Report from Thailand

Surface Arts Collaborative residency at the Rumpueng Community Artspace

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It is said that Thai people touch the earth lightly, like butterflies. Indeed as a visitor, I was greeted with nothing but the utmost of grace. As I explored the corners of Chiang Mai, however, I noticed a flurry of plastic bags fluttering in the wind like butterfly wings. This material is anything but light in its environmental impact.

I was in Thailand specifically looking at the way plastic is used and misused as part of the Debris Project, a collaborative art installation built from an international response to the health and environmental impacts of plastic. With the recognition that plastic is an important material because we don’t have the natural resources to support out population without it, we focus on the environmental havoc wreaked by single use plastic. As a resident at the Rumpueng Community Arts Space, I had the opportunity to connect with local creatives and work with an array of students through the efforts of Katie Jade Hawker and Pitchaya at Surface Arts as part of their residency program which hosted artists making collaborative works. There was an installation of the artwork made in Thailand at the Rumpueng gallery space from 23-30 October. The project has been carried on by Art Relief International, who hosted an installation of the project as a culmination of their participation at Thapae East on November 6th.

A primary focus of the Debris Project is to share solution oriented stories about how people in different places are acting to reduce plastic pollution. During my city excursions, I was delighted to see the filter water stations installed regularly through town. Understandably, plastic bottle consumption is growing fastest in areas where the tap water is not safe to drink. The network of water refill stations that has been established in Thailand is a viable solution to overcome the waste produced in what has become a conventional bottled water system. Culturally, the overconsumption of single use plastic de-values this important material, which has caused devaluation of material worth. The recycling centers that line the canal road south of town have established a good way of maintaining the value of raw material. It was inspiring to see so much material sorted through and actively streaming back into use.

A filtered water re-fill station commonly found throughout Thailand offers inexpensive drinking water, which also cuts plastic bottle waste.
A filtered water re-fill station commonly found throughout Thailand offers inexpensive drinking water, which also cuts plastic bottle waste.

The other impressive part of the community around Chiang Mai are the children. The next generation is very much in tune with the issue of plastic pollution because they care about a clean environment and about animals. The work they made for the Debris Project expresses their concern and is an important reminder that according to Dr. Edward Hume, the largest legacy we are leaving to the next generation is quite literally trash. I don’t like thinking of my son inheriting an impossible amount of garbage, and have found most parents would agree. We are getting sick from the chemicals from which plastic is made, as well as by chemicals absorbed by plastic when both enter marine environments. In addition to a myriad of degenerative illness, one of the biggest impacts of these endocrine disrupting chemicals is infertility. The impacts are trans-generational meaning that when I’m exposed to the toxins carried by plastic, it is my son and grandchildren who bear the health impacts. The issues around plastic pollution are far more than just aesthetic.

The Debris Project acts as a tool to educate communities about plastic pollution. So far, it has engaged participation from collaborators across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and North seas as well as Himalayan and Rocky Mountain headwaters. The pieces of the installation are created through hands on workshops as part of educational programming integrated into schools and hosted by environmental organizations. We worked with children from across the region and found they were incredibly resourceful when it came to re-appropriating plastic as a material to come up with new uses for this material that would have been discarded. The children at the Schools of Hope, who are primarily Shan refugees from across the Myanmar border, don’t have access to a lot of toys. When they learned they were free to do anything with the materials, many of them made themselves new toys like cars out of plastic bottles. While the primary focus of the Debris Project is to create representations of marine life integrating plastic, inventive repurposing of material by any creative means is also encouraged. We are constantly exploring how we can continue to cultivate the concern and resourcefulness demonstrated by the children in these kinds of communities.

A student from the Schools of Hope makes a new pair of dolls for herself.
A student from the Schools of Hope makes a new pair of dolls for herself.

The Project is strengthened by collaborators who take the idea and run with it. The kids at the Stratton ABC Foundation decided to make a plastic bottle demon who will migrate around the city to raise awareness to plastic pollution. Art Relief will build a culmination of their workshops in the form of a giant plastic bottle, which carries on a ‘Message in a Bottle’ theme that has been manifested in different ways in various geographies. From a performance in the British Virgin Islands to an installation at the Denver Aquarium by marginalized immigrant youth to a project by high school students from the Bay Area in California, youth around the world are sending the message to reduce plastic waste.

Both installations will include the plastic demon created by the Stratton ABC children, and integrate images that were created during area workshops interspersed with images gathered from around the world to reflect the universal nature of plastic pollution issues. As integrated into the local programming and engaging installations, this collaboration presented solutions on how Chiang Mai may join the movement to leaving the next generation a world with a little less plastic.

'Chevy' The Plastic Daemon was made at human scale to migrate around Northern Thailand to raise awareness of plastic pollution from the back of a motorbike
‘Chevy’ The Plastic Daemon was made at human scale to migrate around Northern Thailand to raise awareness of plastic pollution from the back of a motorbike. Photo by Stratton ABC director, John Cope.

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Lee Lee

Lee Lee is a visual artist who integrates a collaborative, social practice oriented approach in her practice. Her paintings may be viewed at www.Lee-Lee.com & collaborations at www.virtualvoices.org

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