Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


VIRTUAL EVENT: IAS Growth/Waste — The aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment

04 November 2020, 5:00 pm–6:30 pm

Nicole Clouston

with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick), Masha Ru (Artist) Nicole Clouston (York University), Lucia Pietroiusti (Serpentine) and Richard Reynolds (Guerrilla Gardening). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association)

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Albert Brenchat-Aguilar

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In the built environment, soil is not only polluted but also privated of water and neglected behind layers of soil subproducts. The urban environment avoids soil as it is dirty, a waste of walkable space, a patch where plants should spring up and do not, or an opportunity to speculate with the value of what can come on top of it. To soil is to stain, physically and morally.

This panel presents poetic engagements with soil that look beneath the surface: soil as an organism made of decaying and life-giving matter, and as a superorganism containing myriads of organisms. It also aims to politicise new materialist approaches of soil: who works with soil in construction, who lives in brownfields or get beneath the urban surface to live or maintain our infrastructures. It also presents responses from the practices of gardening and ecological sciences. This proposal is part of the series New (Normal) Materialist Decay.

  • Maria Puig de la Bellacassa works at the crossing of science and technology studies, feminist theory and the environmental humanities. Her most recent book Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minnesota University Press, 2017) attempts to connect a feminist materialist tradition of critical thinking on care with debates on more than human ontologies and ecological practices. She is currently researching the ongoing formations of novel ecological cultures, looking at how connections between scientific knowing, social and community movements, and art interventions are contributing to transformative ethics, politics and justice in troubled naturecultural worlds. She also looks for interstitial spaces of knowing and doing that disrupt seemingly hegemonic technoscientific regimes – in particular everyday forms of ecological care in minoritarian eco-social movements such as permaculture and material spiritualities.
  • Masha Ru is a creative with the background in science. Masha’s projects combine scientific research with a personal approach and cultural practices. In 2011 Ru obtained a PhD in Mathematics and graduated with honours from Photo Academy Amsterdam. In 2013-2014 they participated in the art-in-residency programme at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunst in Amsterdam. In 2018 Masha was an artist fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW). The work of Masha Ru is supported by Mondriaan Fund.
  • Nicole Clouston is a practice-based researcher who completed her Ph.D. in Visual Art at York University and her MFA at the University of Victoria. In her practice she asks: What happens when we acknowledge, through an embodied experience, our connection to a world teeming with life both around and inside us? Nicole has exhibited across Canada and internationally, most recently in Detroit, Michigan. She was the artist in residence at the Coalesce Bio Art Lab at the University at Buffalo and the artist in residence at Idea Projects: Ontario Science Centre’s Studio Residencies at MOCA.
  • Lucia Pietroiusti is a curator based in London, working across disciplines at the intersection of art and ecology, mostly outside of the exhibition format. She is Curator of General Ecology at Serpentine Galleries. Ongoing projects include The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish (with Filipa Ramos) and Back to Earth. Pietroiusti was the founder of the General Ecology project and network, and a co-founder of Serpentine Radio. Outside Serpentine, she is the curator of Sun & Sea by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is one of the Curators of the 2020-2021 Shanghai Biennale. Publications include More-than-Human (with Andrés Jaque and Marina Otero Verzier), forthcoming in late 2020.
  • Richard Reynolds regularly speaks about guerrilla gardening around the UK and beyond. He speaks from both his experience as a guerrilla gardener but also as a blogger and author on the subject and usually leaves an audience both entertained and inspired (see his blog www.guerrillagardening.org). His action can be found in the urban environment but also at Tate Modern and other unusual spaces for gardening

New (Normal) Materialist Decay Series

Decaying matter is an essential component of our built environment. From compost in our gardens, to lichen and fungi in our brick and stone walls and tile roofs, to bacteria on our skin, our environment grows thanks to and along with non-human decay. However, we neglect these non-human agents and, now more than ever, we fear them as they also include viruses and the surfaces where viruses inhabit. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps, interact with the world through gloves, masks, scrubs, glasses and screens. We now sterilise our built environment more than ever, thus polluting it with toxic antibacterial matter. To ignore decaying matter and the waste of our new material mediations (as well as their destinies and trajectories) also means to neglect the human workforce that physically deals with decay and the organisms that support it.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of conversations under a new materialist approach to the built environment. For this revised series, we want to question how the new normal challenges previous revolutionary approaches to decaying matter (compost, soil, bodies, food, weeds…) and question if it is still possible to shift thinking about them. Before COVID-19, one could have imagined a poetics of waste co-existing with the repurposing of waste so that it comes to signify as non-waste. But what can we do now?

This series of panel debates and conversations will involve academics, artists, gardeners, botanists, chemists and landscape architects. These conversations and their outcomes will be free and open to everyone. This series is partly funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and supported by UCL Urban Laboratory and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL as part of their collaboration on the research theme of Waste. This series is part of a bigger project conceived by Sabina Andron (UCL, Ravensbourne) and Albert Brenchat (UCL, BBK, AA)

We propose 6 sessions:

  1. The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot - from Positivist Ecology to Intersectional Theory
  2. The Aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment
  3. Weedwork: The Problematic Parallelisms between Weeds and Humans, Plants and Nomads
  4. Skin
  5. Exhausted Matter
  6. Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space

All welcome. An event link will be posted on this webpage.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need assistance on the day, and follow this FAQ link for more information and to read our virtual events code of conduct. All of our events are free, but you can support the IAS here.

Image by Nicole Clouston