resized headerEmpire of Dirt by artist James Geurts is a sculptural installation that explores the darkness and complexity of the living earth beneath our feet.  The piece considers how soil biology may adapt to survive the Earth’s ecological tipping point, by engaging the public’s imagination and offering them a deeper look into a long-hidden ecosystem.

Empire of Dirt is inspired by the evolving architecture and infrastructure of RMIT’s New Academic Street. This temporary artwork takes its form and content directly from soil samples gathered from the construction site.

To produce the piece, Geurts worked in RMIT’s Bundoora lab with Andy Ball (Distinguished Professor and environmental microbiologist) to investigate the ecology dynamics of the soil at a microscopic level. They found that the construction has introduced new elements into the site’s original terra firma, such as micro-plastics, pollutants and metals. This created a ‘conversation’ between existing soil and the adaptive microorganisms within it. It’s this conversation which has largely informed the shape, dynamic and symbolism of Geurts’ public sculpture.

The resulting artwork tells the story of how microbiological insects in the RMIT zone have evolved and transformed the soil fabric into living structures. This narrative echoes that of the magnetic termite mounds of the Northern Territory.

Installed just off LaTrobe Street in Rodda Lane, at RMIT’s city campus, Empire of Dirt forms part of Wonderment Walk Victoria’s growing open air gallery. WWV’s public art pieces endeavour to combine science, mathematics and art to engage passers-by with wonder, delight and curiosity.




Funded by Wonderment Walk Victoria and produced in collaboration with RMIT’s Centre for Art Society & Transformation and Carbon Arts, Empire of the Dirt has been realised through RMIT’s New Academic Street’s Urban Animators: Living Laboratory program and Lightscape Projects RMIT near the New Academic Street development site.


Empire of Dirt demonstrates innovative collaboration between disciplines, showcasing RMIT’s unique research strengths across art, science and technology.

A practice-based research project, Empire of Dirt, will contribute new knowledge regarding the role of public art in engaging citizens in the governance of environmental concerns within cities.  

These goals align with the RMIT College of Science, Engineering and Health’s focus on developing and applying knowledge to new ways of thinking about the environment, sustainability, advanced technology health and wellbeing.

The project has emerged from a partnership between Wonderment Walk Victoria, RMIT’s Centre for Art Society and Transformation (CAST) and Carbon Arts to deliver public art outcomes that celebrate knowledge and science, with a particular focus on environmental sustainability.  


Four artists, all RMIT alumni, were invited to present project proposals in partnership with sustainability researchers at the university. This inter-disciplinary match-making process, lead by the project’s creative production team, saw three public art concepts presented to a panel for competitive selection.

Geurts’ winning proposal, Empire of Dirt, emerged from initial dialogue and explorations in the lab with Prof Andy Ball from RMIT’s Centre for Environment Sustainability and Remediation. Critical investigation was drawn from a soil sample taken directly from the construction site of RMIT’s New Academic Street.

Throughout the artwork’s development Geurts worked closely with Ball and others at The Centre for Environment Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe), at the lab, sampling, testing, forming DNA profiles, investigating soil qualities and measuring.

Through a process of drawings, photography and investigation of the building materials at RMIT he began to consider the reconstructed earth, reflecting on the great termite mounds of the northern territory.  Observing the movement of species from the north to south Geurts created a proposal of how a future biology such as the termite might evolve, migrate and adapt to the RMIT site. He generated 3D scans of the magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park NT and started a detailed fabrication process to enact this new landscape generating this hybrid form and transforming the site at RMIT.

Student engagement

Students have been engaged throughout the project, both being informed by it, and informing its development.

The project’s creative producers, Kim de Kretser and Jodi Newcombe, delivered a workshop to students in the RMIT Art in Public Space Masters. This explored the role of the creative producer and involved students in designing public outreach aspects of the project. In final phase these students will also be invited to participate in the project’s evaluation.

Geurts has additionally delivered lectures to students and teachers at the School of Art and School of Science at RMIT.


Empire of Dirt is a sculptural installation that starts with a 3D scan of a living giant termite mound; this data mesh has been reconfigured into a series of topographical layers, illuminating the connection between the material structure and the landscape. The sculpture reflects the contemporary strata of our Anthropocene era. 

 The sculpture is specifically aligned, and in dialogue with, six pre-established light-boxes, showcased by Lightscape Projects RMIT. These light-boxes include a combination of images from the site and lab based microbiological imagery, site research, archival material and drawings from the layered research process of Empire of Dirt

Artist James Geurts and RMIT Professor Andy Ball talk about the collision of art and science behind Empire of Dirt, a public installation in RMIT’s Rodda Lane.

Stakeholders involved with the project discuss Empire of Dirt and Wonderment Walk.

Behind the Scenes





Explore the New Academic Street

Launch the Interactive Map