Becoming Dragon

All images © The Hatchling.

In this blog I will take you on a behind-the-scenes tour of “becoming dragon”: the multi-discipline and multi-sited collaboration that has brought The Hatchling to life. Thanks to Brigstow funding I have been lucky enough to sit in during R&D workshops and performance rehearsals to witness key innovations and stages in the creative development of this project. This blog will take you on that journey of discovery and becoming, and underline the extraordinary talent, expertise and energy that has gone into the making of this ground-breaking theatrical performance. The blog takes the form of a photographic  essay and is organized around a series of “landing sites” that have been key to the development of the project.

Landing Site 1: University of Bristol, May 2017 

I am in the middle of dissertation marking when I receive an email from Gail Lambourne manager of the Brigstow Institute, a University of Bristol institute set up to foster experimental inter-disciplinary and co-produced research. At this point in the summer marking schedule any distraction is welcome but a message from Gail is particularly so as she is always promoting interesting events and opportunities. This message exceeds expectations:

“Dear Merle,

We would like to invite you to a short meeting to introduce a project that Brigstow has asked to be involved in.  The aim is to gather around 15 academics from UoB whose research might intersect with the project.  I’m afraid there are some confidential issues which mean we’re unable to share any more detail with you until the meeting, but we hope the following outline might help:

Brigstow has been approached about an arts project of a phenomenal scale. The creative team includes the puppet director of War Horse, a kite world champion flier and set designer for Bjork. The project has some key research and public engagement opportunities which will reach audiences in their tens of thousands.

So we would like to invite you to meet the creative director of the project to find out more.

Having looked at calendars, we are proposing Wednesday 12th July between 2.30 & 4.00 pm for the meeting.  Would you be interested in attending?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Gail”

Photograph of Angie Bual
Image 1: Angie Bual Creative director of The Hatchling

A tingle of excitement runs up my spine. An arts project of phenomenal scale the creative team behind which includes the puppet director of War Horse and the set designer for Bjork: sign me up! I immediately reply in the affirmative to Gail and it’s not long before I and several other academic researchers meet Angie Bual, an award-winning producer and the artistic director of Trigger – a Community Interest Company that creates memorable live and digital events that interrupt daily life – to find out more.

Angie begins by telling us a story. One morning a mysterious giant egg appears in the centre of a city. The city’s inhabitants are intrigued and alarmed by its unexpected arrival. Will it hatch? What will hatch? Will it be friendly? When the egg hatches later that morning a baby dragon emerges, unsure of its urban surroundings and the human interest in it. Apprehensively, she begins to take her first steps and sense her surroundings. She is both curious and cautious. A dog bark intrigues. Traffic lights and sirens unsettle. Getting bolder she roams the city streets interacting with the sights and sounds and people and places she encounters along the way. Fatigued after an overwhelming day she finds a good place to build a nest and rest for the night. Although she has settled down for the evening her human co-inhabitants are left with a conundrum: what should they do about their new visitor? Should they welcome her or be wary? The next morning the dragon has doubled in size. This day she is more confident and purposeful when roaming the city. She is seeking something. As the sun is setting, she finds what she has been looking for – a pearl! – then undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and takes flight after it, leaving behind her awestruck human audience.

What an audacious idea. But any reservations there could be about the scale and ambition of this city-wide theatrical spectacular are not entertainable. Everyone who has just witnessed Angie’s pitch knows that she is the woman to make this event a reality. She tells us that the idea was partly inspired by a trip to China, where she learnt about Chinese dragon folklore and their highly crafted and intricate dragon dances. Recognizing that dragon legends and story patterns reoccur not just across China and Asia but also across Europe and the British and Irish Isles, Angie thought that a performance centred around a dragon might be an effective way to connect cultures, traditions, and communities.

Gail then outlines why academics have been invited along to hear about Angie’s project, a project that is not only charting new ground in the world of puppetry making but also offers the opportunity to explore the role co-creative large-scale puppetry can play in engaging urban communities and environments and addressing the themes of belonging and migration, as well as cross-cultural folklore and mythology. Brigstow has small pots of money to help facilitate academic research into and public engagement opportunities around the performance, and Gail invites us to come up with ideas and to apply for funding. Given my previous research into taxidermy, the craft skill of preparing and mounting animal skins to appear ‘lifelike’, I was immediately interested in researching the puppetry craft and performance skills needed to make a mythical creature come to life.

The funding application leads with the question: How do you develop, make and embody a believable yet mythical beast based on various real and imagined creatures that “reads” as one? Titling the project “Becoming Dragon”, I am not just interested in the animal references, real and imagined, that will inform both the making and performance of the dragon but also the multi-faceted creative collaborations needed to enable a human-operated puppet roam a city’s streets and take flight, a world first in the world of puppetry. However, rather than just witness this process from the side lines, I state the project will feed into and create a valuable record of the process of “becoming dragon”.

I submit my application and a few weeks later hear the good news from Gail that the project has received funding from Brigstow and that I can join The Hatchling team for their first R&D workshop.

Landing Site 2: Former British Aerospace Factory, Filton, December 2017  

Image 2: The creative team with the walking and flying dragon prototypes

I arrive at the former factory of British Aerospace and immediately get a sense of the scale of the project. The cavernous hanger, where numerous aeroplane prototypes and designs were once built, including Concorde , is now the R&D workshop for the project. Angie gives me a tour of the space and introduces me to the large-scale walking and flying dragon prototypes that are already competing for my attention.

It is fitting that the research and development stage of a project attempting to make a human-operated puppet fly is taking place at this historic centre of aviation innovation. Angie informs that for the flying dragon prototype they have been experimenting with makers at Cameron Balloons. The idea developed so far is that the walking dragon puppet will house an inflatable dragon so that when the time comes for the dragon’s metamorphosis, the walking dragon puppet structure will burst open as the flying dragon inflates and takes to the skies. Conceptually this idea is as beautiful as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Technically it sounds like a demanding design puzzle. Having read about the history of the Filton site before arriving, many of their prototypes failed to reach flight and I marvel at the ingenuity, skill and sheer chutzpah  needed to pull this theatrical stunt off. And as if to quell any questioning the flying dragon prototype majestically inflates and is run across the hanger like a soaring kite by members of the creative team.

Angie turns attentions back down to ground level by introducing me to the walking dragon puppet prototype and her designer Carl Robertshaw. Carl is a world champion kite-flyer who has been designing and  making kites for over 20 years as well as designing and consulting on fabric structures and installations for performances, events and installations using kites as his main inspiration. If anyone has the know-how to make a sculptural walking form metamorphosize into a flying one, it’s clearly Carl.

He takes me over to the prototype of the adult dragon and reminds me that there will also be a juvenile dragon puppet. Standing next to the adult dragon prototype I get a sense of her awesome size. She could certainly be intimidating to meet walking down a city street. For the moment though, her structure is made from thin flexible plastic tubing and tension ropes, which makes her appear skeletal and delicate. Carl then introduces the scale model of the adult dragon which he built on “mum’s coffee table” and I get a much better understanding of the “look” of the dragon. Carl confides that her body structure has been highly influenced by the body and wings of Pterosaurs, prehistoric flying lizards that were basically “catapults with arms”. Pterosaurs were also the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight so it makes sense that a dragon might have descended from them. Meanwhile her head and face have closer affinities with Chinese dragon-dance puppets. Carl states this is deliberate as it not only makes her appear more sympathetic, but also importantly references the Chinese folklore and performances that initially inspired Angie. The dragon is therefore a chimera of different animal and cultural references.

Carl then introduces me to Russel Beck, a leading theatre and stage prop-maker, who is collaborating with Carl on the puppet build. Today they are workshopping the puppet’s range of movement with the performers. Russel states that what they do not want is “a box on legs” and that the structure needs mobility. Yet at the same time they also do not want the structure to be so mobile that she lacks “bodily integrity”. Carl adds that both they and the performers need a “responsive structure” that tells them “what the body can and can’t do” and that this responsiveness must come as much from the puppet as much as from the performers.

Image 5: The puppeteers assemble

As if on cue the performers appear and assemble around the adult prototype. I am introduced to the leader of the troupe and the project’s director of puppetry, Mervyn Millar. “Merv” is one of the world’s most experienced puppetry directors and was part of the original creative team behind the National Theatre’s ground-breaking production of War Horse. This production was consistently praised for the power of its puppetry, which Merv co-devised and directed. Although the audience could see the that the puppets were human-operated, there was something about the combination of the intricate life-size sculptural-horse puppets and the realistic movements created by their puppeteer-operators that meant the hybrid human-puppet-horses took on lives of their own.

Image 6: Mervyn Millar on the prototype puppet

Mervyn has reassembled some of the War Horse puppeteers for this R&D phase and it is now his and the performers’ job to work out how to breathe life into the dragon puppets. However, before that magical alchemy can be achieved Mervyn informs that they have far more prosaic things to work out, like “how the poles work”. Much like a traditional Chinese dragon puppet, the head, shoulders and hips of the prototype adult dragon are lifted and operated by several poles. The poles allow the puppeteers to manipulate these different body-sections and the puppeteers must be able to co-ordinate these movements with the performers who are operating the legs and the tail so that the dragon has a convincing and compelling walk.

Today Merv is particularly interested in learning about the range of movement and weight distribution as “there are various things we don’t yet know about the puppet”. He tells the puppeteers to experiment with movement and range but to always shout “stop” if uncomfortable or it “feels off”. Russel adds they are also concerned to understand “how it moves and how you move with it” and to ensure both the performers and puppets “survive the performance”. The health and safety of performers and the robustness of the puppet are paramount.

The performers take to their places on the prototype puppet body. Three performers are assigned to the poles on the head. Sets of two performers are assigned to the poles on the hips and shoulders, while the four legs and tail are assigned to a performer each. All the pole operators are asked by Merv to lift in unison and the puppet body wobbles upwards. Carl tells me they have not yet worked out what they are doing with the neck and that it is “floating for now”. Although still a little wobblily the dragon body starts to cohere as the performers settle in their positions under her body.

Image 7: The puppeteers take their positions

Merv instructs the operators that before they start moving it is important to not think of themselves as “components parts” but as a “whole living, breathing” dragon. To assist in this, he asks them to “think about breath” and he directs the shoulder operators to lead the dragon’s breath. The two operators start to breath heavily in unison and begin to lift their poles up and down with their inhale and exhale. Merv then instructs the other operators to “match this breath and movement”, which they do. At this, the dragon’s body begins to look like it is inhaling and exhaling, becoming animate for the first time.

Having gotten the performers to breath as one, Merv suggests to the head operators that the dragon has “heard something” over in the corner of the hanger and they duly lift and tilt the head, as if she is listening. It is only a small movement, but it gives the dragon an alertness she did not have before. Merv reminds the performers to think about the “three Rs”, which he later tells me are “Reaction, Recognition, Responsiveness”. In this case, the dragon reacts to the sound by moving her head, recognizes that it is coming from over in the corner and so now needs to respond. Merv suggests that the response is that she wants to move closer to the noise to investigate. This means that the puppeteers face the challenge of making her walk.

Image 8: Russell Beck examining the puppet as the puppeteers ready her to walk

Attention turns to the performers operating her legs. Merv reminds everyone to “try to keep the breath going” as that rhythm should “help generate and propel the movement”. Merv instructs the performers to “try out the lizard walk” (which I find out later they have been researching by watching youtube videos). Lizards walk by moving diagonally opposite feet simultaneously, the left fore foot with the right hind, and the right fore with the left hind. There is a little hesitancy between the left and right dragon fore legs as neither appears sure which should move first. Once the right decisively goes for it, there is a bit of lag before the left hind legs move forward in response. The left fore leg then springs forward but again there is a delay before the right hind leg responds. As they lumber forward in this pattern of movement the back legs are constantly playing catch-up and at times appear improbably stretched behind the rest of the body. Yet as they pick up speed the delay between the diagonally opposite legs moving forward lessens and the dragon takes on a lolloping if not strictly lizard-like stride.

Image 9: First steps
Image 10: “Becoming dragon”

Once the dragon reaches her destination Merv tells the performers to “Ok stop”. He then asks the performers to let him and Russel know how “she handles and feels” so that they can make any necessary changes and adjustments. The left hind leg operator feeds back that at times the legs felt “too outstretched” and that it was difficult to “keep up and in sync”. Merv responds that it’s important that the operators all communicate with each other and that means “talking to one another” but that they also need to work out how to do this without “losing the dragon”. He also states that it’s ok if “our dragon doesn’t exactly walk like a lizard” and that they need to “work out her walk”. The shoulder pole operators then feedback that it felt like they were being “pulled in in different directions” and that they were “taking a lot of strain” when the hind legs lagged behind the fore legs. In response, Russel suggests that he and Carl might need to restrict the range of movement in the back lags to prevent or at least “reduce this”.

Listening in to this feedback session it is clear that “becoming dragon” is not just a case of perfecting a walk or developing a character, rather, it is an iterative and co-creative process between director/puppeteers and designer/maker and the puppet-prototype.

Landing Site 3: Rusell Beck Studio, London, January 24th 2019 

Image 11: Carl Robertshaw and Russell Beck making the dragon at Russell Beck Studio

I arrive at Russel Beck Studio excited to find out how the puppet design and build are progressing. The Studio is the UK’s leading workshop for the design and fabrication of props, sculpture and models for theater, exhibitions, and events. The double-height studio space’s walls are lined with the tools and materials of the trade as well as boxes tantalizingly labeled “Felt”, “Rubber”, “GLITTER”, “Zorro” and “Avenue Q”.  Russel gives me a brief tour of the space and introduces me to a team of prop-makers at the back of the studio who are busily engaged in making replacement ivy, a weekly job, for a production of Les Misérables. He then takes me back to the front of the workshop where Carl and Merv introduce me to the “new and improved” models of the juvenile and adult dragon puppets that Carl and Russel are in the middle of designing and making.

Image 12: The new and improved dragon models

The first thing I notice is that the heads, which are made from tracing paper and card, are much more characterful. Although made up of a series of geometric shapes, the overall sculptural effect is surprisingly friendly and open-faced rather than harsh or hard-edged. Carl informs me they plan to further soften the dragons’ sculptural and skeletal base structures by covering them in layers of translucent stretch fabric. He is hoping that these layers will help to build up a sense of the dragons’ musculature and skin while also suggesting “lightness and flight”. Carl brings out some of the fabric swatches they have been experimenting with, including some swatches of large iridescent sequins that will give the dragons’ a magical shimmer.

Image 13: Dimorphodon Macronyx is given a magical shimmer

Carl places one of the sequined swatches over an image of a Pterosaur, one of several reference images that are lying next to the models. I read that this image is of “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”. The image is a photocopy from Harry Seely’s popular 1901 book on pterosaurs, the wonderfully titled Dragon’s of the Air. A British paleontologist, Seeley correctly contended that Pterosaurs were warm blooded active flyers as opposed to Richard Owen’s earlier characterization of them as cold-blooded gliders. The question of if and how pterosaurs walked was an open question for paleontologists at this time and Seely posed Dimorphodon Macronyx as both a quadruped and biped in his book. This conundrum was answered in 1957 when William Lee Stokes found pterosaur tracks that were quadrupedal and although his attribution was dismissed at the time, several examples of quadrupedal pterosaur tracks were found in the 1990s that corroborated pterosaurs walked on all four limbs just as posed in Seeley’s image “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”.

Image 14 “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”, image from Harry Seely’s Dragons of the Air (1901)

Carl relates that Mark Witton, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth, introduced him to this rich history of scientific speculation and that it was conversations with Mark that informed his early design ideas for the dragons. For example, it was Mark who told Carl pterosaurs were quadrupedal and that they likely used a vaulting mechanism to obtain flight, a bit like vampire bats. Mark also told Carl that the Smithsonian institution once commissioned an aeronautical engineer to build a half scale remote-control flying model of a pterosaur to appear in its Imax documentary On The Wing (1985). Although the latex rubber and Kevlar Quetzalcoatlus northropi model was filmed flying for the documentary it spectacularly crashed as part of its publicity tour in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Carl, unfazed by this potentially foreboding story, informs me that they are still trying to work out how the dragon’s metamorphosis is going to work, so that the inflatable dragon emerges and can take off without a hitch in front of their crowd of spectators.

Image 15: Carl discusses the Dragon’s design DNA with me

Angie, who has joined us, explains that they have finally secured a city and date for the performance – Plymouth in August 2020 – and she is hoping that the dragon will take off after the pearl from Plymouth’s Hoe promenade, with its spectacular scenic views out to sea.  She and her production team are currently exploring how they might turn the dragon’s metamorphosis into a performance event in and of itself by commissioning a composer to set the transition to music. Merv adds that the musical interlude, as well as being an important performance element, will also be important practically, as it will give the puppeteers time to transition the adult dragon from its walking form to its flying form. Yet with so many unknowns still to work out I am amazed by the team’s calm confidence and as if to quell any doubts, Carl excitedly shows me a part of the puppet build they have recently resolved.

Carl relays that the joints needed to hold the skeletal structure together had previously been giving him and Russel a bit of a headache as they were not strong enough to endure the wear and tear of performance. However, after various tests they innovated a triple-joint bonded and toughened with a fiberglass wrap. To prove its strength Carl places the prototype joint on the studio floor and stands on it, whereupon it does not even bend. Impressed, I suddenly think the prototype also nicely reflects the strength of The Hatchling’s three-pronged creative team in: 1. Angie and her production team, 2. Carl, Russel and their making team and 3. Mervyn and his puppeteers. The combination of their respective skills, expertise and experience creates the perfect trifecta.

Landing Site 4: Theatre Royal’s TR2, Plymouth April 23-25th 2019 

Image 16: Arriving at TR2

I have come to the Theatre Royal’s TR2 to watch the puppet rehearsals and gain an appreciation of Merv and the puppeteer’s approach to bringing the dragon to life. The figure of the puppeteer is fascinating yet understudied in theatre and performance studies (though see Astles 2009, 2010).  This is because the puppeteer as a performer has traditionally been required to disappear, which is why they dress in black. The puppetry in War Horse was ground-breaking as they did not attempt to hide the puppeteers from the audience, rather, the puppeteers formed part of a performative alliance with the life-sized horse puppets so that they became an essential and unquestioned part of the horse performance. Although dressed in the same period costume as the actors, the puppeteers did not appear as all-powerful actors imposing their will on an inanimate object, rather the performance came from the relationship developed between the sculptural horse body and the human puppeteer bodies – it was through this interplay that a believable “horse” emerged.

Merv confides that part of the reason this interplay worked so well for War Horse was because both the designer and the puppeteers studied equine movement and behaviour. The designer was therefore able to build puppets that could move like horses while the puppeteer bodies were trained so that they could express and perform “horseness”, as Merv puts it, when operating the puppets. Given a dragon is a mythical animal I ask Merv if this makes the task of creating the dragon performance easier. Merv agrees that they are “less constrained” in some ways as they do not have to be so concerned with creating “accurate movements and behaviours”, however, they still need to base their dragon on realistic animal movements and behaviours so that an audience can invest in the dragon as a “believable beast”. This is also why Carl has gone to such pains to trace a probable evolutionary history for dragons and why pterosaur anatomy became the building blocks for his puppet design.

Image 17: Carl discusses the dragon design DNA at a sharing session

With the dragon design DNA decided upon it is now the task of Merv and the performers to create an impression of believable animality or “dragon-ness” when operating the puppets. As well as watching animated recreations of pterosaurs moving and flying, Merv and the cast have also been researching the movements and behaviours of lizards, Komodo dragons, vampire bats and even gorillas in a bid to build up a plausible physical and behavioural vocabulary for the dragons. Yet for the puppeteers it is one thing to attempt to embody these movements individually using their own bodies (and following the example of specialist animal movement coaches on youtube), it is quite another task to work as an ensemble and transmit this mélange of movements and behaviours into a puppet so that it reads as one creature.

However, before they reach this level of performance, Merv explains he first needs to help the puppeteers to develop a sense of themselves not as singular performers but as part of a collaborative “performance ecology” between “living and non-living bodies”.  Merv tells me that he developed a repertoire of exercises to help facilitate this transition during his time training the actor/puppeteers for international productions of War Horse (Millar 2007). This morning he is introducing the dragon performers to some of his “stick exercises” (Millar 2018). Although the assembled cast still includes a couple of trained War Horse performers, the majority have no prior puppetry experience. This lack of experience does not seem to faze Merv as they bring “new info and skills to the table”, and perhaps more importantly, do not need to “unlearn” anything.

For the warm-up exercise Merv gives each of the performers a stick and groups them in pairs. He instructs them that the aim is to keep both sticks off the ground by “sharing responsibility for them”. Before they begin the pair need to decide who will be the “leader and responder”. In their pairs the performers pick up their sticks and hold them between each other balancing them on their palms. Merv instructs them to “find their breath”. Once the pairs are breathing as one, Merv gets them moving by offering the prompt “explore your range of high and low”. The partnerships start to tentatively explore the physical limits they can push their new body-stick configurations to. On a couple of occasions, the partnerships overreach and the sticks come clattering to the ground, but Merv reassures them that “you might drop the polls, but it doesn’t matter”. On picking up their sticks Merv reminds them to “enjoy re-establishment of connection and mutual pressure” and “don’t forget breath”.

 

Just as it seems the partnerships are in tune with one another, Merv instructs the group to change partners and “establish connection and breath with” within their new partnerships. He tells me as an aside that switching partners is important as none of the performers will have a designated place on the puppet dragons, rather, they will rotate places. Merv directs the new partnerships to “hear each other through the object” and to “respond” by “speeding up or slowing down” the movement. He also reminds the partnerships to be aware of their “body-space” and that of the other partnerships, as some of them look like they are in danger of crashing into each other. Next, he prompts the partnerships to explore “angles and crossings” which necessarily leads to more clattering. After several such instances Merv senses a natural pause and asks the group “how was that?”. One of the performers feedbacks that at first it was difficult to “place trust” in the other person’s movement, but that when they closed their eyes it helped them to “to just focus on and respond to the feeling”. Another performer also closed their eyes to “focus on feeling”, but that this made them “less aware of spatial constraints”, including the other partnerships.

If the “sharing sticks” game was about developing trust and reciprocity, Merv’s tells me the next stick exercise is about developing “sympathetic performances”. The group remain in pairs and with a stick each, however, now the “game”, as Merv puts it, is to mirror each other’s movement with the stick. He directs that it does not matter if they are “not exactly mirroring” each other’s movements, rather, the aim is to mirror their “energy”. However, before this mirroring can begin Merv instructs the “leader” of the pair to focus on their stick, to feel its “weight” and give it “breath”. Although there is scant scholarship on the training of puppeteers for contemporary live theatre, Cariad Astles (2009: 54, 59) maintains that for the purposes of performance the puppeteer needs to be trained in a bodily sensibility that can “generate and transmit huge amounts of energy towards the inanimate figure, material or thing”, while also being encouraged to develop “an awareness of the energy held in the thing, respecting the qualities of the [puppet] itself”.

By prompting the performers to feel the weight of their stick, Merv is clearly encouraging the performers to recognize the potential energy held in it. Moreover, by asking them to give it “breath” he is also directing them to transfer the energy of their own breath and movement into the stick. For Astles (2010: 32), the importance of breath in puppetry training cannot be overstated as:

“From the breath comes the movement: the breath and movement partnership create phrases which map the score of the performance. Training the puppeteer is thus to train a bodily awareness of the breath as impulse to the movement, which in turn suggests life.”

Merv is clearly attempting to encourage this type of bodily awareness in the dragon puppeteers, and it is working: when the leaders begin to focus and transfer their breath movement into their sticks these simple objects become animate.

Once the leaders have established a breath and movement partnership with their own sticks, Merv instructs the followers to mirror the leader’s movement. This he tells me is to encourage “complimentary and sympathy” between the puppeteers, which will be hugely important when they come to operate the dragon puppet together. Watching the pairs, it is apparent some of the followers are hyper-focused on keeping in time and step with the leaders’ movements, whereas others seem more attuned to mirroring the overall dynamism of the performance. The latter of these approaches appears the more sympathetic, as they more successfully reproduce the energy of the leader’s performance. To encourage the followers in this latter approach, Merv directs them to “pick up on mood” and to “not to worry” if they fall behind or do not match their partner’s movements exactly. Merv reminds them that the aim is to explore “complementarity” and prompts the followers to match the “quality” of the movement rather than the movement itself. This direction has the desired effect as those that had been struggling to exactly match the movements of their partner now relax and become more attuned to the breath and mood of the leader’s movements. As Merv moves from partnership to partnership he reminds them to “stay sensitive and sympathetic” and to “remember it all comes from breath”.

Reading Astles’ (2009, 2010) work on my train journey home and her argument that breath and sympathy are the central sensibilities one needs to train a puppeteer in so that they can give the impression of life in otherwise inanimate objects, I realize that I have just witnessed a masterclass in puppetry training.

Landing Site 5: Royal William Yard, Plymouth August 14/15th 2019. 

Natalie Adams, a senior producer of The Hatchling and co-director of Trigger, reminds me over email rehearsals have moved site to Royal William Yard Plymouth, as the site has indoor and outdoor rehearsal space.  When I arrive at the yard, I find out that the term “indoor” to describe the dilapidated warehouse space they have set up camp in is perhaps a little generous, as it is almost completely open to the elements. But as Merv breezily annouces when he comes to greet me: “the performance is happening outdoors, so we need to get used to it!”.

Image 21: Natalie, Carl and Merv in their “Warehouse office”

Merv takes me over to Carl who has some “exciting news” to depart. Carl informs that there has been a major creative development in the puppet build: the walking adult puppet is now also a walking kite that will take flight. He recounts that the transition of the walking dragon puppet into the inflatable flying dragon had been causing problems both in terms of the build – storing the inflatable in the frame of the puppet was proving problematic – and in terms of performance – the team were worried they might lose the audience’s emotional investment in the dragon when it metamorphosized into its different inflatable form. Carl’s elegant solution means that the adult dragon puppet-form will both walk and take flight. The puppeteers still need to transition her from “walking mode to flying mode” so the metamorphosis performance remains in place, but the kite innovation means that the transition will be more practical in terms of build and more plausible in terms of transition/performance.  It also strikes me that it beautifully reflects Carl’s expertise in kite-making and flying.

Image 22: Carl’s kite dragon design

Carl and Merv want to get the puppeteers onto the adult puppet build this morning so they can see “how she is handling”. She is so large the performers need to walk her out of the warehouse so they can get a better view. As the puppeteers take their positions on the poles and legs, I run ahead with Carl and Merv so that I can see her emerging from the shadows of the warehouse and into the light of day. Merv comments that “something magic happens when you take a puppet outside and it interacts with the elements” and he is right, when her head emerges around corner of the warehouse door and appears to sniff the air, she takes my breath away. As she walks towards us in the carpark, I note the puppeteers are roughly following the pattern of a lizard walk but that because now she more clearly appears to be walking on winged forelimbs, she takes on the appearance of a stalking vampire bat. She is quite intimidating.

Image 23: The dragon meets the light of day

Merv sensing my awe relates “a puppet in an open space creates its own theatre, it changes time like dance”. And time does seem to stand still while I take in the uncommon site of a dragon strutting around a carpark. Merv then turns to the dragon and offers the prompt “she becomes transfixed by that red car”.  In response the head pole operators lift and crane her neck and head towards the car in the far corner of the carpark, so that she focuses her attention on the car. It is just a small series of movements but as they do so the shoulder operators speed up the rhythm of her breathing, so that she takes on an added mood of alertness. The speeded up breathing also has a ripple effect though the body and the tail operator begins to whip the tail back and forth in response completing the “three R’s”.  Then one of the shoulder operators offers “she wants a closer look”, and she begins to strut towards the car. Carl, who is standing next to me, states “it’s good to get a look at how she moves” and says to Merv “the spine’s still too flexible”. Merv responds that “perhaps we can give the illusion of a strong spine”, to which he then directs the pelvis pole operators: “try to stay in alinement with the shoulders”. The pelvis pole operators try to dampen the spine’s flex but as she walks towards the car the dragon still has a distinct S-bend walk, not unlike a Komodo dragon.

 

Image 24: The dragon explores the carpark

When the dragon is nearing the car, Merv, sensing a tentativeness from the performers, prompts “she’s wants to communicate dominance, so think about the Gorilla stance”. In response the forelimb operators adopt a wider stance whilst the shoulder and head operators lift up their poles so that she grows in stature. Then Merv instructs “OK let’s try out a roar”. In response her breathing, led by the shoulder operators, becomes heavier and louder and as her body expands and contracts to this rhythm the head and shoulder operators begin to make a low guttural sound. Merv asks the performers to “think about where the emotions located… perhaps a growl comes from the back?”. The pelvis pole operators offer some growling sounds, and this helps to build the noise, but with the wind picking up and seagulls raucously calling overhead Merv encourages them to “be loud” and reminds them that it is “better to do it too big so you know where wrong is”. However, although they do build the noise the overall sound effect comes across as more of a snarling grumble than a full-on roar.

 

Image 25: Trying out a roar

As the sound peters out Merv takes this as a cue for rest and reflection so asks the performers: “Ok so what have we learnt? Let’s talk movement first”. One of the pelvis pole operators feeds back that they are still having to dampen a lot of movement and as a result are taking “a lot of strain”. Carl acknowledges the spine is still too flexible and that he and Russel will investigate how they might better “stabilize it”. Then one of the hind leg operators notes that the leg “still feels a bit leaden”. In response Carl states that “we can add more bungies to give her more of a spring in her step”. He then notes this request in his notepad whilst telling me that “we actually need more connective tissue (the bungie cords) all over the carbon-fiber structure to help the limbs spring back and to cushion the movement”. He also informs me that every requested change to the build also gets logged in the computer model and that the build is a “constant process of tweaking” in response to the feedback from the performers.

Next another performer notes that even though the structure lacks a bit of spring “the impulse is always to move forward”. Merv responds that they need to “fight this impulse” and work in more “moments of stillness”. He continues that these “landing sites” will not only give the audience a chance to catch up and “feel the emotion” it will also give the performers a chance to rest and anticipate the next move. He also reminds them that “the dragon cannot spend the whole day walking around Plymouth as she and you (the performers) will need to conserve energy”.  Merv also tells the group that they are “still being too polite”, which makes for a “quiet and tentative dragon” and that after lunch they will work on making the dragon “come alive vocally”.

Over lunch Merv imparts that for War Horse, it was never intended that the puppets would vocalize, but that when they started playing about with noises in rehearsals, they recognized that they helped to communicate emotion and character and thus were incorporated in the onstage performance. This meant that as well as researching equine movement the puppeteers, who were mic’ed for the duration of the performance, were tasked with researching and practicing equine vocalizations and communications, including “snorting, nickering, whinnying and squealing”. Merv then imparts that the question of “if and how” the dragon should vocalize is still a “live question” and that he will engage the performers in a “sound bath” after lunch to explore. On my asking what a sound bath is he informs that traditionally a sound bath is a healing therapy that uses sound, usually made by a “singing bowl or tuning fork”, to induce a meditative state but that he uses it as a vocal warm-up exercise.

After lunch, when he and the performers have reconvened in the warehouse, I witness how Merv has adapted this ancient practice. First, he gets the cast to stand facing-inwards in a close-knit circle so that their arms and bodies are touching the person either side of them. He then asks them to close their eyes and instructs them to slowly increase the sound of their breath so that everyone in the circle can tune in to the same breath. Once they are breathing as one, Merv prompts them to explore making sounds on the in and out breath and to “keep listening and responding” to each other. The noises made on the out-breath sound like descending yawns whereas those on the in-breath sound like shrill yowls. Merv then tells the circle he wants them to take responsibility for “making offers” and to let the sounds “volley” around the circle. Someone begins to groan and then several other groans and moans reverberate around the circle in response. Then someone starts clacking their mouth and the circle slowly starts to transition from moaning and groaning to clicking and clacking to meowing and trilling noises and the circle starts to caterwaul. Merv reminds them to switch their “brains off” and “become more feeling-led”. Over time the ping-ponging of noises lessens, and the circle settles on snoring on the in breath and growling on the out. The sound is low and guttural to begin with but as the volume increases and layers of bellowing and snarling sounds are added, the deep rumble builds to the crescendo of an impressive roar.

The dragon has awoken.

Landing Site 6: Home Office, Bristol August 28th and September 9th 2020  

I get an email from Natalie with “exciting news!” – they plan to test fly the dragon the following week and would I “like to join?”. It is indeed exciting news to receive after The Hatchling event was cancelled and the dragon was grounded due to the emergence and world-wide spread of Covid-19. And although I cannot join them for the test flight it is heartening to learn that The Hatchling is still in development as I have read with concern that those working in the cultural and creative sectors have contained the greatest share of jobs at risk during the pandemic, as many jobs in these sectors have not benefitted from the policies and schemes put in place to support firms and workers. There has even been talk of encouraging creatives freelancers to retrain in “viable” jobs. Yet instead of dismissing the arts, the pandemic has shown that now is the time to cherish and support them as in such times of crisis they not only generate positivity, appreciation, and hope, but can also help us to face up to injustices and process global events.

A few days later I get the following WhatsApp message and image from Angie:  

 “she flies!” 

Image 26: “She flies!”

On seeing the dragon soar, I think about how this feat of design, engineering and imagination has been accomplished by the expertise, hard work and passion of Angie and The Hatchling’s amazing creative team and that when the dragon does finally take off from The Hoe, she will lift the spirits of all who watch her.

Brigstow presents our 2022 Ideas exchanges

We are delighted to present our 2022 Brigstow funded Ideas Exchanges.

Brigstow Institutes Ideas exchange funding provides researchers the time and resources to connect with others and explore an idea’s potential together. It is designed to support emerging, interdisciplinary networks and partnerships that are co-designed and co-run with external partners.

This cohort of seventeen ideas exchanges range from dismantling ableist barriers in performance to creatively signposting the public to life saving medical equipment, from exploring the temporal imagination to the impacts of hormonal changes in women. We are looking forward to seeing these partnerships strengthen and research ideas developing.


All the Others: Creative responses to gender based violence

Contrasting public discourses which tend to misrepresent gender based violence by conveying stereotypes of victimhood, the project will explore how to use creative life writing to construct life story portrayals in collaboration with participants using person centred approaches.

Involving Dr Ana Baeza Ruiz (History of Art), Dr Sarah Jones (History), Ms Jo Higson (English), Dr Nadia Aghtaie (Policy Studies) and Dr Louisa Parker (The Oxford Centre for Life Writing, University of Oxford).


How did/does our garden grow?

How can community creativity centring on communal gardening in St Pauls contribute to unmooring “traditional” Environmentalism from its white supremacist origins and on-going entrapping?

Involving Dr Erin Forbes (English), Akulah Agbami and Lulu Veronica Sakala (Black Artists on the Move), Judit Davis (Friends of St Pauls), and Latisha Cesar (Libation Dance).


Seeing the Invisible, Hearing the Inaudible: Revealing estuarine mysteries through art and science

In what ways can engagement in the nocturnal human-environment entanglements of the River Erme foster curiosity and care for the river by those living within its catchment, and does this reveal new insights about the contested futures of our rivers? Studies of iconic UK rivers abound (Thames, Severn). But what of the much smaller water courses? How do those living in the catchment areas of smaller rivers engage with them after dark?

Involving Prof Martin Genner (Biological Sciences), Laura Denning (Artist), Adam Davison and Nicky Bailey (South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)).


The Climate Crisis: What best hope to tell now?

An interdisciplinary investigation/discussion into how we ‘tell’ stories about the future, given the unfolding climate catastrophe. Authors, scientists and academics discover how to use storytelling to help people and communities prepare for the climate catastrophe.

Involving Dr Mimi Thebo (English), Prof Rich Pancost (Earth Sciences), Prof Richard Pettigrew (Philosophy), Joanna Nadin (English) , Emma Geen (Author) , Elen Caldecott (University of Lancaster) and  Lucy Christopher (Author / Academic).


The Colour of Dinosaurs: A musical exploration of melanin and vision and how we communicate complex subjects

Involving Dr Jakob Vinther (Biological Sciences), Prof Ute Leonards (Psychological Sciences), Prof Nick Scott-Samuel (Psychological Sciences), Lloyd Coleman (Paraorchestra and Friends), Dom Coyote and Liz Counsell (Made of What), Malaika Kegode and Victoria Oruwari (Independent).


Designing in’ Defibrillators: Combining art and urban planning to increase the visibility of public access defibrillators in civic spaces

In an emergency, how would you locate a defibrillator? You have a matter of moments – where is the nearest one to you? This research will creatively consider ways to ‘signpost’ campus users and members of the public to the locations of live-saving defibrillators.

Involving Dr Matthew Booker (Bristol Medical School), Dr Sarah Allsop (Anatomy) , Dr Claire Wienburg and Mr Jason Parr (Safety and Health Services).


What it is to be there: Exploring grief, place and memory

Although grief is a universal, human experience, it still remains a taboo subject for many. By focusing on a personal, lived experience of disenfranchised grief, this research aims to open up conversations about death and bereavement, in a manner that destigmatises grief and promotes compassion and understanding.

Involving Dr Lesel Dawson (English), Helen Acklam (BV Studios) and Dr Julian Brigstocke (Cardiff University).


Microbes, Microplastics and Man: Micro-entanglements and the biological complexes of human and more-than-human collisions

Can we imagine a time when we take responsibility for the health of our water systems? What might an arts practice look like as a result of this speculative dialogue? The diatom as a micro-space/organism will be at the heart of the project as a thinking-making trigger and to communicate beyond the project.

Involving Dr Joshua Dean (Geographical Sciences), Prof Marian Yallop (Biological Sciences), and Dr Veronica Vickery (Independent Artist).


Towards Creating Inclusive Performance Spaces: Introducing haptics in performance art to dismantle ableist barriers

How can participatory research can help us to further our understanding of how the sensory environment affects inclusive design and societal wellbeing? This research wants to better understand how new technologies affect people’s multisensory experiences and can allow for more inclusive musical experiences.

Involving Professor Ute Leonards (Psychological Sciences), Greig Dickson (Psychological Sciences), Rowan James (Independent), Dr JF Burn (Mechanical Engineering) and Dr Antonia Tzemanaki (Mechanical Engineering).


Boys at the Crossroads: Insights and innovations for doing masculinity differently

Recent social movements have catapulted the issue harmful masculinities into the forefront of public consciousness. Men also experience violence, yet this is overwhelmingly perpetrated by other men. This research seeks to form a network of practitioners, artists and academics to talk about boys, men and masculinity.

Involving Dr Nathan Eisenstadt (Bristol Medical School), Martin White (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities), Rachel Potter (Kooth), Tom Antebi (Off the Record, Bristol) and Alex Greenwood (TIGER).


Educating the Temporal Imagination: A proposal for a new ideas conversation

How we think about time – and use time to think with – matters. This ‘temporal imagination’ shapes our understanding of the world, how it might change and influences what we value. What would an educational approach to time look like?

Involving Prof Keri Facer (Education), Solveig Settemsdal (Independent), and  Penny Hay (House of Imagination).


Woven

How might an engaging artwork help women to connect or understand our bodies and hormonal changes on a deeper level? This research is focussed on the human experience of mental health and hormonal changes for women and how this effects society as a whole.

Involving Prof Maria Fannin (Geographical Sciences), Angie Bual (Trigger) and Bronia Houseman (Independent).


The Bristol-led Digital Filmmaking Research Network: 1st Annual Meeting

Filmmaking research underwent significant methodological restrictions during Covid-19 due to travel bans and lockdowns. The Digital Filmmaking Research Network emerged, an online space where global film makers, researchers and participants sought to collaborate on experimental methodologies. This network is looking to explore “What happens next?”.

Involving Dr Miguel Gaggiotti (Film and Television).


Methods Ideation for Participatory Critical Futures Making in Immersive Shared Spaces

Can shared immersive digital spaces facilitate the co-creation of fairer and more sustainable futures with communities at the margins? This research will engage with communities to co-produce a series of use-case scenarios in which an immersive environment could be used to support participatory critical futures making.

Involving Dr Lyndsay Grant (Education), Dr Neil Carhart (Civil Engineering) and Jon Somerscales (Independent).


Laundry Justice

What is the effect of contemporary laundry methods on our rivers and coastlines? What places and spaces within the city facilitate alternative forms of garment care? This project seeks to explore ways to live better with our clothing.

Involving Lizzie Harrison (Centre for Innovation), Lara Luna Bartley (University of the West of England), Naomi Millner (Geographical studies) and Josh (Bristol Vehicles for Change (CIC)).


Empowering Audiences through Street Performance

How can we better understand audiences experiences of temporary monuments? What is the best way to collect and use audience feedback during a live performance? This research explores these questions through the performance of living statues.

Involving Dr Sumita Mukherjee (History),  Louise Jordan (Independent Artist), Dr Tanja Schult (University of Stockholm) and Prof Tim Cole (History).


Improving the Quality of Life for People Living with EB: Developing an interdisciplinary network to evaluate requirements and engineering solutions for a second skin technology.

Can the discipline of engineering find ways to improve the quality of life for those affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa? This network of engineers, ethics researchers and those with experience and expertise in Epidermolysis Bullosa looks for solutions to make life better.

Involving Dr Mohammad Naghavi Zadeh (Engineering Mathematics), Dr Mari-Rose Kennedy (Bristol Medical School), Prof Jonathan Rossiter (Engineering Mathematics), Prof Fabrizio Scarpa (Aerospace Engineering) and Sharmila Nikapota and Elizabeth Clark (Cure EB).

‘I summon up remembrance of things past’: responses to memorising poetry   

‘Metre and Memorisation’, a Brigstow institute project and a collaboration between English and Psychology academics, investigates how we learn poetry off by heart, and how it feels when we do. Along with psychology graduate Rebecca Jackson, I led a series of Zoom sessions last summer in which we asked participants to memorise a Shakespeare sonnet using four different memorisation conditions: silent reading, oral rehearsal, imagery, and movement. Then we looked for two bits of information: how accurately they could recite the poem from memory immediately afterwards; and, more informally, what the experience had felt like for our participants. Did they enjoy memorising the sonnets? What did the poetry make them feel? Did they learn anything about Shakespeare, or memory, or about the subjects of the sonnets – love, death, time?

We gathered this information from discussion groups and surveys held after the sessions. Certain themes came through across our 85 participants: lots of people found that the experience of memorising new poems made them remember poems (or lines or individual words of poetry) that they had learnt earlier in life. One participant remembered learning a poem as a young child at school, reciting while moving around ‘as if I was hypnotising myself’. Another could still remember the first verse of ‘The Lady of Shallot’, which they had memorised at age 12. The act of learning a poem off by heart provided a link, or continuity, with other poems and with other acts of memorisation. One participant recalled a very ill family member, near the end of their life, reciting a poem they had learnt at school. Poetry was ‘the last thing to go’, the participant explained – the last words that memory could hold onto.

Sonnet 123, one of the ones we asked our participants to memorise, explicitly concerns continuity and change through the passage of time. It begins ‘No, time, thou shalt not boast that I do change’, and ends: ‘I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee’. One of our participants said that they found this one easier to memorise, ‘maybe because I’m getting old, so I can relate to wanting to tell time to **** off!’. The feeling of relating to certain messages or themes in the sonnets was a common response among our participants. Sonnet 98 begins: ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’, and describes how even the ‘lily’s white’ and the ‘deep vermilion in the rose’ seemed pale, insignificant, with ‘you away’.  In June of 2021, a long spring of absence seemed particularly relatable to many of us. One participant commented: ‘The trees are beautiful, but in lockdown or isolation we can’t see them properly. Do they lose their meaning, or do they gain meaning when we’re absent from them? Do they make me feel more or less when I can’t see them?’

We discussed the repetitiveness of the sonnets, and how the similarities between them made memorisation harder: some participants found themselves combining two sonnets about love in their memory. Dr John Lee, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Bristol who joined some of our discussions about the project, said that one explanation for repetition in and across the sonnets is that ‘part of the defining quality of love is its repetitive nature – love constantly finds new ways of expressing the same thing.’ This posed a challenge for some of our participants, but others found repetition helpful, especially in the ‘oral’ condition, in which we asked participants to memorise a sonnet by speaking it out loud. Sonnet 104 addresses love across time, and includes the repetition of a particular sound:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eyed,

Such seems your beauty still.

The phrase ‘your eye I eyed’ – which, as John Lee pointed out to us, might be read as a pun on ‘aye aye aye’ – was ‘irritating’ to memorise during the experiment, according to one participant. But the assonance of this line also meant that it stayed in their memory for a long time; this discussion took place a couple of weeks after the session in which they had been asked to memorise sonnet 104.

For almost all of our participants, certain memorisation conditions felt harder than others. Lots found the ‘imagery’ condition difficult: we asked participants to picture a ‘story board’ of the sonnet, and memorise according to those images. A common response in our discussions was that this felt counter-intuitive because they instinctively wanted to perform the poems orally – it was ‘a joy to say the poems out loud’ in the oral condition, said one person. Another wanted to ‘gesticulate and point’; the physical connection to poetry was a common response, with one participant explaining that in the ‘movement’ condition they tried to ‘physically embody a piece of text or a thought’.

The primary focus of the ‘Metre and Memorisation’ experiment is investigating which of these four conditions represents the most effective method of memorising poetry. The discussions and responses from our participants suggest that across these conditions, people feel a personal, sometimes physical connection to poetry when memorising and reciting it. For many of our participants, then, learning these Shakespeare sonnets off by heart facilitated a feeling of connection: with their bodies, with their younger selves, with lost loved ones, and with the world around them, especially in a year in which so many of us had been ‘absent’ from each-other.

The creation of a performance about menopause

As part of our Brigstow project, a Tricky Hat Productions and The Flames performance on the theme of menopause was to be put on by Yvonne and the OnFife team. This sounded like a huge challenge, especially during the pandemic and lockdown, but the process itself was amazing. Yvonne and the OnFife Team’s Pause Not Full Stop series of events formed an ideal setting for the performance. You can see a video of Yvonne outlining their work and the connections with the Tricky Hat Production below.

OnFife and Tricky Hat Productions sorted out all the arrangements. Adverts were put out to recruit participants, and it turned out that there was much more interest than could be accommodated! The guerrilla sessions finally started with 10 women who brought together a vast range of experiences, impressions, stories, and talents. And luckily, lockdown was lifted just in time to prepare for and run the performance in real life! Over the course of five days, spread out over four weeks, the group explored their ideas and was challenged by Tricky Hat’s Artistic Director Fiona Miller to find different ways to express them. Vanessa was able to join the group for the final day of preparation and see it all come together and thoroughly enjoyed her time with the Flames!

The different stories and fragments created with the group were woven together by Fiona and supported by the Tricky Hat team who provide and control the audio-visual backgrounds, live music, and lighting.

The performance itself was an emotional roller-coaster dealing with a whole range of menopause issues – though the word menopause was never mentioned! The performance did however explore relationships in the ‘bride story’….

…the risks in women’s decisions taken in the past…

…considered how women feel inside during a hot flush…

…and how women can learn to enjoy being alone and explore the world.

The performance highlighted women’s superpowers: having a sixth sense, a positive mental attitude, and being able to conjure up a smile no matter what is going on around you.

There were segments on the rage, uncertainty and questions that can be felt during this time of life…

… and also the comedy, downfalls and delights of dating and still wanting to be sexually active.

A beautiful song was written and performed that summed up many of the emotions: “Inside I flicker like flames in a fire…”. You can hear part of the song if you watch the video linked below.

The audience reaction was great! People stayed to chat over a tea or coffee (afternoon performance) or glass of wine (evening performance) and everybody we spoke to afterwards was extremely positive. It is clear that, even without mentioning the word ‘menopause’, the performance stimulated conversations about it and that there is a collective sense of needing to tackle menopause to help women who experience it.

This short video provides an insight into the performance and the audience reaction.

Find out more about Experimental Partnership “What is the best way to talk about menopause?”.

Brigstow presents our 2022 Seedcorn Experimental Partnerships

We are delighted to announce that the following research projects have been awarded Brigstow Institute Seedcorn Funding in our 2022 funding call.

Tim Cole, Director of Brigstow Institute says ‘The 2022 cohort of Brigstow seedcorn projects continue the tradition of drawing on interdisciplinary and co-produced ways of working to ask how we can live well in the 21st century. What is particularly striking about this year’s cohort is the focus of many of the project teams on the body, as well as thinking about the relationship between humans and the more than human world of animals and plants. At Brigstow we love this moment of anticipation as the teams begin working together and we wait to see what they will discover!’

Find out more about our new 2022 Experimental Partnerships:


A Comparative Study of Gender Construction and its Impact on Healthy Relationships within English and Ghanaian Schools.

This research will explore the construction of gender within schools and its implications for forming healthy relationships and gender-based violence among youth aged 13-19 in England and Ghana. Schools are a platforms for conveying social knowledge and attitudes to young people, and may serve as sites for construction of gender stereotypes and for enabling social change (Lee and Collins 2008; Nonaka et al, 2012). The young people will work together through creative workshops to explore and reflect on how gender constructions manifest in everyday school interactions.

Involving Nadia Aghtaie and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh (School for Policy Studies), Judi Kidger (Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School), Lucy Condon (Bristol Medical School), Jess Bunyan and Will Taylor (Rising Art Agency), Georgina Yaa Oduro and Dorothy Takyiakwaa and Playpluzz Production Team (University of Cape Coast).


Improving Access to Oral Health Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse (CSA).

Health professionals are often unknowingly work in close contact with survivors of CSA. The proximity and intimacy required in dental care alongside the differential in power dynamics can lead to potentially triggering unwanted memories or a traumatic response which results in patients avoiding dental visits. This research will work with adult survivors of child sex abuse to understand experiences of dental care and how we can improve access to dental services.

 Involving Nilufar Ahmed, Patricia Neville and Angela Hague (Bristol Dental School) and Viv Gordon (Viv Gordon Company).


Holding my Heart: Documentary and portraiture to advance the appreciation of 3D medical technologies.

An exploration of the role that 3D medical technologies can play in exploring one’s identity, patients’ perceptions of 3D medical models and the emotional implications that these can carry explored through the lens of congenital heart disease. The project will involve creating 3D heart models and portraits of heart patients and involve patients and NHS staff in the co-creation and co-curation of engagement activities.

 Involving Giovanni Biglino (Bristol Medical School), Ana Baeza-Ruiz (Department of History of Art), Maria Fannin (School of Geographical Sciences), Paola Di Bella (Freelance Photographer), James Marshall-Baquedano (Abel Model Management) and Anna Farthing (University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation).


Motherhood in a Climate Crisis.

This project will use therapeutically-informed participatory theatre techniques to collaboratively explore concerns around reproductive decision-making for women in an era of unfolding climate crisis. Using workshops the research process will seek to reduce isolation and stigma for participants and to create effective resources to stimulate ongoing conversation on the ways that Climate Change impacts women’s lives. 

Involving Maria Fannin (School of Geographical Sciences), Celia Turley (Freelance Creative Producer), Sophia Cheng (With Many Roots), Liz Mytton (Theatre in Flow) and Jo McAndrews (LifeKind).


Reimagining Professional Development for Mathematics Teachers: Using creative processes to support mathematics teachers in becoming curriculum-makers for climate justice.

Much of the way we read the world, depends on mathematical literacy and mathematics teachers are therefore well placed to address particular issues of climate justice in the curriculum from this perspective. The research will design, develop and utilise a variety of creative processes to support mathematics teachers to reimagine how to explore issues of climate justice within their classrooms and novel approaches to their professional development.

Involving Tracy Helliwell (School of Education), Lauren Hennessy (School of Education), Emma Geen (Department of English) and Emilia Alvarez (School of Mathematics) and Klara Sroka (National Museum, Wales).


Living Financial Resilience: A community research and design project with residents of Lawrence Hill.

In collaboration with the Wellspring Settlement, this co-research and co-design project explores lived experience of financial resilience and community support with the residents of Lawrence Hill. Together they will explore: What is lived experience of “financial resilience”? How can we create community-led and – centered services to support them on that journey?  

Involving Daniella Jenkins and Anne Angsten Clark (Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship), Sharon Collard (School of Geographical Sciences), Lisa Dora (Boost Finance, Wellspring Settlement) and Hari Ramakrishnan (Talking Money / Boost Finance).


Growing Liveable Worlds: Ethical encounters between human and plant life.

This project will generate insights into new ways of living well with plant species by asking participants to experience a ‘Living Lab’ within the speculative scenario of terraforming Mars. A hydroponic technogarden will engage participants to reflect on wider questions of science, technology, botany, materiality and ethics. It will consider the multiple ecological relationships between plants, automated hydroponics technologies, robotics and the human sensorium. By looking into the question of taking plants into outer space, the research seeks to shed light on how we relate to plants today and seed new ways to envision human-plant relations in the future, and the present.

Involving Franklin Ginn (School of Geographical Sciences), Jane Memmott and Bethany Eldridge (School of Biological Sciences), Katy Connor (Artist), Ella Good and Nicki Kent (Lead Artists of The Martian House).


Space for Seals: Understanding the relationship between human stakeholders and seals to promote positive wildlife watching practices.

It is increasingly recognised that human health and wellbeing can be fostered through encounters with the natural world and wildlife. However, there also exists a conflict between the human desire to observe and interact with seals, the conservation of the species, individual seal welfare and the economy of which they are a part. This work will take a participatory and creative approach to explore the relationship between the seals and observers in order to promote the health and wellbeing of both groups.

 Involving Leah Trigg (Bristol Veterinary School), Emma Roe (University of Southampton), Paul Hurley (Artist) and Sue Sayer (Seal Research Trust).


Walking and Re-Creation.

This research will address the historical and contemporary inequity of walking by developing ways to counter the prohibitions placed upon walking, using walking itself to resist the erasure of ground-level histories in favour of top-down narratives, and continuing to assess the impact of cultural identity upon walking access, specifically in relation to gender and race. How can experimenting with different forms of walking potentially change our view of society, health, and history? Ultimately, this is a project that thinks through how progress through space can affect and effect social progress.

 Involving Eleanor Rycroft (Department of Theatre), Suzanne Audrey (Centre for Public Health, Bristol Medical School), Jan Connett (Bristol Health Partners), Angie Belcher (Performer and Comedian), Ruth Pitter and Sophie Brown (Bristol Steppin Sistas).


The MenoMakers’ Handling Box.

This research project aims to display hidden voices and help women to develop their own voice in this life stage. The research team know that there is an appetite for discussing menopause in creative settings, but know less about whether women are keener to enact or make menopause, talk about it, or do both together. They also have little knowledge about what methods and which artistic practices are most suitable for different groups of women and their specific symptoms. Through talking and making together they will explore some of these questions.

Involving Vanessa Beck (School of Management), Jessica Hammett (Department of History) and Lisa Nash (Socially Engaged Artist / Facilitator and Arts Programmer).

Studentship Profile: Amy Smith 

University of Bristol Course: Phd Candidate, Department of History, Bristol University. Researching the roles and reputations of female ale sellers in C17th south west England.

Studentship: We are Bristol History Commission Studentship

Why did you want to take part in this opportunity?

I had been following the work of the We Are Bristol History Commission, which was set up in the aftermath of the toppling of the Colston statue in June 2020. The Commission was dedicated to exploring a number of questions, not limited to: what have we remembered – and forgotten? Where have we come from?

These are questions that interest me greatly; both as a historian and as a Bristol resident. When the Commission paired up with Brigstow to fund four studentships, I jumped at the chance to apply my historical research skills to something I felt could be truly useful for other residents.

What did your role involve?

I produced a booklet for schools entitled Connecting with Black Lives in the Archives. Aimed at year 8s, it dispels any idea that non-white communities only laid their roots in Bristol in the twentieth century. By introducing Cattalena, a Black woman living just outside Bristol in the early 1600s, it gives young learners an insight into how historians work from fragments of information about people’s lives. They are given their own case study to work from, in the form of a 1613 burial register that details the death of Katherine, a Black servant at the Horsehead alehouse in Bristol. Students are asked to discuss what life might have been like for Katherine, and what we can tell about her from this small bit of information alongside some contextual reading.

To make this booklet, I got in touch with one of the leading historians of Black life in early modern England, Dr. Miranda Kaufmann. She provided some helpful advice and it was a joy to work with someone with a high profile who is doing such great work. I also worked with many secondary school teachers to ensure the booklet is written in a way that is engaging and accessible for year 8s. I was invited to present the booklet to a meeting of Gloucestershire’s secondary school history teachers, and got a small look into the complex realities of their day-to-day jobs.

Did anything about your experience of working on the project surprise you?

This project led to my first public speaking experience outside the University (as a historian), which was surprisingly enjoyable. I am not a natural public speaker, but being able to get deeply involved in a research project meant I was confident in my topic, and was able to create some great connections for future employment opportunities.

What new knowledge or skills did you gain?

This project represented my first major research into Black life in early modern England, and has inspired ideas for future research projects. Additionally, the booklet was shared relatively widely on Twitter, which has directly led to paid research projects with Bristol City Council.

Brigstow’s Studentships are paid opportunities for research students at the University of Bristol to experience undertaking interdisciplinary and coproduced research. You can find out more about Brigstow Institute Studentships on our dedicated webpage. 

Including the Excluded

“…the number of fixed-term exclusions have definitely increased. It has gone up in the last five months…zero-tolerance policies have become the bane of our lives.” (teacher)

Including the Excluded is a rapid project which aimed to co-produce knowledge on educational and emotional experiences of excluded pupils in Bristol during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a Bristol-based schoolteacher I have seen first-hand how exclusions impact students who live and study in this city.

School exclusion rates reflect wider structural inequalities in the education system that can inadvertently impact students’ lives (Demie, 2021)[1]. ‘Zero tolerance behaviour management’ and ‘Ready to Learn’ are strict approaches to school-based misconduct adopted in most schools across Bristol. The approaches are grounded in a ‘No excuses policy’ around behaviours deemed as in violation of school culture, ethos, and wider behavioural policies. These approaches can initiate high numbers of fixed term exclusions (FTEs)[2]; especially amongst those who find it hard to obey rules.

This project incorporates young people’s voices through a collaborative approach that enables pupils and professionals to scrutinise school exclusion and experience. This co-produced project works with researchers, community research fellows, professionals, and pupils. It aims to create a space where excluded pupils and professionals’ voices are heard. The reasoning for the involvement of young people is to try to understand why the behaviours which can lead to school exclusion are occurring. We aim to share knowledge and ideas with grassroot organisations like No More Exclusions and want the data gathered to generate a resource to support excluded young people.

Who are the team:

School Exclusion Rates

School exclusion rates have been relatively high over the last few years and are steadily lowering, but not for all ethnic groups. Students from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups have been reported to be overrepresented in Bristol’s school exclusions[3]. Although Bristol’s permanent exclusion rates remain relatively low, they have one of the highest rates of FTEs of any local authority in England[4]. Gypsy/Roma, Traveller or Irish heritage, Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean pupils have the highest rates of dual registration (which is when pupils are registered into admission of two schools simultaneously) in England, which results in more pupils likely to experience unexplained school exits[5]. This is relevant because the rate of dual registration is higher than the rate of permanent exclusion by 1.2 per 1,000 pupils[6]. There is also a noticeable increase in the number of FTEs for Black African and Gypsy Roma pupils in 2018/19 and a 3-year increasing trend for Mixed White/Caribbean and Mixed Other in FTEs in Bristol[7].

Ready to Learn approach or zero-tolerance approach which are adopted in many schools in Bristol have been reported to protect the learning experience of the majority over the minority who may be deemed to be misbehaving. It is clear that disruption to education needs to be addressed to allow all pupils to fulfil their educational potential, however, for some pupils (often those from the aforementioned ethnic backgrounds) they are labelled as ‘troublemakers or ringleaders’[8] because of institutionally defined norms, values and beliefs rather than objectively unmanageable disruptive behaviour. These pupils may be subjected to removal from the classroom setting (sent to isolation, which is a room where they must sit for half a day or a whole day) or even school (often referred to as FTEs or permanent exclusion). Exclusions are being used as a form of behaviour management and thus not meeting the needs of every student who has the right to learn. An example of this is specified by a pupil in our research: “They tried to take my phone and I said no and they just started screaming. I just thought that’s a nerve. You’re not going to get near my phone. That’s why I kept getting excluded for not giving in my phone.” To add, a teacher interviewed mentioned: “COVID has brought around panic in a lot of people, and I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but we’ve got masking tape on the floor and that’s my box, you don’t come into my box. So, you might get a student who will veer near the box because they want to ask you a question or something and you’ll get, no, no, no, no, you’re too close, like stay away. I think in terms of discipline there’s very much been a zero-tolerance policy. So, if a child steps into that box, they’re gone straight away, there’s just no bones about that.”

Pupils Accounts of Exclusion

Students’ experience of school exclusion undoubtedly varies. Some pupils may have appeared to be glad to be excluded from mainstream schools and prefer the Alternative Provision (AP) school over their previous schools as classrooms are much smaller with fewer pupils resulting in less ‘bullying’ and more support in terms of learning. This may illustrate a positive in exclusion as pupils can be given the ability to receive more support at AP schools. However, not all pupils are as ‘glad’ to be at APs but prefer their mainstream schooling over APs as they identify more learning takes place at mainstream schools which can be a downside to school exclusions and APs. These contrasting views could demonstrate the different perspectives on school exclusion.

Pupils in the study highlighted the importance of communication and support. Students would have preferred to be communicated with, a student mentions: “they never gave time to talk to me about what was going on. They never gave me support on what was going on… if they had given me more support then they could have helped me and stopped me.” Another pupil mentioned: “I have a friend who just left year 11 and she went to the same school as I did and they did nothing to support her and she was always getting high, drinking alcohol. She used to take alcohol to school just to get away from the pain of school and she used to hide away in the bathrooms and have breakdowns because the school never gave her support.”

‘Fairness’ was a concept which came up many times throughout our work with young people, with many of them feeling that they were treated ‘unfairly’ through this process. Pupils often described the reasoning behind their school exclusion as “petty”. The term ‘petty’ can be explained: as minor or insignificant. Some of the petty reasons pupils cited included wearing incorrect school uniform or using mobile phones in social times. Pupils also told us that exclusions were a product of poor relationships with teachers, some felt picked on or labelled, arguing that some pupils were able to exhibit the same behaviour and not be excluded. For example, one pupil told us:

“If I was in a lesson and I turn round and talk to someone they would send me straight out the lesson but if that was someone else they would say to concentrate on your lesson. For me they would send me straight into isolation and that was the problem.”

Personal Reflection

Although I may not have experience working directly with excluded pupils throughout my teaching career, I can acknowledge there needs to be stronger pastoral support teams in schools, identifying the reasoning for pupils’ ‘misbehaviour’, which can be a starting point in unravelling multiple issues. I would suggest pastoral support teams need to have better communications with teachers concerning the reasoning behind students’ behaviour as they can be complex to understand. They need to provide extra counselling, guidance, and even reconciliation of problematic issues between pupils and teachers. From my experience of teaching, I have seen that there is not a strong working relationship between pastoral teams and teaching staff where problems or issues pupils are facing are not communicated; this can lead to pupils falling through the net which is of concern to me. Schools need to work on building relationships, not walls. Not being process driven but needs driven.

Additionally, there is an unquestionable need of training for teaching staff to occur in how to deal with multiplex behavioural needs as Covid-19 has heightened pupils needs and a lot of teachers are not trained in how to deal with pupils who have multiple needs. Often, I have noticed an easier option for teachers is to send pupils out of the classroom rather than dealing with the problem. I propose the need for an understanding of the underlying factors affecting pupils’ behaviour as it can be a cry-out for help in some cases.

You can find out more about this Collaborative Fellowship on the Including the Excluded project webpage.

[1] Demie, F. (2021). The Experience of Black Caribbean Pupils in School Exclusion in England. Educational Review, 73(1), 55 – 70.https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2019.1590316

[2] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/s61102/06.2%20Alternative%20provision%20review%20Bristol%20report%20v1.1.pdf  

[3] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/s61102/06.2%20Alternative%20provision%20review%20Bristol%20report%20v1.1.pdf  

[4] No More Exclusions. (2019). This feels like prison: we need to talk about school exclusions. https://thebristolcable.org/2019/12/this-feels-like-prison-we-need-to-talk-about-school-exclusions/

[5] IntegratED. (2020). Fewer exclusions. Better alternative provision. https://www.integrated.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/IntegratED_V0.1.14-Proof-DIGITAL.pdf

[6] Department for Education. (2019). Children not in school: proposed legislation. https://consult.education.gov.uk/school-frameworks/children-not-in-school/supporting_documents/EHE2019consultationpaperv9.5.pdf

[7] Bristol City Council. (2020). Review Report – Bristol Alternative Provision.https://democracy.bristol.gov.uk/documents/s61102/06.2%20Alternative%20provision%20review%20Bristol%20report%20v1.1.pdf

[8] Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: the role of school policy. Urban Education, 42(6), 536–559. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085907305039

Resilience: Doing her business with her full chest

Image: Environmental entrepreneur, Ogechi Nwonye, with other environmentalists at the unveiling of waste recycling fabricated bins at Unity Park, Enugu, Nigeria. The bins help to curtail the incessant littering of waste around the park and to encourage a clean and green environment.

With about 83 million Nigerians living below the poverty line and the youths contributing to a large percentage of the nation’s workforce, it is no surprise that many young Nigerians are embracing income diversification as a means of keeping body and soul together. In 2019, Statista ranked Nigeria 131st out of 190 countries for ease of doing business and this assessment was based on countries with business-friendly regulations.

For most Nigerians, entrepreneurship was either born out of the need to fill a void in the opportunity market or to circumvent unemployment. So, you can imagine our enthusiasm when we received the email that we have been selected to participate in the Resilience Project for young business owners in Enugu state. It soon dawned on us that this was a golden opportunity as business owners to network and discuss our ventures which range from health and fitness, food businesses, photography, fashion designing, waste recycling to blogging.

Entrepreneurship is not all about the glitz and glamour of being your own boss, booking the next available flight to your dream vacation spot or showing up at work whenever you wanted. It is about running to family and friends for money to pay off debts, selling your valuables to raise capital, and sometimes, losing the woman of your dreams because she doesn’t understand why you would resign from your salaried job to ‘mess around’. Of course, the story may not be the same for every entrepreneur but one trait common to all entrepreneurs is a burning desire to grow our business into profitable ventures.

For most of us, it was our first time of being exposed to such a vital and promising platform and we wanted to bare it all. We shared innovative ideas and learned newer and better ways of pushing our brands further. The researchers were very professional in their modus operandi and they encouraged us to talk about all the amazing work that we do in Enugu state. We had various breakout sessions, where we were divided into subgroups to enable more intimate discussions and learning. It was eye-opening for us as we gleaned from the experiences of the experts who were eager to understand our pain points as young entrepreneurs in Enugu state, Nigeria.

The Resilience project has shown that words like laziness, unambitious and fear only exist in the imagination of those who are yet to meet us. During the workshop, we understood that creating value for positive change requires that we as individuals had values comprising of courage, passion, adventure, integrity, support, patience, wealth creation, consistency, etc. What began as a call for research participants has resulted in an avenue for exchange of ideas, workshops, zoom interactions and networking among young entrepreneurs in Enugu who are solving real problems in different capacities.

Ideas can only come to life in an enabling environment. This was emphasized in one of the breakout sessions where we talked about areas where we were performing well and areas that needed some adjustments. Years ago, people laughed at the idea of the internet: an invisible web of information but presently, the internet industry is worth over 2.1 trillion US dollars. That is the power of an idea. However, one unfavourable policy, bad decision or costly mistake is enough to crumble all one has built like a pack of cards. Therefore, we will be pleased to have more workshops and trainings on building effective teams, fundraising, accurate documentation and account keeping, proper ways of approaching grey areas as business owners, etc.

Some of us are boldly carrying on with business, despite the peculiarity of our circumstances as young people living in a resource-poor country, which earned one of the participants the statement of “doing her business with her full chest,” in that she holds nothing back or hesitates to pursue the growth of her business.

We are excited about the next phase of the Resilience Project, our respective businesses and hope that we remain ardent about the sustainability of our projects. We are investing time and resources in exchange for knowledge expansion, capacity building and skills acquisition because we have seen that the entrepreneur must be prepared for anything. On the bright side, beyond the zoom meetings, some of us have made friends with fellow participants and are greatly encouraged by our collective zeal to build sustainable brands. The goal is to win together, right? We believe that someday, we will look back at our days of little beginnings with a great sense of accomplishment.

 

Written by:

Angelica Uwaezuoke and Ogechi Nwonye (on behalf of the Resilient Young Entrepreneurs Network, Enugu, Nigeria) as part of Brigstow funded Ideas Exchange “Resilience through international networks”.

Who’s at the table? Priorities after a year of food justice dialogue

An artistic collaboration is stimulating discussion about who is at the table in (un)just food systems.

Defining ‘Food Justice’ is not easy. When it comes to ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ in relation to our food system, should we be concerned with questions of individual citizens’ access to sustainable sources of subsistence, or issues of production, labour and the practices of agri-business? Do people have clear rights to food? And should such rights focus on quantity alone, or take account of the quality and nature of food? Furthermore, when defining ‘food justice’ should we be primarily concerned with human rights, or are we dealing with complex systems that oblige us to think about non-human persons and actors, including animals and the environment? Whatever our responses to these questions might be, it seems clear that thinking about climate change cannot ignore either food or justice.

Over the last year, we have established the Bristol Researchers Food Justice Network. Primarily, this has been through setting up a regular fortnightly seminar series, a workshop exploring the core purpose, values and potential for the Network, and an artistic collaboration to experiment with interactive ways of thinking about the food system and food justice. As it moves into its second year, we reflect on some of the key themes discussed so far. Recent models suggest that policy decisions that focus on climate alone will likely result in rapid growth in social inequalities, including and especially in the global food system. As we focus on questions of environmental sustainability and climate change in the light of the Cop-26 conference, some key food justice issues come to mind:


1. The way that we see food justice is systemic, equally as environmental as it is social. Every part of the food system is connected. Problems with diet are not disconnected to labour force, or price of food, or access to land, or environmentally sustainable farming. It is possible to have a food justice perspective towards understanding food systems. This involves seeing and considering people and other beings everywhere in the system and their being recognised as having an inherent value, with such value not being cheapened in the name of economic cost.

What clearly emerged from the network workshop, which involved researchers from vets to social scientists, historians and lawyers, was that we valued word and concept of ‘justice’ because it captures the common understanding that we are committed to change where we see injustice. While many network members understand food interactions as part of a ‘food system’, the concept of justice helps us maintain a critical and action-led approach where we see problems in those food systems.

2. Justice in food systems is bound up with structures of trade and foreign policy agendas.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Britain has largely relied on food imports, a model which has today become normalised. For many, changing this model is fundamental to building a more sustainable food system. But this cannot be a choice between either climate or society Recent government initiatives promise radical new directions in agriculture policy but keep this trade-centred model intact. Thus, the UK is determined to get farmers away from food subsidies, having committed to end direct payments by 2027. This would turn farmers into environmental stewards whilst offshoring the production of food elsewhere. Moreover, trade deals can increasingly be seen to trade away local and national food production in favour of other priorities, something that the network held a ‘policy hack’ discussion about following the approval of the UK-Australian Free Trade deal in June.

Lauren explores how the table at the heart of the artistic collaboration is supported and wired together.

3. The Dutch model alone cannot save the world. Many models for the future of farming, food supply and food consumption, focus on technical solutions. Accounts of the ‘miracle’ of Dutch agriculture, for example, cite the emphasis on the investment in research and innovation that have underpinned the country’s apparent success in agricultural research and development. But what are the social implications of technological solutions – and what if we end up sacrificing quality for efficiency?

Will research led by agri-food corporations underpin a genuine revolution in global food production, or create intellectual property that marginalises small-scale and community-centred farming enterprises in ecologically-vulnerable territories in the Global South? Some agri-tech policies pioneered by countries such as the Netherlands – such as responsible antibiotic use – are to be lauded, but if these are pursued in the service of intensive agriculture, real problems remain.

4. Consumers are key to change – but we need to do more than blame and shame. As individual consumers, we all have a role to play in transforming the food system; but individualising systemic problems simply places the onus on the consumer in ways that often inhibit radical action. Moreover, as recent polling suggests, individuals are reluctant to embrace environmental actions – such as reducing meat consumption – that have the greatest impact on their own lives.

The choices we make certainly matter, but the notion of ‘choice’ is in many cases an illusory, erroneous and pernicious concept. In effect, consumers  are presented as ‘both the cause and the solution to potential health problems and thus are made to be accountable for their own health.’ This is especially true when we consider questions of poverty and its relation with obesity and other diet-based non-communicable disease. The idea that consumers, by choosing to consume ‘ethically’, ‘sustainably’ or ‘healthily’ can on their own resolve social and environmental deep-seated problems. Policies that place the responsibility for making healthy, ethical and sustainable food choices on individuals fail to address the contexts in which individuals and families live and work.

5. Agriculture and the people within it are being consistently undervalued, around the world. The current food system involves at least 1.1 billion people working in agriculture, who are often among the world’s poorest people. Peasant and self-sufficient farming practices, which often involve very low carbon emitting practices are routinely undermined by large infrastructure and deforestation practices, perpetuating a cycle of the mobility of people away from the agricultural sector that does not compensate them well (including through low international prices for primary agricultural products) towards more intensive practices in the same sector, or into other types of work.

Intensive agriculture relies on a waged labour force of 300-500 million, including many who depend on jobs in plantation work, which is degrading and, in some cases, involves forced labour and modern slavery, having emerged from systems of production developed under conditions of colonial slavery, such as in sugar plantations. Meanwhile, migrant workers make up a large proportion of seasonal and harvest workers in many rich countries because they are in a weak position in the labour force and are therefore, overall, are paid lower wages and offered poorer conditions than their national counterparts. Small producers across the world attempting to live in low-impact lifestyles are usually excluded from subsidies, but often even wealthy farmers, find their land crops and livestock are undervalued. To stay in the sector people working within it are frequently pushed into other activities to diversify and supplement their livelihoods through ecotourism or other specialised initiatives drawing income from the service sector. Why isn’t there inherent value to producing food?

6. The combined challenges of climate and biodiversity crisis for agriculture must be addressed as issues of food justice. A (contested) narrative is emerging that suggests it is possible to divide the world into areas which protect nature and areas which intensively produce food but have negative environmental consequences. We are thus presented with ‘difficult choices’ premised on the belief that farming is inherently incompatible with conservation and climate change mitigation.

This is an off-setting approach which uses a logic of ecological destruction in one place to be compensated for by nature promotion/restoration in another place. However, such ‘land sparing’ approaches simply maintain the status quo and distract our attention from the root causes of a problematic food system. We should be wary of policies that further outsource food production (and environmental damage) to prioritise environmental conservation/restoration in the UK and elsewhere.


Lead artist and ceramicist, Amy Rose, considers the dynamics present at the table. The collaboration is supported by the Brigstow Institute of the University of Bristol.

These represent some of the central issues we have begun to tackle in the Food Justice Network. As researchers, we also recognise that to fully address concerns around our contemporary food system, we need processes that expand our conversation, allow everyone to tell their stories and to fully engage all our senses. Working with artists and creative practitioners has started to help us broaden and clarify our definitions of food justice and will give us opportunities to engage and interact between and beyond the boundaries of research, public knowledge, and practice.

Creative practice and public engagement can become critical tools as we address the twin challenges of climate emergency and social inequality and their radical impact on our food systems – at local, national, and global scales. Above all, an  emphasis on food justice will be imperative if we wish to develop food policies that sustain both our environmental and human futures. Our current food system embodies historical systemic inequalities that reflect the diverse legacies of colonialism, industrialization, and globalization; these must be addressed rather than amplified in our responses to the climate emergency.