Sarah Carne is a London-based independent artist and educator whose practice employs a wide range of forms including video, performance, text, conversation and drawing. She is interested by status, value and rank and how these determine the opportunities we access, the materials we use and how we are perceived. Her latest project 'A bitter orange tree and an orange tree: practices of care' was a collaboration between the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub and Xenia and involved a Citizen Science Project around plastic design, food waste and composting. The book is an anthology of contributions by those involved.
I have previously explored these ideas through projects around missing women artists - I’m Looking for Barbara () and This is for Christine Cadin (https://www.sarahcarne.co.uk/this-is-for-christine-cadin) and in a more abstract fashion in Paper and Vegetables, a two year residency at Great Ormond Street Hospital in which I discussed the relative merits of folded paper and various vegetables with patients and their families. I have also just completed a commission for Trellis, UCL’s Public Art programme, which at first glance is about citizen science, composting and biodegradable plastic but is actually about community and care. The outcome of this commission is an anthology An Orange Tree and a Bitter Orange Tree, Practices of Care, that seeks to amplify the voices of the participants and those involved in its production.
The premise of Trellis is to support engagement between artists, UCL researchers and communities in East London. I was drawn to working with Danielle Purkiss and Charnett Chau from UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub when, during our first conversation, we established that they don’t believe plastic is the enemy, rather that waste in its life cycle is the problem that their research aims to design out. Danielle had previously set up the Big Compost Experiment in which people around the country have been composting biodegradable plastic and submitting their results but she is aware it is being undertaken by people who already have an interest in composting - if not plastic. She was interested, therefore, in running a smaller version for Trellis with a group of people who hadn’t self-selected and as a result might have little or no experience of composting, better reflecting the population as a whole and shedding light on some of the factors that cause people to engage with composting or choose not to.
I was already interested in working with Xenia, a Hackney based organisation for women who are learning English and women who speak English, and the Hub were keen to see if language might be a barrier to the success of some of the changes they are advocating. Xenia joined us as partners and introduced us to Josie Stevens, the Heritage Learning Manager at Hackney Museum, who they collaborate with, holding their meetings there prior to the pandemic and using objects in the museum as prompts for conversation.
We decided to run a Citizen Science Experiment and with five members of Xenia set out to test whether plastic advertised as compostable would degrade in home composting bins. Alongside this we ran a series of online sessions with the larger group around topics including citizen science, food waste, plastic and, importantly, space. Most of the smaller composting group were using indoor bokashi bins - finding space for these and the accompanying equipment proved tricky for those of us living in small flats - it is something which the Hub is aware of as England moves towards compulsory food waste collection in 2023.
The outcome of the citizen science experiment in terms of the plastic was inconclusive - we didn’t have time for a full length test and the integrity of what we did was impacted on by the strictures of lockdown but it was still a success, in essence being more about introducing the idea to the group, sparking interest for future composting activity and raising awareness around plastic waste and food waste. It also led to a strong sense of collaboration with the potential for future partnerships for all of us and gave the Hub valuable insight into real life experience of some of the issues around home composting.
The outcome for myself in terms of an artwork is the anthology. Midway during the project I realised that the idea of ‘care’ was becoming central to my thinking. We had been talking about collection care at Hackney Museum having chosen a compostable plastic bag in their collection to discuss during one of our online sessions. When they went to bring it out of the store they discovered it had started composting itself, the object number had detached and the edges were disintegrating. Discussion in the session brought up interesting questions around why a museum collected plastic in the first place and does a damaged item warrant being preserved. This was discussion about care in a practical sense but Josie had also made a short video welcoming the women of Xenia back to the museum virtually and her appreciation of their relationship shone through, echoing how much I knew the women of Xenia cared for each other.
As a result I asked the Hub researchers, Ioanna Korfiati the Xenia workshop organiser and Josie Stevens to consider care as it affected their work or their role in the project and to contribute short pieces of writing around this. I also conducted a recorded conversation with the composting group and the anthology contains extracts of this and the Saturday sessions. Another key conversation was with Fatima whose first language is Arabic. Her commitment to the experiment was so strong I wanted to give her a chance to talk about it without restriction so arranged for a translator to help us in a conversation and it is from this that the title of the anthology comes. Nathalie Thomas the translator put such thought and effort into her work in ensuring she stayed true to Fatima’s voice I invited her to also contribute. Lastly I invited Charlie Abbott from work-form, the designer of the book, who writes about the questions that need to be asked when making a book with the smallest possible environmental impact. The final essay is by myself and concerns my thinking about why I try not to care about doing my best and trying my hardest.
You can see a PDF of the book here () or request a copy via my contact page ()
Sarah Carne 2021