How 'Portal Potties' became the unlikely opening installation for Austin's celebrated Creek Show
Kristen Gunn — one of the only two Creek Show designers not on a company team and, not coincidentally, one of the only two Creek Show designers who stayed up working all night — appears on a video call upside down against an ethereal white background. It looks like she’s calling from bed, but it’s reflective and glittering. Less glamorous than that, it’s a porta potty floor.
Gunn and Laura Salmo, “mom friends,” teamed up to create the most subversive Creek Show installation of 2022 (and possibly its entire history), dropping $10,000 and purposefully marring the entrance to the path with seemingly unremarkable worksite commodes.
This year's Creek Show, running from November 11-20, doesn’t have one official theme, but it's easy to see threads in the use of Day-Glo colors, neon or faux-neon tubing, and lots of reflective light. Waller Creek itself ties everything together, with a clearer path than the more meandering one through the architectural portion of the park in 2021. The water moves under glowing pieces like self-supporting pants under blacklights, giant glowing dragonflies, and abstract shapes.
By nature of following a stream, a visitor is bound to run into liminal spaces. Sculptures are tucked under and around bridges, lit only in the dark, as the water rushes away and tens of thousands of visitors pass. This impermanence takes root in “Portal Potties,” in two ways. First, the inspiration.
“The state of downtown Austin right now is construction,” says Salmo. “I look out here, and all I see is porta potties on every corner. More than Starbucks.” This elicits a surprised laugh from Gunn, who Salmo later scolds for impropriety, offscreen from inside the Portal Potties. Irony abounds. (If the Creek Show has any year-to-year theme, it’s the environment, and Salmo points out that these durable structures are also commonly associated with disaster relief.)
The second liminal element is in the name. During a preview the night before the show opened, Gunn dressed up as a custodian and handed out paper refraction glasses. She manned the single door in the back that opens up into the “portal” — a line of five porta potties with no interior borders, brightly lit and austere inside — invisible from the entrance.
It really does look like a row of temporary event amenities, except that no one walks in the doors spilling white light out toward the entrance. But people do walk out. It is figuratively a portal to an altered mental state, and literally the transition from the regular world to the show.
“[When] I first decided that we wanted to try to put in a bid for the Creek Show this year, I told [Salmo], ‘The only way I want to do the Creek Show is if we get to open the show, and we do something totally insane,” says Gunn. Both women are creative professionals, but this is the team’s first major project together, and it’s not representing a company with resources, tools, and training to build avant-garde structures.
“It's such an honor to have been picked,” she continues. “[The first meeting] was very humbling. Like, ‘I'm an impressive architect! We're the architecture conglomerate of Hootie-Hoo, whatever it is.’ I think of weird things in my hammock in my backyard.”
A stipend from the Creek Show helped, but the Portal Potties went significantly over budget. Gunn calculates the damages as equal to “multiple house payments,” although, at the same time, muttering she does not want to know. In addition to being the underdog team, so to speak, they accidentally chose a nearly impossible task — instead of constructing something from scratch, they learned to alter structures that are designed to be nearly indestructible. (Even a company assembler struggled to fulfill their initial vision.) The portal also had to hold up under 70,000 visitors walking through, by Gunn’s estimate.
Aside from the campy concept and deceptively difficult installation, the Portal Potties are beautiful. Lined with mirrors and diffraction grating, and viewed through disorienting glasses, the portal turns into a high-concept funhouse or a low-budget infinity room. The white light and white walls shimmer with rainbows, and it fully removes the viewer from downtown Austin, before they step out into the show.
The house payments have not gone wildly astray, since the team hopes the structure will be rented out after the show, or perhaps bought by “an eccentric tech millionaire-billionaire.” It’s about the size of two teardrop camper trailers combined, and there’s no place like Austin to toss it up on Airbnb.
In fact, as the team continues working together, Gunn and Salmo are forming grand plans for more immersive works including a house to rent out. Instead of selling tickets to an immersive experience, to be rushed through among strangers, visitors will get to live in the space. Gunn imagines refashioning the Portal Potties as an elevator entrance in the Airbnb house, now a mansion. “What's in the sub-basement of a porta potty? “I guess it would be, like, the rainbow factory.”
The Creek Show is open at Waller Creek through November 20, from 6-8 pm most days. A full schedule and more information about each installation is available at waterloogreenway.org.