Let me tell you a story



There once was an Italian artist, fairly established, who made his art in an environment of social unrest, of cultural assessing and of creative goals repositioning.
It was Rome, in the ’60s, his experimental films were shown around Europe and USA, his drawings and assemblages too.

Civil unrest turned violent, so his concern shifted, his research and investigation platform changed location, literally.
Gianfranco Barucchello moved to the countriside, it was 1973, to start a new way of looking at art, while farming: Agricola Cornelia.

His influences were predominantly duchampians, indeed he was a good friend of the French artist, with whom he had ongoing exchanges, yet beyond the rhetoric of ‘ready made’ surrounding Agricola Cornelia and applied onto sugar beets, barley, sheep and milk from cows, there was also a parallel concern, an issue topical today as ever, the relationship between ‘valore di scambio and valore d’uso’, ‘commercial value vs utilitarian value.
This was one topic that constituted the basis for the economy politics and philosophy of Marx, in Das Kapital, whose writings heavily influenced the geopolitical happenings of the last century.

Well, Baruchello took the plunge and dived, as an accomplished artist, into the nitty and gritty of what that meant.
Can being a primary producer be seen and/or have any narrative value in the cacophonic arguments of ‘art as cultural review’, art of the everyday, art as social catalyst?

I was lucky enough to spend 3 months at the Fondazione Baruchello recently. The foundation, under the guidance of director Carla Subrizi, now preserve what once was the fields, pastures and gardens of Agricola Cornelia.

Baruchello spent 8 years farming as art (1973-81) and his books are now being rediscovered (like I did) as seminal philosophical treaties.
Remarkable the now 85 years old man who still has lots to say.

“an artist is a bit like a philosopher’s stunt-man, trying out new possibilities. If it doesn’t work doesn’t matter, as art can absorb failures just as much as strokes of genius”

“the work of an artist is to be unpredictable. If you can see a clear path in your investigations, then it’s time for a sudden side jump”.

Even my mother (an intentional farmer herself) liked Baruchello’s writings, laughing at the results of cultivating, rearing and harvesting experiments: Baruchello said in several interviews, the aim was not to be a successful farmer, but rather to search for narratives and meanings.

Nothing comes more loaded of meanings as the production of sustainment, and today’s post-industrial societies find themselves facing the disconnection, analyzing what it really means to position one’s life so removed from primary production.

One book in particular , How to Immagine, is getting passed about, hand to hand, to various people.
It was never produced in big numbers, and indeed I don’t even think it was ever published in Italy itself, but I strongly believe what Baruchello was doing in terms of Art and Environment, at a time when big earth moving machinery were employed to make big landscape statements, is of value now.
It’s a stream of thought, jumping from beehives to feminism, from squatting as political action to the value of knowing how to select a good sheep from a bad one by sticking a finger in its bum and smell it..
lol, sounds gross?
I recently replied to an email where, in the colloquial section, the correspondent said she’d love to come down to the garden to do something about her urge of gardening.
I replied “indeed, we should actually foster a new trend, a fashion statement that consecrates soil-under-your-fingernails as the new black”

Lol, why not?
We all love plants after all. Indeed most people are just scared, feeling disconnected and/or not skilled enough.

Come down to the garden all, let’s experiment

Roger Chimes In…


All this talk about dirt made me remember an old friend of mine, Roger Scott. He’s a soil scientist or an environmental scientist or something along those lines. When he first came to Sydney (we met in Kellerberrin back in 2005) he took one look at my backyard garden in Petersham and recommended I get the soil tested for poisons. I am afraid to say I never did that test. My soil was very good, and quite fertile, and has improved over the last five years. But I’ve no idea if it contains the toxins Roger is worried about.

Anyway, these memories prompted me to get in touch with Roger and let him know about my current projects (this one, as well as that one). This is a chunk from his reply to me:

HI Lucas,

I’m still here in Sydney, I just moved out of Marrickville a few weeks back to be with my girlfriend in Clovelly. Not quite as many scrumping opportunities over here in the east but still a bit about if you know where to look and keep your eyes open, there are a lot of avocados about but they don’t ripen for some reason, still not sure why we were postulating that it may be a lack of warm weather in the same way that stone fruit requires a chill. We still have chesnuts in the freezer from the end of summer which we use in delicious soups and stews, luckily not having a garden isn’t keeping us from experiencing cheap clean food.

I was very interested to read about these new projects of yours, art and the environment seems to be an ongoing preoccupation, something I can’t get out of my head so anything that pulls them together tends to capture my interest.

I did have one comment about city dirt which is that it tends to be a real mixed bag in terms of where it has come from and what has been done to it. If your garden has had a lot of builders fill brought into it then your guess is as good as anyone’s what is actually in there. If the landuse has changed over the years from say agricultural to industrial/light industrial and then residential there could be all sorts of interesting things, ie chemicals, heavy metals, organochlorides, mixed in there. Just like there is no balance of nature, there never was a halcyon period when we weren’t adding chemicals to our soil and food, except perhaps for the neolithic.

Apparently arsenical pesticides were used well into the 20th century and I don’t have to remind you of the joyous application of chemical nasties which kicked off the green revolution. What to do then? Well I’m not saying this shit is in your soil I’m just saying it pays to be aware, our cities can be quite toxic at certain times and places.

Many permies I know have a rule of planting big crops of tuberous crops like potatoes on new sites and discarding the first batch, apparently these plants are quite good at scavenging nasties from the soil. A soil test is another option albeit a bit of a cost.

I might just add though that despite the potential for additives, anytime I have been involved in city gardens I can’t help but ponder the lifecycle of landuses across our cityscapes. How did the people who were here before me interact with this landscape? What did it mean to them? I think the idea of swapping dirt taps into that history in a really elegant way.

Check out some State of the Environment reports for ideas on audits, my memories of audits we looked at at uni are that they get more and more complex the deeper you look.


Trading Dirt


One of my favourite works by Allan Kaprow was called Trading Dirt.

Begun in 1983, it was one of Kaprow’s later pieces which, rather than being large-scale Happenings, were more likely to comprise of ‘small interactions between consenting individuals’. In Trading Dirt, Kaprow did just that – swapped a bucket of soil from his garden with someone else who he might have bumped into by chance.

He would then carry that dirt around with him, again swapping it whenever the chance arose. Stories accumulated around this rather base exchange: mythologies about what the dirt carried, what nutrients (psychological and social rather than mineralogical) it contained, what “vibes” it might have absorbed from its location or from the lives of those around it. (You can watch a nice video of Kaprow describing the project (rather slowly) over here.)

Every time I gleefully “import” soil (without paying money for it) to my garden at home, I think of Kaprow’s dirtwork. For me too, there’s always a story, and it nearly always creates some sort of bond between the trading partners. The ladies across the road from my house, who needed to rip out a whole swathe of grass to put in paving – they gave me their dirt, which I lugged on a sack-truck up the pathway. I used that dirt to hill up around my potatoes last year. The Petersham Bowling Club, who after many years of procrastinating, renewed their greens, leaving an enormous mound of soil in their driveway, which Lisa del Nord and I shoveled into bags for our own gardens.

There have been many more such occasions. I’m kinda greedy for dirt. Dirt I’ve imported: I can remember where it’s gone in my garden. When I harvest vegies from it, I always gladly think of where it came from before it arrived.

And now, Rachel in Lewisham has Traded Dirt with us for our new garden.

I found Rachel through Freecycle. On Thursday, Diego and I showed up with a ute and got to work digging out more than a tonne of rich good, wormy soil from her side-yard. We speculated that an old Italian couple must have grown vegies here for years. Perhaps it worked as a garden bed in the past, but now Rachel needs the space back to create room for a playspace for her kids.

tending - trading dirt

tending - trading dirt

For me and Diego (aka “The Boss”) it was a joy to shovel this dirt. Crumbly and loose, we were well-pleased to have this “free soil”. Rachel, who I’d told about the Tending project in advance, immediately treated us like garden experts – which is kinda funny, since we’re totally not – asking advice on how to trim back a Bougainvillea, and what trees to plant in her front yard. So in exchange for our dirt, we did what we could.

While he might sometimes lack for pure scientific knowledge, The Boss makes up for it in confidence, so he got stuck into drawing hypothetical cut marks on the tree, indicating where Rachel should cut.

tending - trading dirt
[The Boss indicating his level of knowledge…]

tending - trading dirt
[“Cut Here” – good luck Rachel!!]

For a couple of bloggers usually chained to our desks, it was great to spend a day just shoveling. When we were done, we eased the ute down the street, but only a hundred metres from Rachel’s place we heard a funny scraping noise. We’d overloaded it. The dirt was too heavy, and the rear wheels were scraping on the ute tray. We had to unload half a dozen bags and dump them on the side of the road. Later we came back for them, but by then (after a detour to inspect some rental properties – don’t ask, long story) it was dark and rainy.

tending - trading dirt
[…a ‘mole cricket‘ – a friendly hitchhiker which came to light in our load of dirt…]

Over at the garden site, we invited Betty from the cafeteria to come and visit. She’s really keen to get involved. Betty was pretty excited about my kaffir lime tree, and immediately harvested some leaves for her curry. I have a strong feeling you’re going to hear a lot more from Betty before this project is through!

tending - trading dirt

Next week we will plant something! Not sure what, but something for sure. And we’ll start our compost heap too. If anyone would like to join us, get in touch:


Potatoes, Raspberries, Trees to graft…


potato bounty
[a potato harvest from early 2010, Petersham backyard garden…]

Following on from Diego’s list of what he’d like to plant at the Sydney College of the Arts site…

I have a native raspberry plant in a small pot, which Kat and Kurt gave me. Not sure where they got it from, somewhere down in Wollongong. I brought that over to Tending already, hope to plant it somewhere… It’s already starting to fruit! [Here’s a forum where folks discuss the growing of this plant…]

And yes, as Diego suggests, I do want to plant potatoes!

For some reason, I have accumulated a lot of seed potatoes these past months, which I’m really keen to put in. Some of them are real gourmet Diggers Club taters, which I got from the lovely Jennie from Ashfield, via Freecycle.

Since Tending is an ‘experimental garden’, we were talking about trying 2 or 3 different ways of growing potatoes, to compare and contrast. [Here’s a nice little essay about growing potatoes, the author says they’re a ‘vanity’ crop… but still loves doing it!]

[Potatoes grown in old car tyres, image pinched from the internet…]

I have 4 old car tyres, which I pinched from the mechanic next door to Locksmith gallery last year (when we did the spontaneous recreation of Allan Kaprow’s tyre work “YARD” within our recreation of his “push and pull”. )

There’s another way of growing potatoes in a vertical ring of chicken wire, similar to the tyres method but a bit bigger. We’re gonna try that way too…

potatoes in chicken wire
[image lifted from ABC Gardening Australia...]

Thirdly there’s the method of just growing them in the horizontal garden bed, which takes more space. I had some good success with this method last year – I thought I’d pulled out all the tubers, but they keep on coming! And it’s so much fun to ferret around for ’em!

What else would I like to plant? What’s on my list?

Well, I also have a couple of small rootstock citrus trees in my backyard in Petersham. Since we’re getting evicted, and the landlady hates my treeplanting ways anyway, maybe I’ll bring ’em along! A few years ago, I was about to rip out one of these little trees (a lemon I believe) because they don’t fruit. Louise, my flatmate at the time, chided me for my shortsightedness. All I have to do is learn how to graft! I haven’t had time to learn this skill yet, but perhaps Tending is the kind of place where citrus grafting can be tried out, without fear of failure!

I also have a gorgeous olive tree which I’ve grown from about a foot high, to its current 2 metres tall. Pending transplantation, perhaps the olive would like to join us too. I’m quite attached to it, and an olive tree certainly represents long-term thinking.

This list will continue to grow…