Why Waste Matters: Q&A with Professor Kathy High

We chat to Prof Kathy High about new interpretations surrounding waste.

Professor Kathy HighRensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been in Australia for the past few weeks as part of various Sydney Environment Institute events (in association with Sydney Ideas), looking at the transformations of waste and exploring the power of poo as well as the intimate relation to the gut microbiome. We chat to Prof High about how she looks at waste as a resource and what she means by the gut is a ‘hackable space’.

Prof High’s an interdisciplinary artist working in the areas of technology, science and art. She works with animals and living systems, considering the social, political and ethical dilemmas surrounding the areas of medicine/bio-science, biotechnology and interspecies collaborations. She has received awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts. Her art works have been shown in film festivals, galleries and museums, including Documenta 13 (Kassel), the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center and Exit Art (NYC), the Science Gallery, (Dublin), NGBK, (Berlin), Festival Transitio_MX (Mexico), MASS MoCA (North Adams), Videotage Art Space and Para-Site Gallery (Hong Kong). High is Professor of Video and New Media in the Department of the Arts, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY – a department specializing in integrated experimental arts practices.

Kathy High bio pic

What’s the importance of looking at ‘waste matters’?

I am interested in talking about ‘waste matters’ such as faecal matter – this commodity that reflects the individual, our subjectivity, a taboo and disgusting material, managed by the self (through diet, health, cleanliness) and also managed by the state (through sewage and water treatment plants). It can be about death and decomposition (recycled materials/compost) and tell us a lot about who we are and with which bacterial, yeast and fungal microbes we cohabit. I think we can potentially look at this waste as a resource. Could our waste become a new medicine, new fuel source, new fertilizer, new gift exchange?

As an interdisciplinary artist, how do you explore the transformation of waste?

I am an artist who works between many different types of media – from film and photography, to biological materials, performance and sculpture. I am interested in the concept of “transforming waste” and the ways we conceive of our discarded materials – to transform them back into our lives, to allow us to not separate ourselves from our waste as easily. Through my art, I present new stories and scenarios that provoke different ways of reconsidering scientific and humanities research.

What does the gut is ‘a hackable space’ mean?

There is so much exciting research happening at present around the human gut microbiome and the fact that we cohabit with which a large number of bacterial, yeast and fungal microbes. FMTs – fecal microbioal transplantations – transferring one person’s stool into another’s body, is now commonly used to treat C. Difficil and in research for all kinds of other autoimmune diseases. If we can understand this relationship to our “strange kin” who live in and with us, I believe we will better understand our relationship to a larger microbial environment in the world.

As a patient with Crohn’s disease, how has dealing with the issues first-hand helped with your reflections on waste matters?

In my art I include personal information to encourage the audience to identify through my stories. As a patient with Crohn’s disease I have dealt with the medical profession for many years as they struggle to find treatment for this autoimmune disease that affects many people. I feel that we have entered a new era, and in fact there has been a paradigm shift in the way medical researchers are thinking about the environment of the gut. This includes the effects of food and diet on our gut system, how our biomes affect and are affected by our direct environment, and how to translate this information into ways to better “work with” our biomes. This is a very different way to treat dis-ease.

How has your time in Australia been and what will you take away from your discussions with our local academics and artists?

I am lucky to have participated in these days of discussion and thinking about our future with some great minds such as Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Äsberg, Kathryn Yusoff, Vicki Kirby, Lindsay Kelley, Perdita Philips, Ellen van Nerveen, Thom van Dooren & Deborah Bird Rose, Fiona Probyn‐Rapsey, Victoria Hunt and Undine Sellbach & Stephen Loo, among many others. The conversations thoughtfully opened up ways to consider small efforts, local recipes, forgotten creatures, unlikely love affairs, and hacking and radical actions as important in the social and environmental justice movements at large.

Anything else you want to add

My compliments and deep gratitude to Dr Astrida Neimanis, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, who did an amazing job organized the inspiring Hacking the Anthropocene event, and to the Sydney Environment Institute for their sponsorship and support.

Listen to the podcast of the Waste Matters: You Are My Future event with Prof Kathy High below.