Interview with Katy Connor
Katy Connor, recipient of a WEVAA R&D Bursary, reflects on the development of her project HydroPoetics, in conversation with Lucy Badrocke from VASW
Perhaps we could start by talking a little about your practice as an artist.
Yes, thank you. My recent practice has been focused on working with hydroponics, which is a technology and process of growing plants in a system without soil. It’s a technique that's used in a lot of industrial forms of agriculture, and I’m interested in working with the technology and reimagining and repurposing it in an artistic way.
It's really interesting work, it’s been great to learn more about it through the bursary. How did you start working with this technology?
I've always been really interested in this threshold between biology, technology, and embodiment. I was lucky to have a residency in the Biomedical Research Department of Bristol University just before lockdown, so was able to see first-hand how cellular forms are grown within a very clean controlled environment. I became quite fascinated by this version of nature; the way that it has been manipulated, but also how it is conceptualised.
As an artist, I was also aware of being quite removed from this growing process. I really wanted to think about how I could introduce these elements into my work directly, as I could only work with representations at the University, I couldn't actually handle the materials myself. At the same time, I was spending time at a friend's allotment, which is a very direct way of working with plants as living materials, so quite a contrast. Then I stumbled across hydroponics, which seemed to mesh these interests together really well.
I was able to set up scientific systems within the studio to work directly with living materials. I was interested in what could come out of that dynamic in an artistic context, how it would be to work with seeds (rather than cells) but in a generative relationship. I was very intrigued by the technology, and wanted to unpick some of the potentially negative associations.
During lockdown, I became incredibly aware of people's general proximity to nature and how we access ways of being with living plants. A lot of people re-established relationships with their houseplants, for example, but many people were confined indoors and couldn't necessarily get out or grow their own vegetables. I started thinking about how this might be possible indoors with hydroponics, in a flat for example.
I was also thinking about the climate crisis and the potential for working with systems that use less water. With soil depletion and rising global temperatures, maybe we could think about hydroponics in a different way?
Can you say a bit about the WEVAA bursary, and the activity that you undertook as part of the development process of the work?
Sure. I had initially developed a proof of concept through a grant from Pervasive Media Studios at the Watershed, to see if I was able to set up hydroponic systems in the studio. The WEVAA bursary was an opportunity to think about HydroPoetics in a more expanded way.
Coming to the studio and being surrounded by living plants was quite a different experience, and I had started to appreciate that I was working with living materials with their own agency, their own kind of patterns. I began to make Automatic drawings in response to spending time with the plants and to establish a perceptual relationship with them. This bursary paid for materials and some time to continue to develop the drawings into a body of work.
The funding also enabled me to visit exhibitions and galleries, to see other work that was on a similar theme and meet artists working in the same field. It enabled me to go to STEAMhouse at Birmingham City University, where I took part in a 3D biomaterial printing course which was a really excellent experience.
And finally, I was able to spend some time developing a collaborative relationship with a Senior Lecturer at Bristol University, Dr Franklin Ginn. He's a cultural geographer and very interested in plants in relation to capitalist systems, and how plants are employed within those systems. It’s been interesting having conversations with him and we have developed an academic paper together: Vegetal HydroPoetics: an arts-based practice for plant studies.
And looking back over the last year, what has been the impact of the development period?
I think this period has enabled me to think more expansively about the work. The drawings are an example of that, but I’ve also started to think more broadly around these HydroPoetic systems and materials, to consider how the work could be developed with ceramics, for example. I’ve started to explore and just play a little bit more with materials, to have a sense of experimentation. I'm really happy with the ceramics research, it really seems like a very organic way to move the work forward.
I've really enjoyed seeing some of the ceramics in your studio. You mentioned that you’re developing growing vessels and starting to think more about aesthetics, how the structural systems might be a bit more integral to the work.
Yes, the vessels are an important aspect of HydroPoetics, they're the key container for the nutrient fluid. In most, if not all hydroponic systems, they're plastic and have their own aesthetic which is driven by the technology. I was keen to really play with that and introduce elements that ground the work in a different way. I took part in the Wild Clay course with Phil Root, and part of that was foraging for local clay. I've started to experiment with different clay-based vessels, and also with using the plant materials themselves – leaves and stems from plants that have passed. So thinking about the whole lifecycle of these plants, rather than in traditional hydroponics, which creates a momentum of perpetual growth. I've been making ash glazes from dried plants for these ceramic vessel forms and also introducing incense, as a way to memorialise some of the plants.
Do you have a sense of the next stage for the work, or any public presentations planned?
I’ll be doing some work as part of Open Studios at Spike Island at the end of April; I'm hoping to share some of the new ceramics work, and germinate some more plants and healing herbs related to health and wellbeing, like echinacea.
I'm also potentially going to be working on a community-based project, looking at HydroPoetic systems as community gardens with BRICKS in Bristol. I’m hoping we’ll get funding for that in the summer.
I'm also working with STEAMhouse again, to develop 3D printed ceramics. I’m planning to work with data gained from looking at the plants on a microscopic level, to interpret this for the 3D printed ceramic work.
And you mentioned the relationship with the University, is that something that will continue?
Yes, I’m hoping so. Franklin and I worked together on a research project as part of Building A Martian House at M Shed last summer. Our project, called Growing Liveable Worlds, looked at how to reimagine hydroponics in terms of future ecologies, whether that's on Mars or thinking about soilless systems in the future on Earth. It was a collaboration with the Life Sciences department and PhD students there. I’m now an Honorary Research Associate for the University, so I’m hoping that we’ll be developing some speculative or science fiction futures, and thinking about how plants are part of these material investigations.
And lastly, the aim of the WEVAA programme is to create a more progressive, sustainable and inclusive sector in the South West. Speaking from your own experience, what support for artists do you think is needed towards this.
The thing that comes to mind immediately is further support for artists to collaborate together and to independently show work. More support for artists working together, to get something off the ground? It would also be great if more of the larger organisations could give a little space for people to use.
There are some great galleries and excellent spaces in the South West, like John Hansard Gallery and Spike Island, but they have closely curated programmes. I was fortunate previoulsy to have a development bursary from Exeter Phoenix, who are an excellent supporter for nurturing talent in the region.
Resources are stretched, but there's a lot of desire from artists to show work, whereas opportunities for pop-up activity and artist-led exhibitions are quite limited with the closure of spaces like Motorcade Flashparade, for example. Considering there are so many artists in the South West, it would be great to have more platforms that can represent the talent in the region.
Dr Katy Connor is a visual artist and creative producer. Her interdisciplinary projects explore the rich relationships between embodiment and technologies. With fifteen years experience in developing experimental approaches, she makes work for different media platforms and exhibitions, in addition to devising participatory workshops and socially-engaged activities.
The West of England Visual Arts Alliance (WEVAA) is a three year programme of activity that aims to transform Bristol and the West of England into a place where the visual arts can thrive, providing critical opportunities and support to enable artists, curators and young people to develop their careers and achieve their potential. Find out more here.