My poos - like this blog - have been inconsistent recently. Nothing leaves me for days on end and then suddenly, a large, unbearable, hulk of a shit forces itself through.

Interview with Mathilda Fowler. Part 2.

Walk Seaward

For the second part of the interview with Mathilda Fowler about her Seaward residency at Post-Projects, we talked about the walk she led, from the gallery space all the way to Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. She talks about the wild fruit and herbs that grow along the sewage pipes, her interest in defensive architecture and our need to separate ourselves from our own poop.

Below the interview you can also watch a video piece made for the exhibition called, Incorporate.

[for part 1 click here]

Walk Seaward, guided walk, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

Mathilda Fowler: The residency was called seaward because the word 'Sewer' is from the old English for something that travels towards the sea. The walk was initially intended to be a complementary event to the residency, but it transpired to be something a bit more important than that, but I'm still trying to get to grips with in what way.
The walk followed the route from Post Projects in Deptford, to Deptford pumping station, and then along the Southern Outfall sewer. The Southern Outfall sewer is where all the smaller South London sewers flow and become this gigantic artery of sewage. It carries waste through New Cross, Greenwich, Woolwich, and Plumstead all the way to Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. The sewage used to just go there because it was down river of London, so you could just deposit it in the Thames. Nowadays it is all treated and then made clean and beautiful and lovely... before they deposit it back in the river.

In London you have the Northern Outfall Sewer, and the Southern Outfall Sewer: equivalent systems on either side of the Thames. Both of these outfall sewers used gravity for a lot of the drainage, so they move from high to low land. When the Southern Outfall Sewer reaches low land, the sewer pipe stops being underground. The walk was about 10 miles. We walked through the city, following the underground pipe, which was built mostly under main roads as a sort of subterranean mirror image. The pipes match the width of the roads for surface drainage. And the roads are a natural network that connects all the houses.
You follow these main roads, and as the land level drops, it turns in to the Erith Marshes. At that point, the pipes come out from underground, but are hidden by a grass mound in to which they are built, called, 'The Ridgeway'. These two massive sewage pipes then run all the way to Crossness in an incredibly straight line, through this wild part of London. It's not pretty countryside, just wasteland, but you can walk along it all the way to the sewage treatment works, and then round it to the point at which you can see the pipes go back in to the water.
So when we did the walk we followed the pipes as far as we could, to the treatment works. But the point at which the pipes stop being subterranean infrastructure, and become something visible, that's the interesting bit.
Even when we weren't thinking about the sewers or talking about the sewers, you could smell them. Along the roads, inexplicably at some points.

Once you get to the Ridgeway, you leave the built up areas, and there are access points all along the way. Little parapets with hatches leading down to the pipes, and you get wafts of sewage as you pass those. Interestingly, along the Ridgeway, there is an awful lot of wild fruit and vegetables growing there. Loads of wild fennel, everywhere. I don't know why. You would assume the pipes are well sealed, but at one point along the route, there are lots of bulrushes growing along the side of the Ridgeway. Bulrushes only grow where it is wet and marshy, and normally they grow in lowland, but these are up along the mound where the pipes are. There has to be a really significant amount of leakage.
There are pears, and blackberries and apples. I picked some blackberries and made a pie which I fed to people. Nicola, who is one of the people running the project space, has a very sensitive gag reflex, and I couldn't talk about the blackberry pie with her because it made her feel so sick. I will say, that before I picked and ate the blackberries, I found a document relating to some sort of regeneration project to do with the Ridgeway, and they had run some tests on various fruits growing there and they are absolutely fine, no chemicals or high levels of anything bad. But still, when you are eating them raw, there is still this association in the back of your mind.

The problem with the Ridgeway is not just the occasional smell of sewage, there is also a lot of human shit around in the wasteland. People seem to go there to have a poo. There is a dirt path flanked by bushes and trees, and it is used as a dumping area. It goes through some nasty places, at one point it passes Belmarsh prison. It also seems to be that along this route, all of South London's rubbish and recycling is brought. There are rubbish trucks and a huge recycling centre.
Although there is a sewage treatment works there now, that area used to be where the sewage was dumped back in to the river. The area was very depressed for a long time, and quite contaminated. There are council estates around there. In the crudest way possible, it seems like where the city just dumped its undesirables.
There is a huge estate at the end of the sewage treatment site called Thamesmeade which was built before the sewage treatment works were in place. In the early 20th century they weren't treating it at all, and the modern sewage works were only built in the 60s or 70s. There was sewage processing before then, though I'm not sure to what extent!

Before I decided to focus on the sewage system, I had an interest in hygiene, or a kind of hygienic aesthetic, or architectures of hygiene. And also how that relates to a social situation. A longer term interest of mine is in defensive design or environments, where things are designed to protect the people or the architecture from destructive elements; potentially a very political situation. So you have airports with carefully designed traffic flow systems, and reinforced structures; pillars wrapped in blast proof kevlar etc. but at a microscopic level you have materials that have antimicrobial agents, resist MRSA etc. there is a whole spectrum of defensive forms. I suppose the sewer system is the probably the most important piece of infrastructure that exists in a city, and it is defensive. It separates and protects a population from its own waste.

The Victorians initiated a hygiene project. The culture of hygiene is incredibly important, morally. That develops architecturally up until the early 1920's where you have these sanatoriums and palaces that worship sunshine and healthiness. At the point of building sewers, it was a case of having to subvert the waste. To put distance between ourselves and it.

Walk Seaward, guided walk, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

Matthew Giraudeau: Did they have to build the sewers underground?

MF: I went to an interesting talk by Kelly Shannon, who is interested in water urbanism, she was giving examples of overground sewage systems in Mumbai slums. They become pathways, because they are the only part that can't be built on. But, in a 'Modern' city it seemed important psychologically to distance yourself from your waste, to rise above it, not to be confronted with that idea. So it has to underground.

There seems to be a huge desire to separate ourselves from our waste, and to get rid of any allusion to our animal nature.

There is a huge industry based around helping us pretend that we don't shit. Have you seen the Neutradol adverts? It is one of these air fresheners that doesn't mask the smell it neutralizes it. There is a housewife and her she goes in to her bathroom, and the toilet is smelly and angry and it berates her for being stinky and shitty and it's basically saying, “oh haven't you done a smelly poo”. She has friends coming round, and she is really ashamed, but then she uses this product and the toilet starts belching flowers. Just a total rejection of the idea that we shit.


Incorporate, digital video, 2009. Mathilda Fowler
The internet is the ultimate anal retentive. It saves every little turd that you drop in to its hands. I've recently found some old websites from a teenage metal band (we were called 'Excellent Flying Deth'). I deleted my website, but my bandmates' are still up, as is the site for 'Dead Corpse', our rivals/colleagues.

Here they are. I'm the one with the bad curtains and Harry Potter glasses.

Looking at these sites is both funny and immensely tragic. Our skateboard company got about as far as our metal band.
As an interim post, betwixt the interviews with Mathilda Fowler. She mentioned a site that she found very useful, so I thought I would pass it on. It is called, and has both a lovely design and lots of information about, "The roots of our sanitary sewers".

Interview with Mathilda Fowler. Part 1.

A few weeks ago I had a very interesting chat with Mathilda Fowler about her residency at Post Projects in New Cross. The work she presented at her exhibition was based on research she carried out concerning Joseph Bazalgette and the London Metropolitan Boards Closed Sewer System.
A really interesting part of the residency was a walk along the Southern Outfall Sewer, which we will cover in part 2 of the interview. For now, you can read her anecdotal history of the sewage system that Bazalgette designed, and see the work that this research inspired.

[for part 2 click here]

Mathilda Fowler: One of the reasons why I chose the sewers as a subject for the residency was because Deptford Pumping Station was just round the corner from the project space. The station is part of this massive metropolitan sewage commission works in the 1860s by Joseph Bazalgette.

[At this point we have a debate on how to say 'Bazalgette', as it transpires that he was Spanish. It involves me doing a bad, pan-European accent which luckily cannot be translated in to text]

Bazalgette was the engineer commissioned to devise a sewage system that would unite the whole of London. Before him, although London had sewage systems, they were very local and were managed by the local boroughs. That is apart from the King's sewers, originally commissioned by Henry VIII. They are some serious, grand sewers, which I think are still working, but they were only designed for surface water from the roads. For domestic waste, most people had some kind of cesspit.
  The sewers that were around had incredibly small pipes that could only be maintained by children. This kind of waste is really dangerous, because it is so explosive. If you take down a gas lamp in to a chamber full of methane producing material then it can be a real problem.

Matthew Giraudeau: Did they find this out the hard way?

MF: Yeah, lots of dead children. Before the industrial revolution, sewage was manageable, in a sense. A lot of the effluent would just seep in to the ground and dissipate. But as population density increased in the city, that seepage began to contaminate drinking water supplies.
  Until the mid 19th century, there was someone called a night soil man. He would be paid to come and empty out your cesspit. He would come along with his horse and cart and take away all your shit. Then he would take all your shit to the countryside, where it could be used as fertilizer, and in some cases, as a kind of fuel. But around the mid 1800's, because of their incessant colonizing of other countries, the English suddenly begun to have access to a lot of Guano - bat poo. This was shipped in as a much more efficient fertilizer, and suddenly dealing in human poo was not such a profitable business.

  The poverty in industrial London meant that if you didn't have any money for your cesspit to be cleaned, then you would just let it fill up until it leaked in to your neighbours house.
There were recurrent outbreaks of Cholera, and in 1858 there was 'The Big Stink'. After a particularly dry summer, London experienced a horrendous outbreak of Cholera with thousands dying. At Westminster, they made plans to escape to Hampton Court to get away from the smell. It was so vile that people were dipping their curtains in chloride of lime (a bleaching powder).
  While this was going on, there was also a change in the way people thought about the transmission of disease. Up until then there had been a common theory of 'miasma', or 'bad air'. Disease was felt to be carried in this bad air. If you could make the air smell nice, then you would get rid of the disease held in the air. Bazalgette's sewers were originally commissioned because everyone believed that they would get rid of the smelly, 'bad' air, and therefore stop the spread of Cholera.
  Germ theory was being pushed as a paradigm for understanding the spread of disease, although it came up against a lot resistance. People just wouldn't believe that Cholera could be spread through water, even though a lot of people in London were still getting their drinking water from the Thames, and it was also where people dumped their waste!

Even now, in heavy rain, the current sewage system means that if there is any kind of overflow, then sewage will still go in to the Thames. A new sewer is currently being built under the Thames called the Thames Tideway. It's being dug out by this big bore-ing machine called, 'Nora the Borer'. It follows the route of the Thames and it's being built specifically to deal with that problem.

Memorial to Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pear's soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

The works that I made whilst on the residency were little carved monuments to Joseph Bazalgette. I took the forms for the monuments from this statue of Bazalgette, which is on the Victoria Embankment. The circle in which is bust is contained is meant to represent the sewers. Bazalgette also designed the Victoria Embankment, which constrained the size of the Thames, and eased congestion in the city. So even above ground, he had a strong influence on the flow and movements of the city.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

I carved these monuments out of Pear's soap, as studies. The idea is that I would have them cast in soap so you could have them next to your sink. So every time you wash your hands, you send a little bit of the monument as an offering, down the drain and in to the sewer.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

MG: Why Pears soap?

MF: In the summer I found an interesting article on Pears soap. It still has pretty much the same formula as it did in the 1800s. In the early 19th century soap production was a cottage industry that used animal fat. But then with the industrial revolution, there was a much higher need for soap to get rid of all the grime for people working with engines and in factories.
   Because of the colonies, Britain had access to a large amount of vegetable fat, in the form of palm oil from tropical West Africa. There is this uneasy transition period, as the main export of West Africa changes from slaves to palm oil. On the one hand it was very positive, and was capitalised upon by the soap companies as a marketing strategy, i.e. people being freed because of the soap industry. But at the same time, the advertising for Pears also focused on the fact that their soaps could, 'wash a black boy white'. All the connotations of that are very uncomfortable, it brings to mind the idea of the white man's burden being to educate and civilise.
  It is also that, to me, Pears soap looks like either precious amber, or frozen piss.

Studies For Monument to Bazalgette, pears soap, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

A few days of blockage. Uncomfortable. Having to hold off on wiping too much.

There are some things that I have to force myself to write.
I prefer pooing upstairs to downstairs. The gravity is stronger.
I just went to the shop to buy some sage, risotto rice, and bacon. First I went to Withington fruit and veg. They didn't have any sage, and as far as a I could tell, didn't have any rice. Then to Somerfield; possibly one of the saddest places in south Manchester. They didn't have any herbs at all. It took me ten minutes to locate the rice, and the best thing I could find for a risotto was pudding rice.
  As I walked back, I could feel sometthing in between my toes. When I got home I found a one Euro cent coin inside my sock.