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Photo: Julia Weir

The stream of traffic heading for Devon or Cornwall in the summer months is an implicit acknowledgement of the opportunities to engage in outdoor leisure: walking, swimming, surfing, picnics, open air theatre, festivals and more. 

These thrive in a context where a wider spectrum of outdoor sites and activities has been developed and encouraged by the characteristics of landscape – Cornish nurseries and gardens; army and naval display; landscape painting and land art; boating of all kinds. The economic importance of these activities in the present takes place against a backdrop of industrial decline and is sometimes productive of tension and division. At the same time, their rich histories deserve to be better known and appreciated.

Our two open air performance commissions both engaged with other forms of outdoor culture and with those who participate in them. Performance gently held several aspects together within a single event, combining thoughtfulness with celebration.

Who Do You Think Should Save Us? (Jane Mason, Grace Surman and Gary Winters), was a day long series of small actions taking place on the beach at Exmouth, Devon, and responded to the popularity of sea swimming that has rapidly increased over the past few years. 

Sea swimmers have recently become a significant demographic for local rescue organisations, while both swimmers and lifeguards observe with dismay the pollution of coastal waters.

The day began with a large group of sea swimmers, led by dancer Jane Mason, in a series of choreographed actions at the water’s edge. The volunteer organisation, Exmouth Beach Rescue Club was also present, on paddleboards and on the beach. Playing a striking role, the group leader offered a calm, clear movement sequence of signals and control at the edge of the breakers. At other times, he knelt to observe the swimmers as they lay on the sand: a position of care. Rising, the swimmers passed a rope along a line, moved forward and backward with the waves lapping, until gradually they entered the water and were off, swimming.

Photo: Stephen Hodge

Throughout the day, the three artists, Mason, Surman and Winters, undertook a repeated sequence of actions, each artist presenting their own work, sometimes together with another, sometimes alone.

Mason’s dance, with a silver emergency blanket and grey costume, evoked a floundering, gleaming fish, unable to breathe at the edge of the water. What initially appeared a comical tripping and falling became increasingly urgent, distressed, hopeless. Continually gathering up the silver sheet, which became torn and shredded, she seemed a creature trying to gather herself, at the mercy of the too-shallow water.

At another point, Surman and Winters sat on chairs placed in the water, formally dressed. At intervals changing the angle and depth of the chairs, they were increasingly unable to stay in one position, their clothes gradually becoming soaked. Again, equilibrium was impossible to find.

Other actions included Surman as a seal, dressed in wetsuit, appearing both comical and vulnerable on the sand, and Winters digging and carrying water.

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Photo: Julia Weir

Onlookers were sometimes bemused, sometimes fascinated, sometimes continued their own activities without registering much notice. Supporting artists were present throughout to offer explanation or encourage greater engagement.

At the end of the day, the swimmers gathered again, repeating the morning’s sequence, this time with an additional number of volunteers who had been watching. The day ended with the group in the water once again, looked after by the Beach Rescue Club.

This assemblage of actions brought together human leisure and danger with the struggles of non-human others in this seascape. A film, created through the event, will collage these different images together, producing an evocative document of this summer’s day.

Field Day was created and convened by Penryn-based company Small Acts (Katie Etheridge and Simon Persighetti). It took place at Loveland, a community garden on the hillside across the river from the centre of Penryn.

This remarkable site is not only the source of produce for individual volunteers, but grows food for the Falmouth Food Co-Operative, and has an experimental grains project and a herbal garden. The site is church-owned, and subject to some of the pressures that come with that – both local support and a centralised threat of built intervention. This performance celebrated the vibrancy and significance of the site, in itself an act of political importance to confirm its value to the community.

Photo: Small Acts

The day was hot, and every eventuality was cared for, with water left under trees, and moments of performance alternating between shelter and blazing sunshine. Led by our guides, we moved in four groups around eight ‘stations’, each of which engaged us with the site in different ways.

The HUM choir sang songs derived from the texts of interviews with people about the field and their interest in it, as we were told about the grains project. This patch of Loveland is a space where growers explore the resilience of different types of crop, including ‘Pillas’, the ‘small, naked oat’ that used to grow widely in Cornwall, but had to be retrieved from seed banks to re-establish a small crop here (the subject of PhD research by Harriet Gendall, who performed at the event).

Grains project with performer
Photo: Cathy Turner

We were shown pottery and other finds picked up along the edges of the field, some of them dating back to the iron age. We were introduced to the herb garden and the various plants used for medicine, and to the volunteer vegetable patch where illustrator Carys Boughton’s work was exhibited.

Boughton draws people volunteering in Loveland, and her illustrations have been printed on wood and installed in the garden, among the plants. Visitors were given a postcard and pencil to make their own drawings.

There was a playful ‘reconvening’ of the St Gluvias Church Debating Society Association Football Club (SGDSAFC) who used to play on the field. Passing round a football, visitors debated how land should be used and food distributed – in a gentle, undemanding way, we were invited to think about food scarcity, a growing concern in the region.

Photos: Small Acts

These two performances modelled ways in which different activities and constituencies may be brought into dialogue through shared events, and how they might be opened up to new audiences. They were also in dialogue with their settings, and spoke to regional identity, not as something fixed, but as something emerging from a deep past into an uncertain future.

Other participatory moments included searching for bugs in the grass, and planting baby beetroots in the commercial patch.

The event concluded with a communal lunch, made from produce grown on the field: salads exuberant with marigolds and cornflowers, and a vast urn of vegetable soup. The marquee, specially erected for the event, was buzzing with an enthusiastic crowd of diners, many of them new to the field and its significance.

Article by Cathy Turner