We are Compost / Composting the We
Telegraphing the Dead through Soil
Thu 18 August 2022
Join us on CCA Annex for a performance lecture from Rachel Armstrong and Rolf Hughes.
Registration or pre-booking is not required for this event, simply open CCA Annex at 6.00pm (UK time) on your browser, however please feel free to register for event reminders.
Questions will be invited from the audience who can participate over CCA Annex. This event will be live-captioned and recorded.
Telegraphing the Dead through Soil
The regenerative landscapes of soil are forged by minerals, soil organic matter, living organisms, gas, and water into which the webs of life are woven. Soil recycles organic molecules into bioavailable forms mainly through countless oxidation-reduction (redox) reactions, which involve a transfer of electrons between two different types of chemistry, comprising one of Earth's most potent sources of energy. The value of these potent chemistries cannot be overstated, as the electron exchanges they enable are essential to the metabolic transformation webs of transformation that underpin myriad biological strategies and likely were critical for biogenesis around 3.5 billion years ago.
Steep redox potential gradients exist between the surface and the lower layers of undisturbed soils and sediments. In the top few millimeters of sediment, where oxygen is abundant and redox potentials are high, aerobic bacteria and other organisms like protozoans or small invertebrates metabolise glucose into carbon dioxide and water. As the redox potential declines with decreasing oxygen concentrations in the deeper layers, then the aerobic organisms disappear and fermenters take over, so anaerobic metabolisms become dominant.
Providing a medium for linking life and death, soils also host the decomposition process. Rapidly turning anoxic, the interior of a rotting body produces fermentation products, which trigger the formation of bacterial electron transporting structures like nanowires. Some formations such as cable bacteria can even span long distances of more than a centimeter. The resulting electron currents produced by active electron transfer induce detectable measurable changes in electric fields which help us understand just how chemically active these sites are—and can persist for many hundreds, or thousands of years depending on the nature of the decomposition process.
This performative presentation uses artistic research techniques to “burrow” into the realm of redox reactions within soils. It explores the incredible transformations that exist between the soil surface and its various layers, and asks how we define the realms of life and death, and what might happen should we, the living, be able to communicate with the dead via the electrical fields they produce.
Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Regenerative Architecture at the Department of Architecture | Faculty of Architecture, Campus Sint-Lucas, Ghent/Brussels, KU Leuven. Her work is characterised by design thinking as a fusion element for interdisciplinary expertise and pioneers the field of “living” architecture that materially and technologically directly engages the potency of life within spatial agendas.
Rolf Hughes is a prose poet with a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from UEA. Currently Professor in the Epistemology of Design-led Research at KU Leuven, Belgium, he is a member of the Experimental Architecture Group, whose work has been exhibited at biennales and exhibitions internationally, and published by Bloomsbury, Routledge, Springer, and Punctum Books. A transdisciplinary practitioner, Rolf has supported several European national research councils and universities in the strategic development, implementation and evaluation of artistic and design-led research.