The Taunton Stop Line is one of fifty or so lines of defence built across Britain during WWII with the intention of compartmentalising the country and thereby containing a German invasion, should it ever occur. These lines used a combination of pre-existing terrain and new architecture to impede the advance of tanks, and in the Taunton Stop Line alone, which runs for fifty miles through Somerset, Dorset and Devon, aside from the obstacles presented by canals, rivers and railway embankments, there are 309 light machine gun pillboxes, 61 medium machine gun emplacements, 21 static anti-tank gun emplacements and numerous concrete posts, cubes and pyramids, as well as charge chambers cut into bridges ready for demolition. If you multiply this by the number of stop lines in total, you get an unsettling image of a large bobby-trapped island, a country ready for the worst.
Many of the structures built for these stop lines are still in place, but have been absorbed by the surrounding landscape so that we barely notice them. By deciding to work with these structures, Rob and Matt Vale, known collectively as Illuminos, draw attention to the overlooked not through historical excavation, but by ruminating on, and temporarily reversing, this act of disappearance: ‘The pillboxes hide away in hedgerows, as part of bridges, across fields. By their nature they were designed to be hidden, so by projecting onto them they stand out again.’ Whereas searchlights once scanned the sky for incoming aircraft, here light beams seek out the pillboxes, not for the purpose of destruction but revivification of their form: ‘We seek to present these aspects in a new form, to morph them through the technologies we use and present them to an audience reinvented, seeking out and literally illuminating these pillboxes in the night.’
Art that deals with historical phenomena, and war in particular, seldom represents that history faithfully through documentary imagery, since the role of art is deemed to be other than that of reporter or educator. For Illuminos, too, the buildings represent something more universal than the specificities of WWII, namely the relationship between personal and historic narratives, as played out through architecture. And, in a way, it was more the collective effect of these structures than their individual formal qualities that they wanted to convey: ‘There is a wealth of fascinating history, detail and endeavour surrounding the Stop Line, but the artwork didn’t seek to present this back to the public in any linear or literal form. Instead we tried to set up a framework where our discovery and illumination, within a challenging timeframe, in some way reflected the epic undertaking of building them for their original purpose.’
To evoke the layered nature of memory and experience, Illuminos produced not single, monolithic imagery to project on to the pillboxes, but streaming layers of light that formed both legible words and images, as well as abstractions. One layer was drawn from wartime documents for the construction of pillboxes and on the geometry of the land, as well as the home guard handbook – a slim volume that outlines the planned invasion of Britain by the Nazis and how to repel it – and various other contemporaneous sources of facts and figures. These stream of information ran over the surface of these structures, as if in an attempt to re-associate them with or revive some of the urgency of their historical context.
The second layer of projection was in Morse code – one of the communication tools used in wars since 1836. While originally devised for use down telegraph wires, it is employed using flashes of light, conflating advances in telecommunications with more ancient maritime means. The content of this coded transmission comprised the words of people who had offered accounts of their contemporary experiences of the Stop Line – there are those who used the pillboxes to hide in as children, or as garden sheds or a space for rearing lambs – while others reflected on the original role of the Stop Line. These were then shuffled in with quotes contemporaneous to the pillboxes, from books, transcripts of speeches by Churchill and Hitler, information exchange and so on. This collage of Morse was then intercut with the other layers of text and image, the identity of each letter appearing alongside its flashes so that one could conceivably reconstruct the text, although it is doubtful that anyone would have. And this seems particularly pertinent when we think of the encoding that was necessary during the war. These days the sheer volume of information out there acts as fairly good cover for those wishing to go unnoticed.
Projected phrases ranged from the pragmatic (‘my friend Philippe made pill boxes benign by glazing them’) to the poetic (born and bred man and boy echoes from the dead’) to the obscure (The Green line at the end of the Red and Blue), offering insights into perceptions of the Stop Line, and the war, today. Illuminos describe the act of projecting these as the fleeting branding of each structure, as if each person were temporarily claiming the pillbox as part of their own private narrative. But this would soon be replaced by another, equally vivid phrase, as the flow of imagery moved on. As they describe, this reflects the ‘blending of past and present that takes place between the phrase, the image, the architecture and its surroundings. One of the key elements of the pillboxes was the importance of camouflage, of integrating them with the land. The projections and phrases sought to play with this, to illuminate but fragment the surfaces.’
This contrast in methods and technologies, between the obsolete and the current, is an important feature of the work, demonstrating how the past is always embedded in the present: ‘The pillboxes are a particularly stubborn feature that does not disappear without a fight. The technologies that surrounded them were utterly cutting edge at the time, wars usually see huge advances in technology through necessity. We revisited them with the technologies of today – GPS, Twitter, projection, computing – but underneath these technologies there is still essentially a human endeavour, a desire to make and create. Our trudging through fields hauling the equipment along with us was perhaps a nostalgic pilgrimage to this, and to the transient nature of all things.’
And so, travelling from North to South along the Stop Line over the course of 10 days, Illuminos undertook a series of 100 projections trained on pillboxes, generating over time a glowing representation of a line that continues to run, predominantly unnoticed, through the working urban and rural communities that live along it. Technology figures greatly in Illuminos’s conception, and perception of the piece, since, ‘laying out this framework across a landscape was rather like physically occupying the editing construct. When we edit filmworks everything occupies a place on the timeline within the After Effects software – sections are laid out in order and jump from one to the next, blending and weaving but always along this singular timeline. The Taunton Stop Line became a real version of this. We had our 10 days to travel it, each of the 100 boxes became a section, each in order, running straight through the landscape, one to the next. We would retreat to the camper van and prepare for the next section, much as the computer renders each clip.’
The result was viewable in both live and mediated forms: ‘Even if people never saw the boxes illuminated, they could see our movement on maps, and experience where the Stop Line runs virtually. Others joined us on the night, and followed us into farms and along canals, to observe the illuminations as they happened. Still others experience the project in film form after the fact, a continuous stream of projections one leading to the other.’ The projections changed day by day, depending on what new phrases had been sent in via email or text. An iphone app automatically turned each phrase into a flashing screen, and Illuminos simply filmed the phone screen and included it in the new mix, morphing, layering and shaping it live as they stood in from of the pillbox: ‘The act of editing alters your perception of time whilst you are doing it – you become accustomed to observing an artwork develop 125th of a second at a time, so when it arrives complete at the end it moves in a whirl to us. Keeping rhythm and pace within the works is key during this exercise.’ While we are used to this rapid evolution of form and content today, with usergenerated web content and proliferating television channels, it stands in stark contrast to the stoic pillbox, as sentinel from another era when change occurred at a very different pace. This is characteristic of many Illuminos projects, which are rarely permanent: ‘they slip into the past very quickly. There is often a strange relationship between the amount of time it takes to devise, collect, edit and render a projected work – there can be months of activity that are all condensed into one 10 minute outpouring on a space.’
But, ultimately the timeline of Illuminos’s Taunton Stop Line runs both forwards and back, by way of technology and voices of the present, as well as a memorialising of the past: ‘We always saw these pillboxes as little full stops in the landscape. They are concrete, rugged, heavy and immovable, and act as anchor points around which time shifts, but within which time pauses. One could imaging looking out from one and observing the changes to the world that have occurred and are still to occur, with our fleeting ephemeral projections a tiny moment in their timeline.’
To view Taunton Stop Line Video : https://youtu.be/bwHoMFeARzQ