Stacking DNA
Stacking DNA

Grizedale Arts is a broad and dispersed network of activity which connects concentrated points of socio-cultural change. The purpose of this is ultimately to make art and artists useful and stop standing around at the edges smoking roll ups and talking about defining/describing space. In order to help its own community in the Lake District it is necessary to relate this and interact it with the current global conditions, and to see rural places such as its own, as part of a contemporary complex that is shaping the way we all live and work: i.e. getting some perspective. By connecting places like Coniston and Nanling it is possible to inject ideas and influence things in a way that benefits both situations. It makes the world more complex, more interesting, more related, happier. Diversity is generally a good thing and healthy for the ecological system, not just the tree hugging ‘natural’ system but also the social one. I don’t subscribe to the view that all artists by default should love the environment because they are Guardian readers, but I do subscribe to the view that to make creativity effective it’s got to operate as part of a system. It should make things work better, even through disruption, artists working as citizens, not just art people, to feel obliged to take part and help this process.

Back home the regeneration authorities can so only see in front of their own nose/wallet/retirement date. They can only talk in terms of direct economic outputs, how many jobs are you creating? How many bed nights? They basically do not have any imagination, these mid range businessmen, it’s generally not in the blood and you can see it here too when they want to bulldoze the old houses and make it all just like everywhere else in rural China. These places like Nanling and Coniston and Egremont are complex and untypical, they need a bespoke approach to make them work well and nuanced understanding that evolves over time, it’s not a quick fix and shouldn’t be. Like any relationship it needs work and commitment. There are two ways to make a garden, one to buy in a load of plants and dump them in the ground in a day, or two to develop it slowly, feeding and getting to know the soil before you plant and talking to other gardeners about the best ways to control slugs and get the biggest marrows. I’ve seen enough of the world to see that the longest changes have the best effect. (Look what happened to the Liverpool Garden Festival Site)

China is now the prime economic, cultural, political power in this century. My geography teacher Di Jones told me it was going to be thus in 1985 and it stuck in my mind as something that was certain. In 1908 you could probably be forgiven to saying that America’s rise to power was nothing to do with us, and we don’t want to get in involved, but it’s all too close now. I look at my children and think it will be highly likely that at least one of them will be working in China before I go.

The title of this project is a reference to the British pastime of Happy Slapping, the après-Burgess crime of beating someone up and snapping it on a mobile phone which is, in turn, a nod to the debate between friendship models and antagonism in cultural theory. Moving on from this polarised debate about how art and artists should behave surely lies in a more nuanced and complicated engagement with the world that is allowed provokes but also contribute constructive things. This is just how it is in communities and human relationships and so the Grizedale programme is not built upon a set of interventions but a set of real relationships built and maintained over time, through different yet comparable communities, of the art world, village, farming or any kind.

Happy Stacking is built around the slow build of relationships and culture, networked to comparators and relatives, that has the most lasting impact. This idea includes the squabbles and fall outs, going with what who/you know and taking a chance encounter, low-fi, hi-fi and med-fi.

The project is not necessarily radical but is certainly part of a prevailing condition that is looking to alternative models of production and distribution, which includes people like Nicolas Bourriaud, who is currently formulating his next art school bestseller in the Altermodern and projects like the forthcoming 3rd Guangzhou Triennial saying Farewell to the Postcolonial.

Phase 1 of Happy Stacking has been completed, the relationships have been established and some ideas exchanged. The next phase is to network these relationships, to build on the ideas and maintain the friendships to maximise what use they might be across the system.


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Pimp My Ping Fang
Pimp My Ping Fang

Bryan Davies is an artist based in Leeds and is married to Laura Davies who is an artist as well. I have written before about them as the new Charles and Ray Eames or Robin and Lucienne Day of the footballers’ wives generation -

Bryan is an architect/artist. That’s not necessarily either or both of those things, but somewhere moving between the two.

In this project his main concerns was the dynamics of the village from an architectural perspective – how the social conditions and difficulties could be improved through better use of its spaces and buildings.

All the artists were aware of the divide in the village, demarcated by the river (semi-dried up from the hydro-power stations). On one side of the river was tourist land, occupied by the hotel, the hotel restaurant, the museum, the entrance to the forest park etc. On the other side of the river, over the only bridge, lived the majority of the residents, in either new apartment blocks or the older ping fang (flat house) district and, further out, farms and farmsteads. This side of the river also has the main market square and several shops and restaurants lining the main road through the village.

The tourists pass through this part of Nanling on their way to the Hotel and Forest, but their interaction with it was minimal, stopping to buy the odd thing from the market or eating in some, but not all, of the restaurants. Mostly the tourists pass through in expensive cars with blacked out windows and head straight over the bridge to the hotel.

Whilst the village, in comparison to the hotel, is dirty and cluttered, the artists all felt that it was vital that this part of Wuzhishen, it’s heart, was seen as part of the attraction, or at least part of the whole ecology of the valley, not just the forest park. The intention of the whole Happystacking project was to develop the whole socio-cultural ecology not just the landscape.

Bryan Davies’ approach was to look at ways to highlight the benefits and value of the working village and to begin to look at ways to enhance what was there. To make a better living experience, a better visitor experience and a better interaction between the two.

It soon became known to us that the Government Forest Agency intended to demolish the ping fang district and to re-house the tenants in new apartment blocks within three years time. Whilst the apartment blocks are an improvement in terms of accommodation and sanitation, there is a great deal to be lost in demolishing the older architecture. These traditional houses are enjoyed greatly for the social living patterns they provide, having the houses split between cooking/washing rooms and living sleeping rooms. The consequence is that there is constant communal interaction, as the residents use the central street between the buildings as additional living space. This way of life is valued and will be missed should the houses be demoloshed. It is also part of a social history that is deeply rooted with the Chinese way of life.
Across China, as part of the movement toward mass modernisation, rural dwellings and vernacular buildings are being demolished in favour of a homogenous architecture of improved accommodation, usually the standard multi-storey pastel tiled apartment blocks.

These blocks address the question of human hygiene and better standard of living but do not address the quality of living. The communal living is lost, as are the gardens, the connection with the land, identity - and the pleasure of diverse and vibrant human ecology.

If you live in Leeds, know about architecture and social history and so on, you can see this one coming, having seen the problems that this process of modernisation has incurred, albeit over a longer time span. You can see the value in vernacular, in genuine communal living, in growing your vegetables with your neighbours and in working with what you’ve got, with the materials at hand.

Bryan’s proposal is to hold off the demolition of the ping fang in favour of redeveloping the narrow streets and houses to play up their uniqueness and to amplify their many good points – with more social space, more garden space, more flexibility and more interest. This will not only make for a better quality of life for the residents, but an actual attractor for visitors, to come and take part in the village, not just drive through it, but to come in and see it, meet the folks and see the best of another China, which has still has relevant contemporary applications.

Bryan’s vision plays this up to the max, with aerial walkways, roof gardens, cantilevered opening roves, silver-surfer internet cafes, vegetable garden shops, fashion boutiques, carpenters workshops, micro-businesses and so on and so on.

This approach (at least as a physical change) has been tried and tested in Britain –see for an example – and elsewhere including Beijing with the preservation of the hutongs, but the emphasis here is on the balance between attraction for visitor and attraction for genuine sustainable living.
His scheme is not just for the visitors but for the residents, providing, for example, an internet hub and social club for the elderly residents to chat with their children and grandchildren in the city.

In addition Bryan designed a new model market stall which would raise the game in the market, provoking the thought that their might be another way of displaying the produce or you might rethink the way things are sold and packaged for different markets. The stall was made by a local 76 year old carpenter, with a little interpretation of the artists design, a mix of high modernism and local craft. On the stall in the market Bryan showed his designs for the re-imagined ping fang which returned a very positive response. Locals commented how they would welcome the chance to maintain their houses and how the new proposed version could be made locally in steel or engineered timber, using the engineering skills already in the village.

Again what is important here is to sow the idea that there might be an element of self organisation and control in how the village is shaped. That they are not just at the mercy of a higher authority, but can start to imagine what can be done on their terms. This is no revolution, but better use of what we’ve already got.


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Wuzishen branch of Colette?
Wuzishen branch of Colette?

Laura Davies work modulates between economics and design (good use of stadard art lingo - Ed.)as you will see at and often works in tandem with the architectural concerns of husband Bryan.

Her research in Nanling drew her to work with a local dressmaker, to look at how she might produce a range of clothes which would sell outside of the localised economy of the village. Laura worked through some European designs that have their origins in utilitarian clothes, but now have appeal as high-end fashion. The dialogue between artist and dressmaker resulted in three prototype dresses would have appeal beyond the village. Her designs also included a tailored version of the arm protecting sleeves worn by many of the workers in Nanling, re-presented as fashion accessory.

In tandem Laura worked on a series of drawings of local vernacular and agricultural objects to be made up into a Nanling fabric, a sort of Nanling toile. The idea is that this fabric, which tells a story of, and subsequently, promotes the village can be utilised by the dressmaker to make a new brand of clothes which can be marketed outside of the region.

The key part of this project is to get people to start thinking about making product to export out, rather than producing solely for the local market.

Additionally the artist dressed up the ping fang house to suggest how the building could be adapted to become a boutique which could highlight the craft and culture of the village, not just a fashion shop for the visitor but a concept store where local enterprise ideas could be developed.


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Lace fair attitude
Lace fair attitude

Jay Yung is a British born Chinese artist based in Liverpool. This was the first time she had worked with Grizedale.

Her research led to many discussions with food producers and market stall holders in the village about how they might rethink the way they present and package their produce.

In particular she worked with two groups. The first was a family who ran a dried food market stall, selling mushrooms, tea, nuts and dried vegetables. The second a peanut oil manufacturer, who also sold the husk bi-product of this process, which could be sold as food roughage, pig food or compost additive.

These groups only sold their product to people in the village, with no specific packaging, but were interested in how they could increase the return on their products.
The artist worked on several ideas which would enhance the appeal of the goods and open them up to other markets other than direct sales to fellow villagers.

Jay was interested to see how they could use existing skills to develop a sustainable packaging idea and noticed how the market traders practiced crochet during idle moments on their stalls, even though they could only make a simple flower shape.

This crochet had recently been developed by teachers from the Guangzhou University and mirrored the work of the writer John Ruskin with his development of lace skills with the villagers of Coniston in the Lake District.

Jay encouraged the producers to elaborate the patterns they produced, into crochet wrappings for existing packaging, such as bottles and bags.

After a little encouragement and confidence boosting, the project was greeted enthusiastically. The resulting repackaged goods got the producers to think about how they might transform their products to make them more viable in a wider market through the added value of applied craft and personalisation.

The first stage designs were conceived as prototypes, with the packaging in the realm of artisan craft product, rather than mass produced goods. The latter would need further development but could be possible.

As a result of the market on Happy Stacking Day, one of the crochet designers was commissioned by a tourist from Guangzhou for a unique piece of dress-wear for them. This kind of interaction suggests an appetite for such value added product, with its value enhanced by the knowledge of the village and its people.


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Mini long march
Mini long march

Harold Offeh was born in Ghana and lives in London. For the project, Harold conceived a festival or parade for the village children, which visualised and celebrated the community and its stakeholders, portraying a complex vision of the social ecology of the village.

Harold worked with the children of the school over a three week period making costumes and developing a relationship with the pupils that got them to look at the social make up of their village. The aim was to create a spectacle which demonstrated the complex mix of agendas within the community and to celebrate the reality of the situation rather than the fantasised version of rural representation.

For three weeks he worked with the school to make masks and costumes which represented the stakeholders in the region – forest workers, power station workers, farmers etc – and developed a parade which would march through the village to congregate the community at the theatre. In addition to this all the artists contributed to the festival day – titled Happy Stacking Day – with cooking, dance lessons, and performance.

In the build up to Happy Stacking Day, the artists worked with school and community groups to develop dances for public performance on the day.

The order of proceedings was as follows:

Schedule for Saturday 17 May


7.00am Set up stall in Market selling artists and local product. Opening of Ping Fang Shop

Cooking demonstration 9.00-10.00 Maria Benjamin: Flapjack, chapattis and curry

Cooking 11.00-1200 Alistair Hudson: Pear Crumble

Brian Davies on stall presenting new market and ping fang designs

New packaging demonstrations and films with Jay Yung

3.00pm clear up market and ping fang


1530 Harold meets children at school and walks them to ping fang

1545 Children Assemble at ping fang and put on costumes

1600 Parade departs ping fang to square, walks around square once and collect maypole

Laura and Maria carry maypole to apartment block green

1610 arrive at green by apartments and erect pole

1610 to 1625 maypole dance

1625 parade proceeds to square and march to theatre

1640 arrive at theatre

Pole on lower platform, left; stall on lower platform right; harp under tree to right, red stall roof centre of lower platform; children at top of steps.


1645 - 1650 Children of Wuzhishen School perform song on the theme of nature

1650 – 1655 Welcome Speech: Alistair Hudson accompanied by Chinese harp

1655 – 1710 Chinese Dancing from the Workers Union Dance Group

1710 – 1715 Harold Offeh teaches hip hop and booty shaking

1715 – 1730 Scottish Country Dancing: Strip the Willow

1730- close Refreshments and more dancing on demand.
The parade gathered support from the community and provided an event that acted as a counterpoint to the sadness over the recent earthquake disaster in Sichuan province. To be sure, we checked with the community that it was not insensitive to hold a festival so close to the disaster.

Over and above a chance to celebrate the life and culture of the village the parade was designed to instigate the thought that they may hold further festivals on their own terms, promote the culture of the village to tourists, attracting a better engagement, telling the story of the village and instilling confidence in their own community.


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Maria cooks up a storm
Maria cooks up a storm

Maria Benjamin is one half of Guestroom, Ruth Hoflich being the other. Their website is

Maria was brought up in Edinburgh by her hotelier father from Pakistan and her mum from Canada. An upbringing in which Scottish Country Dancing and chapatti making went hand in hand.

Maria’s projects evolved around photography, film making and cooking, looking at how re-presentation of village life could be utilised to enhance the value of village product and make people realise the richness and value of the traditional processes.

To a modernised eye the rurality of Wuzhishen can be easily over romanticised as agrarian fantasy, but it can also offer clear benefits that, whilst seen as archaic within rural China, fit well with the re-assessment of modernity that encompasses ecology, sustainable food supplies, organics and social development. To a resident of Nanling their existence is hand to mouth and they think of themselves as poor. To some observing from a perspective of European post-modern decline, there are aspects of Nanling’s farming, production and consumption which make a great deal of sense in relation to the over mechanised processes of a global distribution. The basic principles and techniques are being rediscovered.

As a starting point, cooking is always a good form of communication, and so Maria put her cooking skills to good use throughout the three week stay, introducing foods and cooking methods which could be picked up by the locals. There is nothing other than local food in Wuzhishen, whereas Maria has been brought up in a multicultural environment, and one that celebrates this in food.

Maria did fish and chips with a local restaurant owner, which developed into a cook-off with a flurry of live cooking exchanges over the best way to fry, season, marinade and present the local fish and potatoes. Potato cakes, gnocchi, bread making, cakes, flap jack, salads, curry, chapattis and various forms of flatbread all followed which encouraged a dialogue not just about food, but about the relationship it is possible to have with the world outside the village and visitors who come – an opening up of the village to new ideas: acclimatisation to globalisation.

In an extension of this Maria made a series of short films which convey the idea of the village producers as artisans and the potential high value of their produce. A case in point is the film made of the local house restaurant of their home chicken recipe, in which the whole pen to plate recipe is recorded, form selecting the chicken, killing, plucking and preparing in the kitchen. As people in the UK have become cut off from the process of producing food, such low food miles principles are now being rediscovered and even fetishised, or at least fashionablised.

This film and the others she made of eel gutting and tofu making can work in multiple ways, but ultimately promote the culture of the village as playing a pertinent and active role in contemporary society. These ‘old’ ways have reason and meaning which has a wider relevance. This is good food.

Additionally Maria and Grizedale Arts Deputy Director Alistair Hudson took some time to work with the owners of the organic farm just outside the village which is supported by the Zhongheng Development Company to supply the Orange Hotel restaurant with local organic vegetables. It is hoped that this farm will act as a catalyst, by example, to convert other farms in the region to organic.

It was suggested that the farm could expand its role, not just as an exemplar farm, but as a farm hotel, which they had considered already, but lacked the confidence and knowledge to take forward. It was suggested to them that the farm should not merely be a hotel, offering something close to an authentic rural life, but could work more to ensure a better understanding and better relationship between host and visitor – that the visitor would work on the farm to help in the running of the business and to gain a better understanding of the rural ecology. Examples of Woofing and Agri-tourismo were shown as well as showing how the Lake District had suffered socially and economically because of the lack of understanding between visitor and resident and had become over dependent on the tourist observer, rather than evolving its culture towards the tourist participant.

One of the spare rooms of the farm was dressed to show how easily and simply they could be converted to visitor accommodation and there was much discussion around how the farm could develop what it had to offer, to make for a more holistic and rewarding experience. Not just a hotel and more complex and more rewarding for everyone.

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