A Good Story

Meeting Clare Patey

Place: London
Date: February 22, 2018
Travel time: 5 minutes bicycle, 20 minutes check-in, 2 hours for cancelled Eurostar, 110 minutes on the Eurostar
Meeting time: 3 hours
Reading time: 25 minutes

My meeting with Clare Patey takes place under the shadow of Brexit. The splendid isolation of Britain returns with a vengeance, closing borders, preventing exchange. And you wonder: how could this happen? The answer is simple: because of a good story. True or false doesn’t matter here. What matters is that the story works. Trump knows it. Nigel Farage knows it. And I think Clare Patey also knows the strength of a good story. Or make that: stories, plural. What we need are other stories, lots of stories, small stories, personal stories: stories we can share. Stories to work with. Stories are at the core of her practice as an artist and as a curator. It is what people share when joining her on one of the meals she organizes, be it for 40 or for 40000 people. Stories are what she passes on to children, what you find in books, how you learn empathy. And so this is what I want to discuss when meeting Clare Patey, sharing a cup of tea, next to her Empathy Museum, freshly installed in front of the temporary Migration Museum not far from Vauxhall Bridge: we need to talk about food and where it comes from, about children and future generations, about books and why you love them and about empathy or how to become the story of the other.

So, Clare, going through your work there are a few things that come back very often like cooking, children, gardening, or in a more general way: things that deal with growing, with recycling, with recombining. But in a way it always comes back to this one idea: the idea of a good story. This is what you do when you organise a feast: people not only eat but they sit around the table and share their stories. This is also what you share with children when they’re growing up: good stories are part of their learning process. It is even what happens when you find a recycled piece of garment in a second hand store. You not only buy the garment, but also the story that comes with it.
Oh, well, I haven’t thought of it quite like that. When I retraced the story of the red coat in Everything Must Go I thought of it more as taking off in something that is not visible and revealing that. So the story of the coat is about this idea that you might buy something and the moment you’re finished with it and you feel like a good citizen cause you’re giving it to the charity shop, you don’t think about its journey, about how it’s coming to you or where it’s going. You only think about it as your moment with it and then you might invest it with emotion and memories. But as soon as it’s gone, it’s almost like that is the end of the journey. But that isn’t the end and that is what I want to make visible. It’s the same with food and children in Feast: it’s about a lot of those children not knowing that the carrot is coming out of the ground because they only see it in the supermarket in a plastic wrapper and it’s all clean and you’re not thinking about where that’s coming from or where that’s going. The fact that it’s coming from the soil and going back to the soil again: that is the story I want to reveal. Like in Human Footprint, the TV show about all of the things you consume in your lifetime: it’s like saying you have a relationship with this cup of tea now but what if you saw all of the tea that you drink in your whole lifetime, is that going to change your relationship with your idea of consumption?

Is it only about making things visible? Or is it also about creating new circumstances for experiencing things?
Yes, about creating spaces where those stories can be discussed. So it’s not just about revealing something and telling people something, it’s about people who are involved in a process in a space where they can meet and talk. It comes back to what you were saying earlier about London, where the space becomes privatized leading to increasing loneliness, public services being cut, libraries being closed, even queues where you can pay someone who can queue for you so you don’t have to be next to someone randomly that you don’t like or may never have met. It’s about creating those public spaces. It’s about how children help children, it’s about health and skills like gardening and organic growing, about the relation between the producer and the consumer. Actually, I don’t say that to the children, it is part of the process of learning that you discover all those things. You don’t go in and say what it’s about, that is the children’s discovery. It’s about accessibility and also about fun.

When you say creating space, it’s also about reclaiming space. That is what you do with the Feast On The Bridge: reclaiming the street.
Yes, totally, even if it’s for one day, we can sit here at the kitchen table and reclaim the bridge from the traffic and look at the city in a different way.

The scale of that project is amazing.
Over the course of the day, 40000 people can sit down to eat, that changes in 12h.


How do you organize an event like that? I guess there is a lot of improvisation involved.
Yes, totally. You need to let go and trust that if you create the conditions for something to happen that thing will happen but that other things will also happen which you didn’t expect. You need to trust the audience. You make an invitation where everything has to be very clear, and then you have to let things happen. It’s like organising a party where you set up your whole house with the music and the wine and whatever and you set up your living room and everyone comes and after an hour you notice that everyone is standing in the kitchen. It’s just like that on the bridge. The first year, I set up an amphitheatre out of hay for children to listen to stories and then I noticed that one of the children was picking the hay and started throwing it and I became really cross and said that that wasn’t supposed to happen: not part of my plan. I ended up walking to the end of the bridge and when I came back 200 people were fighting with the hay. It became a thing in itself and everyone loved it and people came back every year, just for the hay fight.


You have to be happy with the unexpected happenings.
One thing that I learned is that people don’t do what you expect them to do. I used to run The Museum Of in a huge building with five floors with a theatre, a bar, and three floors of space for this alternative museum where the idea was that the people who came to visit created the space as much as the artists themselves. Through that I learned that people never do what you expect them to do. It’s what they bring to it, the unexpected thing, that becomes the fantastic enricher of the project.

Could you say it is part of an ecological way of thinking? Enriching the environment, moving with your environment and not obstructing it?
I guess so. And yeah, I think it has to do with inviting agency from the people who come, but allowing for people to take responsibility for that within the parameters of what you set up and that isn’t easy. It sounds free and easy, but what you set up and the way you set it up is really important. You can think about it for a long time. In The Museum Of there was one room filled up with little water bottles where people were asked what makes them cry. And people answer, they write a label on the bottle and that exhibit becomes the thing people look at. That sounds very simple, but what question you ask people is really key and what you’re inviting them to do and the understanding that it’s a safe environment in which to do that is really important.
Ration Me Up, the project you saw in Brussels with The Ministry of Trying to do Something About It, probably is more overtly in dealing with ecological issues. It was quite different from everything else, because it’s asking people to do something really specific and quite full on about climate change. It’s more about the challenge of questioning your personal behaviour.

Ration me Up is indeed a more personal, not to say solitary, project. Every visitor gets a little booklet with instructions to take home. You can’t do it on the spot, it’s a long term investigation.
Yes, people called me an eco-fascist after that. It was an experiment. I’m not dictating. It’s more an invitation to question and think about your relation with the everyday things that you do, but it’s quite different in terms of what the invitation is.

It probably has to do with the differences in the openness. This booklet with words that form instructions leave less room for the unexpected, like with the hay on the bridge.
What is also important, is creating spaces where people can do things together. My aim is not to entertain people. It’s not that they come and sit there and listen to a performer. It is about experience, about using the wheat that the children grew and about baking the bread and then to share it with the people you baked it with. The power of doing things together, getting your hands dirty together. Therefore you need the space and the time. With Feast we organised a dinner for 400 people with food we grew with children in the garden. There, the biggest thing was about time and the luxury of doing it for a year and following the growing season so you get the children out of their classroom and put them in a space that is completely different. In a space that is governed by nature and where the carrots will take this long to grow and you can’t do anything about that. You’re going to open up a space where the dynamic is different so the teacher is not standing in front of the classroom which in the end also makes the conversations between students really different.

So you could say that it’s a lesson in gardening but also in curating, where you learn to care. You cannot force the vegetables to grow, you have to care for them.
Absolutely. It’s nice to have the end event where you have the children cooking for their parents. It’s all part of the process.


Is that why you call yourself an artist and a curator?
I don’t know, it’s really difficult, I had this conversation yesterday. I said I had trouble with the labels of that, if someone asks me in a school playground, outside the art world, and they come up to me and ask “what do you do?”, I say that I come up with some ideas for projects and I make them happen so that is what I do. I get called different things.

I understand it very well. I’m a critic and a curator myself, always having trouble to explain to people what it is that I do.
The format of what you’re doing changes constantly too. I suppose the thing that doesn’t change is the spirit in which you do them, there is something of my intentions as a human being that run through them.

But I can imagine that your way of working changes over the years because of your experience – that it makes you work more towards these unpredictable events that happen.
That is one of the things I learned from working in community theatre. I remember working with a director when I was 18 or something, who said that when you’re making a piece of theatre, you have to be happy not knowing. I think I am happy not knowing. There is a tendency towards controlling things and when some things not go as you expect them to go, that there is a moment of letting that go, which is not always comfortable, that you might approach it differently the next time. But I think that’s always been there somewhere. It’s an attitude towards taking risks. I’ve taken these risks from very early on without a clue of what I am doing.

Doesn’t it make you nervous to work like that?
I don’t know why, but it doesn’t. it’s a very weird tension. I’m not like that in my life, I’m always worrying. I don’t like flying or travelling, it’s always terrible to go on holiday. I have not moved house for 25 years. But it doesn’t worry me to close a bridge and do a project with 40.000 people. I don’t know why. I think what takes away the tension is also the team of people I work with, it’s not just me. I like that spirit and that environment.

Working together makes you part of a process in which you cannot stop anymore.
Yes exactly, and I prefer it. And also I hate the opening of things. I prefer to be hiding.

You prefer to stay in the kitchen.

I recognize a lot of what you say in my own practice. For this tour, meeting many very different artists, doing conversations on topics which I don’t really understand myself, makes me very dependent of the people I work with. It gives a certain comfort – we’re in this together – but also not. Things change with every new meeting. Art and ecology is such a vast theme and everyone has a different approach.
Yes, sure. I don’t know how much I can talk about art and ecology.

It depends on how you see it. I think, here, the idea of the curator is very important: to care. To care about the environment, people, things. To be careful with artworks, an audience, artists, spaces, finding a way of bringing these together. These are the things that are important and for me it is always linked to finding an ecological approach.
I totally agree. It starts with the way you frame an idea. I think the process is quite similar.

Can you say something more about A Mile in My Shoes, the project you are doing right here and now with the Empathy Museum? I understood that you have a collection of shoes of migrants and refugees?
This project is much bigger than what you can see here. It started two years ago, when I met Roman Krznaric who wrote a book about empathy. He wanted to take some of the thinking in the book and create something experiential, so people could do something that could encourage them to feel empathy. Earlier I had curated a Museum of Emotions, which was part of The Museum Of, where each museum was meant to question something of what the cultural idea of the museum is. The building where we worked was derelict, no one was inside for 40 years. And the people who owned it wanted to turn it into a museum in the future. So the whole idea of this project was about what a museum is, what a new museum in London would look like, what people might want from that. So the whole project was a debate that would feed in ideas to the future of the building. The Museum of Emotions was looking into what a space for people to feel would be.


What else did you have in The Museum Of?
Well, first we did The Museum of Collectors, which I think is my favourite one. It’s about creating a community that would be using this museum space and bringing the building back to life. So we did a call out to the community and it’s quite a mixed community, because it’s near the National Theatre and the South Bank Centre: big cultural centres, but also big businesses like IBM are based there and lots of social housing. So there is a big social mix. We got 52 local people, who either worked or lived locally, who had collections of some kind and they wanted to show them. So it could be plastic monsters or ties or toast racks or snow domes…. We showed these collections in the way they wanted them to be shown. There was this old guy, 80 years old, and he collected everything from Dolly Parton: he had all her records, he even had a bit of her carpet. We built him the living room of Dolly Parton where he could show all her stuff.
Anyway. Back to The Museum of Emotions: Roman had seen this, and the ideas for this Empathy Museum came a little bit of this idea of a museum that could be anything. And so I just heard people talking about describing empathy and a lot of people describe it as “to walk a mile in someone’s shoes”. Do you have that expression in Dutch?

Sure, but we don’t walk a mile, we just are in somebody else’s shoes.
And so, it’s a very simple idea of taking that metaphor and making it literal. Instead of having a pair of shoes you would buy, you have a pair of shoes that belong to someone else and you wear them and you walk and you listen to this person telling their story. But, there is something that is more than me telling you about it. It’s really bizarre because you are embodying this other person, it is really intimate because they are talking in your ear. It’s a journey, and this walking and being in the city and your feet physically doing something on the ground and listening to the story and being in someone else’s shoes and all of these things combined making it very powerful. In my work I often start from a really clear and simple idea. You can get the idea easily but it doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t more complex.

The more you leave it open, the more complex it will become. That’s what you have with Feast on the Bridge, for instance. I don’t know how it works with the shoes, because you already have these stories that are recorded in advance.
You do, but your relationship with the story will be very different from my relationship with it because of your personal story.

How did you collect these stories of migration?
We asked people who worked with asylum seekers, with refugees, but we also looked for emergency centres and doctors and we did call outs via social media. It’s a process that takes a little bit of time and you have to then talk to people about their story, whether they want to share that. You have to be really careful, especially with people who are vulnerable. That you’re not just taking their story – that kind of colonial horror. The process has to be interesting and empowering for them. I think this about every collaboration actually. It has to be empowering, or cathartic or interesting for someone to share that story or to collaborate.
I’m interested in responding to things that are currently out there within the community that we are showing the work. If a lot of people have recently been made unemployed because the steelworks closed, then we would talk to someone who might have had that experience. Because of Brexit and this kind of divided and polarized argument, there isn’t really space for having these conversations. People are very quickly insulting each other or running back to their corners. And also there is the fact that people surround themselves with people who are very similar thinking. I personally don’t know anyone who voted to leave the EU, maybe a friend of mine’s dad, but that is as near as it comes. People don’t generally have these conversations, so I’m interested in doing a bigger project than this and bringing those communities in touch with one another and walking in each other’s shoes.

To walk in the shoes of pro and anti Brexiteers?
Yes, as a kind of start to look at the kind of theme and debate and trying to find a space where we could explore that a bit. We’re doing this version of the Empathy Museum in the context of London, which is quite a literal context. It’s not like we’re getting a lot of UKIP voters to walk in the migrant’s shoes but hopefully when we take it on tour and we take it to other places where we can begin to open up these conversation it might be ideal. So all the stories come from people that make London their home. They may have come 50 years ago or they may have come last month. We try to make it really diverse as to where people have come from in the world. So there could be someone from Australia who fell in love with an English person and never went back to Australia, or there could be someone who is here because they couldn’t show their sexuality where they’re from or it could be someone who came to work in the national health service in the 1960s or … very different stories, the power of the protagonist is in the diversity of the voices that are in the space. And it is a counter move against the power of the one voice narrative of the giant corporations. We’re also not asking for someone’s story of migration, so we’re not saying “can you tell us about what it is like to come on a crowded boat?”, we’re asking you to tell any story you like – you might have done that, but do you might want to tell us the story of you being a dad or a dentist and loving Arsenal football club. We explore the idea that people have several identities and that none of us are defined by one story.

Because I know that these are stories of migrants, I already have expectations.
Yes, and I prefer it when it’s a range of different stories. I like to have 200 stories that are really diverse, then you don’t know what you’re getting. And also I have a problem with calling it the Empathy Museum because I don’t like telling people what they have to feel. But it was called that before I came on board I think The Museum Of is a far more open title than The Museum of Empathy, if you see what I mean.

I see. I had a similar feeling. It nearly sounds like a school. It also takes away the openness of the project, you have to empathize. But I’m glad you bring up Brexit. It’s one of the things that makes starting this Grand Tour in London so interesting, also from an ecological point of view: closing borders is totally against this idea of ecology. Borders is where things happen and where you have cross fertilisations.
And a lot of cultural activity is the same, actually someone told me this, we were talking about migration and she was doing her PhD about migration and history and she says when she tells people she’s doing it about migration, she says people ask if she is looking at birds or humans? And she started to say she did it about birds to see what the reaction was. I said I was doing a food project, Crayfish Bob’s, where I started a café where we just served invasive species. It brings up a lot of questions about what is invasive. How long does something have to be here before it becomes native. It is actually a project about migration really and I think it says something about borders and plants and birds and animals, the way the environmental and ecology moves. Just a long detour to say that I’m trying to agree with your point about borders.


And then it always comes back to the idea of openness, you create a framework and things happen.
Also the idea of imagination shouldn’t be confined to something that has to do with language and thought, it is also physical, we experience the art so cerebrally I think. That’s why this project includes walking, I like the physicality of it, just like in gardening, the soil, your hands, making a plate, even being on a bridge outside. The projects that I do normally don’t happen in conventional spaces, like galleries or theatres, and that’s partly because I was never part of a world that was commercial. I wasn’t selling anything I was doing, but I have chosen, not consciously, to work outside of those spaces. That allows me to create a different world in public space.

One of the first things I learned starting this Grand Tour is that what often comes back when talking about art and ecology is this idea of the social. I also recognize that in your work. Artists who are working on ecology never work alone, they always work in a group, in a network, they engage people. And the way to engage people is often through pleasure, which is another thing, in a lot of art works: you trigger the interest of people through something that brings pleasure.
I completely agree, and I also think that even if you’re dealing with an issue that is very urgent or that you think is very important, you can do it with humour. I think humour and play are important, it doesn’t have to be like bashing people over the head with it.

It’s not only about the urgency, it’s a very dark subject, something is changing and it’s not going into the good direction. But this is also part of the problem, you cannot say what exactly is changing, and therefore you cannot say what the solution is either. So it’s very difficult to say you should consume less, travel less. You have to leave it open, you can decide it for yourself, how to travel or consume, but you cannot force other people because you can’t say what the problem is exactly.
Yes, and also because I feel that it isn’t my right to do that. I don’t want to make work that is just instrumental – perhaps then it is more about revealing what the problems might be and then letting people reach their own conclusions rather than telling them what the solution is.

But then I think this is where art can do something, more than science, to take the freedom to not give us the key to the problem nor the solution but to make us look in a different way, to make us think in a different way.
Culture can shift a perception: then we’re back at the imagination.
We’re doing another project in London at the moment in Summerset House, which is a big 18th century house, and underneath are all of the coalholes to deliver the coal to power the  building. We are using these beautiful empty arch bricks with doors to grow mushrooms with homeless gardeners. The idea is that we’re starting a business to grow mushrooms using old coffee grounds and then we’ll sell them to local restaurants. I quite like the narrative of this story because of the fossil fuel that’s no longer there and the spaces being left to grow on the waste coffee coming from the cafés. I also like the idea that it is something in the dark and under the ground and it’s going to come up. We just started it so at the moment we’re growing oyster mushrooms but we’re eager working and learning.

There is a similar project in Brussels. They collect their coffee in  shops serving organic coffee so they can sell their mushrooms as organic. They have oyster mushrooms and shiitake.
What are they called?

Les Champignons de Bruxelles.
We can go on a mushroom exchange.

Mushrooms of the World?
Mushrooms without borders!




Postscript: on living in Capitalist ruins

That’s more or less how I left Clare Patey in London: with this strange underworldly thought, seemingly out of the blue, of a Mushroom International. Back in Brussels I read, by coincidence, more about mushrooms and the importance of stories in Staying with the Trouble, the monstrously inspiring book of Donna Haraway whom you could call a writer and thinker of interspecies empathy. On page 36 of the book she writes about

anthropologist, feminist, cultural theorist, storyteller and connoisseur of the tissues of heterogeneous capitalism, globalism, traveling worlds, and local places Anna Tsing (who) examines the “arts of living on a damaged planet,” or, in the subtitle of her book, “the possibility of life in Capitalist ruins.” She performs thinking of a kind that must be cultivated in the all-too-ordinary urgencies of onrushing multispecies extinctions, genocides, immiserations, and exterminations.”

The interesting thing is that what grows in these “Capitalist ruins” are exactly mushrooms. Haraway continues:

Following matsutake mushrooms in their fulminating assemblages of Japanese, Americans, Chinese, Koreans, Hmong, Lao, Mexicans, fungal spores and mats, oak and pine trees, mycorrhyzal symbioses, pickers, buyers, shippers, restaurateurs, diners, businessmen, scientists, foresters, DNA sequencers and their changing species, and much more, Tsing practices sympoietics in edgy times. Refusing either to look away or to reduce the earth’s urgency to an abstract system of causative destruction, such as Human Species Act or undifferentiated Capitalism, Tsing argues that precarity – failure of the lying promises of Modern Progress – characterizes the lives and deaths of all terran critters in these times. She looks for the eruptions of unexpected liveliness and the contaminated and nondeterministic, unfinished, ongoing practices of living in the ruins. She performs the force of stories; she shows in the flesh how it matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking. “If a rush of troubled stories is the best way to tell contaminated diversity, then it’s time to make that rush part of our knowledge practices … Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruins that have become our collective home. To follow matsutake guides us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. This is not an excuse for further human damage. Still, matsutake show one kind of collaborative survival.”


“Matsutake tell us about surviving collaboratively in disturbance and contamination. We need this skill for living in ruins.”

This could become a good story on what we can learn from (living with) mushrooms in what remains of an 18th century industrial building in London. A Capitalist ruin, maybe?

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