Miche Fabre Lewin and Flora Gathorne-Hardy of Touchstone Collaborations curated a series of events called Soil Saturdays and an exhibition at Create Bristol, in collaboration with the Centre for Contempoprary Art and the Natural World to inspire the local community to grow a deeper understanding and appreciation of soil through different practices within one space. The entire Soil Culture program was accompanied by a steady stream of participatory activities, which were free and open to the public. With support from over 30 partner organizations, the organizers estimate that they were able to reach out to about 160,000 people via diverse platforms. More important than the quantitative reach of Soil Culture though, was its qualitative engagement with the community. After participating in the last Soil Saturday, I interviewed Miche and Flora about Touchstone Collaboration’s curatorial intentions behind the program.
ART: Where did your interest in soil begin – through another person or experience in the garden? How did you find out about the International Year of Soils (IYS) and are you aware of, or perhaps connected in some way to the other artistic activities happening on occasion of the IYS? What about IYS activities at Universities, government organizations, etc?
MFL: At school as a member of the young farmers club in Zimbabwe
FGH: Playing with earth in the garden of my home in Suffolk. Regarding IYS, we became aware of this year of soils when it was declared and we celebrated it within a course on 5 December, 2014, and we are aware of very little activities apart from RANE at Falmouth, and the CCANW Soil Culture artist residencies.
ART: Can you talk about the location(s) of the Soil Saturday programme? What does site have to do with public engagement? What does that site mean to you?
MFL & FGH: Soil Culture at create took place at the Create centre, Bristol’ flagship environmental centre in the Cumberland Basin. Located in a former bonded tobacco warehouse, this 21 year old centre sits alongside the tidal River Avon on the threshold between the city centre and the countryside beyond. The building and its location shaped the name and nature of Soil Culture at create for many reasons:
- Create centre is dedicated to collaboration and ecology, with 21 years green and ethical businesses located there, including Bristol City Council’s sustainability team, the Schumacher Institute, environmental travel organisations, cycling organisations, and the demonstration Ecohome.
- The team managing the building are committed to it being a community resource and place for connection, collaboration and new forms of engagement.
- It has a small yet spacious gallery, and is an inclusive and fully accessible building, visited by many groups of all ages and cultures. There is Café Create which is fairtrade and committed to local produce, the Bristol Records Office and the Ecohome are all located there on the open-plan ground floor.
- The light and open-plan design of adaptable and flexible spaces on the ground floor area – the café, galleries, reception, resource area – allows for flow of people and a very wide range of uses and sizes/forms of gatherings.
- The building’s proximity to nature allowed breathing space – within a few steps people could be beside the mud banks of the tidal river, in the ecohome garden or in an adjacent green park.
- The building sits on a popular a foot and cycle path and bus route from the station.
ART: Who participated at Soil Culture at create? Can you describe the nature of the audience? Was/is it aimed at the general public, an educated public, a mainly art audience, or a specialized group (e.g. environmental groups, local residents, etc.)? How did the style of programming (e.g. Soil Saturdays, food rituals, walks, group-structured presentations, plenary in the round…) cater to or challenge the expected audience?
MFL & FGH: We sought not to have audiences … rather participants and each Soil Saturday was a welcome to the general public as well as an invitation for particular groups to come together for each Soil Saturday. For the programme, this meant that all events (apart from one ticketed theatre production) were free and that there was at all times someone to welcome people of all ages. Food was an integral part of each Soil Saturday and was sourced from the organic and biodynamic soils of Bristol and its hinterland. There was a diversity of experiences to enjoy and take part in – exhibitions, a quiet reading/resource area to rest in, the Ecohome garden to explore, literature about the Soil Saturdays to engage with and space just to be.
From this ‘hearth’ of welcome, orientation and sharing within what the Create centre, we sought to co-create a sequence of gatherings, installations, Food Happenings, forums and so forth that spoke to the theme of the Soil Saturdays. These offerings set within a spacious programme arose from conversations with people we met during the 3 months planning for Soil Culture at create. This evolution of the arc of the programme through face-to face encounters defined the Soil Saturdays as an emergent, collaborative and responsive cultural event. The sequence of meetings took place at create and within the region of Bristol as part of the numerous visits and encounters to community gardens and farms, other partner organisations, local allotments and important food and soil events in and around Bristol and its hinterland. To summarise – Soil Saturdays were a honouring of people’s passsions and principles, a respect for place and a nurturing of potential.
This co-mingling of contributors, interested audiences, and members of the public who came out of interest or knowing little about the event was another defining feature of Soil Culture at create. Each Soil Saturday evolved in partnership with other organisations, who in turn brought themselves and their communities to the day itself. So, for example, on Growing Soil day, the following organisations all helped co-evolve the day: Biodynamic Association, Carbon Gold, Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Cooperative, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Crossfields Insititute and Researching Agroecology, Garden Organic, Groundspring Network, Henk Kieft, Quantum Agriculture, ETC International, Incredible Edible Bristol, Pasture for Life/PFLA, Permaculture Association, Regenag UK, Soil Association, Stellenbosch University, Dr. Saskia van Diest, Triodos, and Water 21.
ART: What kind of exposure did the exhibition/program have? Did you keep track of visitor statistics?
MFL & FGH: The exhibition programme was widely circulated with support from the 30 or so core partner organisations. The CCANW bulletin went out each week to over 4,000 subscribers. Arnolfini printed an advertisement in their summer programme for the Ballast Seed Garden. Bristol 2015 ran a feature throughout on their website and promoted particular events. Sustainable Food Trust promoted the Soil Saturdays via their newsletter and wrote a special feature on Whose Soil? Bristol Radio and Bristol Community FM Radio ran regular interviews. Blue Finger Alliance, Biodynamic Association, British Society of Soil Science, Create Centre and CCANW all featured Soil Culture at create and the Soil Saturdays on their home-pages. Contributors such as Jane Trowell from Platform London and Ruth Davey of Look-Again Photography sent out postings on their own newsletters and facebook pages. We were able to reach about 160,000 people via diverse social media platforms. We also kept a record of visitors and contributors, sending out weekly email invitations to these growing networks and promoting particular Soil Saturdays to particular groups.
ART: What kind of resonance did you receive from visitors? Do you have the feeling that people left with a greater understanding and appreciation for the soil? Were there any particular artworks or programming highlights that were especially popular with visitors? Have there been any questions or issues brought up by visitors or artists that challenged you or inspired you to explore further?
MFL & FGH: The response-resonance from visitors was very positive and it was clear that for many people their encounter and engagement with Soil Culture at create was transformative and represented a ‘new paradigm’ of curatorship. Here a selection of feedback comments from contributors, participants and visitors from the What is Soil? Saturday:
‘I felt enthused and re-energised by the day and it was a very visible reminder of the extent to which soils inspire such a wide range of people .’
‘I enjoyed the day very much, particularly seeing the children getting involved and having ‘soil fun’.
‘I loved very much the exhibition and the quality of cooking and the food we ate. It was all spot on. It was a relaxed atmoshpere and people who presented were grounded and knew their stuff. ‘
‘Soil Culture at create is a combination of art, politics, sensory experience, eating and a call to action. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to encourage and enlighten Bristol and the UK into taking pioneering action to safeguard its soils from loss and degradation.’
‘I’m so grateful for this inspiring project that focuses our attention on soil. For too long, we have treated the miracle of living soil as inanimate dirt. Now is the time to recognise and celebrate the beauty, the joy, and the healing that comes from this fundamental reconnection with the Earth.’
ART: Do you have any advice for transdisciplinary integration of (soil) arts and (soil) sciences? What advice could you offer in terms of co-authoring, co-funding, and co-presenting soil research between and across scientific and artistic disciplines?
MFL & FGH: These questions get to the heart of our concept of Ecological curatorship. Key concepts or criteria in answering these questions would be: Emergent, Responsive & responsible, Trust and exchange, Ethical, Working with the unknown, Inviting in gratitude, Respecting the matter and presence of food and soil as integral to the conversation.
ART: Based on your experience of SC, what would you say is the biggest challenge/threat facing the health of the planet’s soils? What is the future fate of the soil? Describe your role in meeting future challenges.
MFL & FGH: The Biggest challenge is disempowerment of people by science and policy-rhetoric. Industrialised culture is a disembodied and fragmented society. There is also lack of education about agriculture and culture’s connection.
MFL: As far as my own Role in meeting the future of soil, I would say keep the conversations with soil alive … share food at every occasion … bring soil to the table … Soil Culture at Create Bristol is a trajectory towards the 2022 World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow. We are working on a model for ecological curatorship and all these experiences serve to inform my Phd Research, Rituals for Resilience, with the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, at Coventry University.