Bowel media, Ian Haig, 2005
(Notes on art, the body, toilets and technology)
We live in our brains, it is only through the physical acts of shiting do we emerge as truly human, we are transformed into physical beings, our true animalistic selves, reminded of our machines that are called our bodies. It therefore makes sense that art be concerned with toilets and its related activities, as this represents what it truly means to be human and if one definition of contemporary art is to hold a mirror up to the society of the spectacle, toilets are one of the great assemblages of technology, the body and the human psyche.
Humanism aside however I want to chart in this paper some of the more lateral relationships one has with technology on a daily basis in the form of the toilet, in addition exploring the role of the toilet in art. The repository of low culture, the toilet is literally beneath us, the signifier of all that base level. It is this notion of the toilet as ubiquitous everyday banal reality that makes it even more intriguing as a technological system. The toilet is simply technology we don’t think about, it is technology that has become naturalised, invisible in its commonplace banality. Even though everyone uses the toilet on a regular basis and is intimately familiar with it’s workings, the toilet is rendered invisible as that unspoken object.
The toilet becomes a metaphor of the human body and psyche, seemingly clean and normal on the exterior but harbouring all manner of bacteria and pathologies within. The gleaming porcelain exterior of the toilet bowl and bathroom accoutrements, harbouring a filthy decay bubbling beneath its pristine surface relates to what Artist Mike Kelley has spoken of concerning the aesthetics of Ufology. The notion of the utopian fixation of the exterior of the flying saucer paired with a monstrous form of abject elements within, or as he describes it ‘A meeting of high tech fetishism and symbolic body loathing’ 1
Kelley goes on to discuss the “formless” and ambiguous qualities of the alien, often depicted in the 1950′s as a slimy not of the this earth blob, it is this association with the abject as formless blob, different from our own earthly skeletal forms. Further it extends to the alien qualities of the toilet experience. Diarrhea is a sign not only of our own internal pathologies, but an abject signifier of that which is alien within us. Our bodies as fecal storage houses for millions of alien species of micro organisms, where like the “thing” in John Carpenters The Thing (1982) the true alien is not an other but ourselves.
Toilet Technology and the body
The toilet is a form of technology that is also a site of transformation, Particularly between the act of elimination and sexuality. Whereby the anus and genitalia are transformed from sexual orifices into elimination orifices, the pleasure of sex and the pleasure of shitting become interchangeable. The notion of transformation is also seen in feces once they leave the body they are instantly transformed into abject material, but strangely within the body, they are seen as part of our body and they loose their abject signification. With each bowel movement we loose part of ourselves in the process, each turd brings us a little bit closer to death. The idea of toilet flushing, transforms the abject contents of the toilet into literally nothing, like it never existed. Flushing takes on magical connotations of a technology that can literally make things disappear out of ones lives, never to be spoken of again. To eradicate forms of physical matter we have the equivalent of a science fiction matter transportation device in the form of the toilet. In this sense the toilet is a schizophrenic technology, changing into multiple functions and uses as it reveals itself to be seemingly more then its parts.
Our relationship to the toilet as an abject one can also be extended to a deeper dimension, of a denial of the toilet, a denial of shitting, in the same way that in the US, one refers to the toilet as the bathroom, in itself an unconscious puritanical denial of the act of shitting. This denial of shit, I believe is largely based on the reminder of shitting as a connection to the organic world, a reminder of our own inevitable decay and decompision, for what is shit ? but rotting organic matter, what we shall one day all become, the denial of shit becomes the denial of death, in this sense the toilet reminds us yet again of our own mortality, of our own humanness, probably more so then any other form of technology.
Our technological relationship to the toilet is a that of a cybernetic one, Our bowels are an interface, a sensory organ that provides a form of contact with an ever diminishing organic world. The toilet a technological extension of our digestive system, a device specifically designed to function as a machine for extending our bodies, with plumbing yet again being a further extension. The intestinal network of pipes and sewerage running beneath our cities are conduits not only of bodily waste, but bodily information. Like the World Wide Web, the modern sewerage system is an earlier technological marvel of disembodied transference of information.
As Sir Arbuthnot Lane a surgeon from the early 20 th century has suggested, “The human digestive tract is the biological equivalent of the household drainage system, the stomach the body’s toilet bowel, the duodenum the toilet trap, the small intestine the drainpipe, and the large bowel the cesspool” 2 In this sense the human body is indeed a form of plumbing, shit literally a technological by-product of our bodies.
A more lateral relationship to the toilet can be extended to the notion of media, and certainly shit can be defined as form of abject media, that is media as a delivery agent for putrefaction and decomposition of harmful and putrid microbes, shit as a form of distributed abject media, viral in its delivery of disease. Perhaps bowel media reaches its closest relation to the notion of bandwidth, constipation becomes an apt metaphor of the slow, sluggish network connection and diarreah for fast unlimited downloads. The entire idea of the body machine is amplified with the experience of using the toilet, our bodies are transformed into portable hard drives: storage units for fecal matter.
Excelsior 3000: bowel technology project and The Dirt Factory
Some of my own installation projects have given voice to these ideas, in particular the technological paradigm of the body and its relationship to the toilet and the notion of the toilet as technology of transformation. Excelsior 3000 bowel Technology Project (2001) heavily influenced from Japanese super toilets, Excelsior 3000 extended the notion of technology colliding with the bowel, a futuristic utopian device to aid elimination, with video and audio functioning as simple pornography for the bowels of naturalistic scenes and gushing mudflows. The video material explicitly connects the idea of the bowels with the idea of stimulation and gratification, confusing and collapsing ideas of sexuality and shitting into one.
Excelsior 3000 is less about the toilet as we know it, and more about the notion of a fantasy object, it’s a machine that clearly doesn’t exist, but functions as a potential prototype, a technology for rethinking and re-defining our relationship to the humble toilet, amplifying it and extending its everyday banality through distortion and exaggeration. Probably more so then any other country Japan has interpreted the notion of the bowel as media, with the latest in a long line of technological developments being the toilet that is in development from Toto enterprises which takes a stool sample only to email you the results at a more convenient time.
More recently my project The Dirt Factory (2005) has explored ideas of the bowel trough the eyes of Health fanatic Dr John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of Cornflakes.The Dirt Factory, focuses on the ideas of the psychopathology and fanaticism of inner cleansing and elimination through cornflakes and the ultimate bowel technology: Colonic irrigation. The Dirt Factory, a pseudonym for the human body, a machine whose primary purpose is to produce filth, is played out against the wholesome, iconic goodness of the cornflakes empire and its perverse underbelly in the form of its creator John Harvey Kellogg’s obsession with inner cleansing and bowel nutrition. The Dirt Factory is also a project about undermining popular and traditional cultural icons in this case: cornflakes and the belief systems we ascribe to them.
The toilet and art
Artist Wim Delvoye has made a career out of exploring shit, his work Cloaca (2000) features a machine which manufactures synthetic shit through chemical combinations and processes. What is also perverse about Cloaca, is that it combines the two forces of sophistication; science and technology, to produce something which is entirely devoid of value in the form of shit. With Cloaca Delvoye directly explores the status of shit in the art world. “The only thing that all art objects have in common is uselessness, he says, noting that there is nothing more useless than a machine that makes shit when we make it ourselves and then flush it away as quickly as we can”. 3
On the subject of uselessness in art Gerardo Mosquera has said “What is useful about art is precisely it’s uselessness, its impracticality. In a world dominated by pragmatism, it guarantees a freer symbolic enterprise in creating much needed fetishes” 4 In a broader sense in the context of new media arts, notions of uselessness are unfortunately suppressed to the over riding engineering imperative and usefulness of technology.
Like Pierre Manzoni before him in 1961, selling his own shit in Cans, challenging the very notion of authenticity of the art work, did the artist really produce the shit that was sold ? Delvoye uses shit, less for its shock value and more as a agency for provocation and questioning of symbolic values in what would have to be one of the most anal of all cultural endeavours: the contemporary art world.
Artist’s Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly have clearly explored ideas of shit in a variety of performance media, with the material of shit specifically as the material of the infantile and repressed. The Australian Artist and writer Margaret Morgan has written extensively about the toilet as signifier of the repressed particularly in Hollywood movies. “The toilet functions as omphalos, that non place we refuse to acknowledge, least we recall ‘which is best left alone’ it is the site of nervous laughter, loathing, fascination. A marker of the repressed. from overflowing tubs, the phantasmic blood gurgling up from toilets, the axe murderers behind the shower curtain, the bodies sucked into drains, the gunnings down in the toilet and bathroom, the corpses rising from the bathtubs, and the Freddie Kruger’s in the tub” 5
Duchamp’s Fountain first exhibited in 1917, was not only a symbolic gesture of the everyday readymade in a high art context. But more importantly a rethinking of the utilitarian and the technology of the everyday as cultural artefact. In this sense the urinal of Fountain, is not so much a urinal but a symbolic equaliser collapsing both high and low values of identification, the humble urinal like the toilet, the furthest thing from ones mind as art.
The very notion of the toilet and specifically shit as a despised and repressed material still makes it such a loaded subject in the art world some 90 years after Fountain, its agency particularity as a potent symbol of base level low culture, uselessness, and everyday banality remains firmly intact. Still in these supposedly opened minded times the toilet receives a bad rap, eliciting laughter, giggling and dismissed as material unworthy of serious discussion. It is the very unworthiness of the toilet which in the context of the utopian vibe and ‘sophistication’ of contemporary new media arts, sees that it provides for a refreshing, problematic, and difficult subject matter which can be unpacked and thought about in a great variety of ways, as the complex, strange and weird technological object that it is. A deeper understanding of the conceptual underpinning of just what is the toilet can help us think not just about our relationship with the toilet but with other seemingly banal invisible technologies that we simply take for granted.
1 Mike Kelly, The Aesthetics of Ufology, pg 401, Minor Histories, Edited by John Welchman MIT Press, 2004
2 James C Whorton, Inner Hygiene – Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society, Oxford University Press, 2000
3 Wim Delvoye, Poop scoop Now Toronto, Vol. 23, No. 30., 25-31 March 2004 24 March 2004
4 Gerardo Mosquera, Notes on Shit, Art and Cloaca, http://www.cloaca.be
5 Margaret Morgan, The Plumbing of Modern Life, Post – Colonial Studies Journal, Vol 5, No, 2, September, 2002