A letter to friends, allies and wanderers:

What is soil’s name?

Months ago, I was writing on a plane bound for Singapore. As I moved through space and time, I moved through lines of orientation: away from the people, issues and reference points that guided me in Yogyakarta, toward the people and work I had to do in Singapore. Now I’m back in Yogyakarta, and soon I will be leaving again. Moving between spaces, I am often dislodged from my immediate task; I forget to name people who matter, and I forget the names of people who matter. Sometimes this extends to other living beings-who-are-not-people as well.

Each movement between space involves a re-orientation of our social capital, according to social norms, law, or existing property relations. But there are other forms of capital that affect our lives, even if we perceive them less obviously. Also writing on a plane, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a moss scientist, noted, “When we stare out the window into the sun’s glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us.” These stories, she noted, have an inside and outside. “The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking from the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but within the circle, what do they call themselves?”1

Where we stand—inside or outside the circle—affects our relations to the moss, rock, or person. Where I have stood mostly in this residency and planning—if we can call what we did planning—the exhibition was: outside gathering mosses, walking to find sprawling weeds, carrying bags of soil back inside. I have also, in trying to spread the webs of this residency outwards to other artists here, inadvertently spent more time outside than inside, labouring under the impression that I could bring work already meshed with another group from the outside into the inside, that relationships could extend far and fast enough to take form in a group exhibition. But as exhibition-making sped up, I saw it jump the gun of relationships that needed forming, and I began to tilt in my  position outside to one “inside”, first through practicality and then through sociality. From wherever I look while on the move, it is hard for me to find that sweet spot inside the circle, with other beings. It is harder to find it with people; with mosses and ferns, it is easier—one knows that after a period of attending to them, being silent and being with them, you will gradually form a familiarity. With people, I slip inside when I earn a nickname, or am privy to an insider’s joke, or watch others’ affectionate names for one another. Sociality is treacherous terrain, and I often watch it from the outside or the edges of the circle: a position of safety from trust, from too-close interactions, from the risk of holding myself open; the risk of relationships.

Standing outside the circle now to write this, I think about the way the circles we inhabit transpose and shift with other circles. I am forming a circle with you as you read this. My words lead the way, but you decide when to break the circle and turn away. What will you find when you turn? If you step over the door of Cemeti, will you see artwork, or an exhibition, or simply the materials we have gathered? Do our materials guide you to stand on the inside of the circle, with us—a very provisional, contingent “us”?

The gallery holds our uncertainty and dislocation, but also forms of trust and support we shared with one another, and with others we met during  our residency. Amidst these, and amidst the words I understand and signifying objects I don’t understand in the gallery, mosses, pakis fern, a money plant, purslane, peperomia pelucida and mould, and earth from six neighbouring sites sit. They sit on ropes, strung up on a deconstructed distillery, and on wooden planters, on shiny cuboids, on the remnants of a rice flour dough, and in condiment bottles on the kitchen table. We put them there to sit and grow, silent witnesses to the turns we take through this space: our   attempts to pinpoint, grasp, and flow with. They act, I would like to think, as markers of time passing and vitality, but more truly perhaps, they act as a buffer for me, between my sense of theoretical emptiness or incoherence and on the other, the institutional urgency of filling space. We place(d) them there, yet their maintenance and removal is not something we are able to bear direct responsibility for.

I write this now trying to understand the role of soil as both vibrant matter and infra-structure in the gallery—and by extension, its living kin and inanimate counterparts. To ask what soil’s name is, is to ask what it means to bring soil into the gallery—does it also bring the soil into our circle, or are we circling towards the earth which I gathered this soil from, or the sites they come from, or the people who crossed our paths—the soil and mine? How do our preoccupations in the residency, as we considered early on, “orient” us as Sara Ahmed (2005) would say, towards certain things?10 Is material appropriation into art also about orienting our social capital towards being inside the circle with art’s materials—towards knowing for instance, how to name soil and the living beings it sustains; how to gather, how to glean?  

The gallery in some ways represents everything that is not lived space, or space from which soil comes.

It is a private space built and maintained for the single continuous act that officially represents our residency—the production of the exhibition. We considered what might happen if the gallery could be a spaceship, or a time-ship; a glass bottle of memory or hope, set adrift. But what was our spaceship heading towards? What was our narrative? We had no direct answer that could come quickly enough, or none that could substantially convince us. Our previous dalliances with science fiction needed time to speak clearly to struggles for solidarity, sovereignty and collectivity that intrigued some of us; the uneven layers of productivity and value we found in waste, labour, and food production deserved a greater attentive capacity than we could afford. Despite our interests in exploring space and time outside the bounded limits of production, or the pressure of productive forces, we remained disciplined by the daily mundanities of everyday social reproduction knotted with the reproductive forces that maintained the residency. So meetings, feeding ourselves, excursions to meet others with relevant practices, and daily social interactions sat in our residency calendar, knots of time around which we folded in other times: mushroom time (a mushroom flowers for as little as a day, but potentially lives eternally as a single albeit unseen body, in its subterranean living space), cigarette time (between 7 and 12 minutes), bananas-at-breakfast time2, rainstorms, catatonic time, distressed time, the time taken for flooded alleyways to clear, the time taken to buy fruits and necessities, the time for fabric orders to go to print, the time for orders to complete, the time to set up, the time to rehearse a performance and to develop unfamiliar propositions, the time of making new openings.

Still we had some time to watch others, and to play; we watched The Gleaners and I, a film made in 2000 by Agnès Varda, our drily witty guide to the mental and physical act of gleaning, searching, grasping and letting go—just for the fun of it. Yet did we fully understand? The playfulness and contingency woven into the film made us laugh, but did it guide us to do the same ourselves? At an unsaid point, a span of three days perhaps, exhibition-making fever caught,  and we retreated into personal spaces to make and think. What were we guided by? For myself—by what I did not know about artistic production, and by a persisting compulsion to produce? Did our orientations guide us away from seeing our gleaning through till the end?

Gleaners and their tools

The mental state of gleaning - fun, play, art, giving and life

“I don’t let anything go by”

Curious sight

“Fort da” hands and cars

Moving time

Positions and actions, bending

Gleaning (sprouts)

Picking (fruits)!

Map of retrievable objects

Map of gleaning

Map of positions of looking

Studies of commoning see physical acts of gleaning as forms of “occupation rights”—rights to use materials in transient and time-specific ways instead of an inalienable property right to an isolated, tradeable object “cut…off from its surrounding environment”.3 The continuous act of residency was supported and nourished by continuous acts of gleaning—made up of relationships that came into being in single instants. In these acts of gleaning, mosses were grafted in imagination onto laundry lines and imaginaries grew into floating nets. Yet the things we gleaned were more often left behind as the contingent moment for its use was subsumed by other, more important times. Imaginations peeled off into the backdrop before they fully formed: a mound of waste and shadowy lines of topographical value, scales of representation, diagrams, marks on a floating wisp of net, and a wish to understand our shared and individual conditions of alienness—dislocated thoughts and thoughts on dislocations in space and time, in capitalist structures, forms of artistic labour, organizing and production.

So, what of soil’s name? Does soil give us something different to see through, an impasse which is not of words, but of senses, a buffered snatch of time we can think through?

Global soils, land grabs, rights of commons

Soils come with characteristic textures and degrees of loaminess. Metaphorically and literally, soils grant us nurturing space as much as space to stretch, but is often left on the wayside as dirt. Loose soils grant access to nutrients, access to other plants and beings, and the soils in our immediate spaces stretch us away from ourselves: feeding mosses and ferns, wayside plants and overlooked shrubs, they grow the arcades and facades that we humans move through. In between the primary food producers of the world and us however, is this dirt, carbon, soil: the soil under our nails, the dirt that coats cemented floors, the carbon that works its way into the enzymes and molecules that grow each new living cell; working its way through our pores, stomach linings, lungs. Sometimes this carbon enters us in ways it shouldn’t: we sit and  breathe smoke, burnt ash and diesel mingling with air; we ride through muddy roads with air still laden with the scent of burnt plastic refuse. And earth is always hoarding itself: it gathers around us as we gather the day, piling in discreet corners sometimes, spilling rudely over in public, more times. Pots shatter, roots entangle privately, forming root balls with nodules that work with bacteria to convert nitrogen to ammonia, and then amino acids.

Soil organic carbon is the basis of soil fertility. It is the amount of carbon stored in soil, and a component of total soil organic matter. Carbon kept in soil stays away from the atmosphere; circulating carbon fuels life as plants grow, producing food. In 1990 a Global Assessment of Soil Degradation was made, combining maps from 21 areas of the world—the transnational efforts of soil scientists spanning across nation-states. This produced a World Map of the Status of Human-induced Soil Degradation.9 As I read the description of the map, I am struck by the way soils move as a composite body on the planet, through natural and manmade structures: carbon stocks in the land are depleted worldwide, it proposes, through 12 forms of degradation caused through various agricultural activities, irrigation, land reclamation, acidification due to over-application of fertilizers and drainage of pyrite-containing soils. Soil is compacted and waterlogged through human intervention in natural drainage systems (though this doesn’t include paddy fields), and terrain is deformed as soils become exposed through overgrazing, removal of vegetation for monoculture agricultural  purposes, and riverbank destruction and mass movement. As I read through the description of soil movements I think about the torrential water that flushes through earthy sidewalks outside houses and along roads, sweeping soil particles and waste fragments together in its current. The weeds that grow in each place become testament to the nutrient resources present in the soil, and so different weeds signify different nutrient compositions and different conditions of growth. Their movement and survival aren’t so different to my mind to the way human populations move—away from zones of danger and threat, towards sunlight and shelter—except that the need for human populations to negotiate with and form alliances with different institutions adds an additional layer of entanglement. Based on ecological conditions alone, the tropics stand to lose more from deforestation and agriculture than temperate countries; each plot of land deforested in the tropics emits three times the carbon emitted by the same activities in temperate areas (West et al., 2010). Based on socio-political conditions, I suspect the tropics hold more divisive, regulatory and symbolically rich layers laid on through centuries of conquest, the inheritance of colonial law, and social categorization in pursuit of their natural resources, than temperate areas do4—although I also suspect experiences of human wellbeing and suffering are not simply comparable on a scale with an absolute zero, and absolute ten.

The gleaning of common lands by people in need of sustenance offered a form of material support—while gleaning is a term for foodstuff, rights of commons, for instance in old English law, extended to other items from the forest—rights of estovers (to collect firewood), pannage (pasture for pigs), agistment (to graze cattle), turbary (to cut turf for fuel) and more.5 Today, rights to commons lands still exists in England and Wales, and communities can apply to put commons back on the register up till 2020—but the number of actual commons lands is small and dwindling.6 

The loss of English commons—then and now—is not so different from land enclosures happening in Yogyakarta, Kalimantan, Papua, Sulawesi, or further out in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos. (Land enclosures in Singapore are a story for another time.) From 4000 acts of enclosure in the 17th and 18th Century spanning about 15% of all English common lands, global land enclosures now number in the millions of hectares, with rich countries investing in overseas land for food and biofuel production7. The Land Matrix, a global and independent land monitoring initiative, estimates a rise in failed and concluded land deals from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72  million hectares in October 2016.8 This does not include the oceans and air, also commons under threat of enclosure.

And in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Parliament authorized 4,000 acts of enclosure on behalf of the rising class of gentry, allowing them to expropriate about 15 percent of all of English common lands for their private use.  These enclosures destroyed many commoners’ deep connection to the soil and destroyed their culture and traditions, paving the way for industrialization.  A new class of people were created: wage-earners, consumers and paupers.  People dispossessed of their commons who had to choice but to try to find a place for themselves in the new capitalist order. (Bollier, 2015)

To think through soil is to think about soil’s name for us. Are we still in the circle with soil? Or precarious workers trying to find common time to act collectively? Our entanglements with one another are perhaps tied to our entanglements with soil/earth/dirt and other carbon forms. We tend to overlook soil, or its capacity to act on our lives; we can do so walled off in our cities, rooms and fortresses, until the global soil body moves (through human-induced soil degradation or no), disintegrating built forms and breaking up land parcels.

Collectivity, space and commoning

Within its [the commons’] realm, there lies the possibility that its labor activity, organization and patterns of social relations will not succumb to external pressures, but instead organize its own reproduction autonomously, following criteria of equity and justice as defined by the commoners themselves. This possibility depends on the contingent power relations within the commons; on the power of networked commons; and on forces outside the commons, such as capital. The commons therefore represents a field of possibilities in the struggle against capital.  

(Massimo De Angelis,

Soil is a global body upon which we literally and gastronomically stand, that supports the major part of food and taste production. Enclosure and industrial scales of time threaten its ability to maintain these functions. Yet it could still be a commons. Artistic labour too, could still be a commons—one for immaterial sustenance, pleasure through gleaning, playing, nongkrong.

I like to think that urban commoning involves two re-orientations of capital: one, humans re-orienting in the material world, to “[put] property at the service of the community”, and two, a re-orientation of the non-human material world to a system of common property. We don’t want to return “back” to a past; we want to find new inroads, tracks, and detours—what paths can we cut, with the earth/soil/carbon that slips between us and the world, in commoning art and earth?



1.  Kimmerer, Robin Wall, 2003. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon State University Press.

2.  Roy, Donald. "" Banana Time": Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction." Human organization 18.4 (1959): 158-168; Barnard, Alex V, 2015. ”’Waving the banana’at capitalism: Freegans and the Politics of Waste in New York City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

3.  Kornberger & Borch, 2015 cited in Foster, Sheila R, and Christian Iaione. 2016. “YALE LAW & POLICY REVIEW The City as a Commons.” Yale Law and Policy Review, 281–349.

4. Also see an interview with Silvia Federici by Max Haiven, 2009, “Silvia Federici, On capitalism, colonialism, women and food politics”, for a feminist view of agricultural labour. Writing in 2009 she noted that agriculture was then the biggest employer of workers’ time, and that colonialism is entrenched in the agricultural sectors in much of Asia, Africa and South America. Land reform in these countries only preserved colonial logics of expropriation.

5.  See David Bollier, for a readable introduction to the history of commoning and enclosure in Britain). 

6.  See Open Spaces Society,

7. Zoomers, Annelies, Femke Van Noorloos, Kei Otsuki, Griet Steel, and Guus Van Westen. 2016. “The Rush for Land in an Urbanizing World : From Land Grabbing Toward Developing Safe , Resilient , and Sustainable Cities and Landscapes.” World Development 92. Elsevier Ltd: 242–52. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.11.016.

8.  The Land Matrix,

9. GLASOD.  International Soil Reference and Information Centre and United Nations Environment Programme, 1991. Second Revised Edition.

10.  Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press, 2006.