Maria and I have a work in MoreArt at Moreland Railway Station Waiting Room…co-composed by us and our worms, with musical contributions from Jim Denley. It’s called Waiting. We’ll be posting more on the ongoing process, but meanwhile, here’s our blurb:
Waiting is a collaborative art work, co-composed by us and worms. In this composting collaboration we feed the worms what we are eating and they transform ‘dead’ matter into live soil, providing us with castings and with food for thought. We were drawn to work with worms when we sensed an affinity between our commitment to recycling and their composting/transformational skills. Worms still retain much mystery, at the same time as being a common—though often unnoticed—part of everyday life. Waiting and listening are our methodologies. Working with sound and video in a series of short diary-like pieces we attune to the worms through listening to the sounds they make and amplifying them through our own bodies.
No worms are harmed in this work.
The video plays weekdays 7-10 and 4-8pm, with sound playing in between. Weekends it’s video 8:30-12 and 4-9pm, with sound playing in between. Unless gremlins come in and turn off the power.
We’ll be there to open the gates and invite people in to wait with us on Monday morning, November 27, and in the evenings on Thursday November 23 and Saturday December 9 for the evening bike tours — and intermittently even more, to check up on the gremlins.
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.
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)
Slowing right down, attuning in to the worms’ rhythm, I went for a morning wander by the Yarra River, thinking I might come across some other worms to bother with my camera. I started out listening to a program live on ABC radio which weirdly enough was all about slowness–the universe is definitely telling me something. As I crossed the pipe bridge, some walkers alerted me to a pair of mopokes in a nearby tree. What’s a mopoke, I wondered?
I only managed a couple of shaky distant pictures — but I’ll put them up so you can see the beautiful Yarra gum trees. It’s difficult to tell if they really are mopokes or boobooks as they also call and are also called. I hope so, I love these names– though they could be tawny frogmouths, also wonderfully named worm-eating owls (oops, sorry worms). A moment of enchantment, as Jane Bennett would have it, “intense enough to stop you in your tracks and toss you onto new terrain. (2001, 111)”
Stopped in my tracks, I’ve gone back to read the blog from the beginning and realise we haven’t really described the project that this blog is part of. Working with Worms is a collaborative, durational, art project where we feed the worms and they transform ‘dead’ matter into live soil. Where it will end, we don’t know, we have no specific expectations but there are a few wild dreams. Meanwhile we’re going with the flow of the project that entangles waiting, conversations, faeces, transformation, and environmental concerns. Waiting is fundamental to our process — just as it is an important part of many other artists’ practices – involving an attentiveness to time, to ‘silence,’ to process. It’s what artist Lyndal Jones calls a “becoming earth,” a responsiveness to the “insistences of the ground.” For us, it’s the insistences of the ground’s worms that we want to attend to. This is a project very much in progress, or rather very slowly in progress, it being winter and the worms taking their time as we’ve noted in previous posts. While they settle in, we’re being bookworm, reading and blogging– all of us working slowly and sporadically.
I’m taking a break from bothering the worms.
It’s cold and they’ve slowed right down and so must I. I’m also taking a break from Vinciane Despret, deferring the moment of loss when I finish her book and have to let go the daily surprises she offers me.
Now dipping into Adam Phillips’ Darwin’s Worms. Meditations on death, nature, time, loss, bodies…Darwin and Freud. (Skipping Freud for the moment and also the stuff about God, though I am admiring Phillips recognition of how Darwin subtly worms away at God and all the attendant hierarchies.) Phillips is gripped by Darwin’s attentiveness to worms as lowly workers, working through digesting: “labour was a prodigious work of digestion… For the idea of work as digestion, and digestion as the body’s forced and unforced labour, Darwin turned to the worms.” (43-44).
No doubt Darwin was attuned to the vitality of digestion by his own digestion problems. But his admiration for worms did go beyond that. Phillips tells of the consolation and joy Darwin found in worms, as creators of the earth: “They buried to renew: they digested to restore.” (56)
No killjoy scientist is Darwin — more on killjoy scientists later, when I return to Despret. But for now, recalling Despret’s question of questions, I enjoy Phillips’ positing of Darwin’s fundamental question as “What would our lives be like if we took earthworms seriously, took the ground under our feet rather than the skies high above our heads, as the place to look, as well, eventually, as the place to be?” (60-61) And, can we add, if we engaged with the worms as artful collaborators?
OK, the worms still haven’t come out from under the blanket and I won’t bother them with photos today. Instead I ask (hopefully the right question) of Z&Z, who after all are part of the assemblage that is this work. Stretching and yawning, they tell me that sleep cannot be hurried. If anyone can teach me how to relax and the importance of sleeping in, it’s Z&Z.
Because no matter how much I cajole or sing wake-up songs, they just stretch, snooze, and snore on.
I will now try to attune to the worms’ rhythms
Coffee cup in hand, I give the critters an early morning gift from the local organic shop — a bag full of coffee grinds to enliven the carrots and apples. I wonder if it will wake them up and move them with joy on this very cold morning? Guess I won’t know til tomorrow, when I see if they’ve been lured out of bed and made the big journey through the blanket and shreds. Meanwhile I did help a couple up of worms to wake up and smell the coffee — to see if they might let the others know the delights in store for getting out of bed. Hope they don’t mind. Not sure who is slower today, me or them, but it’s beginning to work on me…
And so I turn to Vinciane Despret whose writing always moves me with joy. “C is for Corporeal” opens with an enigma from Spinoza, “Nobody knows what the body can do.” As it happens my lovely reading group is deep into Spinoza’s Ethics at the moment, so I burrow right into this chapter. Despret’s engagement with Donna Haraway’s engagement with Barbara Smuts’ baboon encounters enlivens Spinoza for me. She describes an agencement of bodies between Smuts and the baboons she is studying with– how they move in response to each other, how they move each other, how they move with each other:
“…it is the possibility of becoming not exactly the other through metamorphosis but with the other, not in the sense of feeling what the other is thinking or of feeling for the other like a burdensome empathizer but rather of receiving and creating the possibility to inscribe oneself in a relation of exchange and proximity that has nothing to do with identification.”
It’s about attuning, about learning to respond to each other’s demands — “to recognize one another.” This helps thinking about the with of working with worms, collaborating as artists together. I think we’re all in the early stages here. We have learned things about our first worms– their love of coffee and shreds– but now we’re trying to see how these worms respond. Maybe they just want to stay in bed on these cold mornings. Are they ready to get up?
In “Oeuvres,” Vinciane Despret asks if animals can create works of art. She proposes that thinking about animal artists and their intentions–and about distributing intentionality–makes us “hesitate and slow down.” Impatient though we are we’ve had to slow down ourselves over the last few days. On Sunday we snuggled the worms into their new home in the new worm cafe.
We introduced some of the older worms from our first worm cafe, to welcome them to Fairfield and our back yard. We hope they get on and that the new artists-critters aren’t too put off by these cold wintry days. Hopefully the shreds keep them warm as they settle in and await the next chapter and their first morning coffee
I love how Despret ends this chapter, questioning a tyrannical concept of “instinct” that would not recognise the worms as co-composers of this work. Despret enables us instead to “guard preciously what it makes us feel, what feels like a force in the face of which being must bend–like we sometimes do in the face of love…What instinct both affirms and masks is the call of the thing to be made. That some things are beyond us. The captivation known to some artists. That this must be made. Period.” (122)
very frustrating…worms are ready
but wordpress holding us up