Artist Ruth Ewan talks to Maeve Polkinhorn about her three year project 'Another Time' which will be launched at North West Cambridge Development on June 28 2016
Another Time is a meadow and test-bed which transforms a disused field next to Gravel Hill Farm workers' cottages into a non-mechanical clock. The plant species have been carefully selected for their predictable flower opening and closing times - an idea first hypothesised by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in his book Philosophia Botanica, 1751.
The project aims to explore pre-industrial alternative perceptions of time in relation to our current pressurised experience of time in the 21st century. This consideration of time has come about through researching past and present rhythms of the North West Cambridge Development site and those who live and work in and around it. Linneaus was also a major influence on Darwin who has a strong connection to the area. The project has involved discussion with a core group of advisors from the local area including Jo Cobb, gardener at Murray Edwards College, gardener Sophy Millington and Roy Vickery, botanist and plantlore expert. Local residents, school children and gardening enthusiasts have also contributed to the planting.
Plantlorist Roy Vickery visits Gravel Hill Farm, October 2016
Can you tell us a bit about how 'Another Time' has evolved through your residency at North West Cambridge Development?
I came to the residency with an open sense of what might happen. It excited me that there was land and space in which to create work and I enjoyed seeing the previous artists projects, some of which there are still traces of. There have been a few key people within the University community who helped shape my thinking about Another Time, and whose work I've found interesting, Jo Cobb who has created a remarkable garden at Murray Edwards College was a key person early on. I visited there and saw Emma Darwin's beautiful timber framed greenhouse and Jo spoke of how she has spent 15 years perfecting how to make roses climb up concrete – her response to the brutalist architecture of the college, a magnificent maximalist garden. Linneaus' idea of the flower clock was in the back of my mind but it wasn't until a discussion with a librarian at The Linnean Society of London that I realised the form the work could take.
Emma Darwin's Greenhouse, Ruth Ewan 2015
Roses on concrete at Murray Edwards College, Ruth Ewan 2015
How does this project relate to your previous works?
Most, if not all of my works connect to ideas of rhythm, control and alternative systems of thinking. The forms projects take are very varied but there are obvious patterns in the way I work, long in-depth research processes, planning, inviting collaboration and often an element of print or writing. Another Time can be traced back to earlier works such as Anti-Bell which saw the melting of a church bell and We Could Have Been Anything We Wanted to Be which involved the creation and dispersal of ten metric clocks. So ideas of alternative time telling and the broadcast of time, time as a devised public system is something I've been thinking about. In the back of my mind there was also the idea of challenging what is expected of an artist who is invited to make work for a new city development. A public clock, which now seems itself like an anachronistic thing was something I was keen to play with the notion of. I've worked with plants within very controlled environments before, with crops of Paul Robeson tomatoes and with hundreds of species in Back to the Fields.
We Could Have Been Anything We Wanted To Be, Ruth Ewan 2010, photo by Thierry Bal
Back to the Fields, Camden Arts Centre, Ruth Ewan 2015, photo by Hydar Dewachi
Them That Plants Them is Soon Forgotten, Ruth Ewan 2010
You unearthed some interesting stories and connections in your research into the history of the site at Gravel Hill Farm, can give us an outline of what you discovered and how this fed into the development of the project?
There are two official narratives here on the site, the deeper historical narrative as outlined through the archeological report and the future narrative as outlined through the North West Cambridge Development team. So there is a long view back and a blue print forward, but unusually it is the recent past, the last century of the site which is almost unseen and in many ways it is fascinating, and a site of incredible thinking and findings. As an outsider, farming isn't something I would associate with Cambridge University but the farm itself has been the site of hugely important research such as evolutionary theory through Michael Majerus' entomological field station and studies with the black peppered moth and the invasive harlequin ladybird. I met with the agronomist, David Firman, who shared a lot of the farm's history from the first artificially inseminated cattle to the development of virus-free potatoes. He told me about me about an incredible book called The History and Social Influence of the Potato written by Redcliffe N. Salaman who founded the Potato Virus Institute at Cambridge.
Potatoes at Gravel Hill Farm, Ruth Ewan 2015
I liked the idea that a project could link into this sense of experimentation and also the 'citizen science' model which Dr Ottavio Croze introduced me to, which was the technique used by Majerus with the ladybird research, by which members of the public are invited to make observations and submit their findings en masse. David also mentioned the farm workers to me, someone who had lived in the cottage for years, a very tall man who was always called upon to pull large weeds from the ground. His image stayed with me and the farm workers before him, with the idea that the farm labourers, as Ruth Potts mentions in her essay, would tell the time in the field by observing the plant 'jack-go-to-bed-at-noon'. I'd seen a docky bag in Cambridge Folk Museum and how it was called that because the workers would have their wages docked if they took a lunch break.
Docky Bag and Can, Museum of Cambridge 2015
How have local residents and community members been involved in the project so far?
The meadow itself had to be stripped of its most fertile soil mechanically then a large group of local residents came along to help manually clear the field of rubble. The group then helped to broadcast the seed, approximately 5.5 million seeds in total were sown direct with more planted separately as plugs. I've also worked with two year 2 classes at Mayfield Primary School to sow plugs and then to create 'seed bombs' which were thrown onto the meadow.
Will you record how the meadow changes over the course of the three years?
Yes we will be monitoring the meadow and we are inviting visitors to record their observations of what's growing as well as opening and closing times via the 'field notes' section of the project pamphlet. Mayfield School will also be back to check on how their flowers are getting on.
Making time/ seed bombs with Mayfield Primary School, May 2016
Both texts by Ruth Potts and Dr Marquard Smith in your publication for the project, speak of 'Another Time' being a means of escape from the tyranny of the clock, from the regimented and unrelenting precision of clock time. Do you see that as an important aspect of the work?
Yes absolutely I think that phrase has been in my head since Marq invited me to be included in the exhibition 'How to Construct a Time Machine' at MK Gallery last year and he referenced the Crary quote. This sense of clock tyranny is something hugely present onsite as the development are so hard up against the pressure of deadlines. One of the workers there told me even if she stayed up all night she would not be able to finish the work she had to do. I wanted to disconnect from the office clock / 'time is money' idea and think about the longer view of the site. The non-mechanical aspect is important, it's a clock that doesn't have to be set. It's independent and it will do it's own thing. And that's why I have been so drawn to it.
Another Time by Ruth Ewan is commissioned by the University of Cambridge North West Cambridge Development through the Habitation Artist in Residency Programme managed by the Contemporary Art Society and InSite Arts with support from Arts Council England.
Ruth Ewan will be discussing the project with Dr Marquard Smith at a bookable free event on 28 June.