What is Happy Stacking?

Happy Stacking is a project by Grizedale Arts in collaboration with Vitamin Creative Space and the Zhongheng Ecotourism Development Company, China. The basic plot is to send a group of seven artists and curators to the mountain village of Nanling in Guangdong Province to look at how this remote settlement, is reacting to global cultural change and to see how artists can be useful in helping in this process of change and how artists and art itself can, in turn, be changed for the better.

The cast of seven

Adam Sutherland, Grizedale Arts Director
Alistair Hudson, Grizedale Arts Deputy Director
Maria Benjamin, Artist, Guestroom
Bryan and Laura Davies, Artists
Harold Offeh, Artist
Kai-Oi Jay Yung, Artist
Jiaying Tan, Project manager, facilitator, translator and anthropologist

Happy Stacking is kindly supported by Arts Council England North West and the British Council.

A potted history of Happy Stacking

In November 2005 Grizedale Arts’ Deputy Director, Alistair Hudson, was invited on an Arts Council curatorial research trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to network with Chinese artists and organisations. This is in the usual in-mode style of forced curation, in which creative types from distant lands are thrown together in the name of international working and co-operation and maybe economy. And usually results in the perpetuation of international art world style production and exhibition.

However on this trip an underground connection was made, not through the banging together of heads, but through the chance connection of two related networks. Zhang Wei, director of Vitamin Creative Space had heard of Grizedale Arts’ work through legend that is Gavin Wade, who whilst on a residency with Vitamin had mentioned Grizedale as kindred conceptualising folk who may well get on with Vitamin like a farmhouse on fire. And we did.

Initial conversations between us centred on a series of projects, co-ordinated by Vitamin, for the mountain village of Nanling, about 300km to the north of Guangzhou. This village was being developed as a forest park eco tourist destination, by the altruistic property Zhongheng Ecotourism Development Company. So whilst it was building luxury minimal chic hotels and investing in a tourist infrastructure, it was also striving to maintain and improve the socio-cultural life of the village, through a sympathetic treatment of the natural and social environment, including the use of artists to educate and improve.

Vitamin had previously hosted artist programme in the village as ‘Fools Move Mountains’ with the artists Mathieu Briand, Shen Yuan, Sylvie Blocher and Marc Boucherot and “The Open Land” with Map Office, Lothar Goetz, Malaika Sarco and Richard Thomas. Whilst these projects laid the foundation for contemporary artists to work with the development company and the village community, they ultimately fell into the pattern of engaged/context art which facilitates a relationship with a community but in the final analysis results in the artist benefiting more than the village. Whilst the development company and the village wish to continue working with artists and artist groups, Vitamin had some reservations about the success of these previous projects and so invited Grizedale Arts to develop a project for the village, which would offer a more complex, beneficial and connected approach. Grizedale’s recent history of in the realm of engaged community projects is distinct from others because of its genuine engagement rather than extended site specificity. The primary aim of its projects is to be of use, to help, in a lasting way which benefits all involved, rather than art production for a perceived audience.

On the back of the initial discussions, Vitamin invited Grizedale out to Guangzhou and Nanling in March 2006 to have a look at the village to see what could be done. The visit was organised and led by Zhang Wei and included meetings with the Zhongheng Ecotourism Development Company and a short stay in the village. During the trip many discussions led to the idea that we might be able to try and maintain a more sustainable and effective approach to culture in the village which made a constructive impact on the village. As Grizedale Arts itself is part of a complex rural village situation very similar to Nanling, our hope was that this would be a dialogue between friends and like minded places, not just an artist placement. As such we are sending a team of seven people from the village of Grizedale Arts – following on from The Seven Samurai, a similar project with the Japanese village of Toge in 2006 – to see Nanling and to work out what might be possible, not just in Nanling but also back home in our village of Coniston and the region of Cumbria as a whole.

For us Happy Stacking fits well with our ambitions to see a change in the way the Lake District in England is developed, away from the old ideas and monocultures of hill farming and tourism, to a more sophisticated, complex and engaging version of what the rural could become – a diverse ecology in its broadest sense.

The Lake District, like Nanling, is a rural yet highly complex place, a place which is now at the forefront of contemporary debate in terms of cultural development and sociology. From it’s traditionally ‘remote’ location at Lawson Park farm, Grizedale Arts is conducting a highly influential and timely programme of activity which keys into the emergence of non urban space as the new frontier for cultural change. Villages are no longer just a Primrose Hill wet dream of a fantasy escape, but the centre-ground for a new multiple culture pile-up.

The overall aim we have in mind for Grizedale Arts to establish a series of projects for Nanling that will help in specific ways whilst reflecting upon wider issues to do with how we deal with cultural change. These projects will come out of an initial residence by seven artist/curators and will look at ways to help the village in it’s transformation from 20th century rural industrial village to 21st century eco-tourist destination.

About Nanling