Anna Chrystal Stephens’ practice can be understood as an exploration of sustainable living strategies in both rural and urban locations. Specifically, an examination of the tension between survival and leisure as illustrated through popular holiday activities such as camping and canal boating. On the one hand, these nature-based activities can be understood as performances of ancient skills and knowledge, while on the other, they are a way for people to escape from the highly prescribed space of a city. Camping, especially, is a way into complex themes such as a yearning for a connection to the earth, nomadic living, economies of choice, the housing crisis, displaced migrant communities and sites of protest. Historically used for carrying goods on the narrow canals, the contemporary canal boat is emblematic of both low-cost housing and leisure cruising. Situated within the British waterways, these spaces of off-grid living simultaneously meander through the rural and the urban. Following her fixation with DIY manuals and knowledge exchange, Stephens actively equips herself with the basic skills necessary to survive within different living situations; she is currently residing on a canal boat.
Stephens brings the complexities of inhabiting these land and waterscapes into the gallery through a series of sculptures and photographic images. In the centre of the room stands a structure that appears functional and nostalgic. Inspired by 1970s canvas tents this multicoloured device – designed to keep water out of one’s boat and extend cramped living quarters –comes complete with changeable curtains displaying seasonal edible plants. To fabricate Stern Hood, Stephens’ worked with a professional narrow boat hood-maker, extending her commitment to skill sharing and collaboration. The larger-than-life, many-pocketed, tent-like Utility Cloak contains kit objects and camping hacks, from fantasy survival gadgets to fire starting implements. Fabricated with nylon tent material, Stephens presents a piece of clothing that explores the viability of nomadic living practices and poses the question: “Why and when did homo sapiens decide it was no longer possible to carry everything needed for living?”
A large-scale mural covers one wall and on another is an index of images capturing the many types of canal boat covers, ranging from the makeshift to the highly technical. The photographic elements bring canal and DIY living into the gallery and speak to the tension between the basic necessity of staying dry and warm and the human desire to decorate and domesticate nature. Extending knowledge sharing and skill building beyond the gallery is an interactive didactic panel presented on the façade of the building instructing passers-by on how to tie various knots.
The exhibition, Anorak, is made in reaction to anxiety about environmental crisis and puts forward that learning survival skills and DIY processes can be an empowering step to gaining a greater understanding and respect of the natural world, thus creating movement towards sustainable solutions.
Led by Stephens and Carla Wright (both members of the collective Vulpes Vulpes) are a series of workshops for Xenia, a Hackney-based grassroots friendship and English language project for migrant and English-speaking women.
Anna Chrystal Stephens works with photography, sculpture and action to explore living strategies, sustainability and societies’ changing relationship to the natural environment. She is interested in prehistoric archaeology, ecology and collaboration. Her practice includes the gathering and dispersal of survival skills and craft processes through walks, discussions and workshops. Stephens is part of the artist group Vulpes Vulpes. Since 2009 they have collectively exhibited and hosted workshops at numerous public locations and galleries such as The Edge Art Centre, Bath; Standpoint Gallery, London; V&A, London and Airspace Gallery, Stoke-On-Trent. She has collaborated with Glen Stoker, most recently on a residency, publication and exhibition at Site Gallery, Sheffield. This commission at SPACE is Stephens’ first solo exhibition.