Soil: A Virtue

This version was presented at the third Designing Environments for Life workshop at the Scottish Institute for Advanced Studies, 11 November 2009.  It is a development on the version presented at the BOSarts Seminar in September.

Ivan Illich’s Declaration is prima facie concerned with ethics, the development of virtue and its relationship with place. It may also speak to the pressing challenges arising from human use of natural resources in ways that are compromising life.

The issue of ethics and place are subjects of immediate concern to a wide range of people, though they may not always be connected in the way that this text does.

My intention is to highlight artists’ practices that demonstrate the importance of soil in grounding virtue, as demonstrated through thinking and making. The Declaration calls for a philosophy of soil and at this stage what seems possible is not to articulate the philosophy of soil, but to bring together a number of practices that demonstrate how a philosophy of soil might be formulated through specific examples.

In recognising our visceral relationship with soil, we are to recognise the importance of virtue. The virtues we are asked to consider are “…labour, craft, dwelling and suffering…” Virtue is defined in terms of character: “…shape, order and direction of action.” It is “…informed by tradition, bounded by place, and qualified by choices made within the habitual reach of the actor…” An experiential dimension of virtue is framed in the phrase, “…friendship, religion and joint suffering as a style of conviviality…”

Turning from Illich to David Haley, David uses a definition of art which connects these ideas in a slightly different configuration: “Art or rt from an Indo-Aryan noun/adjective of the Rg Veda, meaning the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created – virtuously.”

But again the word virtue is critical.

Illich’s polemic dismisses “boardroom ecologists” and challenges the relevance of talking in the abstract about “earth, environment or energy system.” Human existence is characterised in terms of “interchangeable morsels of population ruled by the laws of scarcity.”

But, it’s in the last paragraph that one of the key distinctions is clarified. The Declaration is not a directive to go and live on a farm, for the soil to be the totality of life, the whole system of our existence. Rather we should understand the soil as the matrix of virtue. So the soil is the matrix, or measure, providing the reference points.

Soil is the basis of tradition, place and habitual reach, but it is not the reference points for life.

Hence this text is not a guide for those with gardens or window boxes, moving to rural areas, taking on allotments, or intent on guerilla gardening. It speaks to how soil can provide a set of reference points to develop thought and action: why to pay attention to the soil you can stand on, rather than what specifically to do with your soil.

The relevance of this text now may be that it evidences an interdisciplinarity necessary to addressing the scale and complexity of the issues (global warming, consumption of limited resources, mass extinction) mentioned above, but it may also be relevant to the more specific developments we are living through. For example on 19th Feb 2009 the morning news carried a story about the National Trust making land available at a number of its properties across Britain to create up to 1000 allotments. Radical artists’ practices include ‘guerilla gardening’. In a major piece for the Whitney Biennial in 2008 Fritz Haeg created environments for wildlife around the iconic building on Madison Avenue in New York. The Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican Gallery in 2009 included a number of works, both historical and recent, that have literally brought soil into the gallery as ironic gestures and utilitarian forms.

But if this is to be more than a mere fad, more than a temporary trend, then we need more than mere instances. If the relationship between people living in the modern urbanised West and nature is changing, how can we talk about that change?

Clearly the normal construction of philosophical discourse is in terms of abstract concepts such as existence, knowledge, morals and aesthetics.

Let us take a definition of philosophy from Barbara S Andrew in her essay on Simone de Beavoir, (date : 37-38)

“Philosophy is the project of considering what it means to be human and of asking what it means to experience and create a human reality.”

And let us suggest that we might need to enlarge the philosophical project to go beyond considering what it means to be human, and to ask what it means to be a part of an ecosystem?

So where might we start thinking about a philosophical project which engages with the human as part of the ecosystemic?

Tim Ingold, argued at the Art & Ecology conference a couple of years ago, that we think of ourselves as ex-habitants of the planet, i.e. living on the surface of it, rather than inhabitants who are part of the surface. He focuses on the human experience of being at once material like the soil and also breathing air. He draws a comparison with moorland where it is difficult to measure the height of heather: ground level is not a fixed point: air permeates amongst root systems and the growth is so dense that one walks on the plants rather than the ground. In essence he argues that human beings (as with much other life) are transitional beings between soil and air.

So when we use the word environment he argues that we should not think of ourselves as static isolated objects viewing our surroundings from six feet, more or less, above the ground, but as a reflective element of the environment, woven through it in multiple ways, perhaps like a myceleum woven through the forest floor. Whilst we might move in lines across the landscape and the myceleum expands from a point, both are in a more fundamental sense developing and changing, moving through life, enmeshed with the world affecting the environment simultaneously with experiencing it.

Illich’s text focuses on place and locality as key underpinnings, not necessarily of life, but of virtue (“shape, order and direction of action informed by tradition, bounded by place, and qualified by choices made within the habitual reach of the actor”).

I have a double discomfort here, because tradition, place and habit are far from unqualified goods in themselves. In practice they can be the focus of conflict, rivalry and narrowness. Nationalism and totalitarianism can both call on these characteristics in support of their causes. And more conceptually tradition, place and habit can be both entropic, dissipating energy; and static, suffering from inertia.

The other dimension of my discomfort is a critique of place as a discourse.

If you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by place,” then the next sentence that logical follows is “I’ve been working in … Ireland, Palestine, Siberia.” Whereas if you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by context,” then the next logical sentence can be any one of a very large number of things, a few of which I’ll highlight as we are going along.

Of course ‘place’ emerged as an important concern in the arts, and Lucy Lippard’s Dematerialisation of Art, Lure of the Local, Overlay and other texts are significant, along with Rosalind Krauss’ Sculpture in the Expanded Field. These are interpolations of feminism and radical pedagogies into the field of the arts. The result has been articulations of the constantly evolving heterogeneity of the public realm, and the potential enabling of a multiplicity of voices, issues and concerns, and in the arts the theorisation of moves beyond adornment or memorialisation.

But talk of place has become so trite and overused, not least because it has been embedded in the trajectory of cultural policy from regeneration through creative clusters and cities to creative industries, and is therefore fundamentally complicit in the economics of property value, privatisation of the public realm and exclusion. We hear a lot of artists talking about place, and a lot of consultants badging themselves as place-makers.

The reality of ‘place’ can be the complete destruction of social and cultural structures embedded in tightly knit economic structures. And I’d be the first one to admit that I’ve been educated to see beauty in industrial desolation, but all that is left of the Glengarnock Steelworks is piles of bricks and villages with massive unemployment and memories supposedly represented by indefensibly crappy bits of sculpture.

‘Context’ is a tougher terminology. Nicholas Bourriaud argues in his essay introducing the Altermodern, the recent Tate Triennial, an exhibition unfortunately full of artists exploring ‘place’, that ‘context’ is what we are left with on the collapse of the Modernist project, driven as it was by grand narratives. Once the scripts of progress, whether through capitalism or through communism, of humans being able to build a better society through science, technology and architecture, finally collapsed, he argues that we have been left with ‘context’.

Barbara Steveni and John Latham, who jointly founded the Artist Placement Group (APG), coined the phrase ‘context is half the work’ and this is a useful construction. APG is one of the key threads which can be followed to understand the opening up of what it might mean to be an artist. In APG’s case this was focused on the possibilities arising from artists working in first in industry and then in Government. Where this was successful it required both the artist and the host workplace to suspend disbelief and to explore what being an artist or working with an artist might add up to. This is clearly in juxtaposition with the artist, on arriving in a place, thinking “What can I do (from my repertoire) here?”

Paul Carr, in a paper entitled, “But What Can I Do?” Fifteen Things Education Students Can Do to Transform Themselves In/Through/With Education, identifies as his second thing that ‘Content is never devoid of context.’ Carr argues for the importance of providing a context for learning and refers to Freire (1970) who cautions that a focus on the content without the context can lead to the “banking” model, in which students are considered empty vessels that must be filled with knowledge in a staid, unilateral learning process.

But when I first read this I misunderstood it, reading a description of conflict into this relationship. Carr goes on to say “What should be the equilibrium between the content and the context?” I’m not persuaded that there is equilibrium. Equilibrium may be temporarily imposed, but contexts demand attention, raise awkward and disruptive questions about economy, social and environmental justice, rights and responsibilities.

Hal Foster develops another trajectory across the issues when he argues that a fault line runs through the term ‘art history’. He asks how we can talk about art, which assumes itself to be autonomous and measures itself in its own terms; and history, which is perhaps the opposite, precisely about the specificity of circumstances, even of context.

So we have two axes here: the one suggested by Carr between context and content, and the one suggested by Foster between autonomy and imbrication. But, having been slapped metaphorically for being male and thinking in terms of horizontal and vertical lines which imply fixedness, it is important to re-imagine this as a multi-dimensional field with these and other forces in constant tension, in which there is no stable point, except temporarily arrived at, and in which we need to recognise personal and social/cultural cycles and drifts at work.

If we accept that the context is half the work, then we acknowledge the tension this creates, the changes it may stimulate, but we also need to recognise the requirement to learn about context. It’s not a given and it doesn’t immediately reveal itself by walking around.

Philip Schlesinger Director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research, interviewed in the context of The Artist as Leader project, talked about the ‘cost of entry’: the time and effort required to take the context seriously and understand its complexity. He argued that artists need to understand the underlying conditions within which they are practising. Not purely the aesthetic and material ones, but the political, economic and broadly cultural ones.

So if soil is the matrix of virtue, and we reframe tradition, place and habit as context, expressed in multiple bio-cultural voices, conflicted, extended over time, and elusive, then what sort of people are addressing a philosophy of soil?

I said at the beginning of this introduction that my aim is to bring together a number of examples which demonstrated the potential for a philosophy of soil.

The first example is Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison (the Harrisons). In the Radical Nature exhibition they re-presented an “urban farming work” which is made up of an actual farm in the gallery, growing potatoes and other vegetables, and also the plans and instructions for creating the work, such that anyone can learn how to grow vegetables in urban conditions. There is an additional element, a text presented as a form of addendum, made for the exhibition’s catalogue. This additional element takes the form of a piece of storytelling. It is a reflection on the significance of these urban farming works to the artists’ career.

The Harrisons relate how they made a decision to do no work that did not serve eco-cultural well-being. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was one of the stimulations for thinking and learning about the environment, as was emergent critiques of factory farming, urban planning regimes and the likes.

The story goes on to relate how they began to learn about making soil, starting in 1970. The text utilises a trope in their work, the structure of, not exactly call and response, but of thought responding to and building on thought, action building on action, and certainly emphasises the oral starting point of their texts.

Over time this vile-smelling mix
Turned into the smell and taste
Of an ancient forest floor

The soil is then used for growing vegetables. This formed a practical experience which became a series of works called Survival Pieces. These works when presented in galleries used box structures and fluorescent lights, materials being used by other artists at the time.

But for me the key passage is,

That is to say
We chose to introduce into our work
A blatant utilitarianism

The Harrisons then relate the specific aspects of learning from the different Survival Pieces through their iterations in other works that they have made over more than thirty years.

So the text connects portable fish farms with crab farms and in turn with the Lagoon Cycle, the seminal work which developed the structure of language at the core of their work, demonstrated thinking at scale, and expressed a self-questioning in regard to human agency (In what way should we act?)

The Lagoon Cycle, finished in 1984, also culminated with the big question that started with making soil, and has continued to resonate, and was used to great effect recently in Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom

you will feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and I will house you
when your lands are covered with water

Again starting from making soil on a personal scale, in this case for the Survival Piece Hog Pasture, is connected to Spoils Pile Reclamation, a work they made for Artpark in Up-state New York in 1976-78. Here, utilising the economic dynamics of taxation, they created a fruitful landscape as artwork using 3000 truckloads (I guess 60,000 tons) of earth and compost. Some 20 acres of a quarry spoil site were transformed. Judicious planting created wind breaks, fostered soil retention, encouraged meadows, and introduced orchards.

This work in turn led more than 15 years later to a major work in Germany entitled the Endangered Meadows of Europe. This work, though apparently smaller in scale (the site was 1.5 acres) was considerably larger and more complex in its scope and ecology.

The text goes on to highlight a number of other trajectories from the initial work, to address forests, water and urban planning.

My point is that it seems to me exactly as Illich suggests, the Harrisons demonstrate the possibility that soil can be the matrix for virtue.

I believe that there are other examples of artists for whom soil is an underpinning, including Gavin Renwick, David Haley, Reiko Goto, Fritz Haeg as well as other cultural writers such as Tim Ingold and Alastair McIntosh.

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