Welcome to the Anthropocene

From Global Challenge to Planetary Stewardship
Association for Environmental Sciences and Studies
Pace University, New York

Presentation: Creative Engagement – The Value of Stepping Away from Educational Models

That so many artists have been invited to participate in this discourse about how to inspire planetary stewardship in the Anthropocene is an important part of engaging communities around the issues at hand. Many of the environmental issues within the Anthropocene can to be addressed by different disciplines including the sciences and the arts. Science provides us with the knowledge that informs us to help make decisions and opinions. If Science studies the natural world then art can show components of this world in a way that is accessible to the general public through various media. Science provides us with evidence through raw data and examination of results and art appropriates the evidence so that we may make moral judgments about environmental issues.

I’ve been building an internationally scaled artistic collaboration, deeply rooted in science, which addresses a definitive material of our age; plastic. Debris is an interactive installation which is being created as a response to particular problems presented by single use plastic. The work reflects the literal problem of plastic in marine environments, while offering a symbolic representation of the chemical body burdens it imposes on wildlife and humans alike. In presenting these issues, we are asked to consider misplaced notions of “disposability”. This has called in to question consumer driven waste which has devalued what is in fact a very important material. Through creative means, participants are offered a hands-on, educational tool that shows us how we are enmeshed in ecological and health issues surrounding plastic. The Earth is one giant ecosystem, where living and nonliving parts in the environment interact with each other. Debris has provided a creative platform that express one’s concerns about plastic waste and explores alternatives to reduce the impact of plastic on the environment. This creativity has the capacity to help preserve specific biomes and encourages ecological stewardship.

The youngest member of the Stratton ABC Foundation in Thailand holds up his new toy Samurai that he made from re-purposed plastic that would have been otherwise sent to the land fill.
The youngest member of the Stratton ABC Foundation in Thailand holds up his new toy Samurai that he made from re-purposed plastic that would have been otherwise sent to the land fill.

We are all citizens of the Anthropocene. Addressing environmental problems strengthens planetary stewardship. If we are to be good stewards, global action must include working with poverty stricken areas. In these areas, securing the next meal for a family or keeping a roof over their head is a constant struggle for survival. Even with these daily challenges, poverty stricken communities are able to recognize the importance of the environment and strive to maintain balance, despite limited means. I would like to talk about one of the most economically marginalized areas in the western hemisphere, the ghettos in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Educational ‘models’ rarely work here. Haitians have long been subjected to the impositions of outsider worldviews while suffering severe injustices due to globalization. Haitians are not naïve to their history and current situation. Scholars have examined how, even with the best intentions, the imposition of external ‘models’ can be insensitive and dominating in a way that extends forms of neocolonialism and damages the social fabric of the community.

Of course there is good work accomplished by international organizations, and it’s important for us to examine what makes this work successful. The most effective work grows from collaborations within the local community. In regards to plastic pollution, we don’t need to tell Haitians in the ghetto about trash. These are people who have quite literally been thrown out with the trash. Their government doesn’t recognize profit in trash collection so they only do it once a month. Trash piles up on corners, clogs drains and fills the twisted footpath scaled alleyways that weave through these densely packed neighborhoods. Haitians have a very clear understanding of how much waste they produce because it stays present in their lives. I feel that a more humble and respectful approach is necessary when working collaboratively with the Haitians. They have a lot to teach us and we can learn a lot from them.

Here in the United States, most municipalities remove their garbage to a remote waste site, thus putting garbage ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’. In his book, Garbology, Edward Hume describes how in the United States, our biggest legacy to our children is trash, but Americans have little sense of the amount of garbage we produce because it is hidden from us. Despite the overwhelming presence of trash in the streets of Port-au-Prince, the reality is that we as Americans consume more and unwittingly produce a lot more waste.

The Voudoun Lwa, Bousssou created by Atis Rezistans member Louis Kervens represents his interpretation of a protector of the seas
The Voudoun Lwa, Bousssou created by Atis Rezistans member Louis Kervens represents his interpretation of a protector of the seas

Last winter I worked with the Atis Rezistans. This is a group of artists who take trash and turn it into exquisite sculptures. Repurposing material is a main principle of the Debris installation, so I was excited to see how deft the Atis Rezistans are at their art. Instead of imposing my idea of how this project would be shaped, I felt that it was more important to remain open to gathering and hearing the distinctive voices that grow out of a particular place. This allows me to build a genuine response from a diverse range of people that share a concern about this environmental issue which touches us all.

Part of the Atis Rezistans community, Louis Kervens is a proud twelve year old with straight shoulders, a gleaming perfect smile and a heart he holds out in front of him. From him, I acquired a representation of the Vodou Lwa, Boussou, a spirit protector of the seas. When he offered me his collage made of cut tire, my response was not to tell him that there is no scientific evidence to support this spirit form (even though the overall project is deeply rooted in science). Instead I embraced his expression of his traditional culture and said “more than anything the seas NEED a protector, thank you for providing one.” In the overall installation, Louis’s piece speaks of no other place than Haiti. I envision a collection of works that express place as genuinely as this one does. In gathering expressions specific to place from all over the world, the installation will ultimately become a large scaled call for awareness and action that stems from localized interpretations of the waste present in the waters that connect us.

When we think of place, plastic pollution is certainly not limited to the ocean. I live in the Rocky Mountain West, where I’ve learned about inland connections to ocean ecology as well as the impacts of plastic on inland marine environments. Recently I presented a version of Debris for Amigos Bravos, an organization that works to reclaim rivers and ensure water safety in northern New Mexico. Their Beautiful Midden project was founded during the 2012 International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA) in order to bring attention to a section of the Rio Grande gorge which had been used as an illegal dumping ground for over 20 years. Working in area schools, students are engaged creatively to make art inspired by the site. An important educational component to this kind of work is contextualizing our own actions; encouraging participants to recognize how we fit into global contexts of waste. In the west, toxins enter our waterways from industries like mining and agriculture. Home to Los Alamos, New Mexico struggles against leaking radioactive waste, and radioactive waste cans enter the visual language used in Beautiful Midden. Toxins end up traveling downstream and ultimately drain into the oceans.

Dr. Theo Colborn was one of the first to recognize the trans-generational effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the Great Lakes region. She started the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which is based in Paonia, Colorado. In her book, Our Stolen Future, she describes how easily chemicals can travel immense distances by getting swept up in water or air currents, or even migrating through food webs. Plastic is a material that absorbs high concentrations of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that have drained from inland chemical use. DDT and PCBs were used a few generations ago but still persist in the ocean.

The research of Chelsea Rochman, a marine biologist, has shown that when sea life eat the small bits of plastic which have absorbed high concentrations of POPs, the chemicals de-sorb into their flesh and enter the food web. The chemicals become more concentrated every time the affected fish are consumed. Of course, plastic does not cycle back into the environment, it instead photo-degrades and breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. The fields of plankton that form the foundation of ocean ecosystems are saturated with microscopic bits of plastic that are easily consumed by the zooplankton and small creatures that feed there.

Ecosystem including zooplankton and small fish created at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado
Ecosystem including zooplankton and small fish created at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado

A large part of Debris is made up of images of diatoms and plankton life forms. Last fall, the University’s Museum of Natural History presented a hands on version of Debris. This served as the endpoint of an educational journey, From the Mountains to the Prairies to the Oceans. The artistic images that resulted from the event were primarily diatoms because there is team at the University that maintains a focus of study on diatoms. Instead of building a ‘model’ for the Debris project, I aspire to leave it open and flexible so that it may compliment a particular program or institution. The voices gathered from each particular program then come together to contribute to a thorough investigation of plastic pollution from the unique perspectives of each area of expertise.

A sculpture by Aragorn bursts into flame after the 'Message in a Bottle' performance washed ashore hundreds of glowing plastic bottles onto his beach in Trellis Bay
A sculpture by Aragorn bursts into flame after the ‘Message in a Bottle’ performance washed ashore hundreds of glowing plastic bottles onto his beach in Trellis Bay

We must not limit this flexibility to scientific institutions; I feel that it’s important to be open to artistic interpretations as well. I embrace various ways of engaging the public and relish in the opportunity to collaborate with artists who have a different vision on how to execute a creative work. Aragorn’s workshop is situated on the beach in Trellis Bay, just off Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. He hosts events that feature local music, Creole feasts and bonfires that burn within his sculptures that are installed above the shallow waters just off his beach. During his New Year’s celebration, he was inspired by Debris to orchestrate a Message in a Bottle from the sea about plastic pollution. A large group of people were gathered on the beach, waiting with anticipation as the steel sculptures were about to be lit. As they watched the dark harbor, hundreds of glowing plastic bottles washed ashore at their feet. Then the steel sculptures burst into flames. Heightening the overall effect of the message, a band of local kids ran out onto the beach and gathered all of the glowing bottles so that the beach was immediately cleaned. This was an unexpected but uplifting conclusion to the action.

There are many sources of plastic pollution and chemical body burdens. By collaborating with organizations who address these sources (even if plastic doesn’t enter directly into their vocabulary), we demonstrate the interconnectivity of environmental issues. For example, industrial agriculture is one of the primary contributors of Persistent Organic Pollutants that cause endocrine disruption. One of the most important platforms for the global sustainable food movement is the biannual Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy for which I’m honored to be included in the Slow Food US delegation later this fall.

It was at the last conference that I met Jerry Brown, a Pacific fisherman. I had told him about creating the foundation of Debris during a residency at the Chateau de la Napoule in France at that time. His response was, “Finally, FINALLY, someone has brought up the impacts of agriculture on the Oceans.” His clear blue eyes held me in the steady gaze that only a true mariner can possess as we explored ways to bring this issue into the discourse that surrounds food issues. I’ll take Debris with me this year to demonstrate how the oceans literally connect us so that agricultural practices anywhere in the world contribute to, or help reduce, the chemical body burdens to which we are universally subjected.

The main cause of plastic pollution is an inordinate amount of physical waste; the primary source stemming from a convenience-oriented consumer culture. Shifting attitudes away from consuming over-packaged goods and succumbing to the convenience of a throw-away society towards a recognition that there is no ‘away’ to throw things is paramount to solving our problem of plastic pollution. Later this summer I’ll take Debris to Mexico to engage participants in the Moving Beyond Capitalism conference hosted by the Center for Global Justice. My hope is to engage participants in a dialogue that relates to the issues at hand, while offering a tool for diverse geographic populations to explore ways to bring balance to the Anthropocene.

By maintaining open, flexible creative responses, the arts provide a tool that weaves together the concepts of cause and effect as related to the single material of plastic. This project is a gathering of voices; it is not ‘mine’ but ‘ours’. My role is to maintain a central nexus around which we build an internationally scaled series of educational events and calls to action. I’d like to see people take inspiration and run with it. Online I offer descriptions of other creative projects, so that people can develop their own ideas. Kristen Heeres is an arts educator in Denver, who builds creative programming to complement elementary classroom curricula. She spent time in my studio exploring Debris, then appropriated it into a fully developed project using the methods she saw in my studio as well as my recounting of Message in a Bottle from the Virgin Islands. What impressed me most about her approach is how she used the project as a means to get her students to connect to animals. She works with a bilingual class in a low income public school. They don’t have a lot of resources, and it can be hard to get funding for field trips. Her students first created fish with collaged waste then put them in plastic bottles, which she installed in the Denver Aquarium’s education department. It then proved to be an easy request for a bus to take them to see their work in the aquarium on a field trip, and Kristen took full advantage.

DEBRIS installation at the Denver Aquarium by Kristen Heeres
Part of the DEBRIS installation at the Denver Aquarium by Kristen Heeres was inspired by the ‘Message in a Bottle’ performance by Aragorn and features representations of fish placed inside plastic bottles.

As part of the trip, they got to tour the aquarium and see firsthand the marine organisms they had only previously seen in books. She felt the most satisfying part of the overall project was watching the kids’ faces fill with delight and wonder at these creatures. This direct interaction had a marked impact on the students. Marine biodiversity was no longer an abstract presentation in a book. This kind of connection and experiential learning is vital if we want to get people to care. Kristen is a dear friend and provides an important aspect to this collaboration. People may contact her for ideas on how to develop creative projects specific to their educational programing. Her information is available on our website.

Through my own transformation into motherhood, I realized how moms can be a strong catalyst for change because we have an inherent need to take care of our families. Part of the reason I emphasize the health impacts of the chemical body burdens we carry is because people are inspired to address things that directly affect them. At this conference, we all know that plastic in the ocean is devastating, but frankly for most people, it’s a far off place that they don’t regularly think much about. By seeing the parallel of the environmental toll in the toll on our health, we can cultivate an understanding that leads to action as manifested through the day to day decisions we make. As moms, we try our best to take care of our families. As much as we are able, we make decisions that maintain a balance of health and happiness. When my son was born, I spent a lot of time interviewing pediatricians about the biggest health challenges for children today; Autism, ADHD, diabetes, infertility, obesity, and even Cancer. According to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, all of these may be related to the chemical body burdens we carry. The way we take care of our families has cause and effect on our surrounding environment. The way we internalize these issues has direct external implications, for worse or better.

DEBRIS as an interactive installation at the Chateau de la Napoule, France
DEBRIS as an interactive installation at the Chateau de la Napoule, France

The other essential partners in environmental activism are children. The arts are an ideal way to engage kids. Every time I put my son in any kind of program, he reports back with a very thorough critique. What I’ve learned from him is that he, as most young children, is most engaged through hands on projects. Listening to a talking head leads to glazed over deafness. Letting children feel that they are part of a solution is empowering for them. Giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns for their own futures is essential. They LOVE the international element of this particular project, and I will often pull out a map to point out all the different places that voices have contributed to this act. More important than anything else, children bring the issues to the hearts of their families.

I want to leave you with a story I heard while having tea with a naturalist in one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, the Osa wilderness in Costa Rica. He told me about a program initiated by the government in Costa Rica in response to the crocodiles teetering on the edge of existence. Water in Costa Rica, like everywhere, draws wildlife as well as the development of farms. Livestock by their nature, are easy prey for crocodiles as they drank from the river during the dry seasons. Naturally, farmers would kill the crocs to protect their animals. But crocodiles are an important part of the ecosystem, like all predators. Costa Rica has a relatively enlightened government who recognized this, and developed a program to bring back the crocs. First they reimbursed farmers for lost livestock. More importantly, they implemented a school program where students hatched baby crocs and took care of them for some time before releasing them into the wild. The kids developed bonds with the baby crocs, so that when papa pulled out his gun after a calf got devoured, the kids would say, “NO! That might be my baby crocodile!” We care about our children. We listen to them. In this way, they can be some of the most important messengers amongst us.

The overall conference focused on the argument advanced by many environmental experts that Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or “the recent age of humans.” Proponents of this theory contend that humans have become a global geophysical force capable of disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. This is resulting in profound alteration of the planet’s climate, serious threats to a large array of species and critical ecosystems and conversion of fertile lands to desert.

The Association for Environmental Studies & Sciences

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