The Commons: Re-enchanting the World

This project began in March 2020 and runs until January 2021. Generously funded by Arts Council England, this project connects The MERL with many new audiences and partners. An exciting group of creative commoners are set to help us focus on how the social and ecological challenges we currently face link back to complex histories of land ownership, gender rights, labour, and the wage economy, as well as a decline in communal life and subsistence living.

The ‘commons’ describes things we all share, such as air, water, and land. Loss of vital resources resources like these is happening in many parts of the world, often without our knowledge. As well as the legacies of colonialism and the impact of neocolonialism, the concept of commons also serves as a rallying cry to raise awareness of homegrown inequalities. Hooked to the history of land enclosures and presented in the homely context of a rural museum, these interventions will enable the Museum’s audiences to reconnect with, celebrate, and better understand the notion of commons.

Who are our creative commoners?

The events and artistic interventions that will emerge during this project will be coordinated by artists Catherine Morland and Amanda Couch and will stem from the following creative practitioners, as well as from the communities and audiences with whom they will be working.

Catherine Morland will use basketry—one of the earliest domestic and collaborative activities—as a way to foreground the lives of women, who often struggle most from the loss of commons. She will work with dried water hyacinth, a migrant plant with a colonial history, and with daffodil leaves, rush, and locally-foraged materials to weave an installation for display in the Museum. She will also produce smaller sculptural pieces for display and vessels for use in an artist-led banquet to be held during the Farming Worlds Late and Launch event. Catherine will work with community partners at both ends of the age spectrum, exploring the care of children and the elderly. She is building links with the Basketmakers’ Association. Work with diaspora community organisations in Reading will enable her to root her work in research into the contemporary Kenyan pastoralist groups who first inspired her work in this area.

Amanda Couch will form a community collective called ‘Becoming with Wheat’ (BwW). Together they will explore the collective act of ‘companioning’ with wheat, revealing how the human and non-human are interdependent. The BwW Community will work to grow wheat in specially-made raised beds in The MERL Garden and Amanda will exhibit related work in the galleries. This work is also supported by the University for the Creative Arts. She will partner with food designer Josefin Vargo to develop a banquet to be served during the Farming Worlds Late and Launch eventThe BwW Community will engage participants from local growing groups and audiences, including Reading Food Growing Network, Food4Families, the University of Reading, local farmers, the Mills Archive, and elsewhere.

Sigrid Holmwood will the explore the idea of commons as present in the diverse and colonial knowledges, technologies, and histories of dye plants. Her ‘peasant painter’ persona will work with a community of collaborative growers, cultivate woad in The MERL Garden, perform indigo extraction and pigment-making at events throughout the project, and produce wall hangings for display in the galleries. To help tend plants and grow indoor indigo, Sigrid will engage volunteers from the local community. She is particularly interested in working with people who are already involved in horticulture, those who are already using dye plants, and people with heritage links with places that have longstanding indigo traditions.

Carl Gent and Kelechi Anucha will use folk songs and melody to meditate on the loss and resurrection of commons. They will perform their work during the Farming Worlds Late and Launch event, and the MERL Late in November. Carl will also produce sculptures for display in the galleries, which will dispense song lyrics and sound, and provide a lasting physical trace of the performances. Workshops will engage new audiences in the histories of folk music. Working with local refugee organisations and church groups, they will explore these music journeys by tracing transnational hymn traditions, and their re-imagination through processes of Empire.

Sam Wallman will design a graphic banner on the theme of commons, which will be produced large-scale and exhibited in the galleries. It will also be made available as a free poster for visitors to take away. As a cartoonist, comic-journalist, and labour-organiser based in Australia, Sam’s contribution to the project will be in the format of a graphic novel with bite-sized text, offering an illustrated explanation of the commons for visitors. This design work will also become a brand for the project.

Alice McCabe is a floral artist who will be helping to create decoration and garlanding for the Farming Worlds Late. She will work with local support and make use of flowers and plants grown in the MERL Garden, with the support of members of the Greater Reading Nepalese Community Association.