URBAN ALLUVIUM WORKSHOP

SOIL CITY: Urban Alluvium Workshop / Guddling About // April 17, 2016

Artists: Minty Donald and Nick Millar // Field Notes by Ursula Lang // Photos by Clementine Sandison

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What does the water carry?

Have you looked into a storm drain along the streets of Glasgow? Probably you’ve glanced down at the floating cigarette butts, sky reflected on a thick surface, and odd pieces of urban detritus. Following the former tideline of the River Clyde, in this workshop led by artists Minty Donald and Nick Millar, we used urban storm drains to investigate what the water carries as it moves through the city. And how might this matter become soil?

Glasgow’s rivers have been shaped in conjunction with the city’s settlement and industrial history – and vice versa. What was once a wide, flat alluvial plain shaped by the coming and going of the tides has become the solid paved streets we take for granted. Over centuries of dredging and channelizing, the river’s path through the landscape has deepened and narrowed, constraining its meandering tendencies. This Soil City workshop is part of a larger ongoing project of Minty and Nick’s called “Guddling About” – based on the Scots word meaning to muck about, to be playful, to get messy. link: http://guddlingaboutexperiments.tumblr.com

How do water and soil meet?

It was a cold Sunday afternoon, windy and grey. A small group gathered, lots of conversation. Out we went, to meander along the former tideline. As we talked and walked, we stopped to peer into storm drains in gutters. We collected jars of water from eight storm drains with a basic water pump attached to a length of plastic tubing taped to a stick. Lowering the tubing into the water attracted pretty enthusiastic attention from passers by – many of whom were football fans. The liveliness of the streets loosened up conversation.

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Back at the Soil City Lab, the kettle was on and cups of tea warmed our cold fingers. We used a simple apparatus to filter each of the eight water samples: test tube stand, glass funnel, filter paper, and jar. Part ritual, part experiment. For about a half hour water dripped at varying rates. People chatted, looked through the library, and attended to ongoing Soil City projects like making nettle beer.

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We looked at the eight soggy filter paper circles laid out on the map. Tiny bits of vegetation, grains of sand, a couple of very small piles of wet mud. The actions of this performance brought us into closer contact with the drain water and all it carried, while at the same time our almost clinical treatment of the water once back at the lab distanced us from it. We talked about when dirt, sediment, and soil might be “matter out of place” (Mary Douglas’ famous phrase). Dirt in the garden is soil, is earth, is right where it should be. Is the muck from a city drain ever in the right place?

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At the end of the workshop, Minty sprinkled the filtered water as we walked a length of the former tideline. Lines of water marked the sidewalks, crossed the road diagonally. A man outside a pub watched us go by, and asked if if was holy water. Hard to escape the symbolic meanings of water, how we carry it, and where we place it. Minty smiled and said, “It’s drain water!”

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