Artist Fiona MacDonald (Feral Practice) and Marcus Coates have been commissioned by Somerset Art Works to create a new work for the Art Weeks Festival this year. Part of the County of Contrasts commissioning programme, the artists will create new participatory sound art work that fosters connections between Somerset’s people and its plants, by bringing knowledge of local natural history to bear on our everyday human problems and dilemmas.
In May, they began to collect questions from the public, via posters, social media and websites. The artist put together a short video to explain the project. Any questions were welcome, as long as they were not about plants!
What questions did the public submit?
We received questions which were diverse, really touching and many which were incredibly interesting. The following are just a small selection:
Some are personal,
‘I am a twenty stone woman and have been this weight for most of my adult life. I have repeatedly tried diets, but to no avail. What would the plants suggest I do about finding the right nutritional solution for me?’
‘How do I accept my uniqueness, without berating myself for being so different to everyone else?’
Some are philosophical,
‘Why have the human species evolved to be not only incredibly intelligent, but in parallel so destructive?’
‘In earlier days when I had no money I thought having some would be enough to keep me happy. Now I have money, property and good fortune. I am extremely happy, but I am still seeking to add to my assets in the late summer of my life. What is it about the human species that keeps us striving?’
Some are practical,
‘My home is a minimalist tribute and is painted entirely white. For a while now I have been wondering whether I should introduce colour. My question is: Should I start to introduce colour by painting some of the walls?’
So what are the artists doing with the questions?
During the time when the questions came through, the artists made contact with a number of Somerset agencies; RSBP, PlantLife and Somerset Rare Plants Group and individuals, aiming to find plant experts to collaborate with. The plant experts play an important role not only by contributing their knowledge of plants in Somerset, but they will also lead the artist to the plants, where Fiona and Marcus will direct the conversations which will be recorded and then shared as a podcast during Somerset Art Weeks Festival.
The recording trip
The recording trips took place between 5-7 June. The team consisted of artist Fiona MacDonld and Marcus Coates, and graduate artist assistant Shannon Watson.
On day one the team went with Liz McDonnell of the Somerset Rare Plants Group to Cheddar, firstly to a wooded valley nearby. Fiona exclaimed: “It was fascinating to learn about the unusual life cycle of the Autumn Crocus, which we explored in relation to a question from someone struggling with their own sense of difference from others.”
Later they went up on to the top of Cheddar Gorge, the perfect place for one of the questions, explained by Marcus: “In response to a question from a listener about being embarrassed and shy, we studied the way that plants hide from and are shaped by the wind.”
On day two, the team went to Shapwick Heath and West Sedgemoor with research scientist Dr Nigel Chaffey and Dion Warner, a volunteer guide and wildlife recorder for the RSPB and Natural England. Our project manager and Programme Associate, Zoe Li joined the trip. They had the privilege of visiting the restricted areas in one of the best wetland reserves in the UK, where they successfully found plants relevant to some of the questions, as planned. Our graduate artist Shannon took some amazing images with a camera lens from Dion, experimenting on her wildlife photography to capture insects and plants in detail.
“Shapwick Heath was astonishing, perhaps the most vibrantly and alive habitat we have experienced. It was a privilege to learn about this special place in the company of Dion and Nigel, who have such passion and depth of knowledge about the species we were discussing.”
On the final day of recording, we met ecologist Dr Alison Smith of Plantlife, who introduced us to the Atlantic woodland habitats of the Quantock Hills.
Fiona and Marcus were delighted with how the trip went: “We were particularly keen to learn more about the varieties and life cycles of lichens, which are a collaboration between two very different organisms – a fungi and a plant algae. They seemed ideally placed to teach us how humans might better work together towards a common benefit, despite holding very different viewpoints. “
When we first heard about the proposal, we were attracted by how different the project sounded and the amount of knowledge and innovation that the artist will bring to the project. The artists have done extensive research into the behaviour and characteristics of certain rare plants that can be found in Somerset, which will help to answer some of the questions. This intriguing process may not be seen by many, but you’ll be able to hear it during the Somerset Art Weeks Festival and beyond.
When and where I can hear the answers?
You can listen to the extract of recordings and interview with artist Fiona MacDonald during the Somerset Art Weeks Festival on BBC Somerset. Or visit the listening station and display at Bridgwater library.
Join our Walk and Talk event with the artists during Art Weeks
Saturday 21 September, 11am – 1pm
Join the artists for an informal walk and talk starting at Bridgwater Library. Ask questions and
discover answers from plants as you walk.
Bridgwater Library, Binford Place, BRIDGWATER, TA6 3LF
Booking essential: 01458 253800 / [email protected]
More about the commission: https://somersetartworks.org.uk/asp/
Credit: Photos by Shannon Watson
Published on August 6, 2019 // Sarah Adey