The design experiments presented as “closed worlds” in the exhibition offer an opportunity to reflect on the planetary crisis and consequent human fears that gave rise to their invention. In the wake of the recent political decisions that largely dictate our planet’s fate, including the U.S. rejection of the Paris Agreement, China’s Ban on importing Waste, and Japan’s decision to resume whaling, how do you see younger designers reacting to these contemporary issues?
One of the main premises of the Closed Worlds exhibition and book is to argue that the history of twentieth century architecture, design, and engineering has been strongly linked to the conceptualization and production of closed systems. As partial reconstructions of the world in time and in space, closed systems identify and secure the cycling of materials necessary for the sustenance of life. As such, contemporary discussions about global warming, recycling, and sustainability have emerged as direct conceptual constructs related to the study and analysis of closed systems.
Nevertheless, I am not necessarily arguing that the study of closed systems offers solutions to a diverse range of problems related to global warming and climate change. The case studies analyzed in Closed Worlds offer insight into how existential perceptions the idea of circularity, simulating the metabolism of natural resources, has been institutionalized in sustainable policies, although in many cases it promotes an idealization of handling world resources, which is not automatically applicable to field conditions.
My relationship with the subject of my research is arguably schizoid in some ways. I am enticed by closed systems and the idea of demarcated perimeters within which new material and social worlds can evolve through self-organization; at the same time I see the idea of wholeness as a delusion that we have fostered for too long, both in theoretical speculations as well as factual constituents of practice and policy.
Your research suggests that there is a crucial relationship between waste and closed worlds, not unlike the relationship between excrement and the body. Is there an important relationship between cities and waste? What might we learn by studying the relationship between Los Angeles and the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in the Santa Monica Bay, for example, one of the largest plants in the world?
The affinity between money and shit, between capital and excrement, has been a pervasive subject of theoretical analysis, but also a factual constituent of capitalist production. Waste needs to go away; and this very process of purging, transporting and carrying into oblivion all that is worthless is utterly profitable. Future market ‘bubbles’ are prognosticated to rise from the trading of urban waste. Congested metropolitan environments like New York and Los Angeles produce massive amounts of solid waste and sewage that is then transported out of the city. The purging of this waste is invisible to our perception, yet it generates capital for those who manage and transfer the raw materials. Shit is a phantom material condition, but at the same time it is a product, or better stated a by-product, of social reality.
New York City for example, the beating heart of global finance and culture, home to more than 8.5 million people, creates an enormous amount of poo. As reporter Oliver Milman wrote in The Guardian (2018), a substantial amount of the city’s shit is expelled to Birmingham, Alabama, causing major stink methane clouds 900 miles away. The treated sewage – euphemistically known in the industry as “biosolids” – travels by a poo train to a landfill west of Birmingham causing what the locals and the mayor’s office call the “death smell.” Since the Environmental Protection Agency decided in 1988 that shit was not to be evacuated in oceans, where to put New York’s fecal matter has become a constant challenge. In Alabama, the avalanche of northern poo is part of a wider concern over the environmental risks for residents, particularly the impoverished and people of color. Further south, a landfill bordering the majority African American settlement of Uniontown contains around 4m tons of toxic coal ash and welcomes other debris from 33 states. The dismissal of the environmental concerns of Alabama residents, mostly residents of overwhelmingly African American communities, has been reported as a case of civil rights and environmental racism.
As a New York resident for the past twelve years, I am less familiar with the water sewage facilities in Los Angeles like the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in the Santa Monica Bay, the City’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility. I assume, nevertheless, that similar to New York’s Newton Creek facility the challenge of treating, maintaining and disposing billion gallons of human waste is one of the most enormous spatial and economic challenges that metropolitan areas face and a major constituent of real-estate fluctuations. Nobody wants to be close to shit, our most intimate bodily byproducts and thus the reality these facilities bring forward are extraordinarily uncanny. As the VICE documentary “You Don’t Know Shit” argues, biosolids have become a financial asset worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The trail of waste from butt to big-money biosolid and beyond is indicative of the fact that that shit and money exhibit two sides of the same coin. This is precisely the argument of Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi who wrote “The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money” in 1950, several decades before biosolids would emerge as a driving force of urban economy. Ferenczi argued that shit is ejected from the body and rejected by the psyche, whereas money is introjected by the body and accepted as a highly desired form. Nevertheless both entities derive from the same prime matter in an ongoing recycling process. Ferenczi does not view currency in the form of concrete metallic coins or paper, but rather as a disguise for a sequence of other materials that brought it into existence; in other words, shit undergoes a serial transformation assuming different material states all the way to money. In this sense, materials exist merely in stages, while they absorb qualities from their previous stages: mud is shit deodorized, sand is mud dehydrated, pebbles are sand hardened and coins are pebbles unearthed. This logic of liquefaction and transformation of materials which physically exist only in phases, as well as the logic of converting wasted matter exhibits recycling as an ideational and philosophical system of viewing the world of ideas, information and matter as flow rather than as the accumulation of discrete objects. More than a material system, recycling signals the migration of life through the conversion of one thing to another.
You have placed excrement at the center of ecological design debates. Why is shit so significant “Or, What is the Power of Shit?”
Shit forces us to look at questions of ecology viscerally, via the raw ecology of our bodies and the understanding that recycling is not simply as a statistical problem relayed to the management of urban resources, but also a basic bodily reality affecting the water and air we breathe.
The Power of Shit suggests on a first level that our unwanted, odorous and degenerate bodily product is technically powerful and worthy; shit can generate methane, meaning power, if treated properly. In this logic, the life and metabolism of living creatures may be decoded, replicated via technological instrumentality and directly transposed to industrial and design systems advocating for a full circle of life with no loss. Yet, this simplistic and frankly, false sense of holism, which has been directly applied to building systems and cities under the umbrella of integration, is not as carefree as one might think.
The production of food and power from the management of organic excrements was key to several countercultural domestic experiments of the 1970s that heralded self-reliance from the grid of urban supplies. Making food and power from shit was the ultimate aspiration, carried out through tedious, repetitive and dirty routines like sorting, composting, mixing mulch for vegetation and animal-feed crops. With these aims in mind, the space of the house was nurtured and dependent on the subtle fluctuations of materials’ phase changes and the growth of living substances. It remains a paradox that the questionable model of total circular regeneration, imbued with the vitalism of a digestive stomach, has prevailed as the mainstream model of what we now call a sustainable, net-zero habitat, opposing energy loss.
Let us not forget that more than a material, shit also indicates a general stage of incoherency, degeneration and malevolence. It indicates a stage where information is so finely grained and scattered that it cannot form bonds identifiable patterns. In the “shit” stage, information is so unrefined and randomly grained that it is “interrelational loss” or in-cohesion between bits and particles that defines the degenerate condition of the shit stage.
For all respects and purposes, to write a counter history to optimized circular economies in material conversions, one perhaps needs to look at shit. Only through this raw confrontation may the ecology of life be somehow useful. We need to investigate, monitor, and document the strangeness of the real, to invent an architecture completely devoted to the problems of the real but not one that is unaware of its uncertainty and complexity. Shit engulfs our existence in more ways that we want to observe and acknowledge. It is not about constructing fictions and fantasies but about closely observing, conducting forensic analysis, asking questions, and instrumentalizing our findings in a creative way. Possibly shit is our only way out.
Exhibition showing through Sunday, April 3, 2019 at WUHO Gallery in Hollywood.
Explore and purchase your copy of The Architecture of Closed Worlds, Or What is the Power of Shit here.