Tag : synthetic collective
HEATHER DAVIS talks about plastic in the United States, discussing its materiality, geography, and toxic histories. Combining feminist and queer theory with chemistry, geology, history, and art, Davis unpacks the constitution of throwaway culture, petrochemical industries, pvc, feminized male bodies, human endocrine systems, multidisciplinary collaboration, mealworms, and mermaids’ tears (also known as nurdles) in order to think through questions of justice, inheritance, and multispecies kinship.
Davis works across the fields of environmental arts and humanities, and feminist and queer studies. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York City and is a member of the Synthetic Collective, a multidisciplinary group of artists and scientists who are mapping the material effects of plastic in the Great Lakes.
Welcome to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan. It’s February 14, 2020 and we’re in New York City speaking with Heather Davis. Heather Davis is a writer, feminist scholar and curator who teaches at Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College of the New School. Dr. Davis’s book projects include two co-edited volumes “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies” published in 2015 and “Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada” published in 2017. Her current book project focuses on plastics and petrocapitalism or the petrochemical industry. Thank you for joining us today, Heather.
How might you describe yourself and your practice?
I think I primarily think of myself actually as a writer. I really enjoy the process of writing itself and I think of writing as a kind of practice. So one of the things that I get to do — not sometimes as much in academic writing because the form is fairly standard — but certainly in some of the other kinds of writing that I do for art publications or in other places, in part, what I’m really trying to capture in that writing is the kind of movement of things. So I’m really interested in the writing as a form in and of itself. So thinking about writing in the same way that other people might think about filmmaking or other kinds of practices.
Let’s talk about your work with plastic. So the news and statistics are startling. Billions of pounds of plastic are produced and thrown out every year. There are vast islands of plastics floating in the oceans. The presence of plastics, as you write, is one of the markers of this new geologic epoch called the Anthropocene. You write about what you call the Plastisphere. So how did plastic become so pervasive so fast?
That’s an interesting story. One of the things that you find out when you start researching plastics is that they sort of appear as if we have some kind of conceptualization that they’re surrounding us because of some kind of consumer desire or demand, that they’re fulfilling some kind of need that we didn’t even know that we had. And then they appeared as the kind of answer to this need. But when you look into the historical record, it’s really the opposite of that kind of a story. Certainly the very early plastics, so things like celluloid or Bakelite or Parkesine, all of these kinds of early primarily non-fossil fuel-based plastics. They were really developed to fill a need, which was that other kinds of polymeric structures that are things like tortoise shell or horn or ivory of various kinds. Those things were becoming increasingly rare but also increasingly in demand. So people really wanted those products to make combs, to make billiard balls, to make various other kinds of luxury goods and sort of non-luxury goods. But those were increasingly in demand. And because of that, it meant that a lot of those animals were being hunted to endangerment. People became aware of this. And so, they thought, is there another way to make a similar kind of structure? And so this is the history of the very early plastics, the non-fossil fuel-based plastics. So those plastics were primarily created through plant materials, through various kinds of celluloses.
And then in 1906, then that was the first time that a fossil fuel-based plastic was developed. Those plastics were first really used for military applications. Then it was only after the Second World War that they were transferred into kind of domestic everyday products or household items. And the public was really skeptical of these items at first. They really thought of them as cheap, as imitative, as not desirable. So they weren’t considered products that people actually wanted. The other thing that was really interesting was that the public in general kind of had to be taught to be consumers, especially in relationship to the ways that we think about consumption nowadays, which is that you buy something and throw it away, right? People really had to be taught to throw stuff away. This was not something that came naturally, especially to a generation of people who had just lived through the war. And I’m thinking primarily of the American context here and in that context, people really did have to be taught. So there was a huge range of advertising campaigns that were all geared towards really trying to encourage people to throw out plastic items. One of the stories that I ran across in my research that really drove this home in a very illustrative way was, when plastic bags, were first put on the market. And especially plastic bags that were used for dry cleaning. There was a lot of deaths that were associated with plastic bags, first of all, because people would use them to line their cribs for their babies, which made a lot of sense because they’re water-resistant and so it makes a lot of sense. They’re easy to clean. So, you know, it makes a lot of sense to put those plastic bags down. And also people still really have this mentality of saving everything that came into your home. So, if you had something that came into your home, then that was an item that was precious and that you were going to reuse in some capacity or save for future reuse for something that was yet unknown. And so in this case, people were really reusing these plastic bags as crib liners. And then because of that, there was a number of suffocations that happened because of these plastic crib liners or plastic bags being turned into crib liners. In response to this, there was a huge kind of public outrage and the first response by the public was that plastic bags were evil and bad. They should be banned and we shouldn’t have them anymore. This was kind of the very first response to this crisis that was in the media at the time. But the plastics industry really saw this as an opportunity, they saw it as a way to educate the public to throw the bags away. So it became, not that the bags were bad, but that consumer behavior was bad and the bad consumer behavior was to hold onto the bags that the bags themselves were meant to be disposable. To me, what’s interesting in this story is it really illustrates the ways in which disposability and disposable culture and this kind of culture of consumption that we now take very much for granted was very much an industry effort. And they really had to put a lot of effort into it. It wasn’t for a period of 10 or 15 years before people really started changing their behavior in relationship to throwaway culture. And you can really see this in relationship to plastics.
So you’re talking about the production of a particular kind of subject that comes about because of the plastic industry.
It’s difficult I think at this point in time in history for us to really see what is it about our particular type of subjectivity now that was really manufactured by a particular industry in a particular advertising campaign and what is just a kind of response to a set of practical concerns. And what’s really interesting is going through the plastics literature and the archives is you can really see the very concerted effort to produce this kind of culture, this kind of subject where we think of matter and materiality as essentially disposable and in a certain way as essentially ephemeral. Even though plastics have this incredible longevity to them, which is one of the ironic paradoxes at its heart, we’ve been trained rather to think of plastics as essentially ephemeral items that really are only just passing through our hands on their way to the garbage dump.
You talk about the differences between the kinds of plastic that are around. That the kind of plastic actually matters a lot. So did the industry, and I think when you say industry you mean in the U.S….
So my research really focuses on the United States. And the reason for that is both because I’m located here. So it’s the context that I understand. You know, coming from a feminist point of view, I feel like it’s incredibly important to kind of root oneself in context that you can actually speak to with some degree of authority. But also because I’m interested in the histories of plastic, really where it comes from and how it emerges in the world. And the two primary sources for that historically were America and Germany. Even though now we see plastics being produced virtually anywhere where there is close proximity to any kind of fossil fuel. So the interesting thing about plastics production is that it has to be in close proximity to fossil fuels. So either a fracking plant or an oil plant or something along those lines. A natural gas plant. And most of those are small facilities. So most plastics production facilities are companies with a hundred employees or less. They’re not these kinds of giant corporations. There’s certainly lots of sort of umbrella organizations that govern plastics in all kinds of ways. But the actual production of plastics is done in these much more small-scale, often family-owned businesses, but they do have to be located next to oil or natural gas refineries.
And that’s because the production of plastic depends on those fossil fuels, so it’s very easy if they’re geographically close to each other?
Exactly. It’s very difficult to transport both ethylene and napthalate. It’s very difficult to transport those two petrochemical substances. And so it’s much easier to just put the plant next to the place where those things are being manufactured.
And are these East coast locations? West coast locations?
So primarily in the United States, the companies are in the places where there are oil refineries. That would mean right now there’s a lot of fracking that’s happening in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, so in those places. And also a lot of the historic production of plastics is around Louisiana because that’s the place where so much petrochemical companies are situated. But it is throughout the country, basically anywhere where there’s an oil refinery or a natural gas refinery.
So I’d love to find out how do you follow something as pervasive and as big as plastic. You mentioned a feminist approach. So one would assume that plastic is best studied by chemical scientists and engineers and industrial designers. So what does feminist theory or queer analytics, what does that have to do with something like plastic?
That’s a good question. Certainly I don’t see my work in opposition to other approaches to thinking about plastics. There’s lots of things, you know, you were asking before about what the differences between plastics are, for example. And there’s lots of materially important differences between various types of plastics, primarily in terms of toxicity levels. So, polyethylene for example, is a fairly benign plastic, whereas polyvinyl chloride or anything that has a chloride monomer in it, in relationship to plastics is incredibly carcinogenic. It’s PVC. Any vinyl, basically anything from vinyl pants that you might want to wear or a vinyl couch or anything that’s made with PVC, which also includes things like shower curtains at this point in time. Anything that’s made of PVC or any kind of vinyl monomer in its production is both incredibly toxic to the consumers and also especially to the people who are producing those plastics in the first place.
So clearly I think an analysis or a conversation with people who are doing this type of chemical engineering or this type of analysis from a more of a scientific point of view is deeply important. One of the things that I do in relationship with plastics and my work around it is that I’ve been involved with collective called the Synthetic Collective. There’s three artists, two scientists or two geologists, one chemist, an art historian, and myself who are part of the collective and we really see that as an important step in relationship to really thinking about questions of plastic pollution is that if we can think of these questions from an inherently multidisciplinary perspective to begin with, then the questions that we can ask and therefore the solutions that we can find are going to be far more useful to us, I would argue, than otherwise. So there’s all kinds of things that you can see if you employ this kind of multi-perspectival approach that really allows for each of us to draw deep into our own training in order to approach this object.
To sort of then go back to your other question about, so what does feminism or queer theory have to do with this study? I mean, I think that, for me there’s a couple of different things. One is that, from the feminist perspective then to me this brings to mind the question of justice. So feminism for me has always been a justice oriented approach to thinking in the world and to acting in the world. Because of that, the project isn’t a kind of distanced critique. It really is a project that’s embedded and really cares about the quality of things, about the quality of what are the actual ramifications of various kinds of plastics or the ways in which they’ve been produced or taken up in the world. The other thing about a kind of feminist approach is that I think that there’s a kind of attention to not taking things for granted from the outset, but really trying to look for the kinds of ties and connections that one might think of as something like a situated knowledge. And you could argue that other disciplines do this as well. But from my training, this is where I situate myself.
In terms of queer theory, the connections actually arose more organically and that is because one of the things about plastics is that in order to make any kind of a plastic product, one to up to 80,000 additional chemicals are added to the polymer structure of plastic itself. And those additional chemicals are known as plasticizers. And those plasticizers have various different kinds of effects both for the plastic and for people’s and other creatures’ bodies. For the plastic, it’s in order to do things like, you know, make something black or hard or heat-resistant or whatever other kinds of qualities, we want that plastic object to have. We add the plasticizers in order to be able to achieve those qualities from the outset. One of the byproducts of this is that there’s a category of plasticizers called phthalates. The most well-known of these is BPA. And you know, you go everywhere now and it’ll say BPA-free, but they’ve just actually replaced BPA with BPS. So it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is BPA-free. What you actually want in terms of your health is phthalate-free rather than BPA-free. This entire class of chemicals, what it does is that it primarily affects the human endocrine system. And that is a really big problem because endocrines are hormones. Hormones regulate virtually everything in our bodies. So if you disrupt the endocrine system, then you end up with a huge range of health problems in a human body. This can be everything from neurological disorders to cancers to diabetes to early onset senility to a whole host of other issues and problems. And one of the things that has arisen as one of the issues or problems is the interference with both the reproductive system and what’s called the feminization of male fetuses, which includes things like reduced sperm counts, the urethra moving down the shaft of the penis, so it’s no longer at the end. All of these things indicate what scientists call the feminization of male fetuses. And so there’s been a kind of panic around saving men and saving a certain form of masculinity as a result of the pervasiveness of these types of chemicals in the world. And I think that feminism and queer theory have a lot to offer us in this regard, which is that maybe we don’t want to just see those things only as toxic, right? Or maybe there’s a way to be able to disentangle the kind of queering of the body effects that these phthalates are having from the kind of conversations around cancers or something else. Something that’s obviously a form of harm. In other words, the production of queer bodies we might not want to think of as a form of harm in and of itself. But I think that one of the things that’s been really interesting is that, that’s also the argument that chemical industries make. They also argue that the queering of the body is not a form of harm. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is, how do we think about feminist and queer theory in relationship to this set of very entangled problems? And how do we have a kind of adequate accounting of any kind of notion of justice in the kind of mix of all of this?
We started out this conversation talking about the chemical industry producing, after the war, a certain kind of mentality where people start disposing of things. So it seems to be more of an economic relation that’s produced and now what you’re talking about is out of that economic relation, we now have a queering of bodies. So in a way we’re also needing multiple kinds of theoretical lenses to talk about what’s happening. And if you use plastic to begin with that you’re able to kind of navigate those different webs.
Yeah, that’s it exactly. I guess you know the question that you asked earlier, but like how do you follow something as pervasive as plastic? In a lot of ways I haven’t done maybe what other folks who would follow a particular substance or material or type of being would do, which would be to kind of literally follow it. Because with plastic it’s virtually impossible to do that because it’s just everywhere. At this point, it’s very difficult to sort of pick a path for plastic. But I think for me, what I’ve done instead is kind of pick this more intellectual path or a path through a certain kind of history or path through certain kinds of disciplinary perspectives that allow us to look at this object from multiple different perspectives simultaneously. One of the things that I also suggest in my work is that perhaps we might also want to draw from feminist and queer theory to rethink our notions of kin and kinship structures to really value and revalue how we think about our relations to other beings in the world. And one of the things that I propose is to about the Plastisphere or the bacteria that can now eat plastics or the mealworms that can now eat plastics as a kind of human kin, as a kind of nonhuman progeny because the plastics industry has created these beings. And so for those of us who are entangled with the plastics industry, then we are also entangled with the emergence of these new forms of life. If we think about that seriously and think about those as a real substantial kin or a real substantial kinship structure or as really our babies in some way, then I think it helps us to reorient our ethics in relationship to questions of plastic. And it helps us to give a much more expansive sense of what kin and caretaking and relationality might mean in the world outside of just the kind of reproduction of sameness that we often kind of see it as. And those things are very much indebted to a kind of feminist and queer take on the world, especially for queer subjects who never took family structures or biological family structures as necessarily the places of care or reproduction to begin with.
The useful term you use is “toxic progeny.”
Yeah. I think about those creatures as a kind of toxic progeny.
And that relates to these new kinds of queer kinship networks or webs that are coming out of plastic now being so central to many of our relationships.
Yeah. And to the literal new beings that exist in the world because of the pervasiveness of plastic. So you know, mealworms have existed for a long period of time, but the bacteria that are in their stomachs that can digest polyethylene and styrofoam, those are new. So it’s a kind of bacterialization of life and a kind of orientation to a kind of queer bacterial formation. We have to seriously consider that we’re responsible for the creation of these beings. So if we think of them then not as something abject but as something that we have to care for, I think that that gives us a different kind of ethical perspective.
And I think in your work you’re also very clear about questioning who the “we” is. There are some we’s who are more abject and some who are more causes for these sorts of queering relations.
Yeah. I know it’s difficult to talk sometimes about like, you know about the “we” because in some respect you want to, you have to be able to say “we” sometimes. But certainly in my work, I try to be extremely careful about who I’m including as a part of this structure and who I think is not responsible for the state of affairs. And one of the ways in which I do this in my longer book project is through a kind of differentiation between inheritance and transmission. So for those of us like myself who are the beneficiaries of this way of being in the world, the beneficiaries of the kind of pervasiveness of plastic. And in my case, my grandfather worked for DuPont and was a chemical engineer. And so that’s a much more direct line of descent than for many people. But I think you could generalize and say for anybody who has been sort of the beneficiary of the kind of mass production of plastic and who has benefited from this, you can think about that in terms of the kind of structures of inheritance. Whereas for the many people around the world for whom the kind of proliferation of plastics has resulted in forms of harm or violence or misery, primarily in places where people are responsible for recycling, which often happens by hand and in very material ways or for people who’ve been displaced because their communities became so toxic that they had to leave. All of those kinds of things, those kinds of relations I think about in terms of transmission. So, you know, I have this kind of binary system. It’s maybe not as clear-cut as that in real life, but I think it’s at least a helpful way to begin to disentangle who is responsible for this set of conditions and who has really sort of been both not responsible for, but who has received, these sets of conditions whether they liked it or not.
I’m really interested in how you pointed out that the introduction of plastic was actually a solution to some materials becoming more and more scarce. Which sort of puts plastic into perspective, as not always all bad or not always all good, that it’s always produced in certain kinds of relationships. How might that help us think about collaborative survival or multispecies worldbuilding. Maybe another way of putting that question is, what are the possibilities of living queer plasticized worlds?
Yeah. Well, I think for me, one of the things you know, and I certainly know that, that you’ve been thinking along these lines as well, which is that one of the things that I think we need and many other people have also been thinking along these lines. One of the things that we really need to be thinking about is not some retreat to some Edenic past that probably didn’t exist in the first place, right? So really thinking about toxicity as itself potentially productive, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be paying attention as Mel Chen says in their work, paying attention to all the kind of screaming negative affects of toxicity. But we might also want to be paying attention to the ways in which things can survive and potentially even thrive under conditions of toxicity. And in terms of my work, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about more is, what would it look like for kind of redistribution of toxicity to happen? Clearly this is not a very implementable goal, right? I doubt that this will happen. But I’m thinking about, what would it mean for those of us who are more the inheritors of plastic to take on the responsibilities of living with its toxicity? What would it mean for those of us who have benefited from this way of living to take on more of the environmental burden? What would that kind of mean in terms of geographical relocation or the relocation of dumps or the relocation of incinerator plants or those kinds of things? I mean, certainly there’s much more practical solutions that other people have come up with. Things like, we should ban PVCs. We should not use the really harmful forms of plastics and we could maybe just only produce the less harmful forms of plastics. Maybe we should think about stopping the production of plastics altogether and trying to figure out ways of recomposing the plastics that already exist in the world. You know, there’s all kinds of much more practical means of really thinking through this in terms of, you know, extended producer responsibility laws and various other kinds of things. But I think that for me, one of the things that has been really fundamental about thinking with plastic is also the ways in which it really shows us the kind of intractability of the problems that we’ve entered into. There really is no sense of return to a previous idyllic moment, which as I said before, probably never existed in the first place. I think that there is some sense of really having to just work through what we have, which in that sense I think does mean caretaking or attuning to the kinds of beings that have arisen. Like the mushrooms that can digest plastics or the various other kinds of micro-organisms. What might it mean to caretake for them as they are inadvertently taking care of us. I don’t want that kind of move to thinking about bacteria who can successfully biodegrade plastics as a kind of excuse for the rampant production of plastics across the world. Yeah. Plastic certainly teaches us that the world is fundamentally different than what it once was.
And the technoscientific fix of being able to, you know, possibly breed bacteria, that these are false solutions.
They’re false solutions in the sense that they are not going to solve the problems of microplastics in waterways, for example. They’re not going to solve the problems of the globalized plastic worlds that we live in. And I think it really doesn’t address the real fundamental issue, which is that, you know, when you think back there was a proposition in the 60s, I think it was, called the Monsanto House. And the Monsanto House was this kind of ….it looked like a spaceship or something. Everything in it was this very kind of curved, sleek surfaces of plastic. You know, in some ways it was kind of very beautiful in that kind of 1960s futurism kind of vibe. And everything in it was made from plastic, the cushions, the wall coverings, the paints, the housewares, everything. And the interesting thing about this Monsanto House is that, you know, we might not live within that kind of aesthetic, but we certainly do live within that kind of environment now. A technofix that still is intractably seduced by oil and the ways in which oil can transform the world is certainly not going to help us because we’ve basically created these like sealed-off barriers where everything that we surround ourselves with is plastic. Even if we were to get these bacteria, it would mean that all of our infrastructure would fall apart, if we were really serious about it. We would have no more digital technologies. The planes would fall out of the sky. Most of our buildings would fall down and most of us would be walking around naked. So we actually don’t want bacteria to run rampant and eat all the plastics that already exist. Aside from all of the carbon that would then be released back into the atmosphere as a result of doing that.
Since we’re already dealing with unintended consequences for all the other things that we’ve done… Would it be possible to go back to this non-fossil fuel-based plastic production? Is that still a possibility?
That’s what people are trying to do, right? So with the development of “bioplastics”. Bioplastics for the most part are cellulose-based plastics, meaning that they are plastics that are produced not with any kind of fossil fuel as their source or their base. They’re produced from a cellulose structure from plants. But the problem for me with that is that it doesn’t address the kind of subjectivity that you were talking about earlier. So it doesn’t address the production of a subject or our relations to materiality where we really think about things as ultimately disposable or a subject that really interacts with the world and with matter as something that’s inherently ephemeral. And that is just a matter of taking something and throwing it away. It doesn’t address any of those problems. So I mean, I’m sympathetic to trying to come up with solutions in the kind of short term for the replacement of particular kinds of goods. But I think that certain other things are potentially much more doable. I was at the Healthy Materials Labs at Parsons [School of Design] yesterday and they’ve come up with a hemp-based building material, which is really fascinating because you actually don’t need anything except for the hemp to create the qualities of flame retardancy. You don’t need material on the outside. It’s an insulating material. It’s already hydrophobic, so it’s water-resistant. It already does everything that you would want in a building material and something like that to me seems like a good use of a kind of… you wouldn’t necessarily normally talk about that as a kind of biopolymer, but essentially it’s not so dissimilar from a biopolymer. So we could think about that as a kind of alternative to plastic that might be really useful.
Yeah, I was trying to think about the temporalities of plastic, you know, because it does force us to think about time in a different way, because its timescales are so different from this human scale.
Yeah, I think in that regard, I often think of it as more akin to the geologic rather than to biologic timescales because it really does exist more on the timescales of something like fossil fuels or exists more on the timescales of various kinds of rocks. We don’t really have any real sense of how long most plastics will persist in the world. Most of the hypotheses say that it’s highly variable depending upon where the plastics are. And of course, you know, the fact that there are all these new organisms that can eat plastics and those were enhanced by scientists, but they weren’t created by us. They were created out of evolution itself. To me, it really is a matter of this kind of conjunction between evolutionary time and geologic time. So evolutionary time is bumping up against geologic time when you think about plastics, because it’s really a matter of how much time is necessary for various kinds of organisms to take advantage of the fact that plastic is everywhere. And clearly we’re going to need different types of organisms for different types of environments. It’s not going to be the same organism and it’s not going to be the same for everything. So the bottom of the sea is a very different environment than in your kitchen cupboard where mealworms like to live, right? So it’s a very different kind of environment to think with. Clearly one of the kind of fundamental issues with plastic is how to think about time differently. And Michelle Murphy has this really beautiful concept of latency and she talks about the ways in which petrochemicals, plastics included in them because of these plasticizers primarily is that the effects on the human body, the toxic effects on the human body might not be seen within your lifetime. They might not even be seen within your children’s lifetime. They might be seen within your grandchildren’s lifetime. There’s a latency between when you’re exposed to something and when you might feel the effects.
There’s all kinds of ways in which we have to think about time differently. Another, another source of inspiration for thinking about the relationships of time is to think about Christina Sharpe’s residency time and she thinks about that as the amount of time that it takes for a body –and she’s specifically thinking about the people who were captured and enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade and the people who either fell or jumped or were pushed overboard, and how long their bodies took to enter and exit the oceanic system. So what is the residency time of plastic?
I’d love to talk a little bit more about the Synthetic Collective. It seems like a dream interdisciplinary project. You know, there’s a growing call for interdisciplinary approaches or multidisciplinary approaches, so this mix of scientific-artistic methods that might help us look at issues as large as plastic differently.
Yeah, it’s been an amazing experience. They’re just the kind of dream team of really wonderful, incredibly smart people and very easy to work with. Which is also really important in terms of collective work. Yeah, I’ve been really privileged to work with this group of people. I think one of the examples that we have drawn on in the past, that I personally wasn’t involved with, but two of the key core members were involved with: Patricia Corcoran who’s the geologist who’s a part of our team, and Kelly Jazvac who is an artist. Together, they were the people who named the new rock plastic formation, the plastiglomerate. And what is interesting about that collaboration is that Patricia really wanted to go to Kamilo beach in Hawaii to go look at these new forms of rocks because she has long been interested in the kind of relationship between fossil fuels and particularly plastics and rocks as a geologist. And Kelly was really interested in the aesthetics, how these rocks looked. And so they went there and one of the things that happened when they got there was that they discovered, they originally had thought that the rocks were being formed through volcanic activity, but they’re not. Those rocks are formed through campfires. And it’s because there’s so much plastic on the beach that if you just have a kind of innocent campfire, then that is how these rocks are formed.
Patricia was originally kind of very like, Oh, that sucks, what am I going to say about geology in relationship to this? And Kelly was like, no, this is a more interesting story because of this relationship. And I think that it really shows the ways in which that object came to light through two different sets of knowledges that really came together. But also the ways in which that object has since circulated. You know, it’s been written about in Nature, it’s been written about in the Geological Society. It also got picked up in the New York Times. It also has circulated to the Smithsonian Museum and the Yale Peabody museum. So I think that one of the really strong characteristics of these kinds of art-science collaborations is that you can disseminate similar information to different sets of audiences and it can be seen in different ways in different places. So it doesn’t have to always be carrying the exact same message with it. It can be kind of transportable or transposable as a kind of object. Also in terms of our work with the Synthetic Collective, primarily we’re interested in plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, because not a lot of people have done a lot of work on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. And one of the things that has been a strength and a real interest in that is also the questions of both where scientific knowledge can lead us, but then also where it might end and where we might need other kinds of ways of transmitting information. So one of the first things that the collective did was to go around and do a study of preproduction plastic pellets that were being released directly into the Great Lakes.
What is a preproduction pellet?
So it’s called a nurdle or sometimes it’s called mermaid’s tears. So basically when you produce plastic, it goes through this whole kind of procedure. It’s sort of this long procedure where you get a bunch of chemicals. You kind of swish them around a container under extremely high pressures, often with certain degrees of heat. And then what you end up with is some kind of gooey substance mostly. And then that goes through usually an extractor of some kind and then that gets flattened out into like a long sheet. And then that long sheet then often gets broken down, sort of recomposed and broken down. And then the industry standard for any kind of plastic that’s going to be made into a consumer object is these little preproduction plastic pellets or nurdles or mermaid’s tears. And they’re literally like maybe about two millimeters or like maybe five millimeters long by about two millimeters wide. They’re kind of cylindrical. They can come in all colors. They’re very identifiable. If you know what they look like, they’re really easy to spot because they’re so perfect in their composition. They don’t look at all like what happens after, say a water bottle or a plastic bag or a lighter or whatever else starts to corrode and photo degrade or break apart under other processes. They really have this standardization to them, but they make them into these small things so that then they can be shipped. Because the plastic has to be made next to oil or a natural gas refineries, there has to be a mechanism for being able to get the plastic once it’s made to places where they’re going to make it into an object. And so the way to be able to do that is to turn it into these preproduction plastic pellets and then those get shipped all over the world. So sometimes they get shipped in container ships, sometimes they’re put on railway lines. Sometimes it’s just in transport trucks or whatever, all the ways in which we normally ship things, they go out and then they go to other factories where they make them into something. Sometimes factories will make them into something where they are, but mostly those two processes are not the same.
And how do they end up in the Great Lakes?
So they up in the Great Lakes because there are a bunch of these factories that surround the Great Lakes because there’s actually a lot of oil refineries around the Great Lakes or particularly around Detroit and Sarnia. In those areas, there’s a lot of oil refinery and because there’s so much oil refinery there, it also means there’s so many plastics production facilities there. And then what happens is, so two primary mechanisms: Sometimes there’s a spill, so sometimes they’re trying to ship these preproduction plastics somewhere and it spills and then it ends up in the Great Lakes. Or the other way is, at least this is what we hypothesize and that we’ve heard from anonymous sources, is that sometimes the factories, if they produce a batch of bad plastics, they’ll just pour them down the drain and then the drain literally leads to the Lake. Sometimes it’s not quite as insidious as that. It’s more just like, you know, you’re making a bunch of stuff on a factory floor and there’s still that drain that goes into the Lake. That’s primarily how it happens, at least as far as we understand up until this moment.
Since nobody had really studied this before from any perspective really, and also because we thought it would be an easier policy demand in terms of really thinking about pollution in relationship to plastic, we decided to first go out and map where all these plastic pellets are ending up. So we went and did mapping on the shorelines of the Great Lakes to try to figure out how much plastic was in the Great Lakes. And then also what percentage of that was pre-production plastic pellets. That’s the kind of thing that we can do with the kind of geologic surveys that Patricia taught us how to do. That’s the kind of mapping that we can do through that kind of scientific knowledge.
But then the collective wanted to bring this to a wider public. And so we’re having an exhibition that’s going to open at the University of Toronto and that is going to also include these maps that are getting drawn that show the kind of possible paths that these pellets have taken. So what are the hydrological cycles in the lakes that would maybe make it so that certain plastics end up in certain areas and none end up in other places. And is this a way to try to be able to map to see where the plastics are originating from, which companies are most responsible, etc. At least it’s also, I think another way of just visualizing things. I think one of the other things that’s important in terms of scientific and artistic collaborations is that from an artistic point of view, I think you don’t want to be saying things that are not accurate. And from a scientific point of view, I think one of the problems is that people are often quite alienated by scientific language and scientific discourse, and the ways in which science disseminates information. And so I think that trying to bring these two pieces together to both create something that really affects you and that is visual and that can be understood from multiple perspectives, I think that that is a much more effective means of using all of our knowledge and our sets of skills and also to really get the public much more interested and animated over these questions.
One of the goals of the exhibition that we’re doing at the University of Toronto is to put together a User Manual for how to reduce your carbon footprint in relationship to exhibition production. And so we’re doing everything from not repainting the walls, not filling in the holes from the previous exhibition that will be up, to not having any video works because they take up too much energy in terms of the projectors. So instead, all of our video and media works are going to be on iPads that are going to be powered with solar panel backpacks that people have to go out with docents outside to power up. And the manual itself is going to be hosted on a website that also uses solar energy. And so sometimes the website will exist and sometimes the website won’t exist depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy. And so it’s been really amazing to sort of see this come together because there’s like so many things that I never thought of before and so many things that the other folks have been so incredibly thoughtful about how to think about this. Teagan Moore has been doing incredible amounts of research to put all of this together.
Well, I like your project with the Synthetic Collective because you’re clearly trying to make policy interventions and it seems that the scale of the plastic issue actually has to be tackled at a structural… You know, it’s a structural issue. It can’t depend on individual choices. I mean in a way governments have to…
Governments have to make these decisions. Yeah, exactly. It’s like lead in the gasoline.
Because so many of the solutions are posed as individual responsibility.
You know, really if you’re just thinking about it in terms of time, translation into time. It is much better for you to not go to the no-waste grocery store and to use that time instead to call your representative, you know, or to do some kind of political lobbying. That is a much better use of your time if you actually care about plastic packaging. It doesn’t matter if we all go to the no-waste grocery store in Williamsburg, that is not, it’s just so far outside of the kind of scales at which these things have to be changed.
You know, I always close this with some hope. In your capacity as a professor, a writer, curator, collaborator, what do you tell your students or your kin or your toxic progeny about what you do in relation to climate change? So how do you have conversations with people that might be less focused on disaster and end of the world scenarios and more focused on how to live now?
For me, a couple of things that I’ve really learned from plastic is that our desire for containment isn’t helping us. Our desire for really sealing ourselves off from the world and from each other has not been especially helpful in the long run because we never will be able to do that. And so embracing, I think the kind of porousness of our bodies, the necessity for entanglements I think is incredibly generative as a starting point. One of my colleagues said to me the other day that he was reading a news article and it was saying that the things that we’re really going to need if there is a kind of climate breakdown or maybe more like when there is a climate breakdown or if there’s a kind of radical shift in the ways in which our societies are composed, that one of the skills that’s going to be, you know, often people think about like, Oh, we need to like stash and hoard water. We need to stash and hoard food. We need to stash and hoard guns. And he was saying that the skills that are going to be some of the most useful in addition to being able to grow food and those kinds of practical things is also really thinking about community building.
And so I think that one of the things that climate change really affords us an opportunity to do is to really radically rethink our relationships to things. I think that there’s so much on offer there. There’s so much to be learned in really re-paying attention to the world around us. You know, it might be a diminished world, it might be a damaged world, but it’s still a world that’s full of so many surprises and so much beauty and so much joy and so much love. And if we can really tap into those things, then we might live in a much more livable world actually. Even if some of our material conditions have to really be rethought or maybe because some of our material conditions have to be rethought it allows us the opportunity to then rethink relations in a way that I think is much more deeply engaging. What would that mean if we really held ourselves to be accountable in terms of relation? What would that mean if we really privileged relations with each other and with other beings in the world as our primary form of nourishment? And I think that that world is a very hopeful world, right? That’s, that sounds like a really lovely world. It’s not like we wouldn’t have conflicts or everything would be rosy all the time, but I think that there would be a way of being with each other that would give us a lot of nourishment that we might not know that we’re lacking.
That’s like the perfect way to end. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. This episode is produced by Ben Montoya, Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Alex Guillen, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. The lab is made possible by the Green Grants program of New York University’s Office of Sustainability and NYU Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement.