Elke Marhöfer and Mikhail Lylov in conversation with Sahar Qawasmi and Nida Sinnokrot

On September 12 and 13, 2020, Elke Marhöfer, Mikhail Lylov, Sahar Qawasmi, and Nida Sinnokrot sat together across their computer screens in Italy and Palestine to speak about Elke and Mikhail’s short film Soils-Habit-Plants (2018). Six hours of conversation unfolded over those two days, sometimes speaking about the film, but more so about shared concerns, questions, anxieties, responses, observations, stories, mythologies, and recipes. This is an excerpt of that conversation.

Nida Sinnokrot (NS):  
I wanted to ask you how it felt to make this film, being in the soil with a macro lens—a very shallow depth of field. It seemed like an intimate and pleasurable process.

Elke Marhöfer (EM): 
There are two things I can say about this. Getting so close and seeing all these little things so big and at the same times not seeing a lot—it was like filming blindfolded. Bolex cameras have a very small viewfinder, so the view is very reduced; you dig yourself into the soil and sometimes you’re happy to see something, you try to follow soil in a sense. When I was filming the soil, and moving along a horizon that does not exist, I was remembering a conversation we had with Jean-Marie Straub about his and Danièle Huillet’s long panning shots of landscapes where human struggles had taken place, and I asked myself: What is the historical memory of this soil? What is human intervention and what is not? Even though every soil has its history we cannot project “a” human history on it, as we are used to doing with a landscape. That was my pleasure during the filming. Mikhail filmed the plants and I filmed the soil, so we had this split.

Mikhail Lylov (ML): 
It’s like an erotic film as a friend offered in his interpretation. It’s the combination of distance and closeness that makes one think of eroticism and its pleasures. If we speak of pleasure as a physical experience, filming plants and soil—in macro with no tripod—requires a lot of physical concentration and guessing. You are moving the camera, trying to follow the curve of a leaf or a soil particle, which induces an extremely strange state of the body. It’s like you are maintaining a sense of touch on the verge of the sensible.

It’s interesting to hear about that split. This collision of scales (between the lower and upper parts of the film) was the first moment that made me think back to the hyphenated title. I also felt there was a provocation in the wind where you have close-up shots of millet cut in a frenetic rhythm. I must have counted maybe ten edits within less than a minute, which very much stands out in contrast to the rest of the film. I felt like the wind was editing the film at that point, as if the millet was thrashing against the film frame, trying to break free from our thinking.

That’s why I think there is a middle element in the film’s title, which is habit, and we were interested in having the wind for example—or whatever unforeseen force, and all kinds of environmental inputs—as an element of the habitat. We wanted to follow the habits of the little millet plant, or of the soil. That’s why it was important to keep all the environmental forces in the frame and not to try to control or remove them. We wanted to resist the idea that knowledge can be generated in the controlled laboratory setting where you need to isolate the object.

Ogawa Productions made films in collaboration with Japanese rice farmers almost in the manner of scientific research, and in order to film the blossoming and pollination of a rice plant they moved the plant into a film studio. However, we felt the need to include environmental disturbances, and rice, like millet, are plants that are pollinated by wind. We can say that wind and soil provide the infrastructure which make plant and animal life possible. We understand how easy it is to destroy soil, and we also know how difficult it is to make it healthy again, to care for it. It takes more than a human lifetime to generate fertile soil. I was reading similar things on your website about the infrastructure of soil and also the care for soil.

I was actually thinking about Sakiya’s open call Infrastructure as Art,[1] and how infrastructure can be considered an art-object. It is an interesting idea to create infrastructure as an artistic contribution. Infrastructure, one can say, is still an object, but it has a very different status—it’s not the conventional art object which is shown in the urban art institution and whose functionality is suspended. So, when one articulates a call for art as a creation of an infrastructure within the setting of a farm, it’s certainly some kind of strategy to rework the understanding of an art object.

Yes, within the farm but also within a broader relationship that speaks to our not-so-distant mythologies that governed our relationship to nature and the spirit world that we describe in the open call. Those invisible forces that guard and govern the infrastructure of our hillside are associated with rituals and collective imagination. 

Sahar Qawasmi (SQ): 
It’s also an effort to revive some of those traditions, celebrations, songs that held people together in shared labor—and to make new ones as well. So, can infrastructure-as-art address, as did the spirit order, the anxieties that narrate our relationship to nature? 

For example, last year working with my students we were examining soil though the lens of metabolic time,and one of the assignments was to build an Earth Closet as a time piece using a Geneva mechanism—that intervalometer you find in every clock, camera, and gun. [3] This goes back to soil and nitrogen: how soil is being depleted of nitrogen and how our poop is a great source of it. We spent a lot of time investigating these ruptures in the natural cycle and coming up with creative solutions, and I think what they came up with is really quite beautiful. So now we’re trying to realize it on site in collaboration with our local artisans, and we imagine it will be a key element in our infrastructure… it’s certainly a work of art in our farm.

We’ve always wondered about how art and agriculture have grown apart. What if cultural institutions or museums moved to where food is being produced?  What would happen there if we planted museums among these vegetables, just as a kind of social and structural change to our built environment –what might that produce? And that’s how we’ve always thought of Sakiya. You know, artists and farmers, art and agriculture feeding everyone!

I think there is also a certain kind of social element to that, which is that the growing and making of food has become the activity of the few, and this, of course, has to do with the urbanization and industrialization of agriculture and all those things. And I think it’s really important to think about how making food could once again become the activity of the many, rather than consuming food from the supermarket. 

It can be carnival and celebration and ritual. We were talking about the separation of our labor and our pleasure. We’re being confronted with that now.

I think we have a different experience here in Sicily;[2] many farmers have migrated to Northern Europe or the US. Still, there are many Catholic processions, and some funerals are attended by more than a thousand people. But what you are describing sounds like you have people around with a holistic and vibrant memory of agricultural work and the communities built around it. While in our case, many who worked the land have left and those who stayed we often challenge. Still, we do have these “pockets of knowledge” from older people, which we are tapping into. You mention education and knowledge production in relation to your project as well, and I was wondering how you actually understand that?

Well, it’s the same for us. We’re being educated all the time. Yesterday we visited a friend who told us this story from her village… Today there is still a tradition of going to pray for rain wearing your clothes inside-out, but thirty years ago it wasn’t just the praying. It was a different tradition, a different ritual were women would walk from house to house, some carrying empty clay jugs, some carrying a rooster to call for water, some would have the grain mill with them as if to ask for produce from God. As they went from house to house, other women would join in the ritual by sprinkling water on them and singing to give them blessings, and then they would all go to light lanterns at the holy shrines. But over time, little by little, the men from the mosque would come out and say, “That’s not going to make it rain…” or ”You shouldn’t do that.” And the older women would yell back, “You don’t understand anything!”

Do you plough?

Only to make friends!

[1] See Infrastructure as Art – aboveground, ground, belowground on sakiya.org.

[2] See Marhöfer andLylov’s project on no-future farming on abandoned land, No Future Farmers (2019-2020).

Mikhail Lylov
 (b. 1989 in Voronezh, Russia) is an artist and researcher. He currently lives in Sicily and Berlin. His projects propose various practical, theoretical, and artistic interpretations of ecology. Working with moving, photographic, and archival images, he investigates histories of the interaction between human, animal, and elemental protagonists responsible for the emergence of various environments.

Elke Marhöfer is an artist and farmer based in Berlin and Sicily. She investigates ecological practices that support human and nonhuman communities. In her film works she tests nonhuman perspectives, translating a technology like the camera from a human cultural and technical device into an environmentally intensive force. In this way, the camera becomes a tool principally undifferentiated from nonhuman animal tools, and filming becomes akin to orangutans using leaves to make squeaky kiss noises.

Sahar Qawasmi is an architect, restorer, organizer, and co-founder of Sakiya – Art | Science | Agriculture in Ein Qiniya, Palestine. Through her different collaborations, Qawasmi spends much of her time in the farm at Sakiya, collectively experimenting with reclaiming, reestablishing, rewilding, and building different forms of the commons, challenging and reconfiguring private ownership and isolating social practices. She is co-developing a hands-on education program based in storytelling, care, and environmental and social justice. Sahar is involved in the protection of cultural heritage in rural Palestine through preparing protection plans and strategies, and introducing collaborative cross-disciplinary cultural programs. 

Through tactical acts of technical and conceptual détournement, much of Nida Sinnokrot’s work aims to subvert various technologies of control that give rise to shifting social, political, and geographic instabilities. His films, installations, and sculptures often transform ordinary objects or actions into sensory experiences that reveal the hidden complexity of relationships trapped within the mundane. Sinnokrot is a co-founder of Sakiya – Art | Science | Agriculture, an international residency program and farm with an emphasis on fostering and developing sustainable practices across disciplines; and is currently a faculty member of MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology Program (ACT) in the School of Architecture and Planning in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.