A conversation between Harold Offeh, Leila McAlister and Joe Nunn about MashUp.
Harold Offeh: I’m an artist working with video and performance; I was invited by the ICA to join the ongoing project that they have been developing with PIP students, to help shape it and to develop a series of workshops. The brief was to respond to four strands that the project was developing – Friendship, Healthy Eating, Art & Design and Drama – and to bring on board other practitioners who could bring particular skills to bear on these areas.
PIP (Pursuing Independent Pathways) facilitates projects with adults with learning difficulties. They had a previous track record of working with the ICA and this meant there was an established relationship already in place; it was interesting to see the dialogue that had built up between an arts organisation and a community organisation. Essentially through this existing partnership the ground work had already been laid for me, which was great and unlike previous projects that I’d done where there was a lot of effort required to familiarise the organisation with my work and the processes involved in working with artists.
The idea was that the four strands of the existing dialogue should be brought together in an event at the ICA, with six months to develop a relationship with the students and to work towards this goal. Having a very clear visible outcome was a useful catalyst and again differed from other projects I’d worked on.
It was equally appealing to be able to discuss and consider other practitioners to get involved to lead the different strands. This ended up being quite an organic process where people were ‘discovered’ and involved as the project unfolded.
As a whole, for me, the model was an interesting one to work within.
Perhaps it would be good for both of you to introduce yourselves and to describe the strands you were involved in?
Leila McAlister: I own a food shop and café in Shoreditch in East London, so I’m a food ‘practitioner’ rather than an artist. The PIP students firstly came to visit my shop as a sort of interview between me and them; it was quite clear from this first meeting that there was something to be done. Some products in my shop that I took for granted were mysterious to the PIP students: unpackaged muddy vegetables, artisan bread and cheeses that weren’t in plastic wrapping were fascinating to them, and I was fascinated by their fascination.
It was apparent very early on that the PIP students had a confidence about being in the ICA building, they had a sense of ownership about the place. They were very supportive of each other and understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses which was a great advantage for us having come relatively late to the project and starting them off with a new topic.
They all had their own notions about what healthy eating was and that’s where we started. They had done some previous work around healthy eating which I think had left them more confused in many cases. They thought for example that healthy eating was not eating anything that you liked. Or that healthy eating is tofu, or not eating butter or cream; certainly they had the idea that you should eat low fat food and things without sugar, but the reality was that many of them had a poor diet and a lot of them ate a lot of cakes, doughnuts, packet soups and so on.
So our idea was to go back to basics and find some products that they all liked and didn’t understand much about; we chose bread, cheese and vegetables. Over the course of ten weeks we alternated sessions at the ICA with visits to producers or specialist retailers. The classes we did in the ICA Reading Room were really in preparation for visits to producers. For example, we had a class about bread that looked at the science of the process: the raw ingredients, different types of flour, talking about yeast and sour dough. Making the yeast and sour dough alive and bubble caused great excitement! The following week we visited a bakery and met a baker; I think that it was very empowering for them to visit with the knowledge of how bread was made, and very exciting for them to see the process in action. The value in that is that it really changed the way that they bought bread.
We also held a session about seeds, germination and the growth of plants, and planted up some crude sacks with herbs and vegetables on the roof of the ICA. We followed this with a visit to Spitalfields City Farm, where the group harvested vegetables and cooked them there and then; this is something I don’t think any of them had done before and they were very pleased with the results of their cooking.
Harold Offeh: Are the sacks still up on the ICA roof?
Leila McAlister: I think they are! The parsley was doing very well and the leeks might be the right size to harvest now!
Joe Nunn: Markus Bergstrom and I are furniture designers primarily, but we also design interiors and products. We work together under the name Glasshill and we were approached by Harold to run the Arts & Design strand of the project.
For us as Glass Hill and as individuals, doing this project was slightly intimidating as we had never done anything of this nature before. The first couple of sessions we had with the PIP students we ended up lecturing to them, with slide shows and fairly tenuous conceptual leaps that we weren’t even sure of! This was based on our assumption of what might interest them, and also our uncertainty as to how we would fit in with the project and contribute to the MashUp event. But things moved on very quickly once PIP had visited our workshops. We came to look forward to them arriving on Mondays and despite them complaining about it being cold and dusty I think they really enjoyed it too!
For the first session in the workshop we got together a collection of previous things we’d made; one of them which we were sure was going to be a huge success was a boat. We showed it to the students and told them that we could make something like this with them. But they looked at it as an object, an existing thing; the link between us, the fact that we had made it and the potential for them as a group to make something similar was missing; there wasn’t that engagement with it that we had hoped for. There were some other objects, some test pieces that interested them more. Little scale models of things, prototypes using different materials; these objects that they could hold and explore their different textures and materials were much more interesting to them. That’s when we started letting them lead the sessions a bit more. Also, Leila’s involvement with the healthy eating group gave us a focus about what we might be able to produce with them.
HO: Would it be useful to talk about the crossover between the design element and the healthy eating strand of the project? What kinds of discussions did you have?
LM: Being part of MashUp, this event that everyone was working towards, was a fantastic goal because it was very ambitious: a club night at the ICA. Everyone knew what that meant and that it was something really significant and sensational, but we had quite clearly defined goals for each project so that it was still manageable. Our objective in terms of healthy eating had been very reductive, looking at very simple products, and we were determined to keep it that way - even if it was going to be a feast of bread, butter and cheese it could still be dramatic. But for me the really dramatic thing was the confidence the PIP students had about what they were serving; even if it was just whole carrots, the fact that they ate a whole carrot with the leaves still on it was great; they knew where it had come from.
The fact that it was an unusual meal also meant there was much more freedom in the way that it was going to be served so Markus and Joe could explore how we serve food at its most basic level. The intention had always been to be quite flexible and quite creative. We talked together and had some good ideas about communal eating to explore ideas of sharing and friendship further, but in hindsight they were too complicated to explore or execute within the timeframe.
JN: We had to maintain a certain flexibility and the way our workshop sessions were leading from one to the next, driven by the interests of the students allowed for that to take place. We approached our sessions by process and material. With us being furniture designers it was an opportunity to make something different and we decided to make table wear for the feast. A typical session would have been slip casting a cup. We would make an attempt to have the process ready for them and we would run them through the different materials and processes. But because they had done a lot of arts and crafts, they very often knew much more about the process than we did. We would arrive with a prototype and as soon as they saw it they would tell us “oh that’s not going to work, you need to do it like this”! It was great to have this discussion with them about the ways of doing things correctly and to have the opportunity to then follow up at the next session.
The two things that the students were really good at and much better than Markus and I, were time keeping and being realistic. For example, they asked how many people were going to be at the meal. When we replied that there would be around fifty people, they responded that we couldn’t possibly make fifty of this or that object in the time frame – and they were right! We ended up making things which were simple enough for them to be useful in various ways; we made a cup, which was not a glass nor a beaker but was somewhere in between, and the same with the chopping board. With the volume of people and the kind of meal it was going to be, with huge breads and large pieces of cheese, it meant this really worked well.
HO: I think it benefited from the simplification and streamlining of it; there was a real synergy between the food and the objects that displayed and utilised it, it was fantastic.
I’m conscious it would be good for me to talk about the friendship group that formed a further strand to the project and contributed significantly to the final event; this involved an additional group of practitioners.
The remit of the friendship group was to organise the event and initially structure what would be happening on the night – but the journey to that point was also really nice. The first few sessions were about getting to know each other, talking about social situations, events and clubs that they’d been to and enjoyed. Quite quickly we managed to map out some common ground; the PIP students wanted there to be some sort of performativity, and for there to be several elements to the night, not just a club night with DJ’s. We also did some quite informal things; Michael Jackson was definitely a recurring theme, so we watched videos and shared dance moves which segued quite nicely into them wanting to do some kind of dance performance on the night. That’s why I approached Robert Hilton to work with them as a professional dancer.
Generally those preparatory sessions were where we tried to bring together all the different things that we had to do for the club night; the visual identity of the club, which involved the designers Nous Vous for the logo and the signage, and then the idea of the pop-up shop, and also working with DJs and thinking about what music they might want.
LM: They really understood the proposition of the event as a whole didn’t they? They knew what they working towards.
HO: My sense of it was that it was about making sure they had ownership of the event, but also about learning from them, as Joe pointed out. Letting them have a sense of the authority of their opinions.
LM: I did my sessions with Rosie Sykes who’s a cook and we would often discuss what we had learned after the sessions. The group’s honesty and immediacy to situations, their sense of the ‘here and now’ and their use of vocabulary was just brilliant, so open.
HO: Do you think the project has impacted on your practise?
JN As a practise we tend towards the slightly conservative, which was not something that we naturally did with the students. Experimenting with different materials is something we haven’t done since college and something we really enjoyed. It also helped us understand what the potential of a small workspace is for us; having to make fifty objects in one week meant everyone had to get down to it and definitely things done.
LM: Our shop is very much a local shop with regular customers, and we’ve worked with different local groups, but the great thing about the PIP students was how honest they were. People have their habits about what they choose to eat and buy; it’s a very personal thing, but the PIP guys were very open about how and why they make the choices they do about the food that they eat.
HO: For me it’s just reinforced the importance of dialogue, and having enough time for that to occur, which seems to have been really fruitful. It’s provided me with a model of an ideal to aim towards in anything I might do like this in the future.