Image by Stephen Burke

Ampersand Projects’ Co-Directors Matt and Kate Andrews and artist Justin Wiggan discuss the aspirations and impacts of Green Lungs, a community-engaged participatory project that took place in Autumn 2016. Working with refugees in Birmingham, Green Lungs sought to highlight the importance of Birmingham’s green spaces to the wellbeing of some of the city’s newest community members. Anneka French finds out more.

Image by Stephen Burke

The Green Lungs project introduced over fifty refugees living in Birmingham to the historic Cannon Hill Park through a series of creative workshops that took place in Autumn 2016, led by artist Justin Wiggan. Many of the participants have recently settled in Birmingham, seeking sanctuary in the city. This project is a symbolic welcome to Birmingham’s green spaces: havens of peace and quiet in the urban, post-industrial landscape.

A key aim of Green Lungs was to build meaningful and prolonged connections with the parks that will hopefully last beyond this project, creating a legacy that participants can share with their family, friends and community. The project culminated in the planting of spring bulbs in a secluded part of the park – a small yet lasting intervention for each individual involved that they can return to next year.

What were Green Lungs’ starting points and aspirations?

AP: When we started discussing setting up Ampersand Projects in late 2015, we knew we wanted to focus on projects that introduced people to the positive impact art and heritage can have on their wellbeing, aspirations and outlook. We also knew that we wanted to work with people who don’t normally encounter art in their everyday lives.

Green Lungs came about through discussions with sound artist Justin Wiggan, who Kate had previously collaborated with on Advance with Feathers, working with patients at St Andrews mental health facility in Stirchley. We knew he was experienced at delivering activities that engage participants irrespective of language, circumstance or background. We have a shared belief that Birmingham’s parks are very special (and endangered) places and we wanted new arrivals to the city to experience them. Justin was also interested in exploring the relationship between nature, sound and memory.

As a new organisation, we were keen that, as Green Lungs is our first project, that it delivered on our aim to enrich people’s lives through contact with artists and green spaces. It was also really important that the project worked well as a pilot; we want Ampersand Projects to deliver sustainable work that can be developed and impactful over several years.

What are the project’s political implications?

AP: From the outset, we didn’t want Green Lungs to be overtly political in nature. Above all, we wanted to create a safe environment for participants to experience and enjoy Cannon Hill Park and encourage them to revisit – it was critical to us that the participants weren’t ever made to feel like they were being used or exploited to push a wider agenda. However, we hope that the project and exhibition reflect the individual voices and humanity of people seeking sanctuary in Birmingham and perhaps shift perceptions around refugees and asylum seekers, if only in a small way.

The legacy of Birmingham’s parks as free, democratic spaces that are for everyone is also important to Green Lungs. Many new arrivals to the city don’t realise that it has so many parks and green spaces, and that they are free. We’re keen to promote just how green Birmingham is as a city in our projects.

What do you feel is the importance of connecting art projects with wellbeing-focused activities?

AP: We believe that people can significantly improve their wellbeing by becoming invested in the public spaces that surround them, such as local green spaces. We feel that we have an opportunity with Ampersand Projects to provide people lasting experiences that will encourage them to see these places differently and take ownership over them. By working with artists such as Justin, our participants have opportunities to have new, creative experiences, draw on their own lives and gain confidence. We feel that we have a responsibility to improve the lives of the communities we work with.

You have a number of partnerships on the project. How did these develop and how were they selected?

AP: Green Lungs is our first project working with refugees and asylum seekers. We worked with the support of St Chad’s Sanctuary who were vital in brokering the relationships with this audience, making this project possible. So much of their work is focused on the vital services needed by those seeking sanctuary: food, clothing, housing and language classes and they were very receptive to us providing this additional experience for their users.

We have built a good relationship with mac birmingham as freelancers over the last few years through Kate’s various Next Gen projects and they were incredibly receptive to our proposal of Green Lungs last year. We were also very grateful to draw on the in depth knowledge of the Park Rangers service, who were a joy to work with. We look forward to continuing to work with their staff in our future projects.

You have worked with a number of young people too. How has this scheme been developed?

AP: For three years Kate has led the Creative Agency project at mac, which was an opportunity for young people to build and learn new skills in all areas of creative arts marketing and audience engagement. For Green Lungs, we worked with mac to recruit five young producers to collaborate with us on the delivery of workshops, documentation, curation and exhibition design. We’re keen to create voluntary and paid opportunities for emerging creative producers in our projects. Through Creative Agency, we’ve seen the positive impact this kind of experience can have on young people embarking on a career in the arts, particularly in securing employment or starting their own projects. The project benefitted hugely from their involvement.

How have you shaped the format and activities of the project?

JW: For me as an artist, what was interesting about Green Lungs is the fact that it allowed the participants to experience being an explorer instead of a tourist. It enabled them to translate their own experiences of the past, present and future by making connections through the workshops with the sky, the horizon and the ground. This also allows the participants to be quite philosophical and make connections with the mind, the eyes and the mouth. These were grouped together by means of association. By allowing participants to see these connections through a series of specifically designed worksheets, we generated collaborative material over a series of workshops and walks.

Working with the participants has impacted on my artistic practice by allowing me to think about their role as more of an active partnership rather than translator. It also challenged my preconception of how ideas, sounds and places can change in meaning because of tiny cultural differences and huge personal experiences but how, in the end, we as humans need the same things – to be loved and respected. 

We all need to reflect on our own current circumstance and situation, and to think about how we approach the current changing climate where more and more people are finding themselves displaced, escaping and lost. The world picture now indicates that everyone needs to rethink their purpose and reaction to other humans. 

The model of the Green Lungs project, is a simple, sustainable model which shows how creative individuals and arts organisations play a very specific role in the integration of the human family.

What opportunities has the project offered for its participants? Have you faced any particular challenges?

AP: Many of our participants find themselves in difficult circumstances; some are still dealing with the trauma and implications of freeing oppressive regimes and leaving family behind. Therefore, their safeguarding was paramount above any artistic outcomes. We were very lucky to have the experience and expertise of St Chad’s Sanctuary to guide us.

We also had to be flexible and allow the workshops to take shape organically, due to changeable circumstances the participants are in, as well as levels of English spoken. We encouraged participants to write and share their experiences of the park in their own language if they were more comfortable.

Although our time with the participants was quite fleeting, St Chad’s have told us that many of the participants have spoken positively about the experience and many were keen to revisit Cannon Hill and their local parks following the workshops. Many of the participants came back for the exhibition launch, which was preceded by the private planting of spring bulbs in a secluded part of the part of the park.

What legacy do you hope Green Lungs has and what are its future plans?

AP: Green Lungs is a pilot project that we hope to grow from this year onward; working with more participants, artists and environmental and outdoor organisations. Long term, we also hope to produce resources that allow Birmingham-based organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers to lead their own arts and heritage activities in parks.

Our wider aspiration for Ampersand Projects for us to build on this area of work, becoming a leading organisation which brings together the arts and the outdoors for the benefit of communities across the West Midlands.

An exhibition featuring sound artworks by Justin Wiggan and documentation of Green Lungs is currently on display at mac birmingham until 28 February 2017. 

Green Lungs is supported by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts and is in partnership with mac birmingham, St Chad’s Sanctuary Birmingham, Birmingham Ranger Service and Birmingham Wellbeing Service.

Ampersand Projects work with communities and artists to create accessible and empowering engagement experiences in public spaces. Based in Birmingham, UK and founded in 2016, they work to improve wellbeing, develop skills and give opportunities for people to create and experience special spaces, enriching art and share heritage.

Ampersand Projects’ Co-Directors Matt and Kate Andrews and artist Justin Wiggan discuss the aspirations and impacts of Green Lungs with Anneka French.