Monday, 18 October 2010

The Cathedral to Waste

Crossness Pumping Station is not generally open to the public, but there are occasions every year when it does open its gates to visitors. Enthusiasts and the uninitiated come for miles to take a peak at restoration work in progress, and see the Prince Consort, one of the four steam powered pumps, in action. It has taken a team of retired engineers and enthusiasts about 10 years to restore the Prince, and for open days like this, visitors are enthralled by its spectacle of Victorian engineering prowess. Every 30 minutes the Prince chugs into action, it’s actually surprisingly quiet for a pump producing about 125 h.p enabling it to pump over six tons of sewage at each stroke. Whilst the Prince sputters and gurgle’s subtly in the background visitors in hard hats look around in ore at the beauty of Charles Driver’s incredibly ornate caste-ironwork. Some parts have been restored to their former glory, singing out in bright red, yellow, gold and green: these elaborate decorative features give Crossness its nick name “The Cathedral on the Marshes”.

Crossness is located at Thamesmead near Woolwich and as we approached the corporate gates of Thames Water, (the modern day treatment works sits close to the original Crossness Pumping Station) the wind was blowing the right way to give us an olfactory reminder of where we were.

As we drove about 300 meters along a small bumpy road we passed the modern treatment works, directed by a couple of well placed, hi-vi clad, volunteers en-route we were eventually confronted by Crossness. This majestic yet slightly worn building remains as a monument to Joseph Bazelgette’s civil engineering masterpiece: London’s Sewage System. Opened in 1865 this pumping station contributed to the health of Londoners as it pumped sewage efficiently out of the city whilst also improving drinking water. Bazalgette was chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works charged with the duty of ridding London of the foul stink of 1858. Before Bazalgette’s sewage system the Thames had operated as an open sewer, being filled with the contents of London’s WC’s and cesspit’s. There was only one further out break of cholera after the pumping stations and sewage system were put in to action.

Crossness has a pseudo religious quality, it represents purification of the city and its people. There is a reverence built into the architecture of the building and it is this quality that I am particularly drawn to. Volunteers currently working on restoring Victoria (one of the other four steam pumps at Crossness) are collecting her dust and dirt for “LAID TO REST”. In the context of this project Crossness dust has been elevated into “Holy Dust” which in turn will produce “Holy Bricks”.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The History of Shit

“Queen Victoria may well have been a dry-fart; but this is not why Victorian London boasted the most perfect urinals and celebrated the burial of excrement in exquisite latrines. One is more likely to find the answer in the correspondence of Prince Albert, and in the particular attention he paid to human strecus. Not unlike others at the helm of Empires, he deemed it a fertilizer unmatched in quality and price, and one eminently worthy of the highest esteem- an esteem bordering on religious contemplation.” Pg 61, The History of Shit, Dominique Laporte

I was recently commissioned to produce an artwork for the Wellcome Collection’s forthcoming show “Dirt” which opens 24th March 2011. On being approached to propose something for the commission I was instantly reminded of a book I encountered about 6 years ago by Dominique Laporte called “ History of Shit”. Laporte has a unique and exhilarating style that meanders between, history, philosophy, linguistics and theory. He creates a radical text suggesting the importance of human waste in forming the organisation of cities and the development of capitalism. He highlights that as much as we wish to ignore dirt we are intrinsically linked to it emphasising the currency and value it equates to within our society.

So my focus became the idea of profit developed out of waste and in particular the commercialisation of waste in Victorian London, from the dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road to the civil engineering achievements of Joseph Bazelgette’s Sewage System.

The dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road was a mile high by a mile wide and became a source of great fortune for many Victorian Londoners. It was immortalised in Charles Dicken’s “Our Mutual Friend’s” in which one of the main characters “Mr.Boffin” nicknamed “The Golden Dustman” had gained his wealth from the dust heap. As I researched the heap I discovered that it wasn’t just individuals that profited from the heap but many industries had been born out of it. The industry I was particularly excited by was London Brick-making; dust, ash and cinders were taken from the heap and mixed with mud from nearby brickfields to produce the humble brick

I had recently completed a project called “Decosa, Tradition, Stockholm Keifer/pin” which focused on a DIY material that I had discovered in the Czech Republic. Decosa is a thin polystyrene sheeting printed with a fake wood effect. I am very interested in the ritual of DIY as a new form of religion in contemporary society so building blocks were fresh in my mind. The brick seemed very appealing as a rudimentary building material that forms the basis of our civilisation yet is pretty much overlooked and taken for granted.

As I read on about the history of bricks I saw a relationship to the ideas I had read about in Laporte, the value to be found in rubbish and shit was immense and was represented by the brick. I was interested in the bricks importance in building up our city as well as their importance in the development of Bazelgette’s incredible sewage system which pumped the Great Stink of 1858 out of the city centre. His system involved 181 miles of tunnelling, and one of the four major pumping stations in Bazalgette’s scheme was Crossness. This iconic building nicknamed “The Cathedral on the Marshses” bears testimony to Victorian opulence and the genius of the industrial revolution. It is a site of historical importance in relation to “Laid to Rest” and will play a pivotal role in the development of this project.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Your Dust Transformed into a Brick

“Laid to Rest” will transform dust collected from houses, businesses and institutions into a time capsule of 500 commemorative bricks. Inspired by the commercialization of waste in Victorian London from the dust heaps of Gray’s Inn Rd to the engineering achievements of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system. The dust heap was a monument to the invisible and provided a major source of income. One of the industries to be born out of the heaps was London brick making: ash, cinders and rubbish from the heaps were mixed with the mud of nearby brick fields to produce the humble brick.

Each brick made as part of “Laid to Rest” will contain the specific dust of its contributor and will be imprinted with information cataloguing its transformation from the barely visible to the palpable. A growing stack of bricks will be exhibited as part of “Dirt” at the Wellcome Collection 24th March – 31st August 2011. The project will culminate in a horse drawn procession and burial of the bricks.