Disused wind tunnels at a former aviation centre in Hampshire open to the public for the first time this weekend. Once used to test aircraft from Spitfires to Concorde, the impressive structures will host art installations, banquets and musical performances…
The Wind Tunnel Project is organised by Artliner and curated by the V&A’s Salma Tuqan. From June 9 until July 20, visitors will be able to explore an iconic set of buildings used to test and develop the aerodynamics of various objects, including military planes during World War One and Two.
The tunnels are part of a 180-acre complex in Farnborough owned by the Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1906 until 1991. The buildings faced demolition when the site was put up for sale by the Ministry of Defence – most of the area is now a privately owned business park – but the Grade I and II listed structures were saved by the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST), an organisation formed in 1993 to protect them.
Artliner founder Tatiana Ojjeh met with FAST after staging an installation at Farnborough airport and has spent the past 18 months organising the inaugural exhibition. The six-week event spans music, art, film and food, and an educational programme for 30 local schools.
The star of the show is the gargantuan Q121: a beautifully crafted concrete and wooden fan opposite a 40ft high air duct, and a large testing hall with a wall of concrete fins used to circulate air. The machine is housed inside a building that, from the outside, appears fairly unremarkable, and hand painted signs and safety notices are littered around the space.
For The Wind Tunnel Project, Q121 has been brought to life by sound artist Thorn McIntrye-Burnie. The room is filled with a 1942 BBC recording of nightingale song captured at a garden in Surrey, which plays from a wooden gramophone suspended from the ceiling. The BBC had recorded the sound in the same garden each year since 1924, but 1942 was the last. During the broadcast, the birdsong was interrupted by the buzzing of bomber engines gearing up for a raid on Germany, and the piece was cut short.
It’s an enormous space, and the chirping of birds and buzzing of planes create an eerie, almost haunting feel. Inside the testing hall, the buzzing becomes more intense as it reverberates around the space, and clever lighting throws long shadows across the walls and ceilings. The sound changes dramatically in each space, and McIntrye-Burnie’s installation is a poignant reminder of the outcome of the experiments that once took place there.
Across the road is another wind tunnel, R52: a smaller, wooden structure and one of the world’s oldest aerodynamic testing facilities, housed in a brick building. The room has been beautifully preserved, with its original dials, desks and levers, and McIntyre-Burnie has created another sound piece with accompanying video displaying swirling abstract shapes. Visitors are invited to chew popping candy in near silence before stepping into a disused turbine hall filled with speakers.
A few hundred yards away, surrounded by newly built office blocks, is another impressive construction: a “portable” aircraft hangar which would have taken a team of 50 seven days to dismantle, and two weeks to reassemble.
For the exhibition, Drone Shadows artist James Bridle has created a brightly coloured artwork underneath the hangar. The installation is an outline of the Miles M52, the first british supersonic aircraft which was developed at the site in Farnborough:
Bridle has created Drone Shadow installations (1:1 outlines of drones) around Europe and the US, but his latest artwork is the first based on a plane. The work is inspired by satellite mapping which uses multi spectral scanners that record colours separately, effectively stitching them together. When fast moving objects such as planes are captured, these colours appear separately, offering a revealing look at how the image was made.
“I wanted to reconstruct that here…the M52 was never flown, and kept secret…but I wanted to put it back in the landscape in the hope it might be picked up by mapping programmes and appear somewhere in the future” he says. Someday, you might see it on Google Earth. Fascinated by aerial photography, Bridle also had a viewing platform installed so visitors can view the artwork from above.
As well as Bridle and Macintyre-Burnie’s artworks, the programme includes a diverse mix of events, including a series of aviation inspired banquets in the wind tunnel, a concert at which Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra will play music from There Will Be Blood and The Master and an RCA talk on aero-acoustics and sound art. The educational programme includes creative workshops and visits to the site.
London studio BKKR was responsible for branding the project and has created a website, wayfinding and catalogue filled with photography from FAST’s archives. RCA students have made a series of podcasts about the history of the site, too, and a visitor’s map that doubles as a set of instructions for building a paper plane.
It’s an ambitious project and one that has to be seen – and heard – to be appreciated. The tunnels alone are beautiful but coupled with McIntyre-Burnie’s sound, create an immersive experience, and Bridle’s Rainbow Plane is a striking addition to the hangar space.
It’s a shame the show only runs for six weeks, but Artliner has plans to run more events at Farnborough in the future. To find out more about what’s on or book tickets, see thewindtunnelproject.com. The exhibition is open from Thursday-Sunday, 10am-8pm and tickets cost £10 or £5 for students.
Artliner has also provided some archive photographs, courtesy of FAST, that show some of the objects once tested in the tunnels:
Hurricane L1696, 1939
Jaguar D Type, 1957
A Vanwall, 1956
Testing of fir tree root loads for the Forestry Commission, 1967
Bulldog TM, 1935