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Mark Pilkington

Mark Pilkington is the author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor.

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Hauntologists mine the past for music's future

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You may argue that pop culture has always drawn heavily on nostalgia, and you’d be right, but things have changed. What was once a dim memory, a wobbly VHS tape, a slice of warped vinyl, or a bootleg DVD or CD trading hands amongst enthusiasts has become a towering digital midden so huge that it threatens to impede our view of the future. The growth of online media channels means that the near-entirety of our cultures’ pasts have been excavated and placed on display for anyone to watch, hear, or read in an instant. Hence, hauntology.

At the heart of the musical micro-genre of hauntology is the sense of atemporality that underpins our present culture. Whether it’s musicians pastiching multiple vintage styles in a single track, the endless cycle of remakes and sequels in cinema, or historical genre mashups in pop literature, our future is looking increasingly like our past, which now looks like the future, which looks increasingly like the past, and so on.

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Titan Missile Museum, Tucson, Arizona

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, has just led this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory took them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark sent us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Titan Missile Museum, Tucson, Arizona

Fifteen miles south of Tucson, 140 feet underground, stands a monumental testament to the apocalyptic technology of the Cold War. Between 1963 and 1982 this was Titan II ICBM Site 571-7, one of 54 such silos operated by USAF Strategic Air Command at three locations around the country. The other two were in Little Rock, Arkansas and Wichita, Kansas, though 571-7 is the only site with all its components still in place.

One-hundred-and-three feet high and 10 feet in diameter, the Titan II had a range of 6500 miles and reached its target approximately 30 minutes after lift off. Each rocket – and there were 18 situated at each site – packed a 9 megatonne charge (almost twice the total explosive force unleashed by all sides in World War II) capable of devastating around 900 square miles in a single blast; a turn of a key selected whether the detonation took place on the ground or in the air.

Four staff lived in the bunker at any one time; initially these were all men, but towards the end of its operational life women also worked on the site. Most of their time was spent performing routine maintenance checks, but if the call to arms was heard, as it was, briefly, immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination, two of them were expected to simultaneously turn the keys that would launch their silo’s missile and erase the future. The missile’s actual target was unknown to its caretakers, and remains classified to this day, though it would probably have been military and was certainly in the Soviet Union. Should one of the crew have suffered a crisis of conscience and refused to start World War III he or she would be shot and replaced by someone else – the crew were expendable, the missile, and its purpose, were not.

The missile launched 58 seconds after the keys were turned, leaving the crew with nothing to do but sit tight and await further orders; they might make use of the designated smoking area in a cramped corner of the control room, or listen to music on the 8-track stereo that once sat here. But what if further orders never arrived? The bunker held enough air and supplies to last 30 days, after which the choice of whether to venture outside or end the wait with a bullet was up to the team. If, as was likely, the Russians had Titans of their own, then the crew needn’t have worried about what to do after the launch: the silo, a probable target, could only withstand a one megatonne strike at a distance of about half a mile. 

Accidents, unfortunately, did happen: in 1965 a fire killed 53 people at a silo in Searcy, Arkansas; this became known as the ‘ghost silo’ and gained a reputation for being haunted. Also in Arkansas, in 1980, a worker dropped a tool which struck a missile, causing a fuel leak and a subsequent explosion that killed one crew member and blew a 760 tonne blast door several hundred feet; the nuclear warhead was thrown clear of the site and mercifully didn’t detonate.

Since the early 1990s the Tucson site has been run by the non-profit Arizona Aerospace Foundation and its thrilling tours are lead by a team of knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. If you have time, ask for the deep access tour, though this can take over four hours to complete. Among the many highlights, look out for Richard DeSpain’s beautiful drawings of the site in the debriefing room.

Where airplanes go to die

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, has just led this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory took them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark sent us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Boneyard, Tucson, Arizona

Adjacent to the PIMA Aerospace Museum, outside Tucson Arizona, is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Here at any time, around 4000 planes, valued at an estimated $33 billion, wait to be sliced, shredded and recycled for parts, earning it the name The Boneyard. Visitors tour the site by bus and are greeted by the magnificent sight of a sea of tail fins, eviscerated engines and bisected fuselages stretching from horizon to horizon.

The planes here date from the Vietnam era or newer and many of them represent models still in active service, like the venerable C-130 Hercules transporter, which has seen around 60 years of duty. Most of the planes have seen surgery of some sort, either at the sharp end of the giant guillotine that slices them cleanly into sections, or have had specific components removed, their wounds covered in what look like white plastic bandages.

The lineup of aircraft at the Boneyard is always changing and depends on what’s being broken up on the site. As a fierce lightning storm crackled overhead, the Unknown Fields personnel carrier sailed past numerous aviation legends and curiosities. Highlights included the infamous Lockheed D-21 drone, launched from the top of a modified A-12 / SR-71 Blackbird and capable of flying at Mach 3 at 95,000 feet. The drone proved too powerful for its own good and was shelved after only a handful of missions, one of which proved fatal to the pilots launching it. Also on parade was the DC-10 seen above, modified by Raytheon to be a target for aircraft-mounted laser weapons; the colossal B-52 Stratofortress; several F-14s, being entirely destroyed, apparently so that parts can’t get into the hands of a certain unloved Islamic state; and an F-117 Stealth Fighter in full optical stealth mode and so invisible to the naked eye (yes, USAF humour at play there).

Elsewhere were rigs and jigs for the giant B-2 Stealth Bomber, once the pinnacle of aviation technology. These are left out in case new planes or parts need to be built, but we were told that they’ve been sitting there a long time now, so it may not be long before that mighty beast, or at least part of it, is laid to rest at the Boneyard– and that will be a sight worth traveling a very long way to see.

White Sands Missile Range Museum and National Park

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, has just led this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory took them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark sent us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

White Sands Missile Range Museum and National Park

Whitesands1947 America’s space program started here in 1946 with the aid of a few dozen German rocket scientists, imported as part of the highly-secret Operation Paperclip. The apex of their WWII achievements was the enormous V-2 rocket, which housed its devastating cargo in an elegant back and yellow casing. An original 1946 V-2, cut-away to reveal the intricacies of its thrust and steering mechanisms, forms the centerpiece of the museum collection. Over the next 20 years Paperclip team leader Wernher von Braun built ever-larger missiles, climaxing with the Saturn and Apollo rockets that took America to the Moon.

As its curator reassures us, White Sands’ on-site museum is “not your typical military museum”; as well as a housing a wealth of missile related technology and ephemera, it has sections dedicated to the local flora and fauna, including the African Oryx released into the wilderness in the late 1960s to entertain hunters and wreak environmental destruction; the indigenous peoples who once lived on the land, (many of the earliest inhabitants disappeared in the 16th century as the once verdant lands turned to desert), and a room of paintings by a survivor of the brutal Bataan forced march of WWII, in which up to 10,000 Pilipinos and 650 Americans died at Japanese hands. Outside is the rocket garden, housing a number of missiles, rockets and drones used in combat from WWII to Gulf War I, including personal favorites like the ever-reliable Ryan drone, the monumental Redstone Cruise Missile, and the saucer-shaped Viking Mars Decelerator.

Following the museum the Unknown Fields team engaged in workshop activities amongst the gypsum dunes of the White Sands themselves, formed from the remains of a 250 million year old shallow sea. As part of our training for future hostile environments, we fought off hordes of aggressive red ants, made sand circles on which to land our RC drones, buried one team member alive, and tested the effects of exposure on another as he ran naked across the shifting desert sands.

The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Right now, Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, is leading this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory takes them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark is sending us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Constructed over four years in the late 1950s at a then-astronomical cost of $58 million, the Trestle is still the largest all-wooden structure in the world, comprising over 6 million feet of timber. Part of the Air Force’s research into the after effects of a nuclear blast, a range of aircraft, including huge B-52 bombers and Air Force One were hauled up onto the Trestle, where they would be bombarded with electromagnetic pulse waves (EMP) fired from an emitter on either side.

EMP waves travel long distances in a very short amount of time and can seriously disrupt electronic systems, as we also know from powerful solar emissions. Understanding how EMP might affect the functioning of retaliatory nukes, bombers or command and control aircraft was therefore an essential part of post-apocalyptic preparations.

Every element of the Trestle, right down to its oversized nuts and bolts, had to be wooden so that none of its own components would interfere with the effects of the EMP wave on the aircraft being tested (though apparently there are some small metal o-ring components deep in the mix). Inspecting all the joints took a dedicated team a whole year; as soon as they had finished it was time to start again.

A unique monument to Cold War rigor and ingenuity, reminiscent of a huge fairground ride, perhaps the Cyclone, Coney Island’s wooden roller coaster, or a wooden labyrinth, the Trestle is now a condemned structure, too unstable to use, too expensive to dismantle. Today it provides a home to local wildlife, including a colony of great horned owls who can be heard screeching from within its depths. Our guide tells us that she likes to collect the skulls of their prey, which they leave scattered around the base of the structure.