Putting culture back into the soil

In an article ‘Bringing the arts down the earth’ in Resurgence earlier this year, Clive Adams, co-director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW) wrote:

“The linking of the words ‘soil’ and ‘culture’ may seem strange, but it should be remembered that the word ‘culture’ was originally used in the ‘agri-cultural’ sense, and it was only from the 16th century that it increasingly came to be used figuratively; as the soil was improved by good husbandry, so the mind was improved by education and the arts. Perhaps it is now time for the arts and education to help put culture back into the soil.”

Prompted by World Food Day on October 16th, curiosity to research the field before embarking on further agricultural-cultural ventures, and a determination to write more blogs, over the last couple of weeks I’ve put together a short list of theatre and art projects that explore, interrogate and make hay with farming, gardening and food.

When, in writing a Masters dissertation on the role of theatre in social change in 2009, I looked for examples of theatre engaging with farming and gardening, I didn’t find many examples.

Now, six years on, I’m aware of plenty. This has a much to do with the circles I’ve moved in since then, but I’d suggest, also reflects a broad and palpable shift towards inter-disciplinary collaboration, community engagement and ecological exploration within theatre and the arts more broadly.

Here’s a brief low-down on the landscape I see:

Exchange                                                                                                                      Chris Drury and Kay Syrad                                                                                         2013

Part of Cape Farewell’s Rural Artist Residency program, land artist Chris Drury and writer Kay Syrad worked with three family-run organic farms in Sydling, St Nicholas, West Dorset and were invited to produce a personal response. They documented the stories of farmers in a hand-made book, bound in cowhide and including prints of local wild plants amongst the pages. The book reveals the resilience, creativity and complexity of organic farming.

Our Food                                                                                                                        Ruth Hayward, Nicola Kenton, William Mortada, Amy Mycock and Tom Wakeford, with directors Jon Luke McKie, Erin Walcon and Patricia Cumper                                               2013

An initiative that grew out of impulse to widen the range of people involved in discourse within food research, this project produced a series of community events and performances in Newcastle and London, and commissioned four projects, including Green Stage’s collaboration with performers and community gardeners in Cardiff for Trans-Plantable Living Room. The three other commissions worked with community groups, schools and researchers to explore what food means to people in Ullapool, Coventry and Birmingham and White City, London.

Christian Bell, Melissa Aldape and Juan M Aldape
2013 and 2015

This exchange between farmers and performers focused on the concept of community in the process of creating site-specific performance. As well as a performance, the farm venue in County Tippery, Ireland, hosted an exhibition, a weekly People’s Kitchen and workshops on movement, story-telling and farm practice. The vision of the project was that artistic practices have the unique ability to cultivate dialogue around food production, at a local and global scale.

This year that project has begun in Lac Qui Parle County, Minnesota.

Clouds of Witness
Naomi Heath, and Ciara O’Flynn.

Digital sound artist Naomi Heath of Ceredigion and visual artist and sculptor Ciara O’Flynn of County Kerry spent time in Bro Cegir and Y Fron Goch in the Dyfi valley in Wales helping out on farms and working with children in the nearby primary school.Through the creative process, an exhibition was created, featuring objects with printed idioms such as “pobol yw’r lle” (people are the place) and 18 photos of people, with maps drawn on their faces. Farmer Aeron Pugh built the intriguingly named ‘zoetrope’ and Naomi Heath created a short filmed performance personifying the characters of different tractors.

Edible Education
This is Rubbish

The education program of This is Rubbish, an organisation that communicates the scale of preventable food waste in the UK through research and creative events.  In autumn 2014 Edible Education saw a group of artists, educators and chefs devise and deliver a series of interactive performances and workshops in London schools. The performance took students on a journey through the food supply chain, meeting Compestella de Landfill, Bert Banana and Jazzy apple, learning where food comes from and why its wasted, devising a dance, and sampling tasty delights prepared with surplus food that would otherwise have been thrown away.
Edible Education
Edible Education 2014 – Bert, Compostella and Jazzy.


Soil Cultures

CCAW, 2013-2016

Initiated by the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, this three-year project includes a series of 12 residencies across South West England and at Kew Gardens, giving artists time for experimentation, research and development. The resultant work makes up an exhibition Soil Cultures: Young Shoots, which will be on tour over the coming months:

  • Eden Project, 8 January – 21 February
  • Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton  28 February – 9 April
  • White Moose, Barnstaple, 18 April – 5 June

The artists included in the residency include:

Anton Burdakov at the Eden Project with Soil Map

A 3D map of kaolinite, the most basic form of clay, which is found around the Eden Project in Cornwall, this sculpture was gradually populated with artifacts, images and stories collected from interactions with the Eden community, including students from the MA in Art and Environment at Falmouth University. Burdakov explores how the cycles and structure of soil are reflected in those of human life- how soil is a living archive, with different strata of meaning and memory.

Anne-Marie Culhane at Streatham Campus with Exeter Campus Almanac

Dedicated to increasing our “understanding of our place in the family of things”, Ann Marie Culhane was resident at Streatham Campus, Exeter University, where she led the creation of the Exeter Campus Almanac, a series of ecological and horticultural events, celebrations, walks and performances following the seasons.

Complementing this exhibition of new work, is a second exhibition of established artists:

Soil Cultures: Deep Roots

Featuring artists Paolo Barrile, Mel Chin, herman de vries, Richard Long, Ana Mendieta and Claire Pentecost; as well as work from British artists Chris Drury, Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash, Sandra Masterson, Daro Montag, Peter Ward and Adam White, the exhibition will tour:

  • Falmouth Art Gallery until 21 November 2015
  • Peninsula Arts at Plymouth University – 16 January to 19 March 2016

In addition to the artist residency program and exhibitions, Soil Cultures has involved a four day Forum, in collaboration with RANE (Research in Art, Nature and Envrionment). Titled Revitalising our relationship to the soil and held on 2-5 July 2015, it saw 80 participants come together at Falmouth University for workshops in visual and literary arts.

A Field of Wheat                                                                                                            Ann-Marie Culhane, Ruth Levene and Peter Lungren                                                         October 2015- October 2016

Initiated by artists Ann-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene with farmer Peter Lungren, this year long project has grown out of two years research into the history, culture, economics and community around wheat production. Field of Wheat offers members of the public the chance to invest £200 into a crop of wheat, and in exchange become part of a collective making decisions about the growing and harvesting process, sharing discussion and reflection on different ways of thinking about food and farming, as well as the proceeds of the harvest.

METAL – with Lucy + Jorge Orta and 10 commissioned artists                                             September 2015

This weekend long harvest festival, held in Peterborough on 19th and 20th September 2015 featured food and craft markets, bread-making, a folkloric ritual procession and a mass public ceilidh. The focus of the weekend was a meal for 500 people in Peterborough’s Cathedral Square, produced by Lucy + Jorge Orta, with ingredients sourced in large part from local suppliers, including nearby allotments; thereby connecting people to land and harvest rituals, and promoting local producers.

Place at the Table                                                                                                          B-Arts, Stoke on Trent                                                                                          November 2015

In this performance, the audience were invited to roll up their sleeves and earn their place at the table by helping to prepare a three course meal, ably guided by chefs from the School of Improbable cooking. Exploring where food comes from, who has access to it, and what it’s worth, the show featured storytelling, theatre and live music; references to Stoke, France and Syria; and the sharing of the communally prepared meal.
The show was part of the British Ceramics Biennial.


Hiraeth                                                                                                                Buddug James Jones Collective                                                                           September – October 2015, and touring from Autumn 2016

Following the story of Buddug James Jones as she moves from her family’s farm in Wales to London to become a theatre desginer, this show explores the wider issues affecting the countryside as young people choose to leave for urban futures and feel the burden of the loss on the places they leave behind. Devised by Buddug, Jesse Briton and Maz McKintosh, and performed by Buddug and two musicians, the show features live music and is followed by a traditional Welsh twmpath of folk dances. It has had critically acclaimed runs at Edinburgh festival and Soho theatre, and a sell out tour to New Zealand. The UK tour continues.


Three Acres and a Cow                                                                                          Touring nationwide

“Part TED Talk, part history lecture, part folk-club singalong, part poetry slam, part storytelling session”, Three Acres and a Cow takes its audience on a journey through the radical history of people’s relationship to the land in the UK, via enclosure, the industrial revolution, the Irish Land League to current day food sovereignty movement and housing crisis.


Mouthful                                                                                                                   Metta Theatre, Trafalgar Studio London                                                                   September – October 2015, and touring from Autumn 2016

Bringing food politics to London’s West End, this darkly comic production features six short plays that take the audience from northern Nigeria to a dystopian future where water has become so scarce that people will sacrifice anything to drink a few drops. Created by six playwrights (Bola Agbaje, Lydia Adetunji, Clare Bayley, Inua Ellams, Neil LaBute and Pedro Miguel Rozo)  paired with scientists (Professors Tim Benton, Kamal Bawa, Suzanne Filteau, Ilkka Hanski, Molly Jahn and Tim Lang) the plays explore the present and dystopic future of our relationship with food and water.




So, what happens when we bring together fields of practice, pull down fences, or at least, sit a while on gates and stiles? This is a question to ponder on for further bloggings.

For now this is a small selection of projects, from a short rake through my memory and a couple of internet-searches. Undoubtedly further digging would unearth plenty more examples. If you know of any, please do share them, email: greenstageuk@gmail.com, or tweet @greentheatreuk