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Review: Terra Ignota: John Elcock and Margaret O’Brien, at Bridewell Studios & Gallery

I spent most of my time at this exhibition nodding along and trying to pretend I knew what an earth battery was, and I still don’t 100% know. But, somehow, a bunch of wires went into a bunch of buckets filled with damp soil, and a light bulb shone away. I’m simplifying it, but it was impressive.

Somehow, the bacteria in the soil creates electrical activity. That activity isn’t stable like the currents in our homes, so the bulb flickers, and the speakers wired up to the systems fluctuate and murmur in oddly soothing static rhythms.

I’ve never been so enamored by something I didn’t understand.

The installation, which I have done a catastrophically awful job of explaining, was the result of a collaboration between Liverpool-based John Elcock, and Margaret O’Brien, who lives between Liverpool and Ireland.

John Elcock’s work, Geist, is the earth battery I attempted to describe. It was an ambitious, dynamic and explorative installation that sought, quite literally to “give a voice to the earth”. The bulb wasn’t strictly a bulb either. It was a UV sensitive liquid that, when charged with the reliable 10 volts of electricity from the potted soil, let out a gentle blue glow at the centre of the exhibition.

That muted light had a beautiful relationship with Margaret O’Brien’s work, Resistance: West, which produced the backing track for the exhibition from a  series of similarly soil-powered sculptures.

And while John Elcock’s work was powered by the earth, Margaret O’Brien’s was controlled by it, specifically by microbial fuel cells. In practice, this created a pulsing audio track where the sounds were subtly different based on the individual soil samples, demonstrating the individuality of place as defined by the earth itself.

As an audience, we are (were) invited to experience the earth in a new way, and contemplate the complexity of soil life. I’ve spent much of my adult life reading about soil, because its just fascinating, but I’ve never experienced it like this; never seen soil life presented on a scale that can be properly contemplated without microscopic images.

This was a show that literally took that energy and translated it, into light and into sound. So our senses, on the clumsy scale they are, could actually digest the magnitude of what happens beneath our feet.

It just so happens that the tools used by John Elcock and Margaret O’Brien were light and sound, but the experience they offered was more holistic. I wish I’d had time to visit again in solitude, after the previews.

All the elements of this exhibition imply sustainable goals, which are apparent, but that would be a misreading. It is a celebration of the earth that appeals to every sense, presented as a ritual.

Terra Ignota ran at Bridewell Studios, and ended 26th January.