I am obsessed with plastic objects. I harvest them from the ocean for the stories they hold and to mitigate their ability to harm. Each object has the potential to be a message from the sea – a poem, a cipher, a metaphor, a warning.
My work collecting and photographing ocean plastic and turning it into art began with an epiphany in 2005, on a far-flung beach at the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii. At the edge of a black lava beach pounded by surf, I encountered multitudes upon multitudes of plastic objects that the angry ocean was vomiting onto the rocky shore.
I could see that somehow, impossibly, humans had permeated the ocean with plastic waste. Its alien presence was so enormous that it had reached this most isolated point of land in the immense Pacific Ocean. I felt I was witness to an unspeakable crime against nature, and needed to document it and bring back evidence.
I began cleaning the beach, hauling away weathered and misshapen plastic debris – known and unknown objects, hidden parts of a world of things I had never seen before, and enormous whalelike colored entanglements of nets and ropes.
I returned to that site again and again, gathering material evidence to study its volume and how it had been deposited, trying to understand the immensity it represented. In 2006, I formed the Drifters Project, a collaborative global entity to highlight these vagrant, translocational plastics and recruit others to investigate and mitigate ocean plastics’ impact.
My new book, “Ocean Gleaning,” tracks 17 years of my art and research around the world through the Drifters Project. It reveals specimens of striking artifacts harvested from the sea – objects that once were utilitarian, but have been changed by their oceanic voyages and come back as messages from the ocean.
Living in a plastic age
I grew up in what some now deem the age of plastic. Though it’s not the only modern material invention, plastic has had the most unforeseen consequences.
My father was a biochemist at the chemical company Union Carbide when I was a child in New Jersey. He played golf with an actor who portrayed “The Man from Glad,” a Get Smart-styled agent who rescued flustered housewives in TV commercials from inferior brands of plastic wrap that snarled and tangled. My father brought home souvenir pins of Union Carbide’s hexagonal logo, based on the carbon molecule, and figurine pencil holders of “TERGIE,” the company’s blobby turquoise mascot.
Today I see plastic as a zombie material that haunts the ocean. It is made from petroleum, the decayed and transformed life forms of the past. Drifting at sea, it “lives” again as it gathers a biological slime of algae and protozoans, which become attachment sites for larger organisms.
When seabirds, fish and sea turtles mistake this living encrustation for food and eat it, plastic and all, the chemical load lives on in their digestive tracts. Their body tissues absorb chemicals from the plastic, which remain undigested in their stomachs, often ultimately killing them.
The forensics of plastic
I see plastic objects as the cultural archaeology of our time – relics of global late-capitalist consumer society that mirror our desires, wishes, hubris and ingenuity. They become transformed as they leave the quotidian world and collide with nature. By regurgitating them ashore or jamming them into sea caves, the ocean is communicating with us through materials of our own making. Some seem eerily familiar; others are totally alien.
A person engaging in ocean gleaning acts as a detective and a beacon, hunting for the forensics of this crime against the natural world and shining the light of interrogation on it. By searching for ocean plastic in a state of open receptiveness, a gleaner like me can find symbols of pop culture, religion, war, humor, irony and sorrow.
In keeping with the drifting journeys of these material artifacts, I prefer using them in a transitive form as installations. All of these works can be dismantled and reconfigured, although plastic materials are nearly impossible to recycle. I display some objects as specimens on steel pins, and wire others together to form large-scale sculptures.
I am interested in ocean plastic in particular because of what it reveals about us as humans in a global culture, and about the ocean as a cultural space and a giant dynamic engine of life and change. Because ocean plastic visibly shows nature’s attempts to reabsorb and regurgitate it, it has profound stories to tell.
I believe humankind is at a crossroads with regards to the future. The ocean is asking us to pay attention. Paying attention is an act of giving, and in the case of plastic pollution, it is also an act of taking: Taking plastic out of your daily life. Taking plastic out of the environment. And taking, and spreading, the message that the ocean is laying out before our eyes.