Radio Ballads

In a new show at Serpentine, four artists reveal a three-year collaboration with social workers, carers, organisers and communities to share impactful stories of labour and care

Rory Pilgrim, _RAFTS_, Barking and Dagenham Youth Dance, Production Still, 2021. Photo: Matthew Ritson.

“What keeps us connected? What do we need to repair? How do we listen and how do we hold each other?” This questions are posed by Amal Khalaf, curator and artist who’s currently director of programmes at Cubitt and civic curator at the Serpentine Galleries. Exploring stories about labour and care – plus the important act of how we care – Amal alongside the wider gallery team have embedded these questions into a new exhibition named Radio Ballads, currently on show at Serpentine and running until 29 May 2022. The show is also simultaneously running across the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham from 2-17 April, headed by the council’s New Town Culture programme. 

Over three years, artists Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, Rory Pilgrim and Ilona Sagar were asked to collaborate with social workers, carers, communities and organisers. Radio Ballads is the culmination of this and features long-term projects spanning film, drawing, mixed-media, song and music. It’s an impactful exhibition that shares experiences with mental health, domestic abuse, terminal illness, grief and end of life care. It’s also created in response to 12 years of austerity and the demise of the UK care sector – from privatisation and immigration policies to racism and lack of access to services. All of which is conceived through the voices of social care workers and those giving or receiving care. 

Radio Ballads, Installation view, 31 March – 29 May 2022, Serpentine North Sonia Boyce, Yes, I Hear You, 2022 Photo: George Darrell.

Even the title, Radio Ballads, is rich in personal meaning. It takes its name from the original Radio Ballads broadcast on the BBC from 1957-64; it also looks at the form of a ballad – the poems and narratives set to a song or assortment of sounds – and how the framework centres the voices of people. Artists and musicians spend time “listening to people who were rarely represented in the media and often violently erased form history – centring their voices and words on their own term was a revelation to me,” explains Amal.

Interested in using art to “build political power, create life-sustaining relationships, and enact community and systems change”, says Amal, Radio Ballads is provoking, resilient and brave through its documentation of how social care services and artists can work together. Helen Cammock – former social worker and long-term artist – is deeply aware of the responsibilities that social workers bare for others, and the impact this can have on their lives. In her work with Bass Notes and SiteLines, Helen explores the connection between text, voice and body in order to present resistance and strength. Through sessions with people receiving care and those offering it through an organisation called Pause, Helen’s contribution – spanning film, meditation exercises, group drawings and a live performance – sees a series of artistic workshops come to life, all in all reflecting on the connections made through music and lyric writing to express anger, pain, joy and care. Below, Helen tells me more about her prodigious work at Radio Ballads. 

Helen Cammock, ‘Bass Notes and SiteLines The Voice as a Site of Resistance and The Body as a Site of Resilience.’ Production Still, 2022.

Tell me about your work involved in the show, what stories are you hoping to share?

There are a number of different elements to the show. These elements somehow give a ‘way in’ to the project process, and discuss in different forms the ideas that we were talking about in the project. This included a discussion in its widest sense about care using different activities to find ways for the conversation. We looked at how the body can be a site for resilience and the voice a site for resistance. 

The show includes a film (which weaves together refections from social workers and women who access care that take sung and spoken form, and also texts from people who have written about both voice and care). There is a large fabric banner, a triptych of screen-prints, a series of small line drawings and three larger line drawings made by contributors in the workshop process, a research table full of books that somehow speak about the idea of care and its relationship to body and sound, and a booklet that includes text I’ve written, drawings, images and a project playlist. Most of the works are made by me but some (the line drawings) come from activities on the project. There will also be two performances of a song Listening In Your Silence that I’ve written made up of words, phrases and stories that have come out of the workshop discussions. This will be a group performance of the song that we have been rehearsing together for eight weeks. We will be joined by a small choir from Brighton and Hove who have also been rehearsing the song for the past month.  

Helen Cammock, ‘Bass Notes and SiteLines The Voice as a Site of Resistance and The Body as a Site of Resilience.’ Production Still, 2022.

You worked with social workers, carers and communities for three years. What was this like for you, and what did you learn from them? Can you tell me more about your findings and the conversations you had?

It was a period that involved the lockdown so it included ‘in person’ and online workshops/conversations. This meant changes in participants/collaborators and the way that we could be together. This felt a little de-stabilising and was hard work in a way – when we were trying to be together. We worked with different social work practitioners (from different areas of care services) and with one project where both practitioners and the women who received support came together. A range of different activities were used in order to develop the space for discussion and trust to be built. We used drawing, led meditation to music, creative writing, photography, discursive activities and singing – all as ways to have conversations about care and self care and the relationship between voice and body, and resistance and resilience. We tested some of this out through what we ‘did’ together. We discussed what music means to us, what it feels like to speak and be heard, we used our voices to sing and our bodies to form shapes and gestures to articulate different emotions and states to further these conversations. This forms a foundation of the material in the film.

Helen Cammock, ‘Bass Notes and SiteLines The Voice as a Site of Resistance and The Body as a Site of Resilience.’ Production Still, 2022.

Can you share any stories or anecdotes from working with them?

There is no one story – it was a process of exchange. Each person has many stories and experiences. A process of trust building was key. In order for us to discuss what it means to use your voice (metaphorically or physically) it was important to create structures for those conversations. We had moments of sadness and moments of laughter, moments of connection and situations where conversations were difficult. There was negotiation and deal-making sometimes when asking people to try something new – or something that felt unfamiliar. There were women who felt uncomfortable singing in a group and for others; singing in a choir represented something difficult from their past. This sharing was important and informed how we approached each activity. Some social workers spoke about the power of being vulnerable in certain ways alongside the women they work with in the sessions and how this brought particular benefit to their working relationship. 

What response do you hope you’ll receive from this work?

I often say that I want people to respond both emotionally and intellectually to the work, and that this is about being able to connect to others and their stories but also to one’s own. We all have moments where we feel our voices and our bodies enable us to survive, to resist, to care… the process of this project is ‘the work’, if you like. The exhibition is made up of glimpses of this process. It is a way to touch or be touched by the process, but the process was where the work took its form; the site of the work. 

Helen Cammock, ‘Bass Notes and SiteLines The Voice as a Site of Resistance and The Body as a Site of Resilience.’ Production Still, 2022.

In what ways can art improve social care and community? How is your work contributing to that?

I am an artist; I am interested in dialogue and in the transformative nature of art to transform the form, shape or sound of stories and ideas. I want to create something new – ideas, sensation and thought through the work. This has a social function, a political function and an artistic function. It isn’t social work. This isn’t my aim here. But any relationships we form with people – individually or collectively – can have a role that supports, invigorates, validates, challenges and this can be seen as a form of labour, in contributing to a way of seeing, changing or interrogating the social fabric. 

I believe all situations in life can benefit from art and social work, and work within and between communities is absolutely one of them. It is a way to express and communicate on different levels and through different forms. It is a way to create channels for communication – say difficult things – and process difficult experiences. Not outside of therapeutic approaches or other structures of care, but alongside or in dialogue with. 

Radio Ballads, Installation view, 31 March – 29 May 2022, Serpentine North Ilona Sagar, The Body Blow, 2022 Photo: George Darrell.

Rory Pilgrim, RAFTS, Green Shoes Arts, Production Still. Photo: Jessica Emovon.

Rory Pilgrim, Sketch Book. Courtesy of andriesse-eyck galerie.

Radio Ballads, Installation view, 31 March – 29 May 2022, Serpentine North Helen Cammock, Bass Notes and SiteLines: The Voice as a Site of Resistance and The Body as a Site of Resilience, 2022 Photo: George Darrell.

Radio Ballads, Installation view, 31 March – 29 May 2022, Serpentine North Rory Pilgrim, RAFTS, 2022 Photo: George Darrell.

Ilona Sagar, The Body Blow, Film Still, 2022.

Ilona Sagar, The Body Blow, Film Still, 2022.

Cecilia Vicuña: COS x Serpentine Park Nights

The Chilean poet discusses her new participatory poetic performance Clit Nest, part of COS x Serpentine Park Nights

documenta 14 Cecilia Vicuña, A Ritual Performance by the Sea, Photo: Mathias Voelzke.

I was invited to be part of the Park Nights program by the Artistic Director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Live Programmes Curator, Claude Adjl.

Ishigami’s design for the Serpentine Pavilion suggests an ancient stone dwelling, reminiscent of the caves, which in all cultures are associated to the womb of the Mother, a place for ceremonies to restore and regenerate the life force.

When I first saw the images of his design, I immediately felt the connection between the caves where underground water flows, arousing the bodily memory of our own inner water and ability to generate fluid. Now, when we face extinction, we invoke Joy, and the clit, an organ created for Joy, to give us strength to turn around the destruction of the earth.

Living Quipu Performance, Henry Art Gallery, Photo: Chona Kasinger.

I began working at the edge of the sea in the 60’s, and this dedication to water intensified in the 80’s and 90’s when the water crisis in the Andes began to be felt. The collective rituals that I performed in the 60’s, continue to re-emerge cyclically in my work, adapting and transforming to meet the times. Now, when people and indigenous communities around the world are being murdered to steal their water, rivers and lakes, rituals are becoming urgent acts. This need is present in the great movements of today, like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future calling us to join in! 

When I approach a project, I don’t necessarily set out to “communicate something”, I invite people to join to explore together our deep questions, our forgotten senses. The challenge I face, which ties to the consideration of a one-night-show like Park Nights, is the little time allowed for art, by the constrains of city life. I hope that people come away from tonight with a sense of the possible, of what is yet to be discovered in us.

Cecilia Vicuna: ‘Living Quipu’ Community Performance at the Brooklyn Museum, Photo: KOLIN MENDEZ

This year’s COS × Serpentine Park Nights takes place at the Serpentine Pavilion, designed by architect Junya Ishigami. Practitioners in the fields of art, music, poetry, theatre, augmented reality and fashion will present eight evenings of new work commissioned by the Serpentine each responding to Ishigami’s contemplative design.

We are proud to support Park Nights for a seventh consecutive year, and also to bring an element of this pioneering series to our store in Coal Drops Yard for the first time. The interdisciplinary nature of the Park Nights programme offers a platform for creatives of all backgrounds to push the boundaries of their practice. At COS we always derive a huge amount of inspiration from these unique, one-off events, and can’t wait to discover what this year’s artists present over the summer

– Karin Gustafsson, COS creative director

Cecilia Vicuñas performance will take place on Friday 27th September. COS x Serpentine Park Nights 2019 runs on selected nights throughout the summer. For more information please click here.

Dorothy Iannone: COS x Serpentine Park Nights

Pioneering feminist artist Dorothy Iannone reflects on her latest work, produced for the first COS x Serpentine Park Night of 2018

In the sixties, I started making my ‘People’ – some hundred wooden cut-out figures. At first I took images from my paintings, which led to cut-outs of my friends, figures from old masters, pop musicians, circus people and movie stars – until I couldn’t think of anyone else I wanted to make. It took almost half a century before I returned to my cut-outs; this time the ‘Movie People’ with their stories of unconditional love, or of risking everything for the possibility of happiness. I then developed this old format with a short text that tells the stories of the figures and why they had inspired me.

Last year, Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has interviewed me many times over the past decade, invited me to participate in the Park Nights programme, but because of other commitments I was unable to accept. This year when the invitation was renewed, I was happy to say “Yes!” and was able to continue to develop ‘Movie People’ further. 

Dorothy Iannone, Mother And Child, 1980, Gouache on Bristol board, 78 x 63 cm © All rights reserved. Private collection, courtesy Air de Paris, Paris.

The integration of painted image with text and sound, or with filmed images, has always been part of my work and I’m glad to have now been able to introduce sound to this, the progeny of my silent ‘Movie People’ cut-outs of several years ago, and perhaps to have taken a first step towards a new form in my oeuvre (or at least, to have dreamt of it).

As never before with this project, teamwork has been of the utmost importance. I have learned so much from this experience, and I feel so grateful to my old co-workers for their assistance, and delight in my new professional friends at the Serpentine. I hope the audience will remember the work with a smile, and that I have communicated what cannot be communicated in any other way than what I have presented in the ‘Movie People Perpetual Performance.’

Park Nights – staged within the unique Serpentine Pavilion in the heart of Hyde Park – is an experimental programme of live performances by compelling multidisciplinary artists from across art, architecture, music, film, philosophy and technology. At COS we are constantly inspired by the worlds of art and design, and for us it is an honour to support the Serpentine Galleries’ public performance series for a sixth year this summer.  

Mexican architect Frida Escobedo is the youngest architect so far to accept the invitation to design the pavilion on the Serpentine Gallery lawn and we are excited to see Park Nights come alive in what she has created. Her pavilion has focused on the subtle interplay of light, water and geometry, creating an atmospheric courtyard which draws on Mexican architecture and British materials and history, specifically the Prime Meridian line at London’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

– Karin Gustafsson, COS creative director

Dorothy Iannone’s performance will take place on Friday 13 July. COS x Serpentine Park Nights 2018 runs on selected nights throughout the summer. For more information please click here.

Piet Oudolf

From the High Line to the Serpentine: Port meets Piet Oudolf, the pioneering Dutch garden designer
Oudolf and his wife Anja moved from Haarlem to a 19th-century farmhouse in the village of Hummelo in 1982. His striking brick-and-glass office, designed by the architect Hein Thomesen, was built in 2010.
“I see gardens as processes rather than decoration,” explains the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, speaking with the air of serenity that one might expect from someone who has spent their life surrounded by plants. “I want gardens in winter to have the same feeling that you have in summer or in spring.”
It’s a philosophy Oudolf has developed and championed as part of the naturalistic New Perennial style of gardening since the outset of his career in the 1970s, and which has been brought to international attention through his work on some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary gardens, such as the prairie-like High Line in New York or the temporary garden that was built within the Serpentine Gallery’s 2011 pavilion in London.
Planted with herbaceous perennials and grasses that are chosen as much for their structure and seasonal life cycle as for their decorative attributes, Oudolf’s gardens resemble wild meadows. It’s a process Oudolf describes as “thinking in time” – imagining how each plant will sprout and bloom, how it will look when it’s dormant in the winter months, and how it will interact with its neighbours. “Everything in your mind moves psychologically with the seasons,” he continues. “If you can capture that in your work then you can touch people’s senses.”
Oudolf’s planting schemes have evolved from straightforward black-and-white sketches to elaborate colour-coded plans.
Oudolf’s career began by accident in the early 1970s. Having made the decision to quit his job working at the bar and restaurant that his parents ran in the countryside near Haarlem, he took a temporary winter job at a garden centre. There he fell in love with plants. 
“It’s something you discover,” he says, reflecting on his early days as a fledgling gardener. “At a certain age, you become open to things that you were not open to before, when life was too fast and much more about friends and socialising. All of a sudden you start to think about your future.”
When spring came around, the garden centre asked Oudolf to stay on. He bought books about plants and started buying his own specimens. “It became a healthy obsession,” he reminisces. “I wanted to know more; I wanted to go back to school. I collected, I travelled a lot – suddenly everything was about plants.”

After five years of study, Oudolf obtained his licence to practice and by 1982, he had started a small design and build consultancy with his wife Anja. “I saw the plants as a medium to express myself and I realised I could do something that other people, who were mostly producing traditional English gardens, weren’t doing at the time. We wanted to make gardens that were more spontaneous.”
Frustrated by the scant availability of the grasses and native perennials that he and Anja liked to use in their designs, the couple moved from their home city of Haarlem to Hummelo in the Dutch province of Gelderland, in the east of the country. Here they bought an old farmhouse with large plot of land and set about growing their own plants for their projects.
“Of course, it turned out a little differently,” remembers Oudolf. “Hummelo is very rural and there were no clients there, but soon the nursery became very well known, because the plants we offered were hard to find. We collected them from nurseries in England and Germany, and became a sort of bridge between the two for gardeners.”
Oudolf’s archives of intricate hand-drawn planting schemes.
At a time when the garden world was small and intimate, and unusual plants were hard to find, their nursery attracted attention from across Europe. Despite the success of their nursery, Oudolf says their first real “breakthough” came in 1991 with the publication of his first book, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden. It led to a series of conference invites where he was able to establish a network with journalists, professors and fellow nursery owners who shared his enthusiasm. 
Oudolf’s first commission in England came from his friend, John Coke – the owner of Bury Court, a former hop farm turned plant nursery, near Farnham in Surrey. Coke has since said that he felt that by hiring him, he was taking a huge gamble, as Oudolf was not yet known as a designer – but happily it paid off. On the old concrete farmyard, Oudolf created a contemporary walled garden filled with bold drifts of hardy herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses. At the time, the style was deemed radical by the English gardening world. 
Oudolf stands in a part of the “wild, naturalistic gardens” he has created in Hummelo, during the winter cut-back of the perennials.
“It is strange, looking back, that it was England – which was very conservative when it came to gardening – that was one of the first countries to invite me to do something.” He smiles. “It was the younger generation that started to pick it up quickly. I think it was part of the zeitgeist in the ’80s and ’90s – at that time you could really feel it was a movement.”
“That was the turning point,” he continues. “It took 10 years for me to become aware of what I was doing. You start with an idea that you want to make gardens more spontaneous; that you didn’t want to be changing your garden all the time; that you didn’t want to replace plants through the seasons, which is what most gardeners do. We wanted to make gardens that could stay and change by themselves. But it was an idea that grew slowly.”
This is an extract from issue 22 of Port, which hits newsstands on 19th April. To subscribe or pre-order, click here.
Photography Berber Theunissen