CLOACA and ART        

Gerardo Mosquera

Art is the only space where it makes sense to build a machine that produces shit. However, I do not believe Cloaca to be the ultimate confirmation of the inutility of art. It does corroborate it ad absurdum, of course, and no doubt the piece itself is a comment on this. It also remarks another aspect: art as a haven were almost everything is possible and accepted. What is useful about art is precisely its uselessness, its impracticality. In a world dominated by pragmatism, it guarantees a freer symbolic enterprise in creating much needed fetishes. Cloaca stands like an all-encompassing deus otiosus of our times. What it actually produces is not shit but meaning. And at the end, its meaning is its very own existence.

Cloaca is producing shit anyway. Shit and contemporary art are good friends indeed. Many an art work has been dealing with excrements and piss in the recent past. However, actual shit and piss are seldom exhibited at the museum or the gallery. They are merely represented in the final pieces. In cases in which these materials are present, they are most often aseptically framed, hidden from our noses. For our visually oriented culture, to watch seems more tolerable than to smell. Since the sense of smell remains less culturally developed, odors (and especially stinks) connect to the real stuff in a direct way. The visual dwells as a representational domain where hygiene wins at the end. Wim Delvoye's work, on the contrary, not only shows real shit: its conceptual and physical finality is to generate it before the audience.

Cloaca's shit is not genuine shit, though. As Adrian Dannatt has stated, what the piece creates is "real fake shit' valuable for its inauthenticity". The machine stands as art because of this ambiguity. Moreover, artificiality constitutes the backbone of its artistic discourse. Following the aforementioned general tendency in contemporary art, Delvoye is also representing shit at the end -only that he represents it by creating artificial shit that is also actual, even if it is not true.

In Cuba and Spain, we constantly verbalize the act of shitting as an interjection. We frequently exclaim in Spanish: "I shit on this… I shit on that!" We shit on everything, from God to everybody's mother, to the hour in which one was born; we even shit over ten people at once. We shit more with our mouths than with our asses. We are shit producers both physically and symbolically, same as Cloaca. But the most provocative expression is one that reminds me of a certain tautological sense in Delvoye's work: "I shit on shit".

The rapport to shit varies among cultures and historical periods. Our radical Western aversion to it is partly the result of the way hygiene evolved from the 19th century on. It is also a matter of age: small children are friendly to their excrements. Repudiation of shit is largely something that is learned -to the point that it has become an internalized habit related to health. Shit is for us the lowest thing, the maximum dirt. The interjection that I just mentioned expresses the idea that we can even dirty and insult shit itself by shitting on it.

Some contemporary peoples have a less confrontational relation with shit, and even use it today for hair dressing and as a cosmetic. In many places, dung has also other uses in close proximity to human life. For instance, it is employed as building material and cooking combustible. We are not talking about rarities but about millions of people who directly engage in excrements, one way or another.

The increasingly extended rejection of shit is an unattended fruit of globalization, one of the same quality as MacDonaldization. Even so, in the context of other cultures, Cloaca might still make sense beyond art, or at least be an exaggerated, costly, and hyper-technological utopian invention. Consequently, there are multicultural axiologies and politics of shit, and therefore different paradigms from which to understand Cloaca.

The creation of this machine as a work of art constitutes an epitome of our civilization. Its meaning comes from combining art, science and technology (the supreme spaces of intellectual sophistication) in order to artificially produce what is semantically considered their opposite: the least legitimated product of the human body (the dark side of human perfection). The work is thus a metaphor for a brilliant and worthless civilization. More significantly, it is its product.

Defecating is probably the most intimate, private act in our culture. This feature comes from our view of shit as the dirtiest and bottommost thing, the lowest realm of the impure. To evacuate the bowels is to contradict our spiritual aura, to undergo our animality. This feeling tells volumes about our civilization's pedantry: when we shit we verify that we are not divine. Furthermore, we receive a "daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation", in Milan Kundera's much quoted statement. Luckily enough, for other, more modest peoples, excretion is not such a big deal. It is frequently associated with cleaning oneself instead of getting dirty, and it does not necessarily constitute a private action.

A friend told me that the first time he took Ecstasy, his initial reaction was to feel as if he wanted to evacuate. He was in a deserted beach with his girlfriend, flooded in love for her, holding her tenderly, and at the same time feeling he would not mind defecating in front of her. This was not a sexual, cophrofilic impulse, but a spiritual one. The feeling came together with a higher dimension of his love for her. Thus, the stimulus provided by the "love drug" included an unexpected reaction: the odd association of spiritual love with shit.

Cloaca defecates in front of us. This action is a spectacle that goes beyond the visual, with the machine sounding and producing odors. However, Cloaca is not a peep show. Nobody sees its action as a private, intimate act that has been turned into a public performance. There is no exhibitionism involved, at least no more than what is usual in art. Our experience of the work is not voyeuristic due to the absence of the body, which has been replaced by technology. The discussions around Delvoye's piece are mainly focused on art, never on issues of intimacy, gaze or the body.

Cloaca is not a hi-tech machine. It proves that at least we do not need computers to elaborate shit. The piece works as a conceptual device, given its artistic proposition, although it is real and actually functions. However, its appeal is also visual. The machine is beautiful. It has a pristine, enigmatic lab-like elegance, as if coming out of an old science-fiction film.

A glance at its carefully conceived design is enough to perceive that it is not a robot in the strict sense. It needs human participation in order to work. Naturally, the piece looks more like some medical equipment which substitutes organ functions. In this aspect, it relates to José Antonio Hernández-Diez' early works. It is humanized technology more because of a bodily accent than as a result of its function. Maybe randomly, but also meaningfully, given Cloaca's Dadaist stance, the machine also refers in a certain way to Picabia's drawings.

The ancient Mesoamericans believed that humankind was created from maize. Therefore, they thought that if people would eat only maize they would not shit. There should not be any rejection after eating the very material from which they were made out of.

However, shit is not all shit. It always contains useful elements which digestion has not enough time to process and incorporate in the organism. This is why excrements are good fertilizers. The more advanced chicken-breeding system gives the bird its shit back, mixed with other ingredients, for it to eat. Excrements are recycled four times in the animal's diet (one more reason to become vegetarian!). Nicholas Tsoutas once told me that, applying a similar principle of cleaning the shit of shit and enhancing its nutritional elements, a Japanese scientist produced sausages out of his own feces, and ate them on a TV program. Thus, shit could not only be a valuable art collectible, as has been discussed in this book, but a politically correct -if perhaps not so delicious- food.

This ecological experiment is in a way the reversal of Delvoye's Cloaca, which, instead of recycling, is adding even more shit to the world. In the Spanish Caribbean, the insult comemierda literally means shit-eater, and significantly enough corresponds to the term 'asshole' in English. If a considerable part of humankind is suffering from starvation and hunger, or survives with a very limited diet, perhaps the shit sausage could be a rational way of resolving a most pressing world problem. Maybe shit could impede revolution, or itself be the actual revolution. If that happens, comemierda will cease to be an insult and become a compliment. A problem remains: in order to produce shit, food is needed in the first place, and that is definitely the main problem to begin with. The obvious solution would be for the "First World" to donate shit to produce food for people in Guatemala, Ethiopia and North Korea. Should we need to use technology to facilitate such a huge undertaking, we could then transform Cloaca from an artwork into a useful machine, and mass-produce it. A joint venture involving Delvoye and the Japanese scientist would be the ultimate dream of joining art and life to save our planet.

Of course, coprophagy and coprophilia are also part of human desire. However, Cloaca's interest in feces runs in a different direction. It is a clean, even aseptic scatological project. Shit is not its end but its means, although creating shit is its practical goal. Delvoye's scatology focuses on the symbolic content of shit, not on its inspection or jouissance. Scatology is just a consistent part of his artistic poetics, which aims to discuss the fetishization of art, the relations between "high" and "low", and the displacements of meaning in contemporary culture, often by simultaneously constructing them.

Happy ending: Cloaca is the au delŕ of Duchamp.

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Down the Hatch: Art for Digestion's Sake
by William Grimes, in: The New York Times, January 30th 2002.

At the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo last Thursday, a Belgian artist named Wim Delvoye walked up five steps to reach a steel platform. As television cameras rolled and reporters scribbled notes, he leaned over and picked up a cloth napkin enclosing a knife and fork. Then he lifted a plate of seared monkfish with fines herbes, and, very deliberately, began cutting the food into little bites and feeding it to a room-size machine named Cloaca, from the Latin word for sewer. From time to time he would reach down for a bowl of Belgian frites, dip a stick of crisp brown fried potato in mayonnaise, and throw it into the clear glass bowl that serves as Cloaca's mouth. Cloaca washed down its dinner with a big glass of Duvel, a Belgian beer. In a matter of five minutes, the meal was over and Cloaca settled down to do what it does best: digest.

For the next three months, someone at the museum will feed Cloaca lunch and dinner. When a blue light goes on, signalling that the machine is ready to eat, food will be introduced into the glass mouth and chewed in a garbage disposal unit and a meat grinder. Moved along by pumps, the food will make its way through six glass jars neatly lined up on two steel carts linked like the cars of a train. The jars, filled with acids, bases, pancreatin, bilirubin and bile, mimic the human digestive system. The journey lasts 22 hours and covers a distance of 33 feet.

Mr. Delvoye is a conceptual artist. The concept, as he explained it to the news media, is something like this:

Everything in modern life is essentially pointless. The most pointless thing he could think of was a machine that serves no useful function at all. The most useless function he could think of was the reduction of food to waste. (He never got around to explaining the point of making a point about pointlessness.) Cloaca, he said, was not a scientific experiment. Science implies usefulness or purpose. "I like the beauty of doing all this work for nothing," he said.

In the crowd were several chefs from Markt, Jerry's and Savoy, which, with other restaurants yet to be named, will be feeding Cloaca in the coming weeks. When Mr. Delvoye (pronounced Del-VWAH) began talking about the utter futility of eating, I could see troubled looks pass over the chefs' faces. I suddenly felt that I was witnessing an important culture clash. Not so much a clash, really, as a yawning divide, so wide as to make a clash impossible. A clash implies contact and some sort of communication, if only the communication of a violent argument. But the language Mr. Delvoye was speaking to the chefs might as well have been Martian. Food pointless? Eating futile? The chefs shook their heads in sorrow.

The chefs, dressed in the white jackets of their guild, were artists of a kind, but as artists they live in a different world and a different age from Mr. Delvoye. Chefs, especially in New York, speak to a large, discerning audience. If they fail, they go out of business. Their work is judged by generally understood standards. As artists, they have much more in common with Bach than Jeff Koons. They undergo years of formal training to acquire a set of skills, and they sell those skills on the open market, just as masons and set designers and composers once sold theirs in an age when the difference between art and craft scarcely existed.

The theory surrounding chefly work is minimal. Restaurants need no system of grants and government props to keep them going. Everybody wants and understands what chefs do, if it is done well enough. Like Hollywood film or popular music, restaurants are an art form supported by a large, paying public. Visual artists can only dream of a time when that set of circumstances applied to them.
There was something touching, then, about the way the people at Markt treated Cloaca as if it were a paying customer. Sparkling silverware was wrapped in a fresh white linen napkin, held in place with a paper collar printed with the Markt logo. To the side of the machine a printed menu had been affixed to a wooden stand. For this first demonstration, the machine would dine on seared monkfish aux fines herbes sautéed in butter flavoured with Leffe Blond beer and layered with baby vegetables and shrimp. A sprig of rosemary was placed in the centre of the monkfish. The menu card concluded with a cheery "Bon Appétit!"

"At first I thought it was bizarre," said Chris Gielen, the chef at Markt. "I mean, it's a machine." Machine or not, Mr. Gielen applied himself to the task. "The artist is Belgian, and we are a Belgian restaurant, so naturally I wanted to serve something with that in mind," he said. The Belgian frites with mayonnaise were a given, as was the Belgian beer, although Cloaca prefers water to alcohol. Normally it drinks 2.6 quarts of water with each meal. It cannot accept raw vegetables, very spicy food or meat with bones. The museum staff vetoed onions and Brussels sprouts. Monkfish with fines herbes satisfied the dietary guidelines and Mr. Gielen's professional pride. "He's eating good," he said.
Peter Hoffman, the chef at Savoy, will start feeding Cloaca tomorrow. He has not decided on a menu, but he has been a little disappointed at the machine's limitations and the project's intent.

"When I heard Delvoye speak, it was odd to me, because he doesn't ask questions that make us think about culture and diet," he said. "Like, if I throw in greasy food versus more healthy food, what happens? Do various diets make any difference to this machine? Does it need 2,200 calories a day, and how would it deal with 3,800?" Mr. Hoffman even entertained some renegade, disruptive thoughts. "Could we give it food poisoning?" he said, musingly. He and his colleagues have debated other questions as well. Should Cloaca get the full treatment, and be fed from Savoy's menu, or should it be fed a staff meal? The menu remains under discussion.

The idea of feeding a machine, though, does not seem to bother Mr. Hoffman at all. "We feed all kinds of people and welcome anyone who walks in the door," he said. Evidently, a steel machine that looks like a science project counts as just another diner, with some differences. Cloaca won't tip, for one thing. On the other hand, it won't send food back to the kitchen, either.

Brett Winter, the chef at Jerry's in SoHo, seemed blasé about the assignment. "You get asked to cook for all sorts of people and all sorts of occasions," he said. "I've been asked to cook for people's dogs." He plans to serve hearty, rather simple fare, like boneless short ribs, or pork chops off the bone crusted in cumin and coriander. "I'm also thinking about meatloaf," Mr. Winter said. "I want to make him something homey."

I wanted to stop the conversation right there. Meatloaf was brilliant. Not the fact of meatloaf, but meatloaf as a cultural sign, a sly, subversive move from the chefs' side of the chessboard. Mr. Delvoye, as an opening gambit, has proposed the airless, hermetically sealed notion of food and its preparation as the ultimate absurdity. To which Mr. Winter offers a simple response. Meatloaf. It seems like an irrefutable argument to me. Better yet, as a conceptual gesture, meatloaf for a machine matches Mr. Delvoye tit for tat. Bon appétit, Cloaca.

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(At New York City's New Museum)

by Barry Thorne

As tourism and museum attendance declines in the wake of 9-11, some New York museums have become desperate in their attempt to draw a crowd. This past spring the New Museum in downtown Manhattan took sensationalism to the limit with the display of the installation Cloaca, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. Cloaca (the name derived from the Latin word for sewer), is a machine that produces human fecal matter. That’s right, food goes in one end and 12 hours later, out the other comes a blob of simulated human feces. The machine’s design, with its abundance of exposed beakers, tubes and weird dials, seems to be intended to convey feelings of horror and mystery, such as you may get from the set of a Frankenstein movie. The mysterious Wim Delvoye takes the place of Dr. Frankenstein here, but unfortunately for us, the end product of his creation is a bit less inspiring than that of the good doctor.

What role does the New Museum play in this theatrical charade, the role of Universal Studios no doubt? Just as in the original film, the museum has gone to great lengths to authenticate the production and endow the piece with tremendous merit and deep art historical significance. The culture smiths and word magicians employed by the museum have constructed a labyrinth of mumbo jumbo to distract and confuse the viewer. Curators and gallery owners frequently use this technique. Just as the eye is tricked by the slight of hand of the magician, the reason of the viewer is tricked by the slight of verbiage and the device slips into place as a respected object of high art.

The Cloaca device, created with the assistance of some University of Antwerp scientists who had nothing better to do with their time, is certainly an interesting piece of machinery. It would be a noteworthy exhibit at a Midwestern science fair, but the question remains, is it art? According the New Museum it is not only art, it is art that "forces viewers to question elaborate cultural mechanisms." It is also an "ongoing investigation into abjection as fundamental to the human condition" and an attempt "to replace an iconography of narcissism and power with one in which discomfort and pain are tangibly present." Perhaps the museum curators have made an error in their interpretation of the device? Perhaps it is not human fecal matter that is produced, but that of our old herbivorous friend, the tricky bull?

Just as shaking generators and electrical charges pulsing across the dungeon laboratory were not enough to resuscitate Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, our producer, Senior Curator Dan Cameron, must go further. Pulling a lever that pushes the generators up to full power, he blows another fuse. To him the device is so intense it goes beyond intensity: "our cultural anxieties about these processes [shitting] are so deep seated that they do not even qualify as anxieties in the first place." Accordingly, the device is related to "other biological uncertainties, including (but not limited to) guilt concerning sex, embarrassment over nudity, shame about aging, fear of disease, and death." It reminds us of "the vast aspects of our most intimate lives — and by extension the world." Perhaps Curator Dan has been eating too many of those fatty gourmet meals from the same Soho restaurants providing fodder for the Cloaca device and has trouble relieving himself. To him it seems that taking a crap has got to be one of the most anxiety ridden, existential, mind blowing experiences imaginable, while to most people, sitting down and taking a good load off is an enjoyable experience.

Of course, the full power generators were not enough to resuscitate Frankenstein. The doctor had to open the roof and raise the monster up. Only the ultimate power crashing down from heaven itself would give life to the creature. In keeping with the original production, our master takes it to the limit: "Cloaca directly confronts the contemporary confusion regarding when or where human life begins or ends. Cloaca forces us to catch ourselves in the act of self identification." It is about "what it means to be alive, but we are surprised that this particular challenge has originated outside the field of artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, it is strangely consoling to recognize that some of the most basic facts of our physical lives remain as foreign and mysterious as the deepest secrets about the origins of the universe." There you have it--a little intellectual slight of lip and a bunch of beakers and tubes that turns a nice meal into a plop of simulated crap is more amazing than artificial intelligence, as serious as the question of life’s beginnings and as mysterious as the origins of the universe.

It does not appear that the question of life’s beginnings and the origins of the universe will be answered by the Cloaca device, but the question of whether or not it is art seems to have been successfully eluded once again. Another question is why the curators of the New Museum are sitting around spending untold amounts of money and time promoting and contemplating the deep meaning of a turd on a conveyor belt? Is the reservoir of culture so dry? Is this the best they can come up with? We may never know the answer to these questions, but there is one thing we do know for certain, a fact that has been confirmed by the museum’s curators themselves. At New York City’s New Museum in Manhattan--art is a piece of shit!

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Wim Delvoye's poop machine digests real food with very smart results.



Wim Delvoye , Daniel Richter and Republic Of Love at the Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West), opening Saturday (March 27), to May 23. $4, stu/srs $2, free Wednesday 5-8 pm. Wim Delvoye lecture today (Thursday, March 25), 7 pm, in the Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay West). $15. 416-973-4949. Rating: NNNNN

Artist lectures are, in general, not all that interesting. In fact, they tend to dish out a lot of shit. Then there's Belgian artist Wim Delvoye , who talks a lot about shit and is a very interesting fellow.

Delvoye is in town for the opening of the Toronto installation of his poop machine, Cloaca, New & Improved. Cloaca uses enzymes and bacteria to replicate the human digestive system, accepting food at one end, breaking it down in the middle and excreting dung at the other end.

This machine, the second of three (there's an Original and a Turbo version), can produce the equivalent feces of five people every day.

When it was up at the New Museum in New York, the machine was fed gourmet meals from the city's celebrity chefs. At the Power Plant , Cloaca will be fed scraps from local restaurants. Pray you don't visit the installation on a day that sees it digest a lot of leftover meat. Cloaca makes real shit, in every way.

Delvoye's fascination with shit is less about fixation than about frustration.

"I'm a frustrated da Vinci artist," he says over the phone from Belgium. "Sometimes I'm a frustrated advertising executive, and sometimes I wish I were a doctor."

But instead of treating irritable bowel syndrome, Delvoye invented Cloaca.

"It's shit but it's clean," he says of the sterile-looking metal machine. "That way I get away without offending anybody."

His body of work includes tattooed pigs, "marble" floors made out of cold cuts, prints of his anus, and sexual acts captured on X-ray. His work is accessible because it deals with basic human functions. In many cases, the person on the street can relate to tattooing more than fine art. Delvoye relishes the fact that his work has a sort of street credibility, and he exhibits a healthy skepticism toward exhibiting in museums.

"Museums remind me of clinics," he says, speaking again like a frustrated doctor. "It's somewhere art goes when it's sick, not when it's young and fresh."

Cloaca, indeed, is like a sick patient, reliant upon the gallery staff to feed it the nutrients it needs to continue to function.

"For Cloaca, the gallery is like a nurse. In fact, the word 'curate' means 'to nurse' in Latin."

But as an art piece, Cloaca is very, very healthy. In fact, it has been a worldwide touring success. The ad man in Delvoye has turned Cloaca into a marketing machine, appropriating the images of Mr. Clean and elements of the logos of Ford and Coca-Cola to help sell his crap (, and he's currently creating a personal version of Cloaca so that everyone can have a poop machine at home.

Why would anyone want a poop machine?

"The only thing that all art objects have in common is uselessness," he says, noting that there is nothing more useless than a machine that makes shit when we make it ourselves and then flush it away as quickly as we can.

"As a machine, I would not recommend purchasing Cloaca, but as a piece of art...."

Delvoye is selling convertible debentures on the Belgian stock exchange so that investors can get a piece of his action. Originally, he was going to approach the Toronto Stock Exchange, because it was recommended as a market that's doesn't mind listing shit.

Cloaca's likely failure as a business enterprise doesn't bother Delvoye. "When you're trying to sell people shit, there will be a tragic ending. Shit guarantees that.

"In everything I do, I fail. But a degree of failure makes you more interesting. And failure generates the ultimate art piece. Cloaca would cease to be art if it saved lives. If someone called me and said, 'We think your machine would help save this child's life,' then that would be the moment it would be useful and it would cease to be art."

He thinks for a moment and laughs. "And then my frustration would be over." Wim Delvoye meditates on the issue of waste and the uselessness of art

NOW | MAR 25 - 31, 2004 | VOL. 23 NO. 30


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