Sara Bissen. (2015). Topsoil. Defiance-San Andrés Itzapa-Newark-Istanbul: Artena Anarchist Press. ISBN 978-88-940505-0-9.
Review by Kelly Nosari
Tacit acceptance of the commodities and information that inundate our urban lives promises control over the chaos. In reality, it prevents us from seeing beyond the surface of things to understand our complicity in the world we inhabit. In this hall of mirrors, we are removed from the reality that we are all actors, whatever role we play in the hierarchy of exchange. Sara Bissen’s Topsoil deliberately challenges such inertia by revealing the global commodity chain of capital that underpins our lives.
Topsoilis at once essay, book, critique, and artist manifesto. It is also none of these things. It is most certainly a dense read—in content and in structure. Introduced as a play, sources are given as a list of characters, names scrambled and removed from their context. It follows the story of cotton from the farmer planting the seed in the soil in India to the all-powerful urban marketplace in New York City—revealing the urban dweller’s separation from actual global systems. At the same time, the text is not linear and its visual structure reflects the opaque, circuitous, and disconnected routes and exchanges of capital’s commodity chain. Footnotes in Roman numerals carry visual weight and emphasize certain words or ideas, but do not serve their traditional purpose. They grow larger as the text progresses, seemingly laden down with meaning.
Written in its final stages standing up over a sleepless three days, Topsoilis a work born of process. In a manner reminiscent of performance artists such as Marina Abramović, Bissen subjected her body and mind to immense strain. Her physicality served as the conduit for her intellectual outpouring, figuratively walking her from New York City back to her former home in the Guatemalan countryside as she wrote. The resulting text continues to evolve as an online commentary that invites critique and response—essentially extending Topsoilinto new directions. 1
Bissen, a ruralist, cites artists and theorists such as Abramović, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, and Hans Haacke in her discussion of contemporary economic systems of exchange. Conversations with her father, a farmer, were also an important source of inspiration made evident in the text’s central focus on soil. Bissen’s overarching concern with representation—one of the most resonating themes in Topsoil—also positions her work in relation to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation(1981)—each of which share a similar fundamental assertion that human experience is now merely the simulation of reality.
For Bissen, “the eyes are passive. But labor is active.” 2 Moving beyond the topsoil or the “surface layer” to the substantive soil below is potentially agentive. 3
However, if we are merely looking at the symbols and messages contained in the commodities prescribed for us, then we are not seeing at all. In other words, we have to challenge capital—and the flow of information in the media—on a fundamental level by taking on the very symbols it employs to order our lives.
Topsoil’s next phase is in the transition from theory to practice. The work and its growing online commentaries seek out what Bissen refers to as “the spaces of contradiction [that] expose the cracks in the surface.” 4
She charts a collective approach to the creation of new meaning within the commodity chain: “1. Start from a representation 2. Find what is [hidden] 3. Represent in a new way what we found.” 5
1 See http://topsoillxiii.com/.
2 Bissen, S. (2015). Topsoil. Defiance-San Andrés Itzapa-Newark-Istanbul: Artena Anarchist Press, 4, cxxxii and ccxv (after Lefebvre).
3 Ibid. 4, i.
4 Ibid. 3, lxxii.
5 Ibid. 4, xxix.