‘”Certain gardens…”: cultivating social change in contemporary protest’
I am really pleased to have been invited to contribute an article to a special issue of the leading journal Contemporary Theatre Review, on the theme of ‘Theatre, performance and activism: gestures towards an equitable world’. It’s being edited by Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry, both at University of Manchester, and should appear in 2014. Here is what I am going to write about:
In my work on ‘horti-countercultural politics’, readers and audiences keep returning to one specific epigraph, taken from the problematic 20th century Scottish activist-artist-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks’. I want to revisit the attractive shock of Finlay’s view by first looking at the place of the garden in the contemporary squatted Occupy movement, and then at other key garden / protest / performance moments and movements (which can include guerrilla gardening back to Joan Littlewood, NYC community gardening ritual demonstrations in 1990s, the festal garden). Garden as location: boundaried / open space, designed backdrop or stage. Garden as cultural and social process: as slow-grow gesture, communal site and activity. Garden as pragmatic utopia: dug, planted, rooted. Garden as subject: protests about gardens. Finally garden as performance: human/non-human, and as a waste of time.
Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks. — Ian Hamilton Finlay
Social historians hardly ever mention gardens or gardening, and garden historians have little to say generally about politics. — Martin Hoyles, The Story of Gardening
This book was published by leading gardening publisher Frances Lincoln in May 2011. It has been widely and highly favourably reviewed. A Google Book open access version of some of it is available here (do I get royalties or a fee for that?).
From the introduction:
… Radical Gardening is about the idea of the ‘plot’, and its alternate but interwoven meanings (there are three). Many of the plots we will explore are inspiring, and allow us to see how notions of utopia, of community, of activism for progressive social change, of peace, of environmentalism, of identity politics, are practically worked through in the garden, in floriculture, and through what Paul Gough has called ‘planting as a form of protest’. But not all—some are sobering, or frightening, for within the territory of the politically ‘radical’ there have been and continue to be social experiments and articulations that invert our positive expectations of the human exchange that occurs in the green open space of a garden.
The book is modest in its ambitions: all I want to do is to convince you, dear reader-gardener, that those notions of a horticountercultural politics you suspected were in your earthy practice and pleasure (I agree that you probably didn’t called them horticountercultural politics) have a rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future. ‘Why’, asks writer-gardener Jamaica Kincaid, ‘must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility with being a human being?’ I follow Kincaid, and join the likes of Martin Hoyles, Paul Gough, Kenneth Helphand and others, each of whose work on gardens has helped shape my own thinking, in insisting on a view of the garden which allows us to include the opposite.
Such a reading of the garden should not be a strange or forced juxtaposition of plant and ideology: think only of the English radical writer William Cobbett, who declared in 1819 that ‘if I sowed, planted or dealt in seeds; whatever I did had first in view the destruction of infamous tyrants’. Or think of the etymology of the word propaganda—which today refers to the organized art of political persuasion—deriving from the Latin verb propagare, to propagate. Or the twentieth century revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht who observed, with startling accusatory power, that ‘famines do not occur, they are organized by the grain trade’. Or the female Colombian activist speaking to western buyers on behalf of the 40,000 women working in the pesticidal contemporary Colombian flower industry: ‘Behind every beautiful flower is a death. Flowers grow beautiful while women wither away’.
Such horticultural glimpses as these show us that there is, potentially at least, a lengthy tradition of radical gardening, and this book is meant as one contribution to maintaining and (re)constructing that tradition…
Radical Gardening was made possible by a small grant (£1000; 2009) from the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, for which I am very grateful—if you like the pictures in the book, their variety and presence was supported by the Trust.
Articles by, and media features with, the author about Radical Gardening
Reviews of the book are located here but below are links to some pieces I have written, or features and interviews with me, about the book.
Gardens can captivate, relax and delight. But they have also been the setting for political statements and bloody protests. George McKay argues that we must dig beneath the flowerbeds and see the turf wars instead….
Gardening is the epitome of a peaceful pastime, associated as it is with semi-somnolent suburban weekends, the sound of hedges being carefully clipped and the reassuring aroma of freshly mown grass. The notion of ‘radical’ gardening implies little more than a concerted attack on the mass of weeds accumulated in an herbaceous border or a garden makeover culminating in a fully decked patio. However, there is a radical history to gardening and it has been the site of protest and counterculture in Britain from the Levellers and the Diggers in the 17th century to today’s so-called Guerrilla Gardeners. On today’s Thinking Allowed Laurie is joined by George McKay and Tim Jordan to discuss the protest, politics and plots of the garden.
When I began writing my new book Radical Gardening I was really struck by the words of the contumacious gardener-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, from the independent green space he renamed Little Sparta in the Scottish lowlands: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks’. But how can a garden be an attack, a flower a critique, a trowel an agent of social change?
In my new book Radical Gardening, I look not only at liberal or revolutionary movements and their uses of gardens, but also at reactionary and xenophobic radicalisms. I ask how (far) can we say that there was such a thing as fascist gardening, for instance? And, soberingly, in what ways do racist and xenophobic groups continue to use the garden, plants and planting—and, as we will see, trees—to spread their ideas?