Discreet Relations – Composting

The date: Tuesday 7th May
The time: 6:00 – 7:00 pm
The event: a performative recitation of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s essay “Making Time for Soil
The hosts: COMPOSTING Feminisms and Environmental Humanities a reading group
The place: The Clothing StoreCarriageworks, Sydney
The work: Kaldor Public Art Project 34: Absorption by Asad Raza
The exhibition dates: 3rd – 19th May

On a tuesday night (last week) I made my way after work to Redfern Station and from there to The Clothing Store, Carriageworks where Asad Raza has with partners and collaborators installed the space with approximately 300 tonnes of soil. This soil includes a combination of organic and inorganic material, from sand, silt, clay, phosphates, lime, spent grain, to cuttlebone, legumes, coffee and green waste.

The first thing I noticed on entering the space was how much colder it was, the temperature change seemed to be seeping from the ground up through the soles of my shoes. It was darker, there are coverings over the windows blocking out what was left of the setting sun. The second thing was the smell. A subtle earthy scent dominated the air, seemed to secrete from all around the space. The soil is cared for by volunteer propagators, a mixture of artists and scientists, the two disciplines collaborating in the care of this living installation. The propagators are identified by the tools they use (pitch fork, ph kit and hose) and their uniform of reflective silver outer asos vests. There are two rooms at the back that are open two the public. The room on the left contains the data that is collected on the soil, ph levels each day, what was added on a certain day and by who. The room on the right contains the uniforms of the propagators, a collection of jars and other containers with strange contents.

Near the entrance there is a room not open to the public, with a sign for staff only but there is no door and like the other rooms open to the public and the main space the floor is covered with soil. In this room is a toilet, which begs the question, is one thing that gets added to the soil propagator night soil.

Are living organisms part of soil? We would include the phrase ‘with its living organisms’ in the general definition of soil. Thus, from our viewpoint soil is alive and is composed of living and nonliving components having many interactions … When we view the soil system as an environment for organisms, we must remember that the biota have been involved in its creation, as well as adapting to life within it. (Coleman et al., 2004: xvi, emphasis added)

In the approximate centre of the space there was a circle of crate chairs, at 6pm they promptly filled and in fact more were need so the circle grew and as all organic life grows it did no expand in a perfect circular shape, rather it bent and twisted out of the mould. COMPOSTING Feminisms and Environmental Humanities reading group began naturally by introducing themselves and the event. They passed around a box with quotes from the reading, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s essay “Making Time for Soil“, each person was to take one or more, as there were many and read it out loud and bury it in the soil.

After a quote was read or sometimes after a few quotes were read in succession they were discussed by the group as a whole.

Care is political, messy and dirty, not an innocent category, and even less so in technoscience (Haraway, 2011; see also Murphy in this special issue; Kortright, 2013; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2012).

Care is a necessary everyday doing, but it can also become a moralistic regime of power and control (Ticktin, 2011).

I do not remember the quotes I picked out of the box because I afterwards buried them. The article forsters intensification of involvement with soils, soils as living, they need proper care and maintenance on the timescale of soils and for that to happen human-soil relations have to change from the dominate timescale the production adenga to one of making time to care.

The ancient wisdom and indigenous technical knowledge about benefits of manuring, reduced tillage, conservation farming and other practices abandoned somewhere on the way, need to be re-learnter’ (Rao, in Hartemink, 2006: 116).

As the recitation was proceeding, seated I couldn’t help but notice that my feet were getting colder and colder, it was like I could feel the deep down dampness of the soil threw my shoes and socks. However when I touched the soil with my hands in order to bury the small pieces of quote paper I’d selected from the pile, it didn’t feel as cold as my feet. It was soft, grainy, almost dry and cool to the touch.

At 7pm the recitation concluded, the quotes were buried, the imperfect circle broke up, the chairs were packed away and the people divided into little groups to chat or leave singly, in pairs or collectively.

I came back another day, monday 13th and to ask the propagators questions because they weren’t there for the recitation and to collect a bag of the soil, you can too!

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