Matéa LeBeau + Isabella Culotta – 2022 Cornell Biennial


Waste Not: In search of adaptive solutions to sewage treatment, soil health, and food production
Outdoor Installation

Human waste cycling is the circular system of reclaiming valuable nutrients from human waste to use as fertilizers and soil amendments. Municipalities currently pay to dispose of our waste in landfills and waterways without recovering our excess nutrients. As landfill costs rise and water pollution increases, our current sewage system is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable and overlooks a resource excreted by every human each day– our nutrient dense waste. In a utopian model, nitrogen, currently synthetically produced through an energy intensive process, would be recovered from liquid waste to produce urea fertilizers. Phosphorus, a non-renewable resource, would be recovered from solid waste in biochar form, an organic soil amendment.

Depicting the process of human waste cycling through an art installation will demystify a process that challenges core perceptions of waste. Art engages audiences with scientific processes they may not know exist in intriguing and comprehensible ways. The biological r(evolution) of waste management needs artistic approaches to engage the public in such a scientifically in-depth process. A human waste cycling sculpture would provoke a viewer to see the potential of this initiative, and envision themselves functioning within it, without requiring an in-depth understanding of the scientific process. Since conversations around human waste are often met with taboos, it is imperative to employ art to illustrate the interdependence of human waste and our food system.

We’ve imagined an art installation between Sibley and Olive Tjaden Hall on Cornell’s campus.  The installation would feature a circle of soil separation toilets filled with soil made from solid waste biochar and fertilizer from nitrified urine. Crop and flowering plants would grow from the soil mixture, depicting the value of phosphorus and nitrogen to edible and nutritious plant growth in the excrement we flush away.

Current sewage management perpetuates the taboo of human waste while encouraging a colonial perspective of hygiene and food production. Human waste cycling might be novel for western societies, but this process has been used globally for centuries to supplement soil nutrients and enhance plant growth. In alignment with the CCA Biennial’s mission, this piece will spark a cultural transformation of our waste cycling system and deconstruct notions of western superiority in climate and agri-food solutions. On Cornell’s campus and within a predominantly white and green-driven community, this project would bring value and respect to agricultural and waste strategies that colonialism has deemed “savage” for centuries. This installation would provoke an immediate association between our waste and global fertilizer needs in the face of climate change. It would enrich the Cornell and Ithaca community by expanding the possibilities of human waste and highlighting the pertinent unsustainability of fertilizer supply chains.

Matéa LeBeau

Matéa LeBeau is a fourth year BFA in AAP at Cornell. Her art practice focuses on the threat of an uninhabitable future posed by the fossil fuel industry and anthropogenic influences. She is a multimedia artist and has utilized a plentitude of media to investigate and critique the drivers of climate change and other themes. Moving forward, she’d like to investigate the ways in which art and science can come together to make a more influential impact on its collective audience in a world shifted by climate change.

Isabella Culotta

Isabella Culotta is a fourth year BS student in CALS. Her research in soil and plant systems and international development drives her exploration of nutrient cycling circular economies, locally and globally. Through ongoing soil chemistry research, food system courses, and Art-Science workshops she has cultivated a hunger for a revolution in human waste management. As a florist apprentice and plant science student, she values the beauty of plants and the power of artists to guide audience perception and facilitate comprehension and application of scientific findings.

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