Annie Halliday - visual artist working in experimental photomedia

Recycling water into art

The residency with Southern Water gave me the opportunity to fuse my work as an artist with my experience from an earlier career as an environmental scientist, carrying out research on the value of protozoa in wastewater treatment. I was already familiar with the processes on the site, but now I planned a more poetic approach, through photomedia. The location was uncharted territory for an artist as far as I could tell.

I decided to concentrate on two areas of interest. On the macro scale, by exploring the play of light on water and the amazing variety in the nature of water flow through the treatment processes in the plant. At the micro level, I was able to rediscover the microscopic life forms in the secondary biological treatment, with support from Biosciences at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Most people don’t realise that the treatment process is essentially biological, and rather elegant in its efficiency and management.

I planned to evolve photographic work to make into books. The idea of visual narrative interests me for its open quality. Sequences of images in book format are time-based, but controlled and interpreted by the reader, open to individual imagination.

I started by making a tour of the works with a camera: the lens provides a special intensity of looking. The site is an odd combination of vast concrete tanks and ditches, large-scale pipes and pumps, all ranged in a kind of nature reserve environment. I was drawn to the oxidation ditches with their strange weirs and foaming aeration. And to the final settlement tanks, huge circular raised pools where the purified water runs over a notched weir around the margin, and flows away clear and sparkling as the final effluent.

I captured a sequence of photographic images at regular intervals around the perimeter of Final Tank 3, to reveal the changing qualities of light on the surfaces of the water and the weir. These can be seen in waterbook 1: full circle.

At the University of Kent, generous support and help from Biosciences enabled me to carry out photomicroscopy on samples of the water from the biological treatment stage. I recorded on film, a series of images of the protozoa which help to purify wastewater, via a specialised camera attachment, magnified and traced by transmitted light. waterbooks 2: microcosmos offers a sequence of images of this strange universe.

I constructed waterbooks 1 and 2 as large unique books, and they were also published at a smaller size in an edition of 1000 for distribution.

This project gave me opportunities to share my work-in-progress with Southern Water employees, and the teams of electrical engineers who were testing all the circuits on the site. Initially they were bemused: ‘why would an artist want to work in a place like this?’ But then the conversations developed about art, what motivates people, enthusiasms about photography. These exchanges and collaborations proved an integral and significant part of the residency project.

‘I was apprehensive when Annie first contacted me, not knowing what might be involved in an artist’s residency. After seeing some of her work I became intrigued, and impressed by her clear vision and purpose. She has shown wastewater in a whole new light! It’s great to have projects which increase understanding in this ‘taboo’ but important part of the water cycle.

  • Rob Glet, Area Manager, Southern Water

continue to waterbooks 1 and 2...