Neo Rio: Pollinators, Plants & People

Invited to be a part of Neo Rio 2016: Pollinators, Plants & People, the Debris Project was integrated into a part of the installation called ADRIFT, which looked at the chemical impacts on pollinators. Neo Rio is an annual arts event hosted by LEAP (Land, Environment & Art of Place) at the Montoso campground in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. LEAP provides opportunities to deepen our appreciation and understanding of and relationship to our environments and our human and non-human neighbors; to increase our commitment to protecting these places and relationships and fostering creative responses and expressions of them in contemporary art and culture.

ADRIFT was installed in the man-made structure of the campsite, which had a view of the Chevron Questa mine. Because mining releases substantial chemicals into watersheds, and chemical body burdens are intimately tied to plastic pollution, this setting was ideal to present the chemical impacts on our watersheds. Included in the installation were post industrial western landscapes of oil refineries in Commerce City & Sinclair Wyoming, as well as an aerial view of the DOW chemical plant in Texas. DEBRIS tiles were hung vertically as flags to withstand the strong winds that whip across the top of the Rio Grande gorge. The images were representations of native pollinating water insects created with Oceans First in Boulder, Colorado during a spring session earlier in the year. Weighting down the flags was a plastic toy dinosaur; a reminder that the source of endocrine disrupting chemicals is fossil fuels.

View from the ADRIFT installation at the Montoso campground towards the Chevron Questa Mine looming in the distance. Chevron is confronted by years of remediation work after the mine recently shut down.
Gaea McGahee explores DEBRIS tiles at night as the Neo Rio event rambles on around the campfire.
Printed matter: preparation of tiles made earlier in the spring by Oceans First students in Boulder, Colorado. The students focused on creating plastic representations of flies found in watersheds throughout the Rocky Mountain West.
Making DEBRIS tiles into vertical hanging flags to withstand the winds that whip across the top of the gorge.
Hanging the flags: weighting down the vertical flags is a reminder of the source of plastic and the chemicals in the form of a plastic toy dinosaur.
Exploring the broader theme of pollination, the works installed in the ADRIFT section included butterflies, here represented as flags hung under a painting of the DOW chemical plant. The butterflies were conveyed as voids to echo the decimation of habitat monarchs are facing now because of heavy use of chemicals in agriculture. The central flag is a re-purposed plastic pro-cor plate created in collaboration with Susanna Mitchell as part of the Monarch project.
Detail of a butterfly flag with degraded plastic filling the void.
A deflated plastic bee balloon was stung up in a dead tree to serve as a flag marking the path between the ADRIFT installation and HOME. The HOME installation was a hands on activity station that explored how pollinators like bees are essential to human nourishment. Providing a solution to the challenges pollinators face now, local wildflower seeds were offered to participants to take home to their own gardens in order to provide habitat for pollinators.

Cu Lao Cham Marine Park

Vietnam

Building solutions while strengthening economies

Fishermen on the Cham Islands off the coast of Danang in Central Vietnam were recently motivated to implement an effective program to address plastic pollution which has plagued waters in Southeast Asia. The designation of Cu Lao Cham Marine park as a UNESCO biosphere preserve in 2009 provided the impetus needed for the community to take an interest in clearing plastic from the waters around their islands and maintaining plastic free environments which in turn has provided them with increased income from a growing tourist industry.

The reefs that had been shrouded in plastic bags were cleared and have since started to thrive. The improved habitat encouraged the growth of fish populations. The tourists have followed in suit with boats providing snorkel and dive tours shuttling people out from the UNESCO Heritage site of Hoi An as well as the booming city of Danang. Part of the tours include lunch and beach time on the islands, which provides added income for the families who run the businesses there. Although illegal fishing continues to be an issue within the preserve, the efforts taken towards environmental preservation offers hope in a place that has not historically demonstrated a strong concern for the environment. In this case, money talks. For the first time since the recession following the American war, Vietnamese have developed a strong enough economy to embrace the luxury of environmentalism.

After spending time in Vietnam over the past 25 years and seeing a dramatic economic transformation of the country, I delighted in the opportunity to participate in environmental recreation in the islands with old friends Hoa and Nga. Nga was not familiar with swimming, but we suited her up with a mask and took her out amidst numerous flotation devices so that she could discover the wonders of coral gardens. She was deeply moved by the colorful marine landscapes, saying she had never imagined such worlds. It was an inspiring reminder of how important it is to cultivate environmental stewardship through direct experience. It’s encouraging to see Vietnam reach a point where this kind of experiential opportunity is available to people there.

Fish Sauce bottle
Even as local Cham Island fishermen and dive boat guides recognize the importance of keeping the sea plastic free, currents carry pollution into the sanctuary. This bottle was picked up on a free dive of the corals surrounding the islands and is used in the Debris Project as a tile interspersed with diatom forms.
There is a long way to go in shifting attitudes towards plastic pollution from the wider population. This Cham Island youth makes a show of cleaning up the plastic left behind by the swimmers in the water. We can sense his frustration at this routine which has become all too common.

Foundations: Chateau de la Napoule

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.

Creating original works for the Debris Project at the Chateau de la Napoule. Photo by Michael Gadlin

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.