The opening plenary for the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress was given by Max Liboiron, who practices ‘Civic Science’ where she works for the public good, throwing in a feminist slant for good measure. She values accessibility and sharing, equity building and justice. She is moved by the people and animals who dwell in her homeland of Newfoundland and seeks justice for the communities who are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution and the chemical body burdens that are intimately tied to the issue. She demonstrated a deep concern for indigenous communities as her voice wavered during her description of how they discovered through global media that endocrine disrupting chemicals in Inuit mothers’ breast milk was off the charts. Because of the way chemicals are stored in fat, they are biomagnified through the marine food web, and reach the highest concentration in animals who carry a lot of fat. Because Native populations here in the far north traditionally consume fatty meat from these cold waters, the impact from diet has been severe. She thinks it unfair that they learned of their situation through the global news networks instead of those who were leading the study, and described the fallout as there was no one there to guide them through options. Mothers stopped breastfeeding their babies, and introduced formula which has demonstrated long term health impacts of weakening immune systems. The corporate food source also introduces a neo-colonial framework which severs traditional roots. This situation inspires her to address the unevenness of the scientific field and informs her practice. She talked about ‘Ethnographic refusal’ where communities like this could respond on their own terms. She doesn’t feel that the academic world has a right to everything. And it became an important part of her collaborative practice to arrive at decisions on who gets access to findings, not as censorship, but as a way for a community of people who are directly impacted by the information at hand to assess their own options.
In developing her methodology, Ms Liboiron feels it is vital to state clear intentions with collaborators and to the public. For collaborators, she designs accessible research tools for target communities, namely the outport fishermen who are largely low income, but offer tremendous insight through their own traditional fishing practice. Her design principals are open source, can be built by participants for less than $50 from accessible materials found in local hardware stores, using as little plastic as possible. They should be hackable and repairable so that the fishermen can easily gather material in the field. She acts as a facilitator, following the concerns expressed by outport communities, guided by what they feel is important. She invites them to participate through gathering material for a study, then analyzing it as well, placing a lot of trust in the stewards of this place. Her methods represent an inspiring approach to citizen activated science.
Because she works with plastic pollution, she asked that the fishermen could save the guts of their cleaned fish so that they could analyze it for plastic within. Her heart sank as she found contamination in cod, the ‘heartbeat of Newfoundland’, referencing the collapse of the codfish industry that gutted the economy here.
Then she spoke of how to implement the societal changes that are necessary to address the broad issues of plastic pollution. We can raise awareness through information and education, instilling values, inspiring DOers…but then there is a block by infrastructure before we arrive at true behavior change. How can we truly avoid plastic if all of the food available is wrapped in it? She suggested targeting change makers over the masses, and publishing articles in the mainstream media instead of only academic journals. She lauded the efforts of Chelsea Rochman, who has effectively influenced policy change in the US in regards to banning microplastics as an ingredient in personal care products. Her words offered a path to effect change in the overarching structures that define our world today is essential to truly having an impact on plastic pollution.
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.
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.
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.
Trellis Bay, British Virgin Islands
Aragorn is a sculptor who has made a series of large iron vessels that he installed over the shallow waters in front of his workshop, which is laid out along the beach in Trellis Bay, just off Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. During full moon celebrations and for the New Year, he lights bonfires within his sculpted vessels. The Debris Project inspired him to come up with a performance piece which would ultimately act as a message in a bottle from the sea about plastic pollution during his New Years gathering. As the large crowd gathered on his beach looking across the twinkling bay in anticipation of the celebratory fires, hundreds of glowing plastic bottles washed ashore at their feet just before the sculptures burst into flames. As an unanticipated but welcome end to the action, local kids swarmed the beach to pick up every one of the bottles. Their beach clean concluded the event on a hopeful note as the next generation acted as stewards for the beach. Island music and revelry ensued.
The project worked effectively because as sailors, we were able to deduce the direction of the wind so that we made sure the bottles hit their target, and did not add to ocean debris. Repurposing the bottles further, Aragorn used the bottles as padding to pack the ceramic works that are shipped out from his workshop. He makes this a regular practice; collecting used plastic bottles from his neighbors’ cafes and using them as packing material for his creative works.
Inspiring Access: Denver Aquarium
A few months later in Denver, the arts educator Kristen Heeres drew inspiration from this tale to develop a creative project inspired by the event. She worked with her 4th graders at Holm Elementary, a school which serves a largely immigrant population. They made representations of marine life which they inserted into plastic bottles. She took the series and installed them at the Denver Aquarium, who then invited the students to view their installation and gave them a tour of the marine installations. This invitation allowed them access to the bus for a field trip, a rare opportunity for a cash strapped public school. Their tour exposed them the large tanks filled with the marine life they had studied as part of the project. Most of them did not have the capacity to afford a $27 entry fee, so it was their first direct exposure to marine life. They left in awe, inspired to integrate action into their daily choices around material use and waste reduction. The Debris Project works most effectively when it gives communities access to experiential learning demonstrated here.
Read Kristen’s educational statements here
Kristen in available for consulting on how to integrate the Debris project into school curriculum: email@example.com – 720-878-5254
Crossing the Sea: Thailand
The stories of how plastic bottles were used to convey messages about plastic pollution then migrated across the Pacific to Chiang Mai, where Art Relief International presented a culmination of their Debris Project programming in the form of a large bottle. Having worked with schools across greater Chiang Mai, they used the Debris Project tiles as a skin for a large bottle, which they filled with plastic discarded from their offices. As a poignant reflection of their internal use of plastic, the sculpture allowed the organization to recognize how they were using the material. The bottle was installed at Thapae East in Central Chiang Mai. Arts director, Emma Gabriel says that she intends to continue to integrate the repurposing of discarded plastic as a primary material in their future programming.
It was the children who started noticing the influx of trash around Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. You can not go but a few minutes sitting on the banks of the Raidak river without seeing a PET bottle bobbing down its watery course towards India. They were inspired to address the profusion of trash that has only recently become prevalent in this society that prides itself on their pristine environment.
The Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu (VAST) runs an array of community engaged arts programs. They welcomed ideas from the youth in their community and came up with a string of programs that has brought the issue to light in their community. The organizers at VAST recognize the value of working with children, especially around these kinds of issues because it empowers the young participants, encouraging them to carry messages into the broader community through sharing their ideas with their families and classrooms. When we reinforce the importance of these topics which the children have demonstrated are inherent feelings, then children are encouraged to actively engage their circles to change attitudes towards an issue like waste.
Bhutanese are used to organic material being the primary packaging of their consumables. The population maintains strong habits of tossing aside packaging, knowing that it will be reabsorbed by the earth. But these habits become destructive once the packaging is replaced by synthetic materials like plastic. It is a time of transition in Bhutan. The cities are growing rapidly and house nearly a third of the population of the country. As with many burgeoning cities, it can be a challenge to implement effective infrastructure systems, like waste management, which rely on public participation.
Artists play an key role of reflecting the ways and beings of their communities, constantly examining the evolution of societies. The artists at VAST are no exception. In regards to plastic pollution, they have come up with provocative public installations and projects which lend themselves to offering solutions to this emerging problem.
Their workshop is housed in a building across the road from a former dump site along the Raidak river. The VAST community set out to restore this dump site to an ecologically stable park. The site had been full of invasive Russian poplar trees that the government helped them cut down. Using the remnants, workshop participants pieced together the first sculpture for the park, an orb made of re purposed poplar wood. The work echoes the structure of a birds nest, and is an lovely form to start the sculpture park that has been growing on the cleared land.
They have amended the soil and planted trees to protect against erosion as the river runs strong during the rainy season. There is a spring which serves as the heart center of the park, around which they are developing a medicinal zone so that community members may find healing that is growing forth from this healed land.
The members of VAST collect the debris that has become commonplace, and re-purpose it into the sculptures that are installed in the evolving sculpture park. The golden fish is built from recycled waste and it is built with a very regional aesthetic. The golden color makes it a popular landmark in a culture that values the sheen used frequently in sacred spaces.
The colorful plastic bottle tops were an appealing material for the participants of the workshops, and they have been using them to make decorative skins on tree stumps among other sculptures. The organizers at VAST felt that it was not very productive in addressing the overall ecological concerns of the environmental impacts of plastic bottles, so they encouraged community members to bring in the PET bottles with their caps. The bottles were offered to elders in the neighborhood as a resource that they could sell to Indian recycling centers for a small profit. This program not only helped clean the area of PET bottles, it provided a micro economy to an otherwise marginalized community.
Bringing the issue into the heart of their city, the VAST community set up a provocative installation around the clock tower in the central plaza of Thimphu. Here, they installed piles of garbage that climbed bamboo lattice work that was mounted to the clock tower. Interspersed with the trash were informational signs that described the problems wrought by the presence of plastic waste, calling on the community to recognize the importance of ecological awareness in these days of transition. People were initially angry that these students had filled the plaza with trash. But the students stationed themselves around the installation to engage the public in conversation about the issue. They invited people to walk the paths that were structured through the installation as a sort of discovery journey. The paths led participants around the plaza as if they were walking medicinal wheels of self realization. Ultimately those who took the journey came away with an understanding of this issue that can be hard to digest, but which has an impact on everyone within that sphere.
Unfortunately there is no lack of plastic in Bhutan. It is a growing problem in this kingdom perched high in the Himalayas. There appears to be a thriving natural ecology. However, where there is an influx of human populations that are embracing the materials of our age, then there is bound to be plastic embedded in the trees.
To learn more abut VAST and to support their community arts programs, visit www.vast-bhutan.org
It was La Napoule Art Foundation that initiated the Debris Project by providing the time and space to develop the foundation of the project during a residency that was geared towards creating work with a young audience in mind. The question, ‘Do You See What I See?’ was intended to celebrate the many perspectives through which our age, experiences, and culture inform our creation of and connection to art. Lee Lee was one of seven artists awarded the residency. The creatures she created there were inspired by figurative works sculpted by Henry Clews in the prior century. An unconventional artist for his time, Henry Clews created an amazing array of sculptures, primarily out of stone. Many of his works were integrated into the structure of the Château as he and his wife, Marie, renovated the ancient structure. His work seemed to be inspired by sea life, perhaps because the Château is perched on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. There were strange plankton like creatures swimming across arches, and birds perched atop pillars that would peer down on the artists as we dined in the great hall or walk along the arcades around the courtyards. It was a delight to let his work inspire the sea creatures created there, and it was a perfect place to build the foundation of the Debris project. The proposed Debris Project relied on children’s natural inclination towards animals as well as the fact that children today are particularly in tune with issues which define the world which they will inherit.
Because some of the big issues they face are environmental scarcity, it is a gift for children to be informed about issues like plastic pollution. So that they may take ownership of their future, it is important to engage them on pertinent issues through hands on activity in order to help them develop their voices as they explore how to express their intentions. It is inspiring to see a demonstrated interest in having an impact on the world while they are still young. As adults, we can feel encouraged by the idealism of youth in order to contribute to solving environmental issues that are global in scope. Plastic is a material which transcends our differences and has a tremendous impact on all of us. It is one of the most important materials of our age because we simply do not have the natural resources to support our population without it. However, single use plastics are wreaking havoc on both our health and the environment. It is made from a limited resource, it does not cycle back into the environment which creates an inordinate amount of waste and damage to wildlife, and the chemicals which make up plastic are now linked to some of our biggest health concerns today. Extensive research into the nature of plastic pollution has made it clear that the most promising solutions lay at reducing waste at the source, which means that we need to change the cultural paradigm of how we consume materials like plastic.
In 2014, the work produced during the residency was exhibited at the Château de la Napoule, who invited the artists to incorporate an interactive element to the installation. It was this request that inspired the hands on nature of the installation which then led towards the development of the project as a platform for collaboration. Art is an engaging platform on which to explore creative ideas and solutions to problems that affect us all. Because plastic fills our lives, it is a very familiar material which is often taken for granted. The Debris Project was developed to encourage children to consider this very common material in new ways by paying attention to how we use material in our daily lives. It is important to encourage youth to practice awareness of their own actions in the context of the larger world around them. In doing so, they may feel empowered to incorporate small changes in their own lives which would inspire waves of change in the larger spheres of their families and communities. As a compliment to the formal installation, an important development in the project was the interactive element where children could create their own art works from found plastic objects that would otherwise be laid to waste, with hopes that it would inspire reconsideration in re-purposing materials. From the beginning, the intention was to take the project beyond the scope of this particular residency, by finding ways to integrate an interactive element into educational programming at home and abroad in order to engage children on the subject of plastic. An online presence presents the works created as well as reflections of the processes that evolve in order to build a virtual dialogue around this material which touches us all.
Walking through Cité Dieu is bleak. Four years after the big earthquake of 2010, the neighborhood remains askew, like many ghettos throughout Port-Au-Prince. Cold, grey cement structures jut out at odd angles, having been shaken out of place and never fully repaired. The alleyways are filled with an eerie silence as quiet desperation ensues. This particular ghetto is tucked in beside a dump along the sea. The dump receives waste from the more affluent neighborhoods on the hill whereas in the ghettos, trash is not picked up more than once a month. It fills the twisted alleyways and clogs the drainages as it slowly makes its way into the Caribbean Sea. It would not be at all surprising if Port-au-Prince was the primary contributor of marine debris in the Caribbean simply because of the lack of civic infrastructure in the most densely populated neighborhoods, the poorest of which lay closest to the sea, downstream from the rest.
Crossing the Boulevard Harry Truman, we are greeted with the warm buzz of industry in the Grand Rue neighborhood inhabited by the Atis Rezistans. The creative community consists of craftsmen and fine artists and offers a marked contrast to the desolate quality of Cité Dieu. Haitians have long been subjected to the impositions of outsider worldviews while suffering severe injustices due to globalization. However, in the face of severe poverty, this community has developed alternative economies based on creative capital and has gained a deserved respect for their visual practice. The artists blend woodworking traditions with contemporary materials like metal, tires and plastic to create poignant reflections of the economic disparities they face. They make use of material discarded by the surrounding autoworkers and machinists, implementing a sort of creative ecology which offers new life to unwanted materials. People here have an acute understanding of the waste they produce because it stays present in their sphere, whereas the waste stream is hidden from urban environments elsewhere. We can draw from this understanding and learn how to transform discarded material into useful objects or art which speaks specifically of place. Making use of the material that passes through their sphere is transformative both physically in the material, and conceptually in the issues comprised therein.
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. He made a representation of the Vodoun Lwa, Boussou, a spirit protector of the seas. More than anything, the seas need a protector, and his image recognizes that need. In the overall installation, Louis’s piece speaks of no other place than Haiti. Instead of imposing a singular idea of how this collaboration should be shaped, the Debris Project remains open to gathering the distinctive voices that grow out of a particular place. This allows for authentic representations from a diverse range of people who share a concern about this material which touches us all. In gathering expressions specific to place from all over the world, the installation becomes a large scaled call for awareness and action that stems from localized interpretations of the waste present in the waters that connect us.
In 2012, La Napoule Art Foundation offered a residency for artists to create work specifically for a young audience in mind. As a new mom, I was moved to create work about environmental issues my son will face in his lifetime. Plastic, the chemicals that make up the material, as well as the chemicals used in industrial agriculture became of primary concern since I started feeding him his first foods. The intentions expressed in the proposal below became the foundation for the Debris Project.
Through the myriad of perspectives of age and place, I would like to explore a single material which transcends our differences and has a tremendous impact on all of us; Plastic.
Plastic is one of the most important materials in our lives. We simply do not have the natural resources to support our population without it. However, single use plastics are wreaking havoc on both our health and the environment. It is made from a limited resource, it does not cycle back into the environment which creates an inordinate amount of waste and damage to wildlife, and the chemicals which make up plastic are now linked to some of our biggest health concerns today.
Children are often interested in issues that affect their health and the planet they will inherit. It is important to engage them on pertinent issues so that they may take ownership of their future. They also demonstrate a strong interest in having an impact on the world while they are still young. We can be inspired by the idealism of youth in solving pressing problems. Art is a fantastic platform on which to explore creative ideas and solutions to problems which affect us all.
Because Plastic fills our lives, it is a very familiar material which is often taken for granted. I aspire to encourage children to consider this very common material in new ways.
I would like to present work which explores both the environmental importance of plastic which endures in a useful form, and contrast it to the environmental catastrophe of single use plastics. It takes a lot of effort to pay attention to how we use the most common materials in our lives. It is important to encourage youth to start paying attention to our daily actions to encourage their understanding of our places in context of the world in which we live. In doing so, they may feel empowered to incorporate small changes in their own lives which would inspire waves of change in the larger spheres of their communities.
As a compliment to the work that I create which would encourage a reconsideration of this common but untraditional material, I would like to design an interactive element where children could build their own art works from found plastic objects that would otherwise be laid to waste. In the hopes that it would inspire a long term ability to repurpose materials, I hope that it offers a shift in perception as to the value of materials that are often overlooked.
Beyond the scope of this particular residency, I would like to take the interactive element into various schools and communities at home and abroad in order to engage children on the subject of plastic. I plan to build an online presence with the work and reflections created by the kids to form a foundation of a visual dialogue around this material which touches us all.