Environmental Art at Seattle’s Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant
August 28, 2013 by Sarah Amandolare
The city of Seattle incorporates artists into the planning phases of every public works project, including the (seemingly) unsavory issue of waste disposal. This admirable philosophy often results in surprising collaborations between architects, engineers, and creatives.
At the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment plant in King County, for example, engineers and city planners worked closely with artists to create an inspiring, educational destination. Above, in filmmaker and media artist Jim Blashfield‘s installation, seven high definition video screens lead viewers through the life cycle of water and the purification process.
Artist Buster Simpson designed a gigantic water molecule. The purple straw-like structure is actually a pipe that connects to Brightwater’s natural filtration system—the perfect meeting of form and function. Purple pipes signify reclaimed water throughout Brightwater and around the world.
Ellen Sollod, a studio and public artist, focused on the role of science at Brightwater. Sollod used laboratory glass to create microbial shapes, incorporating hand-blown glass, hand-painted touches and acid etchings.
The most recent addition to Brightwater comes from Los Angeles-based environmental artist Jane Tsong. She had a nebulous idea to bless the waste, and began drafting lines and phrases. “It sounded fantastical when I brought it up nine years ago,” she admits.
Tsong realized that bringing her concept to life would require even more collaboration, so she approached poet Judith Roche. Together the duo created a series of blessings to be imparted to the water, air and biosolids treated by the plant before journeying back into the surrounding environment—a process called Loop.
The piece includes visual, audio and tactile elements: steel letters spelling out Roche’s poetic blessing, audio recordings of Roche reading her work, and windmills that can be wound by hand.
The water blessing features steel letters set above a cascade of treated wastewater. Visitors can climb steps to the top of the waterfall, stand at the railing and gaze down. “It’s a final sendoff for the treated water before it goes into Puget Sound,” Tsong said.
The air blessing is “kind of like a modern prayer flag, a mechanical application of a blessing,” Tsong explains. As air is released from stacks, it propels fan-shaped steel letters spelling out the poetic blessing.
Lastly, the biosolids blessing features an audio recording of Roche reading her poem. This phase of the project is still being completed; when finished, the blessing will be automatically triggered as treated biosolids fall into loading trucks to be shipped off to nearby farms. Tsong says the sound of spongy biosolids dropping into loading trucks reminded her of an intense rain shower, which she found surprisingly peaceful.