Fieldwork, Part I: The Field as Unit and Multiplicity

No one who suggests to do work under the title Fields should be surprised if it turns out to be fertile. Or maybe even too fertile, where the naming of the one concept, field, generates a multiplicity of connections with other things nearby, fields, whose interconnections can be thought of as pathways, channels, tracks, boundaries, trees-structures, rhizomes, lines of flight, trajectories, networks ...

The field here first and foremost is the real field, the field as in agriculture.

Two things are coming together: we, a small group of people, have started to work a field about one hour from Vienna, in a wine growing area which has a relatively hot and dry climate. That field, a strip of earth 12 metres broad and more than 100 metres long, has no connection to water supplies and electricity, and there are no fences. Its boundaries are a small asphalt road at the back and a dirt track at the bottom end, and other fields to the left and right. This field is visited by birds, ground squirrels, deer, mice, partridges, pheasants and who knows what. Working the field has taught us a great many things already.

The second thing is my interest in Fields as a curatorial concept for a research based exhibition. Following on to Waves, Riga 2006 and Dortmund 2008, Fields is going to be an exhibition which grapples with some very basic questions about the nature of art.

Fields has this self-reflective bent built into itself. Even if we start with the most basic notion of the field as agricultural field, we will ask, a field of what? Wheat? Corn? Pumpkins? Strawberries? The field separates, it is a way of bringing order into the natural world.

The field is intricately bound up with the notion of civilization. The Neolithic Revolution was basically an agricultural revolution which fostered a form of living that has lasted some 6000 years now. The social organisation necessary to permit year-round intensive agriculture enabled live in cities with built-up walls. It initiated writing systems, centralised governments, law codes and empires, social stratifications, slavery and organised warfare, to paraphrase Wikipedia

Thomas, one member of our field collective, suggested that we try Three Sisters, a Mesoamerican way of agriculture also known as Milpa. The three staple plants of native Americans, maize, climbing beans and squash are grown together, because they benefit from each other. The description of Three Sisters on Wikipedia is a bit shallow and Thomas followed a more complex set of ideas. Round seedbeds have to be created which are either 20 to 30 cm high or, alternatively, to catch the water, dug into the ground. They have a radius of about 80 to 100 cm. The maize is planted according to the directions north, south, etc. In between the climbing beans are planted to fill in stars between the squares marked by the maize. Then, somewhere in between, the occasional pumpkin gets planted.

To mark out the round seedbeds Thomas used an ancient method, a rope and two sticks. Similar methods used in the big river valley civilizations have been credited for facilitating inventions in mathematics, in particular in trigonometry. In ancient Egypt with ropes and sticks each year after the floods the boundaries of the fields had to be staked out anew. Watching this on a study trip seems to have inspired Pythagoras to formulate his theorem.

There is a scientific explanation to Three Sisters but there is another side to it, which is strongly ritualistic. While I know admittedly little about Milpa, I could easily perceive how Thomas' act of measuring out the field was turned into a dance, it was man and nature, the dance of the mystic man, just watch him dance. The orientation of the plants seeded, the square, the circle and the star, are meant to bring good fortunes to the field. In addition, in some areas a fish was buried in each circle as fertiliser. Our Three Sisters field had a very special feeling from the very start. Maybe it is the fact alone, that those seedbeds are round and not rectangular and such produce an unusual shape.

Thomas insisted on making a curved path through the Three Sisters field which he called the path of the snake. It was arranged in such a way that all seedbeds could be reached from it, so that it was unncessary to compress the soil with our feet and body weight.

In the notion of the field there is always contained the abstract unity of something and the multiplicity of the possible, the one and the many. And the social organisation springing up around a field has immediately some in/exclusionary mechanisms attached to it. Who says what is a field and who owns it? What are its boundaries and how are they defined? And who is legitimately using it?

On our field we have got ground squirrels. During the first year we were not sure, but we could see that somebody with sharp little teeth was digging up our potatoes and trying out other plants. Meanwhile we have seen and identified them. The Eurasian ground squirrel is a protected species. In Russia they are called Suslik, which translated means 'seed lovers' and that is not for no reason.

In the past, our Susliks would have been hunted down by village kids and their tails proudly presented to the mayor. Now we have to live with the fact that we have co-agriculturalists. Actually, in a way, they live there, we don't. They have a bigger claim to that piece of land as their habitat. However, their habit of digging out unripe potatoes, taking just one bite and then leaving them, really stretches the limits a bit of our co-habitation.

A field is no garden, it does not have a fence. Today, we hear a lot about radical gardening, guerrilla gardening, urban gardening. Yet a garden is a protected space. It is often connected to a house. It is a boundary zone between public and private sphere.

From our field, located at the most North-Western tip of the great Pannonian steppe animals, not humans (because we need passports), can walk all the way to Hungary, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, if they like, or they may have come from there. The pollen that are blowing over our field may come from Russia, as does the big black crow. We can see storks from Africa flying over, and there are traces of the presence of the weasel, another small animal, which, unlike our ground squirrels, are not interested in our tasty Zucchini leaves. They would rather hunt down the protected squirrels with their very sharp little teeth.

The field is open, exposed to all influences of nature and civilisation. As we were to find out, the whole village already knew us, as they were passing by on bikes, cars, tractors. They could see us, but we did not, because we were bent over the earth, pulling out the common thistle, which we then perceived as one of our main worries.

On a soil probably treated over years with too much oil-based nitrate, the common thistle spread like wild-fire, now that we were there, not using any weed-killers except our hands. And the more we pulled it out the more it seemed to grow because under the earth it is nurtured by a rhizome, so even if you cut it, or even better, extract it together with a piece of root, it will quite quickly grow again. One member of our little Kollektif, one evening said that she only saw thistles when she closed her eyes.

Meanwhile we got other thorny flowers, such as the Mary's Thistle, and even the ornamental Cotton Thistle. We have also got other weeds such as the wild American Amaranth. As it turns out those so called weeds have many usages, you can eat parts of them, make oil, use it for natural medicine. Thistles grow so well on our field, maybe we should grow them on purpose and make thistle oil.

Yes, weeds. What is a weed for one person is a holy plant for another. In contemporary discourses about agriculture the term is avoided. I have not yet learned the proper English term, but in German it would be a Beikraut or Beigewächs, something that also grows alongside the desired plants.

In industrial, highly mechanised agriculture, lots of chemical weed-killers are used. It is a science and a profitable one. Our field has taught me to be humble. Because, on one hand, you really learn so much about nature that I only start to understand what a crime those large monocultural fields actually are. Each large field of one or the other kind implies genocide for many insects and an abnormal reduction of plant diversity. Through heavy tractors and harvest machines, the soil gets compressed so that worms and rhizomes suffer, to name just a few things. On the other hand one learns how much land one can till without a machine, and without an ox or a horse. Us urbanites with our hoes can only till so much land in a morning. And suddenly measurements such as a 'morgen' or an 'acre' make sense, as the size of land a man could plough with an ox in a day.

Our experience teaches us how little we can actually do with our 'farming light' methodology. While some extreme left-wing social theorists would rather have everyone become small peasants again, it is easy to see how, in the short run, a sharp drop in mechanised, oil based agriculture would mean hunger for millions, if not billions.

Those are not easy choices which could be made based on opinions by intellectuals, those are hard dilemmas. As much as I have come to dislike mechanised agriculture for various reasons, I can also understand its necessity within the certain system. A real system change would be of a magnitude hard to imagine. A rebalancing of food production would mean that a lot more people would have to spend their lives doing it. Machines do save a lot of time and sweat.

At the same time there are reports about so called weeds, the undesirable plants that happen to invade the agricultural field, have become resistant to certain weedkillers. In some areas the wild Amaranth is said to stand three meters high. We have got a lot of wild Amaranth this year. This is really a very competitive plant. Yet as I also found out, the leaves are edible, cooked like spinach.

The domesticated red and yellow Amaranth is visually, at least, the star of our field.

As it turns out, in this text, the natural field has received more attention than the metaphorical one. I hope to address this imbalance with the next posting. Yet what I hope to have shown is that the field is never as simple as it seems. It always has potentials of multiplicities, and there are different layers, social, natural, scientific, legal, political that are hovering above the field or become realised by animals digging tunnels beneath it. The field is a cradle of meaning, a multiplier of significances.

But you will really only gain any understanding of those multiplicities if you are in the field, a tool in your hand, doing fieldwork.