The Battle of the Golden Toilets
When art collectives feud, we all win.
On Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, gold toilets with the message “Take a Trump!” started appearing across the country. Some of the first graced Muncie, Indiana. Soon after there were at least 15: four in Indiana, five in Austin, one in D.C., one in Portland, one in Miami, two in Las Vegas, and, as of May 6, one in Los Angeles—perched next to Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“There are still many more to come,” says the organizer of the Artfinksters, the collective that’s claimed responsibility for the golden toilets. “Where they’re gonna be … we’ll keep that a secret.”
The Artfinksters have other secrets, too. The organizer, a man from the Midwest who wants to be known only as “Art,” describes the group as 50 or 60 of his friends, spread across the country, from elementary school, high school, art school, and the art world. Everyone in the group is anonymous because “our identities don’t matter,” he says. “It’s the message and what we’re trying to say that’s key.”
What is the message? With a toilet, Art says, “you don’t really have to say much. There’s a lot of meaning to a toilet. They’re kind of gross. They don’t represent cleanliness.”
A series of golden toilets is such a simple and clear message that this is not the first time that the symbol has been used to comment on the rise of Trumpism. The Artfinksters are actually the second anonymous art collective in the United States to send golden toilets onto the streets in the past several months—and the first group isn’t exactly thrilled with the Artfinksters’ work.
Back in October, before Trump was elected, the Birch Reincliff Art Collective launched its own golden toilet street art project in Chicago, where the group is based. This collective was formed by a group of longtime friends, about 20 at its height, who had been working together for about two years. Birch Reincliff is a friend, one member said in a phone interview, and is also the name they use to refer to each other when talking to the media. “There was a Birch Reincliff, but right now he’s on vacation, so he’s not part of things at the moment,” the anonymous member said. (The group told The Daily Beast that Birch was a friend who “had become disenchanted with society when, roughly a year ago, he had an outburst one night when they were together … as weeks went by it seemed more likely he’d had an extreme mental breakdown.”)
The Birch Reincliff Art Collective’s toilet project took months to put together. “It was an adventure,” the member said. “I came home one day and … ‘Birch’ … he’s on the phone, and he’s talking to this place that sells used appliances. He was so mad, because he was trying to get a bunch of toilets, and one buyer had bought nine. That image is always going to be in my head. Who buys that many toilets?” Well, besides them, of course. Once they all heard the idea, everyone quickly hopped on board. “Maybe you can use art to shine a spotlight on things,” the member said. “If it catches people’s attention, maybe that can be a gateway to more serious thought.”
The toilets had “Putin Was Here” or “Chris Christie Was Here” spray-painted in dripping letters or scrawled in permanent marker on their covers and tanks. They were also filled with “Donnie the Poo” figurines, which feature a cartoonish pile of poop with Trump’s head affixed to them.
The toilets were made golden by a chroming process that required gas masks, silvering agents, and volatile chemicals. “Gold spray paint just looks so terrible,” said the member. “There were people who really wanted it to look nice, to look right, to turn heads.”
“When the toilets were finished, they shined,” another member wrote in an email. “You could see yourself in them. It was work we could be proud to claim as our own.”
But one of the collective’s backers, who had paid for the gas masks and chemicals, didn’t agree. According to the emailer, “He took one look and hated them. He said it wasn’t ‘street art’ enough and insisted we get gold spraypaint instead.”
This difference in artistic vision did not end well. In the end, one of the Birch Reincliff members told the backer, “Chicago is too big for you. … You want to be an artist, go to Muncie.”
“It appears that’s exactly what he did,” wrote the member. Artfinkster’s toilets were first widely noticed in Muncie, leading the Birch Reincliff folks to believe that the other collective was “likely founded” by that backer, who they describe as “a disgruntled former member of the Birch Reincliff Collective.”
“Everything about the language they use is very similar,” said the member who spoke by phone. “It seems really derivative and very likely that these guys were involved with us at some point. The details are close enough.”
Art disputes that version of events, and states that the idea for their golden toilet project arose when the phrase “Take a Trump” came out of his mouth one day while talking to a friend. He had been wanting to do a group project with his many artist friends, and he thought, “That’s what we’ll do. We’ll get a toilet and spray-paint it gold, because Trump surrounds himself with everything gold.”
The year 2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of one of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous works and a landmark of 20th-century art—Fountain, the urinal he signed “R. Mutt” and displayed as a piece of art—so the choice had some art historical resonance, too. The Artfinksters, whose name derives from the phrase “rat fink” and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, collected the toilets from curbs and online sales, and then painted them, for placement at spots around the country where the members live. Each toilet is editioned, as if part of a series, so that viewers will wonder just how many of them are out there, and where they might be.
As for the Birch Reincliff project, Art says, “I think I had seen it in passing, but it didn’t register. It was just something that I saw and instantly, immediately it was gone. It wasn’t anything that I really thought of.” His project has “absolutely 100% no connection with that whatsoever,” and he has absolutely no idea, he says, why the Birch Reincliff Art Collective thinks their former backer is involved.
“We can’t prove it,” said a Birch Reincliff member. “If you look at their website and their Instagram, all of the statements they make—it’s just comic. It’s almost word-for-word exactly the stuff he used to write for our social media. I can’t prove it 100%. It just seems like it to me.”
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