The Future of flooding in Somerset Levels and Moors. Group updates.

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.​

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Barney Dobson, Ioanna Stamataki, Ludovica Beltrame and Seila Fernández Arconada

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Testing Times

The work is continuing to gather pace as the exhibition approaches. We are all working furiously to test our ideas and make sure everything is ready for the show.

My initial concerns regarding how the collaboration would work due the constraints of physical distance have been allayed as the group have fitted into a regular exchange of information and ideas via email. However, this exchange of information led to me being provided with numerous interviews and recordings regarding the flooding, which I have spent the last few days going through to finalise our sound installation. It seems to me that there are many conflicting views over the management of the levels and I seem to struggle to find a definitive answer to the question of dredging, something I intend to question the rest of the group over. I will let you know their thoughts.

I have attached a small sample of the sound piece below so you can get a feel of the work

  

Andrea Oke

Visiting Moorland

Our group were extremely lucky to be invited to Moorland to talk to Janet Winslade and her son James about the effect that the flooding had upon their lives. Janet has lived in her home for 50 years and in that time has never had her home flooded which meant that the events of the last 12 months have been extremely difficult for her and her family.

I have spoken to Janet about her experiences before but it is always the details that surprise me. In my experience it has taught me that many of us make conclusions about what must have happened but in reality we really have not idea of the reality of the flooding or what challenges still face the communities. I was hoping that the meeting would have the same effect on the rest of group and I was really pleased to see that the encounter left all of us with a far deeper understanding.

Looking at the repairs to the River Parrett

When writing of his experience after the visit Laurence said ‘from the field visit, it was immediately apparent that flooding was not an obvious threat. When we were shown the levels that the floods reached, I was astounded. The episode has profoundly shaped the family and has triggered them into becoming experts about the flood hazard and the current wrangling to mitigate them. The community spirit that this event has fostered was evident with several young farmers still helping to clear the debris. Hopefully this response will help alleviate the risk in the future, yet one could argue why this could not have happened before the event. Janet’s strength of personality and resilience in lieu of the devastation to her house and personal history was inspiring. This event has shaped the Winslade’s and the local community for the foreseeable future.’

Some of the damage still remains from the floods

I think the experience is also helping to shape the work. Josie is still working tirelessly on her illustrations but her latest drawing, which is shown below, really demonstrates the effect that, hearing first hand, how the flooding affected the community has on the work. You will see Josie’s uses many of the facts we heard. Janet told us that the water came across the land from the west and high winds resulted in damage to the buildings, which is referenced on the right of the drawing. James telling us that the insurance companies disputed whether flooding or storms, referenced on the top left, of the illustration, caused the damage also fascinated us. Each time I look at Josie’s work I can see more and more of Janet and James’ story.

Moorland sketch

Post written by Andrea Oke, Josie Ashe and Laurence Hawker.

Recent flooding, process updates.

“THIS PROJECT HAS HELPED ME REALISE THAT YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE SCIENCE AS WELL AS BEING A GOOD SCIENTIST” (Olivia Cooke)

On 2nd March 2015 Deborah Westmancoat took the two of the students working with recent flooding to the Willows and Wetland Centre in Stoke St Gregory. The aim was to learn more about how this particular area was affected and to make some site responsive artworks using materials collected from the area. Despite the chilly winds, Olivia Cooke and Dave Glover threw themselves into the project with great energy and interest, starting with a useful conversation with Nicola, one of the staff at the Centre, about how the floods were perceived locally and how the surrounding land had been affected. They also discussed ways of potential land management, including the planting of Willow. The Centre kindly donated some materials for the students to use in our artworks. We found out that art keeps the Centre going – artists charcoal made from their Willow beds being their most significant export!

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The centre kindly allowed us the use of an outdoor classroom overlooking The Levels for the day. As soon as we had moved our kit onto site we started collecting materials from the ground, withy sticks and water from the River Tone to use in the works. Nobody fell into the river…but it was a close call at one point! After some initial discussion and trials our art started to take shape. Following on from ideas initially presented by fellow student, James Webber, we manipulated our gathered materials on the paper sheets we were working on to represent various flooding scenarios. We added writing ink to the collected waters, and this was rained or tidally flooded into the various topographic elements to ‘write’ the story of how water reacts in different situations. We all agreed that the finished pieces are very striking, and were interested to see just how well the ink/water images represented the different hydrological scenarios so well.

The making of the work led to some interesting observations and discussion between the group. Olivia Cooke felt that the project made clear to her that “…you have to be able to communicate science as well as being a good scientist”.

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Dave Glover said that seeing the works made helped to reinforce that “…you can’t apply the same solution to the same problem in every area. You need careful land management in the Somerset Levels.”

Later, reflecting on our day of making flood art in the landscape, Dave wrote:

“It was great to get out from behind the computer screen and to actively model some ‘flood scenarios’. Some of these ‘flood scenarios’ were interesting to compare; the chromatography showed where the water ‘pooled’. If you have ever watched how water runs down a window; you will have seen how droplets will merge or follow similar paths. This was something that was visible today in the artwork which you would not necessarily see that detail in a computer model. One important aspect to note is the speed at which these observations take place; in a river channel erosion may take place over days or even months. However the process of creating these models allowed us to appreciate these processes in minutes. It was a very useful teaching tool which is a fair reflection of the purpose of the project; to communicate science visually. After talking to Nicola (one of the staff members at the Centre) it left me with the impression that there will not be a concurrent solution, such as dredging. She stated that although the last years flood actually damaged very little Willow, it did prevent its harvesting which was a problem specific to themselves. Obviously this links back into the discussion of better land use management. Do we flood a small town or do we flood an area of willow and compensate the owners?”

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The Future of flooding in the Somerset Levels and Moors

During our last meeting, which took place in Exeter last week, we looked into one of the two projects we are developing more in detail responding to the the Future of flooding in the Somerset Levels and Moors.

The ideas started from thoughts around, how do we communicate to the future? how do we communicate to the present to shape the future? Dealing with the unknown future, specially connected to climate is a difficult approach to deal with, therefore we decided to look for ways to engage with the public in a more genuine way by transforming our research into a final piece including all those thoughts adding some sense of humour.

Having discussed within our group about possible ways to connect with people, we realised that with this specific project we aim at generating a discussion from having something simple in your hands you can touch, you can explore, you can assemble by yourself, you can use, you can play with: something that allows you to be actively involved as opposed to standing still in front of something.

We also discussed about materials: we will use materials that are either natural or recycled as much as possible, to source them from Somerset as much as we can, to set a stronger connection with the area, its landscape and its history.

The process of thinking about both techniques to realise our idea and materials to use is challenging, as some techniques are new to us and we haven’t been working with some of the materials we are looking at before. The whole process requires research and experimentation and it’s fun exploring new methods together and learning by doing.

It is interesting to see how this challenge is making us more creative. The group conversations we have are very imaginative and interesting, especially considering the broad scope we have by being four participants but all coming from different countries.

The next step will be collecting the items we need, and assemble everything to make our idea come true!

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This group formed with the artist Seila Fernandez Arconada and the PHD students Barney Dobson, Ioanna Stamataki and Ludovica Beltrame.

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Somerset Levels in the journey to Exeter.

Societal response to flooding in Somerset

At our first meeting in December I was very pleased to meet with the other members of my group. I have to admit to feeling extremely excited by the group’s ideas surrounding the Societal Response to the Floods, as this fits in so well with the research I did for my project on the Somerset Levels and Moors. (https://sawcreativepathways.wordpress.com/category/andrea-oke/) However, I was also a little intimidated by the amount of knowledge contained within one room!

An excellent starting point for our project was provided by Josie Ashe, who had completed a drawing of the of the area, which we felt was a very accessible starting point for getting the public to engage with our project. This initial focus combined with the work that group had already completed, prior to meeting me, led us to formulate a strategy for the exhibition. We intend to draw together a number of themes running throughout the Land of the Summer People project which aim to provide a space which informs and encourages dialog on the connectivity of the landscape (social and hydrological), drivers for change, and our response to recent and historic flooding.

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I will be utilizing some of my interviews from those effected by the flooding as a way of provoking a response from our audience and have included a sample which can be heard here (https://soundcloud.com/memoryarchive/flooding-on-the-moors)

In terms of putting this project into practice, I feel there may be challenges regarding our differing approach to the subject. My working process is always quite fluid, in short there can be no way of predicting what the people I interview will want to talk about or what my research will uncover. I always try to keep an open mind and never form a final idea of my ‘finished piece’ until the research period is finished, I welcome change and find that my best work comes out of uncertainty. However, I cannot imagine that this is a strategy adopted my many engineers, and I am imagining theirs will be a far more logical process.

So what am I getting from this collaboration? I have asked my group to join me in Moorland where we can experience first hand the social effects of the floods. I feel very comfortable in this environment. I am more than familiar with the people I interview and the places they live. I know their feelings regarding the dredging and the flood defences but I wonder whether these interviews may have left me with a slightly biased view? Furthermore, perhaps I exercise more control over my work than I would care to admit. It has occurred to me that I respond to people’s feelings and thoughts without any need for fact or scientific verification; I have no need to be factual. Therefore I need to commit to the collaborative process by engaging with the ‘science’ surrounding our topic and allow the rest of my group to educate me, a challenge which will push the boundaries of my processes but it is what influence I may have over their methodology which I feel may be our biggest challenge.

Andrea Oke

Recent flooding in the Somerset Levels (2013-14)

On a spectacularly rainy Friday 13th February a second collaborative meeting was held at The Innovation Centre at Exeter University between the artist and PhD students who have chosen to work with the subject of Recent Flooding in the Somerset Levels. Deborah Westmancoat met with Olivia Cooke, James Webber and Dave Glover to share tea, research and ideas on how to best implement their proposal and visually communicate the results at the presentation planned for the middle of March 2015. Everyone had lots of suggestions to bring to the table and all agreed it ended up being a really productive morning.

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The team have agreed to meet up at the beginning of March for a collective visit to a floodplain and spend a day making site responsive work using materials and elements found within the landscape. James is particularly drawn to understanding flood resiliance and the effect that has on local communities. Olivia has a strong interest in monitoring the spread of disease following flood events, and Dave’s future work is likely to focus on the use of computer modelling of coast and estuary environments using multiple algorithms. The team look forward to discovering the value of being physically part of the landscape they have been studying, and are interested in how that experience might impact on their understanding of their own particular fields of enquiry. The team is also interested in the value of play, and discussed how site responsive, ‘purposeless creativity’ could open possibilities for a deeper or more intuitive understanding of the nature and characteristics of the Somerset Levels and Moors and issues surrounding floodplain management.