and borders between countries closed. This project looks back at a time when international flight was just as aspiration yet to be achieved by those who dared to dream big and those whose ambition was to traverse land and sea by new innovative means and methods.
With Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity, we hope to provide Bedford residents with a new understanding and pride in its airship heritage, as well as letting the world know that we contributed to such ground-breaking work in aviation and engineering that still continues today. The story of the R101 is one of ambition and daring, and we’d like to use that to inspire the public and fire local imagination to consider where we’ve been and where we dream of going.
BCA would like to thank players of the National Lottery whose support has helped fund this project.