Art Exhibit in Northern Virginia Utilizes Wastewater Treatment Facility

Dec. 9, 2020

An exhibit at Torpedo Factory Art Center in Northern Virginia used AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility to create its art pieces.

An exhibit at Torpedo Factory Art Center in Northern Virginia by sTo Len involved residents of Alexandria, Virginia contributing to the artwork by flushing their toilets.

The work he has completed is the first artist-in-residence at a wastewater treatment plant that is “endearing people to their own waste,” according to Len.

The collection of photographs, prints and found objects on display at the city’s Torpedo Factory Art Center. For instance, a pair of prints of brownish swirls was created by applying paper to the surface of a settling tank at the AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility, reported the Bay Journal. 

The AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility treats a mix of sewage and storm water. The facility runs the wastewater through a series of settling tanks and treatment processes to remove nutrients before discharging it to tributaries of the Potomac River. The brown-colored media was crowdsourced from thousands of area toilets, according to Len. 

“As gross as that might sound, water has this amazing way of making things beautiful,” said Len. “People are like, ‘This is gorgeous,’ and they don’t know what they’re looking at yet. I like to show them that beauty and then educate.”

Alexandria is among a handful of older cities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed working to manage sewage overflowing into local waterways.

To reduce the flow of raw sewage into waterways, the city is building massive underground tunnels that can hold the polluted water until it can be treated at the plant, reported the Bay Journal. The project will cause utility bills to increase, so the city saw an opportunity for the water utility to work with its Office of the Arts to help engage people.

“How do you connect people with infrastructure, which is normally underground and unseen?” asked Monica Billger, community outreach and education specialist at AlexRenew. “Art can help them develop that appreciation.”

The subject of the art ranges from views of the Potomac River to the concrete tunnels and tanks that help make it cleaner. The plant told Len to wear full PPE for the work. The Torpedo Factory exhibit is also displaying a series of objects that Len found in the water or at the plant.

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Cristina Tuser