Anna Chrystal Stephens’ practice can be understood as an exploration of sustainable living strategies in both rural and urban locations. Specifically, an examination of the tension between survival and leisure as illustrated through popular holiday activities such as camping and canal boating. On the one hand, these nature-based activities can be seen as performances of ancient skills and knowledge, while on the other, they are a way for people to escape from the highly prescribed spaces of a city. Camping, especially, is a way into complex themes such as a yearning for a connection to the earth, nomadic living, economies of choice, the housing crisis, displaced migrant communities and sites of protest. Historically used for carrying goods on the narrow canals, the contemporary canal boat is emblematic of both low-cost housing and leisure cruising. Situated within the British waterways, these spaces of off-grid living simultaneously meander through the rural and the urban. Following her fixation with DIY manuals and knowledge exchange, Stephens actively equips herself with the basic skills necessary to survive within different living situations. She has previously resided in squats, industrial buildings and on a canal boat.
Stephens brings the complexities of inhabiting these land and waterscapes into the gallery through a series of sculptures and photographic images. The larger-than-life, many-pocketed, tent-like Utility Cloak contains kit objects and camping hacks, from fantasy survival gadgets to fire starting implements. Fabricated with nylon tent material, Stephens presents a piece of clothing that explores the viability of nomadic living practices and poses the question: “Why and when did homo sapiens decide it was no longer possible to carry everything needed for living?”
Inspired by boaters’ ingenuity, retro tent design and green houses, the towable floating structure provides the narrowboater with additional space to grow food and medicinal plants. A large-scale mural covers one wall and on another is an index of images capturing the many types of canal boat covers, ranging from the makeshift to the highly technical. Also included is documentation of Stern Hood, a previous work by Stephens. Referencing 1970s canvas tents this multicoloured device – designed to keep water out of one’s boat and extend cramped living quarters – comes complete with changeable curtains displaying seasonal edible plants. To fabricate Stern Hood, Stephens’ worked with a professional narrow boat hood-maker, extending her commitment to skill sharing and collaboration. The photographic elements bring canal and DIY living into the gallery and speak to the tension between the basic necessity of staying dry and warm and the human desire to decorate and domesticate nature. Extending knowledge sharing and skill building beyond the gallery is an interactive didactic panel presented on the façade of the building instructing passers-by on how to tie various knots.
The exhibition, Anorak, is made in reaction to anxiety about environmental crisis and puts forward that learning survival skills and DIY processes can be an empowering step to gaining a greater understanding and respect of the natural world, thus creating movement towards sustainable solutions.
Text: Persilia Caton
Photo: Tim Bowditch
Anorak was originally commissioned by SPACE, and exhibited at Mare St, London from January-March 2019
See a review of the work by Caroline Douglas here.