Out of Soil

A project by Myriel Milicevic and prozessagenten / Susanne Jaschko


How much ‘land’ is in your daily food? How do the right to use land, the actual use of land and the food you eat relate?
Today soil is under pressure. Growing consumption and increasing demand for resources take a toll on the soil — urbanisation, intensive farming, erosion and land grabbing are only some of the manifold consequences. Soil as matter is as much affected by these contemporary phenomena as the livelihood of people who have farmed for generations.

Before this background, Myriel Milicevic and prozessagenten / Susanne Jaschko developed Out of Soil: made out of soil / running out of soil. The playful project locates itself between performative intervention, art and knowledge transfer.

The project was created for the Week of Justice of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin in April 2015, a conference during which consequences of and alternatives to neoliberalism and globalisation were discussed. Myriel and Susanne stood at the Soil Press Station and interacted with conference attendees on three evenings. Next to the Soil Press Station was the Out of Soil Map. Neither the wooden structure of the Soil Press Station that held a printing press and several glasses filled with soil, nor the performers wearing aprons, nor the big map supported a clear attribution to a specific group or activity. Was this the campaign of an NGO, a new kind of geography class or a live demo of a printing shop that included the distribution of flyers?

Out of Soil playfully uses of a vocabulary of forms. Name stickers for instance — usually used at conferences — become Soil Profiles. As we know, scientists produce soil profiles by vertically cutting through the soil to reveal the various layers and sediments. Instead the Soil Profiles produced by Myriel and Susanne in dialogue with the participants made each participant’s personal relation to soil visible. When going through the predefined statements on the stickers, conversations quickly unfolded. People wondered, ‘Am I a land grabber although I am not actively grabbing land, but because I live in a country that buys or leases land overseas?’, ‘Do I own land, if I grow tomatoes on my balcony?’ or ‘ Do I know anything about soil?’. The performers attached the Soil Profiles onto the people’s clothes in order to stimulate further exchange between the conference attendees.

Visitors were also given 10 sq of printed soil. These Soil Stamps were printed with paint made out of earth and resembled food cards. They drew attention to the fact that food can only be produced in exchange for other resources. When distributing them, Myriel and Susanne invited the people to later return to the Soil Press Station for having them stamped.

Many visitors followed the invitation and when they did, they were asked what they had consumed during the day. The performers stamped the visitors’ pieces of soil, depending on the average acreage, which was used for the production of the food they had consumed: less than 0.1 sq for 100 gr of various vegetables, or e.g. 3 sq for 100 gr beef. Quickly the fields got filled with stamps of a chicken, a potato, a loaf of bread, a steaming cup of coffee and the outlines of other food products. In this process, the participants unveiled very different eating habits as well as personal food stories. The participants responded in various ways to the inquiry. Some elaborated on what they enjoy to eat and drink; others expressed concern about their own consumption.

The Out of Soil Map constituted the third part of the project. It illustrated the issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying of large pieces of land in developing countries by domestic and transnational corporations and governments. These transactions have long-lasting consequences for local and regional agriculture and ecosystems, for farmers and for the provision of local populations. Land is not just a two-dimensional plot that can be marked off or whose monetary value assessed with simple maths. Land that is bought by foreign companies and governments is usually neither unused nor uninhabited. Often men live from one piece of land for generations, using its wood and plants with a view towards maintaining balance, long-term sustainability. For those peoples, access and use of this land is a matter of existence.

Small farmers — i.e. farmers who exploit less than 1 hectare of land — feed the vast majority of people in the world. It is them who suffer most from speculation and land grabbing, for the simple fact that capitalisation renders land financially inaccessible to them.

Out of Soil is a participatory project that blends play and politics, performance and participation, the private and the public. It remains ambivalent, transversal and open for interpretation. Participants are not judged on their consumption habits. No commentary and no final statement are made about their lifestyles. The most concrete result that they can take home are their personal Soil Profiles and Soil Stamps. But even these items, what are they exactly? Artworks or performance artefacts that the participants should keep or rather flyers that they can dump carelessly?