culture/SHIFT: Nil by Mouth, Culture & Sustainable Food Production

13th January 2017

Culture/SHIFT: Nil by Mouth, Culture & Sustainable Food Production

This resource is part of our culture/SHIFT reading series which showcases examples of arts and sustainability collaborations from Scotland and around the world.

“Food brings the debate about sustainable production and consumption into peoples’ lives in the most immediate of ways. Can artists and art help people to engage with these issues in a more meaningful way?” Nil by Mouth Report (2015)

Partners: Chris Fremantle (Wide Open) producer, Professor Mike Bonaventura (Crichton Carbon Centre) commissioner

Artists: Hans K Clausen, Harry Giles, Centre for Genomic Gastronomy (Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer), Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman

Location: Various locations including: Scottish Parliament (Edinburgh), Whitmuir Organics (Scottish Borders), Pitgaveny, 2000-acre mixed estate (Elgin), traditional croft (South Uist), community allotment (Dundee)

Dates: August 2013 – November 2014

Nil by Mouth from arts-news on Vimeo.

The Nil by Mouth (NbM) project was initiated to address the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainable food production in Scotland, bringing together artists, food producers, scientists and policy-makers.

It approached this by placing artists within different contexts concerning food production and asking them to explore the economics of distributed, small or mid- scale operations and the environmental impacts on biodiversity and atmospheric pollution emanating from this scale and type of land use.

Project aims included:

  • Talent development of emerging cultural practitioners,
  • Knowledge exchange between scientists, artists and policy makers,
  • Establishing inclusive structures for art/science collaborations,
  • Understanding how wider public audiences can be engaged in the sustainable development agenda through food.

The NbM programme consisted of residencies which took place over two separate two week periods (winter 2013 and spring 2014), with meetings for participating artists and scientists working on Food, Land and People, and Environmental Change programmes within the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme, with some involvement from land and food division policy-makers at Scottish Government.

Immediate outputs from the project included:

  • Four project meetings with participating artists and interdisciplinary partners;
  • A series of presentations at related academic and industry events: 20th World Congress of Soil Science in Jeju, Korea, 2014, and DIRT Dialogues, for example;
  • So Much Depends Upon, Hans Clausen and the artists of the crofting community of Ardivachar on South Uist, Tent at ECA;
  • Exhibition of work stemming from residencies at Scottish Parliament. More about the work exhibited by the NbM artists and related work can be found here
  • Leverhulme residency (Centre for Genomic Gastronomy with Wendy Russell at the Rowett Institute)
  • Museums of the FutureNow 

The project meetings played a key role in the development of collaborative relationships during the project and a trans-disciplinary network of practitioners with shared interests in sustainable food production:

“One unexpected outcome was the realisation that away from the seminar rooms of the James Hutton Institute, everyone, although the scientists in particular, became more informal in their discussion, more creative in their thinking and less inclined to switch into presentation mode when things needed explaining.” (NbM Report, 2015)


On contacting the project commissioner, Mike Bonaventura, we gained some insights into the key learning points that he has taken from the project:

  1. Everyone’s trust in the process and generosity with their energy;
  2. The quality of the work which was completely unconstrained by any expectation of the type of work that would be produced;
  3. The need for true collaboration and multi-vocal work: art as a vehicle for opinion multiplication;
  4. Mutual teaching and learning;
  5. The need for a lightweight structure helps people orientate themselves to where everyone else is and removes the Tyranny of Structurelessness (an essay by Jo Freeman introduced by Harry Giles);
  6. That said, having a point of departure is more important than a point of arrival – we are experimenting in these collaborations;
  7. Some recognition of different types of impact: from an academic perspective, these types of collaboration can fall between the cracks of journals on either side of the ArtScience divide but there are other types of (non-academic) impact which are equally, if not more important. 

Another unexpected outcome was the development of relationships across disciplines but also between the participating scientists. As Charles Bestwick, the Advisor to the Food, Land and People theme within the Scottish Governmentʼs Strategic Research Programme said:

“This process has enabled us to debate differences, challenge our own perceptions and develop an understanding between the perspectives of the individual scientists as well as with the artists. We have seen new research collaboration fostered through this process and we believe the partnership of science-art disciplines has been and will continue to be extremely valuable, suggesting new ways of doing knowledge exchange whilst raising questions about that process itself.” (NbM Report, 2015)

Areas for development identified in the project report included:

  • A framework that provides a mechanism to assess the value of art/science collaborations in general and their impact on public engagement in particular which do not interfere with the project itself or, ideally, are even visible to the participants would be hugely valuable in designing projects like these if we are to see them work at scale.
  • An inventory of art/science collaborations (which are focusing on food production and consumption).

Creative Carbon Scotland is addressing this inventory gap more widely to disseminate high quality examples of arts and sustainability collaborations such as Nil by Mouth, with the aim of spreading the learning from successful collaborations to wider arts and sustainability networks to help inform future work in this area.

This part of CCS’s umbrella project culture/SHIFT, seeks to understand the ways in which artistic practices can contribute to a wider cultural shift towards a more sustainable society.

Nil by Mouth was supported by the following funders and partners:

culture/SHIFT: Nil by Mouth, Culture & Sustainable Food Production 7



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