Salt road director Dr Sally Payen showed her Arts Council England funded ‘The Fence and the Shadow’ Greenham Peace Camp exhibition at the mac in Birmingham, opening on 22nd September 2017.
The Fence and The Shadow is a new series of paintings by artist Dr. Sally Payen based on her exploration and research about the contested landscape of Greenham Common and the women’s peace camps and anti-nuclear protests that took place in the 1980s.
The Women’s Peace Camp was originally established at RAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, to protest against the nuclear weapons that were being housed there. The majority of protest was undertaken during the 1980s, including famous actions such as ‘Embrace the Base’, where hundreds of women joined hands in a giant circle around the perimeter of the base. Although the missiles were removed in the early 1990s, protests continued at the site for years. Today, Greenham Common contains many traces and memorials of the protest and camps that happened there and is still an emotive symbol of Women’s Activism.
Payen’s exhibition explores the protests, stories of the women who were involved in the peace camps and the site today. Inspired by growing up in the community close to the site, research in the archives, interviews with the women who were involved in the protests and extensive site visits to Greenham Common as it is now, Payen explores Greenham’s continued relevance today.
As part of the mac’s women in protest season Salt road is running a relational engagement program to coincide with the exhibition. Salt road’s Jaime Jackson is working with the relational artists Stephen Whitehead, Margaret Murray and Jane Thakoordin together with communities in Birmingham.
We are working together to create content for the mac’s public spaces and also around Greenham, enabling them to interact with archival material to understand the role of the Peace Camp and the women who took part in it. Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was a 19-year anti-nuclear protest and encampment at the U.S. Military Base at Greenham Common, near Newbury in Berkshire.
Many tens of thousands of women took part in protest actions and events, the historic moment of the Greenham Common Peace Camp and anti-nuclear protest have had a huge impact on the history of protest, anti-nuclear campaigning, feminism and women’s issues and has a continued relevance to contemporary issues and ways of campaigning and protesting today.
Between 1983 and 1991, the US military stored 96 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles at the airfield, which became home to the Greenham Common women’s peace camp, one of the longest anti-nuclear protests in history. The base was returned to civilian use in 1993 following the end of the cold war and was returned to the people as common land following a protest at redevelopment plans by local residents and peace campaigners.
There can be little doubt that the extent of popular opposition to the new missiles helped shape their decision to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. As we remember those struggles and celebrate them, now is the time to make that popular opposition overwhelming once again. New statesman 2007
The siting of Soviet SS-20s was used as a justification for introducing the new missiles, but the SS-20s did not have the capacity to strike the US. This raised the spectre of a “limited nuclear war” in Europe, with western and eastern Europe, and the European parts of the Soviet Union in the battleground. US territory would not be involved. This produced a reaction of extreme alarm, not only from the inhabitants of the countries where the war was likely to take place, but also where the missiles were to be deployed. They would be obvious targets.
Nuclear missiles stationed at the former RAF base at Greenham Common in Berkshire put 10 million people at risk from radioactive contamination, according to documents released by the Ministry of Defence. The reports include scientific studies by government researchers at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston which warned there was a “credible” danger of a warhead accidentally catching fire or exploding, engulfing others in flames and sending a plume of radioactive plutonium into the atmosphere.
The previously secret reports, obtained by New Scientist magazine under the Freedom of Information Act, state that the MoD regarded the risk to the population as “acceptable”, despite the misgivings of its own experts. One report, dated February 11 1980, examined the risk of a “plutonium radiation hazard” from a cruise missile fire. It found that a fire in a single silo, fed by fuel from the missiles, could release plutonium from eight warheads, creating a radioactive cloud that would be blown across much of the south-east of England. It concluded that Greenham Common, near Newbury, was the worst of 11 sites under consideration to house the missiles, because of its proximity to urban centres.
A second report was produced on December 2 1980, after information from the US confirmed the warheads could explode accidentally, and after the decision had been made to station the missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth in Cambridgeshire. It said: “If one warhead were to detonate it is possible that the other seven warheads in the storage cell could be engulfed in the fire which is virtually certain to ensue from the rupture of the missiles’ fuel tanks.”
In August 1981, a group of 36 women, called Women for Life on Earth, together with a few men, walked from Cardiff to the base at Greenham Common. When they arrived, they demanded a discussion about nuclear weapons with the government. But it wasn’t forthcoming, so they decided to set up a peace camp at the base.
In 1982, the camp became women only, with a strong feminist emphasis. In the following months and years, thousands of women settled at Greenham at various times, blocked the gates, pulled down parts of the fence, danced on the missile silos, and creatively expressed our opposition to the missiles.
That creativity often left the authorities surprised and confused.
For more information on the project visit Sally’s Greenham Peace Camp blog