Soilari at St Enoch Centre

Reflection by artist Jo Hodges // 20 April 2016

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How do you get people thinking about soil in one of the most built up places in the centre of Glasgow such as a shopping centre? We (Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges) embarked on a mission to do just this by embedding ourselves into the environment of the St Enochs shopping centre with a performance installation called Soilari Future Soil Therapies.

A while ago we began investigating microorganisms in soil, focusing on one particular bacterium, mycobacterium vaccae. This bacterium has been the subject of ongoing research into possible treatments for conditions such as tuberculosis, crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at Bristol University and the Sage Colleges in New York found that exposure to the bacterium acted as an antidepressant by stimulating the release of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain (some people have speculated that this is why gardening make you feel good!)

As artists, we’re interested in how speculative futures can be used to gain insight into current issues. Noticing that many urban dwellers without gardens or allotments rarely engage with soil (and that it is regarded as ‘dirt; and washed off all food these days) we wondered in future cities, if we will become so disconnected from soil that we’ll never see or touch it anymore. With the continual development of the built environment and monetisation of so many aspects of life, will soil follow the same route?

Working with Prof. Lorna Dawson from the Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, we created the Soilari Future Soil Therapies installation as an exercise in public engagement. Using the mycobacterium vaccae research as a starting point, we devised a fictional future scenario in which companies would sell ‘soil therapy’. At different points in the day, lunch breaks for example, we speculated that people would visit ‘therapy units’ to be exposed to soil and get a daily feel good’ dose of mycobacterium vaccae. Following on from this we envisaged that if this became the way that millions of people maintained their health and wellbeing, these companies would need to buy up vast swathes of land in order to harvest the ‘theraputic’ soil?

So, to Wednesday 20th April…. visitors to The St Enoch Centre were met by a ‘therapist’ from the Soilari Soil Therapies company from 30 years in the future who invited them to a free soil therapy relaxation session and explained the concept and procedure. They were made comfortable and breathed in a flow of air that passed over the soil that was hidden within the ‘therapy units’. At the same time they listened to a field recording from the location where the soil was ‘harvested’. They were given a ‘company’ leaflet and a soil sample to take away. Back in the present, they were also asked to answer some questions about their current relationship with and understanding of soil including when they last came into contact with soil and ideas for how soil could have more importantance in cities.

The installation was designed to look as different from the natural environment as possible and along with the uniformed therapists fitted in really well to the shiny clean shopping centre surroundings. There were other treatment booths in the centre and we felt disturbingly at home there. Getting the public involved presented us with the identical challenges faced by the other vendors. Lots of people thought we were going to sell them something and we had to rapidly develop strategies to get over this. Once we had people curious enough to try our ‘therapy’ it was easy and fruitful to explain in depth what we were doing and why. Customers ranged people who had never grown anything to experienced gardeners and also a fortuitous meeting with actual soil scientists who knew about the research we were speculating on. It felt like a playful way to start a serious conversation about the value of soil, green spaces and growing food in the city.

Creating speculative futures and exploring the implications of an increasing disconnection from soil, is a very different approach to the hands on field research engagement of Soil City. However we hope it has added another dimension to the developing conversation about our current relationship to soil, biodiversity and wider issues such as consumerism and ownership of land.

Massive thanks to Open Jar Collective for the space within the Soil City programme to experiment with this approach to public engagement.

Soilari Future Soil Therapies was developed as part of Nil by Mouth, a programme of residencies and knowledge exchange during 2014/5.

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