77% of plants found in the UK’s city gardens originated overseas according to a forthcoming major study by Professor Jane Memmott, Professor of Ecology at Bristol University and President of the British Ecological Society, and colleagues.*
Taking this remarkable statistic as inspiration, Trigger Collective has created the major cultural event and installation PoliNations, which has been commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, as a way to reflect on the UK’s complex histories surrounding migration and diversity whilst celebrating our differences, our roots, and our future, and emphasising the importance of access to green spaces and a healthy planet for all.
Taking the form of an epic forest-garden bursting with living plant life and sheltered by 40-foot tall architectural ‘supertrees’ taking over Birmingham’s 1300m2 Victoria Square, PoliNations uncovers the origin stories of many mainstays of traditional UK gardens, including the ‘Hybrid Tea Rose’ (hybridised China and Asian forms), classic ‘Weeping Willows’ (introduced from China and the Middle East), lavender (brought over from countries around the Mediterranean), productive apple trees (imported from Kazakhstan) and tulips (Central Asia). Together they paint a picture of the journeys, migration, dispersal of plants we now consider to be part of our shared ecological identity.
PoliNations will be a vibrant living oasis in Birmingham’s city centre filled with thousands of plants that have been co-grown and co-planted with local schools and community groups. It will be brought to life each day through forest tours, audio baths, light shows, talks and performances while the towering ‘supertrees’ will capture rainwater and create electricity through wind power to deliver a low carbon event.
PoliNations is produced by Trigger Collective, which is led by Bristol-based arts organisation Trigger, whose Artistic-Director Angie Bual is working with multi-disciplinary designer Carl Robertshaw, set and costume designer Bronia Housman, events specialist Dock Street Events, architectural studio THISS, and horticulturalists Arbor-Nova. For the project, Trigger has brought together experts in the fields of horticulture, science, architecture, and the arts from the likes of Chelsea Flower Show to Notting Hill Carnival and London 2012 to RuPaul’s Drag Race (UK).
Each evening, under the canopy of the ‘supertrees’ (fabricated by Format Engineers), visitors will experience an incredible light show designed by Matt Daw – the light designer behind international theatre and concert events including opera, film, exhibitions and large events with the likes of The XX, Sigur Rós, Björk and The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Troilus and Cressida.
Throughout PoliNations, all are invited to visit the ‘Glam Dome’ – home to a working costume studio where expert designers Joey A Frenette, aka Bourgeoisie (RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Hatchling) and Clary Salandy from Mahogany Carnival are on hand to help the public make their own creations. Meanwhile, the ‘Creation Dome’ will be a place to learn about the diversity of plants and explore some of the meanings, histories and significance that have been attached to them through talks, workshops and tours.
Angie Bual, Creative Director of PoliNations and Co-Director of Trigger, said: “2020 was a tumultuous year. We saw the global rediscovery of how vital green spaces are for our individual and collective mental wellbeing and experienced a long-awaited reckoning of the impacts of slavery, empire and colonialism through the Black Lives Matter movement protests. We felt inspired by these events to create a place that brought these topics together – harnessing the metaphor of seed dispersal to create a conversation about the importance of biodiversity and living in a bio, diverse city.
“PoliNations takes its inspiration from the fundamental truth that the very landscape and plant life that surrounds us each day is multicultural. It celebrates the colour and vibrancy that plants and flowers have brought to the UK and invites us to reimagine our societies as more diverse, greener and wilder places to be. Combining engineering, horticulture, theatre and music from around the world, PoliNations is a spectacular co-grown forest garden that will ignite the senses and deepen understanding of our shared history, bringing people together from all walks of life with an utterly unforgettable finale.”
Martin Green CBE, Chief Creative Officer, UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games’, said: “PoliNations is one of ten incredible projects taking place in 2022 as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, which bring together the talents of hundreds of creatives from across science, technology, engineering, arts and maths.
“It promises to be a dazzling mix of music, performance and sensational design, with something for people of all ages and backgrounds. PoliNations is also a timely opportunity to bring people together and celebrate diversity of all kinds through creativity as Birmingham welcomes visitors from across the world for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.”
Jane Memmot, President of the British Ecological Society said: “More than 77% of the plant species in the UK’s city gardens come from plants that are not native to the UK. These plants – from China, North America, South America, the Mediterranean, Australia, South Africa and many, many other countries – provide great joy to gardeners and most of the food available to urban pollinators”.
Key dates for PoliNations:
Opening Weekend: 2-4 September 2022
PoliNations opens its doors to the public! Hundreds of plants will be co-planted by local communities and schools in a mass participation event within the forest garden.
Spoken Word Weekend: 10-11 September 2022
In addition to the regular daily programming, PoliNations will present a weekend of spoken word events featuring performances from regional, national and international poets.
The Grand Finale: 15-18 September 2022
Programming for the grand finale starts on Thursday 15 September with artists beginning to create a massive Rangoli artwork that will gradually sprawl out into the forest while henna artists offer intricate designs.
On Saturday 17 September, the canopies of the supertrees will burst into a joyful cloud of confetti and colour for the Ballistic Seed Party. This is Pride, Carnival and Holi combined in one brilliant, messy, playful all-day-all-night party and everyone is invited. Attendees can enjoy epic performances exploring ball culture, take part in Holi celebrations, and enjoy live music showcasing the best up-and-coming talent.
Sunday 18 September is the final day of PoliNations and dedicated to self-care with chilled out acoustic music, spoken word events, poetry and storytelling sessions for all to enjoy in the blissful oasis. Once PoliNations ends, the plants and saplings will be shared with local communities, public institutions and private homes and contribute to the growth of Birmingham’s green spaces.
PoliNations in Birmingham will be preceded by a special nine-day preview in Edinburgh: a single 40-foot ‘supertree’ will take root outside of the Assembly Rooms on George Street – creating a space for relaxation and creative collaboration with a jam-packed programme presented in partnership with Assembly Festival.
PoliNations is one of 10 major creative projects commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, with events taking place throughout England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as online. PoliNations is presented as part of Birmingham 2022 Festival in collaboration with Birmingham City Council and Assembly Festival at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK is a celebration of creativity taking place across the UK in 2022, designed to reach millions and bring people together. It features free large-scale events, installations and globally accessible digital experiences in the UK’s most ambitious showcase of creative collaboration. UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK is funded and supported by the four governments of the UK and is commissioned and delivered in partnership with Belfast City Council, Creative Wales and EventScotland.
* From “Turnover in floral composition explains species diversity and temporal stability in the nectar supply of urban residential gardens” by Tew et al. In press, Journal of Applied Ecology – due for publication early 2022.