New Museum | January 25 – April 28, 2002
Cloaca, the machine that takes in food and turns it into shit, surprised the hell out of me. I’d expected to like it—a little. I wanted to see it eat, and I did see food washed down its gullet into a food disposal. I wanted to see it shit, but I didn’t—a technician from Belgium is on the way! I wanted to make scatological jokes and the give a recipe for one of the “high quality” meals (all quotes are from the New Museum handouts unless otherwise noted,) that the machine needs to function properly.
Instead, I’m downright disgusted by it. Wim Delvoye, who had the idea, did the fundraising, and got the gastroenterologists and technicians to build the contraption, knew that I would be. Gosh, he’s so smart that all objections to it have already been made a part of the piece. Dan Graham, senior curator at the New Museum, knows why. It is “because [I am] unable to recognize that [my] anxiety and discomfort about feces are connected to broader cultural taboos concerning the body and its imperatives, so [I] cannot imagine a mind-set that would treat feces objectively as if one were studying insects or cloud patterns.” Not even imagine it? Me? Who spent three years as a hospital orderly?
Here are the real reasons I think that I think I’m disgusted by Cloaca:
The amount of money the thing cost. Two hundred thousand euros by one estimation, plus shipping and handling. Don’t say shit can’t be made cheaper than that! After all, the machine is touted as being able to “chew, swallow, digest and eliminate,” but digestion is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “the process by which food is converted into substances that can be absorbed and assimilated by a living organism.” Cloaca uses stomach acids and enzymes to rot food and then it squeezes the liquid out of it. Would it be entirely out of place here to mention that beauty resides in the economy of means to an end? And wrong to suggest that a work of art advertised as a spectacle should be paid for by the ticket price?
The contribution of gimmickry and the gleeful earnestness of its presentation. We are urged to identify with it, a woman in a chef costume comes to feed it, the menu of one of the SoHo restaurants that feeds it is displayed with its particular meal highlighted, its feeding and shitting times are listed with the suggestion that people will gather for it (feeding at 11am and 4:30pm, shitting at 2:30pm), the blue light that flashes when it’s hungry (which didn’t but they fed it anyway), the way the high quality of the experts and the delicacy of the machine are impressed upon us.
The total and utter predictability of it all. The name “Cloaca” is presented in a logo styled after Coca-Cola. If you imagine what it will look like, it will look exactly like that! Jars, pipes, pumps, condenser, compressor, conveyor belt. A few of the conversations I overheard or took part in, including my own remarks: “Oh, it must be constipated.” “So amazing how the human body does all that and is so much smaller!”, and so forth. Is Cloaca useless? The New Museum doesn’t seem to think so. It’s an “educational enterprise”, a tool for “bringing art and science together”, and “its most significant contribution appears to be in an area of philosophy one might refer to as bioethics.” How about let’s talk about art ethics?
Leaving aside the objectionable aspect of art as an educational enterprise, should artists ask people to do useless or boring things? I once worked for a woman who chose a dark brown carpet for the five flights of stairs in her townhouse. She hired a maid from the Philippines to vacuum the lint from it, from top to bottom and over and over again all day long. For the sake of argument, I’m going to say that artists should make their own work with all the limitations that would entail. Paying other people to carry out dumb ideas should be left to government and business. At the least, Mr. Delvoye should cook for Cloaca, feed it, and clean up for it, just to show that he cares.
For good work on shit, see Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Buñuel, Karen Finley, Peter Saul’s “Pooping on Duchamp” and Joseph Beuys’s “Honey Pump in the Workplace.” “Honey Pump in the Workplace” is quite an ugly, useless thing that doesn’t bother with moving parts. The beauty of it resides in imagining the chemical and mechanical process of changing one substance into another that takes place inside the body, in the dark. It is also rather large in relation to what it refers to: the interior of the bee. In this context, it’s interesting to remember that honey is a euphemism for shit and a “honey bucket,” for example, is a toilet that is emptied manually.
I’ll be damned before I give the recipe for Cloaca’s meal, which was chickpea dip, roasted halibut and pumpkin risotto, but I will tell you how to make yogurt, which I made for the first time myself yesterday. Yogurt contains lactobacillus acidophilus, which colonize in the digestive system, and helps to digest food and boost the immune system. To make it, you must use antibiotic-free milk and a yogurt with live cultures—this information will be stated on the label. Any kind of milk will do, from skim to half-and-half. You will also need a thermometer.
Heat the milk to 180 degrees, then cool it to between 115 and 120 degrees. Mix a half-teaspoon (yes, that’s right—it grows) of yogurt into the bowl of milk, cover it and put it into an unheated oven—the heat from the pilot in a gas oven or the light in an electric oven will keep it warm enough. Leave it undisturbed for eight hours or a bit longer as needed. The idea is to keep it around 98.6 degrees, which is the same temperature that Cloaca uses to make shit.