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.

Art Relief International

Collaborating on the Debris Project

Reflections by Emma Gabriel,
Art Director for Art Relief International
Chiang Mai, Thailand

When Lee Lee first approached us about Debris I got really excited about the ecology and the message of her international project. Aiming to teach about the global impacts of single use plastic on not only the environment but on us as humans, her logic is to bring the message to youth. They are the young questioning and open minds of the future who will help us to unveil just how harshly this material is affecting everything. Lee Lee collects images of the pieces that have been created and continues to set up interactive installations at galleries and educational institutions around the world to bring awareness to the cause.

While she was doing a residency in Chiang Mai, we got the chance to meet with her and learn more about Debris. During our first workshop with her, we also learned that she keeps the art making process very open ended. She first teaches about how marine life are suffering from ingesting toxins from the plastic, which then translates to chemical burdens in land dwelling animals and humans. Once the participants have understood this, she asks them to create a piece of art inspired by these teachings. She brings along bottle caps, straws, and other forms of plastic that she has collected in Chiang Mai, making the project very localized. Usually, she says, she allows the student to collect used plastic from their homes during a specific time period for them to really understand the amount of plastic that we actually use. Another important material she encourages for this project is fused plastic bags that make a stronger plastic and can look quite beautiful. She teaches older students how this process works and encourages them to use their creativity to find beauty in this so called waste.

After collaborating with Lee Lee at Wat Meun Neun Kong during our weekly visit to host a drop in after school arts class, we could see that this project could raise a lot of awareness about the use of plastic. I come from North America, where plastic usage is beginning to be understood and it’s common for people to use their own bags for groceries, and to use a stronger bottle to carry water instead of buying something off the shelf, among other things. But in places like Thailand there isn’t a lot of awareness about the usage of plastic and every trip to a 7/11 or a street food vendor means you’ll collect more than one plastic bag before getting the chance to say you don’t want a bag in the first place, not to mention all the wrapping and packaging of each item. The awareness just isn’t there. So we tried to bring the project to all of the public schools we work with in Chiang Mai including Wat Pa Pao, Wat Kuang Sing, and Wat Ku Kam hoping that we could bring some awareness to them in a creative way.
The students all responded very positively to the process. They seemed to get inspiration from all the plastic and focused intently on their pieces. Because of the ever changing nature of the ocean, Lee Lee allows the students to combine different materials in different ways without glueing them down. We tried to be quick with our cameras to catch some of the interesting creations that the students experimented with.
Once we had reached out to the students, we sent the photos to Lee Lee for her to rework them. We had the opportunity to include the Debris project in our annual exhibition so we showcased the photos outside of a large metal framed bottle filled with plastic (all collected from what we used at our office). This was such a collaborative piece that so many people got to be a part of and we are so happy to have been able to bring this project to the community in such a way.
We also got the chance to work with John and the kids from the Stratton ABC foundation who were working on their own very special version of the project. The kids came up with the idea to create a plastic demon made solely out of plastic. When we arrived to give them a hand they were just finishing this step and were looking for ways to keep him strong and supported. We added some wire to secure his body to a chair and his head to his body and when we returned the second time, Chevy the demon had skin and a face and he was alive and well. We all painted his environment outside on one of the foundation’s walls where he is emerging from the flames of a plastic landfill, ready to warn us about the dangers of plastic.
A big thank you to Lee Lee for reaching out to us here in Chiang Mai.
We hope the project continues to educate and inspire people to make a change, daily.
Creating works in a circle at Wat Muen Ngen Kong during an after school program. The materials were gathered on the streets of Chiang Mai and combined with existing works from the Debris Project.
Shrimp made during the workshop at Wat Muen Ngen Kong in Chiang Mai, Thailand with Art Relief International
“Plastic is toxic” A student shows off his work at the Wat Pa Pao Debris workshop.
Frog created at the Wat Pa Pao

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.