The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.Derek Jarman, Modern Nature
A car backfires and a flock of pigeons takes flight, loops around, and adopts a new location. We pause and watch them, then pick up where we left off. The conversation around the table is concerned principally with human interventions and relationships, but also with a non-human cast of characters and events. Plants intended, self-seeded and spontaneous, fences, the absence of an outdoor water source, an opening party, painted tyres, austerity, Brexit and missing compost.
The Arts Catalyst team invited me to their new garden at Sheffield Mind, created with artist Harun Morrison and horticulturalist Fran Halsall, on a hot day in August 2022. The organisation moved from their London location to Sheffield during 2020, where they were joined by Laura Clarke as the new Artistic Director, who was already based in the city. Their relocation, like many things that happened during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic, seems both recent and ancient.
The garden in August was just starting to grow. Plants starting to draw from the soil and establish their presence. Some weeds joining the party. It felt like the beginning of something. Harun and Fran’s original ambition for the garden exceeded what was possible within the small budget. What they and the Arts Catalyst team decided was to lay the groundwork and to gradually work in phases, following permaculture principles. These principles, first outlined in the 1978 book Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, offer an alternative to the focus on a ‘single product’ within agricultural systems. But permaculture principles not only apply to food production, they can be used as ‘a design system for resilient living’, aiming for functional and stable relationships between plant and animal species, adapted to local conditions.
In the garden behind Sheffield Mind, the permaculture principles of observing, stillness, using small and slow solutions, valuing the marginal and responding to change, are all evident. The sight lines through from the newly sprouting garden to the housing estate, lawned courtyard and the road make the garden inextricable from its urban context. This is a place that could be all concrete and hardness, but is slowly beginning to change, evoking the line from Vita Sackville West’s poem The Garden: ‘Much toil, much care, much love and many years / Went to the slow reward; a grudging soil’.
Arts Catalyst was founded in 1994, just a few years before Relational Aesthetics was published, in which Nicholas Bourriaud wrote: ‘the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’. As an organisation Arts Catalyst have practiced this sentiment for almost three decades. They describe their mission as activating people to think differently about the world around them. Broadly, the organisation’s starting point is the intersection of art and science – and communities.
Arts Catalyst’s work has varied from exploring the culture of nuclear energy, facilitating artists to produce imaginative designs for Arctic research stations, to memorialising the lost species of the Leigh-on-Sea estuary. In short, the organisation creates networks around themes of planetary importance. They link researchers, artists, audiences and places around these big themes, and the results are accessible without being oversimplified – a tough balance to strike.
Having been based in London for almost thirty years, they realised that they didn’t need a Kings Cross address to carry on doing the nation-wide programming that they had always done. Perhaps in the past the organisation benefited from having London-based artists and academics on their doorstep, but technology and mindsets have moved on considerably since the 1990s – in the 2020s they can relocate but take all their connections with them. But more than being a moment of technological opportunity, their move North is a sign of wider shifts in the art world and the UK.
Decades of austerity and Tory government, Brexit, the dismal reality behind the rhetoric of levelling up, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis: all of these factors have created a challenging context for arts organisations. In autumn 2022, Arts Council England’s list of National Portfolio Organisations was announced, making it clear that public funding cannot support the ambition and futures of all art organisations. With their limited means, the focus of ACE is now on socially engaged projects, parameters that will change the landscape of art production itself. Will they be able to fund projects that will iterate slowly over time, or will they need measurable benefits for audiences straight away? Will gardens, for example, be able to demonstrate a quick return on investment? Fortunately for gardens, the data is on their side. ‘Natural Capital’, as the Office for National Statistics puts it, brings with it health benefits even without physical exercise.
Arts Catalyst were motivated to move to Sheffield because their existing modes of working would be more useful there and make a bigger contribution to place-making. They have taken up their first meanwhile space, a former furniture showroom in the centre of the city, suddenly finding themselves in the centre of debates about the death of the high street and faced with the question: can culture save our cities? Their temporary office and project space is appropriately named Soft Ground, a nod to planting and fertile places for growth, but with a hint of precarity.
Returning to the Mind Garden, it feels like a natural continuation of the kinds of projects that Arts Catalyst create, but with a new hyperlocal aspect. Arriving after lockdown, at a time when breathing indoors felt like an act of violence, it made perfect sense that they would create an outdoor place to meet in and connect with. Arts Catalyst joined an already established arts ecology in Sheffield, but their combined strategies of national programming, the garden and the meanwhile space, offer something new to the city’s art network, exploring a range of models of action within the existing infrastructure.
Sheffield Mind, like other organisations, moved mostly online during the pandemic and delivered individual support and group sessions over video call. There was a slight frisson of loneliness in the garden in August 2022, perhaps because people had become used to being online and therefore used the building and Harun’s garden less than they might have otherwise. The challenge for the next phase of the garden is to establish a care plan and recruit more collaborators to help to grow things and to enjoy the space.
The garden has already drawn people together; the launch event at the end of July was full of food and sharing different perspectives. The team described how one man wandered past, joined in completely impromptu, loudly complained about the area (‘it’s shit round here’) and then stayed until the end, tucked into the food and chatted to everyone. Perhaps the compost thief was also in attendance? The team told me that the garden has experienced a gradual erosion of its supply, in quantities about carriable by a single human.
A lot of current art discourse is focused on care, and more specifically on healing. Gardening can feel like a mostly metaphorical act; of caring, laying groundwork, observing the change of seasons. But, returning to both Bourriaud and the permaculture principles, gardening is a powerful tool for finding a new mode of living that will prepare us for the ways the world is changing. It may not feel like a solution to climate emergency or future pandemics, but it can help us become more resilient in the face of them, even if it does so in the simplest of ways. As garden designer Piet Odolf writes, ‘For me, it’s all about the moment, the now. If I go out into the garden, I will see something today that was not in flower yesterday’.
The garden is a place to assemble, a place that is already developing its own mythology, a place to practice care, to be slow, present, and value the marginal. A statement of intent to connect to the new ground on which Arts Catalyst find themselves – an intention to continue to transfigure that landscape.
Linda Pittwood is an account manager, project manager, researcher and writer based in Manchester. Her interests are in supporting creative practice, placemaking and cultural exchange.
Arts Catalyst is a visual arts organisation and charity based in Sheffield. Mind Garden is a commission by artist Harun Morrison and an ongoing project at Sheffield Mind. Mind Garden is supported by Arts Council England, The Freshgate Trust Foundation and the JG Graves Charitable Trust.