28 October 2016

Not often ye get to see dragons, but on Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure to see them up close and personal at the Community Harvest in the beautiful Botanic Gardens of Dundee. The event was organised by Dundee Urban Orchard. I contacted Jonathon, one of the organisers, who I had the pleasure of meeting on the day.

The Dragons are a nod to the two that stand proud on the City of Dundee’s coat of arms. For DOU they represent Social Justice and Environmental Justice. They played a starring role in the Community Harvest; a day of music, storytelling and dance to inform the gathering of folk on the importance of orchards and green spaces, on a typical Scottish day of many seasons.

We interviewed Jonathan Baxter from DUO, to tell us why art is a social practice, helping to give us something in common to celebrate.

A parade dragon.

The dragons of social and environmental justice make their way to the main marquee – photo: Jonathan Baxter

What was the problem or need in your community that sparked your idea for a communal urban orchard?

DUO works with a call and response paradigm. So rather than ‘needs’ we think in terms of ‘call and response’. What calls us? How can we respond to that? This recognises that a call is more complex and multifaceted than a need. Unlike a need it can’t be fulfilled in the short-term; it changes in response to the response! Rather like a conversation. But to put it (too) simply, you could say that there were two questions we wanted to respond to: what can artists contribute to the communities in which they live? How can we, as a society, respond to the current crisis in food sustainability?

What did you identify as an opportunity or solution to help improve it?

We decided to focus on orchards as a metaphor for rethinking the city. As artists we would use our skills to reimagine and replant the city through a network of orchards. This allowed us to work with communities who don’t usually engage with the arts; connecting so called ‘hard to reach communities’ with more mainstream arts and cultural organisations. This meant that everyone — schools, community groups, neighbours who share a back green, arts and cultural organisations etc. had something in common and something to share, i.e. they each had an orchard, they each needed to tend to it, and they also had pathways for sharing skills and knowledge on a non-hierarchical basis. Of course, being artist there’s always something ‘more’ going on. And that ‘more’, in this case, was celebration. For individuals, communities and society to feel a better sense of connection with one another and the planet, we need something in common and something to celebrate. Orchards and community harvests are a good way of symbolising and practicing this sense of connection. Orchards are also a good reminder that this sense of connection needs to be tended — what we, borrowing from the artist Meirle Ukeles, call ‘maintenance and care’.

How did you go about setting it up?

This sort of project is complex. Artists who work in the public realm often work tactically through a series of short term interventions. But for the Orchard City concept to take root we needed to work strategically, forming alliances and partnerships with a number of key organisations in the city, starting with the council — both the environment department and planning department — to make sure we had support for the project. Without that support the project would lack credibility, which in the long run would effect the sustainability of the project after DUO itself had disappeared into the background, i.e. we wanted to ensure a public legacy for the Orchard City.

What has been the outcome for your community?

We need to be careful when talking about ‘the community’. Perhaps it’s better to think in terms of communities and networks of support. On a practical level, we now have 25 small scale orchards across the city. Each orchard is self sufficient and maintained by an identified orchard group (usually the people who planted the orchard). Some of these groups are more self contained than others. Some groups rarely engage with the wider network while other groups have developed a sense of shared commitment and solidarity. These latter groups are the groups who contributed to the Community Harvest. Both approaches are fine, of course. There are also reasons — financial and personal — for groups having different personalities. Some introvert. Others extrovert. Although it’s likely that the more connected an orchard group is to other orchard groups, the more sustainable their own orchard and the network will be, i.e. it’s harder to grub up twenty five orchards than it is to grub up one!

How has art has helped in all of this?

The first thing to say is that all of this is art. Art isn’t an add-on; something tacked onto the project to help visualise its aims or engage people etc. Rather, we think of art as a social practice. Something that human beings have always done: a way of embodying meaning and imagining a different world. Of course, as art there’s always a ‘fictive’ quality. Is Dundee really an Orchard City? Or is it a place with high unemployment, intergenerational poverty, and a lack of vision — social, environmental and economic? Perhaps the art in Dundee Urban Orchard allows us to play with this discrepancy. Hence my earlier statement about call and response rather than mere need. Art responds to a deeper calling, a deeper need. We don’t need the Orchard City — as if it were a brand — but we do need food sustainability and a more vibrant sense of social purpose and social life. And you can’t have these things without changing our current story. Hence the Orchard City print works, dance, storytelling, and dragons. They all tell a story which is different to global capitalism. They perform and project a more vibrant, sustainable and creative life.

You can follow DUO on Facebook or visit their website at https://dundeeurbanorchard.net/.