Thomas Cadbury, Assistant Curator, has selected a bowl from Cranbrook, (near Exeter) to accompany Abigail North's Halsow Wassail bowl when it's installed at RAMM in January 2022. While our project is concerned with human-microbial relationships – especially the politics and socialities of this – we draw heavily on wassailing conventions, based on the veneration of apples trees, as a way to draw these things into alignment.⁋
Tom's choice of bowl chimes exactly with the wassailing tradition, in that it was found at a site where there is evidence of ritual activity, dating from the Mesolithic and Early Bronze Age, 'the focal point of which appeared to be a large tree' (as Diana King states in her archaeological report of 2016 ©Foundations Archaeology). These rituals included the depositing of vessels and flints in the tree's root-system. In later periods, and once the sacred tree had fallen, it was replaced by a pillar – most likely to have been wooden – around which further ritual activity was undertaken. The bowl selected by Tom is thought to have been used for communal drinking, and deposited as part of a Beaker-period burial.⁋Photo:RAMM, 2021
While this commission is based on a collaboration with Harry and the Food Studies network at the University of Exeter, there's room to develop complimentary conversations from others in the academic community. Last week I caught-up with anthropologist Jimmy Turner, who I'd first met after a talk that I'd given in York in the North of England six or so years ago, and who is now a researcher at Goldsmith's University of London. At this point, I was trying to grasp how best to describe the ways that humans encounter nonhumans, and the attitudes that we have to them, as a 'radical alterity' to humankind. My conversation with Jimmy gave me clues as to how anthropologists had handled this in their inter-cultural encounters, and helped me to think further about how humans form relationships to other species or to other (what we used to call “natural”) things - rocks and minerals, for instance.
At the presentation that Harry and I gave at the start or July, Jimmy raised a question which continued where our conversation left off: “What might the apple trees think of Here's To Thee?” I concluded that this was not an expectation of ours, but that we wanted to develop “non-colonial” relationships with the trees – and especially, given the tight-focus of the project – with the microbial life that takes part in cider-making.⁋
Jimmy and I took part in an online conversation last week, organized by PhD candidate and Arts & Culture assistant Gemma Lucas, which ranged around this question and brought together Jimmy's recent interest in wood-working and experience in inter-cultural work, with my interest how the wassail, as “popular magic” can assist in re-enchanting human relationships with other species. The broader questions kept cropping up, of how we, as a a particular group of people, can ever come to any understanding of another culture, and the efforts that we must then make to develop the skills and habits of thinking and practice that lend themselves to establishing friendly, or at least non-antagonistic or exploitative relationships wherever possible. We both fall into the camp that sees this as ambition as broadly positive, though we also talked about the recent political climate in which drawing distinct lines between irreconcilable parties has become commonplace, and where antagonisms between “us and them” is the preferred mode of politics.
We wondered where our allegiances might lead us in more-than-human and relational worlds, where these kinds of polar-distinctions are often not so easily applied.⁋
According to some, the cider-making year begins in mid-October each year. This new double-sided poster (available from late July) describes the cider-making process in terms of human and microbial activity, emphasizing the interactions between hybrid collective of protagonists who are at work in throughout. This begins with the harvest of apples at the start of "Cider Time", through pressing, primary and malolactic fermentation, to bottling. Descriptions of the relationships of yeasts and bacteria to the apple juice, to each other, and to other species are threaded through with key dates in the calendar, such as wassailing, Plough Monday, St. Dunstan's Day.
In the barn at North Halstow, several 'hexafoil charms' are still visible, scribed into the cob walls. Once, protection charms such as these were commonly drawn into walls and onto furniture. Here, on the reverse of the poster, I've used them to align the so-called six "Kingdoms" of Life that are at work during the cider-making process: humans, flora, fauna, microbes, collectively taking their part in the production of cider.⁋
The colourways of these are derived from the violet and fuschia/magenta dyes used in bacterial identification.
BACKGROUND: In 2019 I worked with other artists to produce a novel kind of wassail at Halstow – home of Grays Farm Cider; funded by SSHRC in Canada, Arts Council England, and RAMM. Apple trees are the usual focus of a wassail – which is a ‘rejuvenated’ folkway (Colin Cater) common across the cider-making region of the South West of England; The Halstow Wassail acknowledges contribution of microbial life involved in cider-making; The project took a multidisciplinary, participatory approach to inform song-writing and ceramic work; devised a new wassail ceremony and public event.⁋
Involved practical and conversational “workshops”, the second of which Harry took part in; from there, developed a second phase of the project with Harry, Arts & Culture and RAMM; running from 2020 to 2022.⁋
THE WASSAIL: In its most recent guise, the wassail is often concerned with generating new communities. e.g.: constituted by those who have an interest in a community orchard; local residents celebrating the history of cider-making. These kinds of wassail parallel the efforts of participatory approaches to art: where groups of people are brought into being as an artwork; and which generates a sense of solidarity or belonging for the people who take part.⁋
Here’s To Thee attempts to make a move beyond this by: mobilizing the convening-power of the wassail, as an accessible and popular folkway; but to question the assumptions that we might have about who constitutes the ‘community’ that it generates – in the sense of who constitutes our social worlds with us. To acknowledge a more-than-human social world: including microbial life in particular; and to draw attention to the negotiations that we make among ourselves and with microbes in this – the so-called ‘microbiopolitics’ of cider-making (Paxson); as well as its 'microbiosocialities' (Enticott) – ways that we come together with and through our relationships with microbial life.⁋
This project isn’t alone in acknowledging the collective work of fermentation which, from force of habit or cultural convention, are usually described only in terms of human agency: Harry’s own work takes cheese-making as a case in point, asking how everything from traditions of practice/making, food-regulation and geographic designations, microbial life, as well as the people who call themselves cheese-makers, contribute to the making of cheese; Sourdough bread-making has been another focus of research into human-microbe interactions; As this project takes place in Devon, we’re presented with the other of the “holy trinity” of local foods, along with bread and cheese: cider – as another great example of the results of more-than-human interactions.⁋
The first meeting was held in April 2018, and development of Here’s To Thee’s first phase began in earnest, on the ground, with Ben and Ruth Gray at Halstow, near Exeter, in October 2019. I invited participants to one of two hands-on, practical workshops in the orchards, with the aim of generating conversation between the group and with my collaborating artists: singer-songwriter Jim Causley, folk singer Bill Murray, and ceramic artist Abigail North. The first session involved participation from historians, anthropologists, and philosophers; the second with microbial ecologists, pomologists, and cider-makers. The results of these interactions informed: a new wassail song by Jim Causley – the Halstow Wassail; a new wassail ceremony, including an incantation and experimental work with the Mariners Away shanty crew; and a specially commissioned wassail bowl by Abigail North for communal drinking.⁋
THE WASSAIL AT HALSTOW: The public event, on 18th January 2020, was photographed by Robert Darch, and audio-recordings were released online. 50 or so people attended (we had to limit the numbers): this included friends and relations of those already involved, as well as some representation from local villages, with mini-vans running from RAMM in Exeter. The wassail celebrated the various microbes that take part in cider-making: the chorus asking: “who be I, who be I, who be I this night?” followed by a litany of names of microbes and the places where they live on the farm: on the trees, apples, in the air, in the soil, on the walls of the pound-house, in the casks, on the cider-press and so on.⁋
Key moments of the evening were: The voices of Mariners Away in call-and-response across the valley, blending little-known wassailing and 'crying of the neck' folkways; Microbial ecologist Dan Bebber exclaiming “you even mentioned apiculate yeasts!” to Jim as we walked from the apple tree to the pound-house; The moment of hesitancy when accepting a drink from the wassail bowl as it was passed around the crowd – the moment of encouraging microbes to mingle among us; The mass of voices joining in with the chorus in the cider-barn, as a finale; Jim telling me that his was a “heartfelt” wassail, and “true to its spirit.”⁋
I mention these as a way of placing emphasis on the ways in which the public event generated feelings of inclusion, moments of recognition of a sense of being together, and a proximity to communities/populations of microbial species – of the more-than-human-community. This mode of contemporary art often shies away from antagonism, preferring to promote the kinds of conviviality that we find here. The sharing of food is particularly common – thinking back to the key mid-1990s relational works of Rirkrit Tiravanija, or before that, Gordon Matta Clark's Kitchen in New York City in the 1960s. Here, the sharing of food is a less benign proposition: we are being reminded of the microbies in the air, in the soil, in the air that we breath; as we pass round the bowl of cider – a bowl specifically designed to host micorbial life on its surface I may add – we become aware of the microbes in the cider too: those that remain from the fermentation process, but also from our neighbours' mouths.⁋
At this point, I think, we become aware of the complex negotiations that we are making with our human neighbours, and our microbial ones. We are aware of making the same 'political' decisions about people as about yeasts, bacteria, and viruses. The pandemic and Sars-CoV-2 have amplified and reiterated this point of course. We also noted a shift in how we might think of the 'constituency' of the farm: for many years, their cider was consumed by people who lived locally, in neighbouring villages; and along with other farms, cider was also used as part-payment for local labour. Having survived the marketing and distribution onslaught of industrial cider manufacturers, the Grays are now challenged by the rise in popularity of 'small batch 'artisanal' ciders; Here's To Thee enabled us (and the Grays) to experiment with how to generate a new constituency; comprised of enthusiasts of 'traditional' approaches to 'real' or 'farmhouse' cider-making; those with an interest in this type of cider-making; Not necessarily local people – less of a direct link to consumers in the nearby villages for example.⁋
NEXT: Our project is now rescheduled (thank you Sarah @ Arts & Culture) and Lara @ RAMM). Film of next wassail in January 2022; seminars with Food Studies; symposium, artist's publication, and public events at RAMM in Spring 2022.
COMMUNITIES & PUBLICS generated by the project: This project places artistic work within the university but not as a department;interesting that U of E does not have a fine art department, but places art in position to cut across disciplines, to make connections and so on. I have worked within in art departments, and been part of the efforts to ensure its research has parity of esteem with other disciplines within university. Prior to that, I was interested with how art might cut across methodological concerns, as what you might call a 'minor' version of a discipline, enabling speculative and strategic work to be done, to experiment with new approaches to method and so on; early interest in Artists Placement Group, and 'incidental person' within organizations; experience of university life and research processes perhaps enables me, as an artist, to work in way that APG imagined – but within a research team rather than around the boardroom table; I wonder if this is what is happening in this collaboration, where artistic work is very much in-step, thematically, with anthropological work, but has access to other methods, and can assist in working-through methodological questions, as well as experimenting with novel approaches engagement with participants, audiences, communities and publics?⁋
How did the project came into being?
Here’s To Thee comes from wanting to understand how communities are formed that include not just people, but also other species. For example, I’m interested in how people live with microbial life. Things that seem so alien to us are actually an intrinsic part of us; as part of our microbiome bacteria and other microbes keep us healthy, and keep us alive. Yet we often think of them as enemies, and things to keep at a safe distance from us. Of course, there are microbes that do us harm, such as the SARS-COV-2 virus. These microscopic things play a powerful role in human life – just think about how the shape of our society has changed in relation to this virus. There’s been a lot of research done on this by researchers in other disciplines, usually around cheese-making or other fermented and non-pasteurized foods. Cider is another of those fermented foods where people have to coax microbes – yeasts, moulds, bacteria – into making a good cider. Like with other ‘natural ferment’ foods, drinking cider also has benefits for our gut flora. I used to live at Tedburn St. Mary when I was much younger, and grew-up with the Grays, who make real, farmhouse cider. So I asked them if I could work with them to explore these things through a new art project.⁋
As an artist, I can explore these ideas in different ways. The kind of artworks that I’ve made over the years are largely collaborative, and involve some sort of collective exploration of a theme. Often this involves bringing people together in workshops. This informs the things that get made – in this case, all aspects of a wassail: the procession, incantation, song, and bowl. I worked with Jim Causley on a similar project, on Dartmoor, back in 2014. Jim leads the Whimple Wassail and knows the ins-and-outs of the wassail tradition. It was important for me to work with him, to bring that kind of expertize into this project, so that it would be a serious attempt to adapt the conventional wassail to emphasize human relationships with microbial life. Last year I approached the University of Toronto and Arts Council of England and raised money to bring more people on board. After this January’s wassail at Halstow, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Arts & Culture at the University of Exeter invited me to continue the work into another phase. That’s what I’m now working on.⁋
Am you working with other creative practitioners?
I worked with Jim Causley, and also Dartmoor folk singer Bill Murray for the first part of Here’s To Thee. Abigail North made the wassail bowl, and Robert Darch took photographs of the wassail. The Mariners Away shanty crew sang with us at the wassail. I’ll continue working with them all over the next year or so. Abigail’s experimenting with clay from the cider-farm; Rob will continue working on his own project that crosses-over with this one; and I’ll work with Jim on a COVID-19 version of the wassail for next year, including another verse for the song.⁋
There’ll be some new collaborations too: I’ll work with film-maker Bevis Bowden on a film of the 2022 Halstow wassail; and Kaye Winwood, a Birmingham-based artist and curator, will help to develop a “natural ferment” banquet involving “bread and cheese and cider” (as the Devonshire folk song goes.) This new work, as well as things made last year, will be presented at/through RAMM between now and the spring of 2022.⁋
My proposition, in developing this new project, is that cider-makers also conduct ‘microbiopolitical’ negotiations with the microbial organisms that are vital to their fermentation process. They too rehearse, and enter into, political processes that extend our politics between people into our dealings with microbial life, and vice versa.⁋
I am fortunate enough to know someone who makes farmhouse cider – real cider, as they call it – and whose family has been doing so at their farm for at least 330 years. Ben & Ruth Gray use a spontaneous, or natural ferment to produce cider from apples from their own trees, one species of which, the Halstow Natural, is named after the farm. They use a straightforward process: picking apples up from the sheep-grazed grass in the orchards; crushing and pressing, transferring into vats, then barrels. Their dry cider holds its own with those that you might associate with Brittany or Asturias: very “tannic,” as I’ve learned to call it, flat, and thinner than the sweet, fizzy offerings from industrial manufacturers, or indeed many ‘artisanal’ makers, in Britain.⁋
"My name is Simon Pope. I am an artist, and I'll be working with Harry West at the University of Exeter on a year-long creative research project called Here's To Thee. This work will focus on the so-called 'microbiopolitics' of cider-making in Devon: that is, the ways in which we negotiate human relationships to microbial life through making cider. In the first phase of this project, I developed a novel wassail – usually a celebration of apple trees – which focused instead on the yeasts, moulds, and bacteria that take part in fermentation of traditionally-made Devon farmhouse cider at Grays Farm Cider, near Exeter. I'm interested in how, through such folk practices, such as the wassail, we can experiment with our relationships with nonhumans – and especially with microbial life – and explore the ways in which we are formed in relation to them. Of course, this question has become more urgent, given the new relationship we are forming with the SARS-COV-2 virus, which is bound to have a strong bearing on the project. For the duration of the project I'll work with Harry and his colleagues at the Centre for Rural Policy Research, and with students on the MA in Food Studies. At the start of the project, this will work will be conducted online, through seminars and presentations; as it develops, we will work towards a range of new outcomes, to be presented to a wider public at RAMM. This will draw on curatorial expertise at the museum, and on their various collections. I will also continue my collaborations with musician and song-writer Jim Causley, photographer Rob Darch, and ceramic artist Abigail North, all of whom took part in my work at the cider-farm last year. Even faced with the pandemic-related restrictions on how we work together, and to how others can participate in the project, I am firmly committed to making sure that we can make the most of this situation. After all, this project is entirely focused on the inventive ways that we explore human our with microbial life, albeit those that are more beneficial, and less antagonistic to us.⁋
There are so many aspects to cider-making that it should be of no surprise that it cuts right across research interests and specialisms of those in science, the humanities, and social sciences. This commission creates a situation where I can work with a broad, multidisciplinary team from across both the university and museum to spark conversations about our common interests. More generally, this project offers an example of how artistic practice is aligned with other disciplines – rather than being remote from them – and how artists contribute to thinking about ways to conduct and disseminated research."⁋
The proverbial “unforeseen circumstances” have prevented me from presenting at this year’s conference. So I’m writing this letter in lieu of being with you in person, and to offer some thoughts on my forthcoming project which, I hope – given its themes of fermentation and multispecies community-building – might contribute to the bubbling and brewing of conversation amongst the Seed Box community. The short title of this new project is Here’s to Thee – the first line of a traditional wassail song sung in orchards around the South West of England each year on the night of 17th January. That’s Old Twelfth Night, according to the Julian calendar. Where a wassail traditionally celebrates apple trees’ central role in cider production, this new project pays attention to the microbial ecology – the yeasts and other microbial life – that are vital to the fermentation of cider. It celebrates the mingling of those microbes among people through communal drinking from a wassail bowl, and the singing of a newly-written folk song. All this will take place at a public event to be held next January at a cider farm in Devon, England.⁋
This new wassail aims to re-connect the farm to its local constituency – to cider-drinkers, pomologists, local historians and to residents more generally – and to do this through “thinking ecologically” and by engaging with the microbiopolitics – the politics between people and microbes – in the production and ingestion of traditional Devonshire farmhouse cider, known locally as “scrumpy”. Scrumpy has been made by the Gray family, at their farm at Halstow, for over 330 years, and some say that cider was made on the farm for some 300 years before that. It is produced in a simple way: apples are crushed, the juice extracted; this is left to ferment of its own accord – with no pasteurization of the juice, or addition of other yeasts – in oak barrels, in a cider barn. Ciders are fermented in this, or similar ways, across Europe – such as in Asturias and the Basque region of Spain, Normandy and Brittany in France. You will be able to name others, I am sure.⁋
In the South West of England, well into the mid-twentieth century, cider formed part of farm labourers’ wages – between half and 1 gallon of cider (2.25 – 4.5 litres) was given to each worker, each day. Up until the 1980s, cider was given to local postal workers in return for making rural deliveries. Now there are fewer scrumpy drinkers around. Younger generations prefer a lighter and less “raw” drink. Ciders are now often flavoured – with lime, or raspberries, for example. This presents a problem for farmhouse cider-makers such as the Grays, as they strive to maintain cider production, and to understand its changing rôle in local culture. In this project, we have been thinking of who might now be considered the cider-farmers’ constituency; we prefer to use this term rather than market, so as to emphasize the complex cultural, social and ecological relationships, rather than abstract monetary ones, that connected the farm to local people.⁋
We are interested in the ways that this constituency might be understood as being more than human, and therefore a heterogenous community of people and other species, formed through the complex material and symbolic interactions of cider-making. Our concern here is for the kinds of politics that are conducted as this community forms, and as it is sustained. We use a participatory mode of artistic practice to bring together a group of people and their microbial kin, in a series of cider-making sessions, to think and work on this in a practical way. Human participants include multispecies ethnographers, cultural geographers, vitalist philosophers, microbial ecologists, local cultural historians, amateur and professional cider-makers, and food scientists. Other participants include ‘cereviseæ, pasteurianus, and ellipsoideus types’ of yeast (Barker, 1922), various apple species –such as the Halstow Natural, details of which can be found in Liz Copas’ book (2014) – orchard grass species, the sheep that graze upon them, et al. ⁋
Interactions between these participants will produce not only a batch of cider, but also rich conversations and exchanges about human-microbial interactions: the politics of producing and ingesting “raw” unpasteurized foods, and its relation to how we might understand how communities are established and their maintenance negotiated. The discourse of participatory art is haunted by the challenges, as detailed by Chantelle Mouffe (2013) for example, of creating an agonistic politics which also admits to antagonisms; there has been intense interest in how to produce forms of community that can bear strife and disagreement. That is, without promoting violence and warfare for its resolution – of the kind that increasingly characterize contemporary politics.⁋
We are interested in how an agonistic politics can be conducted between humans and other species through the production and ingestion of wild ferment foods – in this case, a cider that ferments from yeasts living at the place of its production, rather than from imported, domesticated, commercial and standardized yeasts. We draw on research on this theme conducted on the beneficial properties of cheese as a pro-biotic for the human microbiome (Montel et al., 2014); the microbial interactions of cheese-rinds as a tractable ecology (Wolfe et al., 2014; Wolfe and Dutton, 2015); and the ‘microbiopolitics’ of raw-milk cheese production, regulation and ingestion (Paxson, 2008, 2013). Here, we are interested in how ‘post-Pasteurian’ approaches to cider-production ‘work in selective partnership’ with microbes (Paxson, 2013: 161) – defined as bacteria, yeasts and moulds (Labuza, 1977: 243) – promoting “good” bacteria that improve taste, smell and texture, while limiting the effects of “bad” pathogens. In this respect, we are interested in how the politics of humans-among-themselves inform those with other species in defining antagonistic, commensal or amphibiotic relationships between humans and other microbial life (Blaser, 2014). This work is aligned with other research attending to ‘the local and mundane contexts...’ of the social and political organization of community (Frazer, 1999: 2), such as Gareth Enticott’s work on the relationship between consuming unpasteurized locally-sourced food, and the process of becoming part of a rural community (Enticott, 2003a, 2003b).⁋
You might expect a project of this kind to be enabled by research funding – and you would be correct in that assumption: it is supported by grants from Arts Council England and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in Canada. Dr. Sue Ruddick of the department of geography and planning at the University of Toronto kindly supported my application to the SSHRC. This funding has enabled me to pay fees to my artistic collaborators for their work: collaborative partnerships that result in artefacts, songs, formats for performance, ceramic bowls – the ownership of which will be given to the farm and its constituency, to be used in subsequent wassails. Research and arts funding has provided the initial impetus for this project, but we hope that its life can be sustained by its local constituency, of their own volition. It is through the practical mingling of people and microbes – through the cider-making sessions, the drinking of cider and singing together, the work of the microbes that contribute to the fermentation process – that makes for the kinds of lively cultural and social relations that will sustain this project. It is the interaction of people with their yeasty co-participants through which we can think about what type of politics we may conduct together, that is of real consequence. In the end, our aim is to produce a public event where people, and a host of other species, can be part of a celebration of their co-dependence and mutual thriving. If you happen be in Devon on Old Twelfth Night next year – or following years for that matter – please come along. Join in the cries of “Here’s to thee, microbial ecology!” and “wassail to the more than human community of traditional cider making!”⁋
All the best,