Alisa Ruzavina, MA Material Futures student at Central Saint Martins was selected for the AER residency at Waltham Forest.
Set up by Professor Lucy Orta UAL Chair of Art for the Environment - Centre for Sustainable Fashion in 2015, The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) provides UAL graduates with the exceptional opportunity to apply for short residencies at one of our internationally renowned host institutions, to explore concerns that define the 21st century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, and human rights.
Making for Change: Waltham Forest is a partnership project between London College of Fashion (LCF) and London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF). Adopting a design activist approach, the project team engaged, through fashion and making, local schools, businesses and residents in order to develop and retain creative talent in the borough and address issues affecting the community, such as deprived youth, skills shortage, fashion manufacturing decline and unemployment. Read more
Read Alisa's AER Residency Report:
Written by Alisa Ruzavina (MA Material Futures, Central Saint Martins) with photography by Xuan Sinden, Gigi Giannella and Sara Hibbert
Beginnings & Intentions
I live and work in Leyton, so when this residency opened up, I knew that this would be the perfect opportunity to take me further into acting on my deepening longing – to ground my work within my immediate context and to begin the development of a long-term place-based community of practice, where I can learn and co-create together with the local community of both human and more-than human residents. For me, this was the next logical step after spending two years working on creative collaborations with indigenous and grassroot communities in Panama and India. These have been crucial experiences for my growth as a community engaged practitioner, yet the pandemic has made it clear that I would like to prioritise contributing to building a more nature-oriented culture in the context that I inhabit every day.
My hope was that other residents were feeling a similar craving to me - a desire to invest more time in cultivating intimate relationships with their local social and ecological contexts, a longing made more palpable to many due to the confinements of the pandemic. Thus, creating and holding space for the deepening of these connections has become my guiding aim for this residency.
Gathering The Waltham Forest Book of Enchantment
The residency studio, with its large floor to ceiling glass windows, has a direct presence on Leyton High Road, automatically making it a highly conducive location for community engagement. Using this to the advantage of the project, the initial idea was simple - to create a few invocations around ecological and social belonging that might catch the passers-by gaze, with hope that it would then lure them into coming in for a visit, where I would stimulate a conversation with them that would be infused with a bit of making. The idea was to distil key thoughts and dreams from these spontaneous conversations and arrange them on a huge 5m long studio wall, using it as a canvas for building an entangled and interconnected collection of local people’s views and visions. With time these would be translated into the basis for the zine that would be distributed through the area under the name of The Waltham Forest Book of Enchantment: Collective Knowledge & Visions.
Lesson on Space Holding & Boundaries
Spontaneous deep dive conversations with the diverse public turned out to be a real exercise in testing and building my capacity for deep listening. I had to learn the tricky balance between letting go of my own opinions enough for people’s true voices to come through, while also staying alert and adaptive to gently guide conversations in the direction of the residency’s themes of ecological and social belonging. This required me to be constantly checking myself and the place I was coming from – am I imposing and leading or am I opening up space for the emergence of new realisations to arise?
Time was also a significant factor shaping the quality of engagements: some passers-by were too in a rush to get to the layer beneath the quick surface answers; and on the contrary - some visitors would stay for 3-5 hours. Lessons on prioritising self-preservation by defining temporal, relative and functional boundaries of engagement that work for my wellbeing were big learnings here. I was often pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to stretch out my capacity to hold a safe space for people from all walks of life. What container needs to be created to set the right conditions for enabling an ignition of a deep conversation with a stranger about the things that matter most in life? It was a continuous exercise in mutual trust and attunement. I’ve learned that everybody can be my teacher. There are of course religious and cultural barriers that had to be taken into consideration but mostly the disguise of an artist gave me a socially acceptable excuse to connect with the local public rapidly and deeply.
Lesson on Language
How to communicate so that you are heard? How to stimulate complex conversations about the ecological self, Gaia, commoning and interspecies kinship without using the inaccessible key words that are normally used to communicate these? This has been a useful point for self-reflection - even though I consider myself hyperaware of my language when it comes to working in a community setting, there are still so many of my own bubbles of perception that need to be popped, so that the linguistic barriers created by particularities of discourses of the worlds of academia, art, design and eco-philosophy could be broken down and crystalised to be made more accessible. Putting this in practice at the residency was a dance that required constant adjustment and balancing, without dipping into overcomplicating, or the opposite - making the conversation too generic and predictable.
Patching The Textile Mural Map of Local Kinship
In alignment with my conclusions around the felt semantic limitations of such explorations, one of the key areas of research I am interested in is how can the process of making and crafting be looked at as a form of language in its own right that creates physically tangible and trackable forms of conversation. Additionally, I am curious about how making can be a useful companion to the verbal conversations by being used as a way of processing, integrating, and sparking other more embodied ways of thinking and knowing throughout a conversation. I’ve decided to use the residency to further test this, so every visitor who came through the door was invited to leave a patchwork of a place in the area which makes them feel home and that others could visit as well. While visitors would make the patch, they would tell me about this place and whole elaborate stories of connection would suddenly emerge.
These patchworks were then placed onto a 2,5 m tall mural base made in the outline shape of the borough. Being physically engaged in a time-demanding creative process helped the participants to spend time with that place in their mind and to cultivate a deeper inquiry about what exactly does this place symbolise and mean to them.
For the first half of the residency my focus was solely on engaging in 1:1 dialogue and cultivating personal relationships. Gathered individually yet forming into a collective web when put together these discussions started forming an entanglement of diverse but interconnected conversations. A series of workshops were then derived as a response to the areas where most connections overlapped, creating a further expanded space where these could be explored.
Bringing a group of diverse local experts was key to each one of these workshops. The idea was to avoid sharing in the usual way the invited practitioners were used to and to instead stretch and expand both the contributors’ and attendees’ edges of understanding and perception of the topic at hand. Each workshop was guided along with some form of a making activity.
Fabulous & Frugal: Natural Dyeing Exploration & Feast
For this workshop the invited local contributors were: Hannah Lamdin, a local ecologist, natural dyer and forager; chef and illustrator Rebecca Teague; and Stephane Auberval, a volunteer for a food waste-redistributing group Community Fridge. During the workshop we engaged with the process of natural dyeing as a container and metaphor for a more unified and tangible way to explore topics of food and fashion waste, sourcing food and dyes locally and living in tune with the land through building relationships with the local plants.
The workshop started with a meditation expanding participants’ ecological sensoria. We’ve connected to the locally inhabiting plant kingdom and brought their presence into the room to stay with us for the duration of the day. The attendees were then invited to embroider and patch their favourite plant being in Waltham Forest as an activity to drop in and out of for the duration of the workshop. In the first part of our exploration, we discussed ways in which we can live in deeper connection with the local land by exploring the ethics and joys of foraging. As part of this journey we were guided through the natural dyeing process with marigold, all meanwhile sipping on freshly foraged marigold and nettle tea and snacking on marigold-infused cookies.
In the second part of the workshop, we focused on hunting for food waste as an approach to foraging within the urban context, while also bringing in reflections on fashion industry waste and dye toxicity. To guide our conversation, we dyed with onion skins and avocados, while we feasted on onion jam, avocado and zucchini salad and other delicacies – an abundant banquet created with food waste left behind at the end of the market day on Walthamstow High Street.
The sensorial unity of ways through which we simultaneously experienced the plants – the tactile act of dyeing and stitching, the bright visuals of dyed colours and taste via the enriching flavours of the feast, along with using imagination for the meditation - created a truly holistic and wholesome plant-centred experience. The similarities of issues around fashion and food were brought together in a creative way in a space where we could reflect on the malfunctionings of the bigger systems that cause the creation of waste within both industries as well as discuss alternative ways of engaging with local resources that are more poetic, caring and prioritize relationship building.
Cultivating Eden: Conversations on Growing and Caring for Ourselves and Our Urban Green
This workshop idea came from conversations with the local resident Serdar, who shared with me his dream to create a naturopathic hospital with a garden where community could harvest their medicine. Unknown to Serdar, this dream is already being brought to life by a group of volunteers and herbalists, just a street away from his home. As a result, I’ve invited Izzy, a co-founder and grower of this Community Apothecary to give us a tour of the space and share her plant knowledge. We were also joined by Maria of Marsh and Moor ,a natural dye forager and weaver working with regenerative agriculture farms , who brought in her beautiful fibre art and shared a profound insight on how engaging with land-based crafts is an intimate embodied form of earth care. Rebecca of Baba’s Veda, a therapist and yoga teacher, joined us with wellness insights and ayurvedic knowledge, while Neesha, a local art practitioner, brought her experience of creating local participatory art projects as safe havens for providing mental support to the community.
The idea for the workshop was to explore care and growing on personal and ecological levels, highlighting this often-invisible link of interconnectedness between caring for ourselves and caring for our environment and how creativity and craft can be of assistance to that connection. We kicked off the session with a touching sharing on what was the last self-caring thing each one of us has done for ourselves, and afterwards - for the ecological world around us. After that the participants were invited to create a patchwork of the place where they feel safe and cared for by the urban nature, meanwhile sharing in small groups.
Naturally dyed fabrics created at the Fabulous & Frugal workshop were incorporated into each patch. Afterwards, we set off to visit the garden, where we delved deeper in discussion around plants, their healing powers and different global and ancient modalities and approaches to health. We shared herbal recipes for wellbeing, gardening tips and strategized local possibilities and plans for more self-sufficient community healthcare.
Streets of Belonging: Guided Walk Exploring Urban Nature & Local Stories
This workshop explored the streets simultaneously from a social history and ecological perspective, fusing together human and more-than human worlds, with hope to bring more magic and meaning onto the highly industrialized streets, while training our eyes to see nature in every crack.
We were joined by Izzy from Rights for Weeds - a forager and forest school teacher who guided us to local plant allies and shared their stories. Matt of Doodling Around, a community illustrator, guerrilla gardener and National Park City ranger, helped us to connect to the urban landscapes and plants through encouraging us to sketch them. Local resident Amjad shared with us his DIY approach to urban farming and guided us through his street, with a stop at his front yard for a peak at his chicken coop. Another local resident Mike welcomed us into his heritage home of Bakers Almshouses, where we were guided through the local history. The stops for the walk were composed with the guidance from historians Claire Weiss and David Boote of the local Historical Society.
The workshop started with a mapping exercise, where we marked places of joy and happiness onto the map of Waltham Forest. We then shared around a circle what is it we most love about the local area and what is it we would most love to change – with participants having heaps of creative ideas about what improvements could be brought into this area. Together with Matt we then made origami notebooks to take with us on our walk where Izzy pointed to and shared stories of the local hidden urban ecologies, while residents shared with us local social stories of belonging.
I am humbled by the multiple layers of exploration and conversation the workshops grew to hold. So many links were made, so many numbers exchanged, friendships ignited, interests shared, places and nature kin re-remembered and discovered. I can proudly say that I feel the residency did live up to its ambitious name of “Re-Enchanting Waltham Forest” – the experience brought in the sense of openness, wonder, play, possibility, and emergence to the forefront of each conversation and exchange.
It wasn’t an easy happening to organise as I had to serve as a curator, facilitator, space holder, promoter, manager, administrator, and artist while at the same time staying open to the public for walk-in conversations. This has taught me a lot about time management, specifically about taming my ambition and vision to the proportion of what is actually possible in the time provided.
I am most pleased about the rare diversity of participants that joined the workshops, coming from all walks of life, age groups and religions, truthfully representing the cultural richness of the local area and the power of ecological conversations to unite across differences. I believe this has also been the case due to my hyperlocal promotion strategies which involved reaching out to a wide range of grassroot networks, communities, and groups.
I’ve learnt a lot while working with such diverse gatherings - how to feel into the dynamics of each constellation, learning to adjust the program flow on the spot. This has demonstrated to me that there is an absolute necessity for holding enough openness to let go of the plan so that we could be more present to what is uniquely emerging from the group itself. As Taj James shares in Emergent Strategy : “There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it”.
This experience has helped me to understand that creating and holding these spaces of emergence and sharing is where I get most of my joy and energy from. This opportunity has provided me with the hyperlocal context to develop methods, approaches and style with which to bring facilitation even more deeply into my practice.
The best part of course is the response from the workshop participants themselves. There was an overall sense of openness and possibility, along with the genuine yearning and eagerness to continue having these creative multidisciplinary conversations around ecology and localism, so it’s clear to me that the project does not simply end here. I am therefore planning to be continuing these explorations in a form of a monthly book & craft club where varied forms of crafts, shared and taught by diverse local talents, will be used as methods to explore and comprehend ecological topics that are of significance to the local community.
I am most grateful for this residency for providing me a reason to dive into exploration of the vast local network of creatives, volunteers and support groups, which resulted in me introducing myself to a wide spectrum of local talent and community in a very condensed period of time. Even if not all collaborations could be included into the residency, I now know I have dozens of exciting local projects, individuals and organisations I am looking forward to co-creating with in the future.
More about the AER Residency
The Art for the Environment Residency Programme (AER) provides UAL graduates with the opportunity to apply for a 2 to 4 week fully funded residency at one of our internationally renowned host institutions, to explore concerns that define the 21st century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy and human rights.
Founded in 2015, internationally acclaimed artist Professor Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art for the Environment – Centre for Sustainable Fashion, launched the programme in partnership with international residency programmes and UAL Post-Grad Community.