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Hector Loves Water Treatment

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Alex Chambers:  Hector Ortiz Sanchez got pulled into the world of water treatment as a young adult and he hasn't looked back. He spent years running plants in Puerto Rico. But a few years ago, he decided he couldn't realize his ambitions on the island. The mainland was calling.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I did feel like I would stay there, because I love what I do, I need to show people.

Alex Chambers:  Today on Inner States, Hector Ortiz Sanchez shares his love of water treatment. And then at the end of the show we'll introduce a new segment, Guilty Pleasures. That's all coming up, right after this.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. It's usually in late childhood or early adolescence when we start to dream about being the best at something. Becoming a pro basketball player, pop star, famous author. It's usually based on admiring someone. In my day it was Michael Jordan, then Britney Spears. I'm talking generally, not about myself. A little later on the author side it was David Foster Wallace. So okay, there's a little bit of me. The point is, we find role models in the pantheon of fame and then we start to dream of achieving the heights they managed.

Alex Chambers:  It's rare I think, that someone wants to be the best waste water treatment plant operator in the country.

Alex Chambers:  That's Hector's dream.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I want more, I want to be better. How I see myself is trying to be more knowledgeable. In that way I will be like one of the best right now. And that's what I'm looking, one of the best operators in the whole country.

Alex Chambers:  His ambitions go beyond waste water. He also wants to be the best drinking water plant operator in the country. But we're gonna focus on waste water here.

Alex Chambers:  Waste water treatment is not a sexy topic. It's probably among the least sexy you can imagine, really. But it affects you, especially if you live in a place where there are other people, not just on your own in the woods. Before we had sewage treatment, sewage just went straight into waterways. It was a big problem in lots of places, including 19th century London. There was a series of cholera outbreaks connected to a lack of sanitation. Tens of thousands of people died. Raw sewage and industrial waste had been building up in the River Thames for years. The summer of 1858 was unusually hot. The river had smelled bad before, but July and August turned into The Great Stink in London. Along with the stench, people worried about the miasma effect which, at the time, was how they thought diseases were spread, by breathing in stinky, contaminated air.

Alex Chambers:  The thing about disasters though, is that they can finally get people to act. There was this civil engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, who proposed a sewer system for central London in reaction to The Great Stink. The idea was to send waste water east, out of the city, before letting it back into the river. The city accepted the proposal, built the sewers over the next 15 years. And a century and a half later it's still in use. Historians think Bazalgette saved more lives than any other official from that era. Maybe you haven't heard of him, but you can start to see why Hector might admire waste water treatment operators.

Alex Chambers:  They say infrastructure is invisible, until it breaks down. But, I think we should get to know our infrastructure when it's working, too. So, where do you think the water goes when you flush the toilet? Like, what's the process?

Tallis:  When I was five and six, I thought it went to a building that cleaned water, people who had to clean out the water and then send it back, after it was cleaned. But now I'm pretty sure that it just goes to the sewers.

Alex Chambers:  I decided to ask the nearest eight year old.

Tallis:  You want to address who I am?

Alex Chambers:  Do you want to address who you are?

Tallis:  I'm Tallis, Alex's child.

Alex Chambers:  Before we get to Tallis' current understanding, I asked him to tell me more about that building they pictured when they were little.

Tallis:  I would not want to work there.

Alex Chambers:  What did you imagine though?

Tallis:  I imagined the water coming in, in tubes, in the ceiling, then coming down into buckets.

Alex Chambers:  People would put strainers over the buckets and pour the water into another bucket.

Tallis:  If it was pee, then that wouldn't really work. But for poop, that would sometimes work, with some of it.

Alex Chambers:  Since straining the water was obviously not going to completely clean the water, Tallis imagined another step too. Notice the magical thinking.

Tallis:  But then, they would use a special sucking tube or something, that sucked up all the other stuff from out there. It could sense if it was clean water, so it wouldn't suck that stuff up.

Alex Chambers:  Magic right? How does the tube figure out what to suck up, and what to leave? How would it only suck up the contamination? Not very realistic. Except, it's not that far from how most of us experience technology. How does a computer work? I press some buttons on a keyboard, and words appear on a screen. I bet most of you listening can't actually describe that process any better than I could. And in a way that's true for how actual water treatment works, too. It's also kind of magical but, we'll get there. First, think about how you think waste water gets dealt with. Here's what the mature eight year old Tallis thinks.

Tallis:  I feel like there's a tube to just go down there, into the sewers.

Alex Chambers:  You mean from the toilet?

Tallis:  Yes. And then, the sewers go to a sewage plant, like you went to.

Alex Chambers:  What do you imagine is at the sewage plant?

Tallis:  How you described it was like, you were standing on the edge of a river of poop and pee.

Alex Chambers:  I promise there is no river of excrement. But there is water flowing into the waste water treatment plant, which means it also needs to leave eventually. My last question to Tallis was, where does it go when it leaves the plant?

Tallis:  I don't think it does, but a place it could go is like a landfill. It could go to a landfill.

Alex Chambers:  All the water?

Tallis:  Yes. Under that giant hill, they have a big metal container, that has all the water in it.

Alex Chambers:  It doesn't go to a landfill. Tallis' next guess was they send the clean water back to people's bathrooms. Not a bad idea.So that you don't have to keep guessing, here's the answer. The waste water that flows into the Dillman Wastewater Treatment Plant, south of Bloomington, once it's cleaned, it exits the plant into a channel and that channel connects with Clear Creek, a natural stream. But I wanted to understand the whole process, and who better to walk me through it, than an up and coming star in wastewater treatment.

Alex Chambers:  Hector Ortiz Sanchez. Hector grew up in Puerto Rico. That's where he got started in his career. But he didn't grow up wanting to become a water treatment star. When he was a kid, his dad bought him a science kit.

Alex Chambers:  You wanted to be a pilot. Did you also want to be a scientist?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  No. No.

Alex Chambers:  It wasn't until he was a young adult that he got the bug.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I remember the first time I went to a plant, they have this cabinet with a lot of lights and switches.

Alex Chambers:  Those lights and switches were how they controlled all the pumps and valves.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  And to me that was like whoa, like a big, huge toy.

Alex Chambers:  So he started working in the plant as a janitor. Then, one day...

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The operator asked for that position.

Alex Chambers:  ...the operator, the guy in charge, wanted to be the janitor. He had seniority and the janitor job was closer to his house. So they let him take Hector's job and that meant they needed an operator.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  They sent me to the water plant, and that's how I started, in drinking water, in 2001. And since then, I love it.

Alex Chambers:  Hector was excited to show me the wastewater treatment plant. He drove me from building to building in a Gator. He told me about each step it takes to clean wastewater, so they can send it back to the wild. And we talked about his own experiences, becoming the leader of this institution. Here's our tour.

Alex Chambers:  Is there recognition of some of the top people?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. Actually, in Indiana, American Water Works Association, there's a big, huge conference they give in recognition for people who do good in this field. But I'll be honest, most of those guys are very old[LAUGHS]. They have been in their field for a long time [LAUGHS].

Alex Chambers:  It's sort of Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes [LAUGHS].

Alex Chambers:  Thanks for your service.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Thanks for your service, yes [LAUGHS]. No, I don't want to be disrespectful, this is not the point. What I'm saying is, they have been here a long time, where people can see what they have been doing in the past. Here in Indiana, they have more young people, and I like that, and they are bringing more people to this field. You can see a lot of young people in their recognition. But if you go to these big, huge conferences, there are more with PhDs, those kind of stories, and all that kind of stuff.

Alex Chambers:  Part of what I'm curious about, is you want to be the best. Not just the best you can be, but you have maybe a little bit of a competitive aspect to you. Is there an element of glory?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I will say it's not me. What I'm looking at is, expand the knowledge and have one of the best utilities in the whole country. I believe that will be the main goal. That's the one I'm looking at, actually. It's not for myself, it's for the whole team. That will be my next step. I'm looking to bring more people with me.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  All the water will come here to this building. We have a swimming pool of sewage water, you will see it now [LAUGHS].

Alex Chambers:  So this is waste water that's coming from the city?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. Waste water coming from the city.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  You can see how much trash we can find in there.

Alex Chambers:  Like what?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Like money. One day they found an orange traffic cone. A lot of condoms, a lot of women's stuff. I won't say anything, I will show you.

Alex Chambers:  It's like a little pile of old-looking toys, seriously. A little shark head, and a ten sided die, and some teeth.

Alex Chambers:  Has it been challenging, not being from Indiana?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. In the very beginning, when I first moved here, it was a challenge because, as you can hear, I have a strong accent. I will give you an example. Before, I used to say [PHONETIC: temperature]. Mountain, [PHONETIC: Morrisville], temperature, vegetable [LAUGHS]. I used to tell people [PHONETIC: vejetable]. I remember their phrase was, "What are you saying, Hector?" I was reading, and I started to tell people, I know it's hard to understand, so let's do something. You're reading your mind and then you explain to me how I need to say it. So I started to tell them, vegetable, mountain, that kind of stuff, and they started to understand what I was trying to say. I used to work with this guy, Barrymore, he was very good. I could not finish a sentence, he'd jump in, and he knew exactly what I was saying. He told me one day, "Hector, you know English, we just need to fine tune exactly what we are listening to. We fine tune that, and I'm pretty sure people will understand."remember their phrase was like, "What are you saying, Hector?" I was reading, and I started to tell people, I know it's hard to understand so let's do something. You're reading your mind and then you explain to me how I need to say it. So I started to tell them, vegetable, mountain, that kind of stuff, and they started to understand what I was trying to say. I used to work with this guy, Barrymore, he was very good. I could not finish a sentence, he'd jump in, and he knew exactly what I was saying. He told me one day, "Hector, you know English, we just need to fine tune exactly what we are listening to. We fine tune that, and I'm pretty sure people will understand."

Alex Chambers:  Alright. I hope you understand that we need to take breaks occasionally. This is Inner States, and we're talking with Hector Ortiz Sanchez who runs Bloomington's water treatment plants, about how he wants to share his love of water treatment. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers. We're in the midst of a tour with Hector Ortiz Sanchez, of the Dillman Waste Water Treatment Plant. It's on the south side of Bloomington, Indiana. The first place Hector took me was into this squat brick building where the waste water starts to get processed. It's one story, pretty unremarkable.

Alex Chambers:  Wow, okay. We're going down a few flights of stairs here. This little nondescript building has a lot underneath it.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  It's 50 feet from the floor, up there.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  When we go to the doctor, I will consider that the main people, or employees. They come here and work everyday, trying to have the heart running right. I can give you an example. We have this pipe that's over 40 years old. Two weeks ago, the pipe in the bottom got eroded, so the basement in the lift station got flooded. A lot of electrical equipment got submerged. It was a two or three inch hole, and caused a lot of problem. It was almost $30,000 just to get it repaired. It was four inches from the floor, in a channel which is a few inches, so there is no way you can have a welder there to fix it.

Alex Chambers:  So this started leaking?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  This got flooded, this high. This tunnel was submerged, and some others. You can see, 30, 40 years old. It just got eroded in the bottom.

Alex Chambers:  Yes, that makes sense.

Alex Chambers:  Grit removal.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. You can see what kind of material.

Alex Chambers:  That's a lot of grit.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. That's a lot of grit coming in from the sewer. And corn.

Alex Chambers:  That's got its own smell.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  What made you decide you wanted to leave PR?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The economy there is kind of hard. The salary for a drinking and wastewater operator in Puerto Rico is one of the lowest paid. One of the most amazing operators come from there but, their pay is not very good. I searched on Google for how much an average operator will earn here. I thought, "well, damn, that's good money, let me try." And honestly when I moved here, I moved here with not much pay, honestly. It was 2016 when I moved here, making $12.25 an hour, as a certified operator, driving everyday to Indy, back and forth. My wife told me, "Hector, you're making this in Puerto Rico, why do you want to go there?" I told her, "I don't know." I had this feeling like I would stay there, because I love what I do, I need to show people.

Alex Chambers:  You won't stay in that position? You'll move up?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes, I will move up. It took me a few months, just to show them like, this guy, he knows what he's doing. At my next interview, two years after I moved here, again I was struggling with my English. They asked me, "How much do you know about wastewater?" They gave me a paper, I started drawing, small. influent, aeration, clarifier, disinfection. Could you give us a little bit more? The third time, I went so far they stopped me and they said "Well, don't worry, I learnt something today." [LAUGHS].

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Two hours later, I got a call, from my old employer, the company I used to work for. "Hey, I just got a call from Bloomington." [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  And so at this point, the water has had trash taken out and grit taken out. But it's still sewage.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Still sewage, yes. You can see the color, it's not pretty.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The process for this plant is activated sludge. What that means is, you have micro organisms living in a flock. When that flock comes into contact with the water, it will eat all the organic stuff coming into the plant.

Alex Chambers:  So the water in this particular pool is coming in from once place, and then gets pushed slowly around. And that's where it's having the contact with the micro organisms? Then it exits at this little waterfall over here?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. We call it a trough but, yes, in the waterfall there.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  you can see where the pipe is. Do you see that pipe there?

Alex Chambers:  Yes, it's like an open pipe in the wall, exiting.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. That's your return. In the plant, you need to build some age in the micro organisms, so you need to return. We are now going to the clarifier. It will settle and return it.

Alex Chambers:  Return the micro organisms?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes, the solids. The micro organisms are in the solids, I'll show you.

Alex Chambers:  I make sour dough bread. It's bread that's made with a wild yeast. Instead of buying yeast from the store, you keep a little bit of bread and you use it for the next batch.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Okay, I know what you're saying. We are returning here and the sewage water is coming all the time, our return is also coming all the time.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  This is our life. We live for this. Going back to when we started talking today, the staff we have here now, I'm proud of them, they care. And I like that. I have respect for that.

Alex Chambers:  Do you feel like you helped bring that about?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. I believe, being positive helps tremendously, with a lot of people. It's not me taking credit, it's just the positive things, and then you start to earn respect.

Alex Chambers:  And maybe people saying how much you care, and that kind of reflects?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. Something that always bothered me was, you have all these people who know a lot more English than me, but they don't go forward with their license, they just stay there. I remember these two guys, they told me, "Hector, you impact me. Because, when we are in the comfort zone, Hector will step up, just because he wants to do something." And I'm trying to help them. Like you, I need to get a license, training, etcetera, etcetera. Be more knowledgeable. And I can see a positive side of that. They have been taking care now, they know exactly what they need to do. So, I'm proud of them [LAUGHS].

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The water then goes to the clarifiers, and it will go through the trough.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The water will come in the middle and you can see, it's pushing to the side, in the center ring.

Alex Chambers:  The center ring looks like it has more stuff in it. It looks dirtier, scummier, almost.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Because it's coming from the basin, from the trough, to the center ring. I was telling you about the flock, that is where the micro organisms live. It will push the solids to settle.

Alex Chambers:  I'm going to jump in here and describe the clarifiers. Clarifiers are those big round pools you've probably seen at wastewater treatment plants. Here's what happens with them. After the flocks of micro organisms have eaten all the organic matter they can, the water gets pumped into the clarifiers from the middle. There's still sediment in the water.

Alex Chambers:  And it's coming up almost like a fountain, except that it's all under water. It's coming up from the middle, being pushed. The solids are getting pushed up but then falling, in a fountain direction.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes, they will fall. The drag arms move so slow, and that way, they don't create too much turbulence.

Alex Chambers:  So the sediment settles and that drag arm slowly sweeps across the bottom of the pool, to push all those solids to an exit, in the center.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  The only process we have done here so far, is the aeration basin, where the micro organisms will take care of the solids, etcetera. Other than that, it's just sedimentation here, and that's it. You can see how clear it is. The micro organisms, they do a lot of this work.

Alex Chambers:  Yes, that's fascinating.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Here, our shift is 24/7. It doesn't matter how the weather is outside, or what day it is, we need to report to work. The city can close, but we need to come here and report to work. In my interview, I always said how important that is.

Alex Chambers:  So the commitment to being here, regardless, 24/7, does that affect your family life at all?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. My kids grew up, I spent a lot of time with them, but not like I wished. When you sign the contract that's exactly what it says, if no-one shows up, you cannot leave. You cannot leave the plant alone. The Superintendent takes care of it, we do call out for people, but sometimes we don't find anyone, and you need to stay.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  After, the water gets clarified in the clarifiers. This plant has a tertiary treatment: we use filters here.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  So, water will come in the inside pipe. This is like a membrane, plastic. The water will flow from the inside to the outside, and the inside will keep the solids, the kind of cloudiness you saw in there. The sprayers will start to do a backwash which sends water backwards, to send the solids back into the plant.

Alex Chambers:  It's rinsing the filter?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes, cleaning the filter.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  You can see how clean it starts to look.

Alex Chambers:  Yes, definitely.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  We are missing only one step.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  It needs to be disinfected.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  So here, after the water is filtrated, it will come right here. And here, this is the contact tank. You see it's like a labyrinth.

Alex Chambers:  Yes.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  It's got to have more contact time with the disinfection. That PVC pipe, it will feed bleach to the water. It's around 40 minutes contact time. It will then be charged to the creek there.

Alex Chambers:  What creek is it and where does it go?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Clear Creek, which I know is very familiar. It will either go to Bedford, or join the White River.

Alex Chambers:  So the water is in these contact tanks and it's getting bleached. At what point does it get dechlorinated?

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  It will be chlorinated here, and then dechlorinated in the far side.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Part of the reason I also like this job, is because I kayak downstream. That is one of the prettiest routes.

Alex Chambers:  You can feel proud of taking care of the water.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Yes. I called my co-workers and I told them, "How much is the flow?" "This amount of flow." Perfect, all I need to do is just keep the flow high, because I want to do it and that creek system will take you all the way to Cedar Bluff.

Alex Chambers:  Cedar Bluff is lovely.

Alex Chambers:  I hadn't really thought a whole lot about where the water goes from the treatment plant.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Clear Creek.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  Sludge will come through there. The belt is porous, so water will percolate through the belt. The sludge will stay on the top. You will see two rollers there, where it will squeeze the sludge. Jeff here keeps the press clean.

Alex Chambers:  It's amazingly clean.

Alex Chambers:  How long have you been operating this?

Jeff:  This machine, roughly 12, 13 years.

Alex Chambers:  Do you like it?

Jeff:  Yes I do. It's a good job.

Alex Chambers:  What do you like?

Jeff:  I like the flexibility on the hours, plenty of overtime. It's more my area of work, I get to run heavy equipment, and do this. Indoors, outdoors.

Alex Chambers:  You keep a clean place.

Jeff:  Thank you. Thank you very much. This is home. I basically almost live in this building. There's many, many weeks I get 50-60 hours a week working up here so, you've got to keep it looking somewhat nice.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  They sent me to another plant as an interim Superintendent, just covering another Superintendent for two months. When I came back, we were having an operational situation with some blowers. I started to fine tune a few things in the tunnel. The guy in the construction was getting calls all the time. He was trying to take that week off work, and I came in and did my own set point. He didn't get any calls that week. He was so happy. They waited until I came back from my days off, and then people started to talk to me. "There's Hector, there's Hector!" But before that, it was just me, walking around, listening to some music. People just didn't talk to me. But then they saw that I knew what I was doing.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  After that week, I earned a lot of respect.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  This is [UNSURE OF NAME]. He's a class 2 operator and he took an exam yesterday for class 3.

Alex Chambers:  How did it go?

Class 2 Operator:  I didn't make it, but we'll keep on trying.

Class 2 Operator:  I enjoy working with old Hector. He's great to work with, he's taught me everything I know. For Hector it's in his blood. For us, it may not be but, I think people want to be better because they're inspired by Hector.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I know I can put a lot of good things in people, but I didn't know I would get this position, I'll be honest. The supervisor retired. I was asked, "Are you going to apply Hector?" "Well you know, I don't know." I always say because of my English barrier but we have been talking in the last 3½ hours and I'm pretty sure at least 75% of what we talked about, you understood.

Alex Chambers:  At least. I'd say 90%.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  I don't know why, sometimes I struggle with that. Maybe that's why. But it's probably why I never saw myself in this kind of position. We have another operator here, his name is Tom Colby. I met him in 2018 as a wastewater operator. When I started, I didn't have my license, I was studying for the drinking water side. He told me, "Hector, you're going to be big in this place." He always told me that. I said "Well, I don't know, Tom. With my English and this and that." He told me, "You will see." I believe he was kind of my mentor in this, because he was always, "Do it, do it, do it. You will see, you will see, you will see."

Hector Ortiz Sanchez:  When they offered me the job, it was to start not the next week, but the following week. I said "Well sure, no problem." I got a call that evening, from Tom, and he told me "Congratulations, boss." And I said "What?" I hadn't talked to anyone. And he said, "I knew you would get it." [LAUGHS]. Honestly, I didn't see myself like that.

Alex Chambers:  Hector Ortiz Sanchez is the Assistant Director of Operations, at the city of Bloomington Utilities. It's time for a break. When we come back, we'll introduce our new Guilty Pleasures segment with an attempt to theorize the guilty pleasure. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. I don't know if you've noticed, but this show's been pretty serious lately. Good stuff, in my opinion, but it would be nice to have a little more fun. So, I'm launching a new segment: Guilty Pleasures. And who better to launch it with than the person who got me thinking about my own relationship to guilty pleasures.

Janna Ahrndt:  Yes because that's pretty much how we met. Me hounding you, because I was a little bit inebriated about what your guilty pleasures were.

Alex Chambers:  That's Janna Ahrndt. She's a New Media Artist and a lecturer in art at Indiana University. I started by asking her to describe a guilty pleasure of her own.

Janna Ahrndt:  The most obvious one for me is probably bad movies, which has become a really popular guilty pleasure, especially because of podcasts and people sharing. It used to be Mystery Science Theater, that was the pop culture version of bad movies as a guilty pleasure. That would probably be my biggest one that I've been rocking out since middle school. I think most of that is parenting. My dad made me watch a lot of "B" films. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was obviously huge in the '70s, and that was his time.

Alex Chambers:  That's also because of its cult status. I feel like it's become not just a guilty pleasure.

Janna Ahrndt:  Right. Not to jump the gun, but that question of what is your guilty pleasure, is what I find most interesting as an artist: it's the class structure of cultural media. A lot of my research is around class issues in art and the separation of craft and fine art, and low class things verses high class things. All of that really interests me as an artist, working in academia, because it's just a constant battle. Especially now with Instagram artists and purely net-based artists and all of those new media aspects of it. So many professors still have such a very strict view as to what makes valid artwork, and how they teach is affected by that, which I find really interesting. So I love people's guilty pleasures. One, because I don't think they should be guilty, but, two, because I think it's the fastest way to just understand what they value about culture, or media.

Janna Ahrndt:  We were just having this conversation about AI, in a faculty meaning. One of the professors were saying how they already have problems convincing students that Instagram artists aren't as valid as artists that they teach about. I was like, well this is an interesting conversation, isn't it? Choosing validity for culture is what guilty pleasures is all about, as we were saying at the beginning. Should we even find guilt at all?

Alex Chambers:  I threw this question out to my colleagues here. I asked each of them to think of something and come in and we'll talk about it, and I'll air it. A couple of us were having this conversation and this idea of a guilty pleasure does imply judgment came up. It implies the fact that this thing is bad, in the first place. I wanted to defend the segment, the idea, a little bit, partly because I want to be able to make it. There is that judgment, but that judgment isn't necessarily coming from the individual, and it's not even necessarily coming from the public radio producer or audience. Public radio has a class dimension as well, and certain stereotypes and assumptions about it.

Alex Chambers:  We can think about these things as the things that are widely agreed upon, as things that aren't necessarily respectful things to be enjoying.

Janna Ahrndt:  I think that's also what's interesting to me about bad movie culture as well, or even like WWE as a guilty pleasure.

WWE host:  And it is my honor this evening to present, fighting out of the Conqueror's corner, the prey-bashing, Harper-smashing, nightmare of Suplex City.

Janna Ahrndt:  My academic brain, I think, enjoys watching things that I actively know are exploitative towards my group. I don't know if that makes sense, but there's something interesting to me about taking something like The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror. It doesn't have cult status, it's just like a bad movie.

Janna Ahrndt:  And watching that from my academic brain and still finding interesting artistic decisions within that, that I enjoy.

Janna Ahrndt:  So it's not the exploitation that I'm enjoying, it's understanding it with the cultural knowledge that I have, that is interesting to me. Still finding pleasure in that is also a little bit liberating, with really bad '80s action movies. I love '80s action stars. Especially the worst of their catalog.

Alex Chambers:  Their oeuvre.

Janna Ahrndt:  Yes, like Jean-Claude Van Damme's oeuvre. I love really bad early versions of Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Janna Ahrndt:  Because they're all the same, and they're always super sexist and very heteronormative. But there's something really pleasurable about that to me, or getting to tear them apart that I enjoy.

Alex Chambers:  There's a sense of irony about it, as you're watching it. Because you're watching with that critical mind, partly. I think there's also something about being able to sink into something. Is it about being able to sink into the norms of our society that are just completely dominant, and just go with it, not have to be fighting it, not have to be trying to create something that shakes things up.

Janna Ahrndt:  It's like the most extreme version of that. It's almost making fun of itself, even though it doesn't mean to, which I also love. Because it's taking it to its own satirical point without realizing it and that's what I think I enjoy. I was talking about this with one of the visiting professors here, because she's also into "B" horror movies. There's something about watching something that is bad not on purpose. I don't really like Sharknado, or something that's aware of itself. But watching something that was clearly someone's dream; they saw this in their head and they worked really hard. No movie is cheap. Even the worst movie is very expensive. Seeing somebody's dream come to life and have it just be terrible, is really great. I love it so much. Maybe that's because art-making is inherently embarrassing and painful. So like watching somebody else's and then also still being like, "you did it, you made a thing," it's just bad [LAUGHS].

Alex Chambers:  That point about that anonymous professor who said, "I have trouble convincing students that Instagram art is not art."

Janna Ahrndt:  A lot of people feel that way. Like somebody making pottery and filming it and putting it on TikTok is somehow lesser than anybody else creating pottery and putting it in a gallery and selling it. Maybe that's because I'm a New Media artist. The need for validation in the classical structure of art making is something that I'm actively trying to train out of my students. And especially with this AI argument, of people generating AI based artwork, what is and what isn't art? What counts as art?

Alex Chambers:  Going back to TikTok, is the film of it the art? It made me think of how Andy Goldsworthy makes these things out in nature and takes photographs of them and puts them in books. The coffee table books are very expensive and high class. Is that really any different on some level than someone putting a TikTok video up? But they have completely different statuses. You get the Andy Goldsworthy book and that is something that shows that you know certain things, you're cultured.

Janna Ahrndt:  And me having seen thousands of hours of frog people, and that's low class. I don't know if it's supposed to be the intentionality of it, but I already have so many problems with intentionality and art making anyway. Is it the intention of John Waters that made him a genius, or the intention of the Jackass dudes? Is that what makes it valid, or worthy, or not? What about all of the people who have the intention of making performance based art on line that isn't recognized until it's shown in a gallery? The intention is the same. It's the venue, which is all owned by rich people. Unless some rich old person tends to stumble upon your thing. A lot of the up and coming famous artists now were found by curators who knew somebody, who knew somebody. So it's all circles of influence.

Alex Chambers:  And class.

Janna Ahrndt:  And class. That's all it is.

Alex Chambers:  Her guilty pleasure's primarily about social class. Tune in next time we do this segment to find out whether that question will get answered. As you could probably tell, I'm inclined to agree with Janna on that one. Class is a big part of it.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, that's it for our show this week. You've been listening to Inner States, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know, at And hey, review and rate us on Apple or Spotify, it helps people find the show. You can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Vic Kelson for connecting me with Hector Ortiz Sanchez. To Hector himself and all the folks at the Dillman Wastewater Treatment Plant and to Janna Ahrndt. Alright, time for some slow sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was the Eagleson Parking garage, early morning, late March. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Hector Ortiz Sanchez at the Dillman Wastewater Treatment Plant

Hector Ortiz Sanchez at the Dillman Wastewater Treatment Plant (Alex Chambers)

Hector Loves Water Treatment

Hector Ortiz Sanchez grew up in Puerto Rico. He got pulled into the world of water treatment as a young adult, and hasn’t looked back. He spent years running plants in Puerto Rico. But a few years ago, he couldn’t realize his ambitions on the island. He moved to Bloomington. Now he runs the water treatment plants for the City of Bloomington Utilities, and he’d like to make them among the best in the country. He’s inspiring the people he works with too.

Toward a Theory of Guilty Pleasures

We talk about a number of pretty serious things on this show – legacies of lynchings, the atomic bomb, family policing. I decided it’s time to have some more fun, too. So I’m starting a new segment: Guilty Pleasures. I’m starting with the person who got me thinking about my own relationship to guilty pleasures. Janna Ahrndt is a new media artist, and a connoisseur of guilty pleasures, including the early work of Jean Claude Van Damme.


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

Special thanks this week to Vic Kelson for connecting me with Hector Ortiz Sanchez, to Hector himself and all the folks at the Dillman Wastewater Treatment, and to Janna Ahrndt.

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