Too many vessels to count at Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works where Edinburgh-based Tonya McMullan is exploring ecological cycles and waste and water and nature, as well as the unexpected growth of tomatoes. Repel and attract, her drawing tour of Seafield Water Waste Treatment Plant was part of this year’s Art Walk Projects programme, Vessel: the ‘Extended’ part happening after the main Art Walk Porty Festival.
[How to extend a vessel? Is it with a push or a pull? Perhaps both, simultaneously.]
McMullan tells me that some people call Seafield a water treatment plant; all fresh and clean, brilliant. She also says some people call Seafield a sewage treatment plant; all dirty and heavy and a reminder of just how wasteful we really are. Together, these descriptions form the reality. Clean and dirty and a brilliant reminder of just how wasteful we really are.
On arrival—before PPE and sewage and sludge—there is tea. Hot and sweet. Water, soon to be waste, my waste. Gorgeous. Gross.
[A daily practice shifts itself when displaced to Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works. A daily practice extends itself when displaced and then un-displaced and repeated the next morning.]
Seafield is run by Veiola. The company treats Edinburgh’s waste water for approximately 850,000 people. From 2025 it’s likely to be run by Scottish Water. At the beginning of our tour, we watch two videos, one enacting health and safety instructions, the other Veiola’s mission statement. Words like ‘ecological transformation’ are entwined with hands running over soil, grass, grains, earth. Easy to get lost in the rolling sunlit images.
[There is a photo on the Art Walk Porty Instagram of ‘Film night on the Prom!’, part of the main AWP Festival. But here, the digital is an extension of sorts also. The big sky is a sinking blue under grey clouds, the screen is the side of a building and it is a blue into creamy yellow sky, with hot red clouds. The film is Ruth Barrie and Juliana Capes’s Be Different Today, I am sure. They are the same sky because there is only one and it is simply a cycle. I like how the big sky holds the screen sky but that they are both screened and contained now in an Instagram square.]
Too many vessels to count at Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works. A big skip contains the cycle-less and it stinks—condoms, wipes, tampons, pads, toothpicks.
Wide round concrete structures built into ground fill with water. Fats collect on top. Sludge gathers on the bottom and is biological waste. Untreated-unfat-unsludge water goes onwards for further treatment.
Long pools of bubbling negative buoyancy water require a ladder climb to view—danger signage—you will sink.
Further on, more micro-organisms continue to eat all the bad stuff in three big purple cylinders.
McMullan stops and invites us to draw. I draw pipes. I like their curve into straightness.
[They extend each vessel, stretching between each, so it is all just one vessel, really. There is an exhibition at mote102, starting this week, featuring four of the VESSEL residency artists—artist collective Huniti Goldox, Tonya McMullan, Jenny Pope, Claudia Zeiske. At the end of the tour, Tonya takes our drawings to make them part of the exhibition, another section of Art Walk Extended.]
Water and waste hums and rushes. Metal moans, creaks, sometimes tins. Beyond the pipes, machines, vats, fences there is the sea. The water could be treated, fully purified, but is not because it is too expensive. Instead it is sent out to sea, safe but not quite safe enough to drink. Recycled only so far.
[Another AWP Instagram shows sandcastles and waves from the main Festival last weekend, or the weekend before that (it happens over two weekends). I swipe through the images, the carousel, and then back again, and it is almost a cycle but not quite.]
We come across tomatoes, of course. Undigested tomato seeds evading the process, are picked up by seagulls before returning to the earth in cracks between concrete. And then they bloom. In the third weekend of September, the tomatoes are green and shiny. I wonder whether I would eat the tomatoes. I got angry with myself for questioning that because manure and compost is probably used to grow just about all the fruit, vegetables and grains I eat, and we all produce waste, anyway. I imagine myself eating one of the tomatoes. Sometimes it bursts into hot sewage, thick in my mouth. Other times it bursts into water, slightly salted.
[The title of another of Tonya’s Art Walk Extended events: Conversing with Tomatoes. Tonya speaks with wild chef Judith Lamb. In continuing conversing with tomatoes, I will not offend them with talks of alternate bursting possibilities.]
Sludge is treated further and they call it cake. It is crumbled at the bottom of a tupperware tube and passed around. We sniff. Ammonium and potential and not so dirty, this cake. It can be used as fertiliser but only for non-foodstuffs legally, right now.
[On 5 October, Craigentinny Telferton Allotments with artists Felicity Bristow and Susie Wilson, will launch From Plot to Plate, their recipe book. The cake is From Plot to Plate to Waste to Plate-named to Plot, again. Art Walk Extended extends itself again.]
[I try to extend the Extended idea of a vessel as an exercise, an imagining.]
Is a clinging smell—neither a stench nor a perfume, but something simply unfamiliar that you cannot quite evade despite hand sanitiser and a returning bus journey—a vessel? Perhaps it is just an extension of a morning in the third weekend of September.
Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works is often called by its acronym SWwTW and I wonder why the second w is uncapitalised. Surely that is the most important part.
[A vessel that can extend itself may also reduce itself. A limited cycle, unlike tomatoes and water.]
Eilidh Akilade is a writer based in Glasgow.
The Art Walk Extended Programme can be found here.