Yikes – its already mid-August… Almost two months ago, from June 8-13, 2014, Gerd Wessolek and I had the pleasure of hosting two special events at the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in collaboration with our Korean partners at the International Union of Soil Sciences: a soil film screening program and a soil art exhibition. By integrating the arts into one of the largest and most prominent scientific conferences on soils, particularly in this critical moment leading up to the 2015 UN Year of Soils, our goal was to bring different areas of expertise together to inspire new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, and to expand the practical horizons of soil protection, communication, and education.

A central poster exhibition of over thirty art projects functioned as the main presentation area in the lobby of the Jeju International Conference Centre, where the congress took place. Each day individual posters were removed from the main exhibition to be featured in different scientific sessions. We were delighted that the poster contributions could be passed on for further discussion to the Soil Culture Forum, organized by the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World and RANE in Falmouth, England in July.

The film program, screened in a large conference room during lunch and coffee breaks, provided diverse perspectives on agriculture, resource extraction, desertification, and fieldwork. The film program included works by award-winning documentary filmmakers, media artists, soil scientists, and NGOs that assembled narratives of soil stewardship from around the world. Tuesday night, we had the honor of screening Symphony of the Soil to congress guests in the main hall, followed by a question and answer session with the filmmaker, Deborah Koons Garcia, and the film’s narrator, Dr. Ignacio Chapella.

Here, finally, is our overview of the integrated arts program – better late than never!



The first day of our program featured four “case studies” on Desertification, a form of large-scale soil degradation in which dry regions become increasingly drier, resulting in loss of waterways, surface vegetation, wildlife, and biodiversity. The program opened with the full-length feature film, The Man Who Stopped the Desert (2010) by Mark Dodd. It presented the heroic story of a peasant farmer, Yacouba Sawadogo, who started a movement to fight desertification in the Sahel region of northern Africa by adapting traditional zai pit agriculture and tree plantings. Especially with regard to desertification it was important to offset images of desperation with stories of courage and commitment.

man who stopped the desert

Aral – the Lost Sea (2011), by Isabel Coixet, retold the tragic story of the rapid retreat of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes on account of industrial expansion of cotton fields and the construction of a 500-kilometer long canal system in the former Soviet Union. Narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley, the film alternates between nostalgic images of family vacations and lively harbor scenes and current glimpses of cracked, salt-caked soil and ghostly, corroded ships anchored in expansive desert.   When the Water Ends (2010), by Jennifer Redfearn & photographer Evan Abramson exposed the daily plight of pastoral tribes as they fight for existence along the shrinking Omo River and Lake Turkana in Kenya and Ethiopia. Desertification (2009), by Yann Arthus Bertrand presented images of large-scale desertification in a worldwide aerial perspective. The 6-minute film was distributed as an except from the full-feature documentary, Home, for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). All of these films seek to show desertification as a humanly caused phenomena caused by poor land and water management, overgrazing, deforestation, and erosion of topsoil, that can be stopped and even remediated by sustainable agricultural practice and ecological sensibility.

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The theme of the second day, AgriCultures – From Plot to Plough, took a detailed look at agricultural politics, practice, and management issues around the world, picking up on many issues presented in Monday’s program. The first part opened with Lorenz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), followed by two short films that presented one of the biggest current challenges to agriculture in the United States – urban development. The Corner Plot (2010), by Ian Cook and Andre Dahlmann, pictured the story of an 89 year farmer who still grows food despite suburban encroachment outside his home in the D.C. area; 3 Acres in Detroit (2013) by Nora Mandray and Helene Bienvenu, followed the struggles of two men who take up organic farming in the middle of an abandoned lot in a poor neighborhood in Detroit.


The second part of Tuesday’s program featured a series of short films by activists, artists, and small-scale farmers that focused on the unique challenges of sustainable agriculture worldwide. These included: Patrick Lydon and Suhee Kang’s The Final Straw (2014), Soil is a Diamond (2011), by the Green Resistance Group in South Africa, Future FarmersSoil Kitchen (2011), and two films by Jason Taylor and Chintan Gohil of the Source Project, Agricultural Philosophy (2011) and Upendra has Worms (2011). Two experimental films visualizing the action of composting worms and the growth of vegetable crops showed that farming can also be a matter of aesthetics: Justin Rang’s Light&Dark Worms (2011) and Matthew Moore’s Lifecycles (2010). Finishing up Tuesday’s program was a special evening screening of Symphony of the Soil (2012) followed by a talk with Future of Food filmmaker, Deborah Koons Garcia, and the film’s narrator and scientific advisor, Dr. Ignacio Chapela. During the talk, Garcia spoke about the distribution of the film, which has made its way to schools, libraries, universities and even supermarkets to help people connect with where their food comes from. One scientist in the audience said he wished he had seen Symphony of the Soil when he began his studies, as it presented the complexity of the pedosphere in such a simple and beautiful way.


The third day focused simply on digging, looking at extraction of the earth’s surface materials as an issue of commercial exploitation and social justice, but also individual enlightenment, artistic exploration, and urban bioremediation. The feature film of the day, Denis Delestrac’s documentary, Sand Wars (2013), posited not oil or copper, but sand as one of the most precious and endangered resources that is being mined at an exorbitant pace for construction projects and urban expansion at the cost of beaches and fragile coastlines worldwide.


A series of artists’ films picked up on ideas of extraction for more sustainable and creative uses later in the day, including: Elvira Wersche’s Sand’s of the World Qutri (2008), Joel Tauber’s 7 Attempts to Create a Ritual (2000), Maria Michails’ S*OIL (2012), Kasha Guzowska and Nance Klehm’s Soil (2012), Jean Marie Offenbacher’s documentation of Lillian Ball’s Waterwash ABC (2012), and Veronique Maria’s Orogeny (2011). The final day picked up on the main theme of the congress, Soils Embrace Life and Universe, and featured two well-known and beloved documentaries – Gene Rosow and Bill Benenson’s Dirt! the Movie (2010), inspired by Bill Logan’s book of the same name, and I Chunglyeol and Go Yeongjae’s portrait of an old ox and an elderly farming couple, Old Partner (2008).



The formal visual language of the world soils congress, as with most scientific conferences, was that of neat rows of posters and tightly orchestrated powerpoint presentations. The first question we had when we started brainstorming about an art event for the world congress was, “should we break out of that format or use it as an advantage?” We decided to take an integrated approach and appropriate the visual language already in place to introduce artistic content into the given format. When the call for abstracts was sent out by the WCSS, we put out a mixed call for art works that were in some way related to specific scientific session topics. The focus was on artistic experimentation and visual research, rather than simply visualizing the decorative or aesthetic qualities of the soil. In this way we sought to challenge intellectual barriers between art and science by juxtaposing artistic approaches with state-of-the-art scientific research. The result was an exhibition of 36 artists’ posters documenting projects that used soil materially or symbolically to address issues of food security, soil degradation, land use management, and more.

We are so grateful to the following artists and artist collectives for submitting thought-provoking and stunning works, and promise to update this site with individual posts and links to the posters when more time allows: Ulrike Arnold, Betty Beier, Margaret Boozer, Jackie Brookner, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Georg Dietzler, Eco Art Scotland, Future Farmers, Ekkeland Götze, Sarah Hirneisen, Ellie Irons, Mathias Kessler, Anneli Ketterer, Nance Klehm, Helen Lessick, Patrick Lydon & Suhee Kang, Ayumi Matsuzaka, Maria Michails, Myriel Milicevic & Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, Matthew Moore, Daro Montag, Jay Stratton Noller, Bonnie Ora Sherk, Laura Parker, Aviva Rahmani, Smudge Studio, Tattfoo Tan, Alexandra Toland, Urbaniahoeve, Ken Van Rees, Peter Ward, Elvira Wersche, and Gerd Wessolek.


A permanent block of artists’ posters hung in the 3rd floor lobby and served as point of conversation and interaction, while each day seven to nine posters were rotated within the different scientific poster sessions. For example, Ayumi Matsuzaka’s, artwork with Terra Preta was placed in the session on Biochar Soil Amendments, and Dan McCormick’s willow-sculptures to control hillside erosion in the session on Physical Restoration of Soils. A few more examples are highlighted below to give readers a taste of the different artistic positions and practices presented at the exhibition.

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For the session C2.4-1, Minerology and Reactivity of Soil Microsites, we invited Sarah Hirneisen to present a few of her projects casting soils in glass. When we think of the reactivity of the soil we usually think about the availability of nutrients or mobility of pollutants based on pH measures, precipitation levels, and organic content. Hirneisen thinks of reactivity in terms of how different soils will react in the kiln. Hirneisen has collected the cremated ashes of people’s personal belongings, dust from vacuum cleaners, contaminated soil from Superfund sites, soil samples people have collected for her in their travels, and soil donated by soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The artist shows how these materials are not only physically and chemically reactive but also symbolically and culturally reactive.

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For the Session C2.3-2*2, Life in Soils – Distribution and Function of Soil Microorganisms in a Changing Environment, Dr. Daro Montag contributed images of his Bioglyph series. Combining knowledge of photography and soil biology, the UK-based artist and director of the Research on Art, Nature & Environment Program (RANE) at Falmouth University creates snapshots of the earth not with a camera, but with the soil itself. Rather than photographing the soil, Montag allows soil microorganisms to eat away the gelatin surface of film strips laid directly on the soil profile, resulting in brilliantly colored records of microbial action in the soil, which vary according to depth, pH value, bulk density, and moisture content.

this earth 9

Several artists in both the film and art poster parts of the program focused on agricultural issues. For the session C3.3-4.2, Soil Management Strategies for Enhancing Crop Yields, Matthew Moore presented Moore Estates (2005), a project he created on his family farmland outside of Phoenix, AZ that looks at yield as a fundamental value of the American dream. Using conventions of land art, Moore created a scaled outline of a suburban settlement of 253 plots out of sorghum and wheat crops that prophesied the fate of his family’s land and questioned the politics of soil protection in the United States, where valuable farmland is often sold to speculating developers.



It is difficult to evaluate the success or impact of such an arts program in this scientific conference context. Almost all keynote speakers at the 20WCSS expressed the need for more communication with outside disciplines, more social connectivity and innovative knowledge brokering. Without wanting to instrumentalize artists into doing the communicative work of soil and environmental protection, the idea is to open up the larger soils research community to new forms of visual, cultural, material, social, and symbolic inquiry. In the closing addresses on Friday, all of the speakers lauded the inclusion of art at the congress. It is our hope that that inclusion goes beyond the scope of the congress to lead to true transdisciplinary collaboration. The future of the soil will be better for it!

If spectacle describes one expectation of art, then dialogue would be another. Poster sessions are not like art exhibitions. The poster session is a format for open dialogue, sharing of methodological experience and development of ideas. But how was this possible if none of the artists (and only one of the filmmakers) were even present? When I sent out the call, many artists and filmmakers expressed an interest in “being present” in some way beyond the film or poster contribution and framework of the conference. In response, we are currently working with the Soil Science Society of America to publish a coffee-table-style book on the occasion of the upcoming UN Year of Soils in 2015 to document many of the works shown in the poster exhibition as well as dialogues between artists and scientists on particular topics and challenges of soil protection. With a section of introductory essays by renowned arts researchers and leading soil scientists and a resource section for classroom and field exercises, this book is oriented at a wide audience of readers to inspire creative conservation and soil communication. The idea of the book is to harvest the momentum of the congress in a way that can be shared and further developed in other formats that will ideally lead to new collaborative networks of creative soil conservation. To join the dialogue, please get in touch and keep checking back here to discover more examples.


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