The performance took place in Taunton on Tuesday 17th of March 2015. It was a sunny day and it was great to be out of the office engaging with the local community in Somerset. We met in the city centre and had two boxes filled up with our flood kits ready for the performance. The plan was to give them away to people while engaging conversations with them about the floods and their experiences.
At first, it was exciting and maybe a bit intimidating at the same time: how to approach people walking on the street? Will people be prepared to talk to a few strangers about flooding? What will they expect? What will they tell us? However, very soon we felt much more comfortable and giving our kits not only provided us with the chance to talk about our project, but also opened the opportunity for establishing deeper connections with the people, sharing stories and memories about floods in Somerset.
One of the people we met was a middle aged guy. When we told him we wanted to talk about flooding he seemed sceptical. However, the lady next to him very excited told us he was actually the perfect person to talk to, as he had been working at the Environment Agency for over 40 years and as part of his work he had been involved with the Somerset flooding. What were the chances? We started talking about the flat landscape of Somerset, making it so prone to flooding, and the map we had included in the kit became a useful tool to discuss about the topography of the region and the most critical areas. He opened the kit in front of us examining each object and asking us further questions. At the end of our chat he told us ‘You made my day!’ which was a very amazing response for us.
Another interesting conversation was that with two ladies who had not experienced flooding personally, but who helped us realise once more how flooding is significantly present in everyone’s memories, having shaped the history of the whole community. They explained how the last year’s event came as a surprise to several people as there hadn’t been extreme floods in the last years and people were not prepared. We also talked about flooding being always present in the history of Somerset. It was interesting to hear the story of a church on the Levels which has hooks outside its entrance that were used in the past to moor the boats!
A lot of people seemed scared to talk to us and many did not have time to stop and chat but overall, the people we met appeared keen on participating in the conversation and their responses varied but were mostly very positive. We were happy when, talking with two girls in their 20s, they seemed interested with the overall project and told us that as their houses had never flooded, they would pass on our kit to friends of theirs who had actually experienced flooding.
After we had distributed all of our kits, we were left behind with a willow cutting that someone did not know where to plant. On our walk back to the train station we saw a small corner flower shop and we immediately walked in. After explaining the project and talking with the florist about the floods we immediately realised that we had found the perfect person for our left over willow. She explained to us that her and her son grow willow in Taunton and make real size animals out of willow.
Studying the physical processes of flooding and the topography of the area does not make you aware of the effects of flooding at the local communities or of their experiences. We were surprised realising that most of the people we met and talk to, had actually experienced flooding (either recently or in the past) or knew someone who had experienced it. It was very interesting engaging and listen to their stories. For us, engineers, trying to find an alternative way to talk to people about flooding and actually understand realities that data cannot teach us was interesting but also challenging at times. Using our flood kits as a communication item turned out to be a nice way of generating interesting discussions and stepping forward in understanding the reality of flooding and the challenges the communities have to cope with.
Barney Dobson, Ioanna Stamataki, Ludovica Beltrame and Seila Fernández Arconada