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100th IUSS Soil Congress and Il Conventino Pop-up

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 12:29 PM | Anonymous

100th IUSS Soil Congress and Il Conventino Pop-up, A Report from Florence, Italy by Patricia Watts

This trip to Italy was three years in the making, meeting monthly for our Soil Dialogues Zoom sessions. With over 100 ecoartspace members who are interested in soils, during the last year and a half, twenty-seven of them decided to take an active role in responding to a provocation to bury textiles in soil as an aesthetic and scientific inquiry. Our in-house soil scientist and artist, Rhonda Janke, shared this textile burial method with our Dialogues and offered to do DNA testing for some of the burial sites. Alexandra Toland, co-editor of Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene (2018) and curator of Gaia Glossary, included in We Are Compost / Composting the We at Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow (2022), suggested that participants could present their findings at the celebration of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) 100th Soil Congress, in Florence, Italy (May 2024).

Over last summer and fall, ten of our members prepared papers to present at this special 100th Soil Congress, they buried their textiles, then transported them to Italy for a pop-up exhibition at Il Conventino. The former monastery, which Jo Pearl from London, found for us through a friend, was perfect for our needs. By January 2024, we were scheduling flights and finding hostels, hotels and Airbnbs for our week in Firenze. Some arrived early to go to Venice for the Biennale, others waited until after the conference to check out “the Olympics of the art world,” this year titled Foreigners Everywhere. The congress began Sunday, May 19, for three consecutive days, kicking-off with 1,400 attendees from around the world. For several of us, it was about a 25-minute walk one way to the Palazzo Dei Congressi near the train station. Luckily, there were gelaterias along the way to keep us cool.

The three-day congress was jam-packed with incredible opportunities to attend sessions where you could learn everything from black soils to soil regeneration, soil health indicators, and more. There was a soil literacy session where communication and community engagement were discussed. Author and presenter Nikola Patzel, who wrote the book “Cultural Understanding of Soils,” presented a “soil vision” by Hildegard of Bingen, painted in the 12th century. The vision was included in Bingen’s manuscript “Liber Divinorum Operum,” completed in 1174, which conveyed her ideas about the universe and is preserved in the State Library of Lucca in Italy. There was a session on mulching that addressed prototyping alternatives to plastic films used in vegetable production to reduce tillage and suppress weeds. These films are made with biopolymers rather than fossil fuels and can also serve to release fertilizers, though they are not yet commercially available. There was a session on anthropogenic soils and information on a mass worm death in India due to increasing temperatures. Other member favorites included a session on the soil microbiome gut-fecal connection, and understanding how climate change is affecting soil conditions for growing food. And, there was an experiment presented where warmer climate inside a biosphere was monitored to see how it would affect peat fields.

The majority of the humanities sessions were scheduled for Tuesday, the last day of the congress, and most of our participants presented in the final time slot. A few of us set up the Soil Dialogues pop-up exhibition in the morning, installing over fifty works by thirty artists in three hours. We were situated in a ceramics studio, where we used drying racks to hang textiles from, invented hanging devices from the tops of temporary walls and over window shutters, and laid several works on a long turquoise table placed on squares of Kraft paper with corresponding numbers on dots that matched printed checklists in both English and Italian.

At noon, at the Palazzo dei Congressi, the soil work of Italian artist Samantha  Passanti was presented by contemporary art critic and curator Davide Silvioli who discussed her work immersing fabrics in a rich ochre pigment found in soils at a former Sienna quarry in Bagnoli, which operated from the late 1700s to the 1800s. His talk, titled "Oltreterra Art Project: Artistic, cultural, environmental and cross-disciplinary project on Raw Sienna,” was included in the session titled Soil, soul and society: transformative pathways in soil care practices.”

Alexandra Toland presented on three panels on Tuesday, including “The Sky Inside the Soil,” which is a multi-phase, co-authored, research-creation project developed by Toland and Caroline Ektander that explores the rhizosphere as a place of trans-mediation in an environment of extreme toxicity. Toland also presented for the “Epistemologies and Ontologies of Soil: Towards New Politics of Soil Knowledge” panel, her paper titled “Soil Personhood, on the possibility of ped-ontological protection of soil beings and livelihoods,” and for the “Soil, Soul and Society: Transformative Pathways in Soil Care Practices” panel, she presented a new publication project in the making, the “Language of Soil” with Anna Krzywoszynska.

Rhonda Janke, Deanna Pindell, Jwan Ibbini and Patricia Watts convened and moderated a session titled “Soil Health from Multiple Perspectives,” which was presented in two separate panels in the rooftop Belvedere room with an incredible view of Florence. The first panel included Janke’s introduction to “A brief history of the buried cotton cloth assay use in science and art and current comparisons of diverse sites using metagenomic indicators.” She also unfurled a long data set on the DNA soil testing sampled from the participants located between Oman, Europe and the U.S. Pindell presented “Burial Shroud: a multispecies and ecofeminist perspective on human/microbial relationships in soil fertility and decomposition, as expressed through art.” She also presented Allie Horick’s Soil Quilt, made of soils from fourteen of her families’ ancestral cemeteries and patterned after her great-grandmother’s quilts.

This was followed by Ibbini’s talk titled “Buried Cloth Technique: Soil Microbial Art as a Teaching Tool for Laboratories.” With her students they conducted experiments by adding toxic substances, and sugar to the fabric before burial, which accelerated decomposition and affected resulting colors. The concluding panel was “Two Painters’ Collaboration with Soil, A Search for Understanding,” presented by Andrea Bersaglieri who shared watercolors on paper by Pamela Casper, featuring colorful underground worlds with circular insets of buried fabric on which she embroidered microbial life. The works mimic a microscopic view and channel generations of women’s work, typically undervalued—analogous to the way soil life has been undervalued. Bersaglieri also presented her paintings and drawings of clumps of soil on the soiled textiles, incorporating inks made from organic matter found within the soil buried in the artists’ backyard garden, in Los Angeles, California.

For the second session on “Soil Health from Multiple Perspectives,” I gave a brief history titled “Ecological artists engaging soils as both medium and non-human collaborator,” including Italian Arte Povera artists Peno Pascali and Giovanni Anselmo and post-war painter and farmer Gianfranco Baruchello, as well as several early American artists working with soils, and the buried textiles of ecoartspace member participants unable to attend, participants of the Soil Dialogues. Anne Yoncha presented the sound work of Kim V. Goldsmith and her own sound work in a talk titled “Sound of Soils: Two approaches to a multisensory understanding of soil.” She outlined how they each used different processes to explore their respective soil microbiome communities and shared the resulting sounds. Next was Jo Pearl, who presented Cindy Stockton Moore’s experimental short video Refuge in dialog with her own film Unearthed for the panel titled “Animating Soil Health: Breathing Life into Soil, Campaigning through Stopmotion Film.” She highlighted the origins and meaning of the practice of animation, defending its dynamic ability for bringing the hidden soil biome to life.

Three scientific posters were also presented, displayed around the perimeter of the main lecture hall for the duration of the congress (a strategy more ecoartists should be participating in at science conferences). Saskia Jorda illustrated her buried cloth experiment at two locations in Arizona, and included shoes or slippers with attached “mycelial roots'' sprouting from the bottoms, which she made from the textiles buried near her home. Her slippers and the poster titled “Rooted: soil health and memory of place,” were displayed at Il Coventino following the congress. Another collaborative poster by Anne Yoncha titled “Suon Laulu (Song of the Swamp): Soil Data Sonification of Post-Human Landscapes,” presented data from a graphic score, choral performance, and programmed video visualization that sonified 160 years of soil data from post-extracted peatlands in Finland. And, Ibbini’s daughter, Nada Hatamleh, from Oman, summarizing both historic and contemporary use of soil for design and construction in her poster titled “Harbony beneath our structure: bridging sustainable architecture and soil science in a changing world.”

During the same time, in another area of the Palazzo dei Congressi, Maru Garcia presented her talk, “Under the Concrete: Explorations of Soil Biodiversity through Art and Science in the Los Angeles River,” a multi-year large-scale project led by Lauren Bon + Metabolic Studio in California. Garcia has been a Metabolic Studio Fellow for the last two years, and presented this project in the session titled “Soil sciences entering into transdisciplinary research.” Bon sent six microscopic images of microbial soil organisms found in the river, printed on colorful textiles, which were hung on cordage up high diagonally across the ceramics room at Il Conventino. Garcia also displayed postcards from her project Prospering Backyards, which has provided free soil testing for lead to residents of Los Angeles County.

After the presentations, and after passing out flyers in both English and Italian at the Palazzo Dei Congressi for our Soil Dialogues pop-up exhibition, we rushed back to Il Conventino to welcome the soil scientists. For three hours, we had a full house of rotating guests. We were lucky that the venue had a cafe adjacent to the ceramics studio, where visitors could also get dinner. There was also a large courtyard where visitors continued conversing on the power of art to create an aesthetic context for discussion on soils.

Other artists in the pop-up included: from Australia, printed images of burials and exhumation of soiled textiles by Annette Nykiel, Renata Buziak and a quilted banner by Cassandra Tytler. From the US, unaltered buried textiles by Ashton Phillips along the Los Angeles River, and by Ruth Wallen four textiles from two different sites to measure soil health post-fire restoration in California, and a piece of buried Birch tree bark composed into an artwork by Stephanie Garon; remaining threads from a vermicomposted America flag by Christopher Lin; a painted textile by Priscilla Stadler mapping the area near Newtown Creek, in New York City where she buried her fabric; a degraded soiled embroidered textile with a nematode, juxtaposed with a printed before picture by Valerie Constantino; a monograph of bio-char on paper by Erin Wiersma; and from Canada, raw soiled fabric buried by Grace Grothaus; and a soya ink on cotton with the word soil on a dinner napkin that had been buried in roadside by Jill Price; and, from London, a recently exhumed textile with paintings of plastic forms buried in a community garden by Susana Soares Pinto; several raw soiled textiles buried in two locations by Kim Norton, and two tied canvas pieces buried with food waste or compost by Helen Elizabeth.

There was also a table with take-aways including brochures, postcards, business cards, and books for sale including Clive Adams and Daro Montag's book Soil Culture: Bring the Arts Down to Earth, Samantha Passaniti's Oltreterra Art Project, and Kim V. Goldsmith's Good For Nothing Dirt & Subterranean Sernade.

Exhausted from the Congress and reception (not to mention the time change), we went back to Il Conventino the next morning at 11am to welcome local artists. And, in the afternoon, we held another reception for the participants of the Art & Soil Tour, led by the IUSS Soil Congress. Many attending scientists left Florence right after the Congress, and others went on tours in other parts of Italy. We did, however, find a few scientists who stayed longer and came to our post-congress events, including on Thursday morning, where we talked with two soil scientists about the differences between artists and scientists and their processes of observation and visualization, which we concluded were not that different.

Jo Pearl wrapped up the three-day pop-up with a clay workshop in the afternoon where we formed soil microbes based on illustrations and our imaginations to collaboratively make a sculptural 3D bacterial biome. The participants were all ecoartspace members, so we used this time to share what we had learned from the soil congress and our interactions with scientists. We discussed future plans for a book documenting this journey—our working title is “Burial Shroud: a multispecies and ecofeminist perspective on human/microbial relationships in soil fertility and decomposition, as expressed through art.” And we considered additional possibilities to do pop-ups at upcoming conferences. This led us to consider how we could execute a collaborative work–an exquisite corpse style assembly of textiles. We have already started laying out a schedule to accomplish this over the next year.

The Soil Dialogues will continue through 2024 and beyond and we are looking forward to publishing the ecoartspace annual book titled Soils Turn in 2025, a directory for curators and scientists to locate artists for exhibitions and collaborations. Soils Turn will be co-edited by myself and Dr. Alexandra Regan Toland, Professor of Art and Research at Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany.

Of course, we will follow up on our contacts made during this time in Italy and look forward to more opportunities for creating new ways of seeing and engaging with soils.

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