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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Proposal for the Children themed residency at the Chateau de la Napoule:
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.