The Last Meal: Hawker dishes in the future (The Substation, 29-30 March 2019)

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The documentation of this project, “The Last Meal”, comes a bit late – although perhaps a little fittingly because a number of food-related ailments seemingly kept me from being able to work at my maximum potential.

Earlier this year, I was fortuitously brought together with Chef Ming (of JAM at Siri House) – by The Substation – and thus began a collaboration to reinterpret local/hawker fare into a kind of anxiety-provoking menu. A disturbingly uncanny trip up and down and around memory lane! A speculative vision of our human weakness fondness for nostalgia meets hard future utilitarian compromises! An experimental work for the palate! It was truly an pleasure and honour to be able to work with Chef Ming who took it on with so much energy and so many ideas to take it further, especially the start of the project coinciding with a period of severe fatigue for me.

I had recently sought treatment (CBT/Exposure Therapy) for what has been a lifelong affliction of emetophobia (a completely debilitating fear of vomiting) and an unreasonable aversion to acidic or vinegary foods (a difficult thing to explain at times, because it can sound absurd to preemptively tell everyone “NO VINEGAR PLZ” in the off-chance that any unknown dish might have vinegar). And I had also seen an endocrinologist to ask if there was anything to explain my ridiculously tiny appetite and aversion to cold temperatures – and was subsequently diagnosed with hypothyroidism (so said all the tests, despite me being an extremely hyper person). And finally, the biggest factor of all that had triggered this intense self-examination was: pregnancy! SHOCK! HORROR! Yes folks, the Ding and South are unexpectedly multiplying (stay tuned for a documentation of this new long-term project), and this meant that for a period of time during the first trimester I developed an strong aversion to my favourite food of all – eggs! This was very hard to live down indeed, compounding all of my food anxieties despite my attempts to deal with them head-on like an adult by following up with all these medical investigations. So all of this was in the background as we began discussions for this food project….

The starting point for our conversation had been one of my past projects from a Healthcare Workshop with the Kyoto Institute of Design x Royal College of Art, whilst I was doing my MA at Design Interactions (RCA). In a way, that workshop’s premise was already a bit like smashing two worlds together: you had that base of a historically practical and functional Japanese approach to researching and designing for elderly care (I remember our Japanese collaborator bringing to us these booklets of amazing innovative mobility aids and novel healthcare aids designed to assist in every aspect of elderly care) – meeting the provocative, parallel realities of a speculative future (as students from our Design Interactions programme used to call it, ahem, a more “DI” approach).

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Kyoto 2014: Kyoto D-lab held a Healthcare Futures Workshop centering on robotics in collaboration with the Design Interactions Course at the Royal College of Art – led by Professor Anthony Dunne and James Auger and D-lab’s Professor Julia Cassim.


Me, Calum Bowden, and Hiroko Narasaki worked on a project imagining a scenario where a robot was to prepare your “last meal”, having collected a lifetime of data of your food preferences, being able to robotically prepare the food you wanted in a texture that you could consume despite all your age-related changes in chewing and swallowing physiology. We discussed the ways in which factors such as end-of-life, food preferences, and necessary food modifications could be determined, and surveyed Japanese people on a list of foods they liked most. (Obvs this was also borne from our common interests in eating lots of good food in japan and spending a long time in supermarkets and food halls looking at all the beautiful plastic foods and gorgeous food packagings…)

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At the time we also thought that there might also be the issue where a meal is the sum of many parts and that people develop habits for eating certain foods together with others. But when we collect the data about the meal, the essential connections between unusual connections could also be broken – and odd pairings might be made. For example, in this case someone told us they loved foods such as Annin Tofu, Premium Niigata Rice, and Ashirari Decorations (to liven up the plating of her food). But in reality, no Japanese person would logically make a menu of Annin Tofu (Almond Jelly) together with Rice.

This was the starting point of the conversations we had to develop The Last Meal in Singapore, and to engage with a wider set of concerns facing the food industry in the near future (and specific to Singapore). Rather than to capture nostalgia in a perfectly rendered dish, the idea was to invoke the sense of the uncanny through subtle means. A twist of presentation, an unfamiliar texture, a physical constraint. The amount of alienation had to be right, and it was good that Ming kept us all on track by focusing on elements that would be universally recognisable by all Singaporeans.

One thing that was clear was that when we imagined someone eating these foods in a near-future post-apocalyptic bunker, the person in the bunker was very specifically us. A Singaporean, here in the present. It wasn’t a baby from the future who hadn’t had the chance to gain the lived experience of enjoying hawker food in the form that we eat right now. It wasn’t someone from a foreign country being introduced to Singaporean hawker cuisine for the first time. It wasn’t about exoticising or fetishising our nostalgia for hawker cuisine and ‘heritage foods’. It was instead about transporting a Singaporean living in the present into a distant, uncertain food future where perhaps food security was an issue; where automation and efficiency was top priority to the extent of influencing hawker practices, where alternative proteins had become widely accepted in an era of land scarcity; where steady state foods would be commonplace backups; where a rapidly aging population would seek out enzyme softened versions of favourite foods to recapture the tastes of olde…

DONT BE SAD, HAVE YOUR LAST MEAL WITH US! Tickets selling fast. Join us on 29 & 30 March for an interactive art experience with a four-course dystopian take on local hawker fare, designed specially by chef Ming Tan (@maehng), in collaboration with visual artist and technologist Debbie Ding. SAD: The Last Meal addresses Singapore's obsession with nostalgia, by looking at the alleged death of the Singaporean hawker, and the anxiety around losing a facet of heritage that this country holds so dear—our local food culture. Our 7pm slots are nearly sold out, grab your tickets for the 9pm slot at sadthelastmeal.peatix.com. Tickets are $35 per person. #thevanishing #citieschangepeopledie #subafterdark #hawkerculture #sgfood #singapore #nostalgicsg #heritagesg #nolstagicpanic

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Somehow this also needed to be rooted in reality, so we planned to shoot a series of audiovisual stimulation aids to excite (or confuse) the senses and stimulate (or deflate) the appetite. With the help of Cain and the sub team, we shot Ming in his kitchen at Siri House cooking up the originals of the dishes that were about to be reinterpreted (or as Ming likes to say, that we were about to try to knock off the pedestal…)

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Although we had recorded sound on site in the kitchen, the original sound was not usable – it held the sound of a living kitchen with food being prepared and a restaurant during service. If I had used that original sound, it would feel like you were a disembodied spectator looking into some other space when you listened to the video like that. But I wanted the cooking to sound like it was actually happening right front in front of you. LIVE SOUNDS in whatever space you were in. So the sound had to be totally manufactured from scratch….

I suppose sound design for a video to be played back in an open space is always like putting on overly-dramatic stage makeup so that the details can also be seen under harsh stage lights and from a distance. So I did make some of the sounds very extreme and almost comedic. For example, for a bouncing fish cake, I decided to use some exaggerated bouncing balloon sounds that surprisingly seemed to work. And I cut up a lot of juicy leaves (actually they were leftover strawberry tops and stems) and swished about a lot of polymorph beads and mic-ed everything up painfully closely to get the most goosebump inducing foley sound.

I was inspired by the foley sound I had heard on the documentary Fruit Hunters and a show about Chaoshan cuisine that has been on Netflix recently, Flavourful Origins. And I guess you could say I made it all in the spirit of ASMR videos.

These were to be screened in front of the audience as they ate the new reinterpretations of dishes… I am a little shy about showing the final mix in isolation online because it truly was a bit over-the-top (I also have to confess that I did some of the final edits in the controlled access machine room with two operational laser cutters and their giant extractor fans whirring noisily in the background so my working conditions were also less than ideal) but I might make a trailer mix when I have more time over the weekend.

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Some pictures behind the scenes…

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Chef Ming peeks through the curtain to see what guests we have for the night

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Chicken Rice in Kueh Form

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Chef Ron doles out the secret sauce (cucumber)

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Retextured Carrot Cake, first lovingly batch-cooked in a wok with two different varieties of chai por, then brutally blended so to allow it to be hygienically and efficiently reheated in retort pouches; all to be squeezed directly (or sucked up) into the mouths of the audiences.

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Laksa in a dried form, vacuum packed for longevity and easy long term storage.

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A special Laksa rempah coating the puffed rice, ready to be rehydrated at a moment’s notice to produce a seriously authentic tasting laksa soup.

Now that I am writing out this post I realised I forgot to take a picture of dessert – the tau huay!


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All of the production of this food was entirely undertaken by the amazing Chef Ming (and his assistant Chef Ron), who are both extremely knowledgeable and superbly skilled and inventive with the food they prepare. The actual realisation of this project completely wouldn’t have been possible without Ming’s professional and gastronomical expertise and his willingness to do something quite so daring with the food. For most chefs would rather make a pleasing menu, rather than one that draws gasps of shock from an audience; a menu that manages to bring the audience to relook their food with a critical eye. I am not qualified to cook the food and serve it to a public audience for I have not the required basic food hygiene training accreditation to do so, nor do I know the intricacies of how to organise or run a service! My role in collaboration felt much smaller; because ALL the props has to go to Ming’s efforts and hard work to make this experience a reality! I only provided the idea and brain fodder for the project, but all of the amazing food (and food innovation work!) was the Chef’s work! It was really my honour to be able to work with Ming.

Countless thanks must also go to The Substation: Annabelle and Si Min for facilitating the entire process and helping to take care of all of the small details, as well as all of the Substation staff (and interns Ariel and Celine) for all their help. Without the help of so many people this wouldn’t have been possible!

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Addendum:

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Some highly observant audience members asked me on the night why there wasn’t ice kachang and nasi lemak on the menu. I was puzzled about the specificity of this question until I realised that they were referring to the image they had seen on the promotional material drawn by the designer, which ended up being printed in an unexpectedly huge size and mounted on the wall on the night of the event. Well, the answer is that at an earlier stage the shortlisted dishes originally included ice kachang and chicken rice so that was drawn into the flyer. However, the chicken rice was in a pyramid shape that could have been easily interpreted as the pyramid of a nasi lemak as well. Well spotted y’all.

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In case you were wondering yes to the credit of the designer the portraits did have a rather uncanny likeness…

In the Press…

Plural Mag – The Hunger Games
The Peak Magazine – SAD: The Last Meal art exhibition serves up dystopian versions of beloved hawker dishes
SG Magazine – This is how local chef Ming Tan interprets dystopian hawker cuisine
CNA Lifestyle – Kitchen Stories: Fighting insecurity and emotions to prove himself to older chefs

That Black Box on Kensington Gore

I’m currently working on an “index” or documentation of 10 years of the Design Interactions Department (Royal College of Art) which I hope to finish soon (ie: before December). Much gratitude goes to Nina Pope who was the one who suggested it in the first place and allowed me to retrieve whatever flotsam and ephemera was left in the studio. I still have many people I want to write to and I confess that I originally meant to finish it by September, but it has taken me more time than expected and I am also now in Singapore working on other things. But since this is already coming after the graduation and there are no real deadlines except the one where I throw in the towel – I thought I should exercise due diligence, and do a little more digging into the wider history of design education as well as other courses which have since ceased to be, such as the Environmental Media course which was intrigued about some time back (but found not very much information about it online)…

I had never been to the Special Collections prior to this, nor was I particularly enthused about the College Library with its considerably short opening hours whilst I was studying (Imperial’s library was very close by and I had access to it 24-hours). I suppose the thing is that I wanted a more general library at the time but the RCA Library collection does seem quite… idiosyncratic, as is likely to become the case with any modest-sized library of about 70,000+ books (in comparison with an extreme example, the British Library holds 170 million books). As a result, I’ve always felt that the RCA Library is more like a kind of place you wander into and encounter some pictures in an old book that you’ve never seen before – rather than a comprehensive place you could go to find any specific book in a university course reading list.

With the present difficulty of entering the college outside of term time without a pass (now becoming a real schlep with all the signing-ins, waiting to be collected, etc – despite ostensibly working on/for the college in some capacity!), I was determined to MAXIMISE MY LIBRARY EXPERIENCE! FIND ALL THE MATERIALS! SEE ALL THE BOOKS! And so scoured its lending shelves quite thoroughly for interesting, rare or antiquarian finds! (In this one respect, I recommend the very first section to the right on the ground floor. One usually might not think to go there as there are no books on the right wall which is the only wall you can see, but the left wall does hold what are probably some of the most expensive books which are hidden out of view. That one wall seems to be holding the bulk of the variously large and oversize books – where you will find gems such as an ORIGINAL 1904 edition of Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur).

Never did I think that one day I would actually read a book about the Royal College of Art from the context of a former student looking at its history. Several years ago, when I first entertained the thought of further studies, I began copying the statements issued by universities and departments to potential students into my wiki. Don’t laugh, but I was so serious about applying to RCA that I actually pasted a statement from the RCA prospectus onto the front page of my wiki: “The criteria for acceptance by the Royal College of Art are talent and potential, along with the commitment and the ambition to make a difference within an art or design discipline”.

If this is the statement issued by the university to the student, then what is the equivalent of the statement issued by the monarch to the institution which seeks to be a royal university? I mean, what makes the college so “royal”? There is in fact the Royal Charter that the RCA received in 1967 which made it a university (which I must admit I had not read before):

Royal Charter: Our objectives are ‘to advance learning, knowledge and professional competence particularly in the fields of fine arts, in the principles and practice of art and design in their relation to industrial and commercial processes and social developments and other subjects relating thereto, through teaching, research and collaboration with industry and commerce’.

Emphasis above is mine, but what is interesting is the repeated mention of industry and commerce in the charter. No such mention of industry and commerce is in the call to students, but I suppose the state of industry and commerce in the country is less the prerogative of the individual student and more that of those who are steering the college.

In former Rector Christopher Frayling’s book on the History of the Royal College of Art, Frayling writes that “it was clear in late 1970s that college was becoming test-case pour encourager les autres” – with the Undersecretary for Higher Education threatening that it might receive “less recurrent grant” in the future if the RCA did not respond enough to National needs and priorities as per its Royal Charter. In Spring 1981 a visiting committee also reported that although the RCA may be “thriving”, “it was neglecting its duty enshrined in Royal Charter” by not having enough links to industry and not making the revitalisation of the British economy its ultimate priority.

In a way I feel like the dissolution of avant-garde courses such as Environmental Media in the mid 1980s foreshadows that of the present day situation. Of course, these are two different situations, but the point to be made of both is that there has always posed a great difficulty in quantifying the value of art and design education. I suppose this is why a design school prospectus is always sure to have lists of graduates who have made it big in the industry or with their own commercial success stories or commercial companies. And an art school prospectus is going to write of the big international museums, fairs, and prestigious galleries their graduates have gone on to show and sell work at. How else do you quantify success? With significant HEFCE education funding cuts in the UK, the pressure is definitely on to “prove” that funding education is still a good investment.

For example, the strategic plan 2010-2016 by current Rector Paul Thompson stated outright a goal of “Expand(ing) the programme of Master’s courses to advance new developments in design and art, ensuring twenty-first century relevance”. As to the metric used to determine the success of this particular goal, the intended outcome was to be “a 50% increase in student numbers to approximately 1,500 by October 2014; this will be caused by additional recruitment to existing courses, combined with recruitment to new courses that have been successfully validated”. Strategic plan 2016-2021 envisions four new research centres and ten new postgraduate taught programmes and the student body will consequently have increased to between 2,300–3,000 by 2021. [You can read the strategic plans here on the list of RCA’s Corporate Publications]

Personally I would have expected “increase in student body” to have been classed under “Finance” goals from the beginning – instead of under the goal of “Relevance“; it comes across a little disingenuous when phrased as such. Only 5 years away and an expected 200% increase in the student body from 2011? I really don’t see how massive increases in student numbers will directly ensure twenty-first century relevance; it will instead increase the college’s income from tuition fees and reduce its dependence on HEFCE funding – which is a perfectly legitimate goal for the college.

Also, I find it problematic when I see statements like “unified, customer-focused approach to the delivery of academic and operational services” and “value-for-money” bandied about. Is this how one must write or speak in order to be understood by funding bodies? But what happened to the human poetry of intellectual curiosity that should be the foremost driving factor behind art and design research excellence today? I’m not really comfortable seeing a document that is being disseminated to students and stakeholders entirely wrapped up in jargon that may not be universally understood.

And it is not just this issue of quantifying value, which we see when a document is expressed entirely in business jargon. To speak of terminologies, I suppose the bottom line of programmes like Environmental Media and Design Interactions was to some extent, an insistence on ambiguity. Ambiguity in its materiality in the former, and ambiguity through its materiality in the latter.

An account from Frayling’s “The Royal College of Art: 150 Years of Art and Design”: “One reason why conceptualism, minimalism and performance art never developed solid roots within the existing Fine Art schools was that from 1975 onwards, the Department of Environmental Media had been created to teach the more avant-garde students who were emerging from post-Coldstream painting, Sculpture, and Film courses. This catch-all Department started life as “the Light Transmission and Projection unit” under Bob Hyde, rather uneasily sharing studios with Hugh Casson’s interior designers. But as the unit came of age – and in particular, as it proved to be more expensive than anticipated, with increasing use of video (or rather “time-based media”) – no one seemed to be sure whether it had more in common with Stained Glass (coloured light) or Sculpture (spatial art).”

[…] “In which case,” yelled the Glaswegian, “you’re like a surrealist painter trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture… If you’re not a dialectical materialist you’re not in the picture at all.” At that point he stormed out of the room, muttering about the secret police.”

At Design Interactions, the goal as I understand it, was that tutors were trying to guide us towards the production of a work that might only be partially contextualised within our world, presenting itself ambiguously as a physical object from another world within our world, simultaneously juxtaposing multiple ‘realities’ but crucially never allowing total escape from remembering that we are still from our own reality. Doing so would allow the work to transcend plain commentary into something more uncanny? More perturbing? Something supposedly more effective in stimulating the audience into a deeper engagement with the work and issues at hand.

The issue of ambiguity lies not only in the reception of the work but also each individual artist/designer/technologist who produces the work. How confusing that must be for anyone working OUTSIDE of the discipline looking at it, especially if the confusion arises for those trying to determine an institutionalised metric for calculating the efficacy of the works. Equally confusing it must be for artists or designers with a more malleable ‘voice’ – it is certainly not for all. My issue with the production of works (particularly in the case of student works, if I may be honest) was that sometimes as an outside viewer I simply could not read what the designer/artist’s intentions were. Whether a work is capable of concealing and revealing its position at the same time may be dependent entirely on the viewer’s common knowledge and shared understandings with the producer of the work, so the onus would be entirely on the viewer whom the author has no control over. In a sense then, the work doesn’t really end until you see what comes out from the other end (ie: the engagement of the viewer), leaving us with the problem of the black box that we have yet to unpack…

As this is getting quite long, I’m going to stop here for now and move on to… an anecdote about another black box!

Why is the Royal College of Art black?

It never occurred to me to google for a picture of the architecture of the school until I first personally visited it for an open day, but knowing on paper that it was in the grand old Albertopolis area with a long history with the South Kensington Museum, I actually expected it to be less… harsh and BLACK. One might imagine that this was meant to make the building stand out in the area – however, it appears the truth is actually quite the opposite!

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Images found on flickr by Chmee2, typeoneerror and Vicky Teinaki


The Darwin Building (Grade II listed) was designed in 1961, some years after the great Smog of 1952, which purportedly contributed to the demise of up to 4000 Londoners. This was also just before the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banning black smoke emissions and requiring urban residents and factory operators to use smokeless fuels. Even in 1962 there was a significant fog which killed around 750 Londoners due to the extreme levels of pollution caused by black smoke (burning of coal, etc).

So in the 60s, the other buildings in the area such as the Albert Hall and the V&A Museum’s terracotta design would have been covered in decades of thick black soot. Therefore, the RCA had been specially designed to have a “black brick and black concrete fondus” (both of which were rather expensive at the time) to suit the fabric of Albertopolis!

The entry on Historic England (the public body tasked with preserving and listing historic buildings/monuments) also makes this clear: “Reinforced concrete clad in dark red-brown brick intended to complement Norman Shaw’s Albert Hall Mansions, then uncleaned, on the other flank of the Royal Albert Hall.” In appearance, it is so dark as to appear black or grey from certain angles.

A couple years after its construction, London decided to clean up in the 1970s, perversely leaving the Darwin Building as the only outstanding sooty black building in Kensington Gore…

The Launch of the NewBiologist

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Early this year I began working on a project about the future of plant galls (plant tumours) – and I’ve written, edited and produced a magazine called “NewBiologist” which will be launched and shown tomorrow along with some prints from my series “Kensington Gall” – in a group show “Second Nature” at Espacio Gallery, which is at 159 Bethnal Green Road. The private view is at 6pm tomorrow. Come down if you are in London!

“Kensington Gall” is a story inspired by popular science journalism in NewScientist and creative non-fiction in the New Yorker, both of which I have been accidentally reading a lot of (because there are always new copies of it in the house thanks to George). I wrote a few other short articles, and spun these stories into a magazine I like to call the “NewBiologist”. I’ve written all of the words and made all of the images in it, and I’d love to hear people’s comments about the story. When I have more time to format it, I will release a digital copy as well, but in the meantime if you’d like to support it, please buy a copy of the magazine!

My main goal in the production of these images has been to produce something which has the unreal sheen of something computer-generated, have a high degree of photorealism, but be obviously handdrawn when observed close up. The entire image was digitally painted in Photoshop and is not a photograph.

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Plant pathogens such as the fungi Ustilago Maydis infect plants such as corn, by secreting enzymes which stimulate abnormal plant growth. The resultant “corn smut” tumours are considered an undesirable blight in the US, but in Mexico it is a coveted gourmet delicacy that is even sometimes intentionally cultivated, turning pathogen to cultigen.

What if plant tumours were to be intentionally bred and designed for ornamental purposes? In an exploration of long-form creative non-fiction style in popular science journalism today, Debbie Ding investigates these alternative plant futures.

Through the NewBiologist, Artist Debbie Ding interrogates the odd, secretive world of leisure gardeners who use synthetic biology to genetically engineer plant pathogens, which cause different plants to develop visually interesting tumours
– also known as ‘galls’

You can get a copy for £4 at Espacio Gallery or from me directly, or order it via the online cart at http://dbbd.bigcartel.com (£4 + Postage and Packing)


Espacio Gallery
Second Nature
May 22nd – June 3rd 2014

159 Bethnal Green Road
London E2 7DG
Preview Thursday May 22nd 6 – 9pm
Open daily 1-7pm including Weekends
Exhibition closes 5pm Tuesday June 3rd

Espacio Gallery and the Chelsea Fringe are pleased to present Second Nature, an exhibition that showcases exciting ideas from a group of national and international artists. Comprising works in a variety of media, the show provides a fresh look into some of the aspects related to the natural world.

ARTISTS
Tania Beaumont
Jennfier Bennett
Kanwal Dhaliwal
Debbie Ding
Ahmed Faroqui
Leigh Glover
Laura Gompertz
Ewa Goral
Sally Grumbridge
Russell Hall
Kate Nagle
Nicki Rolls
Clare Skill
Kirsty Stutter
Sandie Sutton
Maria Vesterinen
Jessica Ward

Facebook Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1472083986361590/