Turning Airship Dreams into reality

Three-sixty wrote and placed this article on how the pandemic has given an arts project about airships new impetus and relevance in Fused Magazine.

This year sees the 90th anniversary of the final flight of the R101 airship, which took off from the Cardington Sheds in Bedford on 4 October 1930. Airship Dreams, a new place-making arts project, has been launched by Bedford Creative Arts (BCA) to mark the occasion and celebrate the town’s important role in airship history, linking art, society and technology.

The R101 was to herald a new era in luxury travel and prove the post First World War might of the British Commonwealth. This dream, however, was crushed in a matter of hours when the airship crashed in France en route to India, killing most of its 54 passengers. The tragedy derailed airship development, which never recovered. It also had a lasting impact on the local Bedford community, in particular Shortstown, which was formed to house airship works staff during the First World War. And it continued to house the workers and crew of the R100 and R101 during the great British airship project of the late 1920s.

Working closely with internationally renowned Bedford-raised artist Mike Stubbs, together with The Higgins Bedford and the Airship Heritage Trust, the National Lottery and Arts Council-funded Airship Dreams will blend real life tales and surviving artefacts from across the community with the symbol of fantasy, folly and utopia that the airship has now become, reflecting reality and exploring what might have been. This was to culminate in a spectacular outdoor event at Castle Mound on 4 October 2020 to mark the anniversary and celebrate the opening of the Airship Dreams exhibition at The Higgins Bedford. However, the pandemic has thrown these plans up in the air. So will the project crash even before it’s taken off?

A new relevance

Well, not if the BCA team and Stubbs have their way. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The outbreak has actually given a new relevance to Airship Dreams, while also delivering an unexpected benefit in terms of sourcing talent.

“It’s no secret that the pandemic has been incredibly tough on anyone involved in the arts or events,” says Stubbs. “I’m seeing many of my friends suffer due a complete lack of freelance work and box office income, while others are on the frontline as key workers. But this meant that when we launched an open call process to find collaborators for Airship Dreams, we generated a huge amount of interest, receiving over 140 applications. We interviewed candidates over Zoom and recruited an outstanding collaborative team.”

In terms of relevance, engaging the local community around the history of the airship is central to the project at a time when it’s never been more important to connect with people in isolation and bring them together. This is particularly the case for older people who will be able to share their valuable first-hand experiences and family stories of the airships at the Cardington sheds.

“Obviously, lots of organisations are having to cancel or rethink their projects as a result of the pandemic, but I haven’t seen many that are as community focused as Airship Dreams,” says BCA Director Elaine Midgley. “I’ve seen workshops and other live events moved online, but none that are genuinely trying to reach out to people to shape the artwork itself.

“Covid seems to have exaggerated everyone’s circumstances,” she continues. “If you were poor, you’re now destitute. If you were lonely, now you’re completely cut off. Our challenge is to harness the latest digital technology to reach out to older people who are currently very isolated, so they can share their stories. If we get that right, we’ll be bringing older people together and fully engaging larger communities digitally when they all need it most, which will be a wonderful achievement and something we never envisaged before the pandemic.”

Coming clean

With traffic reduced to 1950’s levels and 80% of flights grounded, the pandemic is also showing the world what life might be like if we were carbon neutral – clean air for our children to enjoy, safer and quieter streets, flourishing wildlife and a stronger connection with the planet in general. And the airship is about as green as travel gets.   

“This is a great opportunity to show what zero carbon travel would look like,” says Stubbs. “There is quite an active debate going on in social and environmental circles about the arcadian vision of a return to nature as the lockdown is softened. Will what we have experienced and learned change our view of humans’ place in the world and our relationship with it? Will the possibilities of greener, cleaner lighter-than-aircraft travel, for example, fuel our imagination?”

Currently, Airship Dreams is being virtualised and worked up into a digital space. Stubbs’ background as a digital disruptor will prove key. “Already, the shift between making something that was going to be more of a sculptural installation into something originating in a pure native digital environment has changed the nature of our production plans,” he explains. “It’s becoming a purer digital project, although it will have a physical manifestation.”

If anything, the pandemic has given Airship Dreams added focus and meaning. It has also turned the project into one that could redefine the art installation and the concept of place-making, and result in some pioneering digital work.

“We’re looking forward to using digital technology to drive Airship Dreams forward to provide Bedford residents with a new understanding of and pride in their heritage, plus tell the world about the town’s important role in aviation and engineering innovation, which continues and remains relevant today,” says Midgley. “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. Right now, people need all the inspiration they can get. We need to learn to dream again.”

This article was first published in Fused magazine…