by Petra Söör

One morning on the way into rehearsals on site, I sit in the back of the car with Mary Oliver’s “Dream Work” in my hand and randomly open a page. My eyes fall on the following lines midway through a poem –

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice, now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever,


which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

(Extract from the poem One or two things by Mary Oliver)

It’s Monday and we’re just about to begin our last creation week of Is this a Waste Land? on site in Corby.

After more than a month spent on site I feel like writing some kind of postcard with a few words related to parts of my experience of this place.

This last creation phase of ITAWL after two years of R&D has in my freelancer’s life been a quite substantial amount of time of being in one place. I have gradually experienced this place moving up into my body through my feet and under my skin and it’s beginning to feel strange that I’m about to come to the cut off point where our access to this site and this place will return to no longer be legitimate as we’re not on common land.

As I navigate the topography of this place, every day, my feet are in conversation with this ground – negotiating hard and softer areas of the site, stones and rubble – and feeding information up through the ankles and the whole of my body – changing it and living inside of it. Through my soft and connective tissues, my joints and nervous system I feel like I’ve come to know this place, intimately and differently than through my cognitive and rational brain. But what has become a way of being here, a corporeal relationship of intimacy will soon be a law breaking thing so I have a sense of privilege in sharing some time with this “boarded off place”, tucked away in between the recognised and the wanted. Through this spring time and period of change I’ve been surprised, as in many of these places, witnessing a surging vitality expressed in the unexpected amounts of flowers and green growth coming through the rubble. What and who finds a space and a way to be here?

It is Tuesday and it is snowing. For the first time in these five weeks we make use of the offer to spend time in the cinema next door to our site. I realise that all the way through we’ve been outside and in the middle of it all, of this place, morning to evening, our bodies and faces changing as we’ve been here, in this meeting – growing the work and working things out, orientating ourselves weathered by wind, light, place.

People watch us as we rehearse, from the bus stop, from windows in the buildings next to the site, passing by, whilst entering and exiting the Euro Market off license shop across the road. On the other side, towards the woods where there is no opening in the fence we must also be heard even though we can’t be seen. What surrounds the edges of these kinds of spaces? What are the conditions and who knows the edges of this site as part of their daily life and on what terms? The threshold of the border is so clear and yet so thin. A few centimetres can make such distinct difference in the embodied sense of place. Where and in what kind of spaces do we feel safe and can act with a sense of agency? Thrive in basic relationships of giving and taking, just being? Where can we have the relationship to place that enables a sense of rest when we’re exhausted? I’m thinking about what permits or enables us to experientially inhabit this space differently, about different forms of cultures of behaviour and about the permitted. (I’m often lying down on the ground here, a place where we’ve been exploring, playing, imagining, attending and interacting, together and alone, expanding what is ordinary behaviour and permissible on these sites under normal circumstances. At some point I find myself lying down on the ground with my arm reaching out through a gap in the fence resting on the pavement by the bus stop, the threshold of this edge is so palpable and I feel aware of what we include as acceptable ways of being here and how outside of it – lying down on the ground is being vulnerable as well as potentially questioned. Along the way during the research and making of this work we’re coming across the presence and traces of people with a very different relationship to the conditions of these liminal spaces, visible and invisible.)

Later in the day, steel grey clouds pass over and around us, the winds are high and we’re back outside working with the sail deliberately to learn more about how we find ourselves in it in these conditions when the winds are strong and changing direction. Someone says they feel such an enhanced sensation of being so immediately there, more responsive and connected in their body when the winds pick up and we’re working with this material, moving and anchoring. I feel similarly. It’s often a challenging effort involved but it’s also kind of thrilling with immediate feedback in this constant physical negotiation and conversation – within and as extension of the group, with ground, wind and a wider sense place.

These days there is work happening late into the night and the early hours of the morning, gigabytes and gigabytes of sound files being minutely arranged, people have been repairing the sail and its meters of fabric have been spreading across the kitchen table and floor in the shared space where we’re staying. Sticks, pieces of wood and unwanted stuff sourced out of skips is collected and carried – collectively and by individual muscle fibres and the rumour that something is happening seem to have reached the local recycling center.

It’s Wednesday and it’s hailing. In my body I have a sense of how we’re weathered and tethered in different ways by (this) place and one another, on goingly and always, with greater or less distance whether aware or unaware. I have a feeling I’ll miss this time in Corby and our site here but I’m looking forward to meeting and spending time with people and new places through the rehearsal periods on other sites and through time in performances.

Last week we gathered to do a test run with an invited audience and whilst they waited at the entrance of the site people started talking to one another I overheard a conversation where a Corby resident was telling a non Corby resident about people walking from Scotland to Corby in the 1930’s to find work here in the steelworks, sleeping in the hedges along the way. We’re about to start and I have a list of things in my head having to do with the real time practicalities of the “here and now” of this piece with the intricacies of the choreographic matrix of the work, but I’m also standing there with a whisper of how the work as it begins to tour might come to encounter more and more stories of people and communities.

As we end the work on site for the day and do the usual bringing in of materials back into our container, this reoccurring collecting, gathering, carrying, wheeling in of stuff feels familiar. A tired but vivid and dynamic sense of gratitude is humming in me and my end-of-the-day-body for being part of this with an inspiring team of hard working people making this happen in their different ways and contributions. Kite and crow circling each other seems to be a daily reoccurrence. The EuroMarket across the road seem to have a lot of customers. The rowan at the Job Centre Plus side of the fence in bloom.

Friday. We stay on site until the time the performances will take place in the evening and we’re able to listen to the amazing sound world that Tom and James have been working on creating. Tomorrow is time to welcome the first public audience into Is this a Waste Land? which feels exciting. I enjoy being outdoors as the light shifts into dusk and twilight in general but this place is particularly beautiful to experience in this transition hour. Hope to see you and spend time together in a waste land somewhere sometime soon. Bring an object.


























Discovering place

Discovering Place

I am in London searching for the ‘right’ site. I have found ‘right’ places several times before, but for one reason or another we are not allowed there. I find myself in the backwaters of industrial estates. Lorries rattle past in almost continuous flows. I feel small and out of place on my steely blue bike. Like I don’t belong there. Day after day I set out. With satellite images in my head from scouring googlemaps and my AZ Map. I take rough notes and scrappy photos of dismal looking places. The lorry drivers stare and assume I must be lost. This is just the start of the process of finding a site. This is what I mean by a site-hunt. It can only happen slowly, at cycling pace. I often get lost.

Looking for the anti-glamorous
Vacant of people
Brimming with the wild
I wobble around on my bike
Eyes scanning the side streets
Take the strange route
What life is happening here?

What am I looking for?
But bounded

Greenwich Penninsula – Morden Wharf Road. I’ve been there before. I still like it. There are new mounds of materials – mostly organic matter. Not much glass. It’s like a dumping ground for wood chip. I’ve just come off the busy approach road to the Black Wall Tunnel, but here feels forgotten about and left behind. I can see the distinctive buildings of Canary Wharf and the HSBC Tower hazily on the horizon. I move on. Across the Peninsula, past the rows and rows of car parking to the strange place that is the O2.morden-wharf-1

On the Air Emirates pods across the river to Silvertown I spot a large un-expected plot next to the Tate&Lyle Factory. Once on ground level, I get lost trying to find it amongst all the busy dual carriageway roads and the lorries. Eventually I do. It’s huge. It backs onto the river and is boundaried by the DLR, Tate&Lyle, and derelict warehouses. The skyline includes Canary Wharf. It’s grassy and overgrown. It’s perfect. Is it too far out? Too remote? I make an unexpected mark on my map. And cycle on.

Trinity Buoy Wharf, a gardening project in Canning Town. Up to West Ham, I’m searching for a place I’d spotted on googlemaps, at the north end of an industrial estate. Close to the train tracks. I can’t find it. Eventually I give up, and make my way onto the Greenway. I love this walking cycling route, that I didn’t know existed until I started searching for sites for this project. This section was closed last time I was here, with Keren on the hottest day of the year in 2015.

I cross the train tracks, and then my eyes get drawn to a vacant plot off to the left. Bordered by train tracks, a line of trees in the distance, gas rings on the horizion and the canal to the West. I’m curious and take the driveway down. There is a gateway and a cabin with a few guys inside just at the entrance. I am looking at them and they are looking back at me.

I take a few pictures and then notice a sign asking me to kindly not take pictures. There’s a couple of ramshackle buildings at the bottom of the driveway. And then surrounding that is this huge expanse of nothingness. A good definition of ‘brownfield’. It’s absolutely vast. I wonder if it is contaminated or something. It’s so unusual to see so much vacant land in London – that isn’t becoming a building, that isn’t a park, or a football pitch. That isn’t doing something ‘useful’. It makes me more interested. What are those buildings? Who are these men in the cabin? A few cars come and go. Only men. Eventually I go down to the cabin and ask. They’re a mosque. They own the land. They don’t know what the plans are. They give me a mobile number of someone to call. I feebly explain that I’m looking for a place to run an art performance. I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to them. But I smile and they smile and I’m glad I got to talk to someone.

I continue up to the Olympic Park. Past the site by Pudding Mill Lane station that we got excited about last year. It’s being used as a work site now. Past the sweetwater site that we used in April. It’s sitting there, looking pretty much the same.  The light is fading. Willesden and White City and the recommendation for East Dulwich will have to wait for another day. I drop into a cafe in Hackney Wick to warm up and get a drink.

I go back through my notes. The wider research begins.
Who owns it?
Would they be likely to agree?
How long has it been empty?
What used to be there? What’s coming next? How soon?
How easy is it to get to?
Where’s the nearest tube station and bus stop?

I mark my map. And make my shortlist.

This kind of searching in London has happened in bursts periodically for over two years. In that time we have blundered across so many curious hinterlands. I have travelled the greenways, the waterways, the capital ring path. Searching. It’s a bit like rummaging in dustbins. I have developed a very particular eye for unearthing unlikely spots and recognising potential goldmines. London is changing so swiftly, that googlemaps is often out of date. It is a useful tool, but not to be trusted. I have practiced this art of searching.    We are still not finished.

In Corby we found a site. It was confirmed. It was easy to get permission – what a delight! We worked there for two weeks in October 2016 and we all fell in love with it a bit. And then in January, just as we were finalising the details of working there for 5 weeks this spring and holding the first performances there at the end of April…suddenly it was gone. The site has been sold, it will be turned into a food factory, and will be operating by April. Such is the way with these in-between spaces. We dashed to a few new possible places, we’ve jumped through almost all the hoops for the next place, this time in the centre of Corby town. I’m hopeful.

The following day we travelled to Glasgow to meet with Tramway who will be presenting Is this a Waste Land? as part of Dance International Glasgow in May. I was there last July and had identified two good sites. Behind Scotland Street Children’s Museum rapidly became my favourite. I started to imagine the piece in my head happening there and I was excited to see it again. It’s opposite Shields Road subway station, but hidden behind a large building. On my way to my meeting at Tramway, I got off the subway at Shields Road to have a look. I stepped out of the station, onto the road and realised something was different. The gate was open. The site had turned into a storage space covered in shipping containers and a car park. I realised how much I had been banking on being there.

Our meeting was great. They had found us another site – the place where a bus depot used to be. In fact it was still standing last July. It has fantastic views across the city. The site can’t be re-developed for several months because the ground has to settle or something. We have permission. We will slot in, in the interim time. Timing is of essence. This is perfect timing.

This project is forcing me to practice being flexible, agile, adaptable, transient, moveable. It’s like improvising in performance. It is a dance on a grand scale. In London we are still waiting and moving.


Official Video trailer – ITAWL

Here is the official video trailer for our new work, Is this a Waste Land? We will be completing the creation of this new head-phoned live performance work this spring with the first public performances in April and May 2017.

We are working with an extraordinary team of artists and collaborators and we look forward to sharing the new work with you soon!

In the mean time, enjoy this short 2 min video. Camera and edit by David McCormick, sound by Tom Spencer.

Is this a Waste Land? is commissioned by Deep Roots Tall Trees, and a Compass Commission from Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban. Additional funding has come from the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts from Arts Council England, a successful crowd-funding campaign and Patrons of Charlotte Spencer Projects. The project is supported via South East Dance and Jerwood Charitable Trust Dramaturg in Residence programme.

Life ITAWL Everything

Jennifer is doing a WAY better job than me at writing blog posts about the work we did on Is this a Waste Land? over the summer. And below is another entry from her. I will get to mine soon I promise! But in the mean time I have to finish the next funding application to the Arts Council to help fund the rest of the project, and raise our target for our current crowd-funding campaign! So, if you’d like to support the cause…then follow this link:

Otherwise, enjoy Jennifer’s most recent piece of writing. It’s about our time on site in Corby at the start of October 2016. Photos and video footage from Corby coming SOON!

Life, ITAWL and Everything – Jennifer-Lynn Crawford

I’m enjoying the parallelisms of Is this a Waste Land? (ITAWL) There is a deep intertwin(n)ing of life activities and art activities occupying the root-system of the ITAWL tree – something I discussed a bit in this post on practice and projects – that I readily acknowledge and embrace. The parallel line here is that we’ve begun to write some words, not just in blogs, but to hang them in the air, for other people to listen to, as members of a future audience.

It’s a bit pointy. Not in a negative sense – I’m not sure why ‘pointy’ as an adjective seems to have negative connotations for me, but I feel like it might – but in the sense that ITAWL is coming to a point in some ways… multiple points in many ways.

It’s important and satisfying to write about practicing as a way for the work to come to be, and it’s more important and satisfying to practice that practice with the others and then it’s somehow a bit less satisfying, though still very important, to try and project that practice into the immediate future, where the other other people (aka audience-participants) are. In some senses (more than others) leading up to the sharing we had last week, it felt like ITAWL needed a bit more project-perfume to get itself ready for people to participate. I felt myself struggling with the sharing’s long shadow.

I remember a similar feeling from the days of Walking Stories. I get a little frustrated with imagining how people are going to respond to instructions and find my focus becomes pretty diffuse, flickering between so many different possibilities. It feels like trying to reverse-engineer a creamy soup. Minestrone would be more articulable than this rich bisque (I’ve never actually had bisque, but it looks like the most texturally uniform soup on Google).

Paul Carter, a theorist who seems to work in so many different fields I’m really not sure how to describe his location, refers to some of the difficulties of urban planning with the phrase ‘the planned encounter’ – it really resonates for me. An encounter is inherently unplanned; it happens spontaneously. Planning is pretty much… not that. So the notion of a ‘planned encounter’ is paradoxical, in a way that seems relevant for ITAWL. In a lecture he gave at Leeds Uni last month, he notes that there is a dominant assumption that people want, or should want, to interact with each other. This over-determination at the planning stage closes down any real choice-making, any real possibilities for an encounter to take place.


I don’t like telling people what to do. My way through this has evolved over time and I notice I make a lot of propositions. I leave ideas with lots of space around them when I offer them to others. I tend to be indirect, probing, offering, suggesting…

But what we are doing here in ITAWL isn’t that. It’s based in a need to communicate with people in a way that asks them to step away from their own ways of doing things – to do things that perhaps they wouldn’t otherwise. We aren’t, as Charlotte says, asking them to join a workshop (I’m good at designing those BTW) but to participate in a performance. In most ways, they are producing the performance. They’ll need some directing. In the same way that we need directions when we are going somewhere for the first time because they give us an orientation, these people will need directions.

How do we create sound borders for somebody else’s performance?

Conversations with CCL (Corby Civils and Lintels)

“Now comes the messy work of fashioning spontaneous speech”¹ (Stern, 2010)1

Daniel Stern is famous for many books, predominantly in the field of developmental psychology, but the one that he wrote last (Forms of Vitality) is quickly becoming my favourite. As he says in the first chapter: “We live impressions of vitality like we breathe air”²… I can’t disagree.

Stern articulates this phenomenon of life (so accessibly) across a spectrum of activity and towards the end of the book, focuses on therapeutic practice, in particular ‘talking therapies.’ At one point, he traces the expression of vitality through and into spoken language. When he refers to ‘fashioning spontaneous speech’ I feel my ITAWL tuning fork start to hum. It has a similar vibration to Paul Carter’s ‘planned encounter’ in that I feel we are trying to capture the planned/fashioning encounter-speech in all its gooey vitality (or creamy soup).

In our case, ITAWL-speaking, the site is the conversation-encounter and the materiality we find/ bring there is the back and forth of that conversation. I don’t want to liken the material stuff to words – because they are utterly different and part of ITAWL is in drawing attention to that – rather, the material stuff of the site is the way that we gain the possibility to have the ‘conversation’ that is Corby Civils And Lintels (this is how the site is listed on the Corby Council website; it’s also signposted at the entrance).

I guess that sounds a bit abstract. Site as conversation. What I experience this as is a to-ing and fro-ing (in me) when in Corby Civils and Lintels that is totally individual to me and my apprehension of its particularity. It is a very different conversation to the kind I have, for example, with any other place, even if it’s maybe part of the same species of place. For example, in driving to the site each day, my conversation with the interior of the car really contrasts: the car asks things of my fingers, of my focal vision that CCL doesn’t unless I lie down on my belly and get my face close to its ground. Everything in the car is a little bit right up against me, or right up behind me or just right there – buttons and dials and random ends of things on slidey surfaces and moulded seating. My feet are quiet-to-non-existent in the car. I could keep giving examples, but it’s just trying to capture the creamy soup with a colander. I’m using familiar body parts because they are readily available – but the conversation is a totality that isn’t closed and includes all of me and all of CCL, not just the bits I can name and point to. The more time I spent in CCL, the more I was able to notice the subtleties of our interaction. I could not do that from a distance – the conversation was only possible in proximity.

Agents Gorell Barnes promote CCL on their website ( as ‘a ‘blank canvas’ where ‘(o)ccupiers have the opportunity to be located within a high quality landscaped environment, close to local services with a mobile workforce in close proximity’

The kind of conversation they’ve had with Corby Civils and Lintels is obviously very different. The place, the site, the actual stuff of CCL, in that kind of conversation, has nothing to say. Apart from a convenient fountain of workforce nearby, the distance that this abstract process called Representation has responsibility for opening includes a lack of feeling, a lack of presence. The site is blank for Gorell Barnes. They could have their chat with CCL on Skype and wouldn’t notice anything amiss.

One end or two?

“Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” (German proverb)
(Everything has one end, only the sausage has two)

When a place has been ‘blanked’ (or ‘space-d’, depending on which theorist you read – flattened into universality and divested of vitality), then it has only one end – the one that gets planned on to it. Place that remains unfinished always has multiple ends, mostly undecided and yet-to-be. Maybe a bit like lots of sausages heaped together. I don’t really eat sausages, but I really like that German proverb about them, with its forecast of inevitable ending and proposal of hopeful alternatives – or hopeful ending and anomalous alternatives.

Part of the distinction I proposed previously between practice and projects has to do with borders and temporal orientation (which way does it lean in time? does it have beginnings and endings?):

“Practice has a growth orientation that will continue to evolve over time, whereas a project has a border – we can finish a project and go on to something else. We don’t really finish a practice, although we might leave it for a while/ever. Practice seems to refer to itself – it doesn’t lean out into the future in the way that a project does – it stays in the act of doing”

I think part of the challenge, for me at least, in bringing things to a point in ITAWL, is that we need to ‘do’ something with the practicing, and in some ways, this demand is asking us to make a project of the practice. The sausage disappears – and an ending, a sharing, appears in its stead.

For something with >1 end, it’s hard to figure out where to put the borders in, even if they might only be temporary. What do you close off if you don’t yet know what might happen?

One End, For Now

In the end, the sharing was a lovely event. It confirmed the potency of the conversations we hoped to broker between people and place.

CCL: you will be different again, next we meet, and the kinds of conversation will be too… we won’t know until we get there. “Who is meeting and who is met? It all depends where you stand and how you move”³ (Carter, 2013)

I still have many questions. I’m not sure how we manage the project of practicing other people’s performance until they get there to do it themselves. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the parallel (of) direction, offering direction and trying to find that myself.

And sausages. Vegetarian sausages.


¹p 123, Forms of Vitality 1
²p 3, Forms of Vitality 2
³(I’m not sure of the page number as I was cheat-reading on an Amazon-Kindle preview), Meeting 3 Place: The Human Encounter and the Challenge of Coexistence


Brouwer, J., Mulder, A. & Spuybroek, L. (Eds) (2012) Vital Beauty: Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature. NAI Publishers.
Carter, P. (2013) Meeting Place: The Human Encounter and the Challenge of Coexistence. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Rogoff, I. (2000) Terra Infirma: Geogrpahy’s Visual Culture. London, New York: Routledge. Stern, D. (2010) Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Google (tool for getting lost)
Carter, P. (2016) On Choreotopography (Lecture) Leeds.
Corby Civils and Lintels (19-22.09 and 6-7.10.16) (Site) Corby.
Various places – cars, my bike, houses/flats, my home, bike shed, dance/yoga studios, theatre spaces, trains, cafes, pubs, parks, open outdoor spaces that aren’t designated, rail stations, treatment rooms.

Practice and Projects

Written by Jennifer-Lynn Crawford

As per Charlotte’s recent post →, the lot of us (minus James, but he sent his self’s worth of proposals for us to play with) have recently returned from a week’s residency in the woods. The Woods, I should say – the experience needs upper case recognition.

“I’m still amazed by how much I’m dealing with the unknown”… when Charlotte says this in her post, I feel a strong sympathy. Since The Woods, I’ve been trying to make sense of some of ITAWL’s (Is this a Waste Land?) themes. This has resulted in a great deal of floating about and not very much else. I mean, they are very big themes, so floating around in them is perhaps a valid way to make ‘sense’ of them.

I’ve been toying with re-framing the themes as such; not in terms of content, but re-considering them as maybe part of a different species, a more exotic breed than those I’m accustomed to. I’ve always thought of themes as rather like content – they are ideas or subjects and I suppose I am used to manipulating them, or feeling like I can wrap some abstract thinking around them.

The floating-about I’ve been subject to feels less like my usual experience of themes and more like my memories of getting swept out by an unexpectedly strong current whilst swimming: there is really not very much you can do about where you are going and where you end up.

So here’s a current that has taken me on a little trip and helped me re-species the ‘themes’.

Practice and Projects
For all that ITAWL is a project, it really isn’t – I think it is wearing a project-costume to fit into a frame that includes ACE (Arts Council England) funding, current art-making models and our busy and variable lives. But I think what it proposes, through the phenomena it orients to, is large-scale practice, but like, done by us in our human-sized ways.

I feel these two words, practice and project, relate to very different sorts of art-making. I’ll explain in a roundabout sort of way.

It’s funny maybe that in building towards a performative-interactive art work there is a lot of stuff coming up that can’t really be project-based, perhaps because it’s life-based. These big questions, about:

  • Space and Value – commodification and privatisation of space
  • What makes us feel like we belong? Home and community
  • Where does all the stuff go – Waste and Capitalism
  • Being in my body – Nourishment and taking care
  • Living with uncertainty – How do we live right now? Dealing with the everyday in uncertain times

(As well as the strong sense that we can’t just get off at one stop here and leave the rest for another time… because all these stops are interdependent on the same transport system…)

Art-Making Models
… these aren’t themes any more, although that’s a good short-hand and helped me out greatly when I tried to explain to somebody the other day what I was doing in a forest last week. In trying to explain the sense and importance of relationship in working with all the questions, I got the feeling we were having a deeper unspoken conversation about creative models.

One, where the model of making art is reliant on addressing content (a theme) and creating a product related to that theme, and another, where the model of making art is reliant on practicing the content itself, with attention to the practice as vital to the making, and through that practice, bringing phenomena to life rather than to representation… Product, in this model, is perhaps more of a negotiable than an assumed separable output.

This question of the creative or art-making model is really relevant, something we already know as jobbing artists or makers. Or maybe not all of us identify with that as we only sometimes job as artists… Most recently, we all forest-ed as people. Maybe we don’t define ourselves by our participation in employment (or forests). No matter. We are participating in this ITAWL together and thus, the question of how we go about doing what we are doing and might do, is t/here.

I suppose part of the reason that the questions ITAWL proposes aren’t really themes ‘any more’ (if ever they were!) has to do with their lack of distinct borders. The clarity around what and where something starts/ends, is/is not, also relates, I believe, to the difference between practice and project.

Project, as a word and concept, would fit ITAWL if ITAWL didn’t have size-infinity boots and loads of wavy branches within which the big inter-con-questions of space-time-life-systems-difference/change-value-sustenance-sustainability-uncertainty-presence perch. ITAWL is an ecological sort and needs to be to address the web of questions it has nesting inside of itself. This seems important to name because it is rather different from the dominant mode of project-ing and the dominant mode of art-consumption. I think ITAWL can only really find its home as a practice, or a web of practices that we do together, sometimes in proximity.

Practice and project are of different times and natures. Project feels like it has an end, one that is included from the beginning. Practice feels like it keeps on and doesn’t come with a pre-decided ending. Project feels like if I were clever, I could finish it sooner than I originally planned. Practice feels like a never-ending tale that keeps spinning so long as I keep reading. Practice has a growth orientation that will continue to evolve over time, whereas a project has a border – we can finish a project and go on to something else. We don’t really finish a practice, although we might leave it for a while/ever. Practice seems to refer to itself – it doesn’t lean out into the future in the way that a project does – it stays in the act of doing. If anything practice props itself on the past – if I were to do something once, it wouldn’t be practice. If I do something repeatedly, then it becomes practice, after the fact and in the fact of doing it again. The repetition also points to a loop – yesterdays’s practices feedforward into today’s practice. And I can’t use my clever brain to short-circuit a practice – because then it wouldn’t be practice. Which is not to say that we can’t have a thinking practice. If I never add things up in my head, then I fall out of practice and it’s really hard to add things up in my head. But if I practice it everyday, then it changes and I acquire more skill in adding things up in my head. But I can’t change my skill here unless I actually exercise it.

When I think about ITAWL like this, I feel like the floating, or getting swept out by currents, is really important. Part of the practice time. Being together in the woods felt like group practice. Building a temporary home and a temporary life together. Being together.

I feel, and think, that to make this work, Charlotte made an intuitive decision to bring it to life, rather than make a symbol representative of thematic content. I think this work is a celebration of the materiality of life (at least, that is where the current has taken me today) and that the only way to really engage with that is for us to practice it. This brings the questions to human-size.

In choosing to step around representation of themes that are too big to represent, I guess we are also making a choice to engage with the non-linear and non-narrative level of the pre-reflective. To be in the realm of the sensory and the perceptual is to be directly in the world, with all the other inhabitants we find there, all the things that verge on all the other things, to interact with what happens as it happens. It’s also to say yes to making a political statement in many ways; it’s to go against the nap of the cultural fabric of bordering, of inclusion/exclusion and representation and work with all the in-betweens of relationship.

Forest Residency August 2016

Last week we began the next phase of development for Is this a Waste Land? This part of the project kicked off with an intensive residency in a public access forest in Kent. In order to expand the time frame of our week there to include working at night, dawn walks, star gazing, I was really keen that we lived and worked in the woods. However it’s not possible to camp on Forestry Commission land, so after a bit of negotiation with a private land owner who owns an edge of the same woods, we came to an agreement where we could camp discreetly in the privately owned part of the woods and work in the public access space.

And so we embarked on an extraordinary 7 days with a group of 10 wonderful artists. Gradually we built a beautiful camp for ourselves – a communal area, kitchen (with mug holders and all – see picture below!), compost toilet (thank you Alex for making us a very luxurious loo seat! and to the various hole diggers). Daily activities took a bit more time – collecting water took close to two hours so it became extremely precious. Quickly the phones died or were switched off (hence so few pictures) – they seemed irrelevant somehow there and we started to feel at home amongst the trees.

We worked alongside the woodsmen who were clearing an area of forest close to us. They unloaded their logs whilst we crawled along the ground, did strange Swedish versions of aerobics (Friskis and Svetties – you really should try it!), and hauled around endless lengths of rope and bits of wood. They didn’t ask us what we were doing, but always smiled and waved and somehow we made sure that we weren’t in each others ways. I loved this new kind of ‘side by side’ experience.

Given how much time has lapsed from one phase to the next throughout this project which I first starting working on over two years ago, I’m still amazed by how much I’m dealing with the unknown. This is exciting and daunting in equal measure. I keep thinking I should know more. However much I might be interested in working with the unknown as material, (which is I guess what improvisation is) resting in the unknown isn’t a very comfortable place. Especially because I think my temperament likes to know stuff. I like to feel that I know where I’m going. I’m steering this ship – I jumped in and got a whole load of people to join me, so I have the responsibility to lead it! Yes, all true. But when some of the subject matter is precisely trying to work with dealing with the everyday in uncertain times, then relinquishing prior knowledge is actually quite important probably. It just gets a bit more tricky when (understandably) I am asked to talk about the project, and it ends up something like this:

‘so what is the project about?’

‘…urm well many things…space and how we value land, what happens to our communities in the privatisation of land, err, it’s somehow about belonging, togetherness and difference. It’s about the relentless building and destroying of stuff. It’s about all the stuff and waste and our relationship with waste. It’s about how much capitalism thrives on waste. It’s about how our bodies meet with the environment their in and how much that changes us. It’s about dealing with uncertainty, living precariously in unchartered times. err…yeah all that….hmmm’

‘so what might that look like in your show?’

‘I’m not really sure yet. I know that I want many things to be happening at the same time. I know that I want us to build things and then destroy them/pull them down/repurpose them. I know that I want the audience to feel like their presence is necessary for the work to exist/continue. I have ideas about how we might do that. At the moment we’re working a lot with knots. They seem useful.’

And then I try to finish the conversation as quickly as possible and walk away feebly.

No, it’s not always as bad as that, and actually when I’m meeting with potential programming partners and looking at sites, many of them understand how much ideas can change through the course of a creative process. But not all, and this performance work doesn’t fall into any particularly ‘recognisable’ form.

Once again, I was really struck by the group of remarkable artists who have gathered around this project; three of whom I didn’t really know and had never worked with before. Another kind of unknown. But one that I trusted. Without exception it was clear that everyone was driven by their curiosities around the work. One afternoon I was in conversation with one of the artists after lunch and the rest of the group simply got back to work without any prompting from me – how wonderful!

We took it in turns to lead propositions with the rest of the group. We made an orchestra out of sticks breaking, we walked at dawn and watched the sunrise, we walked at night and saw loads of shooting stars. Tom went searching for Owls every night; he found them and recorded their sounds. We became obsessed with tying knots and the swedish aerobic thing. We listened to internal sounds of trees (yes you can really hear them and it is one of the most extraordinary sensations I’ve ever had). We lay in the ground and listened. We tied ourselves in circles and asked endless questions about belonging. 

What do we long to belong to?
What if you can’t not belong?
What do we belong to that we don’t know we belong to?
What belongs together?
What do we belong to that we don’t want to belong to?
Do you have to speak the language to belong?

We worked into and with the environment. We started to become part of it. One thing for sure, was that we were all keenly present throughout – in all our comfort and discomfort and with all of our doubts and our questions. It was a week of great vibrancy for which I am hugely grateful. When we left, there was barely a trace left and as we re-entered ‘normal’ we had few words to say. It has taken me most of this week to re-adjust and find a place and a time for writing. That world and this one that I’m sitting in now feel quite far apart from each other.

I look forward to our next time together in September on a site in Corby. I know it will be so very different from our week last week, but I also know that we will bring some of the forest with us, and that feels important.

I will write more again soon. In the mean time, thank you to Ben A and Ben M and Tom and Gian and Keren and Louise and Jennifer and Kirsty and Petra for making it what it was.

Thank you also to my parents Caroline and Jonathan Spencer who helped with some of the preparations and let us make use of their house at the start and end, and made us delicious lunch on our final afternoon.

Thank you to Our Woods who have commissioned this project and to funding through Grants for the Arts from Arts Council England.

Where are we with the Waste Lands?

Wasteland KIngsWoods feature

Our research for Is this A Waste Land? has been continuing and has proved both fascinating and frustrating. It feels entirely possible to attach this title/this question to any space or place and the conversation is an interesting one. How do we decide what is a useful use of space or not? Who decides and by what criteria? When I was first envisaging this project, I imagined it for two quite specific sites – an urban industrial wasteland and an industrial forest. The main stumbling block so far has been gaining permission to access an urban site in London. Redevelopment is happening at an enormously rapid rate in London and every plot of land is allocated. This together with anxieties around security and the enormous health and safety red tape in the UK has led many interesting conversations with property developers and site owners to result in a refusal of permission for our request to access their site for 3 days. It is frustrating. These spaces are standing empty and we are asking to use them for 3 days. 3 DAYS!!! It feels a little like banging our heads against the wall. But hey, we are continuing to hunt and to talk and to ask questions.

The common notion still remains that wastelands are of no value until developed. Artistically I want to work in these places to acknowledge what thrives; to participate in conversation about how we might imagine and animate our future spaces. The questions and the subject feel important, so we aren’t giving up. We are looking for new ways to allow this project to continue living and breathing, and with that I feel excited and optimistic.

In the middle of June we were meant to be working on an industrial site for 3 days with all the creative team, preparing to share our work so far with an invited audience. The refusal of access to our desired sites meant we had to postpone. Instead Keren Kossow (my fantastic new producer!) and I joined an incredibly inspiring project, Refugee Tales a pilgrimage from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury, that reflected on the long and dangerous journeys that many refugees make fleeing war and persecution, seeking a safe place to live. Organised by the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, hundreds of people joined the walk across 9 days in solidarity for and with all those detained in the UK whilst seeking asylum. With film-screenings, talks and performances, the whole event became a political carnival, a reclaiming of the landscape in the name of human solidarity. It was an artistic, political, activist, engaged project.

It was inspiring and challenging to be part of and made me reflect deeply on my own artistic work and the contribution it might make in political, social and ecological processes. This experience also highlighted to me the increasing relevance of land and space in the politics of migration and those who are landless. The very fact that a group of migrants were camping under the bridge of the North Circular less than 200m from the site in North London that we were trying to gain access to sits heavily with me. The first time I visited the site, they were there. The next time I went they had ‘disappeared’. Meanwhile a large space next door is left empty. And we are not granted access to that space for fear that we may be travellers or squatters. Most people would not choose to camp under the North circular. Probably most people would not choose to camp on the derelict concrete site that we were looking at. And still our country closes its borders and refuses entry. Is this a Waste Land? is also in part an ode to all those migrants seeking a safe place to call home. 

Despite not being granted space on an urban site, we did manage to work for 3 days in the Kings Wood. A Forestry Commission site, where the wonderful Stour Valley Arts used to be based. We had hot hot sunny weather. We worked long days and shared the work so far with a willing testing audience on the final day. It was great to bring in some people from outside our process for the first time and gather their responses. I have the distinct feeling that we are moving on new territory and it is both un-nerving and delightful.


We have also started to explore possible sites in other cities in the UK and are interested to widen the conversation beyond the borders of the UK. I will keep you posted with our progress. I am exceptionally grateful to all of my collaborators for their wonderful generous thoughts and contributions: Tom Spencer, Petra Soor, Ben Ash, Kip Johnson, Kirsty Arnold, Jennifer-Lynn Crawford and Keren Kossow. It is wonderful embarking on this journey with you all.


all images by Pari Naderi