Final presentation: plastic in paradisum

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plastic in paradisum is a digital, interactive archive of plastic objects I found washed up on the beach at Dead Horse Bay. It’s a creative interrogation of the social processes that confer value on the objects that surround us.

You can visit the full collection & project website here.

To be honest, I was surprised by how much information about each object was available online. I was able to track down full histories of most objects, including information about the manufacturing company, the material, original newspaper advertisements, and other details I did not expect to find.

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Winthrop pHisoHex bottle
Date: 1930-1950
Manufactured: New York, NY
Material: Low density polyethylene plastic
Description:

Winthrop-Stearns Inc. was a pharmaceutical company that underwent several mergers. A 1922 merger resulted in Sterling Drug, an American global pharmaceutical company that was later divided and sold to other pharma companies.

This particular bottle contained pHisoHex (pHisoderm with hexachlorophene), a preoperative cleansing agent for eye surgery. Initially used exclusively by surgeons, the product was later re-marketed to the public as a skin cleanser in the 1950s.

Polyethylene was first manufactured on a commercial scale during the Second World War by the British company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and eventually American companies began to manufacture polyethylene in the U.S. After the war ended, polyethylene was used to create squeezable bottles for antiperspirant. The flexible squeeze bottle emerged in the 1950s as a high density form of polyethylene.

Here is the final presentation I shared with the class:

The feedback I received from the class was extremely helpful. Most notably, our instructor Stefani pointed out that this project invokes feelings of nostalgia, but perhaps not the disgust that we associate with trash. In short, by decontextualizing the objects we tend to forgot that all this stuff was trash when I found it. Another student suggested adding more objects that are identifiably “trash” – a take-away container, a bottle, a plastic bag, etc. I plan to make adjustments to the project as I prepare the project for ITP’s Spring 2016 show.

Project update: Plastic in paradisum.

What counts as the material of vital materialism? Is it only human labour and the socio-economic entities made by men using raw materials? Or is materiality more potent than that? How can political theory do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in every event and every stabilization? Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?

– Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

This week I continued making 3D scans of the pieces of discarded plastic that I’d found. I need to continue making the 3D scans and figure out the best way to catalogue each item, including information about where and when the item was manufactured, where the item was found, and how long it will take to disintegrate.

A baby doll:

Discarded baby doll

Found: Dead Horse bay, 03/31/2016.
Manufacturer: Unknown
Material: Synthetic rubber (plastic)

A blue bottle:

Discarded hairspray bottle

Found: Dead Horse bay, 03/31/2016.
Manufacturer: Helene Curtis Industries, Inc., Chicago, approx. 1953
Material: Plastic, most likely High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Est. date of decomposition: 2403

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A pink bottle:

Discarded pink bottle

Found: Dead Horse bay, 03/31/2016.
Manufacturer: Helene Curtis Industries, Inc.
Material: Plastic

Plastic in Paradisum: project progress

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We are the garbage, the waste, we make it and dump it, to be separated from it is a cancer causing delusion…we cannot separate ourselves, clean and perfect, from the trash we dump out back into the can. Clean is a vision of internal trash, not a mere separation.

– Gerald Vizenor, “Landfill Meditation”

Inanimate things have a life of their own, that deep within them is an inexplicable vitality or energy, a moment of independence from and resistance to us and other things.

– Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

In keeping with my project timeline, I visited Dead Horse Bay this week to collect the plastic debris that had washed up on the shore for my project. The beach is so littered with debris from the past 200 years that you are unable to walk without stepping on a broken glass bottle or a piece of china. I walked along the shoreline for about three hours in a kind of meditative state, scanning the ground for shiny, colorful plastic among the mounds of discarded objects.

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I documented my trip to the beach with this short video filmed on a handheld DSLR.

Once I had collected around 30 pieces of plastic, I started photographing some of the objects in order to create photogrammetric, 3D models of the debris I found. To create the models, I used Photoscan and Meshmixer to clean up the scan, create dense clouds, and add the appropriate texture.

Here’s a snippet of the editing process with a red toy gun that I’d found.

So far I’ve created 3D models of two objects: the red toy gun and a red plastic bottle. Here’s a photo and the final 3D model of the bottle:

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Discarded plastic bottle from Dead Horse Bay by Becca on Sketchfab

 

On a very personal level, the physical rituals of “cataloging” the discarded objects with attention and care — scanning the beach for plastic, picking up each object, washing and scrubbing them one by one, taking between 100-200 photographs of each object — helped me see these objects in a different light. Instead of something to be trashed and forgotten, each object revealed its own energy and vitality (to steal a phrase from Jane Bennet).

The poet A.R. Ammons once remarked that maybe garbage was the “sacred image of our time.” When asked about the religious undertones in his book-length poem Garbage by The Paris Review, Ammons said: “My hope was to see the resemblances between the high and low of the secular and the sacred. The garbage heap of used-up language is thrown at the feet of poets, and it is their job to make or revamp a language that will fly again. We are brought low through sin and death, and hope that religion can make us new.”

Waste isn’t meaningless; waste is saturated with meaning. It’s subject to the same value-creation processes that we apply to all the objects in our environment. With my project, I’m aiming to help people really evaluate their own relationships with discarded objects. I want to examine the social processes that confer value on the objects that surround us and put discarded plastic waste in dialogue with religious/magical objects.

Still left to to: scan the rest of the plastic, put all the .obj files on Sketchfab, create a website for the project, finalize and build the physical installation, and build the virtual environment. An overview of the plan of action:

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Project update: Built to last.

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been introduced to individuals and organizations working within what has been termed “citizen science.” GenSpace and Public Lab are two examples of community spaces that have been created for the purpose of educating the average layperson how to conduct his/her own experiments.

As a non-scientist who is seeking to understand what is happening to marine debris on a microscopic level, I’m excited to see communities in which individuals are taking a DIY approach to citizen science.

Project update: plastic debris altar & archive

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on developing my concept for the final project. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, I’m most interested in the materiality of waste and the ways in which social processes determine the value we place on the objects around us. In the case of plastic debris, we do not endow trash with value the way we would other objects, like religious relics.

I thought about the kinds of objects that we culturally have esteemed and valued, and immediately I was drawn to the kinds of religious domestic altars we find in people’s homes. I was also drawn to the aesthetic of the street vendors who sell religious artifacts (in Jerusalem, for example). These are spaces we have created for objects we venerate.

I intend to build a small altar or vendor cart in which I will display plastic debris I have found on the beaches in New York. Each item will be catalogued and labeled, with an accompanying card that lists the item’s origin, where it was found, and an invented “power” that the object endows on its owner (e.g. healing powers).IMG_3967IMG_3969 Above are several options for the altar/cart.

In addition to the physical installation, I will also create an online archive similar to the kind found at a museum or on e-commerce sites in which each item is catalogued. I itend to create high-resolution 3D scans of each object as well as the actual altar/cart.

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An example of an item in an online archive from the Met Museum.

Of course, a lot of this project is dependent on the kind of marine debris that I am able to collect. If I’m able to find tiny microplastics, then I would like to create a kind of miniature altar/cart to display the plastic confetti. If the objects are larger, then the installation will likely be larger.

lisbon-portugal-shop-selling-religious-artefacts-and-iconography-ewbg0aI was very much inspired by Hong Kong-based artist liina klauss, whose project “Lost ‘N Found” helped me articulate my own project. She set up vendor carts on beaches in China and sold plastic debris to people walking by.

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Built to last: project update.

I’ve been surprised by how obsessed with plastic pollution I’ve become since starting this research. Lately everything I do has been colored by the reading I’ve done about material culture studies/discard studies. With that in mind, I wanted to give a brief update on my project. As always, I need to check my impulse to obsessively collect information and concepts and just start iterating.

//research, continued.

Critical discard studies.

Critical Discard Studies is an emerging interdisciplinary sub-field that examines waste in its many forms: things that are left out, devalued, left behind, and externalized. Scholars in this field are unified by their belief that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, but that both the discarded material and their meaning is part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Activist/scholar/artist Max Liboiron heads up the field, so I contacted her as one of my experts (still waiting on a response).

Something that emerged out of my research was the idea that in a disposable culture, it’s not just trash that’s getting thrown away. There is growing evidence suggesting a correlation between cultures that throw away stuff and cultures that are more willing to dispose of human relationships or view those relationships as replaceable. In short, individuals who view their trash as disposable tend to view their relationships as disposable.

Sacred waste.

I came across the performance piece Sacred Waste, directed by Bonnie McDonald, which aimed to”make mundane consumption and discard practices hypervisible with a series of performances inspired by what she calls the “ritual gestures” of plastic consumption. The physical motions of buying single-use plastics, using them briefly, and then casually tossing them are performed in an over-the-top, slowed-down performance by different community theater groups.

“If we respect plastic’s history as a petroleum substance formed across the vastness of geologic time and its future as a material bound to outlive us and most if not all conceivable future generations,” she writes, “then we might treat it with the greatest respect instead of as mere junk.”

I like how this project reimagines the “rituals” of consumption in terms of shamanism and performed religion. I also like that this performance piece communicates the kinetic nature of waste. Plastic trash moves: across geographic regions, across oceans, into the stomach of animals, onto our plates. There’s a narrative of displacement and alienation embedded into plastic pollution.

Waste as wealth.

In a TED Talk, Suja Lowenthal looks at the externalized economic costs of plastic consumption and disposal. In a post-colonialist era, she argues, we have convinced developing nations that once reused everything that the sign of modernity is waste. We’ve exported values of disposability, the idea that being able to throw things away is a sign of wealth and progress. I’m interested in disrupting this attitude towards waste.

//the project

I’m moving away from the idea of a 3d archive of people’s trash – as an intervention, it feels too stale, too static. I’m trying to explore ways to make the “rituals” of plastic pollution more kinetic, pushing movement forward. A plastic bottle is not just a plastic bottle: it has the potential to become meaningful, magical to us. It has the potential to become microplastics, swallowed by some fish 100 years from now. It could continue disintegrating for another 400 years. There’s a lot of movement and shape-shifting in that story.

I keep thinking about MIT’s Trash Track project, in which MIT researchers tracked the location of 500 pieces of trash. Still figuring out how this will shape my own project.

Project proposal: Disposable bodies.

It’s hard to imagine now, but plastic was once touted as the embodiment of a democratic future. As Roland Barthes noted in his 1972 book Mythologies, with plastic “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized.”

This week I did some more research about the plastisphere and microplastics. When we picture what marine pollution looks like, many of us picture plastic bottles and bags bobbing in the Great Pacific garbage patch. The real threat to the ocean, though, take the form of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic (smaller than 1 mm) that come from cosmetics, industrial processes, and clothing. Primary microplastics are directly manufactured by companies, while secondary microplastics are generated by the breakdown of larger plastic debris like bottles or synthetic clothing.

I discovered the advocacy organization 5 Gyres, which works to restore healthy, plastic-free oceans. In a blog post, the organization outlines “the great divide” between the goals of environmental NGOs and the goals of plastic manufacturers when it comes to dealing with plastic pollution. Plastic producers generally seek to beef up recycling efforts and improve waste management, with the taxpayer bearing the cost. NGOs, on the other hand, push for smarter, better designs and the phasing-out of problematic plastics, with producers taking more responsibility for recovery through built-in incentives. For instance, the U.S. recently passed a ban of microbeads that will take effect in April 2016, an example of how legislation is still needed in this battle to clean up the ocean.

This blog post really got me thinking about one of the central problems with plastic pollution: We live in a society in which everything is viewed as disposable. Rather than take steps to reduce plastic production or phase out problematic plastics, plastic manufacturers continue to put the burden of responsibility on the consumer to figure out how to deal with our trash.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about disposable bodies, the human bodies we have collectively deemed not worth grieving. Judith Butler once asked: Which lives become grievable? Which losses become losses worth mourning? Michel Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics–the state’s exercise of power over physical/political bodies–becomes very relevant when you start talking about the impact of pollution on human bodies.

In his TED talk entitled “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones explores this link between “throwaway” materials and “throwaway” bodies. He argues that our proclivity for disposable products often makes low-income people pay. “Cancer Alley,” for instance, is a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana where petrochemical companies produce plastic, causing clusters of cancer cases among low-income residents.

“If you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet and what we’re doing to poor people,” he says, “you arrive at a very troubling, but also very helpful, insight: In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

For my project, I want to explore the link between poverty and plastic pollution in the ocean. Marine pollution affects all of us when it enters into our food chain, but low-income populations in coastal regions are especially vulnerable. Plastic pollution can be particularly acute in countries where basic sanitation is barely existent and where recycling is the last thing people have time to worry about. I am imagining that my project will be a web-based piece that explores the different low-income countries and communities affected by plastic pollution.

 

The plastisphere.

For my research topic, I was assigned the plastisphere.

The plastisphere is a term used to describe ecosystems that have evolved to live in human-made plastic environments. Because plastic is hydrophobic, biofilms can form rapidly on the surface of plastic. In marine environments, this means that plastic can host a wide spectrum of microorganisms.

Global plastic production exceeds 300 million tons per year, with up to 5% of this entering the ocean as plastic litter. “We have inadvertently created a completely new habitat in the ocean with all of this plastic debris,” says Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “This stuff didn’t exist there over 40 years ago.”

Mincer is part of a group of scientists who discovered that thousands of microbes have evolved to thrive on the plastic trash that collects in the ocean, especially in giant gyres like the Great Pacific garbage patch.

The Great Pacific garbage patch (or trash vortex) is a gyre of marine debris particles in the Pacific Ocean that contains high concentrations of pelagic plastics and chemicals. One of the reasons plastic pollution is so difficult to address is because often the pollution is not easily visible, consisting of very small pieces of plastic.

The problem(s)

The plastisphere poses several significant threats to our environment.

Firstly, many of the bacteria and algae that attaches itself to the plastic debris floating in the ocean are part of the genus Vibrio, which causes cholera and other illnesses.

Secondly, because plastic is so durable, plastic pollution acts as a “ship” for carrying microorganisms across long distances. This means that microbes are getting transported to different ecosystems and invasive species and harmful algae could be introduced into other ecosystems.

Finally, some of the organisms that attach themselves to the debris encourage biodegradation of plastic materials, introducing potentially hazardous chemicals into the ocean. As plastic gets broken down, it gets eaten by plankton and enters into the food chain, eventually being consumed by humans.

The experts

  • Dr. Tracy Mincer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler, Marine Biological Laboratory
  • Dr. Erik Zettler, Sea Education Association