Wastewater Walks: from Visualization to Emplacement

FICTILIS (Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau)

Independent artist collective

“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” – Rebecca Solnit [1]

Wastewater Walk is a series of performative walks which lead participants along the paths that human waste travels following invisible infrastructure routes to wastewater treatment facilities in an effort to raise awareness of the water footprint, unsustainable design, inequitable access and psychological repercussions of modern human waste sanitation. Participants consider the poetics and politics of human waste, and the water required to process it, as they move through landscapes that are hybrids of wilderness and human infrastructure, bringing visibility to typically hidden material flows. In personalizing wastewater infrastructure and tying awareness to place and lived experience, each walk might be thought of as a kind of interface – an interface that accomplishes what we call emplacement.


The prototype for this series occurred as an event called “Walking the Waste Stream,” designed collaboratively between FICTILIS and artist Lize Mogel for the Princeton School of Architecture’s 2015 “Producing Waste, Producing Space” symposium. Together with Mogel, we led a group of Princeton students and symposium attendees in a series of waste mapping exercises and a tour of the wastewater treatment plant that serves Princeton and the surrounding area, operated by the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority.

Walking the Waste Stream: furnace room of the Liquid Sludge, Sludge Cake & Septage Receiving Facilities, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Walking the Waste Stream: furnace room of the Liquid Sludge, Sludge Cake & Septage Receiving Facilities, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Following the Princeton walk, the next event in the series was organized as part of an undergraduate research group that we led at the University of California Santa Cruz in Spring 2015. Because Santa Cruz’s Neary Lagoon wastewater treatment plant is located exactly 5 kilometers away from campus, this walk was organized as a typical 5K “campaign-type” walk and branded “the Slugs to Sludge Wastewater 5K”. [2] Participants in the walk wore custom-designed commemorative shirts and visited water tables that were staffed by local water-related environmental groups, who presented their platforms and led the walkers in various activities in addition to distributing water. Walkers followed a route marked with custom-designed signs featuring an emoji-style poop character and an arrow. The signs, placed all around campus and throughout the community, performed a triple function: 1) marking the route of the walk; 2) marking the path of wastewater flow and underground infrastructure towards Neary Lagoon; and 3) advertising the event and the “cause” to local passersby, resembling the lawn signs that typically advertise political campaigns.

This version of the walk was designed as a playful way to raise awareness of water conservation in a severely drought-stricken community and to advocate for action on ecological sanitation on the campus and beyond. Americans currently use on average about 80-100 total gallons of water per person per day, about 10 gallons of those gallons for flushing toilets with potable water. Even more water is required to keep our septic systems running and to transport our waste to treatment facilities. Yet campus conservation efforts, and larger public dialogue, rarely include wastewater as an area for concern or action. Following the walk, this and other topics were discussed in a panel discussion titled “Enacting Awareness: Water, Waste, and Public Space”, featuring Heidi Quante, Shawn Shafner, Abigail Brown, and Carol Steinfeld.

Wastewater Walk: Slugs to Sludge wayfinding sign in Santa Cruz, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: Slugs to Sludge wayfinding sign in Santa Cruz, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Semi-scripted live interactions and a pre-recorded, location-based audio tour encouraged participants to explore the poetics and politics of human waste, framing the walk as a kind of pilgrimage to the commons of the treatment plant, which represents the commingling of the “movements” of the 80,000 people it serves. Participants were invited to speak openly about their bathroom behavior, tell jokes, and play games in an effort to get more in touch with each other and the landscapes we (and our waste products) inhabit. Because the walk began on campus and ended at a public park, it represented a bridging of the campus/city divide that is rare among public events in Santa Cruz. The event highlighted this divide: as human waste crosses certain physical borders, its ownership actually changes hands, and during treatment, and post-treatment, it may journey even farther and be passed between several other municipalities and corporations. Following this process offered a glimpse into the political complexities behind invisible material flows.


In the entry on “Waste Flows” in the excellent Discard Studies Compendium, Myra J. Hird notes how “critically examining how and why waste flows politically, economically, culturally, symbolically, socially, and materially offers important insights into our past, present, and possible future relationship with waste, the environment, and our species.” [5] Because most wastewater systems are designed to use gravity (mostly) they tend to follow routes where water normally flows (or is supposed to flow, in non-drought conditions). Much of this is hidden in hard-to-access ravines, or buried underground, but because of this tie to to existing routes, they also overlap with recreational trails in public park lands, where we’re trained not to notice them, making them hidden in plain sight. Following these routes with attention to the hybridity of the built and the non-built environment offers us a way to experience a non-dualistic sense of place (and our place in it) akin to what Timothy Morton calls “ecology without nature” [3] or what Jason Moore calls the “web of life”. [4]

Wastewater Walk: wastewater pipe through redwood ravine, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: wastewater pipe through redwood ravine, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

This is where terminologies and metaphors start to overlap, as both human and non-human systems seem to be pursuing similar paths of flow, digestion, and metabolism. Myra J. Hird frames waste flows as “complex networks of socio-cultural and bio-geological processes”, the conceptualization or framing of which has consequences for our prescriptions for action: “neoliberal governance seeks to manage waste as a techno-scientific concern that leaves circuits of mass production and over-consumption undisturbed […] Managing waste suggests it is definable (things count or do not count as waste); relatively stable; and amenable to ‘fixing’ practices (such as landfilling, recycling, dumping, and incineration) that isolate, immobilize, and control waste.” And how we “see” the environment, how we personally experience it, affects how we define it. On a campus whose setting and landscaping is as beautiful as Santa Cruz’s, it can be easy to remain in a conservationist relation to our surroundings that is typical of “eco-oriented sustainability”. [6] The beauty of the Santa Cruz campus reinforces the notion of “nature” being confined to parks and wilderness areas to be protected for their aesthetic enjoyment or recreation when we’re not inside doing our “cultural” work.


Though each instance of the project includes digital and online components – audio tours, GIS mapping, or sharing of images and conversation through social media – every Wastewater Walk relates closely to its physical surroundings, so that the primary connection is an offline one, and any information gained in the process is not just learned, but felt, embodied, and remembered. The project is an attempt to go beyond standard forms of presentation via text, charts, graphics, and other images that only visualize information for passive (usually seated, online) consumption. More interactive forms of database art also tend to make information into something of a visual spectacle, even when other sense are engaged. Instead, through guided walking, we try to do (and get others to do) the following with information:

  • Embody it – in the movements and actions of human bodies
  • Embed it – in our surroundings, in the physical landscape
  • Experientialize it – in the lived experience of individuals and groups
  • Narrativize it – turn it into stories, with characters, drama, arc
  • Ritualize it – turn it into symbolic forms that can be repeated

All of which is to effectively humanize information. (Or, if you prefer, hybridize it.) The hope is that doing this will make information more meaningful and memorable, and ultimately more likely to transform from “awareness” into action.

In a Discard Studies post about the limitations of “awareness” as a goal when confronting phenomena like garbage whose scale is infrastructural, Max Liboiron notes that “it’s a long way from awareness to behavior change, with a lot of steps in between that depend on attitudes and opinions, learning and other kinds of processing, values, involvement, and situational factors like habits, access, and infrastructure, and if all those things happen and you get one-time behavior change, you still need to be able to turn that into a habit.” [7] Rather than campaigning for awareness, Liboiron suggests social change campaigns should engage directly with infrastructure, since “most environmental and other society-wide problems are not due to individual intent and behavior to begin with, but rather the social, economic, political, and other systems that make some decisions and behaviors more likely or possible than others [and] focusing on these systems for change actually scales up to the scale of the problem.” Wastewater Walk is an attempt to not only promote an individual awareness that creates new habits, but also to engage with wastewater infrastructure, beginning with an effort to see it, appreciate its scale and its functions, and maybe then working to re-assess or redesign it.

Wastewater Walk: solids separating conveyer at Neary Lagoon facility, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, , © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: solids separating conveyer at Neary Lagoon facility, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Vision, not Visualization

A danger of making new media work that attempts to address ecological issues is that impressive visualizations will distract from serious questions of values and scale, and instead promote “green” consumption, techno-utopian gadgetry and geo-engineering, feel-good, apolitical pedagogy, or some combination of these. In Fall 2015, one could visit the Cal Academy of Science in San Francisco, California, and experience the full-dome IMAX production Habitat Earth, allowing you to fly through macro and micro scales, zooming in and out in aesthetically dazzling visualizations of the complex ecological problems we face today. The production paints an optimistic picture of the solutions to these ecological dangers – one where, in the end, individual consumer responsibility and tech-enabled, data-driven, crowdsourced, clicktivism offer promise. Besides a concern that this type of media leaves audiences with a false sense of ability based on visualizing data, and the mismatch between slick, fast animations and the time scales of ecological problems, programs like Habitat Earth provide subtle advertisements for the products we know and love (Google Earth, etc.) while aestheticizing what are complex, global systems. Critic T.J. Demos describes how visualization tools can be used uncritically in ways that actually prevent us from seeing the politics of the Anthropocene:

“…scientific popularizers rarely evince awareness of the use of such imagery, or of the political implications of their representations, which not only help illustrate geological concepts, but also frame them in particular ways, ways that are deeply political…[data visualization tools] are embedded in a specific political and economic framework of our present, comprising a visual system delivered to us and constituted by a military-state-corporate apparatus, which offers an innocent-seeming picture that is in fact a “techno-scientific, militarized, ‘objective’ image.” […] “Anthropocene” rhetoric frequently acts as a mechanism of universalization, albeit complexly mediated and distributed among various agents, which enables that military-state-corporate apparatus to disavow responsibility for the differentiated impacts of climate change, effectively occluding the accountability behind the mounting eco-catastrophe.” [8]

Our low-tech walking project is a statement of skepticism towards the techno-utopian and to visualization as an artistic strategy. It suggests that what we need more of is vision, in the metaphorical sense of wisdom that leads to actions guided by values, rather than visualization.

Interfaces for Emplacement

As digital artists interested in liveness and embodiment, part of our practice must be stepping back from the details of the tools we use to consider the broader interfaces between technologically-enabled artistic practice and environment. In this process, we ask ourselves the following:

  • How does the dichotomy between liveness and mediatization break down when considered within the specific workings and uses of technologies in our own art practices? Or when mapped onto structuralist binaries like Nature/Culture?
  • What might an expanded visualization of an artwork’s physical location look like if we consider life cycles of component parts, raw materials, logistics, and flows beyond the interface between artist/performer, audience, venue – i.e. its infrastructure?
  • Consider the ideal venue or location for your work. How would an audience encounter it there? Why is this ideal, and how might the properties of this location be approximated in a real-world venue? What do the differences between ideal/actual settings tell us about our work?

The results of these discussion prompts and thought-exercises might be used to expand notions of embodiment, immediacy, and presence to include place, ecosystem, and ecology.

There is a yearning for a kind of “embodiment” that matches our digital creations to our physical bodies, but what about a consideration (let alone a “match”) of our hybrid digital/physical creations and the ecosystems in which, through which, and upon which, they act? A fully embodied performance can still be profoundly disembodied from its surroundings. Embodiment that is not also emplacement, giving expression or form to our place on the celestial body called Earth, is incomplete. Bodies always exist in places, even though the frame, the screen, or the curtain—or, crucially, the lack thereof—can temporarily convince us otherwise.

A disconnect between human thought (or “culture”) and place is not unique to new media technologies, or old technologies. Language is an interface, and inasmuch as we think in language, we are disconnected from our first thought. I am here, but I remember being there. I anticipate being there. I imagine being elsewhere. So it is not a question of abandoning our tools, or removing our media to achieve some pre-fallen state of “immediacy”. It is instead a question of using our tools and creating media, software, and interfaces that help us be present in a responsible way in the places we inhabit together.

This is what culture is for. Culture helps us adapt to our surroundings. If we define our surroundings narrowly, in terms of the metaphorical “ecosystem” of digital media, then the way we’re using technology to make art makes sense. But if we broaden our conception of our surroundings to include the places we live, or the places where others live and manufacture our gadgets and process our waste, then what we’re doing can seem short-sighted. How might we use the tools available to us to further emplacement, without having to make art that is “about” the environment? How might a radically embodied ecological interface work upon and through human bodies?

An example of an artwork going beyond visualization, the collaborative YoHa’s Coal Fired Computers installation included an onsite steam engine which powered a computer with 2.5 tons of coal. The schoolchildren who witnessed YoHa’s coal-powered computer installation felt a kind of magic. They refused believe that this loud, dirty machinery was powering these slick, modern electronics. We all know that our tools and our lives are powered this way, but at some point we stop feeling the magic that these children felt when the system was there, live and in plain sight, right before their very eyes. This is the fundamental illusion, a redirection or sleight-of-hand, which allows us to see one thing – even if it is the most captivating piece of art – while the systems behind it go unnoticed.


1. Solnit, R. 2001. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin Books.

2. The banana slug is the school’s official mascot. The students in our research group who helped research, organize, and design the walk were Rosemary Applen, Brooke Basile, Bailey Clark, Jill Ganley, Zoe Manoguerra, Jessica Mosleh, Karina Maria Tavares Perez.

3. Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

4. Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso.

5. Hird, Myra J. 2016. “Discard Studies Compendium: Waste Flows.” Discard Studies. Accessed April 24. https://discardstudies.com/discard-studies-compendium/#Wasteflows.

6. The UCSC Critical Sustainabilities project identifies five main types of sustainability: vernacular, eco-oriented, market-oriented, justice-oriented, and utopian – which emphasize different values and frame the “environment” differently. See https://critical-sustainabilities.ucsc.edu/sustainabilities-2/.

7. Liboiron, Max. 2014. “Against Awareness, For Scale: Garbage Is Infrastructure, Not Behavior.” Discard Studies. January 23. https://discardstudies.com/2014/01/23/against-awareness-for-scale-garbage-is-infrastructure-not-behavior/

8. Demos, T. J. 2015. “IV. Capitalocene Violence.” Still Searching: An Online Discourse on Photography. June 5. http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2015/06/iv-capitalocene-violence/.


FICTILIS is the collaborative practice of multimedia artists and curators Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau. The word “FICTILIS” is Latin for “capable of being shaped or changed; earthen”. This definition refers both to the form of our practice and to the role we intend it to play within the larger culture. FICTILIS works on a project basis, with ongoing interests in language, materialism and waste flows, the politics of collecting, links between social and environmental domains, and capitalism as a historical phenomenon. In 2015, FICTILIS was awarded the Santa Fe Art Institute Food Justice Residency, a Puffin Foundation Public Interest Grant, the Porter Hitchcock Modern Poetry Fund award, a grant from the Left Tilt Fund, and was a Human Impacts Institute Creative Climate nominee and a finalist for the COAL Art & Environment Prize in Paris, France, as part of ARTCOP21.