Plymouth Strawberry Thief

William Morris, Tudor Rose, 1883, used to upholster British nuclear submarine interiors
Morris&Co fabric, Tudor Rose, 1883, used to upholster British nuclear submarine interiors

Last week saw the first Nuclear Culture site visit to the HMS Courageous in Plymouth. Artists Nick Crowe, Ian Rawlinson and Susan Schuppli as well as curators Ele Carpenter and Lucia Garavaglia spent an eventful couple of days in Plymouth, a beautiful city full of palm trees and sea views. As well as being immersed in the Cold War logic of nuclear submarines, the trip provided an opportunity to get a quick overview of contemporary art in Plymouth and the culture of the city.

The HMS Courageous is a ‘Cold War Veteran’ a Churchill Class ex-nuclear submarine. It was powered by a nuclear reactor but didn’t carry nuclear missiles. The reactor pressure vessel is still in place, but the fuel rods have been removed. Commissioned from 1971 until 1992, the sub has been open to the public since 2002, and provides a glimpse into operational world of the ‘Silent Service’. The boat is a museum in progress run by volunteers, mostly retired submariners with a passion for keeping their working history alive. Anyone can book a visit to the Devonport Dockyard, but you are not allowed to take photographs. We are not allowed to take photographs.

The approach to the ‘Devonport Naval Heritage Site and Visitor Centre’ feels more like a trip to a prison or military base, with the barbed wire topped fences hugging the road for what feels like a very long time. Whilst you can spot the submarines on google earth, the address of the Heritage Centre and the dockyard entrance gates don’t show up on google maps, so it’s not just the taxi driver who has no idea where he’s going. The submariners are extremely helpful and generously answer all our questions. It’s a top secret world full of ordinary things; one former submariner has even made fake food for the galley display. Years ago an American Admiral ruled that no foreigners (non military) were allowed to pass into the reactor section of the boats, and it still stands today. So the reactor control room has been reconstructed in the forward part of the submarine for visitors. Whilst the technology seems antiquated it’s clear that the basic premise of the operating and positioning system of the submarine is the same today, but in the old submarine every system had an analogue back up. And on closer inspection it seems the myths of William Morris upholstery and shaky dosimeters are true. But there are no books about Morris on the shelves of the Ward Room or Senior Rates Mess. We sit on the beautiful socialist fabric seats. Everything smells of the submarine. It feels like an old museum. We hear stories of layers of clothing soaked in sweat when working on the reactor, boots filled with sweat, clothes disintegrating with sweat, the priority order for water, and all the while submerged in freezing arctic waters. Curator Paula Orrell has joined our visit and explains that the Morris company used locally mined arsnic in their prints. We look more closely at the Morris 'Tudor Rose' fabric (1883) and wonder about its multiple layers of toxicity. It's very similar to the 'Strawberry Thief' fabric.

Shifting back to our present time zone: we were delighted that Carl Slater and Donna Howard who run Karst could take time out from installing their new exhibition to show us around their space. Karst is an ambitious new artist-run gallery and studios in a single story building with lots of skylights and rather intriguing extractor vents from one of its former lives as a laundry. Today the space is home to the Karst Gallery and 7 artists studios. Two of the studio holders run Nom de Strip a free journal dedicated to defining the relevance of contemporary art to everyday life and its contribution to the region. Each themed issue is a collection of critical writing, ideas, artwork and discussions from an intentionally diverse community of people who want to share their views, including professional and aspiring writers, artists, and academics. We loved the energy and critical engagement of Karst. They’ve worked in partnership with everyone from the local garage, the university, and the probation service to get their project going. Their programme combines support for artists in the region and an exciting programme of international exhibitions working with museums and galleries around the world. Their current exhibition ‘Individual Order’ is curated by Marianna Garin and features works by Francis Alys, Carlos Bunga, Graciela Carnevale, Karolina Erlingsson, Jiri Kovada, Maisder Lopez and Adrian Piper.

In contrast the Royal William Yard is a grade 1 listed example of Victorian naval architecture being developed by Urban Splash. Alongside the smart restaurants and cafes, Ocean Studios will transform the old Factory Cooperage building into affordable artists studios and workshops with a public space for events, workshops and exhibitions. This will be a resource for the community, and a cultural hub for the yard (due to open in 2015). The yard could be an exciting place to develop public projects, but the grade 1 listing restrictions might be tricky.

It seems that Plymouth is a city is on the cusp of developing cultural tourism and despite closing the airport could potentially bid for the European City of Culture. Visiting Karst, OceanStudios and the Plymouth Arts Centre seems to provide the backbone for a cultural plan, and the place is certainly over-flowing with naval heritage. But what is remarkable about Plymouth is the close proximity of the nuclear submarines to the city centre. Meeting Ian Avent from the Nuclear Submarine Forum gave us a valuable insight into the 'toxic triangle' of waste processing in Plymouth from the new incinerator and victorian sewage works to the dismantlement of nuclear submarines. The British nuclear submarine fleet currently have 20 laid up subs waiting for dismantlement and about another 7 still operational, and the Trident programme continues. Somehow the cultural challenge of preserving naval history has to deal with a nuclear past, present and future.