A Sense of Belonging
On Alice Briggs’s practice between creation, mediation and facilitation
Johannes M. Hedinger
I first met Alice Briggs in the summer of 2019 on a field trip to the Wysing Arts Centre as part of the conference "The Rural Assembly" organized by the Whitechapel Gallery London. Since then, partly due to the pandemic, we have only met virtually. This conversation is the result of three Zoom studio visits in the summer of 2022. Already back in 2019 we shared a common interest in working in and with the rural periphery and Socially Engaged Practice and the collaborations with people and places on the land - in Alice case especially in the Cambrian mountains. In parallel to her artistic practice, Alice has long been active as a mediator, facilitator and curator. She was assistant curator at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth for 12 years, as well as working with a charity for older people and as creative agent for the Lead Creative Schools Arts Council Wales project. In Summer 2022 Alice was appointed Head of Art at the National Museum Wales. In our conversation we also talk about how artistic and curatorial practice go hand in hand.
Johannes: Let's start with your artistic practice. This is not only about dealing with place and landscape but is also often linked to the communal, to care and belonging. For example, the work cycle "A Place Where One lies" from 2019 - In the photo I see a motorized care home bed sitting on a harbour wall with a lighthouse in the distance. - What is this about?
Alice: The installation is inspired by my experience with older people in care homes and references conversations about the places they used to go outside and what they used to do - climbing mountains, going to the beach, walking in the woods etc. The work takes them back, through the perspective of a care home bed in a dream state to the outdoor places they used to visit whilst unable to move from the place in which it finds itself. - It is both an installation and a Film, also there is a Photograph from each location that it traveled to.
How did you choose the landscapes?
It came from my working with residents of care homes, who talked about places they used to go too in a kind of reminiscence way. This one was particularly inspired by an old gentleman, a farmer I'd worked with. He hadn't been allowed to go outside, even into the garden since he went into the care home - because of risk assessments and excuses that he might have a stroke. The care home wouldn't let him go outside, even in a wheelchair.
In the film, we see the bed finds itself in changing landscapes, where it rises like a living creature and then returns to the horizontal.
The bed is a piece in itself. It has a little robot with a two-minute routine that is coded into the equipment. I kind of wanted to give the bed a life of its own, and worked with with Mark Neal, an engineer, and Rhys Thwaites Jones to make the film. For a presentation in the art space, I showed the bed as an installation, looking at that film on a TV screen.
The reference to places is central and runs like a thread through your oeuvre. You recently showed me this fantastic moss sculpture that you pulled from a gravestones from the cemetery right next to your house. The live performance "Mossy Hat" (2021), of which we are looking at a picture that shows you swimming in the river Afon Rheidol with a large moss hat, also has to do with moss.
It is an ongoing series of work visualizing a dark Northern England folktale 'Mossy Coat' and a version of the classic Cinderella story found all over the world. In the story a mother spends eighteen years crafting, for her daughter, an elaborate and magical coat of moss woven with golden thread that can transport the wearer wherever they desire. Using the coat, her daughter becomes a kitchen hand in a palace where she meets, falls in love with and marries the prince.
- However, this moss is not from the cemetery next door, but from the side of the river, but very close to our house, all within a 500-yard location.
Moss as an artistic material is rather unusual, since it is not very durable. But in your work with site specifity it makes a lot of sense. - Is the photo a work in itself or a documentation of a performance? And did you take the picture by yourself or is there a collaborator?
It's a single photo of a performance, it's something this kind of way of working is always the way that I have performed in the landscape. I was never a very comfortable Live Performer. So I got around that by using my body within a site and landscape and then documenting it. I create something to wear within a landscape from a natural material in that site, and then document myself in some kind of performance within that space. And yes, I do have the camera, it's on a stick. In the water I mostly work by myself.
Swimming also goes beyond the performance act. You practice it almost daily in the river or nearby sea, of which there are also great Go-Pro snippets and stills. Are these all also performances or more a picture production?
This part of the creative practice is shared on social media so it’s a kind of performance practice that I enact and share. Currently it is kind of a book of images - But someday there should be a film out of it.
Water connects the land - and the people who live along these waters. This is also the back-story to your ongoing Cyanotype series "Verges of the Rheidol" (since 2021). Which is also looking at restoring nature and landscape you live in, and working with a community creating events, walks and performative actions along a river.
These photographs form part of the output from a 'connect and flourish' Arts Council of Wales collaborative all female collective project designed to creatively connecting communities along the river 'casgu, dysgu, perthyn'. The project was formed from the idea that people and communities are often disconnected from each other and the cycles of food, farming, nature and culture. This project sought to explore and challenge this disconnect.
These beautiful, traditional cyanotypes accompany this process as aesthetic output. There are not only image of the river and nature, but also stands for all the connections you have built over the past 16 years with the place, the people, the river through swimming, walking, talking to people and researching.... - This photo we are looking at contains also a bridge....
Bridges are quite important. The way that we talk about a bridging and dialogue between communities who maybe don't understand each other, or are struggling to connect, the disconnect in community, particularly with COVID. "Verges of the Rheidol" is a combination of a couple of things I've been doing: the immersing myself in water, then working on a community engaged project - it’s an accumulation of connective practice between the land, the people on the land, and then the way that I am embodying myself within the landscape as well.
In the second part of our conversation, I would now like to talk more about your work as a mediator, curator and facilitator, which has developed parallel to your artistic work for years and is in part no longer separable from each other. When and how did this shift or inclusion of the communal in your practice come about?
I started working at Ceredigion Museum over 12 ago, and that combined several interests.
When I came to back to live here as an adult after I graduated, I was setting up an Arts Collective, Blaengar, I worked with the Theatre Department performance studies, that fitted well with my cross disciplinary practice, later also in Health care and with young people in schools.
So first you collaborated with artists and creative people with (in) the landscape what later was combined with a broader field of collaborators from the whole community?
Yes, there was always a kind of a research element of that history and site and the material of the location, perhaps the architecture and past and past and present or the industry. And then over the years that came layered with wanting to bring in the community or individuals. The place that I'm most inspired is this point of connection between people and the place.
As an example, let's look a little closer at the 2019 “Sheep”-exhibit and symposium you organized for the Ceredigion Museum. The theme has also a personal basis, since you grew up on a Sheep Farm. - In the picture we can see you in the Gallery Space reciting something and people listening to you. – What is “Sheep” about?
It was a project designed to create a dialogue around the upland landscape of mid Wales. And the exhibition explored the history, heritage and culture of the sheep farming community, and in particular, the ecology and future uses of the land in relation to current discussions about land management, and the future of farming in Wales.
In what form and media did this manifest itself in the exhibition?
Through a selection from works of the collection, loans and commissions. The artist Ffion Jones talked in her commissioned piece called “We Are the flock“ with sheep farmers about their experience and asked them what the sheep meant to them. They give these really poignant and insightful answers to that question that really gave you an understanding of the deep connection they have with their flocks and the landscape that they live in and have done for generations and this caretaker role they have of the of the land and also a deep care for the sheep themselves and the heritage and the lineage that they spent generations developing for their particular flocks.
There is also the fear of Brexit and loosing European subsidies on which they are heavily dependent. And there are worries about the Welsh language which is very much tied to the culture of the sheep farming in the uplands in north Wales - if the sheep and the sheep farmers go then a hugely important kind of indigenous culture of this part of the world will probably disappear.
You presented nine artists from Wales either around the theme of sheep farming, or ecology. Also you showed existing work from the museum collection, some loans from the Tate collection and even some industrial items from the agricultural collection. - Enriching I find the 2.5 day-Symposium you organized on the topic of «Future Landscape - and what Artists can offer to the conversation” with talks, walks and screenings followed by a small publication.
I was working with the community and the farmers unions on the site; scientists from the university at the Upland Research Centre and the farmer and Chair of the Elan Valley Trust Ieuan Joyce, so I was working with a wide selection of land managers to build up the idea of this symposium. – It took me nine to 12 months to build up the trust to get people from the nature restoration sector and the Welsh farmers unions into the same room.
As an outcome there was a small publication which incorporated the speakers who were archaeologists, historians, farmers, artists, a whole combination of different speakers that come together. Were there other follow ups?
A multidisciplinary group formed quite naturally from the networks that were created on that day, called “Cynefin”. A lot more people since then come together to talk about land management, politics of Land Management and Biodiversity
.. For me, the most rewarding aspect of this was that the things that you don't know are going to happen, - to see people's coming together and being inspired, to do more, to take further conversations and relationships and to create new projects and new opportunities. - this sparks of inspiration and opportunity and connection, that have had a kind of ripple effect in the area.
Since a few months you are the head of Art at National Museum Wales. What are your visions in your new position?
One vision is that we will collectively work on a on a re-think of the way that the art collection is framed in the National Museum, which is more inclusive, more representative and better gender balanced. - And we will be taking the collection out to the people of Wales and finding ways to work with our communities. The intention is for the collection to go out to different galleries and the curation of that will be handed over to those spaces in those communities, which allows a different way of framing that you just wouldn't see in a national museum.
Another aspect is a new way of communication and awareness of representation, diversity and difference. This means different coloured faces, different ages of people and disabled people in a room and bringing in all those different kinds of protective characteristics that are often marginalized. And linked to that: understanding that we think and behave and learn differently.
Communication is something, if we do it well, and we're transparent, and open and honest, in the way that we deliver our services and consult with our community; that's where we can do our best work. - And it needs to be compassionate, and we need to be kind. We need to draw on the human condition and humanity itself, because we are going into a new era and epoch - it feels like if we don't work really hard on the best aspects of humanity, build compassion for each other, and kindness, then we're going to very quickly fall into fear and division.
At the end of our conversation and besides the aspects of landscape, community, compassion, kindness and humanity that we have already discussed, I would like to add the notion of "Belongings" that I see in all of your work and practices.
All comes back to a real sense of belonging, or an importance for me to create a sense of belonging or build a sense of belonging in this landscape. By working in it, walking in it, making in it, that sort of daily practice of being in this space and making in this landscape and understanding more and more the history and how I read it, the different layers. Through the “Sheep” exhibition I do understand better the loss of biodiversity within this landscape over the last 40 to 70 years. And in my lifetime as well. So that interest grew in the last four or five years as well. Of the climate kind of change, and the disappearing diversity of the landscape and the struggles of the farmers. And they're under threat to their livelihood, and also to their culture and to the Welsh language.
Which you speak, what again helps to connect (with) the local people. It is the networks and conversations you built, the bridging of the dialgoues, which stand in the core or your facilitation work: education and giving voice, here to the farmers, who felt marginalized and voiceless.
Alice Briggs is an artist, curator, mediator and facilitator. She worked over 12 years for the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth. Since 2022 she is the Head of Art at the National Museum Wales. www.alicebriggs.co.uk
Johannes M. Hedinger is a curator, artist and researcher. He is the director of the Institute for Land and Environmental Art and the Alps Art Academy in Tenna/Switzerland and a lecturer at the University of the Arts Zurich and University of Cologne. www.johanneshedinger.com