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The Weather Café – An Ecological Approach to Event Design

21 September 2020

The foundations of Variable Matter can be found in The Weather Café (2016), a people centred design-led experience developed in Leeds. The project set a blueprint for how we might create an event that the engages with everyday people in questioning our sense of place. Below we present an outline of the project to give a sense of what is possible, and the questions that we feel are important in designing new artistic and co-creation projects in the future.  

The Weather Café was an immersive experiential café based in Leeds, UK. Inside, the shifting environment evolved through digital technologies that responded to the changing climate outside. The wind blew, the rain fell, and thick clouds unfolded around the audience. Working with creative technologist Daniel John Jones and composer James Bulley, the piece was inspired by the weather conditions of the moment. The sound responded to the shifting winds, the light changed with the visibility of the sky and the rain fell with the rising humidity – the space became its own digital microclimate. Real grass and moss covered the floors and walls to create a biologically living space. The Weather Café presented the voices and intimate stories of over 100 people living in and connected to Leeds – the café acted as a barometer, reflecting the emotional climate of the city and provided a free space of contemplation for anyone who passed by. It attracted 1000s visitors in just a few weeks and captured an appetite for more playful experiences in our cities. Approaching an event ecologically differs from conventional works; in that it considers the multiple spheres of experience in a relational context with the wider world. It accounts for the immediate tactile encounter of audience members with the event and its materials such as light, sound, smells and the objects that furnish it. But it also accounts for the social, political and ecological elements of design.

Weather provides the perfect frame through which to consider the subtle, shifting and dynamic potentials of space. Weather is both immediate and global and offers a vehicle for making sense of our internal feelings with an external metaphor. In day-to-day life air, wind, smells, light and sound are not merely objects that we perceive, we are intimately entwined with them. Weather, in this context, offered a design framework and method for considering how individuals might connect to or become bound-up with the event. In creating a space where participants can feel the wind, or smell the rain-soaked grass, we encourage them to inhabit the environment — not as distant observers but entwined within the microclimate of the event – it builds an intimacy and personal connection with our guests.

The Weather Café used real time as a central dramaturgical device. The real grass was subject to the elements over the weeks: individual blades were slowly crushed into the dirt and untouched grass grew wildly along the edges. As you watched the wind blow on the outside, a soft breeze could be felt inside. The café design was based in real time (as opposed to a historical or ‘other world’ time, or the static experience of a regular café), it connected with the city outside as it could be seen through large windows that looked out onto, and literally framed the street. This framing of the outside, combined with the reflective space within, provided participants with permission to be still and reflect on the relationship between their own inside and outside spaces. Importantly, the café provided a space to consider others around you: headphones played short interview recordings of the city’s residents, documenting how they felt in their lives. We carefully curated the stories to represent the multiple voices of Leeds, with a strong prominence of the local Yorkshire accent inviting visitors to clearly locate the café within that particular place. This was a space for and about the people of Leeds. A fragile voice heard in the headphones becomes part of a sensitive reception – the latent potential stories around us materialised for all to hear. The space was bound-up with the larger spatial dynamics of the city, its people and its climate. The ecology was at once intimate and epic.

On three evenings the café was handed over to different community groups in the city. Emmaus, a local homeless charity hosted a ‘pay it forward’ event: they cooked a dinner, served to local homeless sector volunteers, who ate whilst hearing the stories of the ex-homeless community members. We developed a partnership with Emmaus that emerged out of initial interviews and then workshops. This was an integral element of the artwork. We wanted to understand how the café space could make a more productive social impact, how it might bring communities and cultures together but through an artistic frame. We did this by sharing the space, allowing it to become a platform for others. There are many spaces in our cities that could be used in this way. The Weather Café was temporary, our hope was that it might show the possibilities for using space to make us feel connected and inspired.


Thinking ecologically proposes many questions for the role of design: how does the design shift or change with time? How is the work situated within large spheres of a place, its people and inhabitants? How can design shift and adapt to different audiences? How does it allow participants to connect with others? How might participants and event emerge together? How might companies and civic institutions better explore space to transform our understanding of each other and our environments? To think ecologically is to consider the inhabitants of an event as emergent with its imaginative possibility in real time: to enable the guest and partners to feel bound-up with the experience, to invite reflection on personal feelings and identities with a deep sense of wider connection to others both locally and globally. For Variable Matter this offers a profound way to position ourselves as a design-led co-creation studio, not merely as an event experience company. We are driven by asking how art might create an incision in our everyday; our methods explore new ways of inhabiting space – to inspire our audiences to make meaningful connections.

Written by David Shearing
Images by Tom Joy


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