Ruby Bontrager is a full-time “circulation technician” at the PSU library. Last Christmas, I was stranded in California due to a violent ice storm and airport strikes across the Pacific Northwest. Through a concatenation of synchronicities, I found out that Ruby and her sibling were driving from San Jose to Portland and hitched a ride. Prior to our road trip, our relationship was friendly and mediated by the boundary of the circ desk. But suddenly I was in a car with Ruby and Case for ten hours witnessing complicated family dynamics unfold, not unlike a Noah Baumbach movie. When Ruby told me that for the past three years she has been recording her bowel movements (including the time, location, and miscellaneous notes) every day in an excel spreadsheet, I was bewildered. I’m still asking myself, have I ever encountered such a powerful representation of the human anus? Her spreadsheet is a mode of auto-ethnography that also traces gastric changes over more than one thousand days of poop. What was the passion that inspired this undertaking? I came to school seeking intellectual soulmates, but instead I found a soulmate in scat.
I immediately asked Ruby to create an excel spreadsheet of my poop, and every day I leave her a voice note debriefing my intestines. This practice of peristaltic disclosure has infected me with a feeling of interconnectedness; it is nothing less than a positive exorcism of poop shame.
P.S. If it matters to you, Ruby is half-filipino and half-white. But she doesn’t want to give anyone leverage for bullying her by saying she’s half-white.
Ash Yang-Thompson: Ruby, what time did I poop today?
Ruby Bontrager: 9:55 AM. That’s intimacy.
Ash: How did you decide to make an excel spreadsheet for your poop?
Ruby: It was the end of 2020, and I like New Years because I’m really into symbolism. I always try to make a resolution, but this is the only one I’ve kept up with. I was most interested in collecting new poop locations.What if there was a cool bathroom and I wanted to poop there?
Ash: Where’s the coolest place you’ve ever pooped?
Ruby: Let me pull it up right now. [pulls up her excel spreadsheet]
I pooped at the Detroit Lake campsite. I think that’s the most exciting place. I’m a simple man.
Ash: We were just arguing about this, but I think it’s an important question: would you rather be constipated or have diarrhea?
Ruby: I hate this question. Would you rather stick scissors in your eyes or in your crotch? Would you rather be upset or be upset? I’d rather be constipated.
Ruby: Because I don’t want shit falling out of my butt unless I’m enjoying it. There’s no clear, delineated relief for diarrhea the way there is with constipation. You know it’s over when you finally poop. There’s no gray area.
Ash: As a chronically constipated person, I disagree. I poop, but it’s never enough, and it’s dirtier too, because the shit is stuck in your asshole. I feel like I need to scoop it out with a tiny spoon.
What’s the most times you’ve pooped in a day?
Ruby: In March 2021, I pooped three times on two separate days. On one of those days I just wrote, when does it stop?
Ash: Why do you think you pooped so much those days?
Ruby: I saw a TikTok recently of a college guy who was keeping track of his poops and he averaged 6 poops a month – that’s like 81 poops a year. That’s a concerning number.
Maybe I was pooping for him.
Ash: Why do you think you’ve been able to keep track of your poop so religiously, while your other New Year’s resolutions have fizzled out?
Ruby: There’s nothing else to do when you’re on the toilet but pull out your poop spreadsheet.
It comes naturally to me. Whereas with exercise, it doesn’t just happen on its own.
Ash: So you always poop with your phone?
Ruby: Not always, but pretty much. I don’t keep books in my bathroom anymore like I did in my youth.
I just want to be clear that I think it’s gross that I take my phone into the bathroom, but I’m not going to stop now. I wouldn’t want to look at my phone under a black light.
Ash: Do you miss reading books on the toilet?
Ruby: No, I only did that because there was nothing better to do. It’s better than reading the back of a shampoo bottle. What do you do on the toilet? I know you don’t really use your phone.
Ash: I definitely have an easier time being constipated when I have my phone, but because I normally poop in the morning and I lock my phone in my P.O. box until lunchtime, I usually don’t have my phone with me. So I bring my vocabulary notecards. If I forget my flashcards, I pray for a one-wipe wonder.
Ruby: Haha. You’re such a nerd. But that is so wild. I leave my phone at home occasionally, like when I go to the grocery store, but I think I’m too many people’s emergency contact to leave my phone at home.
Ash: I think that the repetition of doing the same thing every day, in the same place (on the toilet) for three years makes your bowel movements take on a spiritual dimension. Because ritual, repetition, long-term devotion and record keeping are all elements of a spiritual practice. And you’re keeping close tabs on your anus, the way a Catholic might with their sins. Does any of this resonate with you? Do you see any greater significance in your poop?
Ruby: I would say that I keep track of it religiously. I never really thought about it being a spiritual practice – I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person and I wasn’t raised in a religious home, but maybe that’s why I’m enjoying myself.
Everything about my poop is significant. That’s why I have my spreadsheet. The spiritual significance is my happiness when I get to look back on it. Also, I’m going to be famous one day, and the cultural historians will say, “Everybody should keep track of their poop like Ruby did, because she was a beacon of her time. Thank you, Ruby, for being a pioneer of bowel movement record keeping.”
Although I’m sure I’m not first and I won’t be the last.
Maybe if I threw up I’d put it on my spreadsheet.
Ash: Wow, that brings up a lot. What are you going to be famous for? And if you would put regurgitating on your spreadsheet, does that mean you think your mouth is equivalent to your anus? I personally think I’m incontinent with my words (I’m horribly indiscreet), so maybe that’s why I’m constipated on the other end. I’m just realizing this now.
Ruby: Hmmm. I’ll probably be famous for my amazing looks. Maybe I’ll be funny for money and that’s how I’ll be famous. But I don’t have high hopes.
Ash: But you’ve already been famous on TikTok, right?
(Ruby posted a video of herself saying, I don’t know how you could post a group photo of 10 to 20 people where everybody is white, and it got over 500,000 views.)
Ruby: I don’t think having one viral video counts. I’m not getting stopped on the street by people saying, “are you that bitch who hates white people?”
Ash: Do you hate white people?
Ruby: Yes. I do. If you’re my friend and you’re white, you understand that if white people hadn’t colonized my ancestors in the Philippines, I wouldn’t have generational trauma. On a large scale white people are the ones to blame. I’m almost sure that white people came up with capitalism. I feel like it’s reasonable beef to have.
White people are the only reason why I’m othered in society. Everybody is othered because white people othered them. So rude. They didn’t have to do that. We could have all been friends.
Ash: But you love your partner, and your partner is white, so is your hatred of white people more of a conceptual thing?
Ruby: Yeah. My partner didn’t specifically colonize the Philippines. It’s more that I hate the history of white people. I hate the idea of white people. [laughs]
But white people can redeem themselves. I’m not keeping notes of every white person that has wronged me. I just want white people not to forget why people don’t like white people. They just need to be humble.
At one point in 2020, I decided I didn’t need to invite any more white people into my life.
Ash: Has your decision not to invite any more white people into your life affected your poop?
Ruby: No, I don’t get guilt poop about it or anything. I poop peacefully knowing that white people irritate me.
Ash: What I meant was, if poop is a metaphor for the way you digest life, does being around less white people make your poop more normal?
Ruby: Like am I more relaxed? Maybe. The last time I was surrounded by a more diverse population was high school, but I wasn’t keeping track of my poop back then.
Ash: What’s it like to keep track of my poop? Do you compare my bowel movements to yours? I know you say “I’m sorry” a lot when I text you about my poop.
Ruby: I don’t mean to. I just always feel that way when you text me about it. I do subconsciously compare our poop, but not actively. I like it because I’m nosy. It makes me feel like a dog, like I’m gathering the same information a dog is by sniffing another dog’s poop.
Ash: What is your favorite place to poop outside of your own apartment?
Ruby: My parent’s toilet. Because that’s my childhood toilet. It’s a nice toilet. It’s small and the bathroom is cute and well-lit (it has a south-facing window). There isn’t a safer place to be. It’s a toilet that I consistently sit sideways on. I don’t sit forwards on it, and I don’t know why. I don’t do that with any other toilet.
Ash: Do you have any final thoughts on poop that you’d like to share?
Ruby: I love my ass and all the poop it makes. I know it doesn’t make poop, but that’s how I feel.
I hope someday everyone is able to poop in a public restroom where there are other people around without being embarrassed. I’m still embarrassed. I know it’s a long time coming, but that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
Ash: Where do you think poop shame comes from? And the idea that women don’t poop?
Ruby: OMG. That’s ridiculous. A little poop sound is objectively funny. Pooping is associated with immaturity and being childish – like poop jokes or fart jokes – but pooping is very serious.
Society expects women to be quiet and clean and smell good, and pooping is none of those things.
Pooping doesn’t advance the plot of a book or a movie, so maybe people think that poop doesn’t advance the plot of their own lives. But it advances mine.
Ash: How does it advance your life?
Ruby: All morning I wait until it’s time for me to poop. And all day I ingest things to poop out the next morning. And it’s a time of quiet reflection, except for the poop. The poop speaks.
Ashley Yang-Thompson (I respectfully opt out of the protocol to include pronouns) is a ninety-nine time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a certified MacArthur genius. ashleyyangthompson.com @leaky_rat
Ruby Bontrager (she/they) is a circulation technician at the PSU library and a pioneer of bowel movement record keeping.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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