Nil by Mouth at the Scottish Parliament

Feb.27 2015

Posted by Nil by Mouth: Food, Farming, Science and Sustainability

Nil by Mouth (2013-14) brought together artists, scientists and food producers initiated by Mike Bonaventura, Chief Executive of the Crichton Carbon Centre. The Crichton Carbon Centre’s focus is on sustainability and how to communicate to as many people as possible in as many ways as they want. Many of us are currently under-informed about the issues driving the need for rebalancing the economic, environmental and social aspects of development. Working with Wide Open as Producers, the environmental art charity, the Crichton Carbon Centre is exploring the role of art and artists in broadening public engagement with the sustainable development agenda.

Mike Bonaventura said,

Engaging people in the sustainable development agenda is vital if we are ever to redress the social, economic and environmental imbalances that currently exist in the world. Food is one way of doing so as it brings the debate about sustainable production and consumption into everyone’s life in the most immediate of ways. We hope that the timing of this event will help to highlight the UN adoption of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and new and binding post-Kyoto climate change commitments, both of which will take place in 2015. Auspiciously, 2015 is also the UN Year of Soils and the International Year of Light.

Sponsored by Joan McAlpine, the event at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood on 25 November 2014 is the culmination of a 15 month process.

The Nil by Mouth event enabled a wider invited audience to participate in the dialogue between artists and scientists whilst also experiencing the artworks that the artists have been developing in collaboration with key scientists from Scotland’s world-class research institutions.

Nil by Mouth has involved a group of artists selected through an open call in a series of workshops on Soil, Farming, Food and Nutrition with scientists from top research institutes with international reputations in these topics. The scientists are all part of the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (Food, Land & People Programme & Environmental Change Programme), working at the James Hutton Institute; the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen; and SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College. The artists also undertook residencies with food producing communities across Scotland (Lothians, Tayside, Moray and the Outer Hebrides).

Dr Charles Bestwick, Adviser to the Food Land & People Programme of Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme: said,

This process has enabled us to debate differences, challenge our own perceptions and develop an understanding between the perspectives of the individual scientists as well as with the artists. We have seen new research collaboration fostered through this process and we believe the partnership of science-art disciplines has been and will continue to be extremely valuable, suggesting new ways of doing knowledge exchange whilst raising questions about that process itself.

The artists have responded to the brief to engage with science and sustainability and investigate local food producing communities in different ways.

Artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman asked scientists at the James Hutton Institute and SRUC what they were most excited about in terms of future research into soil. Professor Lorna Dawson and her colleagues highlighted the possibilities of the microbial world. Further investigation led to the discovery of a piece of research that shows that exposure to the Mycobacterium Vaccae found in soil can act as an anti-depressant, reducing anxiety through the release of Seratonin in the brain. The result is the mock up of a speculative new business Soilari M.V. TherapiesTM. The interactive installation is designed to highlight the importance of soil, soil organisms and also starts to question our synergistic relationship with soil both now and into the future.

Professor Lorna Dawson of the James Hutton Institute said,

The whole process of interaction and cross disciplinary exchange has generated exciting new possibilities both for research ideas and in new ways of engagement.

Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman presented two pieces of work at the event, Soilari MV Therapies and The Museum of Future Food.  The leaflet for Soilari M.V. Therapies TM can be accessed here H&C Soilari.  The booklet for the Museum of Future Food can be accessed here H&C MFF Brochure.  You can find out more about Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman’s Imagining Natural Scotland New EIA for Natural Scotland here.

Poet Harry Giles performed a series of works he has produced in response to his residency on a large farm in Morayshire. These sound poems use the names of varieties of carrots or the names of streets in Elgin to evoke our connection to farms and farmland.  The farmform website contains both the visual form of the poems as well as audio of Harry Giles reading them.

As part of the Nil by Mouth programme, recent Edinburgh College of Art Graduate Hans K Clausen was in residence on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Clausen’s experience in the workshops with the scientists learning about food security and sustainability led him to explore South Uist from a different perspective. He discovered that many of the artists living on the island are also crofters and food producers. His contribution to the event at Scottish Parliament was 15 wheelbarrows of new work by these artists, including one from himself.  Clausen also produced a booklet documenting the work which can be accessed here HKC Catalogue FINAL version.

Professor Christine Watson of the SRUC said,

This has been a great opportunity to work with people who see life through a different lens. It has really made me think about the possibilities of using alternative methods of communication that are different from the everyday language of science! The ideas and collaborations stimulated by the project will far outlive the project itself.

The artist collective Center for Genomic Gastronomy presented the Loci Food Lab. It is a travelling food stand for prototyping, serving and debating a range of bioregional food futures in different cities around the world. The artists conducted site visits, interviewed researchers at the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, and engaged chefs from Edinburgh to assemble a menu with a diverse range of local ingredients, and a framework for debating values in the food system. Visitors to the LOCI food lab identify the attributes of the food system that are important to them, and are served a customized snack, created for them from a menu of local ingredients. Loci Food Lab has previously been presented in Portland Oregon in the US.

Dr Wendy Russell, Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, said,

I’d been looking at the works of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy before Nil by Mouth started because I was interested in the ways that artists can be provocative, particularly around my area of interest in food futures.

Chris Fremantle, Producer for Wide Open, said

The artists and scientists have been sparking off each other really effectively – there is a lot of mutual respect. The challenges we face, whether it’s in food security or climate change, need to be tackled by a range of different skills, and more importantly people need to understand why things like soil matter. Artists can be more provocative than scientists, and they can bring a unique and engaging perspective.