Introduction to A Sick Logic
I spent a day in conversation Anna Chrystal Stephens and Glen Stoker during their month long art residency at Site Gallery in Sheffield. We talked about plants, cities and shelter amongst other things.
This project looks behind the façades of our consumer world, using a deep knowledge of wild plants to engage the public with activities such as making rope from nettles, making teas and challenging a local brewing group to use Herb Robert (a common wild plant with many medicinal properties). But it is really all about critiquing modern alienation through praxis, and heading towards a communal realisation that ‘We are Nature’ as the artists say.
Their 2016 exhibition at Site Gallery included traces of, and responses to these activities in one room, and a display of library of books in another, forming a background of knowledges. The books were displayed with front covers forward in three categories: DIY books (from home improvement to survival), books of ‘Green’, (especially plant knowledge), and theory books with a bearing on the environment. There was no category of art books. In the centre of the room was a table for discussion on the issues raised by gallery visitors.
In the early 1970s I had published three ‘Survival Scrapbooks’; Shelter, Food and Energy which had many parallels with this project. It was remarkable and exciting for me to see these sorts of approaches and ideas recurring in a socially engaged art practice 40 years later. I used to talk about basic life supports - they talk more inclusively about the fundamentals of life, but don’t put their work into categories which might limit possibilities; the show’s title is There Are No Firm Rules.
A sense of journey and experience is important to their working methods - they had walked to the Sheffield residency from Glen’s base in Stoke-on-Trent. This also resonated with me. A slowing down; walk and talk to people, observe and notate, rather than internet search.
We talked about plant recognition and plant drawing in relation to primary school curricula. Associations were made with the European Enlightenment practices of precise observation of the natural world. I made an excited connection to my recent rediscovery of my family’s traditions of embroidery which was almost all plant and flower forms; there are many cultural and family history connections to be made through this work - whatever your background.
One of the key techniques they have used is ‘The Survey’ as a research form and awareness tool. During an afternoon workshop, participants were invited to spend a few hours studying, even scrutinising, an empty urban brownfield site. They’d made a seriously large ‘kit box’ which included everything needed for a workshop. But, it seemed to me this exercise was not necessarily about measuring but more about sensory mapping and the study of flora and place. So this ex-industrial common ground was turned into a canvas on which the Survey participants were invited to imagine futures. But only after in-depth engagement with its resources and potentials through a psychogeographic tour from author JD Taylor and personal exploration of the area.
This is a methodology which could be transferred to any urban place – and this element of universal transference has been a common feature throughout their project. One aspect of this was the triangulation of different specialist interest groups in Sheffield. Connections were made between a group exploring prehistoric life styles, a group that provides workshop space for open source software, an architecture collective, an anthropologist and a survival training expert. The intriguing possibilities that lie in interactions between such enthusiasts transcend predictable consumerist outcomes.
How the efforts of individuals effect widespread change is too complex to pin-point, and that may not be a bad thing. This day of discussion was extraordinarily evocative of my own collecting and reprogramming of knowledge for the Survival Scrapbooks. Taking up this work afresh 40 years on was personally affecting, and when my own effervescence of memories had calmed down I found it profoundly reassuring.