ITHACA, N.Y.—Eco-feminists have given talks there, noise artists have made it their stage, and it has served as a minimalist movie theater. Currently, urine is being turned into fertilizer there as well.
It’s all happening at an unassuming warehouse off Route 13 in the Town of Ithaca called the Soil Factory, named after one of its former uses. Since opening in 2021, it has evolved into a space for experiment and performance that is at once lowkey and high concept, barebones yet abundant with activity.
The Soil Factory is formally a project of WEAVE Community, a nonprofit organization, but the people that keep the space alive and busy say that it’s run with minimal governance structure.
Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist and Soil Factory community member, said, “If somebody comes and says, I want to do a salsa event, sure! Short of burning the thing down —”
“Or a noise violation!” interjected Paulina Velázquez Solis, a Soil Factory community member and multimedia artist who’s currently a visiting critic at Cornell University.
“Or a noise violation!” Lehmann said. “After 9 p.m., amplified music we cannot do. But that’s pretty much it.”
Lehmann and Velázquez Solis are among a group of artists, scientists and generally curious people that are trying to cultivate the Soil Factory as a space where a vast array of ideas can come alive.
Neil Schill, who writes the Soil Factory’s weekly newsletter and is the Executive Director of WEAVE Community, described the guiding principle of the space as “Just bringing lots of different people together, that would normally not get together, and talk, converse and share ideas and get the opportunity to, essentially, play with each other.”
With that working premise, the Soil Factory has hosted Paolo Buggiani, 90-year old Italian artist famous for his use of “dynamic media” and lighting parts of himself on fire. The venue once hosted a rainbow-themed potluck, where only monochromatic foods of the colors of the rainbow could be brought. In another instance, the Soil Factory hosted a workshop on how to turn a pair of old jeans into a substitute for a plant pot.
Kathrin Achenbach of WEAVE Community runs “Make Mends Meet,” a bi-weekly meetup for people to mend clothing and talk.
“I wanted to sort of explore more how we can keep fashion waste down,” she said.
On July 17, Betsy Damon, an environmental artist, spoke at the Soil Factory about her career as an artist and eco-feminist, including her work in China to develop a park along a river that cleans water through a wetland.
The space’s events are varied, often aligning with environmentalist interests and contemporary art and mixed-media, but most can’t be easily categorized.
Events in the space began with Lehmann trying to put on a show of his personal African art collection in November 2021, Rebecca Nelson said, a plant scientist who’s taken to using the Soil Factory for her own agricultural experiments.
It was fall 2021 and the fear of spreading COVID-19 was still shaping the way people moved through their lives by and large.
Schill said, “[We] were all going crazy being in isolation for a year.”
The Soil Factory’s building offered a well ventilated space for the exhibition, and the property’s owner, John Gaunt — a soil scientist himself and friend of Lehmann and Nelson — saw the potential for the empty industrial site to be used for a more community oriented purpose when Lehman’s exhibition filled the room, Nelson said.
“Johannes was like ‘huh, and I was like ‘huh’ and John was like ‘huh,” Nelson said. “So we were like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s make something happen here.’”
How long the Soil Factory will last, though, is uncertain. Lehmann said the group made a commitment to run the Soil Factory for about a year in 2021, “and if it disappears, that’s fine.” Then a year turned into two, and in 2023 the group made a four-year commitment.
“We have four years that we now have committed ourselves to doing this,” Lehmann said. “And the question is what happens in four years. Maybe then it disappears.”
For now, the events keep coming. On July 21, the Soil Factory calendar advertises a screening of the film “Brazil,” a cult-classic from director Terry Gilliam set in a satirical world of overwhelming bureaucracy. Before the film, a performance artist and sculptor will be sharing their latest projects with attendees and “possibly treating us to a tea ceremony.”