5 years ago, Imogen Semmler left the wacky world of festival production and art making to pursue an Ecology degree at UNE in Armidale. Now, with a vast soil science knowledge bank in her back pocket, she is pursuing a project that bridges these two worlds.
Mark and Bjorn are developing an on-farm solar energy project with horticulturalists Erika Watson and Hayden Druce of Epicurean Harvest (in Hartley). After meeting on the farm the four of them have exchanged some exciting ideas via email which we really needed to share with the world… In this post we have included some pictures from Epicurean Harvest’s November ‘I’ll be damned! farm resilience’ fundraiser event, when they opened their gates to a couple of hundred people who were treated to food, tours, music and talks. As a result they are well on their way to being able to fund the installation of some P.A. Yeomans-style keyline water conservation and irrigation infrastructure on their farm in 2019. Brilliant.
Email 1 - Mark writes…
…We are keen to start throwing some ideas back and forth with some of the concepts we were talking about on our visit. Ideas around how to be more creative in re-thinking the ways we move water around a property and what unconventional ways we can use energy that is self sufficient. And of course how to make it look amazing!
In our meeting we went down a few paths not limited to solar powered little buggies that transport hose and pump water around the paddock. We discussed the ideas of retractable dam covers and floating solar. We played with the concept of the whole farm being one big energy producing entity and how to relate that concept into an artwork.
Let us know some of your thoughts, also if you'd still like to work with us on this? Where you'd like to see it go and how it can benefit the farm?
Email 2: Erika writes…
…Our ideas are obviously coming from our own context, but applicable to the exciting movement happening in the agricultural space. We are also 2 people with science degrees and creative backgrounds (Hayden music, me painting).
After you visited we went though in more detail the ideas we had thrown out there in the initial email. With a bit of space we have had more thoughts on those and the applicable nature for wider uptake as an artistically beautiful and agriculturally functional piece of solar science.
Below I have fleshed out thoughts/concepts more, and knowing you don't have a trillion dollar budget, aimed high with the idea of concepts translated into more financially achievable outcomes.
We discussed the dam and water (obviously our biggest issue and ongoing threat to livelihood). We aim to have the dam in place/built by February. If the panels went over this, we were thinking instead of floating it would be better to be a shelter. Floating as we mentioned would block air flow and light to the dam, affecting biology, also the surface would fluctuate with rainfall or use and perhaps be problematic for panels resting in the water’s surface. A structure built over the dam or part of the dam, perhaps to look like carved tree trunks or woven from materials (thinking of your bamboo Mark, but perhaps would need to be in metal in the dam then to wood if needed and the garden by the bay in Singapore), panels as leaves/canopy. Functionally this would reduce evaporation, still allow light through for dam life, and contribute to farm power needs. The tree/s a direct relationship to real trees/plants, photosynthesis and power of solar energy. The trees that were in the water (ie "planted" at the bottom of the dam), would have to go in, at least in part, before it filled up... its highly unlikely we would empty it to do the project, I'm sure you totally understand that! This sounds epic, Hahaha! But thought I'd flesh out what I can see on this end. This would be beneficial to our farm and dam project, but also to many farmers, who look to bore/groundwater as a source of irrigation as it doesn't evaporate... until you use it. We don't want to use groundwater, water in the ground/soil is the best place for it to be! Taking it up, throws it into the atmosphere, and moves it into the different water cycles around the planet. Water vapour contributes to 60-85% of the greenhouse effect. Workshops/engagements could be on photosythesis and photovoltaics, water cycles, carving, weaving, structural integrity...
Solar Powered Buggy:
We move cows/livestock almost daily or sometimes faster (depends on pasture quality etc) to enable grass to grow, and exudates to pour into the soil, improving organic matter. Many farmers moving towards regenerative agriculture do this, and a big blockage for uptake of these methods is the labour involved. That of carrying and moving fencing and watering infrastructure. An amazing designed "buggy" that holds and moves an IBC (1000L) of water, a water trough, stores fencing equipment (lightweight) and acts as a remote energiser for the fencing would be AMAZING. Obviously powered by solar. It would be super cool if it was remote controlled. This would suit pastured poultry, small herds of livestock suck as goats, sheep and even cows. This concept would have to be upscaled to apply to larger farmers with larger numbers of livestock. As an artwork, it would be up to design to translate the multifunctional coolness of something like this (i'm kinda seeing some sort of kinetic sculpture, even steam punk thing or a even streamline and sleek, or totally made of recycled materials to translate ease of uptake). Solar energy of course feeding the freedom of regenerative farming. Workshops/engagements can be on art as kinetic multifunctional use, solar energy, animals are part of a sustainable landscape...
Whole Farm Solar Energy:
I had the idea of what I was calling ribbons on the contour. Below the drainages cut for the dam (on contour), this is where forestry can take place and watered passively but instead of planting trees (a time vs wow factor to consider), a landscape sculpture that, like contour forestry, is below the dam drainage contours, built as a long tube (perhaps only needs to be 30cm tall?), woven out of logs, sticks, branches, filled with composted/ing materials and seed bombs of grasses, herbs, forbs, etc, faster growers than trees (which can also go in, but later in succession – also an important concept in regenerative farming). Increasing the biodiversity, solar harvest and a whole farm approach to sculpture. Workshops/engagements can be on biodiversity and ecosystem processes, photosynthesis and solar, sculpture across landscape...
Email 3: Mark writes…
This is cool, bamboo would be great for the canopy, but it doesn’t do so well in direct sunlight for long. I’ve attached a photo of a project I did in Larjamanu where we wove disused aluminium cables from power lines. I can’t stop thinking Kinetic sculpture and maybe the solar power lowers the canopy in during the sunniest times of the day and opens it back up later when the sun goes away. Also floating barges are relatively simple to make, and don’t need to cover the whole space but might just float about. Plus they make really interesting platforms for sculptural work.
Solar powered Buggy.
The more I think about this the more I feel like farmers are just going to be like, well why not just put the IBC on a trailer and tow it around. Also it keeps on feeling like a ‘start up’ idea rather than a creative project. What do you guys think? BUT there are still creative solutions to this problem that would be really fun to play with. These sprinkler tractors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTsEzqwjS0I (video complete with inspiring music) I was talking about in our meeting the other day, I’m thinking of as a fun model to scale up… not sure yet how useful it would be but it would be fun.
Whole Farm Solar.
Yeah this is great, this to me is a great spot to use woven bamboo, and let it naturally decompose once the growth around it gets thick enough.
Your enthusiasm is awesome and its contagious!
Lets keep chatting!
Email 4: Bjorn writes…
My thoughts at the moment are that the solar over dam idea sounds most practical. I really love the buggies, but agree it's kinda #startup. Floating solar is generally seen as a pain not worth the effort in the industry, so using the space of the dam without using floats and while respecting the solar requirements of the water would be really neat.
Looking forward to see where we can go with the next development!
I am in over 1.5 meters which is just up to my shoulder. The going has been both slower and faster than last time…
Do you like my fancy title? I put it up there to express something of the complete schedule scramble my entire project has become. I think it might be day eight when I write this and its 3:00am. I have been so exhausted from digging that I haven’t been able to even approach catching up with my social media obligations. I suspect most of this blog is going to go up after I get home. Just to confuse things further, I will spend this post on a prequel to the hole, a little train of thought that occurred to me while I was still at home, waiting for the residency to begin but never got around to because… I was busy. I can’t remember.
As I mentioned in the last post, my original attempt to dig the hole ended in sickness, failure and general catastrophe. I was forced to return home in defeat, to lick my wounds and consider my worth as a human being and an artist. If this sounds melodramatic, it is. Its 3am and I feel I can say whatever I like on the internet and no one will judge me for it.
I spent the intervening months writing grant applications, and making little scraps of money to keep myself and family alive. I don’t want to complain about my life because I like it for the most part, but the postponed work was something that consistently occurred to me. Perhaps this is what became of that youthful experience of the nagging existential need to create stuff because my identity was constructed around the fact that I identified as a person who creates stuff. I don’t know, but it did take me down a particular garden path.
One of the projects occupying me at the time was the house that Georgie and I now own in Kandos. Its a lovely little house that we were able to get up to livable scratch with a bit of paint and floorboard sanding, but the land it sat on was a sad affair, covered in long suffering kikuyu grass and having only one tree on it. We have, over the last two years planted many trees and are slowly working our way around to converting most of it into a food forest of sorts. The property is on a hill and so most of it is sloping, meaning that there are few places to comfortably drink fluids, eat foods and talk talk. I conceived of putting in what I liked to call a sunken courtyard, cut into the hillside behind our house with a large desiduous tree overhanging to shade it in summer, creating a ‘micro-climate’ in which life forms heretofore unknown in Kandos could thrive and amongst which we would gather to drink refreshing beverages and renew our friendships in perpetuity.
To this end, I contacted a fella with a bobcat and got a quote on what it would cost me to get the job done in a day or two. It wasn’t much. It was more than I could afford at the moment but it was definitely doable if I got some jobs and did some work and collected some money up. I can see myself sitting under that large tree, in the shelter of its shade, enjoying my microclimate and my friends and the veritable rain forest of green and living things that would come to occupy my utopia. The idea that I could get the majority of the work done in two days was impressive. I’d have to get a table and some chairs and yes, the whole growing a tree thing would take two to three decades but its a dream, I was going to have made into a reality in two short days.
As I thought about myself in my socially conducive micro-climate, my delight was insidiously overcome by a depressing thought. One achieved, I would perhaps enjoy my sunken courtyard occasionally, but really, the thrill of its achievement would last for only a short time before it would sink into the reality that is the background to all my dreams and, being the creature that I am, I would quickly acquire another dream that I would then pursue with all of the ardor that I had invested in this now forgotten conquest.
This thought, combined with my unfulfilled need to dig a hole and I thought naw… I’ll dig it out myself. And so I have slowly, over the last several months been removing bits and pieces of the small hill we live on and relocating them to another part of the hill up higher, creating another flat area where we might one day build Georgie a castle or put in a basketball court for Emma. Who knows! As I have been digging out that hill, I reflect on how we live most of our lives within a project, with a goal somewhere over the hill at which we aim and then work towards. Even getting through a day of work can be like this. My thought is that if this space of project-ion is where our being takes place, then perhaps we should spend more time within it, and less time hurrying to get to the end of the process, only to find that we need to invent another project in order to get us along the next lap into the future.
This adventure recalled for me the first exhibition we ever hosted at INDEX. Art Space, the ARI space that Georgie and I both lived in and tended for the three years prior to our move to Kandos. The show was called “Live in Your Art” by Margaret Roberts and it reflected on the fact that we were living in an art space, thus superimposing two fundamentally different kinds of space on top of one another, and in doing so, fusing them. This exhibition came to my mind as I dug out the side of the hill behind my house and worried about not making art. As I did so, Georgie labored away building the garden in the front yard through a method of her own devising, which I had come to jokingly call Garden Povera for her use of recycled concrete to create terraces and pathways and her use of bedheads and other tip scavenged oddities as trellases and garden ornaments. All around me, the weeds in the back yard had grown to luxurious heights, a method of building soil recommended to us through our work with KSCA. What was I worried about, I was living in my art, as Margaret Roberts has so presciently pointed out those many years before.
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.