Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity


Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity

Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity was an immersive artwork and community-curated exhibition exploring the spectacle and utopianism of UK airship heritage.  It was on display at The Higgins, Bedford until 28th November 2021

Airship Dreams: Escaping Gravity was commissioned 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,  worked over a three-year period getting to know the community and the history that inspired the project.

The outcome was a new immersive artwork created collaboratively with a team of artists in a computer games engine, Unreal, that invited the viewer on a spectacular journey like floating through space. The artwork was on display at  The Higgins’ William Harpur Gallery until 28th November 2021 and was 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. The community display will be in place until 20th March 2022.

The project was funded by National Lottery Heritage FundArts Council EnglandBedford CollegeHarpur TrustBedford Borough Council and Airship Heritage Trust.

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 led the collaboration with artists Dave Lynch, Rob Strachan, Roger Illingworth, Roland Denning, and Sam Weihl. The work was presented as an audio-visual immersive artwork and a newly composed symphony that rose and fell as a metaphor for the life of the R101 airship. The images within the work suggested the R101 and Cardington sheds with the themes birth, death and rebirth echoing the lifecycle of the airship.

The artwork was created in Unreal Engine, the gaming software that Fortnite is built in. Audiences entered a sculptural space, with the video projection filling one wall of the gallery. Choral voices combined 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 interrogated 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.

If you would like to experience an audio tour of the community exhibition please click here.

The future 

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 hoped 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.

Arts Council England
The Heritage Fund logo
Harpur Trust logo
Airship Heritage Trust logo
Bedford Borough Council logo
The Higgins Bedford logo
Bedford College logo