Kochi Biennale: Soil Assembly

Making the invisible, visible, might be the essence of artistic practice around soils, around transport, in fact around infrastructure in general. It might be said that civilisation and culture is all about abstracting away from the gathering, sharing and consumption of food; whether the canonical processes of civilisatory development from nomadic hunter – gatherer to phone toting media addict, or the more intricate formulations of the Davids Graeber and Wengrow, the general process is to move away from the soil. Whether it is the fishing communities of coastal India or the farmers of the Austrian Mühlviertel, there is a desire to help the next generation move away from the land or the sea, with the back breaking work and repetitive danger.

There is a modern anecdote, based upon the original Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral (“Anecdote Concerning the Lowering of Productivity”) from Heinrich Böll in 1963 and often adapted. An executive is on holiday visiting an unremarkable harbour town. Chatting with a man fishing quietly in the afternoon, they discuss the fisher’s life. Go fishing, bring in the catch, local fish market, lunch, quiet time and repairs. The discuss markets and export, the possibility to have a larger vessel, or two, catch more, export, perhaps a freezer truck or canning, higher income and growth. The end game is discussed, involving reaching retirement and financial stability, where one can do what one wants. Which is, perhaps, to doze on the quayside while idly fishing. The executive looks at the man, idly fishing, and it is unclear whether he sees someone who has achieved enlightenment or not.

The Soil Assembly as part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale was a program curated by Ewen Chardronnet, Maya Minder, Meena Vari and Neal White, looking at practices of soil and farming, art and activism, future imaginations and relational aesthetics. We were invited to participate in a discussion around food transportation, climate change and ocean trades.

The other panelists were Suresh Kumar G., Gabriel N. Gee and Rob La Frenais. Three interesting talks preceded ours (video). With time running short, we presented quickly and kept things succinct. While a large proportion of sail cargo projects are aiming at the European up market realm with organic cacao beans, coffees, rums and tequilas, there are some that are more mundane, such as the Apollonia running grains, mails and beers along the Hudson river. The discussion of foodstuffs and water transport, community supported agriculture and trans oceanic provisioning, were rushed through but emerged nonetheless.

So what reflections on the interplay of food production and food transport by water arose? Many of the points we could make have been reflected upon by the Vermont Sail Project and the Main Sail Freight projects, each undertaken by people in the agricultural sector in the north east USA in 2014 and 2015. The Vermont Sail Project was driven by a farmer Erik Andrus acting for his local community looking at clean transport of their wares down the Hudson river towards New York City. The Maine Sail Freight project defined itself as more of a “pageant” that aimed to raise awareness and perform sail freight as opposed to instigating it, although there have been follow-on projects and events. There was interest in continuing the Vermont project but no sailors were found who could run the vessel; it has also been discussed that, while the vessel Ceres was based upon Thames Barge designs, it was not built to the standard that a longer term shipping project would need. In any case, both of these projects informed and inspired the Apollonia project that has been running freight along the Hudson River for three years and is set to expand and continue.

The performative / pageant / pilot / prefiguration aspects of such projects also appears in the Danube Clean Cargo project that we undertook in 2020. Several other imaginations of coastal and inland waterways projects have also arisen within various discussions.

Most of the transport undertaken by existing sail freight organisations are foodstuffs. Notable exclusions are the Vega, transporting aid to remote islands in the Indonesian Archipelago, the Grain de Sail transporting aid from NYC to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the first journey of the Tres Hombres, which transported aid to Haiti. The Avontuur has transported an electric car and there are reports of some smaller, non food based transports. The Canopée will transport rockets from France to French Guyana for European Space Agency launchings; it is certain that more such projects will emerge as wind power becomes more acceptable to shipping companies.

The foodstuffs are generally luxury foods. Foods that are dense enough that the costs of transport are not overwhelming. At least that is the contemporary argument. It has been argued that one of the main reasons for the expansion of the Roman, and probably many other empires, was to enable access to grain growing regions for their urban centers. The fertile plains of what we now call Ukraine were part of such expansions. In the 19th century, when sail still ruled transport, grain in the UK had travelled (on average) over 2000km: which puts ithe source somewhere in the Ukraine. In 2020 the top five wheat exporting nations exported more that 28 thousand million USD worth of wheat: Russia and the Ukraine being number 1 and number 5 in that list. Clearly today not only luxury goods are transported.

The case can be made that shipping foods only makes sense across bioregions. Between Scotland and Norway there is little difference in what grows, thus there is little need for transport, unless one focusses on localised specialities. However the movement of foodstuffs between the UK and Portugal, a similar distance, is useful because they are in distinct bioregions. As a result, the exchange is beneficial to both parties, bringing something that is difficult to produce in one region from another. This contradicts, to some degree, the arguments of David Ricardo and the theory of comparative advantage, which underscore the benefits of trade and specialisation in spite of local benefits. And in spite of the frictional costs of transport.

The concentration upon luxury goods also has to do with sharing the cost. Andreas Lackner from Fair Transport in Den Helder has noted that the price of sail transport on a bottle of wine was around one Euro. For a cheap bottle, that is a considerable extra cost, for a luxury bottle the extra charge is more or less inconsequential. As people note with organic food, the extra cost probably reflects the actual real costs of producing that food compared to the artificially cheapened costs of producing food with fossil fuel derived fertilisers, high tech seeds and fossil fuel driven mechanisation. Similarly the cheapness of transport does not reflect true costs, as we are ignoring many of the costs that are externalised onto the environment, both physical and social, with heavy fuel oil poisoning the air, water and land and cheap seafarer’s labour poisoning social relations. Shipping as it is currently practiced is part of the extractivist mindset.

Nevertheless, Apollonia transports grain, malt and beer along the Hudson. These are not luxury goods, although they are probably not the cheapest and most commoditised versions of these goods that are being transported. The Apollonia also calculates shipping costs by replicating the costs of shipping by truck. There is no extra charge for clean delivery. The ship Undine operating between Hamburg and Sylt was also as cheap as or cheaper than truck delivery, the ship Lo Entropy currently being refitted will offer a similar service. Built cheaply, flat bottomed with a centerboard, ships such as the Lo Entropy offer to be the cleaner alternative to trucking for coastal regions. Clearly there has not been a high tech engineering company making detailed renderings in full colour when we look at the design.

One of the emerging questions is then: what happens when this is successful? One of the selling points of sail cargo has been the story; this rum was sailed across the ocean, this beer was sailed down the Hudson, I bought this oil from a sailor in the harbour, straight from Portugal. As Sail Freight becomes commoditised and less newsworthy, will it continue to hold value? While the first slew of sail cargo vessels were all traditionally rigged and run by a large crew actively pulling ropes, probably to the tune of sea shanties to coordinate them, vessels such as the Grain de Sail are modern vessels, easy to run, with small professional crews and palletised cargo. The emerging larger projects, whether from TOWT or Neoline, begin to turn sail freight back into infrastructure: regular sailings, commercial rates, frictionless (or at least low friction) processes. Will clean transport disappear, as does much of our infrastructure? Will Lackner’s extra euro per bottle still be part of the cost-benefit equation? Or will this become another part of the network that includes places like Suresh Kumar G.’s small art farm, a bottom up, small farm future fragment?

This research is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561. All Time’s Up activities are also kindly supported by Bundesministerium Kunst, Kultur, öffentlicher Dienst und Sport BMKOES, Linz Kultur, Land OÖ & Linz AG.

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