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Q: Why do you call this "frequently asked" questions when nobody knows anything to ask yet?
A: Somebody just had to be a wise guy.
Q: Ok, so what's this all about -- in one sentence?
A: This is a new experimental paradigm in communal research, re-creation, and performance focused around a single, multi-faceted topic with a finite duration and the goal of permanently enriching our re-creative experience.
Q: You sure do like long sentences, don't you?
Q: Can you unpack that?
A: Lately a number of people have been feeling like there's a vague general malaise in the West Kingdom around artistic activities. No doubt part of this is the age-old problem of rose-colored glasses: back in the Good Old Days (tm) everything was wonderful and shiny and we had classes and workshops and did creative stuff all the time and there were lots of entries in arts competitions and the land flowed with milk and honey and ... hey, you kids! Get off my lawn! But there does seem to be a general sense that the existing structures and habits aren't producing the same effects they once did.
People are going in various directions to address what they see as the roots of the malaise. Some are looking at those existing structures and habits to see if they can be tuned-up or adjusted or simple better communicated and promoted. But I think there's also a value in trying entirely new experiments. The Historic Picnic Project has its roots in several "alternative" arts endeavors that I've participated in recently that seem to be tapping into fresh sources of inspiration and talent and that have shown promise for producing lasting benefits both for the people involved in them and rippling out to others at second and third hand.
The basic idea was to center around a topic -- one that is specific and concrete enough to provide a unifying focus, but one that contains enough diverse aspects to allow and encourage participation by a wide variety of people with all types of skills and backgrounds. Then we take that topic and ... DO stuff. Learn stuff about the topic. Analyze what we (and others) learn to turn into something we can apply in the SCA. Make stuff based on our analysis. Have picnics using the stuff we make. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Q: Ok, I'm game. So where do I start?
A: As a practical matter, it may help to start by joining one of the on-line forums that have been set up for the group. There's currently a Yahoo mailing list, a Live Journal community, and a Facebook page. The intent is that membership in any one should provide you with enough information and contacts to get started participating in the project. Naturally, each forum has different strengths and weaknesses, but the intent is to cross-post key information between them so that you don't feel you have to join everything! There will also be a section of my own website dedicated to the Picnic Project.
Q: Hey, I don't want to join more on-line groups, I just want to Do Art! When do we get to the Doing Art part?
A: One main principle of this project is that it is what the participants make of it. We start Doing Art at any point when someone involved in the project says, "Hey, I'm going to Do some Art -- want to join me?" and provides information for whatever level of participation they want from others.
Q: But you're going to tell us what to do, right?
A: Nope. I'm here as a facilitator and a moderator. I hope I can also provide some inspiration and direction. But mostly I'm here as just another person Doing Art. I don't have a Grand Plan. I don't have a schedule and deadlines. I don't really even have a final goal except for people to learn things, to make stuff, and to do stuff revolving around historic picnics. And then to move on and learn, make, and do stuff about other topics on their own afterwards.
Q: Um ... I was all excited but now I'm just confused. Help?
A: OK. Let me tell you a little bit about my vision. I wanted to find a way of bringing people together in communal creative activities in some sort of connected way. So not just individual classes or workshops, but where there's a thread joining together a lot of activities. That way people can feel part of a larger project even if they can only participate in a few of the individual activities. And I wanted to find a way for those creative activities to bring something back to the SCA as a whole to enrich our experience -- both on a historic and a practical level.
A big inspiration for some of the aspects of this project has been the two "Perfectly Period Feast" projects, where a large somewhat amorphous mass of people worked on a wide variety of aspects of the project: the physical equipment, the behavior, the clothing, the food, the whole social context. But, quite frankly, a project of that type is very daunting and consumes a lot of time and energy. I didn't want to compete with the PPF concept for the same people's time and energy -- I wanted to take some of those aspects and apply them to a more manageable scale and with smaller and more immediate goals.
I'd been looking at a number of images of picnic-like activities for an entirely different research project (involving shepherds) and it struck me as being a great focus for this communal creative project. Like the PPF, it includes a lot of different types of objects and activities that could be researched and re-created. But even the fanciest picnics are much more manageable than a formal dinner in terms of equipment and infrastructure. What's more, given that so many of our events are casual, outdoor activities, there are a lot of opportunities to "try out" introducing elements from historic picnics into our everyday SCA activities. After all, everyone has to eat at events. And picnic-style dining is far more compatible with most people's resources and abilities than formal dinners are.
I also wanted the "output" of my communal creative project to be something that both participants and others could add to their SCA lives piecemeal, even if they couldn't go all-out. So I wanted a certain "modularity" not only in terms of the research aspect and the re-creation aspect and the performance aspect, but in terms of presenting the results to the world at large. Again, I was inspired by how some aspects of the PPF have started to infiltrate and enrich a wider sphere, even on a piecemeal scale. Not everybody's dinner can have a full complement of carvers and servers, but everyone can learn proper medieval carving techniques. Not everybody is going to make or buy fancy aquamanilles and Perugia towels, but it takes very little effort to formally wash your guest's hands before dinner.
Similarly, I hope that the Picnic Project will provide a "menu" of ideas, information, and practices that people can incorporate into events to add that extra little something in a way that is compatible with each of our needs, desires, and resources. Maybe it will be just the knowledge that it's historically authentic to spread a tablecloth on the grass and sit around it on the ground to eat lunch. Maybe it will be looking at the types of foods and dishes that medieval people served when portability was a factor and you were a long way from a kitchen.
Q: Ok, you've got me hooked again. But I'd still like some ideas of where to get started.
A: Well, before we can start making and doing things related to medieval picnics, we have to know what sorts of things we should be making and doing. So we start with research.
Q: Aiiiiieeee! You said the "R" word.
A: Yup, I did. Get over it. "Research" is simply another word for finding things out. How do we find out about medieval picnics? The easiest place to start, of course, are looking at pictures of people picnicking. The slide show provides some examples of images: tapestries of nobles playing at being shepherds in the fields; manuscripts about hunting showing both nobles and huntsmen having a meal before the hunt; drawings of lovers dining in a garden; frescos of people enjoying the spring by going out in the fields to dine al fresco. Look for more examples of this sort. Look through surveys of medieval art and figure out what sorts of scenes show picnics, then look for more of that type. And think about where else you might find information. Do cookbooks discuss dishes specifically for the purpose of picnic-like meals? Are there descriptions of picnic-like meals for celebrations or as part of financial account records? What about literature? Do people in medieval chivalric romances ever have picnics? (Hint: the answer is yes. See if you can find some.) How about poetry? Are there poems that talk about picnic-like events? What happens at them? Who holds them and why? Go back to the art. What objects are present? What types of foods? What clues do we have as to why the people are having this particular type of meal? What else are they doing besides eating? Do the answers to these questions change with the time, the place, and the purpose?
Once you start thinking about the answers to these questions, you're reading to start making and doing things.
Q: How are you defining "picnic"? For example, would people eating on a journey, like a pilgrimage, be having a picnic?
A: I don't want to be too dogmatic about a definition, but here's what I've come up with: A picnic is a meal consumed outside permanent structures, especially in a setting not primarily associated with dining, and especially as part of a recreational activity.
Q: You've been talking about "medieval" picnics, but I've got some great resources on Renaissance ones. Is that a problem?
A: Lazy shorthand. The intent is to cover anything within the scope of the SCA.
Q: So I've started collecting up some information that I think other people might be interested in -- what do I do with it.
A: Post it in an appropriate place in one of the online forums. The Yahoo mailing list has an associated website where we can upload pictures and files. The Facebook page has a space for photo albums and you can post links to content elsewhere. You can include pictures in Live Journal postings (but please, behind a cut unless they're single small ones) as well as links to other content. I can put stuff on the picnic pages of my website if people don't have their own sites. In all cases, if you aren't sure how (or whether) to post something, or don't have the technical know-how to do it, that's part of what your moderator/co-ordinator is here for. Contact me and we'll arrange something.
Q: I want to have a pottery workshop to make some of those cool canteen-like flasks that everyone is drinking from. How do I set that up.
A: Wow, you're ambitious! Here's the deal for all face-to-face activities relating to the project. The person who takes the initiative of sponsoring an activity gets to make the rules. If you want to throw it open to all comers, say so. If you have to limit it to a certain number of people, say so. If you're having a private workshop with just a few friends but you want to share the results afterwards, say so. There's no requirement that every activity that's part of the project has to be open to everybody, but please be clear in your communications about it so people know your ground-rules. Anyway, chose your place and time, chose how open the invitation is, let people know if they have to bring anything and if there will be costs, and announce it. Both the Yahoo list and the Facebook page have calendars associated with them where event information can be posted.
Q: I want to invite people to the workshop, but I'm creeped out at the thought of posting my address on a public list. What do I do?
A: The usual solution in this sort of situation is to give people an e-mail address to contact you for information and then coordinate those details off-list/off-group. But we're getting off-topic a bit into mechanics.
Q: I'm really, really excited about this but nobody else is posting stuff on the groups. Is it just you and me?
A: Actually, at the point when I'm writing this, you're just a voice inside my head. So I sure hope more people join! Tell all your friends. It'll be fun!
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