Networked Urban Mobilities
Mobile Art Exhibition
Aalborg University, Copenhagen
Even as Debris exists on a platform of technology and mechanical reproduction, the work maintains a handmade quality through the collaborative process. In order to keep the participation accessible at a distance, participants e-mail digital files to be included in the project. Makers may share their work without the expense of shipping physical pieces. It also allows makers to keep their original works intact. When ‘released into the ocean’ the images become open to transformation in the spirit of collaboration. The collaborative process echoes the processing of material in the ocean. The pieces are copied, distressed, reworked, torn and mended by participants. The transfer technique is purposefully imperfect. The creatures attain a rubbed out look, or have missing parts so that their appearance echoes of the corporeal impacts of plastic. Without relying on the sensational but disturbing images of entangled wildlife, this part of the process offers a representation of the disintegration of the species. As pieces are reworked then photographed, the images are unavoidably degraded and the creatures obtain a blurred appearance. This blurring effect reflects the undulating quality within marine environments and bring an element of depth when interspersed with sharper images. In actual marine environments, growth stems out of decay. Balancing the destructive process inherent in the transfer process, are acts of creation and mending. This part of the process is about preservation; it is a symbolic representation which help us arrive at an awareness that we may bring to the everyday decisions around our consumption of over-packaged products.
There is often a misconception about ocean ‘garbage patches’ being enormous floating islands made up of trash. No matter what material they are made of, large floating objects are essential components in open ocean ecosystems. The reality of the plastic in the ocean is far worse; they consist of vast swaths of confetti sized plastic debris which is impossible to recover. The structure of the Debris installation is made up of small pieces to reflect the nature of the way plastic breaks down in the ocean gyres. Plastic is a material that photo-degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, but it never cycles back into the environment. It eaten by fish and sea birds, which is fatal because the animals feel full but are not nourished and end up starving to death. Worse yet, it is an entry point for endocrine disrupting chemicals to be absorbed into the marine food web.
Taking a reductive approach, Debris does not impose any kind of educational ‘model’ onto situations of engagement. Instead, it is designed to be a flexible tool which may be used to fit the needs of an institution, and remains open to cultural and creative interpretations. As long as the work follows the overall concept which addresses the impacts of plastic, collaborators are free to use it in a way that benefits their programs or practice.
Largely geared towards youth, the Debris collaboration is a hands on way for young people to learn about the impact of plastic while contributing to solution building. Participants arrive at solutions by learning about alternatives to the convenience oriented culture that produces excessive amounts of waste through becoming aware of the impact on ecologies, cultures and our health. Only in the last couple of generations have we shifted towards a ‘throw away’ culture, so it is possible to reframe cultural attitudes towards valuing materials made from a limited resource within a similar timespan. In order to address misplaced cultural notions of disposability, it is necessary to encourage a reconsideration toward waste at an early age. Children are essential partners in environmental activism as they carry the issues to the hearts of their families. Beyond their roles as messengers, the quality of their marks adds a dynamic quality to the overall installation.
Diatoms & Microplastics
Debris is an educational tool which may be used in a way that may complement a specific institutional focus. For example, the University of Colorado in Boulder has a departmental focus on the study of diatoms. Diatoms are single celled organisms that make up the vast fields of plankton which serve as the foundation of the marine food web. Ocean plankton provides half of the earth’s oxygen and captures half of our carbon, so it is essential for supporting life on this planet. We can’t clean up plastic without also removing the plankton. During a family activity day hosted by the Museum of Natural History at the University, participants created a host of diatoms to release into the Debris installation. It is an important contribution because plastic immersed in fields of diatoms are a trigger point for some of the worst impacts of plastic pollution.
Emerging research by institutions like the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) in Blue Hill, Maine, are looking at the ecological impacts of microplastics; plastic debris that are small enough to blend in with plankton so that they become easy to consume by small marine organisms. These pieces are photo-degraded from of larger pieces of plastic, or are released as plastic microbeads, which are commonly used in cosmetics like facial cleansers, and shed from material like polar fleece when it is laundered. Chelsea Rochman is a marine biologist who is currently looking at the high concentrations of chemicals which absorb easily into the material of plastic, and how they desorb into the flesh of the marine life who eats it. The chemicals are fat loving. Plastic is made from oil, which is essentially a fat, and can absorb chemicals that are millions of times more concentrated than ambient levels within the surrounding waters. When consumed by marine life, these chemicals desorb into the flesh of the marine life, is stored in their fat, becoming more concentrated every time they are consumed. As the chemicals desorb into the flesh of marine life, the animals experience hormonal changes that disrupt the capacity for life to breed by causing infertility. Chemicals are invisible, but in the Debris installation plastic serves as a symbolic representation of the chemicals that are harbored within by integrating the material into the corporeal structure of marine creatures.
Message in a Bottle
Not only is the project open to a range of institutional appropriations, it embraces diverse expressions from creatives as well. Aragorn has a beach front workshop on Trellis Bay near Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. During his last New Year gathering, he was inspired by Debris to execute an art action that presented a message from the ocean about plastic pollution. After enjoying Caribbean music and feasting, a large crowd gathered on his beach in anticipation of fires being lit within Aragorn’s large scaled iron sculptures which are installed in the shallow waters just off his beach. As the crowd waited, peering across the dark waters, hundreds of glowing plastic bottles washed ashore at their feet. The sculptures then burst into flame. A group of island children ran across the beach collecting the bottles in an unexpected and satisfying end to the creative action.
Kristin Heres is an arts educator who built a variation of Debris with the students at Holm Elementary in Denver, CO. Inspired by Message in a Bottle performed by Aragorn in the British Virgin Islands, she came up with a way to use the project as a means to provide the opportunity for these students to connect with marine ecology at the Denver Aquarium. The class made representations of marine life and placed them in plastic PET bottles for display at the aquarium. Holm Elementary is an underfunded public school which serves a population who lives on the fringes of the city. Families there don’t have the luxury to spend money on tickets to the aquarium. However, because their work was installed at the aquarium, the class got permission to take a field trip to see it. The aquarium staff gave them a tour, which was the first direct experience with live marine animals for many of these students. The experience left them in awe. In order to cultivate a concern for the environment, it is important that people feel a connection to the natural world. When this project helps inspire youth to feel this kind of connection, then it is considered a success.
The collaboration is a gathering of concerned voices from all over the world, around issues to which we are universally exposed. One reason there is no ‘model’ that accompanies this piece is so that the work may maintain an authenticity to the contributing voices. It remains open and inclusive of a wide range of cultural interpretation. For example, there is no other place than Haiti that could offer an authentic representation of the Vodoun Lwa, Boussou, the god protector of the seas. The strength of this project lay in gathering a wide range of cultural ‘voices’ around a single material that has become pervasive in the waters that connect us. Over the next year, the open ended project will travel to the land of a thousand lakes in Minnesota, on to Maui, Thailand and back around to Ireland in order to continue widening the geographies that make up this project.
Makers keep originals, and collaborators keep alterations they have made. Small groupings of the installation are left with collaborative organizations so that the the physical work is as dispersed as the contributions that have been made to the work. As a conceptual element to the work, this dispersal is a reflection of the widespread dispersal of the actual debris.
In addition to the physical installation and workshops that engage communities on the ground, the website, www.virtualvoices.org serves as a central nexus to the Debris project. Specific engagements are detailed in a way that offers inspiration to address the issue in creative ways. Effective programs developed by creatives that address plastic pollution are shared. For example, Bhutan is a place that is new to plastic pollution as they have only started opening their boundaries to the outside world. The Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu (VAST) has developed ways of talking trash with their community in ways that challenge people to see how their relationship with waste is transforming. They engage the scope of their community ranging from workshops with kids, public installations to engage professionals, and have implemented a recycling program that inserts a small economy for elders. Their myriad of waste oriented projects are described online in order to offer ideas on ways that creative activists are engaging community participation around these issues.
By inserting Debris into situations that lay outside the realm of plastic activism, ocean studies or even art, the work is able to engage a wider range of populations who are still directly connected to the issues at hand. A string of pop up workshops at the Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, connected plastic pollution to industrial agricultural practices. Stepping beyond traditional boundaries of disciplinary practice broadens the dialogue in both the arena of food justice issues as well as plastic pollution, strengthening activist voices that stem from each movement. Endocrine disrupting chemicals used in industrial agriculture release persistent organic pollutants into marine ecologies. Ultimately they drain to the oceans, where DDT and PCBs used a generation ago still persist. There is no way to reclaim these chemicals. Including Debris on an agriculture platform connects issues around plastic to a convenience oriented culture that is steeped in the overuse of chemicals. Slow Food International was founded to counter the effects of a fast food culture through all levels of cultivation and consumption. The organization tackles food justice issues in a celebratory manner around maintaining traditional practices of sharing nourishment. The movement offers solutions that encourage us to step out of the racing pace of contemporary mobilities to slow down and gain appreciation for the way we produce and consume food. Through a return to traditional food practices, we may reduce the amount of packaging we consume thus decreasing the physical waste of plastic. More importantly, through decisions we make at market, we may reduce our chemical footprint by maintaining an awareness of how our food has been grown.
Specific to the geography of Copenhagen, the cold waters of the far north and south bear a particular chemical burden. Endocrine disrupting chemicals easily attach to fat, so when persistent organic pollutants enter into the marine food web, the chemicals migrate through animal ingestion, becoming more concentrated in animals who carry a lot of fat. Bioaccumulation in wildlife in the Artic circles means that the animals in cold climates bear the brunt of the chemical exposure even as they live far from industrial practices. Consideration of how we are connected to chemical use in mining and agricultural production is vital to addressing these issues; even as we live far away, the nature of the chemicals is such that they can migrate vast distances on an air or wind current, or in the fat of a migrating animal. In this way, chemicals released anywhere in the world may arrive on our doorsteps. Part of solution building includes an awareness of where our products come from. Beyond the carbon footprint of transport, consideration of the production is essential to reduce our ecological impact on the world.