In June 2013 a group of artists and curators (myself included) travelled to Plymouth to tour the decommissioned nuclear-powered submarine HMS Courageous anchored at 3 Basin, HM Naval Base Devonport. Our visit was part of larger research project around nuclear culture spearheaded by curator Ele Carpenter. 

Our tour was conducted by a retired Officer Alan Jones who had worked for decades on various nuclear submarines overseeing their engineering and navigation systems. The Valiant-class of submarines were primarily used for surveillance, especially during the Cold War, and were tasked with trolling the North Atlantic and monitoring underwater activity that might be indicative of covert operations.

Listen to the Sound of Sand here ︎︎︎

Material Nuclear Culture, Karst Contemporary Arts, Plymouth (2016)

Granular Synthesis: The Sound of Sand” 24.08.2013

Installation view Karst Contemporary Art, Plymouth, 2016

Alan recounted one such sortie in which a strange new frequency was picked up somewhere off the coast of Sweden by the submarine’s passive sonar technology. This is essentially a mode of sonar directed towards attentive listening as opposed to active sonar, which emits pulses that bounce echoes back to the sub where they are logged and classified according to the kinds of objects that produce such sonic-signatures. However unable to identify this particular frequency and thus its source of emission, Alan’s nuclear submarine began to chase the sound as it moved in ever-changing configurations off the coast of Sweden, sometimes disappearing altogether and then re-appearing with more intensity somewhere else. For three-months a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine with a 100+ crew tracked an audio frequency as it parried and thrust, deflecting its technical prey beneath the waters of the Baltic Sea. When the submarine finally surfaced and returned to its base at Faslane, Scotland having been unsuccessful in its considerable efforts to unmask the sound, it was discovered that what they had been doggedly following for the last three months was the sound of granular particles of sand being rubbed by the undulating motion of the waves.

Commissioned by Arts Catalyst