Something Held in the Mouth

On Saturday 5th October we headed back to Folkestone for the ‘Mouthings’ symposium, part of ‘Something Held in the Mouth’ Festival at Custom. Yo can listen to an audio recording of my talk, along with the powerpoint slides, here:

The script does not follow the audio exactly (some improvisation!):

  • I’m going to talk about East End Jam, a walking, foraging, and preserving project that celebrates the unexpected fruitfulness of the urban environment. On the table in front of you are some of the jams, jellies and chutneys that we  have made as part of the project. I would like to suggest that you begin with a taste of the blackberry jam.
  • I’ve popped this image in here, as I realised on a recent visit to my parents that this painting – or rather a reproduction of this painting – hung on the wall above our dining table in the house that I grew up in. When tracing this artworks development and sources it feels like it played a role.
  • But really the story begins in Stratford, East London, in 2014. I had been invited to create a walk for the artist Hilary Powell, to link Stratford station with sugarhouse lane. As I wandered through the ordinary residential streets and light industrial  estates, the paths along the side of the Lea navigation I was struck by how much fruit there was. It was mid august and the neighbourhood was overflowing with ripeness. Plums and blackberries, apples and sloes. I stood facing this view, a plum tree overhanging the waterway – the metal structure in the foreground providing a bridge across. As I reached into its branches, pulling fruit down to pick, the reverberations moved through the tree, causing the ripe fruit to fall, plopping into the water behind and to each side of me. Each plum that I gathered triggered a chain reaction, plop, splosh down.
  • Around the corner from here – the other side of a lock keeper’s cottage a blanket of small yellow plums – mirabelles – squashed underneath my feet as I walked through. A soft squelch and slip before the hard pip engaged with the sole of my shoe and the gravelly surface of the path. Emerging out of this laden with fruit, onto sugarhouse lane, making jam felt obvious. At this point I’d like to invite you to try the plum jam.
  • I took the bounty of that solo walk and made jam, then as I walked the route with a group we stopped at points along the way where the fruit came from – I told them about the trees, bushes, brambles, and we ate the jam together.
  • The walking and the foraging are a way of being in a place that changes your perception. You move differently – more slowly perhaps and less set on a straight line or path. You allow your attention to be drawn, to zig zag back and forth. You look up – to scan trees for fruit – or for blossom that is the tell of fruit-to-come. You look down, onto the ground, the carpet of plums or the purple stained bird shit revealing hidden elderberries.  Looking and moving is different, but the shift encompasses all of your senses – the smell of the fig tree, the plop and splosh of the plum falling into the water, the squelchy feel underfoot.
  • From that initial walk it felt clear that the next step was to make the walking and foraging and jam making part of the project participatory. So I began to invite people to join me. We spread out from Stratford and walked in hackney wick, homerton, london fields, and west ham too. It seems no matter where I go in the city with this work there is fruit there to meet us.
  • Walking together with a group of people, pausing and looking, gathering, picking makes a space for conversations – we talk about the fruit that we are finding, how to identify it, whether they have seen it before, we talk about the jam that they have made before – or seen other people making, or that they like to eat. We talk about the seasons and the weather and if things are early or late this year – or if there is a good or bad crop.
  • The artwork also instigates performances of unusual behaviours. The reaching and leaning over to pick, climbing up – trees, onto railings. Leaning down and around, clambering in and out of bushes disrupt the normative expectations of activity in urban space.
  • These actions open spaces for conversation and discussion – they make it possible for people to talk – passersby say ‘what are you doing?’ ‘can you eat that?’ ‘ what is that?’ they stop and look, they see things differently, they notice too.
  • Asserting the right to the street (and park, and path and waste ground) for playful behaviour, use and harvest is an important activity to exercise common rights for the free enjoyment of common resources, spaces and produce. Some parks and private public spaces have byelaws in place forbidding foraging. Encouraging participants to consider these rules, and to choose whether or not to obey them, is a key component of challenging the creeping reduction of our rights.
  • Equally the artwork challenges binary thinking about urban space. Elizabeth Wilson, in her 1995 paper ‘The Rhetoric of Urban Space’ points out that largely we consider the city and nature as opposites – shorthand for the rural and the urban – one excludes the other.
  • Yet here we are in London zone 2 gathering kilos of blackberries, 4 different varieties of plums, and hedgerow fruits galore.
  • The spaces that are fruitful vary – some are firmly what I would call – after Richard Mabey’s 1973 book – ‘the unofficial countryside’ these pieces of land, left over, in between, alongside accidents of planning and design include railway sidings and waste grounds, empty plots, cut off corners alongside footpaths and playing fields – perfect terrain for brambles, nettles, rowan, crab apple and other edible delights to thrive. These are the spaces that are at risk – in a city crazed by land values and the building of ever more flats. As more and more ingenious uses for small and cut off parcels of land come into play– only the steepest of banks, the trickiest of corners the most ‘useless’ of places are overlooked.
  • The second space is the park – some of course more fruitful than others – though much of the East End of London benefits from a post-war policy to plant fruit trees in the drive for access to fruit in the face of rationing. Here I’d like you to pause and try the rose petal jam.
  • Walking, foraging, picking and preserving together with a group creates a temporary community provoking embodied explorations of urban food, access, nature in the city, and the free use of common resources. As a participatory artwork it is both relational and activist – it considers the instigation, the facilitation of a real-world activity with convivial moments. Its activist stance hopes that through learning about and practicing plant identification, picking and preserve making participants will take away new skills and confidence to enact them again, repeatedly.
  • When I first started working on this I was dismissive of what I perceived as an instrumentalist agenda around the potential of the project in relation to broader wellbeing – physical and mental health benefits of walking, being outside, participating in a group activity. But the more that I practice it the more that I realise that these benefits are real and tangible – and not to be dismissed. Please try the apple and rowan jelly.
  • For example walking in 2017 with a group of adults living in assisted accommodation in Stratford, despite their flats’ location on the edge of the Olympic Park, more than 50% of them had never been there. To the other side of the flats, the greenway, a raised footpath that follows the northern outfall sewer’s route to Beckton is an accessible footpath that connects several public parks and east london neighbourhoods – yet none of them had ever crossed the road to walk it.
  • Equally important to the walking, the foraging and the making of the jam is the eating.
  • The end point of the cycle of the artwork are jamborees – free public feasts where we share the preserves that we have made over the course of the year.
  • The jamborees are an opportunity people who have participated in the workshops to come together again – to tell others what we made and how we made it and where we found the fruit. They draw on traditions of food celebrations at the end of a harvest season and open pathways for the next season – signing up new participants who want to come and forage and cook together.
  • Art and food have a long standing connection – acknowledging the trajectories of creative practice that have shaped my work – from the Millet painting that I began with to Jorge and Lucy Orta’s hortirecycling, Agnes Varda’s The gleaners and the gleaners and I, to the fallen fruit collective’s fruit maps of LA and other cities, Ceri Buck’s Invisible Food, and Company Drinks’ Going Picking is helpful feeling a sense of belonging to a movement of artists whose work intersects with food systems.
  • Looking forward the experiments such as this pop up jam kitchen created here on the Harbour arm in Folkestone, are inspiring ideas for future development including; a co-operative jam hub, a mobile jam kitchen for pop up events and community partnerships to extend the reach of the artwork. The challenge now is to think and plan for ways for the work to grow without resorting to a business-based growth mindset or model – the basis of which would undermine the core principles of the the artwork.