Wednesday, 30 May 2012

DEVELOPING SMALL ENCOUNTERS: Research & Development week at MAC Birmingham & sharing event

I attended a research & development opportunity for ‘developing small encounters’  Tuesday 8th-Friday 11th May, which cumulated with a sharing event on the Friday evening, where we had the opportunity to show our work in progress to an audience of invited participants. The R&D week was run by the ‘Small Encounters Collective’ with mentoring & facilitation from Artist Adrian Howells.

I was approaching the small encounters R&D week as an artist; many others involved were from a performance/drama/ theatre background, which allowed me to gain insight into areas of performance. Adrian shared his work in an Artists’ talk, to give a background to his practice and areas of expertise in one-to-one performance. I was drawn to notions of ‘ genuine exchange’ reconnecting & the emphasis of physical encounters in opposition to the social networking phenomena explored in his work- themes that I am currently exploring with the ‘unstructured material’ concept. I became interested in developing skill sharing & exchange as a ‘small encounter’ performance.

Some of the themes from Adrian’s Artist talk that inspired the development of my own piece throughout the week:

-The quality of exchange- quality time with another individual and how that can benefit us (well-being).
-Notion of ‘co-authoring’ an experience
-Creation of domestic spaces or sites promoting comfort
-Focussing on ‘real time’ & real people (as opposed to ‘cyberspace’, internet alter-egos)

My favourite piece of Adrian’s work is the ‘Garden of Adrian’ – this piece reminds me of the potential of my allotment space and the various experiences I have whilst I am there (creative, personal, transformative & sensory experiences, for example)

The week was busy, but well- balanced. Adrian’s talks & mentoring allowed us to gain insight into working with one- to -one performance, and the issues that arise in doing so. Adrian’s facilitated activities consisted of an outdoor ‘5 senses meditation’- which made us all stop &  simply touch, smell, taste & listen for an hour in the park, and working on one-to-ones within the group- sharing memories, exploring the senses &  sharing ideas with one another in intimate moments- or ‘small encounters’. I valued these experiences and they made me feel that we should all be able to take time out within our busy days to reconnect with the environment & those around us, but more importantly with ourselves. The rest of the time was allocated to the production of our own ‘small encounter’ performance.

The working title of the piece I explored and delivered during the R&D week was ’UNSTRUCTURED ENCOUNTER: the nature of creativity'.

We were to work within experimental ‘portable tent -like structures’. I had brought along the top part of a garden greenhouse to create a frame which I intended to build around with felts, collected material & William Morris fabrics & tent coverings, referencing nomadic structures such as yurts.

I am interested in exploring ways of transferring knowledge through direct contact/exchange with individuals- as social skills have rapidly been lost with the rise of social networking. I therefore aimed to create a space that would act as an open studio- within the context of research & development, aimed to invite audience participants in to share with them my current research & inspiration one-to-one, and to encourage conversation about creativity & what constitutes creative activity, I was also interested to see if any recurring themes emerged amongst the visitors to the tent.

I chose to work outdoors in the ‘arena’ area. We had a site visit on the Wednesday, and I was immediately drawn to the outdoor space. Whilst on the site recce, I was seeing potential resources in this area everywhere- 2 big lime trees, a nettle patch, and a comfrey patch. Initially I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some of my forging knowledge and offer individuals the chance to forage and taste with me as a ‘small encounter’, emphasising that we can still be self-sufficient and surrounded by an abundant of natural resources and edibles within the city environment. However, shortly after this idea came into fruition we were advised not to go on the grass as the area had been sprayed with weed killer. This was disappointing, but brought up interesting conversations about careful picking within city environment, I also thought this demonstrated how organisations are missing a trick- I suggested that these weeds they were trying to kill could be a source of income- freshly picked lime flower or nettle tea, could be served in the MAC cafĂ©, for example (visitors could even be invited to pick their own).

In the Friday night performance event some of these issues were discussed from the contemplative vantage point of the tent, and two of the participants chose to add information on nettles and lime to ‘the book of Unstrucured Encounters’, as I shared with them how to pick prepare & use the plants.

I offered a tracing exercise as a means of exchange; participants chose something within the tent to respond to, whether it was something they were drawn to visually, something they wanted to learn about, or a randomly selected sentence from a book. The tracing exercise allowed participants to trace over their selected text and then transfer the tracing into ‘the book of small encounters’; the activity of tracing and re-tracing acting to re-enforce or meditate on the chosen message. This quiet moment of ‘tracing’ allowed for conversations to arise about the chosen article. I then re-traced the participant’s tracing and transferred it onto a postcard. Offering them a fragment of information that they could use to start off their own research or simply act a reminder of the encounter. ‘The book of small encounters’ was created, a site-specific collective response that will act as a lasting document of the R&D.

Further development
The opportunity allowed me to experiment with the building of a portable structure that could become an on-going pop-up resource space, for a physical encounter with the ‘unstructured material’ research; a small space to exchange & skill swap, or simply talk about current issues. I could tour various places with this. I also want to experiment building more tent-like structures using natural materials (wooden frameworks). The size of the tent was just right for a one-to-one encounter and feedback from participants noted that a safe & comfortable environment was created; however, I feel that the bigger the tent the more sharing at once can take place. It would be interesting to experiment with different sized tents designed for varying numbers of people. I would also like to experiment with adorning the surface of the tents with information, slogans; patterns that would be applied by painting, therefore the decoration would become both informative & functional. 

Thank you to the Small Encounters Collective & Adrian Howells for the opportunity and for their mentoring, advice & support throughout the week.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


The signage design and wildflower info was sourced from a little old book that I bought from a stall last year at Wildheart Gathering, very fitting that it should return to the site with a new purpose.

To celebrate Beltane & the coming of spring me & Mr Popple (Mr Popple’s Chocolate swapping working with edible brown stuff to earthy brown stuff) offered kids & adults workshop making a seed bomb.  

My first seed bomb making workshop happened in October 2010 as part of the big draw with the notion of ‘drawing’ on the landscape by the planting of wild flowers. The slogan of ‘make your mark on the future landscape’ was developed alongside this project. This concept relates to permaculture principles.

Packaged Seed Bombs and Seed Bomb about to be chucked at the Festival Park Garden Festival Site, Hanley, 2010

The workshop aimed to offer a fun activity for youngsters at the festival, with a springtime theme and deeper meaning. For the adults we had more in depth information and a choice of carefully selected seeds suitable for different growing conditions. For both children & adults the workshop began with a discussion about where they would like to plant their seed bomb and why.
The Mix was selected based on where the Seed Bomb was aimed for

The workshop was an enjoyable process; I was particularly interested in hearing the tales of where their loaded bombs were aimed for. One was off to Ireland! The seed bomb workshops are still very much experimental and I have exchanged contact details with participants, with the intention of sharing stories and pictures of the bombing action, and the flourishing results (and to find out if the mix allowed the flowers to flourish at all) I anticipated it may be a case of trial and error, until a good mix/ method is achieved.
However, I planted one of the seed bombs in a pot of compost and left it on my windowsill at home, to test the mix, prior to going to the festival. I returned home to find 3 tiny seedlings sprouting from the dampened clay mixture, a sure sign of spring and affirmation of a good mix- I hope everyone else’s seed bombs will flourish too!

Wildflower seedlings appearing from the clay compost seed bomb mix

Part of the workshop also included designing a wrapper for the Seed Bomb to be easily carried away in. These were designed with slogans, patterns and thoughts about planting wildflowers. 

I really look forward to delivering another workshop soon, definitely closer to home this time as there is currently a lot of derelict wasteland and areas in Stoke-on-Trent in need of vibrancy, wild flowers and beneficial insects. People need to start taking responsibly for both their current and future landscapes. Something as simple as planting a few wild flowers really can make a difference now, engaging youngsters in this sort of activity connects them with the land. The notion of growing and showing their ability to grow something, and the impact that they can make on their local landscape is powerful and positive stuff for youngsters to engage with. 

The thanks and encouragement gained from participants at the festival has opened my eyes further to the possibilities within my local area.
  I am developing more seed bomb workshops, and other growing related workshops.

I am also selling sachets of quality wildflower seeds and seed bomb mix from the workshops too, these will be available when I deliver a workshop, stall or from Airspace Gallery. Watch this space for more info (any upcoming workshops will be listed on the blog).


Wildheart Gathering happened at the beginning of May, in west Sussex. Alongside delivering workshops at the festival I was able to experience some workshops on offer. I came away armed with new practical knowledge and feeling refreshed & inspired at the relevance and importance of the topics covered in the workshops. Highlights included ‘Sacred Economics’ a talk & discussion, based on the writing of Charles Eisenstein, about the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism, and how we can now begin to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being/living. More on sacred economics here.

A ‘Connecting to nature’ workshop lead by Thomas Schorr-kon, from Trackways, included discussions about the healing properties of English Plantain/Ribwort Palntain (Plantago lanceolata), in particular it’s numbing action when crushed and rubbed on bites and stings and I have since been spotting an abundance of it , and intend to make use of the leaves in a herbal tea, after drying.

The workshop also included techniques based on ‘stalking’ which included an activity of learning how to walk within in the natural environment  quietly, causing no disruption to wildlife- learning to ‘blend’ with nature . We also did blindfolded plant identification- identifying if a plant leaf was edible/poisonous from it being placed in our hands with our eyes closed and using communication techniques. These activities really focussed the mind and demonstrated two of many techniques on how to re-connect with the natural world.

I also got involved with a permaculture & forest garden talk, which included a forage in the nearby woodland. ..Below are some of the plants and trees we were able to find, sample and discuss...

Hawthorn is the flower associated with the coming of spring and the Beltane festival that is celebrated at Wildheart; sure enough the young buds were bursting into flower on some of the trees on the site. The eating of the young flower buds and young leaves – traditionally known as ‘bread and cheese’ by schoolchildren who would pick these to eat on the way to school in days gone by. I recall planting a hawthorn hedge when at primary school, and helped with planting around 100 plants around the perimeter of the local community allotment last month.  I now feel a familiarity with the Hawthorn. Last September I attended my first Wildheart gathering and on a wild food walk was introduced to picking & eating hawthorn berries. I picked berries from the site and returned home to make fruit leathers, which have been nibbled on throughout the winter months. I also sourced an abundance of berries from Hanley Park, and have since returned to the same trees to gather leaves for early summer salads & flowers to make a herbal tincture with.  There are ways of foraging in the city, it is simply getting to know exactly what you are picking and being sure it is safe, in an unsprayed, unpolluted area.

Picking the flowers, the flowers in a net bag carrying & the picked flowers & leaves in a bowl for processing.

I now can recognise a lime tree thanks to the walk with a forage workshop, at Wildheart. Once you have interacted with a tree you  begin to see them everywhere and realise the abundance of potential food, salads, and teas around us daily. The main feature I now look for when identifying a lime is the clustered growth of young shoots from the bottom of the tree. The lime has light green heart shaped leaves with serrated edges. You can eat lime leaves in salads, but I’m holding off and waiting for the sweet-scented lime flowers to make an appearance in July, I want to dry these to make a calming & restorative lime flower (or linden blossom) tea.

I regularly pick nettles from my garden or wherever else I find them, and make tea, use them instead of spinach in dishes or make nettle soup. We were shown how to pick fresh nettle without them stinging, by approaching the leaf from the underside, with confidence & firmness! Also, how to eat them raw by rolling and chewing with the molars. A fun experiment. Even when Nettles do sting, it’s not so bad- but a good tip is to beak the stem and use the juice within the stem to rub onto the skin- this juice contains the antidote to the sting.
We also identified, picked and tasted ground ivy, & beech leaves.

I will be returning to the next gathering in September…