Exploring the role of public art in engaging citizens in the governance of environmental concerns within cities, using innovative collaboration between art and science practice-based research.
Empire of Dirt by artist James Geurts is a sculptural installation where art and science collide to make us think about the darkness and complexity of the living earth beneath our feet. The piece explores how soil adapts to survive when the world is at its ecological tipping point.
Inspired by the evolving architecture and infrastructure of RMIT’s New Academic Street, this temporary artwork was born from a soil sample taken at the construction site. Enlisting the help of environmental microbiologist and Distinguished Professor Andy Ball, Geurts studied the dynamics of the soil on microscopic levels, discovering the complex process of microorganisms as they navigate our urban landscapes and the micro-plastics, pollutants and metals that come with it.
The resulting public installation weaves a narrative of how microbiological insects evolve and transform the soil fabric into giant complex living structures, echoing the great termite mounds of the Northern Territory.
Empire of Dirt is installed in Rodda Lane, just off La Trobe Street, at the university’s city campus. It forms part of Wonderment Walk Victoria’s growing open air gallery, combining science, mathematics and art to engage passers-by with wonder, delight and curiosity.
Funded by Wonderment Walk Victoria and produced in collaboration with RMIT’s Centre for Art Society and Transformation and Carbon Arts, Empire of Dirt has been realised through New Academic Street’s Urban Animators: Living Laboratory program and Lightscape Projects RMIT near the New Academic Street development site.
Not just a sculptural installation, Empire of Dirt is a practice-based research project that also showcases RMIT’s unique research strengths across art, science and technology. It contributes new knowledge regarding the role of public art and its ability to invite citizens to join the conversation about the environment within cities.
These goals align with the RMIT College of Science, Engineering and Health’s focus on developing and applying knowledge to new ways of thinking about the environment, sustainability, advanced technology health and wellbeing.
Wonderment Walk Victoria, RMIT’s Centre for Art Society and Transformation (CAST) and Carbon Arts champion these ideas through Empire of Dirt, delivering public art outcomes that celebrate knowledge and science, with a particular focus on environmental sustainability.
Four artists, all RMIT alumni, were invited to present project proposals in partnership with sustainability researchers at the university. This matchmaking process, led by the project’s creative production team, saw three public art concepts presented to a panel for competitive selection.
Geurts’ winning proposal emerged from initial conversations and explorations in the lab with Professor Andy Ball from RMIT’s Centre for Environment Sustainability and Remediation, inspired by a handful of soil from the construction site of RMIT’s New Academic Street.
Geurts collaborated with Ball and others at The Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe) – sampling, testing, forming DNA profiles, investigating soil qualities – to develop the artwork. Drawings, photography and examining RMIT building materials pushed the artist to consider the reconstructed earth and led him to the great termite mounds of the Northern Territory.
These looming natural features and the termites’ movement from north to south in cooler climates influenced Geurts to imagine how a mystical creature based on the termite might evolve, migrating and adapting to the RMIT site. Generating 3D scans of the magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park, NT, he began a detailed fabrication process to transform an RMIT laneway and bring his new landscape to fruition.
Students have been engaged throughout the project, both being informed by it and informing its development. This includes a workshop by the project’s creative producers, Kim de Kretser and Jodi Newcombe, for Master of Arts (Art in Public Space) students. Exploring the role of the creative producer, students were involved in designing public outreach aspects of Empire of Dirt. In the final phase, these students will also be invited to participate in the project’s evaluation.
Geurts has also delivered lectures to students and teachers at the School of Art and School of Science at RMIT.
Empire of Dirt is a sculptural installation that starts with a 3D scan of a living giant termite mound; this data mesh has been reconfigured into a series of topographical layers, illuminating the connection between the material structure and the landscape. The sculpture is laser cast to reflect the contemporary strata of our modern geological age.
White termite mounds curl around and stick to six, pre-established light boxes, engaged in active dialogue with one another. Showcased by Lightscape Projects RMIT, the light boxes feature a combination of images from site- and lab-based microbiological imagery, site research and drawings from the extensive research process of Empire of Dirt.
Interview with Creative Producers Jodi Newcombe and Kim de Kretser on The Arts Show with Alex McCulloch, Monday 19 June, 2017