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.
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
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 Borth. Image/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
Surf History. Image/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
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
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.