The Halstow Wassail was first convened in January 2020. It took the conventional aspects of an "apple tree wassail" – an incantation, a song, a procession – to explore the human-microbial relations of Devonshire "farmhouse" cider-making…
This year film-maker Bevis Bowden has made a film documenting the proceedings so that we have a record of the event that can stand beside others, such as those in the British Film Institute's archive (such as this one, from 1968). This year, the wassail had to be changed to accommodate the still-pervasive Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, so we did not gather in any indoor spaces. The film records participants as they head down the lane, towards a lone apple tree, and back into the farm yard. Bevis prefaces the film with scenes that take the point-of-view of the apples as they lie under the trees in the orchard; the film's closes with guests being led by Bill Murray singing 'Bread an' cheese an' cider" – a local song which has become something of an anthem for this project – to eat (appropriately enough) a meal of bread, cheese, and cider. The film of The Halstow Wassail will be screened at The Phoenix art centre in Exeter, along with a programme of related cider-making films, in early May 2022. §
In lieu of being there in person – due to ongoing travel restrictions – I recorded a short video which was displayed on a small-screen, for participants in this year's Halstow Wassail. Here's the transcript…
"Thank you so much for taking part in the Halstow wassail, and to everyone who's stepped-in to help organize this evening's celebrations. I can't be there with you this year: I'm in Toronto, where cross-border travel has been restricted. The fact that I can only speak to you through this screen, rather than in-person, is a (now familiar) reminder of the decisive role played by microbial life in shaping our social lives. During the pandemic the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants have kept us in place, whether that's in self-isolation, in our “social bubbles”, or within national borders. Even now, in planning today's event in the absence of strict government guidelines, we've had to think about maintaining distance while singing outdoors, and not producing a dense huddle of people in the cider-barn and pound-house that would provide the ideal social world for the novel coronavirus.
Here's To Thee and The Halstow Wassail is an unbridled celebration of a microbial ecology, and promotes the positive aspects of human-microbial relations in cider-making. The irony of this rowdy celebration of microbes at this time isn't lost on us of course. But it goes to show that, whether to our benefit or not, microbes shape our social - and indeed social, economic, and political worlds; and what look like negotiation among ourselves, always involve negotiations with other forms of life – and vice versa. In this year's Halstow Wassail, we've tried to hold an antagonistic virus at a distance, while still making room for beneficial yeasts, molds, and bacteria that give us traditional forms of Devon cider, and help us make sourdough bread, and cheese from unpasteurized milk - which I hope you are enjoying while watching this video!
So. “Here's To Thee!”, Saccharomyces, Toropsis, and Rhodontorula species! And to all of you who've taken part this evening!" §
Planning for the 2022 Halstow Wassail has become fraught this month, with uncertainty about whether, or how, to convene under government guidelines for public gatherings…
I'm writing this from Toronto, where the Federal government recently issued a 'Global travel advisory', placing a moritorium on all “non-essential travel outside Canada, regardless of your vaccination status”. Meanwhile, the UK government has decided not to make any changes to its guidelines for England for the rest of the year. This means that, for the time being, the wassail can go ahead, but without me there in-person.
While this is a frustrating situation for me, it also exemplifies the 'microbiopolitics' that we've been concerned with throughout Here's To Thee. Far from the effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus being singular and unequivocal, we are constantly reminded of how they're entirely shaped by local political and social relationships, and the cultural and ecological relationships in specific times and places.
The Halstow Wassail, as we performed it in January 2020 wassail, is a joyous ocassion: a celebration of the generative human-microbial relations of cider-making. To use a popular expression, it promotes an entanglement of people and microbial life; that is, it doesn't hold people and microbes apart, but admits to their complex relationships and alignments.
It could be tempting to see this a typical vitalist move, a blending of all bare life into an undifferentiated mass. But in Here's To Thee, with its focus on the human-microbial relationships of cider-making, we see this entanglement as being moderated, at every turn, by power-differentials, by political decisions, by ecological dependencies. There are hierarchies, there are stratifications, all of which are up for contest and negotiation at every moment. Cider-makers make productive use of some microbes: the yeasts, molds, and bacteria that contribute to fermentation and maturation of apple juice as it turns into the cider that we know and love. The microbes that spoil this process, are dealt with through chemical intervention, or by technical procedures that mitigate their adverse effects. All microbes are not equal in this situation. If they run rampant, we monitor them, checking to see whether this is desirable in the circumstances. In the words of anthropologist Heather Paxson (2013), we “work selectively” with specific microbes to make the cider that we want.
In contrast, the regulations and guidelines given to us by governments during the current pandemic – which we abide by for the sake of public health and personal safety – seek to disentangle specific human-microbial relations. These measures are specific responses to a threat to individual human lives, to national populations, and to civil and state infrastructure; they demonstrate local variations according to prevailing social and political mores at any given place and time. For example, while my fellow wassailers will gather at Halstow under English law, I am now constrained by Canadian federal guidelines to stay within their national boundaries under their latest Global Travel Advisory; and just last week, the airline who would have transported me across the Atlantic cancelled at short notice. The same virus produces different social formations – me still in isolation with tightened restrictions on social gatherings, those within England encouraged to gather in large, dense and diverse social groups. Omicron has the same DNA on either side of the Atlantic, only it produces very different socialities.
Even though there are few guidelines provided by the UK government, inevitably some degee of disentangling will be necessary at Halstow this time round, for the sake of individual and public health, Wassailers will have to negotiate their proximity to each other in terms of current UK government guidelines – perhaps, in lieu of any concrete advice, hearing faint echoes of guidelines issued earlier in the pandemic, or of current regulations in Wales and Scotland. This might reconfigure how and where people gather at the farm as they, for example, maintain physical distance from each other, to take into account the higher-risk of infection when singing or shouting within a large gathering, even when outdoors.
What shape will the next wassail take in its negotiations with Omicron? §
January's wassail at Halstow will be filmed, with this footage being shown first at RAMM (from the end of January 2022), online, and at the project's various live events planned for later in the year.
I'm working with filmmaker Bevis Bowden…
with whom I've made other films – Memory Marathon (2009), and Primary Agents Of A Social World (2014) – both documentation of participatory performances. These projects were shaped by Bevis' technical know-how and cinematographic sensibility, taking a “light footprint” approach to production to track mobile, improvised conversations between project-participants through the course of a day's travels. Bevis' own films include slow and careful observations of animal life at Isfryn in mid-Wales, and at Halstow he will combine this approach with a more active, roaming camera to track the wassail as it moves across the farm.
We've taken as a point of reference the well-known ethnographic film of Appalachian clog-dancers made by David Hoffman in 1965. The camera is hand-held, and takes part, as one of the dancing partners, as they move around the room. We're looking here at how the camera can take part in the action of the wassail, to come into the same proximity to the singers as other participants. This footage will be presented as a kind of verité account of the proceedings, as well as being used to experiment with how the moving-image can work in live performances, as an incantation perhaps. All this to be worked upon in the coming two months. §
It was at this time of year, a couple of years ago, that Jim Causley and I set about the process of writing the new song and devising the performance of the Halstow Wassail. I organized two workshops at the Gray's farm which brought cider-makers, cider historians, microbial ecologists…
and the project's artistic team together in the orchards, poundhouse and cider barn. Our conversations informed Jim's lyrics and tune for the new song, which articulated what we understood of the microbial life that contributes to cider-making at Halstow.In the meantime, we've set ourselves the task of writing additional songs, and choreographing their public performance, at key events in the cider-making year. While this process is underway, Jim and I have been exchanging some ideas about what it means to be working within the conventions of the folk song. Jim's forwarded me a chapter by Vic Gammon, which has started our conversation about this genre – especially about the various claims made to the supposed authenticity, historical lineage, and local-specificity of songs which fall within this category. Dave Harker's book Fakesong (1983) is a key point of reference here, opening-up a discussion about the ways in which a consenus about what constituted British 'folksong' was constructed by a culturally-homogenous group of collectors, the most well-known of which are Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould, and composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Percy Grainger.
Sharp, in particular, comes in for criticism for his severe editing, redaction, alteration, and over-simplification of the songs that he noted-down during his travels. His ideas of what made for an authentic rural life, and the types of people who exmplifed it, are all given a thorough working-over by Harker. He suggests that Sharp omitted songs that differed from those that he expected to be sung by "common folk" - for example those that were not in a tonic, major sol fa scale; indeed, Sharp claimed not to have heard songs in a minor scale (Harker, p. 201). But, as Harker goes on to suggest, this might have been because Sharp only made a note of those songs which "impressed" him (p.223).
One aspect of Harker's work that sparks particular interest for me, is the way in which he claims that Sharp et al wanted to demonstrate that each song has to have a clear lineage back to the time of travelling mintrels who, it was claimed, propegated a pure national body of song, from the King's court down to the population-at-large. Theres no room here for invention, for songs to be generated from people's own lives together; there's no room for invention, improvisation or specialization, or adaptation; there is no room for new material to be written, for musical influences from other genres to have effect, or for other types of music to have equal standing. There's no room for members of 'the folk' to have access to education, to artistic practice, to cosmopolitan ideas and ways of doing things. In my experience, this most definitely does not adequately describe the range and intensity of interests, skills, know-hows, devised by people beyond the British ruling classes.
As Harker, and indeed Stefan Szczelkun in his book The Conspiracy of Good Taste (2016 edition), suggests, this is a clear example of how the British ruling classes sought to control the cultural lives of the working-class and rural poor during the early part of the 20th century. By denying complexity and diversity of the intellectiual and artistic lives of 'the folk', they sought to impose their own impoverished, pale, and polite version of an 'authentic' 'folk' culture back onto them.
There are striking parallels here with how cider-making histories are written, in that it is perhaps too easy to claim a pure, unbroken lineage for a local production process, or to cultures of consumption. It is easy to exclude the inventiveness, the creativity if you will, of those who make cider, and the ways in which they work with a network of apples, trees, yeasts, machinery, food and tax regulation, local myths and traditions, foodways and folkways, to change, refine, adapt or invent their processes through time.
It's also perhaps tempting to clean-up the history of cidermaking and to sanitize the less polite aspects of its production and consumption. Perhaps this is what the artisanalization of cider-making does? Even appeals to the historical importance of 'fine' ciders can raise doubts as to the importance of cider produced, not for the "top table" of the squire or Court, but to be guzzled in the hedgerow between stints of back-breaking manual toil. Farmhouse – or "real" cider as the Grays prefers to call it – stands as an example of a cider, and a way of making it, that appears very local and unchanging, yet which is also bound-up with increadibly large-scale, trans-national cultural and political relationships. For instance, the apple press at Halstow is made in Austria, and the Grays have travelled to Italy on invitation of the Slow Food movement there. Ideas travel. Techniques travel. And we know, thanks to Mieke Bal's hard work, that in travelling they are changed, adapted, and take on new meaning.
They are also bound-up with the microbial life that takes part and without which we would not have cider, let alone a functioning microbiome or diverse ecosystem on the farm. Through travelling, new and novel ecologies are generated.
It might not be 1905, but the process by which gatekeepers of both an authentic "local" culture, and the cosmopolitan artistic worlds that we're both involved in, are still a concern. And it's from this feeling of not wanting to take for granted the complexity and livliness of all that takes part that we think it's important to acknowledge the yeasts and bacteria, as much as the people, that take part in cider-making.
These are some of the things that nag at us as we set about writing new songs, and devising ways for them to be performed in the forthcoming months, throughout the cider-making year. §
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. §
Harry and I presented this project at the The Exchange colloquium on 1st July 2021, organized by Arts and Culture team and the Public Engagement with Research team at The University of Exeter. The presentation (outlined below) attended to the project's publics and communities…
Questions from the floor enquired of theoretical lineage (e.g. Latour, the 'more-than-human'), what microbial life might "think" about our efforts, and how decolonization figures in this project.INTRODUCTION: As artist and anthropologist we share a common interest in how we, as humans, negotiate our social relationships with microbial life. While it’s been the SARS-COV-2 virus that’s grabbed the headlines, cider-making provides us with an example of less antagonistic human-microbial relations. Our project is a collaboration with Grays Devon Cider, other artists and researchers, and the microbial allies who live in the orchards and cider-barns at Halstow (near Exeter) – the yeasts, molds, and bacteria that take part in the process of fermentation."
BACKGROUND: In 2019 I worked with other artists to produce a novel kind of wassail at Halstow – home of Grays Devon 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 microbial 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.
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? §
Jim Causley and I have also started to work on a new suite of songs and schemes for their performance. We've started by looking again at the Old Cider "call-and-response" that opens the Halstow Wassail, and accompanies the procession towards the first apple tree…
We're looking at the musical experimentation of Henry Flynt and his use of phrases from Appalachian folk songs (Blue Sky, Highway, and Thyme from Back Porch hillbilly Blues, for example), and eliminating chord changes, using "tonic pedal point harmony". We're pushing this line of thinking to experiment with how phrases from traditional wassail songs might work in a similar manner if repeated. – the resulting "drone" effect working like the spoken-word incantation for example, as a charm for the microbial life on the farm.
This month I'm continuing to work on the calendar of the cider-making process, structured according to the activities of microbial life in relation to people, soil, air, apple trees, and their fruit. This work has involves coming to terms with academic papers which describe microbial life at various places around the cider-farm including those by Cousin et al (2017), Sánchez et al (2010), F.W. Beech (1993), and W.J.W. Coulson (1898). This research will be blended with accounts from cider-makers of their own interactions with microbial life though cider-making to form the basis of the "calendar". In the meantime, I've added (mostly verbatim) extracts from these papers into the Microbial Socialities into the project's website, interleaved with information about the project's human-centred activity. §
This month I've been working on a new double-sided poster which features both a 'Charm to align the Six Kingdoms of Life' – derived from the hexafoils inscribed into the barn walls at North Halstow – and a calendar of the cider-making year…
The calendar notes the intensity of social interactions between microbes and other participants in the cider-making process, and their coincidence with seasonal events and folkways, Saints Days, and other waypoints in the calendar year. My sixth video diary gives further commentary on the development of these textworks. §
Due to ongoing restrictions on international travel, as well as limits on numbers of people that can gather, plans for convening our colloquium and experimental food event, as well for as in-person production work, have been changed. All events involving public participation are now rescheduled for early 2022, continuing into the Spring. §
My fifth video diary lays-out tackles the assumption that wassailing traditions produce only "good relations", and how this become problematic when performed in a place where very different cultural and political concerns take precedence…
"At it’s best, wassailing, as it’s currently performed in the UK, coincides with a renewed interest in both individual and community relations with the natural world – as a response to rapid climate change, and a recognition of the damage done by humans to other species and the planet more generally. It’s an ‘invented tradition’ which imagines a time before, and perhaps beyond, Modernity. A time of popular magic, and a time when humans recognized and celebrated their symbiotic relations with other species, with the Earth, and its spirits.
In this sense, wassailing is an accessible British folkway which allows us to experiment with how we might understand the relationships of nature and culture. It can help us imagine a softening, if not the erazing, of the division between the two. It is a “third move” in admitting those who have been denied the status of active participants in the world. Beyond the people who have been excluded, it enables us to admit other species and other beings into the story – and this is something that Here’s To Thee has done in the Halstow Wassail.⁋ Due to restrictions on travel, I’m locked-down on Menecing, also known as the Toronto Islands. This is part of the Traditional territory and Treaty land of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. On January 17th, I held a conventional wassail here, with my family. We sang to the trees, hoped for ‘hatfuls, capfuls’ of apples, and so on.
It would be easy to draw equivalence between an old British custom, and those of Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island, to emphasize a commonality of purpose. After all, the wassail recognizes the “spirit” of the apple trees in ways that seem similar to the ways in which ceremony recognizes the manitou of beings.
Yet it is far from that simple, and to do so would overlook material differences in circumstance and conditions by which settler and Indigenous people live in Canada now.
A celebration of the orchard-apple tree in Britain might be thought of as an honest attempt to address the climate crisis and the Great Divide between Nature and Culture. A necessary move to repair division. A benign attempt to put things right.
Yet here, such as celebration risks reinforcing this division, and of continuing the process of dispossessing Indigenous people of their intimate connection to the land.
To celebrate the orchard-apple tree on Traditional territory is to risk overlooking the ways in which the planting of fruit trees is intrinsic to the colonial process. I have spoken with those whose families were displaced from their Territory as settlers, on instruction from government departments, planting apple-orchards to claim land tenure. This formed part of the systematic process of colonization, along with suppression of Indigenous languages, traditional knowledge, removing children from their families and kin, and so on.
To celebrate Malus domestica as a species is to remind Indigenous people of this.
So, as part of Here’s To Thee,, I am trying to work-through how to decolonize the wassail as it’s performed on this Territory, to mobilize it as a way to to grapple with these (ongoing) injustices. As a settler – however temporary – this is the very least that I can do."
Ceramic artist Abigail North is experimenting with "wild clay" retrieved from the oldest orchard at Halstow, (planted c. 1796). Abigail first used this clay to make the wassail bowl for use at the Halstow Wassail in January 2020…
It's size and shape is strongly reminiscent of the Hembury bowl, a reconstruction of an communal drinking vessel from the iron age, held in the collection at RAMM in Exeter. The surface of the Halstow Wassail bowl is porous, and it's texture devised so as to be sympathetic to microbial life. The bowl will be on display at RAMM from mid-January 2021 until early January 2022 - just before the Halstow Wassail mid-May 2021. Abigail is one of the artists collaborating with me on this project.
In December 2020 we were still optimistic that the Halstow Wassail could take place, albeit on a small-scale, and within the tight restrictions on physical-distancing that the UK government had established. Jim Causley produced the following, supplemental verse for the Halstow Wassail song, which acknowledges the virus that determined the forms of sociality of those who take part in the event – people and microbes alike – which we undertand as a 'microbiosociality.'
Jim's new lyrics are presented here in their draft form, and may change when we perform again, if all goes well, in January 2022:
Who be I? Who be I? Who be I this night?
You be the virus, our wassail doth smite!
Where be I? Where be I? Where be I this night?
On the air of our breath, hiding-out in plain sight!
So here’s to our gathering, singing with friends, (community singing with friends?)
And here’s to the vaccine, your reign for to end! (All sorrow to end?)§
One of the aims of HERE’S TO THEE is to encourage a lively exchange of ideas between contemporary art and other areas of practice and research within the University of Exeter, as a way of generating new collaborations and alliances.The following was published in The Moorlander magazine, in their Winter 2020/21 edition…
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, molds, 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 & Art Gallery, Exeter 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.
Are 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” food event 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. §
"We’re all under some kind of lockdown this month, so there’ve been no face-to-face meetings or travelling of the kind that I’d expect to be doing as part of a project such as this. Instead, the emphasis has been on online and remote working…
This month I’ve taken part in Food Studies seminars that focused on cider-making in the South West of England and the Hudson Valley in New York State; I also took the lead on the Centre for Rural Policy Research seminar, which introduced some of the themes that Here’s To Thee raises for contemporary art; and led another focusing the development of Here’s To Thee, and the project’s relationships to the cider-farm where it takes place. Working with Food Studies has already introduced me to discourses and literature through which to grapple with the project’s various themes. Harry West and I have begun to to take our conversations to a deeper level, especially concerning the political economy of cider-making in the South West – the kind of conversations that that are vital to generating new work."⁋ §
On November 3rd 2020 I presented the following text to guests at the CRPR SEMINAR, held online:
"Hello everyone, and good morning from the Toronto Islands – also known as Menecing to Anishinaabe-mowen speakers – on the Great Lakes, in Canada…
The studio from where I’m talking is on the Treaty lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, whose sovereignty over this, their traditional territory I acknowledge and respect. Thank you Harry, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the Centre for Rural Policy Research seminar series. This academic year I’m supported by Arts & Culture at the University of Exeter, and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council, to work with Harry and his colleagues to further develop Here’s To Thee – an expansive, collective, multidisciplinary, and participatory artwork.
This project inhabits and transforms the conventions of a traditional wassail. It’s does so as an experiment with novel, more-than-human forms of community, multispecies relations, and the “microbiopolitics” that people undertake with microbial life through cider-making. I’ll come on to explain what I mean by all this. I want to highlight some of the affinities that this art project has for those of you working in other disciplines, fields or sectors; this is important to me, as these are the relationships that I want to form and sustain through the next phase of the project. But I also want to make sure that I give a decent account of this project as art, and be able to convey to you why the project’s themes are important to me, as an artist. I hope to give you some insight into its artistic and research processes, and also to acknowledge those that took part and collaborated in its development and production. So that you can get a sense of the artistic context for this project, I’d like to show you a couple of examples of artwork that I was commissioned to make previously, and which fall into the category of ‘participatory’ or ‘relational’ art. Charade was commissioned by the BBC in 2005, when they were interested in how their archival material was stored and shared on “pirate” peer-to-peer computer networks; it involved convening small groups of enthusiasts to encode film, tv, music, and texts into their bodies, memorizing and performing these things together – hence the title Charade, after the parlour game. This happened at meetings in public squares in London, and in Birmingham in England. The second is Memory Marathon, from 2009. This was commissioned by Arts Council England with the Olympic Development Agency and produced by Film & Video Umbrella. It involved walking and talking with people along a 26-mile route around the five London boroughs that would play host to the Olympics; I met 104 participants on the way, each of whom described magnificent feats of physical prowess in spectacular architectural spaces, while we hobbled around some of Britain’s most economically deprived boroughs; an 80 minute film brings out the contrast between these two things. Both of these involved convening workshops to develop the themes of the work, to rehearse and prepare participants, and to develop a sense of distributed authorship and ownership of the work.
These two artworks use familiar tropes in participatory modes of contemporary art from this historical period (“the Blair years”): walking together, workshops, and the gathering of groups of people together in public space through some form of collective activity; and lots of talking.
Yet within a short time, it became obvious that this “social turn” in art, while admitting social relations, dialogic and democratic processes into the development, production, and distribution of contemporary art, it was unable to admit to those things – that writer and philosopher Timothy Morton claims – were ‘making themselves known to us in no uncertain terms’; that is, it could not admit to a more than human world, to the agency and involvement of nonhumans in human social worlds. From here, I set out on three years of practice-led research – as a doctoral project at the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford. Here, I was introduced to anthropologists and geographers who were ahead of me in paying close attention to human relations with nonhumans, and in particular other species. Through taking part in geographer Jamie Lorimer’s Life After The Anthropocene seminars, I was introduced to new research on human relations to fermented foods, such as Heather Paxson’s work on what she calls the ‘microbiopolitics’ of raw milk cheese-making. She focuses on how cheese-makers ‘work in selective partnership’ with microbes’ – that is, with bacteria, yeasts and molds – to promote “good” bacteria that improve taste, smell and texture, while limiting the effects of “bad” pathogens. For Paxson, this microbiopolitics ‘calls attention to the fact that dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought live with one another.’
Anthropologist Heather Paxson extends the concept of biopolitics – the political power directed towards all aspects life – and extends its application to human-microbial relationships. In particular she turns to the complex interactions of yeasts, molds, and bacteria that take part in raw-milk cheese-making, as a way to understand how categories of microbial life are produced through biopolitics, and ultimately, to think differently about humans in terms of our relationship to microbial life.⁋ When the theory of “bad germs” came to dominate modern approaches to health, and the practice of Pasteurization became widespread in food production, humans came to be defined in opposition to microbial life. As Paxson mentions in Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States (2008), Bruno Latour’s earlier work described a world where the social world was to be “purified” of microbes, producing a society that could be predicted and controlled more readily (ibid, p. 17); its in understanding the processes, the biopolitical techniques brought to bear on microbes, to make them productive in an anthropocentric world, that Paxson’s microbiopolitics becomes useful; in particular, it is a way to ‘call attention to the fact that dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought live with one another’ (ibid, p. 16).
As we can see in Michael Pollan’s documentary Cooked (2016) for example, attitudes to microbial life are changing. This is particularly apparent in how we understand their role in fermentation, which has become the arena for all kinds of practical, experimental, cultural, and political work. As microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe suggests, ‘We are seeing a culture shift in how we perceive microbes. Are the microbes in fermented foods a source of microbes for the human microbiome? … Are they interacting with our gut microbiome?’⁋ We now understand that microbial life is vital, as part of our human culture – in food production for example – for our health and wellbeing, and for how we define “the human.” Indeed, with the recognition that 90% of the cells, in what we define as the human body, are microbes (Paxson, 2008, p. 38), it is perhaps difficult to go to war with microbial life as before. As species whose lives are so entangled, perhaps a different settlement has to be made between humans and our microbial kin?
At this point, if you’ve ever been involved in the internal deliberations and ruminations of contemporary art, you’ll recognize why, as an artist, I might be drawn to this field, and become interested in relationships between microbes and the humans that they contend with. Participatory modes of contemporary art in particular, are criticized for their failure to deal with such disagreements about how to live with one another. Artists have been keen to promote the formation of new communities, to bring people together, to invent local and often utopic instances of how to live together harmoniously and peaceably. Yet – and this is where the main criticisms have been – they often struggle to develop practical ways to create an agonistic politics which also admits to antagonisms; that is, to produce forms of community that can bear strife and disagreement, without resorting to violence and warfare for its resolution. Yet in multispecies studies, you’ll find a preoccupation with just such political negotiations between species, often discussed in terms that are more nuanced than those available to artistic discourse. Martin Blaser’s idea of ‘amphibiotic’ relations for instance – where commensal or antagonistic relations shift to-and-fro over time, depending on wider shifts in ecological relations – offers a way to think differently about the friend/enemy distinctions that we might otherwise resort to when thinking about social and political relations. In multispecies thinking, we readily admit that the microbial life that we often try to keep at a distance from us, actually inhabits and defines us as humans. This enables us to make a radical maneuver around the impasse in the discourse of participatory art. It suggests a new aesthetics of the processes and shapes that such an art can take.
In looking for a novel ‘microbiopolitical’ situation through which to grapple with these ideas, I remembered a song, called 'Bread n Cheese n Cider' that’s sung by Dartmoor folk-singer Bill Murray. All three of these things, it so happens, are fermented foodstuffs – or at least in their most straightforward methods of production. Although I’ve been based elsewhere for quite a while, I maintain a strong connection to Devon, where I spent my early years; so when looking for an example of a ‘tractable’ microbiopolitical situation, I therefore had very little choice: it had to be cider.
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.
After an initial meeting at the farm with prospective participants in April 2018, and with Ben & Ruth’s agreement, I made an application to the Social Science and Humanities Research Council in Canada supported by Professor Sue Ruddick at the University of Toronto, and to Arts Council England. The aim was to develop a new artwork that would enable us to explore the ‘microbiopolitics’ of cider-making at Halstow, and to do so in a way that would bring a multidisciplinary group together in a practical engagement with the microbial life of the farm through cider-making. All this, to see if we could acknowledge the more-than-human community of the farm, and in doing do, find a new way of thinking of their cider’s place in local food culture.
In a previous project, in 2015, I had worked with singer-songwriter Jim Causley on a project that involved collective singing to the tin ore that lies under Dartmoor. As Jim recognized at the time, this resembled the kinds of wassailing traditions that are strong in the cider-making areas of Devon. Wassailing is a much-loved, and much-revived – or ‘rejuvenated’ folk practice. This last claim comes from Colin Cater who, in his social history of wassailing, also states that this term probably derives from a Saxon salutation, ‘Waes bu Hael” or “Be of good health”; and by the 13th Century it was used to describe, more generally, a “festive occasion with much drinking and pledging of healths.” The wassailing that we are now familiar with wishes “good health” to apples trees; many are held each year on the evening of 17th January – that’s “Old Twelvy” or “Old” Twelfth Night according to the Julian calendar. This coincides with the end of apple-pressing, and an end of Christmastide celebrations; it’s literally a last ‘hurrah’ before Plough Monday, and the return to labouring in the fields. It bears some comparison to Saxon land charms, with a characteristic blend of pre-Christian and Christian ritual. It is a fertility right of sorts; a way of ensuring a bountiful crop of apples at next year’s harvest.
Jim leads perhaps the best-known and well-attended wassail in Devon, at Whimple – an East Devon town which was once the home of Whiteway’s cider. This wassail takes the form of a group of people, led in procession by Jim, walking from orchard to orchard around the town; at each, the group stops at a tree, representative of all others, where an incantation is read, cider-soaked toast placed in the boughs of the tree by a Wassail queen; pans are rattled, shotguns are fired (to either wake the tree, or scare evil spirits) and Jim leads the massed voices in several verses of The Whimple Wassail. The incantation goes something like this: “Here’s to Thee, old apple tree; that buds well, blooms well, bears well; hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls, and all under one tree!” Here’s to THEE, fellow living being; here’s to THEE, who we will address as an equal to us. Here’s to THEE as a living being dependent on us, and to whom we are equally dependent (for cider, as part of our pay, in the old days). It’s this aspect of the wassail that is of real interest to me here (rather than as a neo-Pagan rite, or a celebration of local communities of people.) We could consider it to be one of the few cultural conventions available to people in Britain that admits to this collective mutuality and respect for another species, as “thou” rather than “it”. ⁋ In talking and singing to the trees, wassailing is part of a rich tradition of popular magic that seeks to change the material nonhuman world through the spoken or written word. Archaeologist Chris Gosden, in his recent book from 2020, The History of Magic, claims that these kinds of popular magical practices can enable us to experiment with these human-nonhuman relationships, to think of them anew at a time of climate crisis, species depletion and so on, where the qualities of these relationships have to change. The wassail readily lends itself to this form of experimentation.
Ordinarily, it might have been enough to ask Jim to write a song that could be sung each year at Halstow; a song that celebrates not just the apple trees, but the microbial ecology of cider-making. But my interest here is in how to be more ‘inventive,’ in the sense that sociologists Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford would have it, where the ways in which we go about our work (as researchers, and as artists) should be adequate, and answerable, to the social worlds that we take part in. ⁋ I’m interested in how this transforms our research and artistic methodologies, the ways that we work within institutions, how we validate our work, and so on. I also look to Bruno Latour, and Katie King as other strong voices here, calling for these things to be thought of in terms of our work producing lively interactions, and bringing out the propensities of all that takes part with us along the way.⁋ In this sense, the songwriting process couldn’t be a withdrawn, individual act. We were impelled to admit others into the process, and to learn from those that took part. I mean here, not just the people, but also the microbial life that participates in the fermentation of apple juice to make cider. The question becomes, how could the song, incantation, the entire wassail be transformed by learning from how yeasts, molds, apples, even machinery, and people, come together to make cider? Could we bring these things together as part of the process of developing the new wassail?
Here are some photos of the workshops – workshops that came out of thinking of this. The people you see here are anthropologists, farm workers, cider-makers, cider historians, food historians, artists, microbial ecologists, vitalist philosophers, interested local people, and more – and if any of you are online with us today, thank you yet again for taking part! In two sessions, we picked up apples, took them to the scratter (apple-crusher), and – in some instances – drank the already-fermenting juice fresh from the press. All the while, we talked about cider-making and related themes, sometimes in smaller groups, before gathering at the end of the session to drink some of the Gray’s cider, accompanied by a selection of local and regional unpasteurized cheese and sourdough bread; and some cider-related songs from Bill Murray. As I wrote at the time, this kind of workshop: “aimed to encourage participants to be effusive, to overspill the niche allocated to them by their disciplinary interests; and to seek novel and hybrid kinships with the people and other species involved in the process.”
Our conversations – hard as it may seem right now, during the current pandemic – ranged around the beneficial properties of cider-borne microbes for our gut-flora, of the effusive characteristics of air-borne yeasts, and of the benefits to fermentation of certain viruses that inhibit some other forms of life that would otherwise get in the way of producing great cider.
These conversations informed the writing of a new incantation, a new song, the making of a new ceramic bowl for communal drinking, and their performance at Halstow in January 2020. Photographer Robert Darch took these evocative images as the sun went down, and our guests gathered – first accompanied by Jim’s accordion and Bill’s drum with the voices of Mariners Away singing from one orchard to another; then round an old apple tree, surrounded by 12 fires; then to the pound-house, the cider barn, and finally the upper barn for more of a sing-song. As you look at these images, I’ll play a field-recording of the start of the wassail, to set the scene for you.
The phrase that you’ll hear the Mariners singing comes from another old wassailing tradition, blended with the ‘crying of the neck’ ritual, singing from one field to the next at the end of harvest.
As we all know, this year, we have another microbe making itself known in those ‘no uncertain terms’ that Tim Morton mentions: the Sars-CoV-2 virus. This year’s wassail will be on a much more limited scale, though we plan to make recordings available. But in a sense, this situation is grist to the mill of this project: its yet another example of the microbiopolitics that gets played out; where our politics between ourselves gets transformed by our dealings with microbial life, and vice versa. This year, sharing a drink of cider from a communal bowl would be more than an interesting, perhaps playful, yet material microbiopolitical challenge to participants; it is now potentially a life or death decision; as would singing together in the confined space of the cider-barn; and indeed gathering a large group of people anywhere. As our project starts its new phase, our seemingly benign cider-making project takes on all kinds of weighty and urgent matters, as we negotiate with a virus that is antagonistic to us, shaping our social worlds according. ⁋ As philosopher John Gray writes in this week’s New Statesman, “rather than shifts in human consciousness…” it will be “changes in the material world that will be decisive in shaping the next stage in history”; our imaginaries, and our “virtual worlds’ that continue to decouple us from it, will be put to the ultimate test. In wassailing the microbial ecology of cider-making, we bring the kinds of “magical thinking” that we use to deny the reality of a pandemic back into an alignment with material reality again. What looks like another excuse for a knees-up and a get-together, becomes one of the ways that we can remind ourselves of our own responsibility in living with other living things, in developing a culture that allows us to live with other living cultures."
Simon Pope §
One of the aims of HERE’S TO THEE is to encourage a lively exchange of ideas between contemporary art and other areas of practice and research within the University of Exeter, as a way of generating new collaborations and alliances…
Initially this is done though a number of seminars, organized by the Food Studies programme, and the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter. The first of these – as part of the CRPR seminar series – concerns the artistic and research contexts for the project, and how the microbiopolitics of cider-making problematize some of the assumption about politics at work within the discourse of participatory art; the next – as part of Dr. Paul Cleave's Gardening, Community and Wellbeing module on the MA Food Studies programme – introduces the wassail and its relationships to the orchard and the cider-making year. §
This is the transcript of the first of short video-diaries that were posted online on the Arts & Culture website during the first year of the commission…
"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, molds, and bacteria that take part in fermentation of traditionally-made Devon farmhouse cider at Grays Devon 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." §
Responding to a call to its associates, this month I wrote a letter to delegates at the annual Seed Box conference in Linkøping, Sweden, with some thoughts on what and who sustains this project…
Dear panellists and attendees,
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 molds (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,