Plastic Waste in Contemporary Aesthetic Practice by Urszula Staszkop

Weekly Excerpts #3: 17/1/2019

We have 8 weeks to go before the book launch of our guide. We want you to know exactly what to expect from the book and to get to know the amazing people behind this project! Every week you will be able to check in on our website in order to find a new essay, article, artist or business from the guide.

This week’s excerpt is an essay by Urszula Staszkop, who is an expert in Protection of Cultural and Natural Resources as well as Contemporary Art History. Urszula collaborates with numerous art institutions and is engaged in a variety of roles related mainly to educational programmes and research. As she takes great interest in socially-engaged art practices, she joined The Universal Sea to support research on art and plastic pollution. She currently lives in Szczecin, Poland.

Plastic Waste in Contemporary Aesthetic Practice: An Attempt to Challenge Consumerist Culture through Recycling by Urszula Staszkop

The customary assessment of a sustainability movement focuses on embracing sustainability through science and technological development, excluding artistic practices from its wider outline. These preconditions are embedded in a traditional view on art production that considers it as a tool aiming at ‘aesthetic pleasure’ rather than as a means contributing to knowledge production. However, when we consider a constantly growing art current dealing with sustainability, the question may arise, do artistic practices have the ability to embrace change? 

Linda Weintraub in her comprehensive compendium on sustainable art To life! Eco art in pursuit of a sustainable planet depicts art as a possible catalyst for environmental change. According to Weintraub, artistic practice can be used as a tool to embrace awareness and stimulate the change in our daily habits through various direct and indirect creative solutions. Similar points were made by David Curtis and his co-authors. This theory seems to prove that the artistic practices can contribute to the behavioural change while recreating an emotional link between the spectator and environment. 

Artists engage with environmental topics using a broad spectrum of methodologies and materials; many of them attempt to contribute to most pressing issues (i.e. plastic pollution) through the incorporation of rubbish into their aesthetic practice. The appropriation of plastic waste in artworks has its tradition in avant-garde practices, which frequently referred to collected rubbish as a romanticised carrier of memory or embodied the idealistic vision of making something new through means of something old.

This enthusiastic approach to plastic waste may be interlinked with modernist meta-narratives related to the myth of constant ‘progress’. 

Those matters were addressed by Roland Barthes in his essay “Plastic” (1957). As the text was written at the time when plastic was still celebrated, it has essentially a similar overtone. Unaware of the environmental threat that the popularisation of the plastic presented, Barthes was in a way prophetic when he concluded his text with the words, “The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.” 

As the myth of progress persists in various fields of life (science and art included), we are more aware now of the endangerment for the natural environment caused by human activity and our excessive consumerism. Therefore, the new generation of artists has arrived, called by Nathalie Blanc and Barbara L. Benish “plastic pollution artists.” Those artists repurpose found or collected plastic waste, which later is transformed into an aesthetic object, treated as an ecological message carrier. The direct conceptualisation and recreation of plastic as an artistic material and subject is a focal point of artists’ critique towards our consumption habits. As the pioneers of this current in eco-art we can consider HA Schult, David Hammons and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who long before the other artists expressed their apprehension related to the amount of waste produced by the world population.

Similar concerns inform Maarten Vanden Eynde’s practice. In 2008, after finding out about the “floating landfill” of plastic he decided to raise awareness about this, back then, commonly unknown issue. In 2010 Eynde took part in the research expedition across the Atlantic organized by 5 Gyres Institute—the organization leading research on plastic pollution of the oceans. During the expedition led by Dr Markus Erikson and Captain Charles Moore, almost 400 kg of free floating plastic waste was collected in the ocean. The chunks of plastic were melted by Eynde, who created sculpture known as Plastic Reef. The sculpture’s visual and textural qualities are reminiscent of a coral reef, which allowed the artist to point not only at the plastic patches in the water but also refer to the physical consequences that plastic pollution has on the marine environment, such as disappearing of coral reef worldwide. As Plastic Reef is travelling the world visiting various expositions, Vanden Eynde continues to add more elements, which can be seen as a metaphor for the growing pollution of the oceans and for the constantly degrading marine ecosystem.

Furthermore, the work is an example of collaboration between the scientific and artistic community, an attempt to ‘translate’ the scientific facts into an artistic language. As pointed out by Yates McKee, those artistic ‘translations’ may also “raise essential questions about the very nature of research itself, at once highlighting its limitations and forging tools that could feed back into new modes of activism.” 

Many artists decide to resist the accumulation of plastic in our daily life by recreating plastic waste into aesthetic or functional design objects. Many of them have acquired a great audience, mainly through social media platforms. Those actions may point towards, or problematise the pressing issues of plastic pollution, making it visible, but they also seem to endorse the utopia of recycling affirmed among contemporary societies.

Those actions are criticised by Slavoj Žižek, who accuses eco-artists of “accepting waste as such” and “discovering the aesthetic potential of waste.”

In his understanding, the recreation of waste into an aesthetic object serves as a means to rehabilitate its status rather than as a critique of our ever-expanding consumerism. Therefore, the joined forces of academics, legislators, activists, and artists should aim at expelling plastic from our lives, rather than just repurpose it in a process of recycling.

Those matters are discussed by Gillian Whiteley, whose work addresses ‘junk art’ through the prism of various political and ontological contexts. She admits that most of the trash artworks—although masked as eco-conscious—have rather “fetishistic” and “talismanic” character comparable to that of objet trouvé. Therefore, the political ambitions and potenial content of the work is compromised by its aesthetic subject, which simply conceptualises reused waste. Seemingly, those works are registered by spectators as an object aiming at ‘aesthetic pleasure,’ rather than the carrier of the political message. 

The accuracy and urgency of plastic pollution in the contemporary world gave it a spotlight at various renowned international exhibitions. Consequently, those matters were touched upon during such events as the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) or the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale (2016). Maria Cristina Finucci’s The Garbage Patch State project presented during the 55th Venice Biennale took the form of two cubes covered in a reflective coating with the flag of Garbage Patch State on it. Between two of the cubes, a net filled with plastic bottle caps was placed, heading toward the direction of the Grand Canal. Inside the cube, visitors could see Finucci’s video Dentro projected 360 degrees around the walls, which was supposed to make the spectator feel as if they were in a plastic maze. The strategy used by Finucci aims at creating the sensation of discomfort in the spectator when faced with the problematic nature of the work. Similar presumptions motived the collective Luzinterruptus to create Plastic Waste Labyrinth at Plaza Mayor in Madrid (2017). The structure made up of plastic bottles collected from neighbours and institutions, packed in plastic bags, and placed on a metal structure was lit by independent LEDs. Besides pointing at the amount of produced waste, the collective decided to act upon the emotions of the visitors, creating sensations of discomfort and alienation through “an intricate path and narrow passages” reinforced through the smell of heated plastic.

Cristina Finucci’s ‘The Garbage Patch State’ at Venice Biennale

Although the initial aim of the works presented above is to carry the political message, the impression that those practices only aestheticise and spectacularise their ecological content cannot be avoided.

They are based on scientific facts, but they don’t problematise content further, remaining as aesthetic curiosities for the spectators. However, as emphasised by Stacey Boldrick, artworks which simply acknowledge “trash as trash” may sustain a critique of our consumption habits. Those works supposedly communicate a different message to the viewer, pointing out the magnitude of the problem and acknowledging the harm caused by our activity. However, the artists who wish to manifest their activist concerns through aesthetic practice may struggle with the question of how to deliberately visualise the problems derived out of our consumption habits. 

Those issues may be tackled through participatory practices. Artistic practices transcend a scientific approach through their ability to elicit participation and highlight sensorial and emotional responses. Simultaneously, participatory practices seem to work at an opposing end to capitalist culture as they are quite difficult, if not impossible, to market. Those questions were mediated by various theories, which refer to the “social turn” of art which sprung up in the 1990s as Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’ or Grant Kester’s ‘dialogical aesthetics’.

Among participatory artistic projects which refer to the topic of plastic pollution and recycling, we can outline volumes of projects which take up collective clean-up actions or educational workshops created by artists frequently in cooperation with various NGOs. An interesting example of a participatory environmental project was conducted by Joshua Soafer at the London Science Museum (2014). The two-part process entitled “The Rubbish Collection” acknowledged rubbish thrown away in the Museum during a period of 30 days as both an identity carrier but also as problematic ecological heritage. The first phase of the project involved the participation of the Museum’s staff and visitors who were encouraged to collect and sort the institution’s waste displayed in plastic bags. In the second part of the project, the exhibition made of partially recycled waste, was installed while the items which could not be recycled were left in their primary state.

This setup made the spectators face the uncomfortable truth regarding their consumption habits, as often we believe that when we throw waste away it simply disappears.

Drawing on the examples presented above we may understand how and why the practice of recycling in art often fails to deliver its political message or raise awareness among spectators. Those issues often arise due to the incorporation of eco-conscious works into a traditional aesthetic framework and their further commodification. The translation of scientific facts requires an engagement with activities which traditionally are not perceived as artistic practices. Instead of merely illustrating the issue, participatory practices may establish, through an open dialogue, a support system for scientific communities, help raising awareness and claim our collective responsibility for ecological issues. 

Featured Image: Ede Sinkovics: ‘The Dirt of Venus’

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