Tag Archives | anthropocene

Making art in the hope that a solution to ocean plastics isn’t our white whale

In November 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on an Indonesian shore. It had 5.9 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. Drinking cups, pop bottles, flip flops, plastic bags, and other assorted bits of plastic. This was not the first nor the most plastic-laden whale to wash up. For example, there was a whale that washed up in Spain with nearly 30 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. And then there were the 13 whales that washed up in Germany with things like a 13-metre long fishing net and a 70-centimetre piece of plastic from a car in their stomachs, among other things. Oh and let’s not forget the whale that died in Thailand with 80 plastic bags (and other plastic items) in its stomach. In comparison, 5.9 kilograms seems like child’s play, which is a crazy thing to say.

In planning the lineup for my upcoming solo show, I had already left a placeholder for a mosaic about ocean plastics. I know, I know, it seems like I only just made a mosaic about how the oceans aren’t the only game in town when it comes to plastics. But in planning a show about the Anthropocene, I couldn’t ignore this issue, especially when you consider the staggering statistics. Like the fact that we’re dumping about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, and this number could double by 2025 if we don’t take action. The ocean currents collect this plastic into five gigantic gyres, the biggest of which—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is three times the size of France and growing. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

So, needless to say, ocean plastics earned their spot in my lineup. I initially thought the piece was going to be inspired by the statistic about the oceans having more plastic than fish by 2050 if current trends continue. But as soon as I read the story about that whale, I knew this was the plastics piece I was meant to create and that it was going to be called “In The Belly Of The Whale”.

Can you find the unintentional fish? Didn’t mean for it to get in there, but I love that it happened.

So I rounded up all the random bits of plastic I could find in the house, plus those I had already squirrelled away in my studio, and got to work. There are utensils, the caps from nut milk cartons, zip ties, contact lens packaging, old skin lotion containers, the plungers from syringes we use to give the dog his meds, strips of plastic bags, and so many other random goodies (baddies?).

“In The Belly Of The Whale” (2019), 24″h x 30″w — plastic and styrofoam

For me, the dangling strips of plastic hanging from the belly of the whale (who is, of course, belly up…sorry to be such a downer), are kind of like a strange new species of seaweed made of microplastics. Now, of course whales don’t eat seaweed, but it speaks to how plastics are worming their way into the food web at all levels. They get in at the top when they get mistaken for food and eaten whole (those plastic bags look an awfully lot like jellyfish). And they insert themselves at the bottom once they’ve been broken down into smaller micro- and nanoplastics and taken up by things like plankton, insects, fish, birds, etc. So organisms at the top of the food web get a sort of double exposure, as they get tricked into eating whole plastic items, plus their normal food now also contains plastics that have been concentrating in predators and prey right up the food chain.

Tentacles!

So the bad news is that we probably can’t filter out the plastics that have already made their way into the ocean, especially the microscopic bits. But we can stem the flow of plastics into the oceans, because the vast majority of the plastic that ends up there comes from sources on land (e.g., it’s not from marine activities, like fishing vessels). I’ve already provided a list of easy actions you can take in my post about freshwater microplastics, but here’s a refresher:

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.
One thing you can do: recycle properly (if you can’t eliminate the plastic in the first place)

I hate that I find these plastic bits so inspiring, artistically speaking. It unsettles me. And that’s probably a good thing, because while I try to be conscientious about what I buy and to limit the plastic I use, it’s still surprising how much of it creeps into my life. Working on this mosaic made entirely of plastic—the majority of which was just from our house—has served as a good reminder to me that I can (and will!) do better.  

Knotted strips of plastic bag in with the plastic bits
9

Hey oceans, it’s not all about you: A mosaic to shine the light on freshwater microplastics

Playing second fiddle is tough. Over the years, I’ve experienced it many times at my day job where, as luck would have it, my various files always seem to take a backseat to the Hot Issue of the day. While understandable, it sometimes gets frustrating jumping up and down, waving your arms, trying to convince people to pay attention to an issue that you know is important but that always seems to get overlooked.

I can’t help but think that this is how people who work on freshwater microplastics feel. As I watch governments (mine included), industry, public sector organizations, and citizens band together to tackle ocean plastics, it seems like we’re ignoring a very important part of the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong: ocean plastics are a huge issue, but not to the exclusion of microplastics elsewhere, like our rivers and lakes, our fields and forests, and pretty much every wild place we hold dear (including the “wilderness” of our own bodies).

I consider myself pretty fortunate to work with lots of scientists, some of whom work directly on the issues of both ocean and freshwater microplastics. I get to see the work they’re doing to understand and tackle this problem, and through their social media networks I also get a glimpse into what’s going on in the broader research community. This was how the work of Chelsea Rochman and her lab at the University of Toronto popped up on my radar. An article she co-authored in The Conversation Canada was the direct inspiration for this commission, which was done for a client in Ottawa who is engaged in environmental work. (We’re safely into 2019, which means I can finally share this piece with you, as it was commissioned as a Christmas gift.)

“Beyond Oceans” (2018), 10″h x 12″w — stained glass, smalti, plastic cutlery, shale, limestone, eramosa marble, mudstone

To bring you up to speed on microplastics: they’re bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long (think of a sesame seed or smaller). They come from a bunch of different sources, like the breakdown of larger plastics, microbeads in cosmetics, and even synthetic fibres in our clothing. And once they’re in the environment, it’s bad news. Wildlife—from bugs right up to mammals—can mistake them for food. The plastics fill their bellies, leaving no room for food. Sometimes they leach chemicals. And they can work their way up through the food web too, hopping between ecosystems and species, right onto our plates.

This mosaic, with its ribbon of “microplastics” (that plastic cutlery again!) weaving its way through a section of the Ottawa River, is quite simply me doing my bit to wave my arms and shout “Hey! Microplastics aren’t just an oceans issue!” It’s not that the oceans aren’t important, it’s just that microplastics are probably closer to home than you think (for us non-coastal dwellers) and our rivers and lakes—and forests and fields and mountains and tundra—deserve attention too.

Close-up of the microplastics

Bonus points: If you want to take action, it’s actually not that hard. First, work on phasing out those disposable plastics from your life.

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.

Second, when you see plastic litter, pick it up! (Plogging, anyone?) Then it doesn’t have a chance to degrade and eventually become dinner (or get wrapped around some poor unsuspecting animal).

Not hard, right? Get to it!

3

Predictably unpredictable: A mosaic about the wild ride that awaits us

The earth and its systems aren’t 100% predictable at the best of times. There are always blips and surprises and occasionally big upheavals. But the more we push our planet to its limits, the less able its natural systems are to absorb the punches we’re throwing at them. Eventually, they will crack.

Little blips among the calm…

The closer you get to these tipping points, the more sensitive the whole system gets, and everyone and everything along for the ride is more vulnerable. Then finally something pushes it over the edge, there’s chaos, and then the system sort of reorganizes itself and finds a new equilibrium. You might be thinking: “OK, so we just have to deal with a little bit of wonkiness and then things will settle down.” But just because the planet and its systems settle down into a new stable “normal” state, it doesn’t mean we’re going to like it. What if an open bottle of wine’s two possible stable states are upright, or on its side with wine spilled everywhere? Stable isn’t necessarily desirable.

I’ve already explored the self-reinforcing feedback loops that can lead to these abrupt shifts in the state of a system as part of my climate change series. Indeed, pretty much all of the tipping points scientists talk about are related to the climate, because the climate system is so influential in terms of the functioning of the planet. Some examples of the tipping points they talk about are the disappearance of the polar ice sheets, the increasingly unpredictable summer monsoon seasons in India and West Africa, or the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (and there are plenty more for you to lose sleep over if you’re curious). While ice caps, monsoons, and rainforests might seem fairly far removed from our daily lives, the problem with these tipping points is that they cascade into other spheres of our lives. They ripple into people’s basic survival, into the economy, into our social fabric, into geopolitics, into life as we know it. They trigger sea-level rise, water shortages, the loss of property and livelihood, threats to health and human security, and on and on. And if they result in untenable living situations locally, then there is of course the possibility of conflict and climate refugees that will extend the reach of these tipping points beyond borders.

“Surprise Is The New Normal” (2018), 13.5″w x 19.5″h x 3.5″d — marble, smalti, glass, shell, coral, quartz, desert rose, apophyllite, sea spines, porcupine quills, wire, earphones, USB cable, styrofoam, various plastic, rubber bands, knob and tube, lightbulb, harp string ends

The earth’s systems are approaching these tipping points and are losing their buffering ability, so we’re going to need to learn to expect the unexpected as it relates to the most basic aspects of our lives and the natural foundation upon which they’re built. This mosaic is all about that new, unstable, uncertain norm we find ourselves in. Set against a backdrop of stable white marble (sort of like calming regular white noise) you see glitches and protrusions everywhere. At the bottom they’re small and almost imperceptible, and all made of natural materials. But as you move up, these surprises grow bigger and more frequent, and by the very top they are the rule instead of the exception. They’re also entirely composed of man-made materials: plastic, headphones, a broken lightbulb, glass, styrofoam, a zipper pull, the ends of harp strings (I know, right? Surprise!!), and so much more.

Gazing from the bottom, with its natural surprises, up toward the top
Surprise! Oh yes, that’s the top of a harp string!

And here’s a fun fact about the red smalti highlighting each irregularity: it was rescued from Italian maestro Verdiano Marzi’s trash bin by friend and fellow mosaic bad-ass Sophie Drouin. Talk about the interconnectedness and unpredictability of all things! In chaos theory (where the idea of tipping points come from), the classic example is a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a tornado elsewhere in the world. Or, in this case, one of Verdiano’s Winged Victories flaps its wings in France and, well, you know the rest of the story. 

Those spikey things on the right? Porcupine quills.
Broken lightbulb and earbud, among other man-made surprises

Long story short: Surprise will be the new norm going forward, so buckle up, because we’re in for a wild ride. Adjusting to the uncertainty of the Anthropocene and the stress it brings will test the limits of our societies. We are going to have to adapt all of our systems—political, economic, social, cultural—to be flexible and resilient in the face of all the uncertainty headed our way. On the upside, this really is the chance for a great reimagining of a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society.

It’s hard to pick a favourite surprise, but the zipper pull might be mine.
Can you find the pieces of styrofoam tucked in there like they belong?
From the edge of chaos, looking back into the calm
0

From there to here: A mosaic about the driving forces behind the Anthropocene

How did we get here? That’s the question at the heart of my mosaic, “The Three Horsemen”. It’s not an angsty, existential question. It’s a specific question, where the “here” is the Anthropocene. So, how did we get here, to a point in geologic time that’s the equivalent of a dumpster fire for which humans are to blame?

I’ll be diving into the hallmarks of this new geological age in future mosaics, covering such uplifting topics as altered nutrient cycles, invasive species, mass extinctions, erosion, pollution of all kinds, sea-level rise, and so much more. But I figured that I should probably take a look at the journey first before immersing myself in the destination. Thus, “The Three Horsemen,” or, how we got here.

There are plenty of different combinations of factors that you could argue brought us to this point, and indeed, each article I read when researching this mosaic was sort of a variation on a theme. But the one that resonated with me, both intellectually and artistically, was from a 2016 article in Science by Colin Waters et al. The authors identify three “linked force multipliers” that produce many of the drivers associated with the hallmarks of the Anthropocene: (1) accelerated technological development, (2) population increase (and a shift to urbanization), and (3) increased consumption of resources (e.g., fossil fuels, minerals and metals, etc.).

These force multipliers really emerge onto the scene in a big way in the 1950s, just after WWII, in a period known as the Great Acceleration. It’s in this period that we see a rise in economic activity and resource consumption that prompts all the upswings in the global distress signals that are characteristic of the Anthropocene (see: list above of future mosaic plans).

“The Three Horsemen” (2018), 22″ diameter — Slag, lightbulb innards, shale, mortar tesserae, cement, marble, knob and tube, earphones, limestone, red dog, brick, architectural glass, ceramic, smalti, circuit board, resistors, coal, hard rubber, gears

“The Three Horsemen” (a nod to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) takes these force multipliers and the Great Acceleration and turns them into an explosion. At the epicenter is a big chunk of slag that my dad brought back from his days working at Inco (a mine, mill, smelter, and refinery of all kinds of metals up in Sudbury, ON). Creeping out from under it are the innards of burnt-out incandescent lightbulbs (now relics of the past). From the start, these have always given me the heebie-jeebies; I find them very unsettling, though in a good way when put in context of this piece.

They’re coming to get you…

And then the impact ripples out in successive waves of Anthropocene materials. For technological development, there are circuit boards, resistors, two pairs of earbuds that (of course) broke far too soon, bits of hard rubber, gears from an old shredder, and the ends of bolts (which I saved each time I trimmed the hanging hardware on the back of a mosaic, you know, just in case…). For population increase and urbanization, we’ve got mortar and concrete, brick, some old dishes, and architectural glass samples. And for resource consumption (notably energy and metals), there’s the slag and incandescents, of course, but then there’s also knob and tube insulators, shale, coal, and a wee tiny bit of gold. (Click to embiggen any of the detail shots below!)

So this is how we got here: an explosion of people using things, aided and abetted by technology. Like all of my work, that tension between the sobering and the beautiful is here again, and I find that it is especially appropriate when talking about the Anthropocene. Thinking and talking about this issue will inevitably stir up conflicting feelings. I freely admit that I look at cities and their feats of architecture and engineering, and even at industrial sites, and often swoon at their hard lines and complex beauty. I appreciate the convenience of driving my car and having a house that’s neither too hot nor too cold. And don’t get me started on my phone and computer and all the other tech gadgets in my life. But there is always a little voice in my head, reminding me that all of this comes at a price. And that tension and dichotomy is what I try to channel in my work. Yep, these are good-looking mosaics. There’s a calmness and an elegance to them. But let them draw you in…look closer…and you’ll find a darker, more sobering side.

Side view of the rippling explosion

1

Dear future: We tried and…

Who knew that plastic cutlery would be such an inspiring material? Certainly not me. This is one of the big things that keeps me coming back to mosaic: the surprise of new and unexpected materials.

After finishing “We Were Here Now“—the first mosaic in my Anthropocene series—I definitely wasn’t done with those plastic knives, forks, and spoons, and they weren’t done with me. I loved how they had taken on a sort of hieroglyphic appearance in that mosaic, so I thought: Why not just zero in on that and play with it for a minute? This intersected nicely with a beautiful comment left for me in the guestbook at my final residency show, which had been rattling around in my brain for months (in a good way): “What affected me most […] was the vision of mosaic and the actual materials used being a snapshot of what will be left of our current civilization, bits of rubber, bones, concrete. The idea that you are a distant future archaeologist reconstructing an image of your past / our now is compelling.

So I wrote a letter to future generations. Mosaic was my language, and the unholy Anthropocene trinity—concrete, plastic, and aluminum—was my material. For the aluminum, I thought nothing could be more representative of our throw-away, consumerist, globalized reality than a bright red can of Coke.

“By the time we realized…” (2018), 12.5″ x 10″ — concrete, plastic cutlery, aluminum Coke can

There are no secret coded messages in this mosaic. I didn’t go as far as to create my own actual language or script. It’s just me playing around, making writing-like lines, though you will find a few commas and periods.

The importance of punctuation: Comma after the opening salutation, slashes between the parts of the date above…

The title—“By The Time We Realized…”—leaves the ending open. By the time we realized…it was too late? By the time we realized…we had just enough time to get our act together and turn things around? We, collectively, still have time to decide what that ending will be, but that window is getting narrower. I, for one, am still fighting to turn this ship around. What about you?

Ripped and a bit crumpled. This letter has seen some wear.

0

How they’ll know we were here: Plastic, concrete, aluminum

I’m so very excited to be diving into a new series. It feels like a really nice way to start a new year and also to shift gears after ending my residency. Please don’t worry: the climate change series lives on! I’ll keep adding to it indefinitely—there’s certainly more than enough material to keep me going for…ever—but this generalist Jill-of-all-trades is feeling the need to branch out a bit and tackle some other, albeit related, issues.

And so, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to my new series, “By Our Own Hands,” a series that will explore the Anthropocene from all its terrifying angles.

“We Were Here Now” (2018), 16″ x 22.5″ — mortar, concrete, plastic, metal, ceramic, red dog, coal, limestone, shale

What is the Anthropocene? In short, it’s the new geological age we find ourselves in and we only have ourselves to blame for this new era. Yep, humans have exerted so much influence on the climate and the environment that our impact is the defining feature of this new era. And no, this isn’t a “yay us, look what we’ve accomplished” sort of thing. More like an “oh shit, look what we’ve destroyed” sort of thing. As R put it: it’s an “epoch-alypse.” Ha! Clever girl.

Way to go, humans!

Now of course there’s scientific debate over exactly where the Anthropocene starts and the Holocene ends, debate over what marker denotes that official shift. (The frontrunner is 1945-ish, with radioactive elements from nuclear bomb detonations being the identifier.) But it’s really just a matter of time before scientists come to an agreement and make it officially official.

There are lots of hallmarks of this new geological age, and I’ll be drawing inspiration from many of them over the course of this series. For the first mosaic in the series, however, I decided to tackle one key characteristic of the Anthropocene: the mind-blowing scale at which we produce concrete, plastic, and aluminum, all three of which are now firmly rooted in the geological record. Centuries and millennia from now, anthropologists and geologists (if humans are still around) will find a layer of these materials—and many other things, collectively known as technofossils—as they dig into the earth. This is our legacy. And some legacy it is. Consider these sobering facts:

  • We have produced about 500 million tonnes of aluminum since the 19th century.
  • We have produced about 50 billion tonnes of concrete and more than half of this was in the last 20 years. That’s enough concrete to spread a kilogram of the stuff on every square metre of the planet.
  • We now produce about 500 million tonnes of plastic a year.

Plastic utensils and bread bag tags getting cosy with metal scrap and concrete

The mosaic is divided (roughly) into thirds. The bottom is just plain rock, a nod to geological eras gone by. The middle is moving closer to the present day, with hints of human influence showing up with the inclusion of small ribbons of plastic, layers of ceramic, and, perhaps the most dominant feature of this layer: seams of coal and red dog, the latter being a by-product of coal extraction (for extra credit, read Rachel Sager’s blog about red dog, which is actually a really spectacular material to work with). Together they speak to transformation and the impending transition.

sperling mosaic about anthropocene using limestome and shale

The bottom: shale (dark brown) and limestone (greys and black)

mosaic detail of anthropocene using red dog, coal, ceramic, and plastic

Ceramic, red dog, and coal (and a fork for good measure)

Then there’s the big disruption: a chaotic jumble of concrete, plastic, and metal (I exercised my artistic license and didn’t restrict myself to aluminum here). And after that, a field of mortar (drawing that link to concrete) and plastic. The careful viewer will note that, while the colours and materials themselves are arranged into horizontal layers, the lines of the mosaic—those rows of piece after piece after piece—actually run vertically. This is by design, to give the tangle of that unholy trinity something more to disrupt.

We interrupt this timeline…

Almost like plastic morse code…

The plastic details are some of my favourites. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started cutting up the plastic utensils, or even as I started incorporating them. But as I placed more and more of them into the mosaic, it became increasingly obvious that they looked almost like some sort of hierogyph. I love this. I like to think of it as a sort of message to the future. I’m not sure what it says… “Sorry we screwed everything up”? Probably not. It’s likely something more along the lines of “MORE EVERYTHING!”

A message to the future

The title, “We were here now,” is partly inspired by those plastic messages to the future; it’s a reference to our inescapable need to leave our mark, to say we were there, to satisfy our ego. Think scratched initials in a bathroom stall or on camp bunk beds or in the bark of trees, but on a much larger scale. This new geological layer proclaims just that: We were here. The past tense is intentional. Not we are here. Were. Continue down the path we’re on and we, as a collective, are not long for this world. The “now” is meant to disrupt, to make you pause over the disconnect between “now” and the use of the past tense, and, ultimately, convey how quickly everything is changing and how we can lose it all in the blink of an eye (geologically speaking).

I look forward to sharing many more cheery, uplifting facts and thoughts about the Anthropocene with you, so stay tuned! And now, I need a drink. Anyone else?

4

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes