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What Crap

A new exhibit makes consumption, output, and "energy" tangible

My food My Poop (installation view)

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/12/2009

My Food My Poop

Through Aug. 23 at the Contemporary Museum

Four pounds and two ounces of shit and urine feels about as heavy as a reliable dictionary if held in your hands. At least, its weight equivalent does as a block of wood in Hugh Pocock's My Food My Poop at the Contemporary Museum. The planed wood block is about the size of a box that would perfectly hold a softball, big enough to hold in your hands but also cumbersome enough that it becomes a bit awkward if you try to peruse the gallery with it. You can put it under your arm and sort of rest it against your side, and while 4 pounds, 2 ounces isn't a great deal of weight, it isn't negligible, and you do start to notice it after standing around for more than a few minutes and trying to read Pocock's wall-mounted diary pages around. Only when you remember that this solid block of mass is standing in for the amount of waste Pocock generated on one day--March 13, 2009, to be exact--does the subtle intelligence of this cheekily titled exhibition really set the brain into motion.

Pocock--the New Zealand-born Maryland Institute College of Art professor of sculpture, installation, performance, and video--is no stranger to art/life blurring projects. In 1998, he put an extremely large tree trunk through his Oregon home for Living With a Log (photographic documentation of such was included in the 2007 Wishful Re: Thinking exhibition curated by Jacqueline Schlossman at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery), and he's amassed volumes of natural materials (soil, salt) for other projects. And for 63 days this spring--March 16-April 23--Pocock weighed everything, liquid and solid, that he ingested. Later, he weighed everything, liquid and solid, that he passed as waste. The difference between those two weights he estimates as what his body consumed--the "energy" he needed to run.

It's admittedly unscientific, but Pocock isn't necessarily interested in the hard science of caloric/nutritional input and output. He's basically abstracted what has become common practice among the health conscious, dieting obsessed, and omnivores with dilemmas: documenting and becoming highly aware of what goes in and comes out of the body. Pocock kept a daily diary to record his observations, but his diary pages--which can be viewed at't merely document in minute, precise detail the grams of food consumed but, rather, also offer a checklist narrative of that day's events. And every day includes a tally of total in, total out, and their difference.

The presumed meaning of that difference is what makes this project so fascinating. "Energy" is such a fugitive term. We can't really see it, hold it in our hands, or even measure it that well. Units of energy are expressed in terms of terms: one newton of force moving an object one meter (joule), one dyne of force moving an object one centimeter (erg), the thermal energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1 degree Celsius (calorie). And yet globally, we want to conserve energy, want our home electronics to be more energy efficient, and fear an oncoming energy crisis. Much more individually, advertisements for diets and dietary aides and nutritional strategies tend to promise better energy levels if eating a certain way or supplementing diets with a certain substance. Better use and production of energy is something we, as nations and people, desire.

That's not exactly something we can easily quantify, though, which makes the simple arithmetic of Pocock's 63-day project as culturally illuminating as any other method. For the project's installation at the Contemporary, Pocock papered the walls of a small gallery with 63 pages featuring the daily energy totals used and narrative, while on the floor rest wood blocks--which come from a Baltimore stump dump--chainsawed and planed to the appropriate weight equivalents for the totals represented with branded labels. Nine blocks are included: three small ones representing the food and drink consumed, shit and urine produced, and energy difference from one day, March 19, and six larger blocks--about the size of small ottomans--representing bigger totals, such as 63 days energy 253 lb 5 oz or 21 days shit and urine 85 lb 4 oz.

If you've ever kept a food diary or had to monitor somebody's digestive healing, then perhaps this raw data means something to you. More quizzical are Pocock's sly visualizations of these numbers: as blunt physical objects that could be lumber cast-offs sitting on the side of the road. It's a decision that not only turns volumes and mass into an indelible object, but turns them into a mundane thing that ties in with the Contemporary's main show, San Francisco artists collective Futurefarmers The Reverse Ark, an interactive-qua-activist nexus that considers what happens to materials when they're no longer considered useful. Since opening back in March, the exhibition and the museum has served as workshop home base for a string of classes/social experiments--you can check them out at interweave art and activism that has come under scrutiny recently now that the Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC) was awarded the Sondheim Prize last month.

The various local natterings tend to be a little too myopic to go into here--for a good contemplation of them, check out Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson's July 15 post at her complaining about the Cooperative winning the Sondheim misses the forest for the trees. The problem is not that the BDC won the Sondheim, the problem is that too much of recent social justice-minded art tends to create bad visual art and even worse community politics. That's not the fault of the BDC, but of contemporary art being entirely too bourgeois as a whole. (Regardless, a better response to the BDC's Sondheim award, especially for a community as tight-knit as Baltimore, might be to turn the win into a challenge. OK, BDC, now that you've got this prize, prove that you've earned it.)

Pocock's project is a mature, idiosyncratic, but highly effective tonic to the process-oriented public gestures that feel politically inert or socially isolated. My Food My Poop is disarmingly personal, not just because of the nature of the project itself, but because Pocock realizes that his raw data mean nothing without including the quotidian dramas he lived through when performing this project. His short narrative notes--such as this one from April 15: "feeling weary of this project, hard to keep it up"--provide windows into the banal world in which politics and ideas interact. Pocock's "energy" consumption powers his activities with his wife and kids, his trips to Washington to attend an event, and other such trivial matters that, you know, make life worth giving a damn about at all. On April 27, Pocock notes, he "became aware of my heart beating, thought of my food giving my heart energy to beat." It's a throwaway observation--a passing daydream at best--but in the context of this installation, it quietly articulates why energy is an idea about which anybody should give a shit.

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