In Praise of Poop

In Praise of Poop

Published on Monday, March 16, 2009. This article appears in the April/May 2009 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Iain Aitch

Prototype of GCH4, the waterless toilet molded out of horse dung designed by Gardiner to create an urban infrastructure in which people trade their waste for biofuel.

Sharon Green

Virginia Gardiner turns waste into a commodity.

If you are already shaking Virginia Gardiner's hand when you ask that dreaded dinner party question, "And what do you do?' you'd be forgiven for excusing yourself to visit the bathroom, or surreptitiously wiping your hand on the back of your trousers as she looks away. This is because the London-based Gardiner's answer to that inquiry is likely to involve a lengthy explanation that includes just about every different term you can think of for excrement.

A similar reaction awaits Gardiner's work from those who are not familiar with her practice. Her palm-sized dodecahedron Poo Gems may have the consistency of a seed-based chewy snack from Whole Foods, but they are certainly not meant to be eaten. "I had a technician at my college sizing one up in his hand and asking, 'What is this?'" Gardiner says. "He just put it down very gently when I said it was shit."

In her defense, Gardiner can claim that she works with the highest quality feces: her excreta of choice is horse manure from the Queen's Household Cavalry in Knightsbridge. So her customers can be assured that it has come from the finest military thoroughbreds-a fortuitous side effect of Gardiner's knowing that she wanted to work with manure but having no idea where to get it in large quantities.

"I was racking my brain thinking, 'Where am I going to get this material in London?'" she says. "I thought I'd have to go into the countryside to get it. I called Kew Gardens. I knew they would use manure, and they said try the [cavalry] horses in Hyde Park. I see them all the time, as well as the police horses when they have football matches. I realized there were probably tons of it. I rang up this guy, and he brought me a bucketful of it."

Mixed with a sunflower seed eco-resin, the manure forms a tough yet malleable mass. This works well with soft molds, such as that for the deer heads that Gardiner has made in collaboration with Australian-born artist Sharon Green, producing a surprisingly smooth finish.

Gardiner's desire to work with fecal matter came from a larger project that was her main focus while studying industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art. Brooklyn-born Gardiner had been working as a journalist in San Francisco, but her passion is design. Her research around sanitation led her to school in England and the design of a waterless toilet, the Gardiner ch4, which is about to undergo commercial testing in Nigeria.

The sale of Poo Gems and Deer Heads has contributed to the ongoing refinement of Gardiner's lavatory design. They have also been useful in exploring the ideas that inspired her toilet, which enables users to trade the excrement collected for methane gas, which can then be used as cooking fuel. The refuse becomes a valuable resource. It also makes for a cleaner supply of water, which might otherwise be contaminated by waste.

"Turning shit into a commodity is very much a part of my toilet idea. People will pay for it, and I wanted to show that waste can be turned into a commodity on a local scale." The idea of waste as commodity met the idea of waste as raw material in Gardiner's final project at the Royal College of Art, where she molded a version of her prototype toilet from the resin and manure mix. A toilet made from excrement is the ultimate recycling statement, though using manure on such a large scale has its problems, aside from the smell.

"It's actually really difficult to mix with resin. When you combine anything with h2o molecules in it, even if it looks dry, it just makes a huge foam. It takes about two-and-a-half weeks to harden. When I made the toilet for my show, I had to de-mold it after two days. It did not release well. I had to make a lot of repairs."

For the time being, Gardiner's waste-based objects serve as fund-raising efforts as she works on getting her waterless toilet into the developing world and the marketplace. But she is still interested in the possibilities of utilizing waste in future work. "I could have used human waste, but I had to draw a line somewhere," she says.

Those repelled by the idea of excrement as art may not be impressed that Gardiner is joining a fine-arts tradition stretching from Pierre Manzoni's canned excrement to Chris Ofili's elephant dung paintings that so offended Rudy Giuliani. But if putting her in such company raises awareness of her sanitation work, all the better.

How to Mold Poop
1. Make your mold – the best material to use is silicon, because it’s soft, and since the poo+resin cures very slowly, it is often a bit “green” when it comes time to demold. So successful demolding is much more likely with a silicon mold.

To make the mold: get your object, suspend it in a fixed spot within a container, and mix silicon parts A+B in a bucket. Put the mixed silicon in a vacuum chamber to eliminate air bubbles. pour gently into the container and let it cure. When it’s cured, you cut the object out gently, using a stanley knife, in a zig zag motion along as many sides necessary. The zig zag motion is so that it will “zip” back together when it’s time to tape it up and pack in your poo+resin.

2. Get your poo – I got mine from the royal household cavalry in knightsbridge. the stable manager brought it in a garbage can in his station wagon.

3. Dry your poo – the less moisture in the poo, the less bubbles will form when you mold it. I spread it out on a tray and baked it for 4 hours at 300 degrees farenheit. Keep moving it around and stay nearby in case it starts smoking. It smells, just like what it is – baking horseshit.

4. Powder your poo – this takes a while and is a total pain. The shit tends to be clumpy. I powder it by just rubbing out the clumps with my bare fingers.

5. Prepare your workspace for the big pour – you need your mould, lots of duct tape, rubber gloves, and a very specific Bioresin: 1775xxxl/330 extra slow for large volume casts, made by a german scientist and sold through select suppliers, in London, Canonbury Arts. You also need a measuring scale, a vacuum chamber, two clean buckets.

6. The resin has a 3 hour pot life and hardens partially in 48 hours, fully in about 2 weeks. There is a resin and a hardener. The weight ratio for poo:resin:hardener is 1:2:3. Of course poo is much lighter than liquid, so the volume is mostly poo. Weigh out your quantities. Mix the poo with the resin first, then add the hardener and mix them all together. Mix well until your arms hurt and you can’t carry on any more.

7. the resulting stuff is like a thick fruitcake mix. Pack it into the mold. Pack it hard, all the way in. Tape the mold cracks together – wrap tape all around – and tape something over the opening of the mould (a little piece of plywood) – because when the stuff cures, the top bits will froth up and escape. Even if you tape it they’ll escape. You want the stuff to be compressed into the mold.

8. Wait 48 hours, preferably longer.

9. Demold!