UCL Urban Laboratory


Testing Ground: Tracing threads of aerial seeing

01 June 2023–22 July 2023, 10:00 am–6:00 pm

Testing Ground

A new exhibition at UCL Urban Room of visual and sonic installations of contemporary and historic helicopter surveillance over London and Belfast.

This event is free.

Event Information

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UCL Urban Room – UCL Urban Laboratory


UCL Urban Room
One Pool Street
E20 2AF

Techniques of aerial surveillance were developed by the British Army over Belfast during the 30 year conflict - the so-called Troubles - that have since been adapted by the National Police Air Service for use over London and other British cities. 

Taking over UCL Urban Room, Bartlett-based artists/researchers Henrietta Williams and Merijn Royaards set out to reveal how the British State developed aerial knowledge systems in colonial space and how these now play out over contemporary London. 

Plan your visit

Visit Monday - Friday, 10am - 6pm, no need to book.

Tickets are required for the following special events:

  • 31st May, 5:30 - 8pm: Exhibition opening
  • 8th June, 11am - 3pm: SONCITIES Workshop: Covert Acoustics
  • 21st June: 12 - 2pm: How To Build, Use, and Subvert an archive: interactive workshop with MayDay Rooms, Maev McDaid and Henrietta Williams

Workshop: How to build, use and subvert an archive

Join us for an afternoon of discussion around the practicaities and possibilities of building and working with archives. We're delighted to host the archivist and researcher Maev McDaid as she shares rare materials from the Troops Out movement collection currently housed at the MayDay Rooms. 

This year marks 50 years from when the Troops Out Movement was first formed in West London to bring about the end of British Rule in the North of Ireland. Through the personal collection of campaigner Aly Renwick, and the digitising efforts of Maev McDaid and the MayDay rooms, we are able to appreciate a testimony to decades of grassroots resistance and solidarity amongst British and Irish activists with the aims of "ensuring British Troops Out of Ireland and Self-determination of the Irish People as a Whole". 

Together we will learn about the significance of this collection and how the transition from ephemeral material to digital archive creates powerful opportunities for engagement and use. 

Following a description of these materials on display and discussion on the archiving process, we will delve deeper into the ways archive material can be subverted, and the possibilities for new interventions and interpretations such methods open up.

Henrietta Williams will build on this discussion by walking us through the exhibition 'Treading Ground' (created in collaboration with Merijn Royaards) which weaves archival material gathered from the Imperial War Museum's 'Northern Ireland Collection' against contemporaneous video footage and spatial sound methodology, allowing us a sensory experience of being both complicit in and subject to aerial surveillance. 


About the exhibition

Williams and Royaards' unique and powerful exhibition interweaves archival material gathered from the Imperial War Museum’s 'Northern Ireland Collection' against contemporaneous video footage and sonic field recordings of helicopter surveillance at moments of protest in London. 

The concept speaks to Foucault’s theory of the so-called ‘Boomerang’ whereby techniques of surveillance and control are tested in colonial space and then imported back for use upon the homeland population.

The Belfast material takes multiple archival fragements and wraps them around and through a ready-made primary clip that encapsulates the journey of a British Army helicopter from the base to Belfast and back again. These archival materials were donated to the Imperial War Museum by the British Army, digitised at the request of the artists, and therefore previously unseen beyond the archive until this moment. 

These clips from a recent contested history are set against footage from London filmed entirely from ground level of police helicopters as they monitor protests within the city, gathered from 2020 onwards at a moment when radical shifts are being proposed to limit public protest.

The artists' use of spatial sound methodology renders the experience of being both within a helicopter as a voyeur above the city, and at ground level as surveilled citizen. Through projection of video imagery and a complex sound based installation with 24 different audio channels, the audience is embedded within these two binary experiences to become both complicit and the subject of aerial surveillance. 

Image: Notes on Aerial Photography (detail from manual). Annotated aerial photograph made by the RAF over Mesopotamia 1918

Copyright RAF archive

Helicopter archive and contemporary footage



Dr Merijn Royaards is an artist-researcher guided by convoluted movements through music, art and architecture. The interaction between space and sound in cities with a history/present of conflict has been a recurring theme in his multi-media works to date.

His 2020 awarded doctoral thesis explores the state-altering effects of sound, space and movement from the Russian Avant-Garde to today’s clubs and raves. Merijn has been involved as a sonic practitioner with Recomposing The City and Theatrum Mundi and The Institute for Global Prosperity; he is one part of a collaborative practice with fellow artist-researcher and film-maker Henrietta Williams, and he is a founding member of avant-garde improv outfit Deemer.


Henrietta Williams is an artist and urban researcher. Her practice explores urbanist theories; particularly considering ideas around fortress urbanism, security, and surveillance. She is a Lecturer (teaching) at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and tutors across a number of programs with a particular focus on critical film making methodologies.

Henri is currently completing an LAHP funded PhD by design, also at the Bartlett, that critiques drone surveillance technologies and the history of the aerial viewpoint. She is currently completing her PhD through an extra year of funded scholarship at UCL’s Institute of Security and Crime Science. The output of this research will comprise of a written thesis alongside video installation works, film screenings and performances.

Her projects have been widely screened, exhibited and published in the UK and internationally, most notably at the V&A Museum in London and on the front page of the Guardian. She has featured on multiple television programs about security and surveillance in London. Through her commercial practice Henrietta has made films for a number of high profile architectural institutions in the UK and Europe. She lives in South London with her 2 young children Jack and Winter.