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The Field Commission: Asad Raza – Reabsorption

4 March 2022 – 30 April 2023


Asad Raza, Reabsorption, 2022. Photograph by Patrick Dandy.

For the inaugural twelve-month Field Commission, artist Asad Raza presents Reabsorption – a new work that takes the form of a metabolic process occupying the entirety of the field site, creating a unique form of remediation.

Working with a range of partners and collaborators from the University of Birmingham, the Wildlife Trust and local businesses producing waste, Raza and our team of cultivators are looking to learn more about the existing soil to determine its toxicity and create a recipe for a neosoil, specifically designed to dilute this toxicity. The cultivator team includes soil scientists, ecologists, compost experts, gardeners, community activists, art practitioners, mycologists, students and community members.

Reabsorption is engaging with the soil as a living ecosystem that comprises the economic and cultural inheritance of Digbeth, including toxic particles, offering new ways to think about urban regeneration. The project addresses questions of land ownership, material consumption, and ways of living with the toxic residues of colonial and industrial expansion in Britain.

Raza and the team of cultivators are collecting waste materials from around the city, mixing and tending to them to create compost which will be added to inorganic materials such as sand, clay and lime – these will be used to dilute the toxic soil on the site. 

The large wooden bays (built in collaboration with Avalon construction and MJM Bespoke) contain the decomposing waste materials from around Birmingham, which will be added to the soil on site to attempt to detoxify. The structures have been finished with a charring method called Shou Sugi Ban, which will extend the life of the structures without adding any further toxicity to the land.

This landmark project is the first of its kind in the UK, an attempt to repair a large section of toxic land in-situ without removal of components.

Visitors to the site can learn more about the processes from the team of cultivators, and we would be grateful for any new contacts and partnerships for waste materials.

The project will be accompanied by a range of events and resources, with invited specialists and speakers throughout 2022. As a whole, the project is deeply enmeshed with Grand Union’s Collaborative Programme, which strives to connect with people outside of the gallery space and build audiences for art. We believe that art can be a tool for radical social change, but only when embedded within communities, with and for them.

With thanks to Canal & River Trust, Avalon Construction, MJM Bespoke, Digbrew, Latifs, Mulino Coffee and Compost Culture Birmingham.

Artist Bio

Asad Raza (born in Buffalo, USA) assembles coalitions of living and non-living agents within his practice. Often exploring dialogical exchanges and rejecting disciplinary boundaries, Raza conceives of art as a metabolic, active experience. Absorption, in which a group of cultivators create over 300 tons of neosoil, was shown as the 34th Kaldor Public Art Project in Sydney in 2019, and at the Gropius Bau, Berlin in 2020. For Untitled (plot for dialogue), in 2017, he installed a tennis-like game in a deconsecrated sixteenth-century church in Milan. Root sequence. Mother tongue—first exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial–combines twenty-six trees, caretakers and objects. Schema for a school was an experimental school at the 2015 Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennial. Raza premiered Minor History, a filmed dialogue with his 91-year-old uncle, at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2019.


Meet the Cultivators

Our team of Cultivators working on Reabsorption are:

Kieran Bird, Jess Chadwick, Lucy Young, Aaron Bhambra, Zoia Areli, Louise Bowden, Adam M, Toqueer Ahmed Quyyam, Sammie Masters-Hopkins, Hannah McCabe, Claire Woolnoughs, Matt Gale, Pete Ashton, Sarah King, Summer Rivers, Rosie Watts, Roo Hocking, Namrit Matharu, Zaynab Siddiqa, Amarpreet Ubhi, Simar Sidhu, and Tiana Richards.

online journal

The Cultivators contribute to a weekly online journal, where they share their findings, research, ideas and experiences whilst being on the canalside. You can read the full journal here.

25th October 2022

Matt C:

Today was a great day at the canalside. We seemed to get lots of things done – all of which had a visual impact that made it feel even more productive. We riddled lots of difficult to riddle clay and mixed this with lots of sand and lots of riddled compost to make lots of amazing looking neosoil. We also used the byproduct of compost riddling – the larger carbon pieces – as a mulch for our paths, and after Tiana cleared the paths of new vegetation, Jess laid this mulch which will not only suppress unwanted plants from recolonising the paths but will also inoculate the soil below with fungi and bacteria from the compost piles. Roo and Tiana then set about making a new and experimental habitat from bricks, clay, sand and topsoil. The colour contract was really impressive and it’ll be nice to see how the site interacts with this over the winter. Zoey did the same, but with timber that’s been rotting on the site for a long time. She stripped fresh bark from the larger cyprus logs too and used this in combination with green materials to build a fully organic habitat that will slowly be consumed by the site. I used some of the larger pieces of clay to build a pile of this soft rubble as another island on the site. We’ve noticed seedlings coming up already in pure clay that has spilled out of the bag so that’s a promising sign that even a mound as monotype as this may be able to be populated by living things. We even erected a few vertical posts and drilled 6mm holes in them all facing the sun. The hope is solitary bees will make a winter home in these posts with a great view across the site. I’d also brought in around 1-200g of young compost worms from home and we introduced them to our compost bays where hopefully they’ll breed and continue to break down our materials over winter.


Fresh mid afternoon 

before green neo-soil grows

whilst watching the fish




Today, I used the tool called hoe to remove the weeds and grass from the pathways ready for Jess to fill  in with fresh mulch

After this Myself and Roo laid some bricks in the shape of a fish and used the clay mixed with water to  stick them together to create a place for materials to go. After we created the outline with the bricks we ripped up some carboard and place it around the back half of the fish then we filled it in using sand on  the inside and soil on the outside, this was really fun as we got to be creative but hard work lifting the  bricks 


Last day at the canalside, but it doesn’t feel like it. We did a lot of work today that completely changed the feeling. I realised that while we were doing groundwork, planting, and composting, I had been thinking of the canalside as A Space. A space of possibility, experimentation and endeavour. A crossing-place for people, ideas and hopes. Even with the signage up, and bays built, it still had a festival feel to me, as though we might pack it all away one day, and find our work swallowed by bracken. 

But today we built sculptures from brick and assemblages of wood. We placed two marker posts, one with a black rubber tree-trunk tie that trailed like a flag. We laid out a loose mountain range of neosoil and invited nature to bring it to life. 

And somehow, almost by magic, space became Place. 

I couldn’t put my finger on quite what this quality of Placeness was. 

Do we, as humans, enjoy the presence of human signs? Do we need to find things that are human-sized, on our own scale, in order to feel a connection? 

There are human-free places that definitely have Placeness. An empty moor is still a Place. An estuary. A mountain.

I think, for me, it’s a feeling of wholeness. A set of elements that connect together somehow. Edges, perhaps. High and low points. I’m not sure. I’m still feeling my way. 


Decaying Matters: Compost Forum

Thursday 26 May, 4pm – 6pm

Grand Union, Unit 19 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street, Birmingham, B5 5RS

Grand Union are hosting the first Decaying Matters forum to bring together individuals and groups in Birmingham to discuss all things rotting in the city, as well as those that aren’t but perhaps should be.

We’ll be mapping out current communal composting strategies and considering ways we can work together to build on this to improve our cities’ attitude towards waste. By doing so, we aim to raise awareness of the importance of soil, as a growing medium for food, but also as a complex living system that forms the literal basis on which much of our world exists.

We hope that this will be a chance to share practice and join knowledge together, to create a wider city strategic plan for how to future proof our city and community.

The Field Commission: Launch and Artist Talk with Asad Raza

Photography by Tom Harris, 2022.

Friday 4 March, 5 – 6pm

122 Fazeley Street, B5 5RT, Grand Union Canal (adjacent to Junction Works)

Please note: event outdoors, booking not essential.

Join us on Digbeth First Friday, 5 – 6pm for an introduction to the first Field Commission with artist Asad Raza.

Since 2019 Grand Union has been working on the refurbishment of Junction Works, the former Canal Offices in Digbeth. Artist duo Cooking Sections have been guiding this process through their interventions on the site in their Empire Remains Shop programme. The next phase of this project is The Field Commission: the adoption of a canalside field site for twelve-month artistic commissions in collaboration with Canal and River Trust.

In this informal talk, Asad will introduce Reabsorption, a new work focussing on a unique form of soil remediation. Working with soil scientists, architects, and community members, Asad is continuing to study the existing soil to determine its toxicity and created a recipe for a ‘neosoil’ specifically designed to dilute this toxicity. 


Lucy Young is a final year Geography student from University of Birmingham, that has been working alongside The Field Commission to research the wider industrial history and its links to the pollution found on-site.

As early as the 16th century, the low area surrounding the River Rea became the centre of metal forges in the West Midlands. This continued to grow until the late 18th century, at which point it had become a diverse industrial hub dealing with anything from gun proofing to toy manufacture.

All of this was aided by the network of canals which transported everything from raw materials like coal, to finished products, like Typhoo tea. The environmental legacy of this activity can be seen in the pollution found in Digbeth’s soils and waterways today. 

The map below shows the industrial timelines for a range of buildings in the Digbeth area. Click on a blue area to learn more about its history. 

Examples of industry and related contaminants: 

The hide and skin markets (1890s – 1920s) were located on what is now New Canal Street and would have sold treated animal skins for use in clothing, furniture, and tools. The processing of these hides would have involved a lot of chemicals, some of which may have been washed or leached into the soil and waterways. For example, the dehairing process involved either alkaline lime or sodium sulphide, whilst sheep skins would have been dipped in insecticides like lindane. Arsenic pollution is also associated with the storage tanks used whilst chromium was used in the tanning process.  

The ice manufactory (1890s) in what is currently Minerva Works, would have been associated with ammonia pollution which was extensively used in the cooling and heating processes required to make ice blocks. 

The timber and slate yard (1890s – 1920s), near the Digbeth Branch Canal Wharf, would have handled pesticides for treating the timber, as well as creosote to preserve it.  

Star Works, next door to the timber and slate yard, was a slate enamelling workshop (1890s), and would have fired a mix of linseed oil, asphaltum, tar and ground umber onto slate to create a black surface. This could be overlaid with colour to replicate a marble effect, often for use on fireplaces.  

The Birmingham Proof House, which was established in 1813 and is still running today, is located across from the canal-site. Historically the ammunition waste could be linked to heavy metal pollution, especially lead leaching.