Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wayward walks for the British Ceramics Biennial

I was commissioned by the British Ceramics Biennial to deliver a series of Wayward Walks for visitors to the Spode Factory during the Biennial. My recent work has involved explorations of city sites via the Victorian Language of Flowers, and last year I was commissioned by the Saturday Market Project to create a lovely Urban Exploration Guide, something which I greatly enjoyed. To launch the guide SMP commissioned me to do an urban exploration walk around Shoreditch during the London Design Festival - it was a mixture of things really on the walk - a sort of walking workshop, with some poetry writing, urban exploration and plant identification.
 I was also asked this year to develop a workshop for the Arnolfini's Floating Ballast Seed Garden (above and below)- an amazing floating garden project.
 The garden is planted up with seeds excavated from Bristol Harbour that had been dumped from Ship Ballast around the time that England was a great shipping nation, visiting and trading with countries all over the world, and as a result, inadvertently bringing in wayward plants from all over the world via the ships ballast.
I developed a workshop to think about the plants on the boat, and creating a special Ballast Seed Garden language with participants. This is exactly the sort of work I hope to continue to do, engaging with amazing gardens and finding ways for other people to think differently about the plants in cities, so I was thrilled to be asked to work on this fantastic project.
For the BCB Wayward Walks, the idea was for visitors to gain an insight into the history and architecture of this amazing heritage site - and then to do something practical with clay.
The Spode factory has such a rich history, it was difficult to decide what to focus the walk on, but one thing which is really fascinating is the role that Spode played in the development of printing onto clay - so this became my focus.
My walk involved taking participants around the site, as it is today - with many buildings not currently in use - there are a lot of weeds growing around the site, so my stopping points on the route drew attention to these weeds - encouraging the walkers to see the beauty in them.
At each plant I would introduce historical information about the factory, or the development of particular printing techniques, for example bat printing, which was an 'over-glaze' printing method - and not very hard wearing - but more groundbreaking was the development (by Josiah Spode) of underglaze printing methods, like pluck and dust or the tissue printing techniques still used today at Middleport Pottery.
I would then introduce Spode floral design from wares using the techniques - as a way to showcase some of the beautiful patterns developed at the Spode Factory.
During the tour participants would collect plants found growing on the Spode Site, (above- fern growing in the remains of a bottle oven) and the last stop on the tour, we would discuss the site as it is today - discussing this wonderful moment we are in on the site - as if the site is holding its breath - the pause between the out and the in breath.
The factory closed in 2008 - but with the announcement of 1.7 million to be spent on the site, turning Spode back into a creative village once more - those plants growing on the site will probably be dislodged before long.
We then returned to the Spode China Hall, one of the largest buildings in the factory, once a thriving factory floor, and now the main event in the BCB showcase. This year the BCB has an extra feature - The Hub, where a series of workshops and activities have been programmed, with the strapline 'Get Clay Under Your Fingernails' where there are plenty of opportunities to learn new techniques and processes.
I revisited the idea of the blue and white floral designs we had been considering, and talked about creating a new Spode ware for the day - which celebrates this pause moment and looks ahead to Spode's creative future.
Using Studio White Clay - which fires to a wonderful bright white Participants then used their collected weeds to press into the clay, and then added detail with Cobalt Oxide (which adds the fantastic Spode Blue colour).
Then we talked a little bit about the Victorian Language of Flowers, and assigning meaning to plants found on the site.
Over the different sessions people seemed to really enjoy the combination of walking, history of the site, and making.
The workshop really appealed to all ages, from 3 upwards!
There were so many beautiful tiles made - each one different and each one really successful. The brilliant thing about the workshop is that everyone can make something that they are pleased with.
At the end of the sessions (which typically lasted about an hour and a half) people left feedback about how they found the activity.
I was pleased to read how much everyone had enjoyed it, as I am really keen to do more with this format.
I am really interested in developing the idea of works which explore site specific weeds and plants in cities. I hope to continue with tours and workshops like this in 2016, perhaps looking for an opportunity to develop the format within a project which explores the history and future of sites through the weeds and plants growing there - leading to a permanent artwork of some kind, an intervention or a publication.

Monday, October 19, 2015

REVIEW: Dangerous Discoveries at Biddulph Grange

Standing on the edge of the lake in the formal Italian section of the garden, admiring the giant koi as they cut through the water before disappearing back into the murky depths, an English afternoon is suddenly interrupted by song, floating across the water from elsewhere; it is Rebecca Lee's Song Sung When. At first listening the song sounds faintly familiar, a folk song misremembered? But as I move towards the sound the words reveal themselves to be something other than English, the effect of this and the other sound works in the collection, create a jolt - a rupture in the fabric of the day, throwing the listener into some other time and place, which feels ancient, other-worldly and at odds with the Englishness of a  day out with the National Trust. 
The sound works presented here are selected field recordings from Nepal, Morocco, USA and Italy, and are presented alongside plants originating from these places, perhaps creating in the listener a similar sense of the exotic as would have been felt by those avid plant hunters, the Victorians - when setting out their collections of plants from all over the world, amidst the ordinariness of the English country garden.
This is James Bateman's glorious Biddulph Grange; the design of the garden suggests a series of outdoor rooms or small countries, the effect of which is to make the site seem bigger than its 17 acres. The garden was designed in the period somewhere between Capability Brown's large scale landscapes and the high Victorian period of garden design, which sought to accommodate the new craze for plant collecting from around the world. Bateman and his wife were avid plant collectors, and with the help of artist friend Edward William Cooke, the Biddulph Grange gardens were designed with their collection in mind.
A walk through reveals a series of pocket gardens, each reflecting the styles and landscaping features of other, far-away places - and indeed accommodating their plants too; conjuring ideas of the grand tour in miniature, where not just plants but architectural follies surprise the explorer (visitor). The idea of a Chinese Pagoda, over the hedge from an Egyptian Pyramid flanked by Sphinxes seems incongruous, and has something of the theme park about it, but it works here, since it is a theme park to nature. The excitement and thrill expressed through the design itself, may not be immediately obvious in today's garden, but Bateman's  passion is revealed through the artworks in Dangerous Discoveries, which seek to make visible the hidden and forgotten world of the plant hunter. In addition, the works draw our attention towards the understanding that comes with hindsight around the unchecked introduction of thousands of foreign species into the English Countryside, which the Victorians, men like Bateman, were responsible for. This obsessive importing of species grows ever more concerning, in particular in relation to some of the plants that are now known as invasive species by bodies like the Royal Horticultural Society, who describe these fast growing non-native species as problematic in the way that they:
"- Outcompete native species either by habitat change or by spreading so rapidly as to crowd out slower growing species, threatening the long-term survival of species.
-Take a long time to become invasive. Many of the plants now considered invasive have been growing in the UK for over 100 years and for much of that time showed no sign of becoming a problem."
[i]Royal Horticultural Society (2015) Invasive Non-Native Species. Available: Last accessed 6th October 2015.

A number of the artworks in the show deal directly with plants and Laura Youngson Coll's exquisite orchid works seem to most closely reflect the shows title. The dangers of orchid collecting and hunting are well documented and these works refer directly to James Bateman's horticultural credentials as a leading authority on tropical orchids, as set out in his book of 1843 Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala[ii]. The book reveals in some detail the little care for the terrible destruction of natural habitats across the world which was the result of the Victorian's plant obsession; native species decimated in their homelands for the sake of the Victorian's thirst for the strangest, rarest and most exotic of species. These intricate and beautiful artworks, through their display, look at first like simple botanical specimens; but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be something all together stranger. Made of vellum and hair sheep leather on top of an armature, the plants are beautiful but deadly looking objects of immaculate skill. In Grotesques Creatures, in particular, the artist has taken the already otherworldly orchid and created something akin to a plant and insect hybrid, a flowering of parasitic insects suggest a genetic modification turned mutant. Two of the artworks are found within the Shelter House, a grand architectural turret, overlooking the Dahlia Walk; a feature that was lost in history (during the Grange's time as a hospital) but reinstated in recent years. The siting of the works here seem to bring the viewer a moment of pause - as the building brings the journey around the garden to a momentary stop - a chance to look back at where you have been. The final work in the series is hidden within the tunnels which lead to the Chinese Garden, the effect is to create a feeling in the viewer of something secret and precious, perhaps contraband. These are some of the works in the show that respond to the unique character of the garden, which is as much about hidden passages, routes and inside spaces, as an experience of the great outdoors.
In Sarah Tulloch's Parallel Nature one such interior space is utilised, and the feeling of being moved from one place and time to another, which seems to recur as you move throughout the garden is extended by the invitation to stop for a moment in between Egypt and somewhere else. The video piece consists of a series of montages, which explore aspects of the garden in minute detail. The collection of images, sounds and photographs document the work which continues in the garden today and at times reveals the hidden world of micro-biology. This work takes the viewer from swamp land, to woodland glade and through to formal manicured landscape, perhaps reflecting the evolution of life in the garden. The experience of standing and watching the projected works in the tunnel close to Egypt gives a nod towards those awe inspiring scientists, the Ancient Egyptians. With this work the garden is experienced on an entirely different level, as a living, breathing ecosystem of organisms, the piece too, seems to place the gardener at the centre of this sensitive ecology, working hard to maintain the precarious balance.
If Tulloch's piece requires the viewer to focus in, and uncovers the hidden and invisible micro world, the works of Katie and Rebecca Beinart highlight the physical architecture, responding to the gardens platforms and levels. At times the viewer is invited to move around to unexpected aspects, creating the feeling of experiencing the landscape almost from above. The four sculptures reference the Wardian Cases which were developed by Nathaniel Ward in 1830, which for the first time developed a way for plants to be transported across the world, surviving long sea crossings. [iii] That some of the sites for the sculptures are at odds with the preferred habitats of the plants housed within, directly responds to the difficulty of transporting plants to and from other places. In particular the case containing Hart's tongue ferns, found on the grassed area by the geological gallery in full sun, has resulted in some quite sickly looking plants. It is well documented that Bateman himself was often frustrated by some species inability to adapt to the English climate, and no level of horticultural skill will coax a plant to survive and thrive in an unsuitable habitat.

The materials which the pieces are constructed from reference the key industries of North Staffordshire, steel and ceramic; and perhaps nod to the development of the gardens from the Bateman's family money, made within the local coal and steel industry. The suggested geographies within the works request that the viewer stand back from the garden and provide a macro view of its design; suddenly an overview is achieved, as the viewer is placed in a position of omnipotent onlooker. The pieces shift the scale of the garden once more, and we are reminded that everything here is not natural, but designed.
The experience of moving around Biddulph Grange gardens creates an immersive feeling of being somewhere else, the walker can feel lost in the labyrinthine tunnels, walkways and interlocking rooms, the Beinart Sculptures, however, jolt the viewer back to the reality of constructed landscape, by providing the privileged view of the architect.
The artists in Dangerous Discoveries have responded to, excavated and revealed a fantastic jewel of a garden on many different levels. The Trust New Art series, which this exhibition is a part of,  is bringing a new arts audience to gardens and properties like this, but in addition, the artists are enabling new views of familiar places for frequent visitors, and uncovering new ways of uncovering the hidden histories within our heritage.
Dangerous Discoveries continues at Biddulph Grange until 31st October, 2015.
Review commissioned by The National Trust as part of the Trust New Art series.

[i] Royal Horticultural Society (2015) Invasive Non-Native Species. Available: Last accessed 6th October 2015.
[ii] James Bateman (1843). 'Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala. London
[iii] National Trust (2015). Dangerous Discoveries. Staffordshire: Trust New Art.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Artist Soup Kitchen Works Instruction

For the AirSpace studio artists exhibition Assemblage, I have prepared the Artist Soup Kitchen Works Instruction, and on the opening prepared assemblage soup.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Community Maker - Houses, Shops and Celebrations

The AirSpace Gallery/British Ceramics Biennial 'Community Maker' Project continued with another workshop in our makeshift pop up community space (big tent) and a very special and enjoyable community meal.
 The workshop invited people to make themselves as a house - and it was really interesting to see how much detail people went into while making them. It was a lovely activity.
 And started to really give people the opportunity to be creative with the clay, above is a lovely example by resident Kerry.
During the Community Maker activities the council were in touch, knowing that we would be meeting the residents of the area, on the Community Green Space, and seeing Community Maker as a good opportunity to gather the residents thoughts on a few things.
They asked us to ask the community about the idea of the council handing over one of the still derelict buildings on Portland Street - the old community shop - to be used as a community asset and to explore the potential interest in the idea of a community run shop and meeting space.
One of the main points about the area is that the lack of a community meeting space really stops a lot of community driven activity from being able to take place. Community Maker has been enabled by AirSpace Gallery's purchase of a large bell tent, but still - this is limited, as only really 10 people at most can fit inside the tent, and it is fine in summer, but not really viable for winter.
Therefore the idea of exploring the community shop and meeting space makes a lot of sense.
Ahead of the event we were given a look around the shop - and although it is a bit of a state, it is certainly possible to see the potential.
We used the special community meal to really focus on this idea, and create space for discussion about a community shop - how it may be run, what could be sold and offered there and who would get involved. I used the tried and tested artist soup kitchen format for the event - spending 30 minutes giving a presentation which presented a variety of community run shops from around the UK, and then we had our discussion over a bowl of tomato and red pepper soup.
The residents gave their thoughts about the idea of a community shop and meeting space, and used 'The Homemaker' magazine as source material for individual collages showing what makes a strong community, here is one by Claire
and at the end of the discussion everyone summed up their thinking with a one line response to give to the council:
- the shop could be a good place for IT classes
- What about the space above the shop being like a spare room, with bedroom for neighbours to use if they have guests staying.
-  people from local area selling stuff they make, also a place to buy oatcakes and coffee plus hosting events for local children
- whatever it is, it needs to be well run and inviting - good coffee and something to eat. somewhere that people know they can go and feel comfortable, meet neighbours. Place to book for parties, and access to space upstairs for the community.
- Somewhere to chill and also somewhere to pick up parcels - if you are out when they get delivered. Perhaps a homework/tutoring club for local children
- day care centre for children
- downstairs a shop somewhere to get fresh bread and cakes etc. and an upstairs space - somewhere to rent out for activities
- English classes
- a convenience store - food always works and also a police presence there too.
- CAB drop in for other stakeholders and service providers locally.
 Since this event, the idea of a community space has been discussed further - and we were able to point out that though an excellent community asset, what the community really needs is a space where groups can meet. This has been taken on board and the council have now offered the larger empty space - the Pub on Portland Street, as a potential community space for a mixture of uses.
 We had great feedback from residents about the event, people really enjoyed the special space created by the Artist Soup Kitchen, with one resident commenting on social media afterwards: 'An unusual and enjoyable meeting. I usually feel out of place at these types of things but not so much this evening. Thanks' 
The next stage is to gather some support for the idea, resources and stakeholders. As a result of this I am going to Leeds, to a special training and networking day organised by The Plunkett foundation, an organisation who support communities to set up and run community shops, in order to learn a bit about the process and then return to the community to share the learning and explore the viability of the Pub as a Community Space. 
The final two Community workshops saw us making some lovely bowl and platter moulds from the Spode Factory mould store, which we hope (if they survive the kiln) can be used for future events, and in particular for the Community Feast Day, which will finish our series, at the Spode Factory in October. During these two events participants got stuck in to the most complicated ceramic making we did during the series, using moulds, which my brilliant assistant Alice Thatcher oversaw the use of.
Such a lot was made in these sessions, a number of floral bowls, a six towns platter, and even an allotment! all designed and made by the community, and while making we also gathered ideas and support for the Community Celebration Event, our final event on the green space.
My favourite was the flower bowl, which I am really looking forward to seeing fired.
The final event within the Community was our celebration event, which throughout the events we have been talking to people about, gathering ideas and commitments of help from people, so when the 8th August came along, I was sure the event would be a group effort - which was really one of the aims of the Community Maker, to establish community celebrations and food sharing events for our area, where everyone can contribute.
I could not have wished for more from our event:
For the day we laid out some of the wares made during the project, for people to see, and we also set up an activity for people to create plant labels, with their wishes for the area marked onto them.
We had also had an idea to talk to more people about the shop idea, but it was so busy that there really wasn't time for this.
As well as making their plant tags, residents were also invited to help to sow a flower meadow - each resident was given a strip of the meadow-to-be to sow a wildflower seed mix onto,
In exchange for their labour each resident was also given a sempervivum to take home.
These were provided by Dawn from the landscaping team at the council, who kindly dropped them off during the week - for us to give out.
There were over 100 visitors to the event, and there was plenty of food to go around. One set of residents put on a barbecue, Ken brought his sound system and played some tunes, and Linda and her daughter transformed our Community Maker Tent into a pop up tea room, and provided cream teas for everyone (with cakes baked by lots of members of the community.)
We were also joined by Zoe from the Mitchell Arts Centre, she kindly brought along her fantastic paint bike, and helped us to organise for a face painter to come along on the day too, which was brilliant and really meant there was something for everyone.
The event truly was a Community Celebration.
Our final event will be a Feast Day during the BCB festival - where we will invite residents to the Spode Factory to see what we made, and to talk about the successes of the project in the context of other Community Led projects from around the city - we will use the Artist Soup Kitchen format again, and I really hope some of the residents we have met during the project will be able to make it.
Overall, what we have experienced during the project is a community that has had a hard time in the past, but who will get together and bring what they can to make things better. There are, as with all places, those that dissent from the sidelines, and those that do not want to get involved - but I feel strongly that the area is on the up, and that the project we have begun will, in some ways, be there to record the area as it changes for the better.
We have generated a lot of imagery over the weeks, and it will all go to inform the Community Maker design for the Community Ceramic Ware we will eventually make. What has been strange for me, as a practitioner who often works in communities, but never my own, the approach is very different, the investment and the fear too, are all greater. 
Many thanks to all the residents for getting involved, and a special thanks to Alice Thatcher and Kornelia Herms for the amazing support throughout.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bee Friendly Garden for Hanley Park

AirSpace Gallery have been making interventions and doing projects in our local Hanley Park since 2010, in activity which has included artists' residencies, exhibitions and temporary artworks, as well as myself and Andrew Branscombe spending quite a bit of time in Hanley Park last year when it was one of our sites for the Birder's Paradise Project.
This year we are working with the Women's Institute group 'Let's Make Jam' and the Friends of Hanley Park, to develop a Bee Friendly Garden, within the Nature reserve area of the park.
Over a number of days this summer, we will be meeting in the park, armed with spades, loppers and gloves and changing this small area of the park - with a lovely new planting scheme and design to maximise habitats and food for bees (and other creatures).
We had our first day in the park last Friday, and had a great turnout. The jobs for week one were to join the woodchip path up to the main path, clear the weeds, and identify and plants to save, and make an attempt to move the rocks.
People really got stuck in and we got so much done! It was great to have such a good team of people working together.
By the end of the day we could already see the shape of our new garden emerging, and while we were working we found plenty of encouragement that wildlife are already making a great home here, so we will just be accentuating what is already present. 
We launch the garden on August 15th with some fantastic, family friendly workshops - tell your bee loving friends (and the bees.)