Compost politics

At the same time as we’ve been looking after our installation, Waiting, (more on this in a separate post, but meanwhile I can’t resist a couple of spoiler alert images), I came across something very unexpected… an academic journal paper that is actually a guide (“Compost Politics: Experimenting with Togetherness in Vermicomposting”).  I was lured in by the way Sebastien Abrahamsson and Filippo Bertoni write about composting as a practice, a process, an enacting of relations of togetherness. That struck a chord – what they do as ethnographers—making/thinking wormy compost bins—resonates with what we’ve been doing as artists. And with many of the same experiences, including thinking about slowness and spaces for hesitation as well as sensing the precarity of co-compositions as you try to find what worms like to eat. And in those slow and hesitating spaces (for us, spaces of waiting), a particular sort of knowing emerges: “Knowing emerges in vermicomposting… as a set of practices, multiple and contingent. In other words: you may not know, but rather become attuned to your worms.” (133)


Attuning to your worms… another chord struck there.  For Abrahamsson and Bertoni attuning meant “learning to speak worm” through the language of food – “a language shaped not in the mouth but through guts.” (134) And with this learning and speaking came the ‘togetherness’ of decomposition—an assemblage involving the worms’ guts, the flora and fauna inside the bin, the whole apparatus of the worm bins, the practices of feeding and the eating habits of all involved…

Even though I’ve been reading all sorts of guides along the way in this project, I really like the way this one brings together practices and politics at the most wormy every day level. And the way  it offers some great tips for maintaining our wormery (grind those eggshells more!). Added bonus — it’s a freely  downloadable PDF.



Can of worms…becoming-animal

No, it’s not really a can – just another of our compost bins – but there’s lots of proximate wriggling, not to mention putrefaction and fermentation, so I’m putting it up anyway. Sadly my version of WordPress doesn’t like video and turning the movie into a jpg was a can of worms in itself so please use your imagination here…Can of worms jpg

Ok, now that thanks to Darwin I’m thinking through intimacy with the worms, it’s time to open the can of worms that is ‘becoming-animal.’ Will becoming-animal help think/work with the worms? Will they help think/work with it? Becoming-animal is one of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s many becomings. Like so much of D&G’s work, the concept is purposely slippery, or can I say wriggly? Anyhow, I do like how it seems to vibrate somewhere between or beside the literal and metaphoric. Time to get down and dirty with D&G, but spoiler alert, it can be a bit soupy.

D&G are trying to get away from ontological states of being here. They talk about becoming-animal as movements by contagion, as a way of thinking movements that are not about the more familiar relations of pity, identification, analogy, imitation, representation, resemblance, or reproduction. In this Spinozan vein, they are invoking forces and “a proximity ‘that makes it impossible to say where the boundary between the human and the animal lies’” (273). That works for me. And it works even better when digested by Christof Cox, who takes philosophy into wonderful artful and sonic zones. Cox reckons becoming-animal is being “drawn into a zone of action or passion that one can have in common with an animal. It is a matter of unlearning physical and emotional habits and learning to take on new ones” (23).

From Cox, I sense becoming-animal as entering (should I say worming into?) a shared affective and productive zone to experience common capacities with animals rather than imitating their forms. And in this movement, he explains, we can experience new physicalities, new emotions, and new relations with others and with the world. I feel inspired by Cox’s approach. Moved as it is by engaging with artworks, it sidesteps Deleuze and Guattari’s abstraction. Perhaps in this way Cox helps rescue becoming-animal from what Donna Haraway criticizes as D &G’s “disdain for the daily, the ordinary, the affectional rather than the sublime.” (29) And hopefully the worms help too — what could be more ‘daily’ and ‘ordinary’ than worms– as we work together, connected by affect and affection?

Cox’s focus on artworks and his idea of unlearning/learning anew reminds me of the work of Melbourne-based artist Catherine Clover. I love her play with voice, listening, unsentimental relations with birds and lots more that I’ve written about at length in Voicetracks: Attuning to Voice in Media and the Arts. (shameless plug for my book, just out in May!) I’ll just grab an edited teaser from there for now: “Catherine Clover has been making works for and with noisy, wild urban birds for many years—listening, recording, translating, transcribing, reading to them, performing for and with and after them, making books and performances and installations. Like some of the scientists that Vinciane Despret discussed, Clover seeks artistic practices and ways to develop relationships of attunement with the birds. Her choice of urban gulls and pigeons is deliberately not sentimental; instead of ‘beautiful’ and mellifluous or even sublime birds, calling to us from the ‘wild,’ she works in a sort of minor mode with despised and everyday species. These are birds with whom we share urban space but often without noticing them, unless to bemoan their presence. These are birds whose groupings we name as deadly and dirty—a murder of crows, a filth of starlings, as the title of one of Clover’s works reminds me.”

I’m sure I’ll come back to Clover and Despret and of course to attunement – as well as to the can of worms that is becoming-animal — which I just wanted to open for now. Meanwhile, wriggling around in this can of worms has made we want to read Donna Haraway — Staying with the Trouble calls. While the worms are still in their wintry quietude, I’ll keep bookworming.

Digesting Darwin

A few days ago, when I was ‘Taking a break,’ I was gripped by Adam Phillips’ essay on Darwin, worms, and digestion. When Phillips says Charles Darwin “commemorates, and rejoices in, the [worms’] powers of digestion” (55), I’m definitely in. Since then I too  burrowed into the rich ground of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.


It’s been quite an alchemical experience, as I burped my way through Darwin’s book (my gut telling me I’d had way too much coffee when I was trying to lure the worms out from under their blanket with ever more coffee grounds). The experience reminded me of when I was working on a radiophonic essay on alchemy and its transformations [Separation Anxiety: not the truth about alchemy]—and I went through all the seven stages of alchemy in the process. Dissolution was painful and the coagulation was intense, but it was putrefaction and fermentation that was the most challenging and transformative of all. Time for a new category for the blog — digestion.

I like that the worms call me to think about alchemy again now, years later. Alchemy is an alluring knowledge that is all about affinities and transformation… just like the project working with worms. It’s turning out that alchemical transformations and affinities abound once we tune in to them. Not just digestion – there is also shredding. We seem to be kindred Kin here, as Donna Haraway might have it… us with our shredding habit and the worms with theirs. (As I said in the early days of the blog, we shredded a lot of paper for a previous art work, and now we’re feeding the shreds to the worms to digest and transform. (Strangely, looking back, we actually did try to eat them ourselves in that work, but not too successfully– there were just way too many to digest.)

I’m inspired when Darwin speaks about the intimate co-compositional moments in shredding and digesting: “The leaves which they consume are moistened, torn into small shreds, partially digested, and intimately commingled with the earth…” (79) And so we feed the worms our shredded leaves of paper to do with what they will, to transform in their alchemical habitual way. There’s an unexpected intimacy here as we wait and wonder…

And thinking about wonder, when I was looking for what Jane Bennett said about alchemy in her wonderful The Enchantment of Modern Life, I remembered how important her work has been for us. It made me sense how enchanting the worms are in the work they are doing with us. Darwin, too, seems enchanted by worms and his amazement is infections. But, bowing to science, he also fills the book with calculations to demonstrate the power of worms. That I didn’t mind– they seemed to make him happy– but I have to say I did gasp as I read of the eviscerated worms sacrificed to science to explain the chemical functioning of their digestion. Sadly, it seems that quite a few worms suffered in the writing of that book, paying a price for the glory of worm-kind. At the same time, though, I feel drawn to the Darwin who is not bowed by science, who tells stories of running around old buildings with his sons and working at home observing the eating and burrowing habits of worms. And I laugh at the Darwin who gently blows tobacco breath at the worms as part of his enquiries into their senses. These passages  where he speaks as a more attuned, amateur scientist, are for me far more alluring and thought-provoking than his descriptions of their dissected digestive tracts.

But I think I like Darwin best when he’s discussing the worms’ favourite foods. And the way he’s moved by their consciousness, their attentiveness, their intelligence and the sensitivity to touch of their whole bodies. And when he assures us how hugely important part a worms play in the history of the world. And when, asking what Vinciane Despret calls the  ‘right questions,’ he is rewarded by the surprises of worms’ responses—as, for example, when together they bury the tired concept of blind instinct: “But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degrees of intelligence instead of a mere blind instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows.” (103)

What I’ve responded to in Darwin’s engaging worms is what Phillips calls his “artful science” (55). Like Despret I appreciate Darwin’s recognition of animals’ agency and aesthetic sense (37-38). This is a far cry from the scientists Despret questions for being out of touch with the affects and effects of their relations with the animals they study.

I’m happy to be coming back to Despret. I realise that I’ve digested about as much science of worms as I want to and it’s time to think about art again. So I return with relish to her artful writing and her first chapter (“A for artists”). Stirring words about the importance of the achievements as “beasts and humans accomplish a work together. And they do so with the grace and joy of the work to be done.” And so she finishes, “Isn’t this what matters in the end? To welcome new ways of speaking, describing, and narrating that allow us to respond, in a sensitive way to these events?” (6)