Opinion

Workshopping Waste

A reflection on how a tour of the Cronulla Wastewater Treatment Plant explores issues of waste and the city

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The Bondi-based artist, Rox de Luca’s ‘Saved (rusty pipe)’ from the 2013 Sculptures by the Sea exhibition was made from fragments of plastics found on beach shores. The artwork shows a flow of plastic waste emerging from a rock face, mirroring the pattern of water as it flows and splashes out of a downward-facing pipe. She writes that ‘my recent sculptures focus on the concepts of abundance, excess and waste; and are composed of the plastic detritus I observe and collect from Bondi Beach’. The artwork reflects the ability of discarded waste objects to become visible and signal their lingering presence; plastic lives on long after it has been ‘disposed’. De Luca states: ”I want my compositions to shift between the entrancingly beautiful and the grotesque; and that sensation of uneasiness is amplified when the works are placed back into the environment from which their bases in excess and waste originated’. The seemingly-endless stream of disposed plastic comes together in clusters on the beach, in drain pipes, and inside of birds and fish long after they die and decay.

The connections between water, waste, and the environment were captured at a recent workshop titled ‘Hacking the City: Waste Matters an interdisciplinary arts-sci eco-workshop’ as part of a series of events funded by the Sydney Environment Institute and the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry. The one day workshop organised by Dr. Astrida Neimanis of the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, with acclaimed interdisciplinary media artist and community educator, Professor Kathy High, offered Sydney-based researchers and artists to explore issues of waste and the city.

A walking tour of the Cronulla Wastewater Treatment Plant facilitated by Jade Baker from Sydney Water showed precisely where things go after they are down the drain and ‘out of sight’. The complex directions in which waste travels as it undergoes processes of clarification, treatment, filtration, and so on, are impeded by those things that should not be in the wastewater system. ‘Flushable wipes’, fats, oils, sanitary items, plastics, nappies, and so on, congeal to form masses that lead to pipe blockages and breakages.

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In a spectacular display, like a cinematic scene of the a­pocalypse, participants entered a room where spiders had made a home among the masses of black lumpy bio-solids (soon to be fertiliser) and where their webs hung from the ceiling and from fixtures like thick drapery. The tour offered an array of usually unencountered sights and smells, from the blown-up condoms floating in aerated, bubbling sludge, to the olfactory landscape reminiscent of earthy materials, rotten eggs, and manure.

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The tour was followed by a hands-on activity where participants swam out to Cronulla beach and collected water for do-it-yourself testing. Coliforms, pH, salinity, and dissolved oxygen were some of the things tested for in this experiment in bio-hacking. The workshop also offered opportunity to hear about biotechnological innovations. Kathy High presented important work at the crossroads of art and biological and living systems that questions the boundaries between the human, non-human, and the technological and generates discussion about the ethics that intersect through them.

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The collaborative spirit of the workshop fostered discussions at the nexus between disciplines. It offered opportunities for further study, collaboration, and insight and generated new possibilities forward in thinking differently about water, the city, and waste futures.



Karma Chahine is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research project is focused on ideas of creative renewal in Sydney.

Images: Supplied by Karma Chahine