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Nick Ferguson

Penumbra. Six Pandemic Walks in and around Heathrow Airport 



Tomorrow no doubt there will no longer be anything but arrival, the point of

arrival, the departure will have disappeared in the instantaneity of the projection.

Paul Virilio, 2005


In early 2020 the spread of COVID-19 halted international arts collaboration with immediate effect. At the time of writing, the dominant system of global participation and exchange remains incompatible with the virus’s containment, but the new is not yet born. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of these conditions for contemporary art. For if the contemporary may be defined as the coexistence of a multiplicity of traditions and histories in the same here and now (Lund 2019), then there can be no contemporary art without global collaboration. What new models of artistic and curatorial cooperation, what new political aesthetic formations, might emerge in the pandemic’s wake?

In the cultural imaginary the airport environment exposes the foreseeable unfolding of power and politics (Marker 1962; Virilio 2005). Furthermore, power and politics are, in no small part, played out at airports through art. London Heathrow and the resident airline, British Airways, exhibit, collect, and commission. Artworks and their audiences travel routinely through Heathrow to fairs and museums around the world. The airport is an object of critical investigation by independent artists. Given these observations, might art airport relations at London Heathrow also give a glimpse of art’s trajectory? This is the second question posed by this project.

Under COVID, as the analogue airport gives way to the digital projection, art at Heathrow, like its globally dispersed counterpart, is in crisis. The community arts programme Cultural Curator is on ice; British Airways have been selling off the collection; and as if by way of portent, Langlands & Bell’s commission for Terminal 5, Moving World (Night & Day) (2008), a quasi-public artwork that takes the form of two immense glass walls on which are displayed airport codes from around the globe, has been smashed.

The interruptions at Heathrow are undoubtedly beyond the wildest dreams of commentators who lament art’s fossil fuel dependence and/or corporate relations. Art’s contribution to airport authority has been curtailed and, liberated from such ends, art may indeed be freer to engender more socially transformative economies. There are grounds for hope. For even as the calamity of Heathrow’s official art relations unfolds, informal acts of making are experiencing a renaissance. The airport suburbs are alive with flaneurs and flaneuses, mutual aid, and children’s dens.

These activities and aesthetic forms do not compensate for the loss of livelihoods, expertise, and inequality resulting from the crisis in which the arts have been plunged. Nor do they imply that leading art can manage without international collaboration or public funding. They do, however, as already inferred, challenge art’s relationship with hegemony. The autonomy, formal diversity, and social capabilities of such activities contrast favourably to commissions conditioned by the airport’s market-led patronage, providing a fleeting glimpse of more equitable, honest, and horizontally structured cultural practices. Moreover, not nominated as art, they threaten the hard border that stands between art and life. This latter development brings into focus further aspects of COVID’s destabilisation of the art world. The timing may be bad, but the challenge to the gatekeepers of arts and culture is well overdue. Brought within structures that cross frontiers – arts venues, publishing platforms – grassroots creativity opens one possible road to reform.


Lund. J. 2019. The Contemporary Condition. Anachrony, Contemporaneity, and Historical Imagination. Sternberg.
Marker, C. 1962. La Jetee. Nouveaux Pictures

Virilio. P. 2005 [1984] Negative Horizon. Trans. Michael Degener. London and New York: Continuum, p 115