A Surfer/Artist perspective on Hydrocitizenship- Boz Groden

Tue 23 Feb 2016 00:47:41 | 1 comments
We are fortunate to have Boz Groden involved as one of the artists commissioned by Cymerau - the Hydrocitizenship case study in Mid Wales. He is a very inclusive artist, who creates meaningful, quirky, yet accessible work which invariably provokes a response and even heated debates. Humour and satire may initially distract (or lure) the observer, who might then realise that there are very weighty themes to take on board. Often, his cartoons are multi-perspectival, provocative, and environmental in focus.

This is an edited extract of a conversation between Boz Groden and Sara Penrhyn Jones, August 26, 2015. It's useful for understanding Boz's creative methods, political motivation, and thoughtful observations on what hydro-citizenship might look like in Borth (and more generally).

     Boz Groden. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, August 26, 2015

Sara: For the person who doesn’t know you at all, how would you summarise your relationship with Borth?

Boz: I almost lived in Borth by accident, the first time, and we lived right on the seafront. It was somewhere cheap to live, and it was out of season, and windy, and winter. Over those few months, I suddenly realised that I had to get in the sea nearly every day. Then, when I moved inland, I missed it, and the people. I missed the kind of attitude that was around the village that didn’t seem to exist in other places anymore. I juggled things around to be able to come back, and I made it work, and discovered that there were people that were willing to do things here. There were a whole range of different people who normally would be separated into their little communities: 'we do this activity and that’s what we do, and we don’t mix with those people'. But in Borth, people don’t care about that. We were a bunch of penniless students, and there’d be a millionaire next door who used to come down once a month, and throw lavish parties, and he didn’t seem offended by what we were doing. A lot of people mixed, basically. All the community seems to mix together. The things I started to draw, and the things that I started to look at, affected my outlook quite a lot as well, and the way that I thought about things, and this wanting to constantly be around the sea. Because in winter, if there was good surf, you spend six hours in the water, and it’s a long time to go into one environment, and not really talk to anyone, encased in a hood, and completely shut off from the shore-based world, and then you come back, and you’ve thought completely differently about things for a while. So you have that break. For better or worse, you start needing that sort of break from things, so that started me thinking about things differently.

Sara: How would you characterise the artistic work that you do?

Boz: I’d explain my art by saying that at one level it is illustration, and that’s what I always veer towards, but also I like to think that because it's quite accessible, you can get people in who say ‘that’s a pretty picture of something’ and then it makes them look a bit deeper and maybe there’s other comments or something within that that they’re not seeing normally, or that they wouldn’t expect that type of drawing to have. I don’t think I’ve gone anywhere near far enough with how far you can take that sort of thing. I’d describe it as children’s illustrations, gone wrong, into a different arena in some ways.

                                                                                 Y BorthImage/Artist: Boz Groden.

Sara: Is subversive a word that you’d use for it? 

Boz: I’d like it to be subversive, without being pretentious. I like to surprise people, but at the same time it can be something pretty, attractive, and humorous. Especially humorous, because if you can make people laugh at something, or even laugh about an aspect of something, at some picture where they agree with one thing, and say: ‘that always happens to me, but I disagree with this part’ then you’ve got a debate, in a way. I’ve had people pick something up and say ‘that’s lovely’ and then ‘hmmm’, and put it down, and that’s great. I’d much rather have that. I’ve changed things as well, if people say that they are really offended by something. I don’t mind that, because you’ve talked to them. You’ve had a kind of relationship with them, and they’ve explained to you why they find it annoying that you’ve characterised their area as full of chavs or whatever.

Sara: It seems, from what you’re saying, that it’s really important to you that your work is naturally interactive in some way?

Boz: Yes. It’s quite lonely sometimes, just sitting, drawing, and it’s like anything when you get obsessed with your own ideas. It’s good to get out and test them, so I’m trying to work more with sketches, and get those out in front of people and I think that's particularly good for this project; it will be really useful, to say ‘what do you think of this’, and get that feedback. The ideal would be everyone saying ‘I want this in it’ and to get them all arguing, and telling me what they want, so I just have to draw it. But obviously I first I have to start that conversation.


 Boz Groden. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, June 21, 2015

Sara: Have you got ideas about how to start that conversation with people?

Boz: I think that the easiest way to try it is to try and get my rough ideas in front of people by posting them up on the web, and I’m going to go round the village, and maybe have some open days, and say to people, this is what I’m doing, what do you think abut this? And I probably start quite gently with just a few of ideas, and see what people come up with from that from that so that if somebodv is very much against something being portrayed in a way that they see as negative, then you can talk about that. You can refer them to someone down the road who’s already said: I think it’s great. So you’re slightly causing trouble, which is enjoyable, and then people are talking about it and I think that’s great. I’ve already discovered that, with trying to find people’s stories, trying to ask people about their relationship to water, that some people will say, 'This and that happened to me and I’ll give you this great big story about how this amazing event changed my life'. And then two minutes later someone else will say, ‘I remember when this happened’, and it completely contradicts what the first person said. It's all part of the process, and good in itself.

Sara: If there was a person who didn’t know about Cymerau or your own work, how would you explain to that person what you’re doing for Cymerau?

Boz: For Cymerau I’m going to create a visual map of Borth and the area, all the water around it, the sea, the bog and parts of the estuary. I’m going to try to incorporate people’s stories and relationship to water into that, by using like a cartoon format, with these simple events that have happened to them, and make them interrelate as much as possible so that someone might be having one experience within that map, and possible they may be having a terrible time. They may be flooded, and someone else who is crossing that line of experience within that cartoon may have a completely different view of that. Hopefully, that will show at the end of it, as much of the relationship that people have got, as is possible in a two-dimensional space.

                       Surf HistoryImage/Artist: Boz Groden.

Sara: You’re already working in Borth, and you’re already living with water, and exploring that in your art as well. What’s the value for you in being involved in a larger project like Cymerau, and being part of a group of artists working over a year. Is that different to what you’re already doing?

Boz: I think it offers me the experience of working with other people, and moving away from the quite insular aspect of just drawing something and then presenting it to the world and seeing what people think. The process of collecting people’s experiences will be really great in that way, and also seeing what the other artists are doing is going to influence what I do, as it evolves. I’ll be looking back at what they’ve done, and thinking that perhaps I need to be staring at this in a more direct way. As events happen, I’ll see people’s reactions, and think perhaps there is much more value in people seeing it in a different way. I think it's going to be great to be part of a community, to have a community of artists who are doing stuff.  Apart from being able to bounce ideas off each other, and just having that drive to respond to what others have done. If I I just love what someone else has done, I'll ask: can I incorporate it, can I nick a bit of that idea and put it in mine? It's also just pushing yourself. Someone might find a really good way of tapping into something - and I'll think this must be really important, people really cared about that. I realise that I have to find a way to reflect the same feeling in what I do. 


Aberystwyth University. Image/Artist: Boz Groden.

Sara. Am I right in thinking that in your work, as a general principle, you really like the idea of provoking a response? Can you try to explain your own motivations and goals, that thing in you that makes you want to provoke people? What’s behind that, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Boz: I often struggle with people who don’t express an opinion or don’t want to talk about something, like it’s too much trouble. It’s people who should know better, in my opinion. They have money and power and they could in fact acknowledge that and change things. On a smaller scale you’ve got groups who use the water around here, like the surfers. There’s a whole community of surfers who just see the sea as, 'We go out, do our thing  we do some tricks'. You’ll notice, most of them run straight up the beach, towel off, get into their camper vans and drive away. Very few of them spend any time on the beach, really experiencing it, and if you talk about the sea or the coastal environment as anything more than a playground that’s been put there for them to play with, there’s a blank look and they move away from that. I think that the whole thing has been consumerised so much that you’re supposed to go there and have this experience, with these brands on, and this equipment. No one wants to ask: what’s actually out there? Did you see any marine life? Did you see any birds? How did it make you feel? Did you have a good day or a bad day, what was the point of it all at the end of that? So I get frustrated with those people who I know really well, who you’d think would have a deeper understanding of things. I suppose it’s a bit like climbers, who may just climb a mountain because it’s there, and it’s all about that achievement, and it’s all about them. They’ve done it and then they go down, and they might just throw all their litter, and just leave. It’s has that same kind of vibe to me. 

                        Surf school, Borth. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones August 26, 2015.

Sara: This is really useful in the context of talking about Hydrocitizenship. Do you think that what you’re describing is - and I don’t know if you’ve thought about it in these terms before - a form of ecological citizenship? It’s not just the aspect of enjoying something, but of taking care if it, taking responsibility. Could you try to make some of those connections between what you’ve described and what we might think of as being holistic eco-citizenship? 

Boz: There has to be a reconnection between people and the environment that they live in. The sea seems like something that should be a bonding experience for a lot of people, and I think it is. People go in there and they do have an experience, but I don’t know if they have the encouragement or the words to actually express it in a way that they can talk about it as the environment. They may say, 'I’ve had a great surf, I did this and this, and it was brilliant', or 'We went sailing, it was great and we and caught loads of fish'. But very few people seem to say, 'We went out, and there weren’t many fish, and I wonder why that happened' or 'The sea smelt funny today, why did it smell like that?' I’ve often raised things like that with people and say: Didn’t you think it was weird that we saw that froth floating there', and people just shrug. It’s hard for everyone to acknowledge that our lifestyles damage everything, but I think you have to start having that debate with people and hopefully, one of the things that I like about cartons, and very accessible illustrations, is that you can get make laugh, and then they say, 'Oh that’s me, I’m doing that'.

                        Fish Sculpture. Artist/Image: Boz Groden

Sara: That sounds to me like what hydrocitizenship could look like, if you were to pin it down.

Boz: If I had to pin down it down, what hydrocitizenship looked like, I’d say that at the very least, you're acknowledging the implications of water, and acknowledging that everything you do is connected to it in some way. Especially living in a place like Borth, to have  a respect for it, and have an understanding that all this stuff doesn’t just come for free. You can’t just endlessly take, and expect the sea to present you with all these opportunities for recreation and so on. It would be great if hydrocitizenship was something where people bought into an idea, that they all cared about something, and protected it. That it gave them back far more than that small effort cost them. I think it’s there in people, in some way, but they don’t know how to express it, or they’re not encouraged to say to someone, 'I really enjoyed doing that in the sea today, and I feel like want to do something about it'. That next step doesn’t seem to exist for people. It would be great if people were connected and felt able to say: 'I’m seeing something that I don’t like happening, and it’s my right as a person to talk about this', and just everyone was able to do that. There were kids on the beach burning tyres the other day, and one of them wasn’t into it and knew they shouldn’t be doing it, and it would have been great if they could have had that conversation. As it was, it was a bunch of adults pointing and shouting at them to stop, which didn’t really help. What if that kid had a voice and was able to say ‘what are we doing here, we shouldn’t be doing this?'

                      Borth Sea Defence Construction. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones June 2012

Sara: Tell me something about your knowledge of sea level rise, and the idea of Borth as embattled. 

Boz: Some people think that Borth has a limited time, and will be inundated, and some people don’t want to think about it. Subconsciously, people know it isn’t forever. It may not even be for the next twenty years. There’s a kind of ‘well, we might as well get on with it, what’s the point of making our lawns perfect, and tutting about our property value if secretly we know that we may as well just enjoy it - they seem ok next door'. That’s my theory: because it’s threatened, it builds a different attitude.


Boz Groden participating in and observing Esther Tew's workshop 'Water, Water, Everywhere'. August 26, 2015. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones

Sara: Will the issue of sea-level rise and displacement frame some of the mapping that you do, or do you think it will emerge organically?

Boz: Displacement and sea-level rise will inevitably come up, because people are going to have an opinion about it, and I’ll make sure to ask them about it. It will come through in their views and stories. How they feel about the place. When the sea defences went in, there were a lot if people against it, and people said that they destroyed everything in order to save it. There’s an element of truth in that.  I’m still going to dig at that sort of things. I’ll ask a few questions, and I think it will influence things- it has to. You can’t really talk about a place that’s sub-sea level without asking those questions.

                     Esther Tew's workshop 'Water, Water, Everywhere', Borth beach, August 26, 2015. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones

Sara: There’s this idea that time is different here - with petrified forest, Bronze Age walkways exposed by crazy storms, and so on. It feels like a place where time plays out dramatically, or more tangibly, don’t you think?

Boz: I think that time is more exposed here. There’s history all around us, but in the hills, it’s easier to ignore. Here, when the tide goes out, or when the 2013 storms opened the beach up, people were finding fire pits with children’s footprints from the Middle Bronze Age, from two and a half thousand years ago. It’s all there to be seen, and that affects people’s thinking as well. Someone I asked already described it as: there was a point in the Bronze Age, when suddenly a lot more people came to this estuarine flood plain, where there were small communities, and suddenly there was a huge influx of people from the East. They described it as the Middle Bronze Age Birmingham Invasion. I might try to use that in some of the cartoons, and I might share it with people in the caravan parks. 

In terms of working with the community, I’m really looking forward to producing some of these stories as postcards. I’m really hoping that some of the people who get them may not have any interest in art, or may not normally want to be involved, but will take something away. They may remember that they were part of that project, and keep the postcard around like a physical thing for some time, rather than just something else on the smartphone that they’ve got rid of. I think it's great to reach as many people as possible, and not always the same groups, because there are people who are politically engaged and reading things and are aware. But if you can get to people who are on holiday, or just passing through, who remember that experience and place, and connect it to other things in their life, I think that’s really important.



wow - what great drawings. I also love the model village out of sand. I will read and digest with great interest and make comments as they occur Cheers



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