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Toilets, Utopian Imaginings and finding the Potty of Gold / 25 May 2016

The design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.

Travelling Toilet Tales …

You may have recently read about Italian creator, Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-carat solid gold toilet installation at the Guggenheim Museum, but he’s not the only artist using a toilet as an inspiration for their art. I have been commissioned to make a soundscape about toilets and utopias, which I have recently finished working on.

Constructed from a collection of toilet themed audio stories, anecdotes and interviews from the Around the Toilet project — this slightly potty sound collage is currently being animated by graphic artist Sarah Smizz.

Our combined piece –Travelling Toilet Tales — will be presented as a film exploring toilets, place and utopian imaginings to be shown at events and exhibitions, and available online at aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com.

Sure, toilets don’t usually spring to mind when talking about utopias or sound-art, but the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people. Using sound and animation, Travelling Toilet Tales illustrates how the design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.

Finding U-toilet-opia…

My personal interest in toilets came from the complexities of accessing toilets as a parent with a physical impairment. Part M of the building regulations advocate that accessible toilets should not have a baby change table. This is primarily because the baby change table can impede access for wheelchair users if it is put in the wrong place, or left down. But like everything in life ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and when my child was young I found the best ‘fit’ for me was accessible, private toilets with baby changing facilities — where I could take care of my child and also go to the toilet myself.

Interestingly, two of the storytellers spoke about difficulties they had accessing toilets with young children, commenting on the need for both an adult toilet and baby change unit in the same space. One storyteller described the joy of finding a baby change toilet that had a dropdown table, free baby wipes and a seat for breastfeeding.

“It really made me feel accepted whereas in other spaces you just think I’m not meant to be here.”

For her, coming across a baby change table felt like finding gold dust. And the idea of a suitable toilet being like ‘gold dust’ was common theme throughout the piece. We all have our U-toilet-opias.

Storytellers described the indignity of being forced to lie on the dirty toilet floor due to a lack of adult changing facilities, restricting what they eat and drink and being harassed for using the wrong toilet. Organisations likeAction for Trans Health and Changing Places are campaigning about these issues. But for many accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces. There is, in its most literal sense ‘no place’ for them to go, making greater toilet access high on the utopian agenda.

Overlapping waters…

While the storytellers came from very diverse backgrounds, many stories overlapped with common considerations of embodiment flowing throughout the piece. It’s interesting that widespread publicity around the “bathroom bills” in the USA focused on conflicts between religious freedom and equal rights for the trans community. Yet, Travelling Toilet Tales shows how gender-neutral toilets are not just a political issue for the trans community. They also benefit parents, particularly fathers, or disabled people who may have personal assistants of a different gender. A person with a learning difficulty, for example, talked about being told off for using the wrong toilet because he was struggling to read the signs on the toilet door.

“Society hasn’t grown up that much.”

‘It’s about changing social norms’ by graphic artist Sarah Smizz

Toilets, and toilet design are issues that impact upon us all. Pensioners describe feeling isolated and staying at home because they fear being “caught short”, whilst lorry drivers restrict what they drink during their working day. One of the most interesting narratives I edited was from a female truck driver, who regularly has to urinate between the load and the unit of her lorry because of public toilet closures. An issue I’d not really considered. Gillian Kemp, who runs Trucker’s Toilets UK and Public Toilets UK, explained that providing public toilets is not a statutory requirement. As a consequence, many local authorities often close public toilets when faced with budget cuts.

Making a bigger splash…

Toilets have traditionally been considered to be an abject ‘bog standard’ space, or a taboo topic — but this piece radically redefines the issue and blends the everyday with the fantastical. From the imaginary toilet of a child to the inventive use of wet tissues instead of a lota, Travelling Toilet Tales takes the audience on an interweaving journey embracing disability, age, faith, gender, class and labour.

Travelling Toilet Tales will be premiered at the Utopia Fair between 24–26 June. Somerset House, London — a partnership with the AHRC and the Connected Communities Programme

Thanks to the Around the Toilet team, with special thanks to the Principal Investigator, Dr Jenny Slater.

Originally published at gemmanashartist.com on May 23, 2016.

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