Baked by the sun and surrounded by clay and crickets there rests a sack full of communally shit stained toilet paper. It’s getting pretty full as I add today’s batch, before weighing it down with a heavy stone on a solid wall. The modest plumbing here at Casita de Colores is unable to digest toilet tissue so we have been hoarding it at the bottom of the garden.
In total we are 15, activists, artists, journalists, charity workers, from many corners of Europe. Casita de Colores is located in Eroles, a Catalonian hamlet with a fluctuating population of 20-25 people. We are here in response to a provocation to think deeply about the refugee situation, the most important moral and humanitarian crises we face today.
Within the first few days, I find myself consecutively cleaning the bathrooms and carrying the used toilet tissue out and into the back yard. Amidst the sessions for learning, we check-in with one another and share domestic responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, gardening and taking out the used toilet tissue. I empty the vessel into the black sack, occasionally catching a glimpse of its content and peeling away any ‘clingers’ refusing to depart. As I do so I think about shit, about sanitary, about waste, and about the un-wanted in general.
What comes to mind when we think of waste? We tend to define waste as a material substance, or by-product to be eliminated or discarded as useless or not required. The urban dictionary refers to American musician and composer Frank Zappa as a ‘waster’ for supposedly squandering his musical genius in the pursuit of satire. Yet, if we look at the etymology of ‘waste’ we see that it emerges from vastus, giving it the same Latin root as ‘vast’, meaning a literal space, immense and enormous.
It might seem absurd to embark on a two-week residency, intended to better understand the international and humanitarian refugee crises, by pondering waste – as instigated by a domestic duty concerning shit. But if we aspire to radically think as a species, as the residency title suggests, if we agree that we need to think widely, dig deeper and look systemically at the structures and mental models that sustain our beliefs, then I’d invite you to ponder our societal contempt of shit, of waste and the unwanted as a humble starting point.
For three consecutive years I organised a season of cinema designed to unpick our shared understanding of mental health. These screenings took place at a small cinema with a capacity of approximately 77 seats, with room for people to sit on the floor and up the aisle if necessary. Aware that stigma, the social disapproval of a person or their characteristics, associated with mental health is recognised widely as more damaging than the psychological experiences I attempted to ignore the clinical and diagnostic language as much as possible. The screenings would focus less upon the privatised individual, but rather on the surrounding social, cultural and political context.
In October 2014 as part of this season we screened Kenny, a mockumentary about a Melbourne plumber who works for a portable toilet rental company. Despite his hard working manner and shameless optimism Kenny Smyth, the films protagonist, is constantly belittled by pretty much everyone; employment contractors, his ex-wife, his brother, etc. Kenny literally organises, moves and in many cases handles other people’s shit for a living. In one scene Kenny’s father refers to him as a ‘glorified turd burglar’. Poo related humour and one-liners are plentiful in this Australian comedy, often laugh-out-loud funny, but it tickles us, I’d argue, with a profound perceptiveness; before the opening credits the screen proclaims none are less visible than those we decide not to see.
We arrived at Casita de Colores days after the EU in-out referendum in the UK. Many of us broken by the relentless negativity witnessed first-hand, yet somehow plugged-in and mesmerised by the tragic-comedy politics that followed. The deeply, perhaps intentionally, confused issue of immigration was central to how many people ultimately decided to vote. ‘Britain first’ and ‘Britain is full’ became popular slogans, rekindling the ‘charity starts at home’ rhetoric resulting in a 500% increase in racial attacks. Second and third generation British citizens were absurdly being told to ‘go home.’
When we think of identity in racist attacks, it is perhaps obvious to state that the external has a leading role in shaping the victim’s identity. Yet, we don’t often think of identity as being like this. More often it feels as though identity is something that wells up inside each of us, as individuals, as something that is absolutely ours. Social theorist and political activist Stuart Hall suggests otherwise: ‘Identity is the product of and endless ongoing conversation with everybody around you … you are (partly) how they see you.’
If the dominant culture happens to blame immigration for growing inequality and public spending cuts, as is the current political trend in the UK, and your skin tone doesn’t resemble either Phil Mitchell or Winston Churchill, you are likely to be targeted by racial abuse. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety or depression, in a society whose mainstream persistently misrepresents mental health, you are more likely to be seen as violent or a danger to yourself or other people. In a society which diminishes the role of the menial, yet necessary tasks of the working class, you run the risk of being dismissed by your father as ‘a glorified turd burglar’. Who you are, is shaped by how your society sees you.
It may seem small and insignificant to travel to a small Catalonian hamlet to live collectively and think deeply about the humanitarian/migrant crises, but as John Holloway points out; this is the story of many, many people, of millions, perhaps billions. However small or insignificant our actions might seem, we are not alone. The question then may be; how can we knit these many, many people together, what are the unifying factors and where do we begin?
Consider the following scene from Kenny:
EMPLOYEE: “Kenny, I just got to talk to you about something,
I been here for 12 months, he’s been here for 2 weeks
And, honestly, he’s constantly telling me what to do.
He is really starting to piss me off, I mean
Is there a hierarchy here or something?”
KENNY: “No mate, no, there is no hierarchy,
We’re all shit kickers here mate.
There is no pecking order in poo”
Before morality, before art, before religions, science, politics and nations, human systems ecologist David Korowicz observes, the ecological and thermodynamic foundations of our species are to eat, drink, shit and fuck. We create racial, political and social tensions but fundamentally our foundations are shared and they are very, very basic; we’re all shit kickers here mate.
It might sound crude but perhaps these primal activities, surrounded by taboo, swept under the carpet and largely hidden from public gaze in western public life are fundamental to a radical thinking species. You can have utopia, so the dictum goes, but somebody, somewhere still has to clean up the shit. This is how we think of waste, of shit, of the so-called undignified foundations of our species. We choose not to see them and we create social boundaries and discriminatory tensions to keep them at bay from a privileged few.
Perhaps now, given the deplorable scale of our global humanitarian and ecological crises, it is time to strip bare the western myths of political and societal othering and begin to think radically, not as individuals or nations, but as a species. And perhaps peeling away each other’s shit stained toilet paper in a small Catalonian hamlet is a good a place as any to start.
1 The Eroles Project, Borders Residency (2016)
2 Jonny Random, www.urbandictionary.com (2006)
4 The Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne
5 Shane Jaconson, Kenny (2006)
6 Stuart Hall, The Stuart Hall Project (2013)
7 John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (2010)
8 David Korowicz, The Passing (2014)