The Hop Project
The Hop Project is a contemporary art project that will tour Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Birmingham and the Black Country in 2016/17. Funded by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Programme, the project uses the historical migratory movements of hop pickers as the conceptual basis for a touring exhibition. The Hop Project is conceived and produced by General Public (artists Elizabeth Rowe and Chris Poolman).
The project’s starting point is an exploration of the social and political implications of hop production in the West Midlands. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus. They are used primarily as a flavouring agent when brewing beer, into which they impart a bitter, tangy flavour. In the West Midlands, the hop yards of Herefordshire and Worcestershire produce more than half of the hops grown in the UK.
Historically, in the 19th and early 20th century, a mass-exodus from Birmingham and the Black Country used to occur every autumn as thousands of people travelled to Herefordshire and Worcestershire for the hop picking season.* The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities also have a long history of participating in agricultural work and were a significant source of flexible, short term labour in the hop picking industry at this time. This all ended abruptly in the 1960s when mechanisation of the hop industry brought an end to the need for large numbers of workers to support the annual harvest. Since this time dramatic changes have taken place in agriculture and in the workplace more generally. One of the outcomes of these developments is that today Herefordshire has an ever increasing Central European community travelling to the county to fulfil agricultural demands.**
Hop, Hop, Hopping
The project doesn’t seek to present a factual, social history of hops; rather it offers an interpretation from a number of different angles and perspectives. It uses the verb ‘hopping’ as a working methodology to explore a number of tangential ideas connected to the history of hop growing. The phenomenon of ‘economic nomadism’ is a particularly important idea in the wider project. Indeed, an exploration of the historical and contemporary movement of people for the purposes of work is highly appropriate for a touring ‘moving’ exhibition.
Movements of other types underpin the project. These include white van movements, Romany Travellers’ figure of eight movements and the mapping of premiership footballers’ birthplaces. Other ideas the project is interested in include the politics of geographical boundaries, representations/myths of the countryside, employment rights, the demise of railways, the building of motorways, the effects of mechanisation within agriculture, itinerant lifestyles and the relationship between rural and urban tribes with their different ‘languages’ and modes of communication.
The touring exhibition includes:
(1) Archival material relating to the history of hops and hop picking.
(2) The Hip-Hop Pickers’ Ball – a project by General Public – an amalgamation of hip-hop and the history of hop picking.
(3) Contributions from groups situated along the tour schedule’s geographical route. These include a model of the final Hop Pickers’ Special train to leave Herefordshire in 1965, quilted beer label designs for fictional feminist ales, watercolours of inner city graffiti and a ‘rustic’ exhibition display structure built by Romany travellers. You might also find documentation of ‘Agricultural Sculpture’, references to the cider truck system (receiving a third of your wages in cider) and prints of bird migratory routes.
The artworks within the exhibition attempt to present a range of different voices involved in the history of hops and agriculture – landowners, Romany Travellers, today’s Central European economic migrants and Black Country hop pickers, specifically women. Indeed, the newspaper and website feature a newly commissioned essay by Professor Margaret Grieco that explores the roles played by women in hop picking. Women’s employment-based seasonal migration is greatly under-recorded in existing social history. Hopping is one area in which such under-recording took place.
Alongside the touring exhibition, other aspects of the project include a travelling billboard and a nomadic Hop Project ‘Mission Vehicle’ modelled on the mission wagons that used to frequent the hop fields at harvest time. This features the children’s Enclosure Act game – get them into land grabbing at a young age!
The Hop Project is an evolving project with a live period of 18 months. Certain contributions by groups will be launched at specific locations.
See Artists’ Movements for more information about the project organisers.
* Hop Pickers also used to travel from South Wales. This project focuses on the West Midlands connection.
** Please see David Storey’s essay ‘New’ Migrants in the British Countryside for more information.