Joshua Sofaer


Gum Wall: Beauty and Revulsion

I am visting Seattle to talk at Seattle Art Museum about The Rubbish Collection, a public participatory project which confronted waste, and to my simultaneous delight and disgust, I have happened across a public participatory project which does a similar thing: The Market Theater Gum Wall in Post Alley underneath the famous Pike Place Market.

Around 50 feet of wall up to 15 feet high and in parts several inches thick, is covered with chewing gum and bubble gum that the public have stuck up there. The collective DNA on this wall is overwhelming. It really is an event of both beauty and revulsion to see (and smell) this amount of chewed gum in one alleyway.




People have been sticking their gum to these walls for more than 20 years. It’s not entirely clear to me how it all started but apparently after a couple of attempts to clear it all away, the building occupants have given up and embraced their mint, fruit, and cola flavoured exterior.









As the person responsible for putting Una White’s Name in Lights, I was pleased to spot this rather more ad hoc version: your name in gum.



Some parts of the wall don’t look so fresh. They are beginning to form new micro-ecosystems.





It is easy to see why it has been designated a tourist attraction. People coo and yelp in equal measure. I don’t remember the last time I encountered something that managed to be so wonderfully charming and repulsive at the same time.


Taiwan in London

I miss Taiwanese food. Working on Night Market Theatre last autumn and being surrounded by beef noodles, fried squid, barbeque corn on the cob, rice buns, slow cooked pork (to name only a few) treated my palette to an abundance of tastes for which I am now yearning.

You can imagine my excitement when I saw a new Taiwanese eatery opening around the corner from me in Lexington Street. Bao, which is Chinese for ‘bun’ is the latest in London’s craze for international street food. Initially a stall at Netil Market in Hackney, Bao opened its first restaurant in Soho earlier this month.


The queues have been forming everyday. With the takeaway service not yet up and running, there was no alternative but to stand in line.


Bao is small and beautifully designed with wood lined walls and cute little cubbyholes. You sit at a table, around a counter, or at the window. As in many Taiwanese restaurants, you are given a slip of paper menu, on which you write the number of dishes that you want to order. We ordered: scallop with yellow bean garlic; beef soup with braised daikon radish; eryngli mushrooms with fermented century egg; Taiwanese fried chicken with hot sauce; classic pork bao with peanut powder; fried chicken bao; and 2 Taiwanese ‘Gold Medal’ beers. The dishes were small. The scallop was one single scallop. The soup a small bowl. The tastes were very good.



By far the most delicious to me was the ‘classic bao’. Meltingly soft shredded pork in perfectly soft bun, with sweet peanut powder and a soy based sauce. My ‘expert’ dinner companion agreed that it was great but felt the addition of cinnamon was not authentic.


These small plates did not come cheap. At £43.88 (that’s 2,045 New Taiwan Dollars) and not quite replete, this is not the street food of Hualien, where you would pay a quarter of the price. It is, of course, cheaper than return flight to Taipei and they do have an incredibly cute logo.



In the same week as trying Bao, I had the opportunity to go to lunch at Ho-ja in Goldhawk Road. Ho-ja is an informal Taiwanese owned and operated restaurant in the heart of West London’s fabric-selling district. No queue here. They also have disposable placemats with illustrations of Taipei streets and Taiwnese ‘things’.




We ordered a fried chicken burger, a beef burger, beef noodle, and chicken with glass noodles. Although the burgers are not really traditionally Taiwanese, it would not be unexpected to find an enterprising stallholder in a night market making and selling them.



The buns were not as soft as at Bao but the portions were much more generous. The beef noodles were the highlight for me. Perhaps most of all I have been missing Mr Gu’s Beef Noodle Stall at Zhiqiang Night Market and although I would take his over these everyday, the taste was enough to remind me, in a good way, what I was missing.



Ho-ja is considerably cheaper than Bao, with more calories at half the price. I will happily visit both again for a taste of Taiwan in London.

Manipulated from the inside

On the return to the UK from Taiwan I decided to take advantage of the fact that I needed to transfer in Bangkok and to explore Thailand for a couple of weeks. Thailand is everything you hear about it only more so.

Back in London looking at the photographs that I took of temples, palaces, urban sprawl, and mountain retreats, I realise that I have created an album of mediocre tourist images of the great sites of Bangkok and Chiang Mai that could form part of a travel guide: nothing to write home about.

There is however, one set of photographs that I want to share, taken of a pair of glass vitrines in The National Museum Bangkok. Situated in the former Palace of the Front or ‘Wang Na’, constructed in 1782, the museum is sited in a series of different buildings around the palace compound. It is a municipal organisation lacking money and although there are incredible objects around almost every corner, the displays are often dated and dusty.

In these two vitrines however, the cramped conditions and neglect add to their charm.


Despite being the nation’s repository for Thai culture, these two cases in fact house objects of a different origin; they present a collection Chinese puppets. The label reads as follows: ‘These small puppets wearing Chinese Opera costumes were used in the performances of Chinese music dramas. The puppets were manipulated from the inside. They were created by Krom Phraratchawang Baworn Wichaichan (the third reign) for the performances of Chinese stories in the middle of the 19th Century.’ At first I presumed that this wording identified the craft person as Krom Phraratchawang Baworn Wichaichan but on further investigation and going back to the Thai language, I can see that กรมพระราชวังบวรวิไชยชาญ (more commonly translated into English as Krom Phra Ratchawang Bowon Wichaichan) was a Siamese Prince and the last Viceroy (or Deputy King) of the Palace of the Front. So I presume that these puppets were imported for his entertainment rather than made by his hand.


Whatever their birthplace, I found the characters in these cases captivating.  So many faces staring out from the crowd, curiously peering back at you as you stooped to look.



I had a strong sense that these effigies had souls. It wasn’t so much the ‘Toy Story’ scenario that they have lives only when our backs are turned, but rather that they are animated even in their stillness.




Even without knowing any of the Chinese dramas for which they were created, there was an immediate sense of the narrative encounters between different individuals.








I spent a long time with these guys and was sorry to have to say goodbye.


Tea, Water, Coffee

In a day off from rehearsals for Night Market Theatre I went with the Prototype Paradise team on a day trip to Ruisui Township, the southern central East Coast National Scenic Area of Hualien County. One of the highlights for me was visiting Ji Lin Tea Plantation to taste different teas and learn something of the cultivation and production process.


Taiwan is one of the foremost producers of fine tea in the world. As friends and colleagues who have visited me in my London flat will know, I have a tea ‘thing’. Although I am very much a beginner, I enjoy learning more about this amazing drink and its many different incarnations and I have read, studied and slurped my way to a developing palette and a wider knowledge. I have just enough knowledge now to make plenty of mistakes about tea origin, variety and ceremony.

Ji Lin Tea Plantation was established in the 1940s and is now in its fourth generation. Our host was the son of the family Ah-Hsiang. They have won many gold medals for their tea and there are placards around the tea tasting room to let you know.


We tasted 5 teas: a green tea, an oolong tea, a honey fragrance black tea, a bronze medal winning honey fragrance black tea (!), and a pomelo flavoured tea.


In Taiwan it is traditional to smell the tea before you drink it. The tea is poured first into a tall narrow smelling cup and left there for a moment. Then it is poured into the tea cup. You smell the fragrance of the tea in the empty  cup first. Then you drink from the tea cup.


Of particular interest was the Pomelo Tea. This is the first time that Ji Lin Tea Plantation have experimented with this kind of flavouring of tea. It is based on a Hakka tradition of stuffing a type of orange with tea but this is Ji Lin’s own idea to use a pomelo. (Hakka are a Han Chinese people with links to Guangdong and the surrounding areas. They have their own language, culture and traditions. A pomelo is a crisp citrus fruit a little similar to a grapefruit.)

Pomelos survive off the tree for a long time. Jin Li use organic pomelos so they can sometimes look a bit ‘imperfect’. Here are a box of them waiting to be stuffed.


First you have to remove the flesh while keeping the skin intact. Here Ah-Hsiang demonstrates the technique.

Then you stuff them with tea and a bit of the flesh of the fruit and tie them with strings. You then very slowly bake them over two months in these bamboo ovens. The strings need to be retied every day as the moisture disappears and the fruit shrinks. It is very labour intensive. The ones on the top of the ovens here are pretty much ready.



You then take a hammer to crack open the hard fruit and scoop out a bit of tea. The taste is a sweet black tea with the a citrus twang. Lovely. After seeing all the detailed preparations I had to buy one. Ah-Hsiang was both happy and sad. We were his first ever customers for this tea. He had lovingly retied those strings every night for the last two months. It was a tough goodbye!


We then walked into the plantation itself to see how the tea is grown.


Here are some tea bushes that are used for oolong tea.



And here is the flower of the tea plant Camellia Sinensis.


Of particular interest to me was to see a leafhopper. These are the tiny little insects that eat the leaves of the tea bush. In certain teas, such as the famous Taiwanese oolong Dongfang Meiren (Oriental Beauty) and the Honey Black Tea that we tasted at Ji Lin Tea Plantation, the buds are picked after the leafhoppers have had their meal. As a kind of defence mechanism the plant produces monoterpene diol and hotrienol which gives the tea its particular flavour.

The leafhoppers are actually tiny; just a few millimetres long. (I’d love to tell you that I shot this photograph but actually I just photographed the print on the wall of the tea tasting room. My zoom is not powerful enough!)


I very much like the taste of teas where the leafhopper has had his fill and was very pleased to discover Ji Lin’s Honey Black Tea. So yes, I bought a packet of that too. Here you can see the tea being packaged.


And finally vacuum packed ready for shipping.


After a our tea tasting afternoon we went to the nearby Hong Ye Hot Spring. It certainly wasn’t the most beautiful or comfortable hot spring I have been to but it was, nevertheless very relaxing. (It is also the first time I have worn a s swim suit in a hot spring as it was mixed bathing. We had the entire place to ourselves. That’s Professor Chin in her spontaneously purchased 1920s style bathing costume in the background.)


The Pacific Ocean is actually only just down the road from where I am staying. There are plenty of houses in Hualien whose windows gaze on the sea all day long. Traveling a bit further south, you get to Jici beach. Here are 56 seconds of surf. The sand is black. Apparently this is a seasonal thing. In the winter the sand is churned up from the bottom of the ocean, colouring the beach black, but in summer the lower tide makes it gold. I like this idea of the sand changing colour like the leaves of trees.

There has been a surprising amount of press for Night Market Theatre which opened on 11th November. (Today marks the halfway point of our 5 day run.) So far there have been 4 television news features and 6 newspaper articles, many of substantial size. I think we are all a bit nonplussed by the level of interest in our modest little show. One journalist who is going above and beyond for his story is Kai-Ping Fang. Actually Kai describes himself first and foremost as a translator (his English is perfect, though he denies it), then a photographer, and then a writer. Having spent some considerable time with him (we’ve had maybe 6 separate meetings) I would say he was an artist. Kai has been commissioned by Performing Arts Review, the glossy magazine for Taiwanese performance, to write an article with accompanying pictures about my daily life in Taiwan. Actually, I think Kai is developing something more interesting than that, although he has photographed me having breakfast and going to the gym. I am looking forward to his photographs because I like his work very much. He shoots exclusively on film (he used 35mm movie film during our meetings because it has a better light contrast tolerance) and takes just 4 or 5 shots each time.

For 2 of our meetings, Kai took me to Le Flaneur, the cafe-come-photography-studio-come-leather-workshop of his friend Bin-Guo (known to his friend as Bingo). Kai had asked me if I liked coffee. I replied that I love the taste and the smell but that it upset my stomach. (Actually the second coffee travels down my alimentary canal my bowel is on red alert.) Kai argued that I wasn’t having proper coffee if it upset my stomach. After his explanation of bean selection and roasting methods I remained unconvinced. We placed a bet. If my bowel survived his friend’s coffee I would cook him dinner when he next comes to London. If it did not, then he would take me to dinner before I left Hualien.


Here is Bingo preparing a cup of single estate Kenyan coffee for me.


It took a surprisingly long time. He is dripping that water for more than 7 minutes. That’s for just 1 cup.

It was the first coffee I had tasted for maybe more than 3 years. It was delicious. I was however nervously awaiting an explosive outcome. That didn’t come. The following day I could gleefully report to Kai the perfectly solid, and actually improved, state of my stool! So now I owe Kai 1 home cooked meal. Although now I’m in a bit of a dilemma about the challenge of finding a non-combustible cup of coffee in London.

Le Flaneur is a bit like being in a cross between someone’s kitchen, a gallery, a craft centre and a library.



I particularly liked the range of different stools, all carefully chosen. This one was particularly comfortable.




There are also some lovely lamps.



This shade is made very simply from extremely thin slices of wood.


Before opening Le Flaneur, Bingo trained as an architect. These tables and benches are his own design.


And here is our little Night Market Theatre. Tiny as you can see. What was once selling bubble tea has been made over to sell one-to-one performance.


Once it’s all over and I have some proper time I will gather together some proper documentation. For the moment, here is a picture of the kinds of crowds that are cramming into the small alley in front of our curtain.


Back to the Heart of Asia

As the cold wind blows across Europe and the unusually long summer finally fades away, I head south-east for Taiwan, the island that promotes itself as the ‘Heart of Asia’. Arguably it is more on the edge of the continent than at its core but it does kind of look like a heart shape (more organ than Valentine) and the people are lovely.

It’s almost exactly 2 years since my first visit and now I am back to make ‘Night Market Theatre’ with the company Prototype Paradise and 8 diversely talented Taiwanese performers. The idea germinated on the last night my previous trip, in a Taipei restaurant after a few drinks with the curatorial team.

‘Night Market Theatre’ is being made in the city of Hualien on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan but a mini lecture tour has meant I have also spent a few days in the capital Taipei as well. My work schedule is pretty intensive but I have had a few days where I have managed some sightseeing, often due to the generous hospitality of the Prototype Paradise team.

Wulai is a small resort town in the mountains, 27 km to the east of Taipei city. It is very popular with urbanites looking for a quick injection of country air. There are many hot springs that you can visit (and I visited one lovely one) and be back in the city for dinner.


Making your way through the narrow streets, along pathways, and up steps, you get to the bottom of a cable car that takes you to the Yun Hsien mountain top resort.


The 2 minute ride takes you over the Wulai waterfall.


The resort at the top is pretty commercialised and not really so interesting as the mountain that it nestles in but there is a very cute coin operated machine. People take it seriously.

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In the little temple stands a priestess.

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You put in your coin…

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…and ask a question to the Gods…

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…while the priestess walks from the garden to the alter. The doors open to let her in and shut once she is inside.

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Moments later the doors open again and out comes the priestess, holding a miniature yellow scroll on her tray…

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…which she deposits into the well at the bottom of the garden. (Look! Some have missed the well. That must have been very frustrating for the supplicants concerned!)

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Out pops the divine proclamation below.

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Here is River Lin (artist and part of the Prototype Paradise team) looking a bit confused as he tries to understand the answer to his question. Yes, of course I did it too. The response seemed to be OK but it was all a bit inconclusive.

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When I arrived in Hualien with my colleagues, the first thing that we did was to visit a grown-up temple. At 福安廟 Fu An Miao (Fu An Temple) we prayed to the God of the Earth to watch over our endeavours for ‘Night Market Theatre’ and to ask for his blessing.




We also burnt a bunch of paper money (large ones first and each sheet must have a fold in it) in order to get his attention and win him over.




And then we started rehearsals. The premise of ‘Night Market Theatre’ is that we set up stall alongside the food vendors in the largest night market in Hualien and that we offer bite-sized performances for the soul, next to those offering sustenance for the body. The ‘holding form’ for the concept is the traditional mobile booth used in night markets across Taiwan. Here is our (as yet to be refurbished) booth that formerly sold bubble tea. In it Moses (Yuan-Shang Chiang) is experimenting with a concept where he will try to persuade night market visitors to take out advertising space on his body. The paper sheet he is wearing indicates the price of each of his limbs.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Here Jimmy Chang is listening to An-Yuan’s (Yuan-Liang An) heartbeat, a playful interpretation of the Chinese word ‘heartfelt’ which literally translates as ‘heart voice’. Performances can be a maximum of 5 minutes long with most intended to be much shorter.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

One stop of my mini lecture tour took me National Dong Hua University, about 20 minutes drive from the centre of Hualien and already right in the countryside. It is surrounded by the most beautiful landscape.



Here it was that I fulfilled a long standing ambition: I learnt to drive a scooter. Well, in truth the lesson was about 3 minutes long. Here Professor Chin instructs me how to, erm, get the motor running. 

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

I know it is pretty childish to post pictures of yourself at 42 learning to do what every Taiwanese has done since they were teething but it was something I have not had the opportunity to try before. It would have been pretty difficult for me to get around without a scooter and even if it were easier, I really wanted to get one.

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

Photo by Amao Tzu-Yu Hsu

And at the risk of over embellishment, here is video evidence of my maiden voyage.

Riding around the city on my (borrowed) scooter, I get to see all kinds of interesting things.  The man standing outside Starbucks is Mr Tzi-Hai Ko. He is famous in Taiwan. An electoral candidate for the third time this year (though yet to be elected) he is running for the city council as an Independent. His strategy is simple. Stand at a busy intersection where lots of people can see you and hold up signs that say you want Hualien to be a better place. The thing is he stands there everyday for hours at a time. He must have very very strong arms. He has become something of a media celebrity and people think that this year, he really might make it into government. He is resolute and dedicated, you have to give him that at the very least.



A different strategy is that of Mr Chi-Ta Tsai. He has had a four-storey painting (yes, yes, I really mean painting) of his hand-clasping-self mounted on the facade of his campaign headquarters. He is running for Mayor. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale from this photograph but just look at the tiny table and chairs underneath his left foot. His head is larger than the set of double doors.


His image is everywhere in the city. Chi-Ta Tsai is a survivor of mouth cancer. A section of his jaw has clearly had to be removed. The words on this poster read: See the courage / Learn the courage. (And on the other side: Be brave together with us.) I can’t help wondering if a survivor from mouth cancer would see their image writ so large on hoardings across towns in England.


I do not know anything of the detail of his medical treatment but I presume that Chi-Ta Tsai opted not to have reconstructive surgery, or at least to allow the history of this trauma to remain visible on his face. Whether a forthright champion for difference or a cynical ploy to garner popular sympathy, I salute the decision.

If ever evidence were needed for the beauty a scar can leave, then look no further than Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei. Formerly a small gathering of residential properties that became largely uninhabited, the city gave it over to artists and artisans for studios, exhibition spaces and some temporary accommodation.







Remnants of kitchens and bathrooms ghost floors that have now become pathways. You can see where a toilet once stood on honeycomb tiles.


Here are some giant fortune cookies sitting in the remains of a small house.


It is very self-consciously beautiful in the way that the ‘natural’ decay has been allowed to co-exist with the practical requirements of a public space. At times it does become a bit cloying but generally speaking the spaces are lovely.





There is an interesting outdoor theatre space as well.



One nice touch is that it has its own Post Office. Here artists have worked alongside the national postal service to create their own commemorative editions. I like this idea very much.


On my first trip to Taiwan in 2012 I took a day bus trip into the famous Toroko Gorge. Now was my opportunity to do it at my own pace on scooter and without the pressure to return to the bus after 15 minutes at each stop. The Eternal Spring Shrine was built to commemorate the 212 who died building the Central Cross-Island Highway, the road that navigates the gorge. The road was built in the late 1950s predominantly for military purposes. It is an engineering feat. The shrine itself has been rebuilt twice due to its previous incarnations having been destroyed by landslides.


As on my first visit, I walked up to the shrine complex and crossed the bridge which spans the water flowing from deep inside the mountain.



Easy to miss, a little further on is a staircase built into the rock. You climb…


…and climb…


…and climb…


…and climb up a series of very steep steps…


…until you meet a little temple room carved into the rock.


Inside a mountain goddess awaits you.


As does some safety apparatus and cleaning equipment.


And there on this high path up the mountain is a bloke sweeping.


At key points you see notices like this. You have to get used to these signs and not dawdle. The irony is that you have to stop to read the sign!


Eventually you come to the bell tower.



There are amazing views from the veranda across the mountains.


You also get an intriguing aerial view of the river bed below.




The Eternal Spring Shrine commemorates the workers who died building the road that you have to take in order to get to the shrine. The shrine itself has been destroyed by the moving landscape. Indeed Taroko is always changing shape due to natural and manmade phenomena. Works on the road are still very necessary. Both on the way into the gorge and back towards the town, there were huge tailbacks of traffic, as we waited for the painstaking process of moving the mountain from one side of the road to the other. Frequently subject to landslides, engineers try to secure the route by taking loose or dangerous rocks to where the effect of gravity will not risk the lives of travellers.


Gustav Flaubert once wrote, ‘In order for a thing to be interesting you only need look at it for a long time.’ Stuck on the road waiting for the mountain to be moved I had this sensation. The interruption was irritating, boring and then suddenly compelling.

The real star of Toroko however, remains the steep rocky walls of the narrow valley and the shallow river which coils and zigzags down to the sea.



When I came to Taiwan in 2012 is was with surprise that I discovered a culture more obsessed with food than even Japan. The culture in Taiwan is food culture to a large degree. It is that desire to discover and taste food that has in many ways been a driving force for ‘Night Market Theatre’. We are borrowing the holding form (and stealing the audience) from the parades of food that are the night markets here.

The night markets themselves are full of art and theatre. Here the food stall looks like a packed museum display case.


One new discovery for me: water chestnuts. Also known as water caltrop, buffalo nut, bat nut, devil pod, ling nut amongst other names. They have a fascinating cultivation history stretching back at least 3,000 years.


Delicious, the ornately shaped fruit also make a very good fake moustache.

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I was really interested to note the drama unfolding at the back of this couple’s stall.


During the planning and rehearsals in ‘our’ Zhiqiang Night Market in Hualien, I have also discovered some new foods. Here rice is steamed in the stalk of the bamboo. It develops a sweet nutty taste as a result. You have to crack open to the bamboo to get at the rice.


One of my favourite foods at Zhiqiang Night Market is Mr Gu’s Beef Noodles. You can have them dry…


…or in soup. A delicious paradox: the noodles are chewy and the beef melts in your mouth. Either bowl, above or below costs NT$100, which is about UK£2.


Of course most food in Taiwan is not consumed in night markets. For breakfast I often visit the very popular 山東豆漿大王 Shan Dong Soybean Milk King. Always busy, this bun factory produces tray upon tray of different breakfast treats.



Although I am getting a bit better at ordering, generally I just point and pray because there is absolutely no English in most places. Here I got a kind of brown sugar filled hot baked pastry (think Danish Pastry Taiwanese style).


These soft buns are filled with vegetables. I think mostly a kind of Chinese leek. They are salty and delicious.


For a more formal setting I have been 3 times already to 阿之寶 A Zhi Bao a very cute shop and cafe. The sets are pretty similar with the exception of the main dish. Here it was steamed fish.


Here it was Magaw Salted Pork, an aboriginal Taiwanese recipe.


Here it was Chicken Thigh with Monascus purpureus sauce.  I was surprised to find out that Monascus purpureus is a kind of mould. It is delicious. It has the taste and texture of a piquant bean.


Other food highlights include these very fat noodles.


This fish ball and clam soup.


The very Taiwanese oyster omelette.


Nobody could tell me for sure if this was goat or mutton. The picture outside the restaurant was of a goat. The restaurant name says mutton. 下港吔羊肉專賣店 Xia Kang Eh Mutton. In Chinese they share the same character. Goat/mutton hotpot:


Barbecued goat/mutton with ginger:


Cold goat/mutton salad served Thai style:


This is a tasty thing; bitter melon with tiny little fish. The melon is bitter (as the name would, erm, suggest) and the fish are salty, so there is a real disco on the tongue.


This is a Taiwanese hamburger: 掛包 Gua Bao or 割包 Ge Bao. Soft white roll with sliced pork herbs and ground peanuts. Really very delicious.


Now for one I didn’t try. Pork intestine soup. I just can’t get over the fact that the poo has traveled down this tube. “But it’s delicious,” Yoyo Kung, Prototype Paradise co-curator tells me. “They clean it really, really well.” Hmmm.


And finally, on the subject of poo, I thought I would leave you with a ‘themed’ restaurant that I haven’t eaten in but am nevertheless fascinated by. At Modern Toilet the menu is À la crap. It’s what exits your body rather than what enters it that is the substance here. In case you are in any doubt: Modern Toilet do not serve shit, even if their menu is a bit crappy. Poo, according to Modern Toilet, is cute.


Waiving the flag for the type of sitting down you would normally do a few hours after your lunch or dinner, Modern Toilet is capitalising on the trend across Asia for all things dinky. I need to pay a visit before I leave.


Crap decorations adorn the walls. Poo Superman. The perfect combination. May I offer, Pooperman?


Destination Waste

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection is coming to an end. The Head of Exhibitions & Programmes at the Science Museum, Emily Scott-Dearing, asked me how I felt about it all. The truth is that now I just want to get to the end of it and for nothing to have gone wrong. I’m looking forward to looking back and for nobody to have succumbed to any of the long list of potential hazards that we had to consider on our lengthy risk assessment.

The project to document and display 30 days’ worth of Science Museum rubbish started several years ago. For the first years, I spent my time trying to convince scientists, curators, managers and pedagogues that it would be a fantastic idea to let members of the public get elbow deep in the museum rubbish before displaying it all in galleries that are normally reserved for precious and unique objects. Once they agreed I suddenly had a panic, as I was forced to seriously consider all the things that could go wrong: “But what if…?”

Volunteers sorting the Museum’s rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Volunteers sorting the Museum’s rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the 30 days of the first phase with 4 assistants, 30 Science Museum volunteers and the help of over 400 visitors, we collected, laid out and documented all the rubbish produced by the Science Museum’s:
281,647 visitors
500+ staff and contractors
5 cafés
2 building sites
3 shops
2 Science Nights
1 Lates event
…and several storage cupboard clearances.

We had predicted that around 28 tonnes of rubbish would be thrown out but it was actually closer to 33 when we got the figures back from the Science Museum’s main waste contractor Grundon.

We brought over 18 tonnes of materials back to the gallery for the second phase of the exhibition, including:
7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels
2.4 tonnes of bottom ash aggregate
2.3 tonnes of glass sand
1.4 tonnes of wood
1 tonne of fertilizer
698 kilograms of steel
650 litres of dehydrated sewage sludge
291 breezeblocks made from air pollution control residue
…and nearly 1 tonne of various recycled plastics.

7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Items that we retained from the rubbish included:
3 fridges
1 dishwasher
3 kettles
3 wheelchairs
1 sleeping bag
1 mini snooker table
16.5 pairs of shoes
2 two-piece suits and ties
1 bra
1 negative pregnancy test
1 love letter
…and a crazy amount of disposable cutlery, usable stationery and discarded medicines.

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Whether disgusted or curious, everyone it would seem, has an opinion about rubbish. We are all throwers away. The psychological desire (and most often the psychological effect) of throwing something away, is to forget about it. We throw something away precisely because we don’t want to think about it any more. I have loved watching the faces of the Science Museum visitors as they realise that they are looking at what we have collectively tried to forget. There are moments of surprise and moments of recognition. Reactions have perhaps been strongest when confronted with the sewage.

The Italian artist Piero Manzoni cleverly played with the reverence that is accorded to the artist and the art object by producing a number of actions that resulted in sculptural provocations. Merda d’Artista (or Artist’s Shit) is what is says on the tin: 30g net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961. The performance is of the artist’s action that we are asked to imagine: that of him taking a dump. Manzoni places this object on a gallery plinth in a simultaneous act of gross self-aggrandisement and fierce condemnation of the gallery system. By making shit art, Manzoni cleverly manages to critique what he also aspires to (and has subsequently achieved), the reified status of the artist.

In the Science Museum we have on display not just a tin can but a large gallery vitrine full of human waste: 650 litres of dehydrated sewage. This is perhaps the ultimate waste, the stuff we really want to forget. But when our poo is pushed in our faces it asks us to think about what we choose to keep, what we choose to get rid of, and what happens to our stuff once it has left us.

Sludge cakes formed from a month’s worth of the Museum’s human waste © Glasshopper

Sludge cakes formed from a month’s worth of the Museum’s human waste © Glasshopper

I would like to thank the Science Museum for allowing this to happen. I would like to thank the many waste contractors who have been involved. I would like to thank all the assistants and volunteers who tirelessly sorted through bags of café waste late into the evening after the museum was shut. I would like to thank you, the Science Museum visitors for donning gloves and getting stuck in and also for throwing things out, without which there would have been no project. Only, paradoxically, that would be better: the very thing that this project has relied on – that people throw stuff away – is also the thing we want to reduce. Let’s work towards a time when a project like this is unnecessary or even impossible. Disposal is the last resort.

Rubbish Stories

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey follows some of the unexpected stories and personal objects that were found in the Museum’s bins. As the exhibition nears its end, what will happen to all this ‘rubbish’ afterwards?


Much of the feedback I have received about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection, from both visitors and staff, has been about the surprising personal items and stories that have come out of the bins. When we were first carrying out trials for the project it was one of the unexpected outcomes of the documentation process. This revelation, that sorting through waste was like a form of contemporary archaeology, inspired Joshua to invite the public to take part in the documentation process so that visitors also had the chance to experience the wonder of piecing together those narratives.

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

The stories we found in the bins ranged from the very general (like what the favourite crisp brand amongst visiting schoolchildren was) to more Museum-specific (like which new galleries were under development and which events had taken place). Even the volume told us how busy the Museum had been on a given day. There were also very personal stories such as notes put into someone’s lunchbox by their partner, a surprising number of medicines, and children’s drawings of their day out. In a painfully frank teenage love note, the author proclaims that they are not worth the attention of their crush and recommends they should go out with someone else. We even found a pregnancy test (negative; was its user disappointed, happy or relieved by that result? We’ll never know).

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

We don’t often think about our rubbish, full stop, let alone consider it as a personal document of our lives. Archaeologists have long been aware of this when piecing together a picture of the lifestyles and living conditions of people’s past, as have the paparazzi in finding out private information about celebrities and public figures. Looking at the landfill of the last few decades, I imagine, will tell a story of the rise of plastics and packaging, the dominance of certain supermarkets and brands, the affordability of electrical goods, our increasingly global markets and the enormous growth in waste generally. Hopefully, as with the Science Museum’s bins, an examination of more recent landfill should document a more positive change, that of recycling and our increased awareness of the value that materials still hold. The next step may be mining our municipal dumps to try to recover some of those precious materials that are now scarce in the natural world, such as the rare earth metals that are so important in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

And what will become of all the rubbish and materials on display in The Rubbish Collection? Well, the materials, like the paper reels, plastic pellets, metals and fertilizer, will be returned to the companies that lent them to us, to continue on their recycling journey to become new products. Electrical goods will be sent to specialist recycling companies to separate any reusable parts and recycle what cannot be salvaged. The items that we retained from the rubbish bags, though many would have originally gone to incineration if we had not intervened in their journey, will be recycled wherever possible. Medicines will be taken to a pharmacy for safe disposal, usable stationary will be returned to offices and the 16.5 pairs of shoes, 2 suits and other items of clothing will be taken to charity shops.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

WEE waste

Sarah Harvey, Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, talks to Dr Philip Morton, Chief Executive of REPIC about the challenges of dealing with growing volumes of electrical and electronic waste.

REPIC is the largest not-for-profit WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling scheme in the UK. Instead of letting valuable or harmful waste and scarce raw materials go to landfill, REPIC’s job is to recover and transport used electrical goods and batteries to specialist treatment plants. Upon arrival at the plant, the WEEE waste can be safely handled and recycled into new usable raw materials.

Sarah: What is WEEE waste?

Philip: Every year, people in the UK buy around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment, like toasters, TVs, washing machines and computers. We throw away about one million tonnes of equipment, so WEEE waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the EU. It’s important that we take action now to stop it from piling up.

Some of the components used to make electronic goods can be hazardous and harmful to the environment, while others can be recycled and reused. Some are even precious and contain gold, silver, indium or palladium. It’s amazing to think that WEEE contains 40 times more gold than gold ore!

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

WEEE waste in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges faced by the industry in recycling and recovering these materials?

Philip: A big problem is the difficulty in separating the complex scarce trace metals using the technology currently available. Different proportions of trace materials are present in different bits of WEEE and some materials bind together, making separation a challenge. At present, only a tiny percentage of these metals is captured in the recycling process, so it isn’t sustainable.

Sarah: What can people do to help?

Philip: Just as we separate our plastic bottles and tins from paper and compostables, we need to separate our old electrical appliances and take them to a local recycling centre.

As with electricals, it’s easy for batteries to end up in landfills if the proper recycling channels are not used. Batteries contain chemicals that can be hazardous if released into our soil, water and air.

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

Batteries in The Rubbish Collection exhibition. © Katherine Leedale

But there is an alternative. You could save your batteries and take them to special battery bins at shops, schools and recycling centres. This ensures the batteries are recycled responsibly.

Our top three tips are:

  • Repair or re-use used electricals if possible
  • Recycle, but don’t make a special trip (check our website
  • Choose energy and eco-efficient products where possible when buying replacements

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years time?

Philip: To meet the new EU directive we need to recycle 85 percent of WEEE generated in the UK by 2018. The value of WEEE will be higher as there will be less rare metals and raw materials to extract from the Earth. Advances in technology will mean that electrical goods will be even lighter, more compact and flexible. Think projected keyboards, flatter TV screens – we’re already seeing roll up TV screens – so expect more to come.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Down the Drain

In the latest of our blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey talks to Nick Mills, Waste Innovation Manager at Thames Water about what happens to our sewage and what the future holds for wastewater.

Sarah: What do Thames Water do with our sewage?

Nick: We have 350 sewage works and 68,000 miles of sewers across our region, which stretches from East London to the Cotswolds in the west. Last year, we removed and treated 4,369 million litres of sewage from 15 million customers. At our 350 sewage works we treat the sewage to remove contaminants and return it safely to the environment, it is often cleaner than the water in the river.

Sarah: What happens to the end products of the processing?

Nick: The main end-product of the sewage treatment process is something called sludge. This energy rich by-product is put to good use in anaerobic digestion, producing renewable energy that helps power our treatment sites. The digested sludge is then recycled to agricultural land.

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face in dealing with our sewage/ waste water?

Nick: London has outgrown its sewer system. The Victorian sewers are in great condition, but simply not designed for today’s population. They were designed for just over two million but are used today by just over six million. The proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel will stop tens of millions of tonnes of raw sewage flowing into the Thames every year via the outfall system. It is a must-do job. We can’t keep treating the Thames as a sewer.

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw down the drains?

Nick: ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ is our campaign to end the misery caused by fatbergs. Leftover cooking fat and oil poured down the sink will set hard. This creates stinking, pipe-blocking fatbergs beneath your house or in your street.

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

Wet wipes are another big no-no because they are made of plastic. They don’t break down like toilet tissue, clinging to fat and clogging up the system. If drains get blocked, what you flush can come back up through your toilet or even your sink.

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better? Is there a top 3 list of things people could do differently to help?

Nick: Our message is simple, if it’s not water, toilet tissue or poo, please… ‘Bin it – don’t block it’.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 20 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Nick: In 20 years’ time I can see the wastewater industry becoming a net energy producer, by employing more efficient processes and increasing energy recovery. Combining advanced anaerobic digestion and technologies like pyrolysis, large increases can be made. Our Innovation team are busy demonstrating this at the moment. Phosphorus, a finite resource essential to life as we know it, will be recovered at every major sewage works and sold competitively as a fertiliser to farmers, this has also been demonstrated recently at our Slough sewage works by the Innovation team.

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?

Nick: I think it is great. It shows the harsh reality of waste, but at the same time reveals the great work that people do behind the scenes to keep society moving. I hope it will encourage a new generation to start what is a very interesting and rewarding career as there are huge challenges yet to be solved.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Shedding light on the matter of rubbish

In the latest of our blog series linked to The Rubbish Collection, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins finds an ingenious use for our discarded materials.


The second phase of The Rubbish Collection exhibition is open at the Museum until 14 September. Having documented every piece of waste that passed through the Museum for a month, this second phase is a chance to see what would have been thrown away.

Of the material that hasn’t been selected for display, I collected a small box of bits that I hoped to turn into a product that we might sell in the shop. I like the idea that with a little bit of effort and imagination, items that would otherwise be chucked, can be turned into something desirable. Unfortunately the collection of items in the box that I had gathered didn’t look at all desirable. A couple of umbrellas, some bits from a light fitting, an old copper funnel, an ash tray, some plastic cutlery, some glass cups and a selection of ball bearings didn’t look very promising.

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

The germ of my idea came from digging out the copper funnel and investigating it further. It was heavily corroded and covered in green verdigris, but underneath was structurally solid, and a beautiful shape.

I read somewhere that vinegar could be used to clean copper, so I popped down to the café, to get a couple of sachets to try out. It turns out it does a reasonable job on lightly tarnished areas, but can’t handle the extent of corrosion on the funnel. However, it did encourage me that the funnel could be saved.

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Next I pulled apart the umbrellas, lined up everything from the box and had a think what I might make. A happy coincidence was that the handle from the umbrella fitted exactly into the top of the funnel.

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

My first thought was to make some sort of loudspeaker people could shout through. Next, I thought the umbrella handle might plug the funnel to make a water-tight vase or container of some sort. Finally, looking at the shining clean patch of copper I thought, coupled with a 1950s-style squirrel cage bulb, it might make a really nice light fitting.

The next step was to recondition the copper funnel. In the basement, the Museum has metal and wood workshops responsible for building, installing and maintaining the structures for new exhibitions. Amongst their equipment is a sandblasting machine, which I used to blast the corrosion from the funnel.

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

I decided to leave the matt finish left from the sand blasting on the inside surface, and polish up the outside. Using Brasso and eventually a buffing wheel I polished up the outer surface.

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

To ensure the lamp remains pristine, I decided to use a polymer based lacquer, applied in the workshop’s spray booth.

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

Finally I added the umbrella handle, and a lighting flex and fitting. I think the finished light looks rather good. It’ll be available for purchase in the Museum shop from mid August.

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.