Nothing is beyond our reach: Using Spam to unsettle and inspire

Let me tell you about the time I—a mostly vegetarian—ate Spam for my art. Years ago I read a story about how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) found a can of Spam and a can of Budweiser in the Mariana Trench. This story, and subsequent ones about the litter and contamination scientists are finding in the deepest part of the ocean, seemed to me to be so symbolic of the Anthropocene. Yes, we can talk about deforestation and strip mining and soaring levels of pollution and overfishing and plastic-choked seas and mass extinctions and the climate emergency and and and… But a can of Spam in one of the remotest corners of the Earth? That, to me, was like a retro-looking postcard from the Anthropocene. I mean, Spam. C’mon. 

So of course I needed to make a mosaic about it. I suppose I could have used any random can, but it just didn’t ring true enough for me. I knew it would have to be an actual can of Spam and an actual can of Bud. Two things I never eat/drink. Ever. 

After slinking through the self-checkout line at the grocery store in order to avoid the embarrassment of buying Spam, and after surrounding my can of Bud with several craft beers in an effort to show the guy at the Beer Store till that I do, in fact, know good beer from bad, I went about trying to make them palatable. A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t just throw them out and use the cans, but the whole issue of food waste just wouldn’t let me do it. Yes, it wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t going to kill me. And I only had to consume one can of each. I could do it. Spoiler alert: Spam is just as gross as you think it is. Every time I regale someone with the tale of how I ate it, I gag a little at the memory. But if you hide it under a big enough pile of arugula fresh from the garden, you can almost mask the flavour. And the Bud? I made bread with it, because there’s only so much punishment one person can subject herself to.

And so, I had two cans ready for my art, a clean conscience, and a slightly queasy stomach. Onward! 

As I said earlier, Spam and Bud aren’t the only things scientists have found in the Mariana Trench. They’ve found other pieces of litter, like plastic bags, but they’ve also found ridiculously high levels of contamination. At the very deepest part of the trench, the Challenger Deep, they found small crustaceans with levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in their bodies that were more than 50 times higher than those measured in crabs living in heavily polluted rivers in China. The POPs—which don’t break down in the environment, accumulate in fat, stick to plastic, and are water repellent—accumulate up the food chain. When organisms that live in the upper layers of the ocean die, they sink to the ocean floor (as do plastic particles coated in these pollutants), where a host of scavengers makes quick work of them. (If you want to get a great look at some of the amazing things that live down there, I’d highly suggest queuing up episode 2 of Blue Planet II. Very cool stuff, and who doesn’t love David Attenborough?)

“Everything We Touch” (2019), 28.5″h x 24″w — shale, thinset tesserae, can of Spam, can of Budweiser

Beyond emphasizing that we humans just can’t help but get our dirty fingerprints everywhere, the Spam at the bottom of the trench is a beautifully effective illustration that there is no “away,” which is also what Edward Burtysnky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier are getting at in The Anthropocene Project. (Note: If you ever get a chance to see the exhibition, run, don’t walk. It should be required viewing for our era.) Because there is no “away,” we need to rethink what we produce, how we produce it, how we consume it, and how we recover its value at the end of its life and resurrect it. In short, we need to make swift progress toward creating a circular economy. 

This is not just a noble environmental cause—it has the potential to be a huge job creator and to keep millions if not billions of dollars of value from being thrown away (quite literally). Looking at plastic alone, it has been estimated that only 9% of plastics get recycled in Canada. The other 91%, which is either landfilled, burned, or makes its way into our environment, represents an economic loss of nearly $8 billion a year. If current recycling rates don’t get better, these losses could climb to nearly $11 billion by 2030. But turn that around, and you’re keeping a LOT of money in the economy and creating 40,000 jobs.

If eating a can of Spam and making art from it can help nudge us in the right direction, well then I’m happy to have taken one for the team in order to create “Everything We Touch.” Hopefully we can turn things around so that the end of that sentence is “…is more resilient and better than when we left it” instead of “…turns to shit.” 

Fully cooked canned luncheon meat? Just…no. Said luncheon meat at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Infinitely worse.

Let me know what you think!

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