Matthew Mazzotta’s latest art project — a methane digester that feeds on doggy doo — has created quite the stir. Recently installed in a public dog park in Cambridge, Mass., the device is powering an old-fashioned, gas-burning lamppost while sparking conversations and building connections that may otherwise go overlooked.

“Everybody loves this idea because basically it’s doing something good with the dog waste,” said Mazzotta, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) visual arts program graduate and lead artist of Park Spark Project.

Dog (and other animals’) waste creates methane — a greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere. Methane can be converted to energy. The methane digester has been hailed as the first of its kind in the United States — due to its public nature and location in a dog park.

Mazzotta is hoping to fuel other devices with the “passive technology.”

“The science is the science,” he said. “I think everybody loves to see something on the simplest of levels — there’s no electricity involved in this. It’s just collecting gas and burning it.”

While an MIT student, Mazzotta traveled to India for an appropriate technology class, which included studying methane digesters. Upon his return, while sitting in a Cambridge dog park, Mazzotta noted a full garbage can and thought about other countries that make use of such “waste.”

Last spring, Mazzotta built a communal tea house in the Netherlands, where local cow manure is transformed to methane — the energy of which is used to heat water. He realized that urban areas don’t take advantage of such natural resources, though they certainly have the furry friends producing such fuels.

But his hopes for the Cambridge project extend beyond the environment. A conceptual artist at heart, Mazzotta said he hopes the technology will serve as a launching point for people to meet, converse and learn from one another. “I started realizing that’s what this energy could be used for — to open up a new social air in the community instead of just being a technology,” he said.

The process of getting the city on board with the project wasn’t quite as simple as the technology Mazzotta describes, however. He spoke with officials at various city departments — from fire, public health to parks and recreation — and after making a few changes to the design, got approval for the project in the end of July. But Mazzotta isn’t complaining about the extra precautions.

“Who blames them,” he said. “It’s new, it was exciting for me to learn about, so they probably had some thoughts.”

And dog owners are eager to use and play with the digester. In use since early September, it’s equipped with a stirring handle (with directional arrows), which people have spun more than Mazzotta expected. “It’s been spun so much, it gave me new ideas for public art,” he said. “If you ever put a handle in public with arrows on it, people spin it like crazy.”

While the lamppost is the first device to be fueled by the methane digester, Mazzotta has asked the public for input on other potential uses, with mixed results. A recent meeting garnered suggestions, which ranged from fueling a shadow projection box, popcorn stand and even dentist chair.

And interest in creating similar projects has risen outside Cambridge, Mazzotta said, noting that his inbox has roughly 50 e-mails from government agencies inquiring about receiving a methane digester.

Mazzotta, who is referred to as “the artist” by park-goers, said it’s not the methane device itself that excites him, but people’s shift in thinking after seeing the possibilities. “Art can open up conversations over and over again,” he said. “Where technology is exciting at first, and then degrades, I think art should be the opposite — it’s confusing at first, but then just grows in interest.”  

The Park Spark Project is funded through MIT, in partnership with the city of Cambridge, and remains an ongoing project. For more information, visit http://www.cambridgema.gov/CAC/Public/Park_Spark.cfm.

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer