Artist of the Month
September 2017

Anna Chrystal Stephens

Our Artist of the Month for September 2017 is Anna Chrystal Stephens. We talk to her about survival techniques, her recent residency and working in artist collective Vulpes Vulpes.

Tell us a bit about your practice, how would you describe the work that you do?

My work at the moment is centered on living strategies, ecology and society's changing relationship to the natural environment. An interest in prehistoric archaeology alongside a feeling of powerlessness led to a desire for survival skills such as edible plant identification, thread making and bush-craft. Over the past four years I have been exploring ancient, basic and DIY living processes, how they can lead to empowerment and also result in sustainable solutions. For example, the interconnectedness of a forest root system can be a model for better food production: Agroforestry. Intuitive methods could help us understand how to co-operate successfully as well as how to have a more sustainable relationship with the land.

My practice includes photography, sculpture and the gathering and diffusion of skills and crafts through walks, discussions, and workshops. I often collaborate with others, especially for projects with live elements.


Edible Plant Survival Tarp, 2015

I am currently working on a series of objects which explore camping; historically and within contemporary contexts. I am interested in the idea that specially made survival materials could be somehow imbued with knowledge of the outdoors. Artifacts such as synthetic fire strikers, compact tools and paracord bracelets are not just practical but also appear to me as talismans for protection from the elements. I also have a fascination with repurposing objects for survival related ‘hacks’: a wax crayon becomes a candle, a drinking straw becomes a waterproof sleeve, or an arrowhead is made from a circuit board. I’ve recently been making collections based around these kinds of objects.

I am worried about countless environmental issues but I want to address these, and their possible answers with an element of conviviality.

One thing that stands out in your work is an awareness of colour. This could be a bright drop of blood, a petal, a piece of neon rope or a purple mushroom. Tell us about how colour appears and is used in your work.

During this current investigation into camping I have been looking at colour in outdoor-pursuit clothing and synthetic survival materials. They are often manufactured to mimic nature - such as camouflage print tarps, khaki tents etc - but despite this aim to blend in to the landscape, a camp is often accented with luminous guy ropes and flashes of stainless steel or a bright waterproof. Tents are also made in various bright colours, I am interested in the fashions in survival gear, in how these colours are chosen and why.

Generally I am fascinated with how colours can affect our responses to imagery and situations, change an atmosphere or produce nostalgia, fear or comfort. Some of these reactions are ancient instincts, (seeing blood, recognizing an edible fruit) some are from our recent cultural experience (the tones associated with an era, the patina of new technology). 

Guy Stick

Guy Stick, 2017

A form or theme throughout your projects seems to be the sharing of knowledge, not in didactic sense but more through imparting experience, suggestions or diagrams. How did you start involving this into your practice, how can you see it developing?

I think this came from a general interest in how certain encounters and exchanges of information can cause rapid changes in perspective. When I started learning food-plant ID I noticed how the effect of passing on this basic but amazing information would quickly affect people’s sense of independence, as it affected me. This led to the use of visual descriptions such as flat-lay photographs, and live demonstrations (eg. with fire lighting and edible leaves).

Ignite 2

Ignite, 2017

During A Sick Logic, a collaborative project with Glen Stoker, we made The Building Society, which was part of our residency at Site Gallery. Glen and I had realised through our early discussions that we were both collecting old DIY manuals, it was actually one of the things which led to our collaboration. We made a reference library which was installed at the gallery and was open for the public to use. It also contained a knowledge exchange activity called Known/Unknown/Known where we offered snippets of info from our research on postcards in exchange for some knowledge participants would post into a box for us to receive.

This idea of non hierarchical learning has also been important with Vulpes Vulpes projects including Vorkurs and Know-How.

Tell us a bit more about Vulpes Vulpes, how did it start? How do you work together?

We started Vulpes Vulpes in 2009 as a group of eight artists running a space from a warehouse where we were living, hosting exhibitions, workshops and events. Over time, and different buildings, our process became more intensely collaborative and since 2012 there has been four of us (me, Hadiru Mahdi, Laurie Storey, Carla Wright) making work together as well as facilitating projects with other artists. Together we are interested in social histories, the built environment, notions of community, education and social structures. We often take a hands-on and cross-disciplinary approach to learning and making. We all lived together from the start of V V until recently, and that was initially quite important in the way we worked, but our working methods are always adapting and we are currently living in different places which means our studio, project or residency time is all the more valuable.

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

Really enjoying Emma Hart’s work, her playful, sometimes troubling investigations into domesticity and psychology, I love the cartoonish aesthetic of her work. I like Laura Yuile’s ongoing dissection of online quick-fix consumerist culture, aspirational living etc. Her videos and sculptures are quite intense but also funny especially when layered together, as in her recent MA show at Goldsmiths. We exhibited her work at Vulpes Vulpes when we had the gallery in Bermondsey and since then she’s done lots more great projects. I like the work that Larry Achiampong and David Blandy are making together exploring cultural histories and they’ve done some interesting socially engaged work recently with virtual reality software, like working in collaboration with veteran prisoners in Liverpool.

I saw Jonathan Trayte’s show at The Tetley in Leeds last year and really liked it, visually, but also it seemed like an exploration into the aesthetics of food, its manufacture and distribution. I was really interested to see that exhibition at that point, because food, from the opposite end of the distribution chain was a big theme for Glen and I during the There Are No Firm Rules residency, after investigating wild plant identification and consumption and how this related to large scale food production. Trayte was exploring the fetishisation and comodification of food, I think, through the packaging and manipulation of it as a consumer product and object. I’m a fan of collaborative work which blurs boundaries between disciplines. Assemble have been important for this I suppose and for the increased acceptance of socially engaged practice in the mainstream. This agenda is picked up by other great cross disciplinary groups like Studio Polpo architects.

What projects have you got coming up?

Following the Site residency, we made a book called A Sick Logic. It contains research and responses to our quest for survival skills and has contributions from artists, mentors and practitioners we worked with during the project. There will be a launch event on 2nd November so we are working with Site to organise that at the moment.


In late September there will be an exhibition of banners made by Vulpes Vulpes at The Albany in Deptford, during Artlicks Weekend. The banners explore ways of learning within society and the significance of different forms of knowledge such as ideas spread though counter-culture movements with music, or by scientists using a coded message broadcast into space. The production of this was funded by The Edge (University of Bath) as part of the project Know-How, where they were initially exhibited.

28th September – 1st October

Book Launch information:

Thursday 2 November 2017, Sheffield

A Sick Logic is a book by Anna Chrystal Stephens and Glen Stoker, published by Site Gallery following their 2016 Platform Residency There Are No Firm Rules.

The book came from a quest to seek old knowledge and apply it to current problems. Through an exploration of how to exist as part of an integrated ecosystem, the book presents life-changing information about survival strategies and the experience of skills acquisition, as well as demonstrating how we can be part of a cross-disciplinary collaborative approach to making change.

The publication contains responses to research activities such as plant identification courses, instructional skills sessions and long walks, in the form of image sequences and essays. There are a range of contributions from mentors, peers and other explorers who have been part of the project.

Published 01 July 2017

See more of Anna's work here>