This is the text pretty much as I presented it at the BOSarts Seminar on the weekend of 11-13 September 2009
I asked Veronica to circulate Ivan Illich’s short DECLARATION ON SOIL to you (Illich texts). I did this because I believe that it is a useful place to start.
Ivan Illich (1926-2002) is best known for his text Deschooling Society from 1970, a polemic on the consequences of industrialised, bureaucratized education. Illich was born in Austria and trained as a Catholic priest. He spent a considerable period of his life living and working in South America. He was involved with the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico which as I understand it was a focus of Liberation Theology. Illich was eventually prohibited from saying mass in public (see obituary Guardian and .
Let me read you Illich’s text:
THE ECOLOGICAL discourse about planet Earth, global hunger, threats to life, urges us to look down at the soil, humbly, as philosophers. We stand on soil, not on earth. From soil we come, and to the soil we bequeath our excrement and remains. And yet soil — its cultivation and our bondage to it — is remarkably absent from those things clarified by philosophy in our Western tradition.
As philosophers, we search beneath our feet because our generation has lost its grounding in both soil and virtue. By virtue, we mean that shape, order and direction of action informed by tradition, bounded by place, and qualified by choices made within the habitual reach of the actor; we mean practice mutually recognized as being good within a shared local culture which enhances the memories of a place.
We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labor, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth, environment or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces. And yet, in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts which would allow us to relate virtue to common soil, something vastly different from managing behavior on a shared planet.
We were torn from the bonds to soil — the connections which limited action, making practical virtue possible — when modernization insulated us from plain dirt, from toil, flesh, soil and grave. The economy into which we have been absorbed — some willy-nilly, some at great cost — transforms people into interchangeable morsels of population, ruled by the laws of scarcity.
Commons and homes are barely imaginable to person hooked on public utilities and garaged in furnished cubicles. Bread is a mere foodstuff, if not calories or roughage. To speak of friendship, religion and joint suffering as a style of conviviality — after the soil has been poisoned and cemented over — appears like academic dreaming to people randomly scattered in vehicles, offices, prisons and hotels.
As philosophers, we emphasize the duty to speak about soil. For Plato, Aristotle and Galen it could be taken for granted; not so today. Soil on which culture can grown and corn be cultivated is lost from view when it is defined as a complex subsystem, sector, resource, problem or “farm” — as agricultural science tends to do.
As philosophers, we offer resistance to those ecological experts who preach respect for science, but foster neglect for historical tradition, local flair and the earthy virtue, self-limitation.
Sadly, but without nostalgia, we acknowledge the pastness of the past. With diffidence, then, we attempt to share what we see: some results of the earth’s having lost its soil. And we are irked by the neglect for soil in the discourse carried on among boardroom ecologists. But we are also critical of many among well-meaning romantics, Luddites and mystics who exalt soil, making it the matrix, not of virtue, but of life. Therefore, we issue a call for a philosophy of soil: a clear, disciplined analysis of that experience and memory of soil without which neither virtue nor some new kind of subsistence can be.
So Illich and his collaborators wrote that in 1990.
Immediately it is obvious that the text asks us to recognise value in groundedness.
In recognising our own visceral relationship with soil, we are to recognise the importance of virtue, and I do find it strange to be speaking of virtue in the context of critical theory or contemporary art. The virtues we are asked to consider are “labour, craft, dwelling and suffering,” and again I find it strange to be talking of suffering as a virtue. Virtue is defined in terms of “shape, order and direction of action” and it is “informed by tradition, bounded by place, and qualified by choices made within the habitual reach of the actor.”
We are asked to dismiss “boardroom ecologists,” but we ourselves are likely “interchangeable morsels of population ruled by the laws of scarcity.”
It is in the last paragraph that the we suddenly get the distinction. We are not all being told to go 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, of virtue. It provides all the reference points. Soil is the basis of tradition, place and habitual reach.
But it is not the reference points for life.
So I am going to try and understand how soil can be a set of reference points for virtue, without creating the situation where we all work on the farm.
I am no expert on soil. I can barely grow potatoes. I am not going to tell you anything about soil other than what I have gleaned from a number of other people.
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’ which has even spread to Ayr. 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. For better or for worse the Radical Nature exhibition, a deeply flawed curatorial project, includes a number of works 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 who are we? Tim Ingold, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, argues 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.
So if we conceive ourselves as transitional beings between soil and air, that roots us.
The text focuses us 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. And in practice they can be both entropic, dissipating energy; and static, suffering from inertia. These interactions are not along a rural-urban axis, but about the dynamics and usage of energy.
The flip side is a critque of artists practices.
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 feminist thinking 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, coined the phrase ‘context is half the work’ and I find this construction very useful, so I am going to explore it. They wanted to open up what it might mean to be an artist and they did this by carefully structuring placements first in industry and then in Government – remember this started in the second half of the sixties and carried on throughout the 70s. The core of this idea might be described as asking 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, rather than the artist going, “What can I do (from my repertoire) here?”
The shift from ‘place’ to ‘context’ is a shift from one dimension to many dimensions. Context is prima facie about many overlaid things, about complexity, about systems and about power relations. When I say the “context for this work is global warming,” then the context is not passive. If I say the context of this work is the social and environmental consequences of our oil dependency as played out in the gas flaring, bunkering, kidnapping and pollution of the Niger Delta, then the context is half the work, and how do you make a work of art about something so complex? How do you make people in London aware that they are implicated in something so removed from their daily experience.
Paul Carr in a paper entitled, “But What Can I Do?” Fifteen Things Education Students Can Do to Transform Themselves In/Through/With Education the second thing he identifies is that ‘Content is never devoid of context.’
It is odd that when theory emphasizes that we take into account the context of instruction that there is more and more content to teach and to learn. The current educational context (How, what and why we learn? Who decides? How is the human condition factored into the equation? What are the implications?) is submerged in a deluge of content (expectations, standards, objectives, lesson plans, prescriptive curriculum documents, etc.). The context also includes where students are from, where they are at, how they experience phenomena, and the myriad issues that frame how culture is shaped (Nieto, 1999). While students need to learn some common and specialized curricular content, they also need to learn how to learn, how to be, how to think, how to relate, how to critically examine, and how to understand and be a part of society. Freire (1970) 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 think 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 what if the context demands attention, raises awkward and disruptive questions about economy, social and environmental justice, rights and responsibilities? Cognitive dissonance, that state where we know something, and act in a contradictory way, may also be a normal state of affairs.
Hal Foster maybe makes the same point 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, lets 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.
Thinking about context also helps us to move from place as spatial concept to think about ‘public time’ as well, picking up on a point made by Liam Gillick. The whole obsession with place is usually structured in terms of how to turn spaces into places, but perhaps our dominant experience is of time. As I mentioned, I have been working to deliver an Art & Architecture collaboration for the New Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow. Thomas A Clark, the lead artist, and Andy Law, the architect, talk about the Hospital and everything done in it as one artwork, and I think that they have attempted to think about composing space through a serious concern with the experience of time, waiting, stress, patience and boredom. They have constructed the Hospital through the metaphor of a Grove of Larch in a Forest of Birch.
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. For me it’s manifest in my peripheral knowledge of landscape and agricultural history in the North East of Scotland, or industrial development and collapse in Glengarnock and Kilbirnie, or the impact of global warming on the coastline of Britain, or infection control in Glasgow’s hospitals, or the resource curse as it is manifest in Nigeria, or the iterations of cultural policy in in the UK over 50 years.
Philip Schlesinger Director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research, when we interviewed him for The Artist as Leader project, talked about the ‘cost of entry’, and this is the time and effort required to take the context seriously and understand its complexity. He said 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 (“shape, order and direction of action”), and we reframe tradition, place and habit as context, expressed in multiple biocultural voices, conflicted, extended over time, and elusive, then what sort of people are addressing a philosophy of soil?
I’d like to read a piece written this year by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, two eminent conceptual and ecological artists, which draws some of these issues together.
On The Survival Pieces, 1970-72
A Beginning about 40 years ago
Then one step led to another
It was 1969-70
More likely 70 than 69
When we took the decision to do no work
That did not in some way
Benefit the ecosystem
Although it took
Some years to fully grasp
What an ecosystem was
We had been reading
About the damages
That factory farming did to topsoil
Wherever it was practiced
This was mostly new information
There was also the matter of massive
Human settlement taking place
In floodplains and wetlands
Where topsoil used to be replenished
By the process of flooding
And was enriched year by year
So one of us
Began to make earth from clay and manures
Mostly chicken and cow
Some horse and a bucket of worms
But we did not forget sewage sludge
And other organic material
And of course some wheelbarrow-loads
Of sand and water mixing as the farmers
had taught us
Over time this vile-smelling mix
Turned into the smell and taste
Of an ancient forest floor
Then the other one of us
Began planting in it
And this process of performing and acting
Became the genesis for the survival pieces
Which were done in part very seriously
As urban farming works
Where we as artists taught ourselves
And anyone else who was willing to learn
How to feed ourselves through our
However there was
A second layer or motif in this work
Which had portable orchards and
Worm farms and fish farms
Flat pastures and upright pastures
Yes, there were certain ironies
As our work set out to show
To the general public
Hopefully even schoolchildren
And especially to museum personnel
How to take care of themselves in a
With possibly diminishing food supplies
A little less than 40 years later
Appears with Global Warming and drought
To be upon us
We also had in mind
A level of irony
Addressed to our artist colleagues in New York
In the late 1960s and early 1970s who
Were making fluorescent light operations
And multiple box structures
And even piles of earth
An array of boxes
With similar configurations
And planted farming systems in them
Which with lights in similar configurations
Could grow things
That is to say
We chose to introduce into our work
A blatant utilitarianism
Some people saw this as Fluxus-like
Particularly in Fish Farms in the Desert
Others saw it as more Dada-like
Still others as boringly polemic
Even in one event
A fish farm was taken as pure sensationalism
Although a few friendly souls
Picked up on our serious intent
Which was about urban farming systems
As both prophecy and practice
And the beginnings
Of ecosystemic understanding
One thing led to another
The portable fish farm
Evolved into a crab farm
And a work entitled The Lagoon Cycle
Portable Orchards led to forest works
And the early Hog Pasture
First evolved into
The restoration and generation
Then at the first Art Park near Niagara Falls
Into The Endangered Meadows of Europe
Objections to the settlement of floodplains
Led to watershed works
And river restoration works
And with global warming as a theme
Appeared here and there
Until later we came to do such works
And most recently to pieces entitled
The Force Majeure
Now these works and others
Over the past almost 40 years
Although somewhat simplified
Can be seen in some detail
Mostly in order
In virtual space
By whoever is interested
I suppose what this demonstrates for me is precisely that soil can be a matrix for virtue, for shape, order and direction of action and that context can enter into a fruitful tension with content.
© Chris Fremantle, 2009