At the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, bathed in a strange orange light, George Lewis guides a reporter through a gallery of sludge pipes. Later this afternoon, Lewis — the composer, trombonist-improviser, computer musician, and installation artist — will give a lecture on 12-tone music at ucsd, where he teaches. But for now here he is at Point Loma, notably conversant about San Diego’s wastewater ways.
As one gets to know Lewis better, it becomes clear that he often thrusts himself into hybrid situations, where separate worlds meet and merge. More accurately, he often creates them. At Point Loma, for example, there are these pairings: city government and academia; engineering and art; effluent and ethereality. Sludge and sensibility. In fact, as he will later say, “The theme is hybridity.” He uses this word repeatedly to characterize both his life and work over the course of his 48 years, the last decade of which he has spent in San Diego.
Hybridity hasn’t been the easiest of paths. Or as he says, “It has its discontents.” He isn’t complaining. “If you’re not prepared to accept it, get the hell out,” he advises himself as much as anyone else who may try what he has done. “Because if you’re not prepared to accept the problems that come with being mobile, with having a sort of non-fixed way, in which you’re receiving multiple influences and acting in multiple ways, you’re going to have a hard time.”
When it’s suggested that he appears to thrive on hybridity, considering his internationally extolled opus, he replies, “I would say that it’s necessary, because of my curiosity. But at the same time I’m not going to claim that this is the route to instant success or easy psycho-social fun. I mean, you could have a lot of trouble. It’s really a dangerous path. Because oftentimes you don’t know, well, where’s your actual home? As if you need that kind of centering. And if you did need it, you would lose yourself.”
Curiosity certainly led him to Point Loma, where his latest computer-installation artwork was commissioned by the city, supported with grants, and created for the plant’s visitors’ center. Up and running since March of last year, the piece has “growing pains” from time to time, says Lewis, who has come out here this morning to fine-tune it, as well as to show me around.
The pipes run horizontally overhead, with their contents lettered unambiguously on their sides: “Primary Sludge,” “Raw Sludge,” “Digested Sludge.” While the machines murmur, Lewis says, “This is kind of a quiet moment. Sometimes suddenly huge noises come out of nowhere.” The plant runs cyclically, just like life, he explains. “One of the things I learned while working on the project is that they have rush hours around here — breakfast and dinner, when everybody is taking showers and using the dishwasher.”
As we leave the pipe gallery and make our way to the visitors’ center, Lewis points out the plant’s digesters — eight huge cylindrical tanks. Each holds 2.5 to 3.5 million gallons of sludge. “They’re like giant stomachs, extra stomachs,” he says. “What happens in them is analogous to what happens in a real stomach.”
Versed not only in the present system, Lewis has also researched the history of San Diego sewage. It hasn’t always been so well-contained. Prior to 1900, it was going everywhere — “in the streets, out the windows.” The situation was “equivalent to 15th-century Paris’s,” and something had to be done. In the 1940s, after the first modern system had been built, city boosters touted it as a reason for people to come live here. In the early 1960s, as real estate development boomed, the system was overtaxed. One temporary solution was to urge housewives to change their wash day to any but the traditional Monday and Saturday. Finally, in 1963, the Point Loma facility opened. In the late 1990s, a major upgrade of the plant took place, and a number of artists, including Lewis, were asked to create pieces of art.
While Lewis’s contribution seems to take the form of an information kiosk, it’s actually not an information kiosk at all. Instead, it’s a critique of information kiosks — a commentary on their nature and function. This in turn embodies a critique of the way we get our information and ideas about anything, too often without question.
Called “Information Station No. 1,” it consists of three video monitors, each of which is programmed to show a short loop of images, accompanied by four channels of sound. Embedded unobtrusively within it are two webcams capable of reading human body movements. If you sit in the seat and wave your hands, a show of sights and sounds is the intended result.
I sit and wave at it tentatively. Moving images and sounds begin, including pictures of the deepest reaches of the plant and the noises of its machinery. “I wanted to give people an idea of what the sonic environment is like here,” says Lewis. “Jesse says there’s a kind of music to it.” He refers to plant manager Jesse Pagliaro, who in one sequence of images is seated behind his desk being interviewed by Lewis. It’s not just the sounds that remind Pagliaro of music. It’s the way the whole structure works — its logic, its progression, from beginning to end.
Stay with the kiosk long enough and you’ll grasp a few facts as they rush past, including headlines of scanned newspaper stories from Lewis’s library research. But the point isn’t to feed us knowledge; it’s to show how we learn, or don’t learn: the more passive we are, the less the computer will deliver.
Lewis takes a turn in the seat, and I notice that his body movements induce the program to generate more sounds than I got from it. They’re also louder and more sonically interesting. He has played the program like a piano, so to speak. But all he concedes, modestly, is “I have bigger hands.”