Soil and Spirit

Project Team

Soil and Spirit workshop.
Soil and Spirit workshop in Spring 2023 (Photo courtesy of Marina Tsaplina)

Team profile by Jessica Orzulak, Jules Odendahl-James and Marina Tsaplina

This team brings together artists, faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students across disciplines to explore the poetic and political connections among soil and mycorrhizal networks; histories of forest management policies and Indigenous land dispossession; disability studies, colonial philosophies, and human beings’ strained relationships to our environments. 

We conducted our research over the course of the year in support of a long-term artistic project conceptualized by visiting eco-artist and disability culture activist Marina “Heron” Tsaplina. Titled Soil and Spirit, the artwork is a participatory, large-scale performance-installation seeking to connect diverse lineages to the histories and spirits of ancient, endangered and disappeared forests. The physical enunciation of this work will be composed with the participation of professional puppeteers, dancers/movement artists and community participants from disabled, settler and Indigenous communities through a process Tsaplina calls Movement Dreaming, a practice of long-form, embodied improvisation cycles.

While at Duke, Tsaplina engaged with students in Johann Montozzi-Wood's class, The Moving and Sounding Body (THEATRST 347S).
While at Duke, Tsaplina engaged with students in Johann Montozzi-Wood's class, The Moving and Sounding Body (THEATRST 347S). (Photo: John West)

Our research took shape across multiple disciplines with students and faculty working across mycology, engineering, public policy, history, and art and visual culture. In the fall of 2022, we familiarized ourselves with scholarship dedicated to anti-ableist, anti-colonial and decolonial thinking, researching, and writing in historical and scientific disciplines. We collaborated with multiple entities across Duke including the engineering department, Duke Campus Farm, the Duke Forest and professor Ritas Vilgalys’ Mycology Lab. 

We visited this lab multiple times, studying soil from forests central to the project and practicing a form of close looking to bridge artistic awareness and scientific study of fungi and other life forms present in the soil. Soil and mycorrhizal networks became a central metaphor for our methodological approach to the ongoing research as we looked to the entangled and reciprocal communities composing soils to inspire the project’s performance and aesthetic dynamics in a broad sense.

During the first semester the team broke into three groups, each tackling a different aspect of research. The first group collaborated with a corresponding EGR 101 team to create a prototype for a mechanical flower to be used in the later installation; another began research for a Forest Policy Handbook that future participating artists and other interested parties could use to learn about the history of forest management and National and State Parks in the United States; and a third created a database we named the Living Archive. As its name implies, the Living Archive will live on and grow as the project evolves beyond its presence at Duke, encouraging participants to consult and contribute to its repository of images, data, histories, and creative narratives as the project reaches new stages. 

Soil and Spirit workshop.
Students engaging with soil samples at a Soil and Spirit workshop (Photo courtesy of Marina Tsaplina)

During the second semester we turned our attention to one of the central ethical questions for both the Bass Connections project and the larger artistic work of Soil and Spirit, asking how we might produce an artistic land-based artwork without recreating colonial erasure, while also supporting Indigenous sovereignty and practicing non-extractive land relations. In support of this goal, our forest policy team conducted archival research on State Forest Action Plans, treaty histories between Native American Nations and Federal and State governments reaching back to the sixteenth century, and histories of land dispossession in North America.

Angela Wei, a master’s student in public policy, created a comprehensive, public-facing document summarizing and interpreting information about the goals and strategies of official forest management policies in the four regions identified as important to the artwork’s conceptual boundaries: Montana, Massachusetts, New York State and Wisconsin. Wei also created a StoryMap providing an abridged overview of treaty histories in present-day New York State and surrounding areas. Summarized from multiple sources, the StoryMap offers future Soil and Spirit participants a deeper understanding of the complex histories held by the land where the performance-installation occurs. 

As the semester drew to an end, the team hosted a three-week residency with Tsaplina, who worked with Duke students, faculty from theater and environmental sciences, and local professional artists to bring the lab research from the Living Archive into embodied practice. 

Soil and Spirit workshop.
Soil and Spirit workshop (Photo courtesy of Marina Tsaplina)