BODIES OF WATER, BODIES OF WASTE, CONTINUOUS BODIES

13 01 2009

by BOO CHAPPLE

In this paper I will be discussing work that has been developed in the context of the Biospatial Project, an interdisciplinary design education initiative at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. The project is directed by Pia Ednie-Brown and brings together students from Architecture, Fashion Design and Environmental Science around issues of sustainability, with the key tenet being that sustainability should not necessarily invoke a sense of holding onto things as they are, but rather, a more thorough engagement with the poetics and politics of material transformation. My official role in the project has been ‘Artist in Residence’, which over the course of the year has taken a number of different forms. The initial focus, when the project began in March, was on developing my own work, Bodies of Water, the emphasis shifted for a time onto playing ‘agent provocateur’ and mentor to student projects, and as the project gained momentum, I found myself operating as an ‘interdisciplinary translator’, facilitating communication between the science and design disciplines. As the year draws nearer to the end, Bodies of Water has differentiated in response to these environmental pressures and bred with several of the student projects to make up a family of related speculations. In order to capture something of this process I will begin by discussing my original framework before drawing in some student work and then moving on to outline some possible futures.

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BODIES OF WATER

Oceans, lakes, rivers, aquifers, cities, nations states and living organisms. Bodies of water are both systems in themselves and points of accumulation in the course of larger cycles. How these systems and cycles inter-relate has been and will continue to be of critical importance to the existence of all living collectives. Cities have been established and shaped according to the proximity, availability, and transport of water. Wars have been and continue to be fought over it. Living organisms cannot, for the most part, survive without it. As the global balance tips closer to the extreme environmentally, the politics of water intensify. In Australia, water is scarse and becoming scarser, with emergency water restrictions in place in Melbourne last summer that had the whole city return to its native state of dry brown. Meanwhile, in Queensland, towns people voted against a sewage recycling scheme despite suffering water shortages so extreme that their town faced imminent closure. 

Bodies of Water was conceived of as a series of speculative projects to explore both the material relationship of our animal body of water to larger environmental and political bodies and to probe the ambivalent, yet metaphorically potent, relationship which we hold to the messy nature of our wet physicality. The first stage of this work is Autologous: Pure survival, which investigates various means of collecting and recycling water excreted from the body in the form of urine, breath and sweat. The second part of the work, Autologous: Alchemy for a global economy, which is still in the research phase, involves implementing a process for extracting and ‘enterprising-up’ metabolic by-products and pharmaceuticals extracted from one’s own urine.

When I began to think about undertaking the RMIT residency, one of my aims was to engage the Fashion Design students in reconsidering the material functionality of clothing. Accordingly, prototypes for Autologous: Pure survival were designed to encourage an approach to clothing as something that interfaces with the metabolic, temporal processes of the body, rather than something that merely fits with and follows the contours of its external surface. These are similar concerns to those currently being addressed in the area of wearable technologies, but rather than ‘jacking into the network’, in this case, we are tapping into the flow. In contrast to the Gibsonesque aesthetics of many wearables, the speculative prototypes designed so far deal with material transformations in a very low-tech manner. Indeed, it could be said that they draw on an entirely different sci-fi heritage. While the world in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is one of hacked-up cybertnetic bodies, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune  takes place on a completely desertified planet whose indigenous inhabitants survive by wearing suits designed to capture and recycle all bodily moisture.

Some early models:

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Breath Catchers: Designed to condense exhaled moisture and then catch the drips. For use in mild to moderate conditions. Drips can be consumed directly from the collector buckets or added to your water bottle for future use. Now availble for nostril sizes Extra Small to Extra Large.

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P-Hydrate – Why Wait!: Self-directed rehydration technology designed for those times when you just can’t wait. Comes with easily detatchable activated carbon filter for a choice between flavour control or pharmaceutical feedback. This product allows for concerned individuals to minimise their environmental impact and save on medication at the same time! /1/  

Although the viewer may initially be drawn in by the humourous nature of these models, the intentionally ridiculous nature of their presentation leads on to a more nuanced contemplation of the relationship between cycles of production and consumption, our bodies and our world. The obviously untenable nature of the proposed systems, reinforces the fact that, when it comes to survival, we are very much dependant on the functioning of our environment. By referencing the flow through of pharmaceutical waste, P-Hydrate constructs the body as a key material-economic nexus in the water cycle, and draws attention to the necessary relationship between what we chose to consume and the politics of what we excrete.

BODIES OF WASTE

In the first semester of the Australian teaching year, the Biospatial Project Director, Pia Ednie-Brown, ran a theory seminar called Contaminated Life. One of the key themes of the seminar was waste and how it can be productively transformed. In response to this, my work began to broaden out from the early models into an investigation of the relationship between this waste and other living systems. For example, experiments with the nutritive potential of urine were extended to incorporate vegetable matter into the loop….

 

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Feedback /2/ 

… and new forms of bodily waste were drawn into the work.

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Bag It

With greenhouse gas emmissions currently one of the most talked about forms of human waste, I began to consider the fact that we actually produce CO2 as a by-product of our metabolism all the time. Given this, I started to collect my breath in garbage bags and went on to design some wearable prototypes for individuals suffering from extreme ‘carbon guilt’.

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Then to incorporate plant systems once again, I have begun to experiment with embedding seeds into plastic film (evaporated agar-agar). The eventual aim of this research is to create bags that will use both the exhaled CO2 and moisture from the breath to grow plants in a wearable carbon offset scheme.

Meanwhile one of the student projects that I like the most is this new line of ribbed condoms by Jen Woods, which has been designed to take advantage of the moisture content and nutritive qualities of waste semen.

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With Jen’s permission, I have just recently initiated some experiments to test the potential of this beautifully poetic speculation.

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Spread Your Seed

Like the first two models, all of these works are threaded through with laughter. To laugh, to release, to draw open the gaps, and to seriously consider the nature of how things come together again. But just as there is laughter, there is also recoil. To spring back repelled from the promiscuous passage between body and world, from the brutality of transformation, from the inevitable processes of degeneration and reconstitution. Our relationship to our own waste is never neutral. In Eroticism, Georges Bataille draws bodily waste into correspondance with the taboo domains of sexuality and reproduction through their mutual connection to death – the violent transition from discontinous to continuous being. (Bataille: p16-17)

“Mankind (sic) conspires to ignore the fact that death is also the youth of things. … Life is a swelling tumult continuously on the verge of explosion. But since the incessant explosion constantly exhausts its resources, it can only proceed under one condition: that beings given life whose explosive force is exhausted shall make room for fresh beings coming into the cycle with renewed vigour.” (ibid: p59)

Both sexuality and excreta represent aspects of this continuity between life and world that are manifest, before death, in the course of living. For Bataille, physical eroticism derives its power from “violation bordering on death” (p17) and excreta foreshadows the decay of the body after death (p58). Sex and excretion are acts that tamper with the boundary conditions of the modernist individual, they offer momentary release from the pressure to be discrete.

CONTINUOUS BODIES

Perhaps it could be said that what I am aiming for in this work is indiscretion. Just as Bataille proposes a dissolute life to be one which erotically pursues the “partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity” (Bataille: p17), I propose that an indiscrete life is one which pursues excreta through continuous transformation. In this pursuit many secrets are revealed: It is not only the cycles of life and matter, but also the economic and metaphoric relations of production, consumption and pollution, that can be traced by trawling through the excrement.

“Bourgeois political economy transforms origins into a tabula rasa by inventing a discourse of temporality in which it becomes possible to claim: ‘ I was never born.’ By elevating bodies and objects (in the form of products) to the status of signs, it places them in a translucent state; the very light that penetrates them blurs their contours, renders them opaque and tasteless, luminous and free of smell.” (Laporte: p79-80)

By trawling through the excrement, by following your nose, the reek of money can be traced through bodies and out into the global economy, the poetics of birth and the politics of a life in relation unfold. Of course there is a great deal of anxiety involved in embracing ones indiscretions. This anxiety is explored, and satirised, in the waste containment strategies of the Breath Catchers, P-Hydrate and Bag It, whereas with Feedback, Spread Your Seed  and  the next stage of the research Autologous: Alchemy for a Global Economy, we break though the inhibitions into a more active engagement with continuity.

The reason that Jen Woods’ condom sprouter speculation is so powerful, is that it so clearly draws together the domains of  reproduction and bodily waste. In doing so, it taps deep into the rich substance of metaphor, ritual and taboo surrounding the transitory states of life, death and generation. One potent myth arising from the alchemical traditions of the European middle ages concerns the special powers of a mandrake plant which grows from the ejaculate of a hanged man. The original meaning of the word pollution is “c.1340, ‘discharge of semen other than during sex’” (Harper). More recently, assisted reproductive technologies, mechanisms of genetic surveillance and the spread of sexually transmitted disease, place semen clearly within structures designed to continuously manage life. To indiscretely pursue the transformations required of Spread Your Seed brings many of these connections to the fore.  Thus, perhaps unsurpisingly, one of the most interesting aspects of the Spread Your Seed  experiments so far, has been the search for a donor. While most people regard used condoms as abject waste to be hastily disposed of, it seems that they remain invested with too much generative potential to be handed over to  single woman for an art project…

As its title would suggest, the next phase of the Bodies of Water  work, Autologous:Alchemy for a Global Economy, also draws upon the alchemical tradition: Due to its colour, urine was considered by the alchemists to be an important element in the quest for gold. In the coming year, I undertake to pursue this objective – the transformation of urine into gold –  and that of an indiscrete life in quite literal terms. While in P-Hydrate, harmaceutical by-products in urine, in Autologous:Alchemy for a Global Economy I intend to make use of these by-products, along with the endogenous constituents of urine, in a self-pharming scheme. Using electrodialysis and membrane filtration technology, excreted pharmaceuticals will be extracted and offered up for re-sale – either back to the pharmaceutical companies themselves, or at secondhand prices to concerned consumers. The urea content of the urine will be used in the manufacture of handmade cosmetics. In the long run, I hope to develop an affordable system that can be used by others in DIY self-pharming initiatives. This is sustainable agriculture for the new world order, designed to indiscretely reveal the material flow of economy through bodies and environment. By pursuing the transformation of excreta it operates to situate the consumer in a continuously ethical relationship with their material, economic and living surrounds.

Bodies of Water  continues through the generous assistance of Arts Victoria.

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References

Bataille, Georges (1962). Eroticism. London: Penguin

Escher, B. I. And Lienert J. (2007). Can NoMix Help to Prevent Environmental Problems Caused by Medicines? Ewag News, Vol 63e/March, pp23-25. Dübendorf, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology

Escher, B. I. and Pronk W. et al (2006). Monitoring the Removal Efficiency of Pharmaceuticals and Hormones in Different Treatment Processes of Source-Separated Urine with Bioassays, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, Washington, DC: American Chemical Society

Harper, Douglas (2001) Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved August 10, 2007, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pollution

Gibson, Willliam (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Berkley Publishing Group

Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune.  New York: Berkley Publishing Group

Laporte, Dominique (2000). History of Shit. Trans. Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury. Cambridge, Massachussets: MIT and Documents Magazine Inc.


 /1/ “Although the variation among individual medicines is extremely wide, an average of 64% (standard deviation ±27%) of a substance ingested is excreted in the urine.” (Escher, 2007: p24) Excreted pharmaceuticals are known to be detrimental to aquatic ecosystems.

 /2/ Since undertaking these experiments I have become aware of a similar project,  N=1=NPK=KIMCHI=N,  by artist Jae Rhim Lee, in which she grew kim chi cabbage in a hydroponic system fed with her own urine and then served the cabbage up in the gallery.

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