Dirt: Joe Scanlan Excerpt from EcoCentric Topics

Organic humus and its living occupants are components of dirt. Humus might qualify as a prop for a horror movie because it consists of a grisly admixture of defecated matter from slimy invertebrates and the decaying corpses of virus, yeast, mold, and bacteria. Some other mucky ingredients of humus include twigs, needles, bark, and leaves of plants; and hairs, nails, bones, and skins of animals, all in various stages of decomposition. Environmentalists focus on the wondrous functions performed by this gruesome substance. Humus provides a home for the microscopic organisms that jump-start the food chain upon which we and all other forms of life depend. By channeling moisture and air through dirt, living organisms mix the strata of the earth’s mantle and enable plants to grow.
Dirt: An Ecocentric Interpretation
Dirt, like humus, elicits derogatory connotations. Dirty words are rude. “Dirt cheap” and “dirt poor” signal the lowest of low value. These phrases link the Earth’s principal life-sustaining substance with squalor instead of fertility. They reveal a deep-rooted preference for the sanitized products of technology, engineering, and industry. The word “soil” also carries the distasteful connotations of filth, sewage, and refuse, despite the fact that topsoil is where most roots and microorganisms are located. The dirty thoughts related to soil can be traced to the Indo European word for pigsty, “souil”.

Yet people who actually grow plants are proud connoisseurs of dirt. For them, its vital role in perpetuating the cycles of life dignifies the substance. Soil specialists also savor its multiplicity. Soil samples from deserts, swamps, coasts, basins, woods, and jungles are as varied as the vegetation they support. Experts have identified eleven separate soil orders and assigned proper names to 14,000 distinct varieties.  Another wondrous function of dirt is to provide a home for an immense diversity of life forms. The microbe population in a single teaspoon of topsoil is believed to exceed the entire human population on the planet today.

Dirt also varies in health and sickness. Healthy dirt is productive. Sick dirt cannot sustain plant growth. Although there are many causes of illness in dirt, one major cause can be traced to mono-agricultural farmers who grow the same crop year after year. Depletions of soil nutrients lead to dependence on chemical fertilizers. This practice sets off a chain of events that compromise fertility: populations of microorganisms decline, tiny waterways through the soil diminish, and the production of organic matter that binds soil together shrinks. As a result, soil becomes less porous, water runs off the surface—requiring farmers to depend upon irrigation—and irrigated land can become too salty to support plant life.

Degrading valuable topsoil is currently a problem. It could become disastrous if United Nations estimates come true. The UN reports that nearly 800 million people are currently undernourished. This grim statistic could increase to 1.5 billion by 2010.  Feeding this huge population in 2030 will require increasing food production by 60 percent. The UN estimates that 20 percent of the additional production will come from increases in land used, 10 percent from more harvests per year, and 70 percent from higher yields.  Since meeting this unprecedented challenge depends upon soil health, many environmentalists are seeking the means to assure high yields without depleting the productive capacity of soil. Conservation agriculture is being proposed as an alternative to techno-agriculture. In essence, conservation agriculture rotates crops, allows fields to lie fallow, and leaves crop residues in fields after harvest. These methods replenish nutrients while reducing mineralization, erosion, and water loss. But assuring soil health is not simply a job for farmers and gardeners. Dirt is depleted by thoughtless land use, negligent waste disposal, unrestrained logging, and so forth.
How can new outbreaks of soil sickness be prevented? How can ailing soils be cured? Humans can create soil health by attending to its needs as one might attend to a beloved pet. Dirt is living matter. It thrives and multiplies when it is fed and tended. Joe Scanlan has taken the initiative by establishing criteria for world-class dirt and then fulfilling these criteria in his art practice.

Joe Scanlan
1961 Born Stoutsville, Ohio
1984 Columbus College of Art and Design, BFA
1985 The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, MFA

Gold was not the only form of profit that resulted from the American gold rush in the middle of the 19th century. Many of the slang phrases that continue to enliven the English language can be traced to the rustic imaginations of miners prospecting for riches in the Old West. Such verbal gems as chiseler, hold your horses, land’s sake, pony up, slower than molasses in January, and the whole kit and caboodle derive from this source. So does the term pay dirt, which Joe Scanlan chose as the title of a work of art that consists of high grade potting soil. 
Pay Dirt (2003) required five years to research and develop. Instead of prospecting in fields and stream beds for ready-made soil or studying commercial simulations, Scanlon tested ways to assemble the raw ingredients for soil from common consumer by-products. His investigation culminated when he transformed a gallery into a mini-processing plant that actually produced dirt. The dirt was packaged and sold to visitors as part of the exhibition.

“Pay dirt” is slang for discovering something of value. Miners hit pay dirt when they strike gold, a substance that is prized by humans who relish its glistening beauty. It is also valued because of its ability to withstand the elements. But gold is irrelevant to ecosystems, because ecosystems do not benefit from inert substances. Instead, they thrive on festering rot that is highly reactive, even if it is not pretty. Scanlan’s title suggests that dirt is worthy of high value when the productivity of a “fertility standard” replaces the beauty of the “gold standard.” In other words, dirt pays when its metaphoric association with grime and squalor is exchanged for its function.
Scanlan’s productive composting is always conducted locally. Collecting the ingredients from the environs of the gallery where the dirt is being processed and sold demonstrates that all gallery visitors can participate in dirt production. Alternatively, anyone can purchase a bag on the web at http://www.thingsthatfall.com/dirt.php. The price of $20 per bag makes it possible for most people to become art collectors. But they are not collectors in a conventional sense. Because Scanlan’s dirt is made of 99.85 percent postconsumer waste, it includes common ingredients like used coffee grounds and other household garbage.

Collectors learn to save products they would normally discard. Furthermore, instead of preserving his dirt in a pristine condition, Scanlan encourages collectors to manifest dirt’s value as a life-generating medium in their gardens and window sills.
At the same time, presenting his product hot off the assembly line in full view of gallery visitors challenges cultural associations of value with rarity. Scanlan adopts the conventions of commercial enterprise by presenting his mass-produced art work unapologetically,as a consumable commodity. He packages his dirt in six-liter, zip lock, polyethylene bags with attractive three-color graphics. This strategy encourages viewers to explore dirt as a source of enlightenment. It invites critics to analyze dirt’s life-enhancing attributes. It also helps collectors experience pride in owning high-quality dirt.
Pay Dirt expounds upon this ecological lesson by demonstrating that not all dirt is created equal. There are three basic types of dirt: loam, sand, and clay. Loamy soils are considered best for propagation, but they vary too. The formula for an ideal loam is 45 percent mineral particles, 5 percent decomposing organic material, 25 percent water, and 25 percent air. Pay Dirt was conceived, designed, and crafted to manifest dirt excellence. Scanlan aspired to achieve dirt’s idealized form as classical artists once idealized the human form. He called his creation IKON EARTH, suggesting that his plant-growing medium is worthy of devotion, like an icon. This achievement, however, is not dependent on the assessment of art critics. Evidence of its superiority is provided by the official government certificate that accompanies Patent No. 6,488,732, officially certifying the fertility standards of Scanlan’s sculpture.

According to the advertisement that is also part of Scanlan’s art project, IKON EARTH contains nitrogen for robust growth, potassium for water uptake, phosphorus for bountiful fruiting and flowering, calcium for root development, magnesium for photosynthesis, sulfur for promoting new growth, and a high-action exchange rate for maximum absorption of nutrients. The text explains this miracle blend is “released in the slow, organic way plants like best, without the use of synthetic polymers or nutrient-retardants…. IKON EARTH is a work of art and may be harmful to some plants. Like all viable growth media, IKON EARTH contains naturally occurring bacteria that fight pathogens and cycle nutrients to plant roots.… For best results, use your hands.”

Scanlan is candid about his motives in striving to create dirt in its ideal form. He admits he wishes to achieve personal acclaim. “My best chance of leveraging any money or power or influence in such a culture as the United States stems directly from my ability to invent and exploit images that no one has ever seen before.” Instead of seeking originality through self-expression, he is directing his quest for originality in the form of ecological service. “Artists have very little power. In America, a ruthlessly money-based and moralistic country, persons who make things that are of no obvious or immediate value are viewed as charlatans at best and, at worst, parasites.”  Scanlan sought to elevate the value accrued to him and his art product by applying his originality to an essential function and using the product “as a kind of soapbox on which to stand and proclaim my proud participation in—but distinction within—the global economy. I’m very proud of this dirt and I enjoy making it. It is a vital, healthy product that promotes nourishment and beauty wherever it goes. So, as both a product and a philosophy, I want Pay Dirt to be infectious. I want it to get under people’s fingernails.” 

Like Scanlan, the following three artists elevate the value of essential substances that are largely ignored by the public. They focus on air, water, and pollen.

Air: Laurie Palmer created a series called Oxygen Bars (2005), stainless steel cylinders on wheels that contain miniforests. The forest is a bonsai-sized version of Hays Woods in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an area that currently has unacceptable quantities of airborne soot and other pollutants. Air quality is further threatened by plans to conduct mountaintop removal for coal extraction and to construct a racetrack and gambling casino on the site. Trees naturally filter dirty air through leaf mass and bark textures, and through transpiration and photosynthesis. Palmer’s minuscule woods function in this way too. People can snort the oxygen generated by each bar via attached tubing or they can inhale it by lifting the lid. Signage and maps printed on the bars link this air-cleansing operation to the threats to Hays Woods. The text also invites residents to propose alternative uses for the land. In an artist’s statement Palmer explains, “The primary goal of the Hays Woods Project is to generate a sense of public ownership in this resource.”   Air is free. Like most free goods, it also tends to be subjected to neglect and abuse. 

Water: Mark McGowan (1967–) is an artist who stirred outrage within the art community, among environmentalists, and throughout the popular media with an infuriating art work called Running Tap (2005). It consisted of a simple action: McGowan turned on a cold water tap at the House Gallery in south London with the intention of leaving the tap running for one year. At the end of the year, 15 million liters of water would have run down the drain. McGowan yielded to public pressure after nearly 800,000 liters of water had run down his drain. He decided that Running Tap had accomplished its mission by then because it had directed attention to the 1,000,000,000 liters of water that trickle out of London’s leaking Victorian water mains each year.

Pollen: The method that Wolfgang Laib (1950–) engages for gathering the material for his art work boggles the mind of anyone who values efficiency and labor-saving strategies. Laib walks through open fields and forests, stopping at one flower blossom at a time. Gently and methodically, he flicks grains of pollen into a jar. Gradually, over the course of an entire growing season, he may gather enough pollen to serve as the material and theme of a single sculpture. By reenacting the symbiotic rapport between bees and the plant kingdom, Laib performs a rite of survival and procreation that is foreign to many contemporary humans. His sculptures often consist of simple pilings of pollen upon the floor. These sparse art works radiate the visual, tactile, and olfactory beauty that is inherent to the pollen itself. Their ceremonial elegance hallows a substance more commonly associated with allergies.

Joe Scanlan, Laurie Palmer, Mark McGowan, and Wolfgang Laib all advocate on behalf of a substance that sustains life but receives little recognition or care. Instead of relying on representations and symbolic expressions, these artists allow the medium to convey their message. Choose a neglected substance that is essential for survival. Use this substance to create a work of art that strives to increase its visibility and improve its care.