Worldview: One Piece at a Time

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. This is a  follow-up post to last week’s Snaphot on Seeing the Woods. All photographs are courtesy of the authors.

For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?

Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang with “Trophy Fish.”

Our story is one of human inventiveness and metamorphosis. It is about how the simple act of picking up trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But we wish to point out that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, picking up one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected—one piece at a time.

In 1999, information about a mysterious patch of garbage in the middle of the North Pacific was just beginning to roll in. Charles Moore, a boat captain returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race, came across a befuddling density of plastic. He engaged the help of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their research showed some alarming results. On the planktonic level, plastic particles numbered six-times the number of living creatures. Plastic does not “biodegrade”—as it floats in the ocean, it is simply broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, wearing down to the molecular level. Plastic enters the food chain with some ugly results. Albatross chicks have died by the thousands with their gullets filled with plastic. Chemicals leach out of debris, creating a disruption in the sensitive endocrine systems of birds, fish, and mammals. Dangerous levels of toxins are showing up in humans.

As we learned more about this process, we became aware that our artwork could highlight a situation that carries deep consequences for the biology of our planet. The numbness and resulting inertia of so much bad news gave us the initial focus for our work: make it beautiful to look at. We did not need more hyperbole; an artist knows the most sustainable driving wheel for human action is pleasure—from the pleasure of discovery, to the pleasure of making art, to pleasure for the viewer. Scientific papers and news reports tell the story, but as the first lesson for the artist of any stripe is show don’t tell.

Panoramic view of Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore.

Is this a hobby? A compulsion? A means of self-expression? An ego-trip? A political statement? Our civic duty? It started simply as focused fun. At heart, we are just a couple of geeks who enjoy the routine of picking, washing, and sorting beach plastic. We delight in showing off our finds to each another. Every avid collector knows the disappointment of the empty search as well as the thrill at finding the rare and sought after. The perfect time to go to the beach is after a blustery winter storm, when the sky clears to a high blue dome. With the excitement of expectant hunter-gatherers—we’ve been here hundreds of times—we know when the foraging will be productive.

Kehoe Beach has all the dynamism of a place at the margins—charismatic and refreshing. But whether it is chilly out or blazing hot, socked in with fog or dazzlingly bright, it is always invigorating. We have picked up plastic together since 1999. On a “good” day, the winds and waves bring a bounty ashore and the rain cleans the camouflaging sand away. Plastic in vast drapes, as far as the eye can see, is tangled in seaweed gone black with rot and jumping with kelp flies and sand fleas. Shiny-smooth cables of bull kelp form snarls of ropes of sea plants in the tideline. The cyclopean garlands are dotted with a thick confetti of plastic bits and chunks: tiny flecks of white and blue and pink, big pastel nuggets, drink bottles, and the strew of their lids. Fishing floats the size of soccer balls—some with nets attached, coiled in gobs of plastic line and rope—are twisted into this stupendous mess.

Plastic entangled seaweed and kelp, Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore.

Ocean currents are the pulse blood driving the winds and the weather. Nutrient-rich upwellings and estuaries produce equivalents to agricultural zones. Yet, sadly, each year, three times as much trash ends up in the world’s oceans as the weight of fish caught. In the United States, an estimated 29 million tons of plastic is thrown away annually and since only a small percentage is recycled, much goes to the landfill, and much goes to the oceans.

This “matter out of place,” MOOP, as the US Bureau of Land Management calls it, is a bonanza for our work as artists. This thermoplastic debris is mostly from the San Francisco Bay Area, but we find pieces from all over the Pacific Rim: bottles in all shapes and sizes with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Tagalog labels—any whole intact container has the ubiquitous bar code striping. We once found a white five-gallon lid stamped with Peotone, Illinois, ten minutes down the road from where Richard was born and raised. All shapes and colors of plastic wash in: some are bright and glossy, some patinated pastel, all veterans of a long life in the ocean.  Rubbish, junk, litter—it is the stuff, the substrate, of all of our collaborative work.

“Why don’t they clean it up?” A refrain we hear at our every mention of the garbage patch. “Who is they?”  We recognize nowadays that “they,” of course, is “us,” the inter-linked human community of planet earth. The web of living systems that further connects us must be cared for at every level or the web snaps and chaos is loosed.

Trophy Fish.

We knew this detritus art stuff was going to be looked at by many people, and we were struggling to develop a coherent message for them. Most importantly, in order to convey our message, the work had to be beautiful. This became our prime directive. We were artists first and we knew people could only receive the environmental message once we were able to open their eyes and minds. There was enough polemical pout in the world to numb folks already overwhelmed with facts about climate change, oil spills, and pesticides.

It takes billions of barrels of oil to make all that plastic. Which works out to 10 percent of all the oil we use. That’s 10 percent of something pulled out of a hole in the ground halfway around the world, headed straight for another hole in the ground at the dump. Sometimes, it feels like the problems are insurmountable, but we can all begin right where we are with one small stretch of beach or just one plastic bag.

Scientists and artists share the commitment to a life of careful observation. The rigors of each discipline require sustained and dedicated work. Both thrill in the search for and the hope of “finding” a new discovery and potentially igniting a solution.

A short email interview with the artists:

Your story seems to be about transformation on many levels: transforming waste into art, social ills into beauty, and changing perspectives on how we produce, use, and tackle waste. Do you think your own journey of personal and artistic transformation could inspire similar change in society? What do you hope your work will achieve?

During our 20-year-long project we’ve been on an ongoing quest to find out how an aesthetic mind transforms plastic pollution into something meaningful, something beautiful to see. We wonder if there is an alchemy in the creative process linked to transformative action? After collecting over three tons of plastic from one beach, we have tuned the simplest action of picking up trash to the highest value of re-enchantment.

With the help of a volunteer team, we collected plastic from a stretch of Matagorda Island in Texas, strung it on brass wires, then hung it from the ceiling to represent the plastic floating in the ocean.

Where do we stand? Our platform is art making. As such, art making, embedded in the whole of the human experiment, leads us to our relationship toward theories of complexity, entanglement, cognition and ultimately to ideas of consciousness. Art making is an essential ingredient in our collective body. It’s not there as an afterthought. Since the job of the artist is one of creating metaphor to understand the mysteries of the world, we choose objects fraught with meaning, that show how we may find the path toward a sustainable human existence on planet Earth.

When looking at one of our colorful images, we want viewers to ask themselves— could that pull-tab once have been mine? Could that lid be from my water bottle? And then ask themselves—Can I find different container for my beverage? How about a reusable canteen?

 We want everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. It is not “corporate” mentality that needs to change, but individual action that will change the flow of the marketplace.

In what contexts have you exhibited your artworks—conservation work, campaigns? What interest have you noticed and from whom?

Although we both have graduate degrees in art and have a long resume of exhibitions in the traditional art venues of galleries and museums we have been rewarded by many non-art venues that have showcased our work. Over the years we have used street-side windows to catch passersby and reel them in the mystery of art and have worked with esteemed institutions like the California Academy of Science,  the Oakland Museum, and the Marine Mammal Center to develop artful educational displays. We were heartened when, at a stop light, we pulled up to a bus that was displaying our photographs in conjunction with the Coastal Clean Up Day ad campaign.

Artwork on a wall has a significant place in our personal history, but 15 short videos have brought forth a storm of feedback and connections from consumers and our growing cohort of ocean-born plastic collectors who have seen our work on the web. In 1996 when we began collecting in earnest (individually) and 1999 (together), when we talked about plastic pollution—we were met with skepticism. Twenty years later, this problem is generally accepted, entering the top-ten list of environmental disasters. Our work, appearing on National TV (Travel Channel, The Today Show and PBS) and National TV in Japan, has had a small part to play in this awareness. More than anything, videos on the web, views numbering in the hundreds of thousands, has had the greatest effect of bringing our work into the emergence of the noosphere.





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