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(de)Compositions

The land was the lab, the tools our senses.

Author: Kasia Molga, Artist

The land was the lab, the tools our senses. The data gathered from the land with the IoT sensors – a form of expression from non-human makers whose tireless, but unappreciated labour contribute to the autopoietic system, which is this planet’s biosphere. The technology which was supposed to become an important part, either as a medium facilitating the narrative, or even the subject of our art project, became an unnecessary obstacle: a thing, a noise, a fourth wall reinforcing the sensation of a separation between a human and the environment. During our conversations, GROW Observatory scientists hardly ever talked about the networked sensors or satellite imagery – as if these elements of their work were a necessary bother, instead they were passionately describing their feelings full of awe and wonder towards the subject of their research – that is soil, and their deep and alarming concerns about the “invisibility” of the land, “isolation” of human and non-human makers tending to it and the disconnection from the vibrancy and liveliness of this matter.

Those who have followed my posts about mine and Scanner‘s residency with Vertigo STARTS and GROW Observatory has read about my creative struggle and quest into how to make a meaningful art-tech project about such a large, complex – and loaded with political, economical and cultural undertones subject – as is European soil and its condition. These struggles first of all have arisen from my personal self-critique – that is while trying to understand the work of scientists and growers and to convey the vital importance of soil – I failed to grasp the significance of this matter, I failed to consider its well being while making my food choices and I failed to acknowledge its presence and aliveness while going about my everyday life. I have been very naive in thinking that I could fairly easily deliver a proposal for the meaningful artwork which would be a result of clever connection between tech innovation and engagement in soil. While in fact even to write this very article summarising the journey leading to (de)Composition has so far proved difficult, so even now – in time of typing this – I have 23 TextEdit windows opened, each is another take on my attempt to explain the work and its process, each tackles different aspects of this project and all of them were written between today (18th of November 2019) and when the (de)Composition’s prototype was created – that is April 2019.

A soil sensor in soil

But perhaps this time I will be able to go straight into it. I made (de)Composition out of frustration with the current and prevalent narratives on technology as something transformative through the elusive concept of “innovation” which would save “ humanity” from the inevitable disaster. And I have to stop here and add – this is not a critique aimed at the wonderful work of GROW Observatory. Quite the opposite – it is because this work and advocacy for the land and soil with all the critters busy to keep the equilibrium is largely unnoticed.

Until now, no other planet has been identified to contain soil which is a fertile ground for all sorts of life. Earth’s soil is unique in our universe, and yet it represents a presence in daily life so common that is taken for granted.

The aforementioned critters – non-human makers – and their labour were increasingly instrumentalized and institutionalized under the rubric of ecosystems services and taken under consideration en-mass when assessing the state of the land. The natural processes and functions are perceived as “goods” which has to be given a monetary value based on how well it serves “humanity”. The usage of the sensors and network technologies for constant monitoring further reinforce this idea of nature as a resource and a product, as if it is on the mercy of us – humans – the land owners, not a powerful recycling entity on which we are dependent much more than the other way around.

One of the critters, crucial to make and maintain good soil (for human and non-human use), is an earthworm. Not very pretty and usually existing beyond our gaze (unless there is heavy rain obviously), earthworms hardly ever feature at the forefront of the news on a state of the environment, 6th extinction or as a part of the promotion of holidays “in Nature”. Although they bear a huge responsibility of recycling, maintaining, nourishing, mixing, oxygenating and improving soil water retention for the sake of land’s fertility.

By the Code of Soil: (de)Compositions.

(Above) Watch a video of the prototype exhibited in my own studio, shot by Ivan Marevich.

They are great bioindicators of soil condition besides being – the non-human maker of soil itself, and were greatly studied by Darwin himself who, while recognising and promoting their importance, managed to meticulously count the number of earthworms on his acre of land (53,767of them). But now due to the exploitation of topsoil, erosion and overuse of pesticides – earthworms too are in decline. The significance of this cannot be ignored in the face of the fact that there is a need of 60% increase in food production to meet future demands, while a third of our global soil resources lie denuded and degraded¹.

There are examples of solutions which can be implemented to stop it, and GROW’s dedicated, passionate scientists have proposed quite a few, i.e. different type of farming, eating local food, switching to herbicides or allowing for a great biodiversity on one’s land. Except switching to a local food (I tried – not as hard as one can fear), the rest of these propositions don’t really have any emotional impact on a regular city dweller unless one is a farmer.

It is why I decided to pull a piece of a field up and out – so, by looking at it directly through the transparent perspex wall, just like looking at the screen with digital representation of it – just in much higher resolution – people could stop, observe, immerse themselves in the most common, omnipresent and vital processes happening all the time underneath our feet.

(de)Compositions was conceived as a result of a deep frustration with the status quo and from exploring and revealing the wonders of this incredible substance which is soil. The digital technology and the data tells only a very small part of the story leaving recipients/observers/viewers still very much disconnected from the source of data. The information is flattened and collected en-masse, leaving out marvels of individual species and processes which create a state of constant flux underneath our feet.

(de)Compositions bridges the source (input) and the data (output) through inviting viewers to take part in a multi sensory experience observing how the artwork – a fragment of the “land” as if pulled out from down below with all the soil horizons² – changes through time – its form, sound and even smell – determined by the activities of the earthworms.

A perspex column in the dark, with a light above it and soil inside
(de)Compositions – prototype in my studio, Margate, March 2019

The perspex container is constructed in such a way, so that, although in the darkness (light stresses the tiger earthworms who are our collaborators in constructing this artwork), the soil and all the earthworms’ action becomes visible when the viewer comes closer.

There are two types of soil present – one is moist and fertile, and opposite there is soil dry and depleted. Moisture sensors placed across these soils are continuously monitoring the soil conditions and their transition prompted by the tireless work of earthworms – mixing it, making drawings with oxygenating burrows, fertilising with their worm casts and recycling the remains of the organic matter. Bespoke piezo sensors surveil for activity and number of worms. These sensors influence the sound surrounding the container, which is distributed spatially across at least 4 speakers and slowly changes in time and space.
There is soil scattered on the ground, and the scent of soil in the air – different based on the side of the container.

 

(de)Compositions - fragment. Photo: Kasia Molga

(de)Compositions – fragment. Photo: Kasia Molga

(de)Compositions is my attempt to inspire the visitor to consider the wonderful world below our feet – the world which is a mechanism – a technology on its own. It is also an encouragement to trust our senses in order to assess the state of the environment – often nature is able to provide clues about the condition with its own organic and living sensors – bioindicators – such as earthworms. To observe without the need of the extra layer – which often nowadays is digital and pixelated and if I may use this word in this context, depersonalising the source – is perhaps a better method for a much needed reconnection with the living environment

I have been using screen and electronics in my practice since the start. In this piece “the screen” is made out of the real thing – the real soil contained in the box – and, curiously,  it has provided me the endless source of anxiety. This on its own is in my opinion a sign of something not entirely right – because why would I fear the reaction of the audience or curators from showing something so basic, so natural, so common, so everywhere – that we actually have stopped noticing it.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t create this work is because I despised the technology. Quite the opposite – I made it because I have been in awe of the power of the human mind to invent and make tools for amazing discoveries. I love the fact that we are able to extend our senses – the technologies we create can provide us with a sort of super powers enhancing our ability to perceive and experience.

Soil with tracks in it made by earthworms

Fragment of (de)Composition after 2 weeks.

I wish however that now, instead of chasing after the next important world-changing humanity-saving innovation we start using these super powers to explore our relationship with fellow earthlings. And that in our digitally, algorithmically, hi-defined pixelated screen saturated reality we can carve out a space to stop, admire and learn from the “analog” physical technologies already here for millions of years. The future of us – and by us I mean humans and everything else – depends on reformatting these relationships at presence. And to recognise it, feel it and embrace it – that will be a real super power.

 

¹ https://news.mongabay.com/2015/01/earthworms-under-threat/

² A soil horizon is a layer parallel to the soil surface, also the decaying matter on it, whose physical, chemical and biological characteristics differ from the layers above and beneath. Horizons are defined in many cases by obvious physical features, mainly colour and texture.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_horizon

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