California Artists Invite You to ‘Follow the Flush’

July 30, 2018

Featured

Events mix art and wastewater

Timothy Furstnau, member of the collaborative art practice known as FICTILIS (Oakland, Calif.), organizes walks that follow the path that wastewater travels. The Follow the Flush 5K traveled along wastewater pipes such as this on the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz campus. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

Timothy Furstnau, member of the art collaborative known as FICTILIS (Oakland, Calif.), organizes walks that follow the path that wastewater travels. The Follow the Flush 5K traveled along wastewater pipes such as this on the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz campus. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

Everyone has a dream. In Timothy Furstnau’s case, that dream involves leading others along the path human waste takes from toilet to treatment.

Furstnau is not an overzealous sanitation engineer. He is a member of the art collaborative known as FICTILIS (Oakland, Calif.). The wastewater walks he organizes are a “great way to increase awareness of our hidden infrastructure,” he said. They also are part of a small, but growing number of artist-led initiatives designed to bridge the divide between public works and the public.

Using humor to raise awareness about wastewater treatment

Follow the Flush 5K participants had the opportunity to tour the City of Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Facility at the end of the walk. Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.

Follow the Flush 5K participants had the opportunity to tour the City of Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Facility at the end of the walk. Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz.

On May 5, many such efforts were on display in Santa Cruz, Calif., as more than 200 local residents took part in the city’s first Follow the Flush 5K Walk.

Follow the Flush, which is supported by the city and its arts commission and co-developed by FICTILIS and a University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) undergraduate research group, could be a national prototype for an art-and-humor-meets-wastewater community event.

The Follow the Flush event featured interactive games and activities such as the toilet toss game where players could throw bean-bag “mud-pies” into empty toilet bowls. City of Santa Cruz.

The Follow the Flush event featured interactive games and activities such as the “toilet toss game,” where players throw bean-bag “mud-pies” into empty toilet bowls. City of Santa Cruz.

In addition to the guided 5-km (3-mi) walk from the UCSC campus to the city’s treatment facility, participants were invited to take part in everything from “water tastings,” to “Guess the Scat,” a family-friendly game involving the droppings of various local creatures.

In a response to the organizers’ call for proposals, one artist created an exhibit that used wastewater pipes to produce and amplify sounds. Another displayed prints featuring the toilets of the world, along with educational posters on composting and the nitrogen cycle.

On Aug. 15, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission will hold an event to dedicate a new ocean and estuary themed mural at the City of Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Facility. Local artist, Elijah Pfotenhauer, painted a variety of animals that rely on clean waterways as part of this mural. Photo courtesy of Pfotenhauer.

On Aug. 15, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission will hold an event to dedicate a new ocean- and estuary-themed mural at the City of Santa Cruz Wastewater Treatment Facility. Local artist, Elijah Pfotenhauer, painted a variety of animals that rely on clean waterways as part of this mural. Photo courtesy of Pfotenhauer.

The event also included more than its share of toilet humor, including a “Pin the Poop” game and a special appearance by the People’s Own Organic Power (POOP; Brooklyn, N.Y.) Project founder Shawn Shafner, known in sewer-art circles as The Puru.

Visitors touring the city’s award-winning water resource recovery facility also got to take a sneak peek at an artist working on an ocean- and estuary-themed mural that relays the importance of the treatment process for the environment. When completed later this summer, the 7-m-high (24-ft-high) mural will extend the length of the facility’s entrance gates.

Artists bring hidden infrastructure to light

The “Slugs to Sludge” Wastewater 5K, the first event following wastewater infrastructure, was organized by FICTILIS and artist Lize Mogel in 2014. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

The “Slugs to Sludge” Wastewater 5K, the first event following wastewater infrastructure, was organized by FICTILIS and artist Lize Mogel in 2014. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

Furstnau said FICTILIS’ interest in wastewater and the environment grew out of the California drought in 2015. That year, it piloted its first wastewater walk at a Princeton (N.J.) Architecture School symposium before partnering with a UCSC wastewater research group on a “Slugs to Sludge” Wastewater 5K walk in Santa Cruz.

“It is fitting that the walks really got off the ground in Santa Cruz because it’s a city where they understand the power of art, and they seriously care about the environment,” Furstnau said.

Wastewater samples provided by the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority brought waste back into public visibility as part of the STEAM 2017 exhibition at University of West Florida (Pensacola). Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

Wastewater samples provided by the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority (Pensacola, Fla.) brought waste back into public visibility as part of the STEAM 2017 exhibition at University of West Florida (Pensacola). Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

“We on the arts commission are interested in focusing on topics that the community wouldn’t typically be interested in or take time out for,” said Beth Tobey, arts coordinator for Santa Cruz. “By adding art and humor, we find we can attract more people to these events.”

While lighthearted in its messaging, the city’s public works department is dead serious about its goals.

“We like to host these tours and events to get people thinking about the quality-of-life service that the plant provides to the community and how the treatment process helps to protect the environment and reduce the city’s carbon footprint,” said Janice Bisgaard, a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz public works department.

"Slugs to Sludge" 5K participants tour the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority (Princeton, N.J.) during the event. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

“Slugs to Sludge” 5K participants tour Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority (Princeton, N.J.) during the event. Photo courtesy of FICTILIS.

FICTILIS has led a version of the wastewater walk in Pensacola, Fla., and will bring it next to Philadelphia this fall, Furstnau said. For that event, he is working with the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, to develop a modular, scalable toolkit that other communities can use to organize their own wastewater walks.

“Every city has the same issues,” Furstnau said. Potty humor, too, is universal.

— Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights

For more details about the Follow the Flush 5K Walk held in Santa Cruz, Calif., see the Splash Shot section of the August issue of Water Environment & Technology.
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