October 14, 2020

RE:seeding, in correspondence by Jade Montserrat: An interview with Helen Moore

Still image from Re:Seeding, In Correspondence

Image credits: Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis

Commissioned by performingborders, East Street Arts and Counterpoints Arts for performingbordersLIVE20, RE:seeding, in correspondence by Jade Montserrat in collaboration with Webb-Ellis will be launched on 23 October. It is supported by Live Art Development Agency, with funding from Arts Council England. 

performingbordersLIVE20 curators Alessandra Cianetti and Xavier de Sousa asked Helen Moore about the involvement of Leeds-based East Street Arts in the residency.

Alessandra Cianetti and Xavier de Sousa: Helen, as the East Street Arts engagement and project manager for Jade Montserrat’s residency as part of performingbordersLIVE20, you have been taking on board the challenge of transforming a site-specific artist residency with the local community of migrants and asylum seekers, into a ‘socially distanced’ one. Can you tell us more about how Jade Montserrat’s residency has developed from May to August 2020 and how did you facilitate her contact with the local community in the midst of a pandemic?

Helen Moore: Jade’s residency started with some general conversations on themes and ideas that she was interested in exploring, and how these might connect with our neighbourhood. As an artist Jade is inspired by the world around her, and in the current ever changing world of a pandemic it soon became clear that it was important to examine topics of ownership, land, our connection to the earth and growth. 

Using these themes we were able to look at how we might connect to the neighbourhood. Introductions were then made to MAFWA Theatre who work with sanctuary seekers and a meeting was held online to discuss possible ways of Jade’s residency working in the neighbourhood.

Jade was keen to try an online workshop with some people from the community as part of the residency on line, drawing, sanctuary, growth and connectivity to the earth using charcoal (locally sourced). Providing packs with resources in advance. MAFWA Theatre were happy to invite their members to take part in this as it would continue on from the emergency packages they were distributing which would be coming to an end, and also they were about to trial online workshops. 

Following this discussions were held on what the packs should contain and how they should be distributed. MAFWA were able to distribute the packs and recruit members for the workshop, and we ensured that each participant had enough data to take part. Jade was keen that ‘the packs contain materials for growth and drawing, and are delivered to the community as an act of creativity, care and love.’ The contents included seeds, compost, containers, charcoal, sketchbook and a beautifully illustrated invitation to the workshop. It was felt that growing something communally in the neighbourhood – nurturing something and rooting us together was important.

I was invited to attend a picnic with MAFWA theatre members in the neighbourhood just before the workshop which enabled introductions to be made in person before meeting online, establishing the foundations for a new relationship. 

Seven people attended the workshop, there were some technical issues which proved problematic but it was fun, comical, chaotic, meaningful, beautiful and warm. The participants were from India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and the UK. Some of the participants struggled with the digital side of things but all of them had planted their seeds and were excited to see if they would grow. Everyone took part in the drawing activity. 

“It was good when everyone else was doing activities in the boxes and I could see what everyone was drawing. I found planting the seeds relaxing.” MAFWA participant 

It has certainly been more challenging to facilitate contact with communities during the midst of a pandemic, and digital access / online communications can be difficult for lots of people, especially people seeking sanctuary. Nothing replaces being together in a physical space. However, it helped that there was already a relationship between MAFWA and East Street Arts to further build upon, and that I could act as a conduit between Jade and the community helping to facilitate possible connections on both sides. Interestingly I also think there is a collective appetite from artists, organisations and communities to support each other that has been born from the pandemic, and that is truly wonderful. 

Jade’s residency for me highlighted the importance of connection amongst the chaos of Covid, and how even though emergency supplies of food are the essentials at this time, we must not lose sight of our emotional and human need to connect and talk with others, to do and to create. 

AC & XS: East Street Arts has a long history of engaging with the communities where it is situated and we wonder, what did you learn from this experience that you think you’ll bring to the future? 

Being fairly new to East Street Arts (started March 2020) I am still getting to know the neighbourhood in which it is based, it is a fascinating location being on the edge of the city centre as well as an interesting and diverse residential place – it has been amazing to learn that over 70 languages are spoken here! At East Street Arts we are really committed to supporting the neighbourhood and are currently working on one of one of our biggest projects to date – the first ever artist-led Neighbourhood Plan!

I think what I have learnt from this residency is how we are in the unique position of connecting up artists with the community, and enabling interactions and experiences that people may not normally get to access. Finding commonality, connection and a shared visual language between people whose paths would not usually cross fascinates me – and it is a privilege to be able to facilitate it. Jade’s residency did just that – it brought people together through growing and drawing, and I would like to continue to make more direct connections between artists on residency and our local community going forward. 

AC & XS: During this residency, which is so focused on connectivity and the land, you worked with Yorkshire based communities of working class and migrant/asylum seeker citizens. How does that experience of connection to the land and its people reflect the work you are doing at East Street Arts?

HM: Our connection to the land and each other are very interesting topics – and never a more relevant time to explore it than during a pandemic! I think within the context of the residency it was interesting as people were restricted in their homes and as a result had started doing more things like gardening or growing seeds on window sills and balconies and as a result got people thinking more about land and food and growth. Connecting with people has also become more and more important in these times – how do we still connect when we can’t meet people? How do we use and share the earth we are now restricted by? How do people who have uprooted from their homes and re-rooted in a new space find their place within it. 

At East Street Arts connection to land is a massive part of our work on the neighbourhood plan – we are exploring what a place means to its residents, and how it can be improved. 

AC & XS: Jade’s residency has concluded with a new commission for a performance to camera that she developed with filmmakers Webb-Ellis, RE:seeding, in correspondence. After having followed Jade’s residency closely, and having seen the performance to camera she created – with all your insight knowledge – can you tell us what was your first reaction to this art piece? (Please no spoilers!)

HM: I think it’s a fantastic piece! Jade has a very distinctive style to her work and I found it a meditative experience to watch. I see the process of the residency reflected in the final performance and the themes of growth and connectivity explored in quite thought-provoking ways. I really enjoyed working with Jade and I’m looking forward to the launch event!

Helen Moore studied Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and has worked in community engagement and public programming in the Arts and Heritage sector for the last 15 years.  Starting out at South Asian Arts-uk in Leeds, Helen then went on to work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, York Minster and The Piece Hall in Halifax, before joining East Street Arts as Engagement Lead earlier this year. Her passion lies with people and connecting them to new and unique experiences through creativity and heritage. Helen is committed to bringing about change and equity and was a national trustee for City of Sanctuary for 2 years.