Isabel 3 Murray Morrant Art Walk Porty 2023 Photo Jon Davey
Murray Morrant, ‘Stool to Stool’. Photo: Jon Davey

What do earthen toilets, virtual water clocks, and bodies performing walking scores have in common? That is what I, an environmental humanities scholar, wondered when I was commissioned to write this piece. As it happens, they have much more in common that one might think, challenging traditional notions of space and time, exposing tacit cultural norms, and rejecting neoliberal and individualistic depictions of the world, offering decolonial perspectives instead. They all happen to be vessels of past and modern times that speak to, while actively challenging, our current socio-environmental crisis. Come along, and see for yourselves.

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Which objects would we place in an imaginary museum of waste-water? Building on his previous project A Gallery of WasteWater, Murray Morrant reflects upon this question through his artwork Stool to Stool. The work consists of a brown, coarse toilet made of straw, sediment from Figgate Burn, and sand from the beach in Portobello, placed on top of a white-tiled base. The accompanying booklet presents multiple depictions of contemporary toilets: slightly different varieties of an aesthetically simple, uniformly white, aseptic, bright pottery vessel of sorts, with a quite standardised shape that many human beings would immediately recognise as a device with a flushing system for getting rid of body wastes, meant for individual use and to be placed in an enclosed space. The illusion of individuality and privacy surrounded by an aura of asepsis and sterility is precisely what is challenged by Morrant’s piece. His artwork goes beyond what is replicated, the toilet, and into what is invisibilised: the networks around the materiality of the object and the waste it disposes of.

As all other animals, humans excrete their body waste but, in contrast to the rest of the animal kingdom, for many human cultures nowadays the ‘civilised’ way of doing so is inside a very specific vessel-shaped object and, most importantly, in private. Matt Barlow has a piece in the CASTAC Blog reflecting on the toilet paper crisis during COVID and how the way in which societies manage waste is intimately related to collective subjectivities. Since the 16th century in Europe, he writes, the ‘domestication of waste became part of a process of distinguishing ones [sic] status in hierarchies of civility.’ As a consequence of these hierarchies, plenty of (neo)colonial narratives are appalled at the sight of other human beings defecating in public. This, in turn, has often led to the imposition of practices that Warwick Anderson has termed ‘excremental colonialism. A ubiquitous device that numerous societies now take for granted, the toilet happens to be closely tied to site-specific socio-economic realities, power structures, and infrastructural development: it is not just that not everyone can afford a toilet, but that toilets require complex infrastructures that in turn require costly public investments. On top of this, we should keep in mind that not everyone has running water at home (or a home) to flush a toilet, and that some people might just feel comfortable defecating in the open. Barlow provides a good example with the failed 2014 Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign. Millions of toilets (some without running water) built across a country with a caste system that does not allow certain people access to sanitation.

Toilets moreover have a gender dimension, leading women in patriarchal societies (and certain social classes) to ‘powder their noses’ and more generally just pretend they do not excrete any kind of waste lest they taint their immaculate femininity. As Franzisca Neumann notes, Isaac Cruikshank already played with this notion in his 1799 print Indecency, in which he depicts a prostitute urinating in public, conflating a moral critique of what women should not be with a social critique of what they should not do.

For some, the toilet seems a magic portal that disposes of nasty waste and odours efficiently and effortlessly. It just makes them disappear, or so we want to believe. But toilets are in fact tied to gender, and race, if we think of those (underpaid) people most often (precariously) hired to clean them, both in public and private spaces (homes, train stations or offices). The reflection of (tired) brown and black faces of (maybe migrant, undocumented) women stares back at us, as in Cherríe Moraga’s poem, Half-Breed:

the difference between you and me
is as I bent
over strangers’ toilet bowls,
the face that glared back at me
in those sedentary waters
was not my own, but my mother’s
brown head floating in a pool
of crystalline whiteness
she taught me how to clean
to get down on my hands and knees
and scrub, not beg
she taught me how to clean,
not live in this body
my reflection has always been
once removed.

This is not to deny the practical and hygienic function of the contemporary toilet, and the usefulness of a private space to keep bad odours at bay, but rather to stress the numerous cultural implications of such a device, as it is currently conceptualised.

Morrant’s artwork brings to the surface yet another dimension that is largely and meticulously hidden, the environmental impact of our body waste as it is transported through waste-water networks. Networks that connect toilets and our daily bodily needs (stool to stool) with advanced facilities and large bodies of water such as the sea, where waste-water treatment works such as Seafield, in Leith, end up disposing the processed but not-quite-clean water that results from the handling of our body wastes. Morrant’s project moreover questions the idea of waste itself. Through our conversations I learned that Leith’s plant turns human waste into enough biogas to power part of the plant (and even to send some energy back to the grid), as well as high quality fertiliser from the sludge, known as ‘cake’, generated by the plant. Our nasty waste, while wasting fresh water, is eventually turned into a valuable asset.

As part of his project, Morrant also transformed Portobello’s beach into an improvised sculpting studio and open-air exhibition space. Through a performative workshop, passers-by were invited to contribute by making their own toilet-shaped sculptures out of sand, while collectively reflecting upon their personal contribution to communal waste and the broader connection between consumption, consumerism, waste, and pollution. Built on the shore of an area that used to mass produce ceramic toilets, the handcrafted sand toilets became ephemeral testimonies of Portobello’s history and development, as well as of our environmental impact, ultimately flushed away by the tide, into the same waters that receive the processed waters from Edinburgh citizens’ toilets but, this time, leaving no discernible material traces.

Morrant’s intention of making invisible connections and infrastructures strikingly apparent is shared by the contemporary virtual re-enactment of a water clock and the installation developed by artist collective Huniti Goldox in their project Measuring Times through the Fall of Water. Picture yourself inside a quiet dark room with a wall-mounted screen to the left of the entrance door, and a projection on the adjacent wall, to the right. The screen, rotated to vertical, shows lush plants growing in and around a water clock, in an otherwise blue environment full of mineral, vegetal, and animal forms. The imaginative composition presents a hybrid world, where organic and mechanical entities intersect in sinuous shapes. It all might feel a bit too abstract at first, as it did to me, but the video installation acts as a manual that offers cues to understand and transcend the meaning of the virtual clock. The texts do not escape the watery fantasy. Water drops continuously trickling, rippling the screen, blurring the words, making them transient messages in liquid platforms, subverting the traditional perception of written words as enduring inscriptions. A piece of text describes the movement of water through the clock as both a silent dialogue and a journey. The dialogue transcends Western understandings of communicative processes and opens the door to alternative forms of communication. Additionally, the idea of the journey assigns intentionality, and therefore a certain agency to the water, giving it a destination to reach, a goal to achieve.

Huniti Goldox are drawn to ancient water clocks for their role in time-keeping, rather than just time-measuring. Such instruments were moreover often decorated with birds. In reconceptualising this technology, Huniti Goldox use, as a marker of time, the figurine of a kingfisher (or eisvogel, for they use the German term in their work, literally meaning ‘ice bird’), a bird of rivers and streams—currently endangered in some parts of the world. Their water clock becomes an ecosystem, constantly evolving while enhancing the existence of multiple life forms. The clock’s functioning, according to the artists, is based on the interconnectedness of the natural elements, which mirror the elements used in the clock. This interconnectivity, together with the rejection of clocks as mere measuring artifacts, is intended to contrast with and challenge the current capitalist logic of accumulation.

The clock’s hybridity and the narrative woven around it in the video installation and the accompanying booklet embrace plentiful historical periods, cultural dimensions and geographical locations. Water clocks from Ancient Egypt and the Islamic Golden Age depicted in the booklet contrast with the virtual clock on the screen, while images of arid regions alternate with a mention to the Pleiße river in Germany and the star Suhail (or Canopus)—a primary navigational star, especially in the southern hemisphere where it is most visible, marking the end of the summer in Arab cultures, and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular—the physical and the astral planes also connected through the flow of water.

Isabel 4 Huniti Goldox Measuring time by the fall of water Art Walk Porty 2023 photo Sally Jubb
Huniti Goldox, ‘Measuring time by the fall of water’, installation, 2023. Photo: Sally Jubb

Vessels in this project once again become parts of infrastructures that connect different bodies of water ‘echoing the cycle of water’s journey from the equatorian [sic] lake to the sea’, as their text reads, reminding the viewers of the complexity of the cycle and the constant human interventions in it. The video installation alternates black backgrounds with images of arid landscapes that call to mind the fact that water, with its crucial role in making life as we know it possible, is one of the most precious substances in our planet, and as such it was one of the classical, metaphysical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and in the Hindu system Panchamahabhuta, and a core phase, one of the ever-changing material forces, in the Chinese cosmological and physiological system Wu Xing. Numerous contemporary cultures around the world, suffering from (neo)colonial impositions, are well aware of this, as the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice clearly shows. The New Mexico Acequia Association’s motto ‘el agua es vida’ (water is life) is a popular proverb in the semiarid US Southwest, where the Anglo-American water management system was imposed when the United States annexed the region, initiating a slow violence that lasts up to this day. The same motto, ‘Mní Wičóni’, has been used by the people of Standing Rock to oppose the construction of The Dakota Access Pipeline. In Honduras, Lenca leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead at her home in 2016 for opposing the construction of a mega dam; in central Africa, Lake Chad keeps drying up due to the combined effects of climate change and overuse; and in Gujarat, India, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Valley) movement struggles against the degradation and displacement caused by the construction of mega-dams such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Huniti Goldox’s water clock forewarns us of the little time we have left to realise how much is at stake, while reminding us of the cultural impositions and power structures that currently shape the flow of water around the planet.

Time is of the essence, but urgency is not the only answer. The environmental humanities remind us that there are numerous temporalities implied in the present crisis, from the immediate and the long-term impacts of our actions, to what is known as the ‘longue durée’—the historical perspective that extends well beyond human history to consider events, such as planetary changes, that occur so slowly as to be imperceptible to humans. This is something I reflected upon as I performed the walking scores facilitated by Lucas Priest and his School of Pedestrian Culture. Scores, according to Pablo Helguera, can be defined as ‘a predetermined series of physical, verbal, or musical actions conceived by an artist and meant to be reinterpreted’ and are therefore loaded with performative power. If the previous artworks raise awareness about human impact on the planet at large scales, Priest’s project makes us notice the everyday details of urban spaces we often ignore. According to The School of Pedestrian Culture Manifesto it ‘practice[s] playful pedestrianism as a political act, disturbing dominant narratives of space and place.’ Want to have a go at it? Grab some people and come along.

  1. Let’s start, as Lucas did when I participated in one of his walking performances, by adapting the walking score, La-la-la Walk, by Stephen Chase: go outside, choose a quiet, dull place, such as an alley or a back street, now start walking up and down, alternating between paying full attention to the sounds and views around you and, covering your ears to block any outer sounds, repeat the process for a while. What do you (not) hear? At Portobello, I remember hearing crows caw, cars go by, the footsteps of those walking around me, the air rattling the leaves, distant chatter and laughter, but above all I remember the sound of the waves. Each time I covered my ears I felt more and more anxious and I craved for the waves to rock me again. Sounds that I had taken for granted minutes ago suddenly seemed essential. Interestingly enough, when other participants shared their experience, they claimed to have felt overwhelmed by the noise when they uncovered their ears, wanting to go back to the quietude of silence.
  2. Staying outside, look for something you would like to touch but DO NOT TOUCH IT. Just a take a picture of it. This is what Alisa Oleva proposes in her walking score, Touching with your eyes. Now ask yourself, as one of the participants suggested: Would you even think of touching it if it were not for this exercise? Do you normally feel like touching random objects or surfaces in the urban landscape in your daily life?
Isabel 5 Lucas Priest School of Pedestrian Culture Art Walk Porty 2023 Photo Jon Davey
Lucas Priest, ‘School of Pedestrian Culture’, 2023. Photo: Jon Davey

The richness of the practice stemmed both from the personal and the collective experience. Community is key in Priest’s project. Defining himself as a facilitator, his project is a kaleidoscope composed by different artists’ scores that lead the participants into the realm of psychogeography, or the exploration of how a certain location can affect our emotions or behaviour.

Priest’s project is a performative experience, where the body becomes a vessel of sorts navigating the urban landscape. But instead of behaving as it often does, this time the body subverts the urban space and the commodification of public spaces—and of art. The work blurs artistic authorship and takes artistic practice ‘out there’, to be produced and experienced by anyone who feels inclined, ultimately challenging the notion of art itself, following Allan Kaprow’s invitation from his lecture ‘How to make a Happening’. Participants are invited to engage with the urban outdoors in unusual, non-transactional ways. Doing so in a group reminded me what being engaged in the climate struggle often feels like: the environmentalist killjoy, who might make others feel uncomfortable just by her daily choices and actions. It all certainly feels better, and makes more sense, when you have a community that shares the experience with you. Walking the urban space, paying attention to different aspects (from living creatures to built spaces and litter, from sounds to smells) that one might ignore or simply take for granted on a regular basis, can make one realise how important it is to take some time and reconnect with our surroundings. Urgency is necessary, but so is the time to ponder, process, acknowledge, reconnect, value… that enables change. The socio-environmental crisis is a global crisis that needs to be drastically and urgently addressed, but it might make more sense when you realise that what is ultimately at stake for many of us are the things we take for granted in our daily lives.

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The first image that came to my mind when I first thought of vessels in the context of this project, before seeing any of the artworks at the festival, was cargo ships from the Global North sending waste to the Global South (quite logically, I guess, provided my current research project at IASH is on narratives of wasting). Those vessels, polluting the waters while moving waste around the globe, show the dark side of globalisation, the one many people are unaware of and that is exposed in documentaries such as Jiu-Liang Wang’s Plastic China and books such as Simon Müller’s The Toxic Ship: The Voyage of the Khian Sea and the Global Waste Trade. From sailing crafts to travel to far off places and establish commerce and promote cultural exchange, to colonising, (neo)imperial boats of all sorts, vessels of different times and shapes connect the world, often in unequal ways.

Through different conceptualisations of the vessel, Murray Morrant, Huniti Goldox, and Lucas Priest’s artworks similarly unveil invisibilised connections and power structures that impose a certain order (and value) on the world. They moreover call attention to collective responsibility and impact on the planet at a time of climate anxiety and paralysis, when it is easier to turn a blind eye and fall into an ‘implicatory’ denial, simply carrying on with life as if climate change were not happening, than to confront the widespread global crisis, as Kari Marie Norgaard explores in Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and the Everyday Life. Through performative practices and suggestive provocations, they nonetheless remind us that this a collective struggle, and that building human and multispecies coalitions will better equip us to confront the problems. There is hope, if we only manage to see the world with new eyes, as these artworks invite us to do.

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Isabel Pérez-Ramos is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow in English Studies and Environmental Humanities at the University of Oviedo, Spain (grant RYC2021-031353-I funded by MCIN/AEI/ 10.13039/501100011033 and by ‘European Union NextGenerationEU/PRTR’), and a Visiting Research Fellow at IASH (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh; September-December 2023).

Her research interests include narrative representations of environmental injustices, mainly in Chicanx and US Southwestern literature and culture, as well as climate and dystopian fiction. She is part of the research project ‘World Travelling: Narratives of Solidarity and Coalition in Contemporary Writing and Performance’, attached to the University of Oviedo. She has co-edited the bilingual volume Transatlantic Environmental Humanities/Humanidades Ambientales desde una Perspectiva Transatlántica (UAH 2021), is on the advisory board of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) and is book review editor of the journal Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment. (PID2021-127052OB-I00, funded by MCIN/ AEI /10.13039/501100011033/ and by ERDF A way of making Europe)

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Huniti Goldox, ‘Measuring Times through the Fall of Water’, was shown at mote102, Leith, as part of Art Walk Porty’s Vessel exhibition, 21 to 27 September, 2023.

Art Walk Projects is an artist-led organisation working collaboratively with artists, communities & audiences to create social place-centred projects & residencies based around Portobello and Edinburgh’s north eastern coast. We produce and deliver an annual contemporary arts festival ‘Art Walk Porty’ that entwines the local with the further afield, concentrated around a series of public realm curated works, and the celebration of the local creative community of Portobello.

www.artwalkporty.co.uk/
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