, The Revenge of the Real

Fatberg: Material Ecologies and the Complexities of Waste

Authors: Rosalea Monacella, Bridget Keane

A gigantic lump of fat and human waste lodged into the sewer system, the fatberg is a rich biological database of human and non-human relationships. Incrementally growing and consuming the excess of our everyday lives, it transforms into a living, breathing entity; a complex landscape ecology of the Anthropocene. A study of this “creature” demonstrates the entangled nature of the fatberg as a complex ecosystem that operates at both the scale of the city and at the micro level of the microorganism.

Contemporary society is dominated by worlds of linear assembly in which homogenous materials are formed into specific shapes with predetermined singular functions. They are produced in a “take-make-waste” process, generating an oversupply of goods that feed our consumptive needs and which subsequently also encourage consumption to grow exponentially. New materials continue to be engineered, resulting in the emergence of new content and waste streams that demand new methods of tracking, handling, treatment, and disposal.

The fatberg has emerged as a new organism born from this furious cycle of production in a world that is unable to deal with the by-products of its own making processes, and the fatberg in turn generates an alternative living phenomenon. This new organism breaks the paradigm of linearity into an indiscernible material ecology formed from a collection of our own heterogeneous by-products, forming an agglomeration of material, living microorganisms, and chemical compounds. The fatberg is a material ecology encapsulating complex and dynamic exchanges, in which microbes digest and form new social behaviors and structures that represent biodegradable systems and objects at the scale of the microbe, as well as human excess. Furthermore, at a larger scale, its broader network environment is intricately intertwined and continually being reformed.

The metropolitan sewer systems developed and implemented in the late 1800s in Australia still persist in relatively the same form today, collecting, transporting, and treating the excess of human excrement, and then eventually disposing of it through the CSO (combined sewer overflows) into the unknown expanses of the ocean.

These excess fluids and detritus of human consumption that agglomerate into the fatberg are only momentarily in stasis while it congeals and traverses through the concrete conduits. It is a sinewy mass that passes and extends through the constrained network of the sewer pipe. A network of institutionalized infrastructures—segregated pipes of water supply and sewer extending as a vast underground network to different homes, apartments, restaurants. Bathrooms and kitchens extend this infrastructure into internal spaces, carrying various streams and states of viscous material from the space into the ocean. This material that is partitioned off to a waste stream reveals in its network a human understanding of the world, and a world revealed by the excess of humans.

In Donna Haraway’s words, “the world as a witty agent and actor” exposes the citizens’ naiveté in believing they can control or determine through the linear systems of the sewer pipe the life of the fatberg.

Now having emerged into existence, the fatberg’s continuous formation has the capacity to grow in reverse order back up through the linear system of the sewers that has supported its generation to invade the spaces from which its material being is drawn. During unpredictable events that overwhelm and disrupt the sewer system, sewer fluids may bubble to the surface through the failure of the institutionalized sewer pipe, a blockage or an overflow event from intense rains invading the internal spaces of the city once again; in its sludge, the dark, greasy state re-emerges.

This collection of nine scenes catalogues views of the life of the fatberg from the perspective of the fictional RMT (Residue Management Task Force) using archival material from a range of sources to reveal the accumulative traces and networks of assembly embroiled in its form. As a complex aggregation of the city, the fatberg defines a landscape that evades description and representation in simple picturesque terms as such; instead, its story is told through multiple narratives from both a position “within” and “outside” the ecosystem. The structure and descriptive form of each scene of mapping and representation reveals the non-scalability of this ecological structure. Consequently, each dialogue requires a new set of devices and frameworks of examination for the different materials and scales of the fatberg. A journey of unlimited scenes is implied in this introductory description of the fatberg.


The expedition plan

From above the plan attempts to see that which is obscured. Tracing the surface for what lurks beneath. Looking for apertures, the manhole, the air-vent, access paths into the known unknown.

To focus our view, the RMT lock onto Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 37.8136° S, 144.9631° E. Dubbed “Smellbourne” in the 1800s due to the volume of sewerage running along the streets, Melbourne began planning a sewerage system in the 1890s. Steadily increased in scope over the coming decades, the sewerage network expanded along with the city. From above we view the sewerage system as a territory through the lens of the fatberg. The map registers vectors, flows, and mechanisms of control. Drawing the fatberg and its relationship to the territory of the city in order to represent the messy complexity of the city is a challenge to idealized versions of landscape.

We float above the landscape, filtering information, flattening and warping to present an omniscient, objective view. The map illustrates a territory that branches and thickens—growing over time horizontally and vertically—in places and dissolving towards the outer suburbs where the pin prick dots representing septic tanks disconnected from the sewage system become visible. The fatberg from this view is a slow thickening, a narrowing of the arteries of the city that continues to reach ever outward with the sprawl of the city. In septic tanks, mini fatbergs form, disconnected from the larger processes of water movement that would allow agglomeration underneath the city. From this elevated view, “the circulation is what matters, not the particular forms that it causes to emerge” (DeLanda, 2009). The map traces the growth of the system and identifies the locations of intensity from which to begin to understand the complex amalgamation of matter and infrastructure that is the fatberg.


From the control room

The view from the control room offers an insight into the fatberg as a disturbance that trips the sensors. The fatberg has been transformed, dematerialized into packets of information, the sensitivity of the device alerting the RMT to hotspots of fatberg formation.

The RMT identifies a blockage, an entity, an ecology, and consequently, immediate action must be taken to repair the infrastructures of the city.

As we move further out into the atmosphere to another view from above, the circulation changes form. Sensors from within the system update regularly on the phenomena inside the sewer, pinging to satellites that circle the Earth, only to be reflected via receivers to handheld computers and mobile phones.

The environment is now understood as a continually evolving set of relations. A reciprocal set of relationships are established between the circuit boards of the control room to the ecological and planetary systems that influence, augment, and trace residual effects of the fatberg.

The GPS trackers, the lidar scanning probes, and the laboratory test samples of the sewer material track back through the sewer network and reform the geophysical understanding of the city. Mining of information occurs through its various departments and technological information flows.

The fatberg and its diverse material substrates reveal a taxonomy of the habits of the city. The control room is a lens into this underbelly of the city, another worldly condition of sensors, probes, and tests intertwined with bio-ecological material of untapped energy.


Down the sewer pipe

The Residue Management Task force is a specialized forensic unit mandated to supervise the smooth functioning of the city related to the unfettered circulation of material waste and its associated infrastructure. We follow the RMT as they descend into the sewer through the ubiquitous manhole, a porthole between the visible and invisible infrastructures of the city. The team, in hazmat suits, traverse the sewer, looking for significant accumulations. Lit only by headlamps, the century-old infrastructure is revealed to support fatberg growth. The team are cautious, they slowly move through the pipes following the evidence, but as the aperture of the pipes and screening chambers diminish they are unable to proceed with their pursuit. The fatberg is a challenge to the efficiency of the system, rather than a distinct common element of blockage, as the mass of the fatberg evidences a new set of tendencies and behaviors that describe it to be an extension of the sewer.

The fatberg is the transgressor here; through the eye of the RMT it is an offender that is disruptive; unpredictable and unrecognizable in its origins. Some could consider that the act of transgression sits with the citizen unable to acknowledge its origins and that of the pipes’ inability to adapt to the diversity of material compositions.

Devices are deployed to disconnect the fatberg from its environment in order to understand it, then control it. From this perspective, the fatberg is seen as something to be mitigated, removed, minimized.

The sewer pipe is constrained and hasn’t changed for decades, resilient in its construct and singular in its purpose. The fatberg transforms the pipe network into a host supporting the flow of microscopic biological information contained within the single and multicellular organism, a rich biological database of human and non-human relationships.


From the Wardian case

Whitechapel fatberg on display in the Museum of London. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

The RMT probe, test, and dissect the fatberg. A small piece is carved out, extracted and separated; a familiar and comforting scientific process, it is a means to introduce distance, to make an objective analysis of the huge mass through its constituent parts. A sealed case carries part of the fatberg for analysis; a similar sample was found in the British capital and was eventually displayed at the Museum of London. Once inside the case, the sample of the fatberg is made into an artifact; the fatty indiscernible mass is displaced, contained, and transformed. The device of containment and transport resembles a Wardian case; a device once used to transport live specimens is now repurposed to extract and circulate the fatberg as an object of disgust rather than celebration. However, though disconnected, the fatberg continues to support a multitude of life. The forms of the museum are repurposed as quarantine devices to house an entity that is alive. The miniaturized conservatory and glass enclosure contain this dull, seemingly lifeless mass captured in the wild from one of the many expeditions through the underbelly of the city.

A camera is positioned above the case to vigilantly monitor changes in real-time, and here we link back to the control room and connect once more to citizens of the city, continuously transmitting the status of the fragment to the multitude of gazing eyes.


The apartment block

The RMT stake out the apartment. Instead of viewing the evidence through the lens of a camera, they are equipped with a terrestrial scanner and an x-ray machine. The occupants provide a range of daily detritus input such as skin, hair, teeth, wet wipes, prophylactics, kitchen grease, etc., into the environment that the fatberg thrives in. The scanner reveals the inner life of the building: occupants using the bathroom, the consumption of protein shakes, cleaning with flushable wipes, and the disposing of excess food into the garbage disposal. The apartment is the epicenter of practices of consumption. It is the hidden space of transformation, the place where goods are transformed into waste, and the feeder system of the fatberg. A constant injection of material to the fatberg occurs, via the commodified space of the home, the body, and the building in an endless loop of production.

A review of scans reveals a collection of tiny particles, more densely defined in the most active areas of the home and then dispersed and dissolving towards the perimeter of the building. The home acts as both an extension of the city and an extension of the underground. A thick ground is revealed to be made of microscopic particles of matter—some made of brick and timber, others made of microbes and the excesses of the daily consumption of the apartment inhabitant. This new ground implies a substrate that is geological, biological, and human, where its entanglements are economic, political, and ethical in value around the matter of living.


Through the probe

A probe sent down a sewer pipe bumps into what initially appears to be a small amorphous mass of waste, but as the probe continues along the linear path it becomes clear that this is a single mass equivalent to the size of a large school bus; a ginormous entangled mass of food, fats, hair, and wet wipes lodged into the sewer system. The probe is forensic in its analysis of the new body’s surface, finding points of weakness and discontinuity. The use of this device allows interaction with the fatberg from the (relative) comfort of the control room. At this remove, the surface of the fatberg is rendered almost topographical by the probe—the variation in the surface, a landscape in miniature. Processes of material formation sometimes seen at much larger scales are replicated within the sewer. A material ontology of the fatberg emerges and the RMT’s relationship of surveillance is obscured by the intense desire to understand and minimize its unavoidable growth. The probe reveals an anthropocentric landform that is diverse in its more-than-human temporalities and variability.


Through the microscope

The fatberg slowly makes its entry into the space—first a film, a gel, a semi-solid, then undergoing saponification, becoming a calcified, pumice-like solid. This process of solidification describes a way in which waste processes can also be viewed as a contributor to the city, as “human-made structures (mineralized cities and institutions) are very much like mountains and rocks: accumulations of materials hardened and shaped by historical processes” (DeLanda). The sewerage system does not house the fatberg; rather the fatberg stratifies and merges with the system’s conduits.

From this perspective, the fatberg is an epiphytic extension of the sewer, becoming home to all manner of life. The microscope reveals the complexity of life in/on the fatberg. Microbes abound, densely integrated with the fatberg in a symbiotic exchange of nutrients.

Through the device of the microscope, the scientist behind the lens is the witness to the fatberg’s instability, its state of liveliness, its implicit processes of subjectification. Doubt creeps in: Is the technological device being used correctly? How can this hardened mass be bursting with vitality?


As the microbe

As we peer from the side of the microscope into the circular dish housing the living organisms of the microbes, one can vaguely see the congealing nature of the fat and grease and other indiscernible objects floating in the glass container. It is an enclosed living ecology of multiple organisms and life matter; microbes abound, densely integrated with the fatberg in a symbiotic exchange of nutrients.

The microscope reveals a complex world that has been there, working away all along. A finger momentarily obstructs the lens, revealing a planet of microbes on the skin, at home on and within our bodies—not external to, but essential for our biological functioning along the gut/brain axis. Equaling in number the amount of cells in our body, microbes are described in relation to other entities. The mode of production and cohabitation of microbes calls into question the separability of these bodies. Microbes are the continuous and reciprocal agents between humans, infrastructure, and the fatberg.

This process occurs through forms of production that are cumulative, assistive, and continuous. They play a crucial role in the transformation of the fatberg as a body of matter. Multiplying into “colonies,” bacteria consume the available nutrients, perform chemical reactions, and produce enzymes. Along for the ride, fungi absorb the fatberg and the products of bacteria. Accumulating products and outputs at a small scale but at an incredibly transformative volume, microbes invert conceptions of who built the city and suggest alternative forms of collection, exchange, and distribution.


The sewer network

From this perspective, the fatberg is an epiphytic extension of the sewer, becoming home to all manner of life. The sewerage network does not house the fatberg; rather the fatberg stratifies and merges with the conduits. The material of the fatberg is both its origin, structure, process, and product. This sticky mass lodges itself into the concrete network of pipes, corroding and consuming the structure it is initially housed within, and transforming itself from a transmitter to a transducer.

From this perspective, the fatberg is an extension of the city through its integration with the sewer. The composition of the fatberg varies from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, and street to street. The variable constitution of the fatberg is a registration of the surrounding demographic consumption patterns, cellulose and the associated cultural community of microbes. In this phase; co-production between the microbial makeup of the waste and the form of sewer network occurs. This set of conditions generates diversity and variation in the fatberg. A collective form of production. Multiple fatberg “subspecies” emerge as an expression of the environment and behaviors of the inhabitants.

Then, in turn, this matter reciprocates into the sewer, merging with the conduits, accumulating at first on the floor, then the edges, finally reaching out to the ceiling. The stratified layering between the sewer network and the fatberg amalgamates to become the network. The network is an exoskeleton for facilitating the growth of the fatberg, providing the starting point for the next accumulation.


The sewer overflow

Construction of Melbourne sewage system. Photo courtesy of Melbourne Water

The miles of fully enclosed pipe transition into a large, semi-circular, brick-lined concrete open channel; we are at the end of the line, at which point the sewer overflow demarcates the extents of the city and from here the fatberg becomes disconnected from its host. The once dark subterranean sewer pipe is now exposed for the first time to the light of day. The expansive blue sky appears overhead and the warmth of the sunlight radiates onto the surface of the water and meets the fatberg. This is a moment of rapid environmental change that results in a spike in microbial activity. Nutrient levels on this new day peak with the arrival of the unfamiliar organism that is the fatberg contributing to the manifestation of a vibrant green algae bloom. The cloaca maxima soon disperses the sewage into the bay. This is the perceived end of the journey for the fatberg—but alas, this is not the case. New relationships emerge between the divergent material flows that coalesce to catalyze encounters between the water of the bay and the ocean beyond that constitute expansive waters, currents, diverse species, and organisms.

The fatberg is a form of production; we acknowledge the intricate relationship between the sewer network infrastructure and that of the fatberg as one that reveals a new form of work and production. This is a transformation, from the perceived linear closed system of consumption to the production of the fatberg as waste, to acknowledging the productive nature of the fatberg as a working microbial mass. Work is not valued here purely by its output, but rather by its potentiality in productivity.

We (the authors) have been here all along, quietly guiding and organizing the sequence of each scene and the encompassing narrative. The intention has been to foreground the act of looking, the frame of drawing, and the resultant multiplication of modes of understanding through the subject of the fatberg. We recognize that the voice that is absent is that of the fatberg itself, as this would require anthropomorphic projection onto the ever-changing mass.

We have sought to include the devices of representation as enmeshed in the production of this diverse collection of nine views, all of which together reveal the complexity of the urban environment. They explicitly include the orientation and representational devices of the observer as a critical element to inform an understanding that we exist in a network of complex relationships operating at a multitude of scales encompassing material performance, technologies, representations, and narratives.

Multiple narratives and devices provide a reading of the urban territory that moves from linearity to accumulation and finally to reincorporation; the city both formed by and extended through the living and non-living matter of the fatberg. The Fatberg evidences a relationality to ourselves (both as authors and readers) and our surrounding environments—the extensive city.

Dr. Rosalea Monacella is a faculty member at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Rosalea’s expertise is in the transitioning of the urban environment through a careful indexing and shifting of dynamic resource flows that inform the landscape of contemporary cities. Her research brings together complex urban issues and advanced digital modeling techniques for the generation of sustainable urban futures. Her design approach is one that simultaneously considers forces from the “ground-up + top down” through a careful and rigorous exploration of complex economic, ecological, and social systems that shape an ever-changing city.

Dr. Bridget Keane is a lecturer in the Landscape Architecture program at RMIT University. She graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Science and from RMIT with a Bachelor of Design (Landscape Architecture) (Hons) followed by a PhD from RMIT in 2016. Her research and practice are concerned with landscape as a dynamic material system and considers ways in which global systems impact local landscapes. As a practicing landscape architect, her work understands landscape as an expanded ecology; one that incorporates material, economic, social, and political processes. Her work speculates on alternate futures of how we might live in response to issues of climate change, ecologies of waste, and the effects of extractive industries.

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