Our deepest dive yet into the science of humus with Glenn Morris. The key message remains: the complexity of nature may continue to elude full scientific scrutiny, but we know enough to respect it and support its regeneration.
by Alex Wisser
On Sunday May 20 we gathered with around a hundred lost souls on the rich material of absorption, an installation of 300 tonnes of soil by Asad Rasad, a Kaldor Public Art Project at Carriageworks in Sydney’s inner west. We gathered to talk about soil and our Artist Farmer Scientist project.
We were fortunate enough to have Costa Georgiadis lead our conversation between artist Ian Milliss, farmer Erika Watson (Epicurean Harvest), scientist Tim Cavagnaro (University of Adelaide) and Imogen Semmler (who insisted throughout the night that she was neither artist, scientist, or farmer - though she has been called all three of these things by other people at various times). Having been a passenger on the long journey of the “Artist, Farmer, Scientist” project, this conversation marked for me a hallmark, in which the three ‘participants’ seemed to join in dynamic conversation. Tim Cavagnaro is a leader in the field of soil ecology and brought with him not only a wealth of scientific knowledge, but also a developed consideration of how that knowledge might be helpfully disseminated to a broader community beyond the sciences. His position at The School of Agriculture, Food and Wine also made his presence particularly pertinent as the inability of traditional science to integrate, think about and engage with complexity has been a running theme presented by the subject matter we are studying. Science isn’t great at complexity, preferring instead to narrow in on single phenomena, reduced to a minimum of interactions within highly controlled environments. Ecology is impossible to study by this method and so Tim’s work and much of his discourse centred around how science can meaningfully grasp complexity without loosing its rigour as science. To make this point, he brought out the story of an irate farmer who once complained that scientists learned everything they knew by growing plants in pots and then presumed to lecture farmers on how to farm entire landscapes.
The theme for the night, to reduce the discussion for convenience, seemed to revolve around scales of relationship. From the dwarfing relationship of a farmer to the land, to the scales of complexity that exist in the biodiversity of a teaspoon of soil, or the 800 sq meters of surface area in a teaspoon of clay to the effects of facing the immensity of global climate change, or the vast intimidating prospect of attempting to mobilise a global population to compel political change. It made me realise that it is not only science that lacks the tools for comprehending, or even relating to, acknowledging or grasping complexity and scale, but that we as a society are pretty shit at it too. In our secular ambition, we have lost our interface with anything vast enough to escape our ability to know it. It is a real problem, and one that was too large for us to answer on the night.
One suggestion did come from Imogen Semmler, when asked about whether we were doing enough to make significant change. She answered that she works on one paddock at a time - that the thought of attempting to change the whole world is simply overwhelming, but that she can effectively work with one farmer on fixing one paddock at a time, and that hopefully this, along with everyone else working on whatever paddock (literal or metaphorical) that they happened to be standing in, might accumulate enough effect to create significant change.
Thank you to Kaldor Public Public Art Projects, Carriageworks, and Costa Georgiadis
In this 3 hour workshop with Gilbert Grace participants will learn about waste conscious art forms, focussing on the process of making hemp paper. As an artist obsessed with minimising waste Gilbert looks for any opportunity to reuse and recycle the materials in his paintings and printmaking. Gilbert often scavenges the timber and hand crafts the tools needed for his practise. It not only hones useful skills but allows him to contemplate the process of making.
Location: Lyttleton Stores Cooperative, 1 Badgery Crescent, Lawson.
When: June 2, 9 - 12am.
Click here to book! The first ten to book will receive a mold and deckle, hand-made by Gilbert himself, to take home!
What to Expect:
Participants will receive a sample of some of the hemp products available. Participants will be using a mold and deckle to catch enough of the rag to form a coherent sheet of pulp which is then allowed to dry to form a sheet of paper. Any organic material can be added for effect. Leave this workshop with a greater appreciation of sustainable art practice and take home practical knowledge of how to create your own hemp paper from natural fibres.
About The Tutor:
Hello, my name is Gilbert Grace and I hold an MFA from Sydney College of the Arts. I trained as a painter. It was through recreational bicycle use that I came to appreciate the hidden wonders of Sydney including the vestiges of its pre and post colonial past. My interest in hemp derives from having long ago realised the toll western agricultural practices were taking on the soil and looking for alternative foods, fuels and agricultural practices. This seeking for alternatives is what drove me take Ian Milliss' caricature of Kandos (see the story here) and turn it on its head by making it a template for action… which ultimately led to the formation of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation.
What is included:
Folk will get hands-on with upcycling discarded fabric into paper. Steps involved are cutting, blending (macerating), using a mold and deckle, and ideas for drying.
By Alex Wisser
It is difficult to decide what was more beautiful, the weather or the landscape as we gathered at Bula Mirri Farm in Hartley, to embark on our Art and Farming tour, picnic and conversation. Like WB Yeats, let us settle on the fact that you cannot tell the dancer from the dance, and the day, like the landscape, like the people gathered, like the food and the conversation, blended into a single experience that was its own whole, generous, warm, fascinating thing. Our sincere gratitude to our hosts Erika Watson and Hayden Druce for their hospitality and the generosity with which they opened their farm, and their experience as farmers up to us.
The day began with an intro from Ian Milliss and a little conversation with Erika and Hayden before we headed off down the dirt road to the Keyline dam that they are building on the property. The principles of Keyline farming originate with farmer/inventor PA Yeomans, who was the subject of a project that was an early antecedent of all that KSCA does now. His work is now part of the dna of the permaculture and regenerative farming movements.
It was at this point that I learned something about our Artist Farmer Scientist project that I had not realised before. Erika and Hayden spoke eloquently of the struggle of farming, the challenges of working under drought conditions to raise enough produce to make a living and to care for the land at the same time. While the picturesque setting and the idealism of their endeavour might have appealed to us day trippers, I imagine that the daily grind and the isolation of farming could get dire. Having talked to enough farmers, you come to understand why depression and suicide are such prevalent issues. Erika and Hayden were able to turn to the idea of art, re-conceiving their work as artistic making, a gesture that would re-energise their project. As KSCA proceeds with our strange project of attempting to engage art in the real world (in this instance, the real world of farming), I have thought about a number of the ways that art can contribute to real world cultural change. Art, for instance, has the capacity change perception, disrupt conventional thinking and to communicate with diverse audiences. But it had not occurred to me that art could play this important role as well. It reminded me that culture, when it is practiced in a manner that is integrated into daily life, can motivate that life with the meaning that it produces, as well as connecting those who practice it together. Seeing this great crowd of people on this farm, keen to overcome the abstraction and detachment through which farming is commonly perceived, was a benefit to the farmer as much as anyone else - connecting them into the society which they fed.
We finally returned to the marquee and had our picnic. And a pleasant picnic it was, before we returned to the serious business of talking about art and science and farming.
Artist Allan Giddy discussed his long history of working with solar and alternative energy in artworks. He wowed the crowd with his first solar artwork that he made back in 1994, and his recent work Flow. Mark Swartz spoke about the journey he and scientist Bjorn Sturmberg have taken to conceive of a work that would fit within the farming environment. A poignant discussion followed around the challenges of communication. Erika and Hayden spoke of the intensity of feeling farmers experience during drought, how much they care for the land and their livestock. Mark made the salient point that though this was true, farmers were on the whole not very good at communicating this relationship. Erika replied that this was often because the relationship was too big, too complex and overwhelming for words. Mark pointed out that this was exactly why artists could be useful - because we work visually, and conceptually, and are often able to convey complex emotion and ideation in a single intuitive hit.
This conversation was complemented by solar scientist Bjorn Sturmberg’s commentary (Bjorn joined us via skype), which revealed another aspect of our project that had not yet occurred to me. Bjorn spoke about the struggle to conceive of a work that would satisfy the artist’s need for aesthetic presentation, the scientist’s concern with efficiency and the farmer’s need to consider production. It was a fascinating description of the consequences of putting four people from highly specialised disciplines together to create something. The diversity of perspectives was disruptive to each category of knowledge. By asking these individuals to consider an object in common, we were asking them to think of it holistically, as an integrated object that is at once cultural, scientific, and agricultural. This appears as a problem, because most of us are very good at comprehending things in isolation, and completely incompetent at apprehending them as embedded within a complex reality. Was this not the point that Erika and Hayden had raised when they spoke of the need to make farming into a cultural activity?
This is something regenerative farmers have constantly said to us throughout this project: that ecological systems are complex and made more so by human social and cultural systems. How then can we think about them properly, if we insist on reducing them to the simplicity demanded by our conventional means of understanding? Perhaps then we should follow the poet and recognise that there is no distinction between the dancer and the dance.
When the folks at Lyttleton Atelier approached us with the idea of mounting an exhibition of works in progress from the Artist Farmer Scientist project in their window gallery, we very promptly and enthusiastically said yes please.