Humus Recalls Curvatures.
A Conversation With Martín Llavaneras

Ref-3324, 2017. Forge plant stands, rubber

The recent projects by Martin Llavaneras (Lleida, 1983) challenge the agreed meaning of what we call landscape. To do so he uses practices and knowledge set against the idea of the locus amoenus: the tamed setting where the classical opposition between man and nature is played out. In stark contrast, the gestures and materials that form the basis of its meaning witness an irreversible humanisation process and the impact of these processes on the environment. This is the case of sports and leisure activities, such as climbing, or productive activities, such horticulture, which Llavaneras has approached as case studies and as a set of action protocols founded on shared knowledge. All the remains accumulated by this knowledge bear witness to a series of communities constituted on the fringes and that at the same time are the raw material of his creations, which provides the substrate and defines the form of installations such as “Humus Recalls Curvatures”.

Marc Navarro: Could you tell me how the project emerged? What was your premise when you began working on this exhibition that you are now presenting at La Panera?

Martin llavaneras: It is an evolution of the project I did for the Blueproject gallery, in Barcelona, called “Reengineering Calcium”, whose starting point was the relation between two materials: rubber and calcium — more specifically calcium carbonate: the chemical compound of shells and bones. Limestone is also formed from this compound and, because of its properties, it was used for centuries as the matrix for lithographic reproductions. Once the technique became obsolete, they were reused as construction material. In the case of “Reengineering Calcium”, they were lithographic stones that I had taken from a road surface close to Frankfurt. Despite the wear caused by the tyres, you could still see remains of the original engravings. Thus, I wanted to work with this friction between materials: sediment and elasticity. As another variation, I introduced orthopaedic rubber: our body is partially geological, and rubber acts as a kind of exoskeleton, another reinforcement that heals a fragile body, as if it were a fossil.

M. N.: In the case of the project you mention, I remember that you almost built the works in the space where you would present them later. You established a dialogue — or perhaps we should call it ergonomics — between architecture and the works it had to contain. I wonder if, during your residency in Farrera that helped you define “Humus Recalls Curvatures”, you established a similar work flow.

M. Ll.: In reality, no. I came from working in the family vegetable garden, a very different context in which what we call nature is in fact a supertaming, an accumulation of culturised elements. We see it, for instance, in organisational aspects — a set of aligned trees and plants — but also in the use of chemical products. In other words, it came from a discovery, perhaps naive, but from my perspective interesting: that everything called nature is perhaps not obviously so. We are surrounded by an unnaturalised or tamed nature, the nature within our reach is in fact an industry.

Humus Recalls Curvatures, 2017. Exhibition view at Centre d’art la Panera, Lleida

M. N.: You had already previously worked with this idea, mainly with climbing. In the related projects there is already a desire to emphasise the taming of nature; in that case, based on the generation of new homonyms.

M. Ll.: In this region we find quite a large number of prehistoric human settlements that now coexist with climbers that come from all over the world. They seem distanced phenomena but what we really see is an interaction of processes. Limestone is easily eroded by water. It is a soft material that easily disintegrates and creates caves. At first, they were occupied by hominids, which awoke interest in these archaeological sites, but now climbers use them by opening new routes. It is a process in constant evolution. This dynamic of uses is not always horizontal. It rather reveals certain hierarchical positions that depend on the value attached to the often intangible material. In the case of archaeology, the transfer of information moves from the 3D scanner to the intellect and, by extension, words; that is, the narrative of identity. In the case of climbing, despite the use of specific technical material, the digits — literally, the fingers, the tendons — are the key element to map out the space, an overlapping of gestures and postures that finally shape a retained memory that feeds the muscle. I would like to take you climbing in the Humboldthain bunker, in Berlin. There, to advance vertically, you must use shrapnel holes carved in the concrete. You literally advance at the contingent pace of history. In this respect, what interested me were those practices in which there was a resistance to the discourse or an absence of legitimisation, a weak stance.

Humus Recalls Curvatures, 2017. Irrigation device, venturi injector. Fermented plants extracts (fern, greater burdock, comfrey, nettle, dandelion)

M. N.: To carry out the project you have researched the homemade production of fertilisers.

M. Ll.: Yes, it is a new subject for me and, yet, I recover some ambiguous family imaginary: a knowledge connected to “magical” formulae and procedures, based on the use of extracts of fermented plants, such as the greater burdock, the nettle, the dandelion or the fern, but that also coexist with agro-hygiene chemistry. Strangely, I have grown up in a context in which the two spheres intermingle and, apart from their dichotomies, they finally generate mutual transfers. It is chemistry operating with superstition. In the case of “Humus Recalls Curvatures”, there is some similarity: agricultural chemistry as an extensive model that enables the biodiversity of the environments aimed at the production of food to be regulated. By analysing this issue, I ended up with the origins of agronomics, the works and contributions of Justus von Liebig and Albert Howard. Howard puts forward a vision of “integrated” soil, in which the organisms are not merely a set of minerals but part of a complete ecological process that has a self-generative cycle. In contrast, Liebig starts from the fact that, to get good crops, it is necessary to improve the basic composition of the substrates, deficient in themselves, and what he proposes is to add nitrogen fertilisers that feed the soils. We can understand weeds as organisms that steal nutrients from the crops or instead as guest species that contribute minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc.

M. N.: You start from an in-depth analysis, in this case on how we transform nature to extract a benefit, about its commoditisation; but you also put some distance with how you present this research.

M. Ll.: In my case, the form and the discourse never appear at the same time. They are not synchronic or lineal elements. The pieces emerge from the observation of the family vegetable garden. For me it is interesting to identify aesthetics where people working in it see a functionality. It is a process of discovery, of unveiling potentialities. For instance: a piece of curved iron, with a piece of plastic on top that acts as a greenhouse. If you analyse it from the stance I did, there is an urgency. There is also a need to free myself from the project. If I feel an intuition, I try to follow it, to build an architecture that enables me to understand the emotion behind it. Intuition for intuition’s sake leads me to a field that I find boring; it interests me when emotion infiltrates the intellect.

Ref3624, 2017. Forge plant stand, sea algae.

M. N.: How do you identify this aesthetics of urgency you mentioned before?

M. Ll.: When you manage a small farm you end up by accumulating diverse materials, such as flower pots, pipes, mortar troughs, malnourished substrates… All end up overlapping, but very unexpectedly. What interests me is destroying the genealogy of the materials, and based on these findings you can start researching. In my case, this research focuses on a very specific question: how a vegetable garden is produced, with which tools and materials, in a framework in which the exploitation is mainly industrial.

M. N.: You also call for a production linked to everyday domestic life.

M. Ll.: Unfortunately, whenever I have had the opportunity to undertake a project here I was elsewhere. Now I have worked here and I wanted to concentrate dispersed languages that I have gradually inherited. This leads to a common question, which seeks to define the position from where we build knowledge and how we use certain technologies to make it possible. The paradox lies in the technologies that mark how and when to think; an example can be conventional agrochemicals, which make you follow a series of guidelines to use them properly. A homemade plant extract works quite differently. You have to move it in a determined way; depending on your state of mind, it adopts one form or another. When we simplify the production processes, by standardising norms and rituals, we are transferring a flow of both contingent and shared consciousness. The agency of an astronomical object like the Moon or Saturn is reduced to a mere protocol.

Ref-3424, 2017. Forge plant stands, rubber.

M. N.: You avoid talking in terms of sustainability or reuse.

M. Ll.: I prefer to speak of organicity, as in the issue of humus, which is the raw material generated based on compost, the place where everything is thrown. It is on the most superficial layer where you see the orange peel, the egg and mussel shells, or plastic elements such as yogurt lids, which have been thrown away by error. As you keep digging, you see how the matter is shaped, unified. I am interested in this stratification, the relationship between sediments and temporalities that continually overlap and mix. This dynamic is what I find most interesting about the vegetable garden: the mobility of an element that was on your plate, later decomposed and finally becomes part of your bones, because you will have calcified it through food; it is a constant flow.

M. N.: One of the pieces featured is a jersey that you use as a greater burdock seedbed. How did you come across this plant?

M. Ll.: I came across it through Velcro technology, which was invented based on an observation: every time George de Mestral walked through the countryside with his dog, the animal’s fur was covered with this plant. Thus, the design of Velcro is based on a biomimetic process. But also in the village of Ferrara, during my stay, I met an environmentalist who told me about plant extracts; I found out more about the plant from him. It grew abundantly in a specific area of the village, so I gradually collected dried seeds. They are seeds with hood-shaped pistils. It is a detested plant, which spreads very quickly; in fact, we find it all over the world. It grows by roads, among fields and, in short, in places where there is human activity but no soil exploitation. We can say that the places where there is neither culture nor nature are preferred by the greater burdock. And not only this, it also grows in places where the land has been dug up or eroded. What is surprising is that the owner of these fields in Farrera did not know why so much greater burdock had grown: according to her, it appeared suddenly, and the land was slightly flooded. Thus, I finally discovered that a village sewer had burst under the carpet of plants.

M. N.: Returning to the crops, we should point out that there is a lot of ignorance, and that this generates hybrid production styles, halfway between what is sustainable and the application of chemical products that point in a radically different direction.

Humus Recalls Curvatures, 2017. Exhibition view at Centre d’art la Panera, Lleida.

M. Ll.: I do not think that by feeding the dichotomy that what is natural is “good” and what is synthetic is “bad” we are necessarily contributing to a sustainable discourse. If we perceive the environment as a compact macro-setting, an environment similar to the idea of humus, where everything tends to integrate and rebalance, this is meaningless. The questions emerge when we draw a vanishing point, when we measure limited timeframes. Then we see how these processes of global integration involve and engage different organisms, which favour some more than others, or, in the best of cases, favour new alliances. This flow is one of the constants of this project, in which nature appears in a multiplicity of forms and processes: liquid fermentation of herbs, vulcanised plants, forged ornamental curves, tyre traces engraved in clay... To delimit this disparity of processes, we could talk of dynamics of addition, extraction and synthesis: production models in which matter connects with knowledge and consciousness.

Interview published in Humus Recalls Curvatures/Plastic Mantra, (Centre d'art La Panera, Lleida, 2017) ISBN: 978-84-96855-90-8

Please follow the link to access the catalan and spanish version of the interview.