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Railway Carriage Toilet


I first encountered Steven Pippin's quirky photographic practices during a visit to the Tate gallery in 1997. Here is a true performance artist, who is able to express both wit and ingenuity in his artwork. The following text is an except from an exhibition catalogue, describing one of Pippin's most amusing pieces.

From Steven Pippin's admission to the Brighton Polytechnic, in 1982, up until 1991, his entire work involves the conversion of pieces of furniture, architectural features, and sundry objects into cameras, and all his works have an outward aspect consisting of two parts. The first, presents the transformed object or the device used, without any frills. The second, the imagewhich this antiquated, monsterous device can actually produce, after much tentatively effort and extremely long exposure times.

The sophistication of the the present day camera seems to grow proportionately to the increasingly banal subject matter it records. Everything can be photographed and everyone is a photographer. But as we can see, things do not stop here. Because, with a few little arrangements and a canny ration of light and darkness, everything can make photographs.

A toilet bowl was converted into a camera on board a British rail train travelling from London to Brighton. A specially designed aluminium 'insert' fitted into the recess of the toilet bowl. This housed both lens and shutter device as well as a pneumatic seal which when inflated (by the use of a bicycle pump) holds the contraption firmly into place as well as sealing out unwanted light. The operator then removed his trousers in order to 'load the photographic paper, placing his arms down the legs in the manner of a changing bag. Once exposed the toilet was flushed (taking care to avoid flushing whilst at a station) and developer simultaneously injected into the toilet cistern pipe at the rear of the bowl. The operation was then repeated for the fixer after which the toilet was flushed washing the print of any residue chemicals and finally retrieved.

The whole process of photography seemed to align itself perfectly with the toilet. The initial qualities of the toilet bowl and lid gave a light tight unit with which to load the photo sensitive material. The water then accepted the addition of developer (at the correct ratio) which enabled the flushing and simultaneous development of the photographic image in the bowl below.

The British rail toilet saga

The Continued Saga of an Amateur Photographer, November 1993, exp. no10.
Image dimensions: 18" x 23". Exposure time: 1.5 min.
Documented on video tape Hi-band U-matic, 22 min., colour and sound.

The act of working in the face of such a low grade situation almost verified the photographs as being 'important and worthwhile' given that such a basic and humble object, normally used to expel matter, could ever produce a reasonable rendition of it's own immediate surroundings seemed a peculiar inversion.
The final pictures were less objects of beauty or adornment and closer to fragments of eveidence, proof that the event had happened.

The links forged by Steven Pippin with photography should not, in effect, make us lose sight of the fact that it is above all the purely speculative energy, shared by engineers, scientists and artists alike, which interests him, and which all his works present. The artistic quest is not just heroic. It is neither more nor less speculative and thus neither more nor less fundamental than other forms of investigation. What is more, Steven Pippin's videos do not show us the spectacle of the groppings and impasses inherent in investigative processes, but rather the application and dedication of the little soldier, who must be the complete artist, scientist and researcher in the exercise of his quest.

Excerpts from 'Steven Pippin - Discovering the secrets of monsieur Pippin'
ISBN 2 908257 17 3


Copyright - Paul Fillingham
Last update - 19 August, 2001