A Transdisciplinary Experiment in Soil Education

Soil education is generally included in earth science and geography curricula but only rarely in social science, arts and humanities programs. Predominant “hard-science” approaches to soil education often neglect aesthetic, moral and other non-quantifiable values, precluding a broader cultural context in which soil education and stewardship might take place.

Coinciding with various activities of the German Soil Science Society’s Commission on Soil and Society and Education, we designed a transdisciplinary soil seminar for graduate art students in collaboration with Michael Fehr, director of the Berlin University of Arts’ Institute for Art in Context. The two-semester project, made up of 7 international masters students, took place from September 2010 to September 2011. The aim of the project was to introduce young artists to soil scientific concepts such as water and transport flow, soil protection legislation and soil as natural and cultural archive. Topics were discussed in consideration of broader contexts of art history and environmental communication. Students were encouraged to conceive and develop artworks based on course content, and to organize an exhibition of their resulting work. Alternating lectures with student presentations, field trips, and workshops, the project served as a teaching experiment as well as a platform for the production of new soil-oriented artworks.

An exhibition of student works as well as contributions from several Berlin-based artists and soil scientists was realized at the annual conference of the German Soil Science Society (DBG) in September, 2011 in Berlin. The three-day exhibition took place adjacent to the scientific poster exhibition, presenting artistic research on soil issues on par with and in response to scientific research. Parallel to the Pedotopia exhibition, a half-day symposium on the cultural values of soil conservation spurred discussion about methods, modes and intentions. Speakers included cultural researcher and social sculpture practitioner Dr. Hildegard Kurt, Swiss artist and musician Dr. George Steinmann, Cologne-based artist and curator Georg Dietzler, and Prof. Dr. Michael Fehr, Chair of the Institut for Art in Context at the UDK.

Course Curriculum

October 2010

Content: Introduction and definitions of soil concepts; overview of soil functions and threats; presentation of soil-relevant works of art; discussion about soil concepts and definitions of nature and environment

Organization: Basic outline of course goals, deadlines and requirements; formulation of groups and distribution of class assignments

November 2010

Content: Overview of soil scientific field work, site surveys and environ-mental assessments; Comparison of (natural) scientific and artistic methods (e.g. observation and analysis in artistic and scientific activities)

Field Trip: “garden work day” at Prinzessinnengarten as part of the “Life Science and Urban Farming” Festival @ HAU1 Theatre:

December 2010

Content 1: Urban soils as resource; urban farming, land recycling and land use policy in Berlin; Feedback on HAU excursion and review of critical essays

Content 2: Soil classification and taxonomy; diversity as an aesthetic and ecological quality; artistic examples of classification practices; comparison of artistic and scientific methods of presentation and archival

Content 3: Soil functions and ecosystem services; form vs. function in scientific and artistic contexts

Organization: short presentations of artworks in progress (ideas, sketches, image collages, research notes, technical questions, etc.); brainstorm session about final exhibition

January 2010

Content 1: soil memory and soil as cultural and natural archive and the role of artists and scientists as archivists

Content 2: soil contamination & soil conservation; art & activism, community participation and planning tools as applied to soil protection campaigns.

Field Trip: to Devil’s Mountain (Teufelsberg) and Environmental Education Center Ecowerk Berlin

February 2010

Content: Anthropogenic soils and cultural landscapes; land reclamation as sculpture; Restoration Art; “precautionary principle” as an artistic agenda; nature / culture dichotomy, “pristine” and “non-pristine” environments and associated implications for soil protection and art

Organization: semester end; presentations of work and ideas for exhibition

April 2011

Organization: summer semester overview and final decision about exhibition venue = German Soil Science Society (DBG) Conference at the Technical University Berlin; visit to exhibition venue; symposium program

May 2011

Content Workshop on Site Specificity: complexity and meaning of site for artists and soil scientists; sites of knowledge & artistic production; sites of expression & presentation; sites of reception (see discussions in ROSE 2007 and KWON 2004)

June 2011

Content Workshop on Soil & Transdisciplinarity: cultural constructions of nature and environment (see discussions in RINK & WÄCHTER 2004 and CORBETT 2006); definers and definitions of soil; models and preconceptions of transdisciplinary collaboration; opportunities and challenges for sci-art

July 2011

Independent Study: design development and realization of artworks; individual meetings with advisors

August 2011

Organization: final exhibition planning and installation; printing of flyers and exhibition materials; time planning for exhibition set-up


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