The role of artists

April Green Tease Reflections by Gemma Lawrence from Creative Carbon Scotland

This month we met the spring season with our April Green Tease events in Glasgow and Edinburgh, welcoming a range of people from across the arts and different areas of sustainability to find points of connection between their interests and practices.

In an introductory tour around the lab we were shown the multi-layered map of green and brownfield sites visited during the three weeks of GI, and soil and plant samples taken from around the city. Alex Wilde, member of Open Jar Collective, explained their motivation for exploring the state of soil in the city, as an under-appreciated resource but something which we are all rely upon and are intrinsically connected to.

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She described the layered nature of Soil City programme encompassing site visits, soil testing (contributing to OPAL citizen science project), walking and bike tours, public talks and workshops, and an online archive Field Notes, designed to capture the range of perspectives and ways of thinking about soil which emerged over the three weeks.

In between homemade soup, cakes, cups of tea and some hands on soil testing, the Green Tease gathering held a passionate discussion soil. It seemed that everybody has a story to tell or question to ask about how we understand, use and look after the soil in our neighbourhoods and city. See Katy Gordon’s account of the discussion here

We also spoke about what Open Jar saw their roles as artists to be in raising questions about urban relationships with soil. Clem Sandison suggested that the bespoke bright yellow bicycles, designed and made by the collective, were symbolic of their artistic approach, offering an usual and intriguing starting point for conversation, that you may not come across in a typical citizen science project. She also talked about the importance of creating new civic spaces for discussion, bringing together diverse perspectives and encouraging learning, exemplified through the Soil City lab.

Over the course of the event we discussed the importance of finding new ways of valuing soil, as well as green spaces and brownfield sites in cities, beyond their potential for economic development. It became clear that Open Jar Collective see part of their role as offering a different set of values based on the connections between communities and urban ecologies.

We look forward to seeing how the Soil City project unfolds over the coming months!

Farmerama

Soil City was featured on Farmerama – a podcast sharing the voices from the smaller scale farming movement in the UK and beyond. Episode 9, about 13 minutes into the programme.

Listen to Alec Finlay speaking at our Land Rights Night, Severine von Tscharner Fleming from the Greenhorns speaking at our Farm Hack event, and Open Jar Collective member Clem Sandison giving an overview of the aspirations behind Soil City.

NORTH GLASGOW WALKING TOUR

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Saturday 23rd April // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

I think it’s fair to say that North Glasgow doesn’t figure high on the itinerary of most tourists visiting Glasgow, and for those of us living elsewhere in the city, it perhaps isn’t a regular destination. Despite living in Maryhill when I first moved to Glasgow, and having used the canal as a regular running route for the last 10 years or so, I’d rarely ventured to its northern side – so I was keen to explore. Billed as “a walking tour of hidden spaces in North Glasgow, exploring the city’s history and heritage, questions of dereliction, the benefits of wild spaces, and the potential for community transformation of urban land”, this Soil City walking tour led by Clem Sandison, provided the perfect opportunity to investigate.

A group of twenty or so budding urban explorers gathered at the Whisky Bond for a brief introduction, before the short walk along the canal to our first destination of the Hamiltonhilll Claypits. Shiona MacPhail, of the Friends of Possilpark was our expert guide around this captivating urban wilderness. A former industrial site which was vital to the expansion of the canal system – a history of clay extraction, shale-oil extraction, boat repair and iron making have all left their traces on the site, whether it be in the soil, or surface traces of former infrastructure. Left to nature since the demise of these industries, the claypits are now a bustling greenspace of great biodiversity. It was really enjoyable to have a root around and take in the quiet ambience of the place, with that compelling juxtaposition between natural and human-made things that you find in such places – finds ranged from abandoned cans of Tennent’s Super Lager to the bones of roe deer! The hopes of Shiona and the Friends of Possilpark are for the rich biodiversity and industrial heritage of the claypits to become a real asset to the local community, by raising public awareness and improving access to the site.

Next stop on the tour was up the back of the claypits to the Hamiltonhill Allotments. This involved walking up the shale bing left over from its industrial heyday, which provides a fantastic 180 degree view looking South over the city. I even spotted a couple of roe deer amongst the silver birches below, before they turned their cotton wool tails and fled. For me the hidden gem of the claypits are a proper edgeland, what Farley and Roberts describe as – “a wilderness that is much closer than you think: a debatable zone, neither the city nor the countryside, but a place in-between”.    

At the allotments we were met by one of the Soil City roving research bikes and a couple of pre-dug pits to have a closer look at the soil and some worm identification. We also had a chat with one of the allotment holders who showed us around and talked about her relationship to the allotment and the community that surrounds it. The more orderly and organised layout of the allotments provided an interesting contrast to the wilder nature of the claypits. Continuing the theme of community growing, we took a short walk into Possilpark to have lunch in the lovely space of the Back Garden – a community growing space located on formerly derelict land, which has individual, communal and group plots, as well as drop-in social gardening sessions. A great example of how stalled spaces can be co-opted for the benefit of local communities.

Our final stop on the walking tour was nearby Cowlairs Park, a large area of open parkland (formerly several football pitches) which after being effectively abandoned by the council has become somewhat of a dumping ground, and garnered a reputation as a bit of a ‘no go area’ due to drinking and anti-social behaviour. With the absence of any strict regulation the park has been re-purposed for an altogether different use – its open layout and the differing elevations of its former football pitches now provide the perfect race track for motorbike enthusiasts. This was evidenced on the day, as a large number of quad bikes and dirt bikes tore around the place, zooming by at great speed. Added to the rubbish, random discarded objects lying around and scorched areas of grass, the park had a pretty post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel to it. Despite this, it was a compelling place to be, with great views towards the north of the city and a weird beauty. Although its far from the manicured care of other city parks such as Kelvingrove or Glasgow Green, perhaps places like this are needed, where people are able to get away from the regulated and monitored spaces of the city to find excitement and release some energy by driving motorbikes at high speed? Better here than on the roads! Clem described Cowlairs Park as a “feral commons”, which I think describes its sense of place perfectly.

The short walk back to the Whisky Bond completed our circuit of some of north Glasgow’s hidden spaces, while we chatted and reflected on the places we’d visited. Although they may lie outside the area covered by most of Glasgow’s tourist maps, the various edgelands of north Glasgow are a captivating place for anyone interested in the rich industrial heritage of the city, as well as the opportunities that derelict spaces present for both wild nature and community action. 

WHAT IS SOIL ANYWAY?

Friday 22nd April // Reflections by Hannah Baxter

Today I went along to ‘What is soil?’ because I wasn’t really that sure about it and wanted to find out! The workshop was led by Malcolm Coull, from the James Hutton Institute, and Abi Mordin, from Propagate. There were also quite a few worms involved who led by action rather than with words.

Malcolm gave a talk about soil which, he said, is made from inorganic material, organic materials, water, air and beasties. It is formed by the climate (the wind blowing materials about and the cold pushing rocks apart) and organisms, and it takes a very, very long time to make. Soil is best known for growing things in – and many people in the room were experienced gardeners – but it is also good at storing water, storing carbon, locking up chemicals, supporting buildings and preserving the past. It is also a home for millions of organisms – apparently there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. But there are big problems facing soil – competing demands from various people, pollution from industry, floods washing it away, overgrazing and weathering.

Abi then talked about compost. This led to a little debate about what should go into compost. Is it okay to put in cooked food? Abi thought not, and most agreed, as it can attract rats and mice but an allotment holder present puts it into his compost – controversial! Should orange and lemon peel go in? It can but it takes a long time to break down. And what about human poo? Abi makes humanure! But she wouldn’t use cat or dog poo. Essentially Abi explained that composting is helping to speed up a natural process of organic matter breaking down and for this to happen the organisms doing the work need to be kept happy with food, shelter, heat and water. Compost is not the same as soil; but it is added to soil to improve it.

There was then a practical part of the workshop and we were asked to think about whether soil can be made. If soil is depleted this might actually have to happen as soil would not naturally form as fast as existing soil is being exhausted. Malcolm asked if people would be comfortable with growing plants in this type of soil and mostly everyone seemed cool with that. We then had a go at making soil. I say we but actually I didn’t as my hands are very dry and sore from being in allotment soil a lot this week! This soil was a mix of ground down bricks and ash to make up the non-organic part and Abi’s compost to make the organic part, along with helpful worms and other tiny organisms too small for us to see.

The workshop gave me a lot of questions to think about. Are we being good enough to our soil? What will happen if it is depleted? Will we have to ‘make’ soil and how could this happen on a large enough scale? Abi also asked where does the top soil imported for community gardens and allotments come from – is it okay to move soil around like this? But with these questions, I did get the very helpful answer from Malcolm and Abi to ‘What is soil anyway?’

SOIL AND THE CITY WALK

Wednesday 20th April // Reflections by John Hutchinson

Bob Hamilton of the Common Good Awareness Project led an east end meander to observe and discuss the relationship between the concrete and social constructions of the city and the soil on which it is built. The common good awareness project, initiated by Bob raises awareness of publicly owned assets in the city and engagement in the common good fund which arises from these assets. What if we understood soil as a common good and the assets as the ecological, social and practical services it provides?

Bob proved to be an interesting and informative guide as we took a stroll around the East End. In the spirit of a Parisian flâneur, our route was unplanned and our pace was leisurely as we took time to stop and discuss places and points of interest. Our first stop was at Glasgow Green, where a legalize Cannabis event provided an appropriate backdrop to discussions surrounding the social role of the commons as well as the ecological importance of their soil. Before starting the walk, Bob had compared the city to the structure of a computer circuit board, with their conductive tracks, pads and copper sheets resembling the roads, pavements and buildings of the city – individual components that all serve a vital function within a larger whole.  In providing a breathing space “where people don’t have to do anything, or buy anything” common greenspaces act like the heatsinks and fans of the circuit board, preventing components from overheating and breaking down. As we looked around Glasgow Green and saw the plethora of people who were enjoying it and the diversity of activities going on, this analogy really resonated.

Bob then suggested that we visit Free Wheel North, a cycling development charity based at Glasgow Green as a good example of the ways in which we “can plug-in” to the commons and utilize their benefits for the common good. It was great to see so many people utilizing the vast array of adapted bikes that Free Wheel North offer – a testament to their belief that everyone should have the right to access health, fresh air and exercise.  From then on we meandered to Bridgeton Cross, taking the time to look up and appreciate the wealth of architectural heritage that Glasgow has to offer. We ended up our walk basking in the sun at the Abercromby Street Burial Ground – a compelling site which contains the graves of three weavers killed in the Calton Weaver’s Strike of 1787. Until recently, this graveyard had long been neglected, but thanks to the efforts of local activists it has since seen renewed attention  – not least as the site of a Georgia Hogan exhibition as part of Glasgow International. Visiting this site for the first time, I was unaware of the role of weaving in the industrial history of Calton and the events of the weaver’s strike. While we enjoyed the sun in its peaceful surroundings, I thought of the importance of such places, and of their soil, as points of connection to the past and as incubators of local identity.

 

 

GORBALS & GOVANHILL

Thursday April 21st // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as Glasgow basked in glorious sunshine, and what better way to spend a day in the sun than rooting around in the soil and worm hunting? First port of call for the Soil City roving research team was the Gorbals Rose Garden, a former burial ground established in 1715, which now provides a quiet greenspace for the local community. During redevelopment in 2005, some of the original headstones from its former days as a cemetery were installed into the park walls. This provided us with an interesting nod to its past usage and also spurred some thinking on what lay in the soil beneath our feet. Aside from some local workers sunning themselves in the park at lunchtime, there weren’t a whole lot of people around. Help was on hand however, as two kids in the park with their parents got involved with testing the ph of the soil and worm hunting. Spraying the worms with water to stop them from drying out seemed to be the favourite task!

After finishing up in the Gorbals it was onwards to Govanhill Baths, where a small but pleasant garden sits serenely next to the hustle and bustle of Calder Street. Here we were met with a enthusiastic group who were only too happy to sit in the sun and get their hands dirty. It was a nice ambience sitting in the calm of the park, directly adjacent to the busy street and the curious looks of passers-by. It seems that communal handling of soil is a great way to generate conversation – perhaps there is something in its tactile nature and shared childhood experiences of playing and rooting around in it that facilitate this? When discussing what the soil smelt like, one response was “like freshly cut grass when I was a kid”. After wetting the soil to test its consistency and texture (which turned out to be indicative of a sandy clay loam soil type) more fun was had by making some ‘seedbombs’ – sort of like a bath bomb but made of soil and packed with wild flower seeds! This resulted in some impressively spherical balls of Govanhill soil loaded with wild flower seeds to be dropped elsewhere. On my walk home back to the city centre I duly lobbed mine into the large Brownfield site next to the M74. Perhaps there will be a small patch of wildflowers growing there the next time I walk past…

 

Green Tease

Green Tease event organised by Creative Carbon Scotland and hosted by Open Jar Collective in the Soil City Lab.  Reflection by Katy Gordon, 20 April 2016

I am going to start with a confession.  I thought about writing a preamble to cushion the confession but instead I am going to come straight out with it:  I have never given much thought to soil.  There, I said it.  But judging by the look on my friends faces when I said ‘I am going to a thing about soil tonight’ I don’t think I’m alone.  I have, however, given a lot of thought to food.  I love food. As a nutritionist my traditional approach has been that it if is healthy, then I’m happy.  However, recently I have begun to wonder ‘while food is healthy for me, am I healthy for food?’  As I have been tucking into my ‘5-a-day’ words like food miles, seasonality and, most grandly, food provenance have been creeping onto my dinner plate and making me question whether the New Zealand kiwi or the out of season strawberries are such a good choice after all.

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And it is this recognition of the need for a change to my diet that brought me to the Green Tease event as part of the Soil City project. The link between soil and food is clear but alongside community food growers the event was attended by artists, a soil scientist, a housing officer, a stalled space officer and a visual arts consultant so it seems the interest in soil is wide ranging.  After some delicious soup in a quirky lab under the train arches on Osbourne Street we set out on our soil investigations.  Using a mixture of samples, some with their own accompanying worms and beasties, we smelled, we squeezed, we prodded, we rubbed, we sprayed and we talked.  Whilst it lacked the scientific rigour of the soil investigations that the project is doing at various sites in the city, it still gave a great insight into all the things there is to know about soil.

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After getting our hands dirty we sat in a circle and chatted as a group about, of course, soil.  We talked about contaminated soil, pioneer plants, road verges, feral commons, risky play, derelict land, community spaces, food waste, compost sales and even martian poo.  Soil was at the heart of all these discussions and everyone had stories to tell. It was fun, informative and I sensed a real desire to facilitate change.  I would like to thank the Open Jar Collective for their ambitious project and allowing me to be involved.  I will definitely look at soil in a whole new way.  Which is good, because soil is all around and I will have a constant reminder of the promises I made myself to eat better, not just healthily, but better.

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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Throw Away Gourmet

Throw Away Gourmet are a group of students from the Glasgow School of Art who regularly come together to strengthen community through the action of preparing and sharing food that would otherwise be thrown away. Using donations raised from these meals we are then able to share food throughout Glasgow. It is a developing student led project that evolves and grows, reaching out to different communities within the city and raising awareness of food wastage through the action of bringing people together to eat.

“It was a lovely evening with some great people, conversation and food”.

The spread included:

Courgette salad
rocket salad
potato wedges
vegetable stew
spicy sausage stew
hasa five spice pork ribs
torteloni with pesto and lime
plum crumble
yoghurt
fruit salad