KSCA member Lucas Ihlein was recently invited to contribute a short essay about soil for Kaldor Public Art Projects. The essay has been published in an education resource for school students about artist Asad Rasa, who created a 300 tonne soil installation in Sydney's Carriageworks in May 2019..
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
For those who haven’t been following the project “An Artist A Farmer and a Scientist walk into a bar…”, I am participating by repeating a work I did in 2014 at Hill End, “A Hole for Hill End”, in which I dug a hole for a number of ironic and non ironic reasons in the historic gold mining town Hill End. You can read about it here, because I blogged about it, which means that I won’t have to blog about it here.
Anyway, that’s the past and this is the present, and in the present I am repeating what I did in the past, with modifications. That’s the way things go. The idea to repurpose the work for the current project came from the director of our partner organisation The Living Classroom, Rick Hutton, who suggested KSCA might produce a permanent public artwork for The Living Classroom as a part of AFS. I’m not a fan of public artwork (which you can read about here) and was uneasy at the prospect. I eventually came around to the idea of digging the hole. The original hole was ephemeral, and I filled it in after completing it but this time I proposed to make it permanent. My immediate rationale was that it would be an art work that wouldn’t result in a work of art, but instead would produce a classroom. It occurred to me that this was just what The Living Classroom needed. As a facility dedicated to disseminating understanding of regenerative agriculture, horticulture, permaculture, ie the land, their work was exclusively carried out above ground, across which you could walk and talk about what was happening underneath you. What they needed, I reasoned, was a classroom that allowed people to experience the land from the inside. And so the hole. I know from personal experience how wonderful it is to be in a hole and thought yes, this is an experience I can contribute.
So that was the shining dream. The grubby reality, as we should expect, was a different matter, and thus the title for this blog post. The reason I am starting on day three is that I originally came up to do this residency months ago and promptly fell sick. I got a little work done, but eventually I packed it in after completing roughly two days of work. Now that I am returned, the structure for the project is in shambles. I’m not sure what I’m doing nor why, but that won’t stop me from doing it. In fact, the exact same thing happened the first time. I had some rather clever structure in place that would govern the limits of the work, setting it at five eight hour days a week for one month and this would determine the depth of the hole. This was meant to make some kind of comment on work itself or something. Yet, it almost immediately became impossible to complete because… I kept getting paid work in the city that meant I couldn’t complete the schedule I had set for myself. Oh Irony.
In the end, it greatly improved the work, discarding an arbitrary limit and reducing the work to what it was… work.
So I am starting on the third day and looking forward to whatever improvement this collapse of intention will deliver to the project. I have no idea what it is, nor whether it will come. I suppose I will just have to dig for it.
Diego Bonetto is creating Wildfood Store, a marketplace for the by-product of farming: weeds. This sounds good, forward thinking and inventive, but the common thread that keeps surfacing is that people do not know what to do with them.
A huge thank you to Justin Hewitson for creating this wonderful video - an overview of the AFS project along with some of the ideas that have gone into its making!
Lucas Ihlein reports back from his visit to Allan Yeomans’ workshop on the Gold Coast. Here he got to witness how Allan’s amazing invention to measure carbon content in soil actually functions. It involved some serious baking…