Category Archives: plastic

An interview with Swaantje Güntzel, the artist who throws plastic trash back into our faces

According to the World Bank‘s latest estimates, the world generates (and often poorly manages) 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, 12 percent of it being plastic. A third of that plastic finds its way into fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

Plastic debris now aggregates in gigantic floating landfills in oceans and endangers wildlife. Turtles ingest plastic bags and balloons, tiny fragments carpet the sea bed while chemical additives used in plastics even ends up in birds’ eggs in High Arctic. We’ve all read about this kind of stories, just as we’ve heard about the small gestures we should adopt to curb plastic waste. Yet, the growth of the plastic tide looks unstoppable.

Swaantje Güntzel, Hotel Pool, Intervention, 2016. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Portrait. Photo by Scheibe & Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, an artist with a background in Anthropology, has long been investigating our conflicted relationship with waste. Her work forces us to confront the dramatic consequences that trash pollution is having all over the world, from our city streets to the wildlife living at the other end of the world. Using aesthetics, provocation and humour, she lays bare the interdependence between our daily consumer choices, tepid reactions to environmental urgencies and fragile ecosystems.

Her strategies to spur us into action are many. She exhibits porcelains, photos, embroideries and sculptures inside galleries of course. But she also goes into the streets and infuriates passersby with her public performances. Some of her interventions involve the conspicuous “relocation” in touristic areas and fjords of trash dumped by absent-minded citizens. Others see her placing underneath public park benches sound devices playing a series of sounds generated by humans underwater, the kind of noises we never talk about but that nevertheless deeply disturbs wildlife swimming and living in the North and Baltic Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Swaantje Güntzel, Offshore (detail), 2015, sound intervention, ARTweek Aabenraa, Denmark, Rosegarden

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Many of her works involve collaborations. Often with artist Jan Philip Scheibe but also with activists, researchers or even employees in a recycling plant. She lent some of her ideas and talent to environmental organizations such as Ocean Now in order to create campaigns that show her own face (and even, in the last iteration of the campaign, the faces of famous German public figures) covered in microplastics collected on beaches across the world. She also regularly collaborates with scientists in order to ground her artworks in robust facts or get help gathering plastic toys trapped inside the digestive system of sea birds. Last year, she even spent a couple of weeks on the huge scrapyard near Stuttgart to understand the whole process that keeps raw materials inside a closed recycling loop.

Ocean Now is currently using Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for its In Your Face project, part of their campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products”. Photo by Helen Schroeter

Swaantje Güntzel, MIKROPLASTIK II, 2016. Photo: Henriette Pogoda

I discovered her practice through the artworks series that explores the plastic invasion of our daily lives and oceans but our online discussions also brought us to discuss excavator choreographies on scrapyards and how to stay sane when the world around you is sinking under piles of garbage.

Swaantje Guntzel & Jan Philip Scheibe, PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki Performance, 17 March 2016, Thessaloniki, Greece

Hi Swaantje! I was very moved by PLASTISPHERE/Promenade Thessaloniki when I first read about it. It makes visible, in the most shocking way, how careless we are in our daily life when it comes to plastic trash, even when we are in the proximity of the sea or of a park. And even though we’re all aware of the problem by now. How did passersby react to your gestures of throwing plastic back into the urban environment? Did they get angry at you?

What you see in the video is not the whole truth because it was impossible to cover every reaction. In performance art you have to decide whether you focus on the performance or on the documentation because as soon as people see there’s someone filming or taking pictures around, they immediately think this is not serious and will refrain from intervening. We thus had to ask the filmmaker to stay away and try to be invisible as much as he could. Several moments in the performance were even stronger than the ones you can see in the video. For example, when we started the performance, after some 10 meters as I had just begun to throw out the garbage, a guy on a bike stopped and spat at me. His spit was all over my dress. He didn’t even ask what was going on. Further on, we had people yelling and shouting at us. The old woman in the video wasn’t just slapping me, she was hitting me hard. And she wasn’t the only one. There’s also this guy at the end of the video whom we later discovered was part of far right group The Golden Dawn. If it hadn’t been for the curator who was running behind and trying to explain what we were doing, I think he would have beaten us up.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Promenade, 2016, Thessaloniki. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Collecting garbage at Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Did people get angry like this everywhere you presented the performance?

Yes, people react that way pretty much everywhere we go.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why people get so worked up. They don’t get angry when they see people dropping garbage or when they see trash in the street. They only get so worked up when they see somebody doing it in such a condensed and obvious way. I find it a bit hypocritical.

The funny thing is that I’m only relocating that garbage. We always start by picking up the trash we find laying around the city. In the case of Thessaloniki, we picked it up at a nearby archaeological site. The site is inside the pedestrian area. You can get a ticket, enter and visit the site. Yet, people who walk by still throw their wrappings onto the archaeological site.

In the first performance, I was relocating the actual garbage within the site, picking it up in one place and throwing it in another. After that, we took that garbage and moved it three blocks away, on the promenade. Only this time, we were throwing the garbage while riding some kind of bike for tourists.

I think that the outraged reaction has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t like to be confronted with garbage so blatantly. In a way, they know it’s theirs and it’s their responsibility. No matter where you are and who you ask, people seem to believe that garbage in public space is not their fault, that it’s the others who are to blame for its presence.

Public space is a collective space. We should all be responsible for it. Unfortunately, people just don’t want to take responsibility, neither in a personal sense nor in a collective sense. A performance in which we bring the garbage back to them is like a knock on their doors.

On a more abstract level, it has a lot to do with the walls we create around consumerism and in a broader sense around capitalism. When you start to talk about waste and plastic pollution, you have to question your way of life, the whole system of capitalism as well as us, humans. Of course, that’s probably not what is crossing these people’s mind immediately but I think it all comes together to create this strong reaction. And then on a more personal level, I think that a lot of people might be compensating for their daily lack of responsibility towards waste by acting in such a strong way and pretending they care. Because I throw garbage around in such an outrageous way, they suddenly take the role of the “clean up police”. It’s a bit like when you interview passersby on animal well-being, everyone will tell you that of course they’d be ready to pay a bit more if they were sure animals are treated better. The choices they make in their daily life, however, do not necessarily reflect what they say when they are interviewed in public. My work highlights this contradiction between what you do or say in public and what your private behaviour might be.

Scheibe & Güntzel, PLASTISPHERE Galerius Palace Thessaloniki, 2016. Photo by Giorgos Kogias

Do you think part of people’s anger can be explained by the fact that you look like a tourist on that touristic vehicle?

I don’t think so. I was acting in such an exaggerated way, throwing garbage around in broad daylight, in a popular area of the city and dressed in such an extravagant way. It was impossible to take me seriously. It was all staged to look like a performance or maybe an activist action to raise awareness around the waste problem.

Swaantje Güntzel, Portrait at Kaatsch. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Last year you collaborated with the German recycling company Schrott- und Metallhandel M. Kaatsch GmbH in Plochingen as part of the Art Festival DREHMOMENT of KulturRegion Stuttgart in order to follow the route taken by the recycled objects, looking in particular at “the physical and logistical effort required to keep raw materials in a closed cycle of recyclable materials.” I found it interesting that you seemed to have established some relationship with the people working in this recycling company. What role played the relationship you established with them? How long did you stay there by the way?

I produced the actual work in two weeks but the whole relationship started long before that, in January, when we had the first encounter. That’s when I was presented to the company and they had to decide whether or not they wanted to work with me. They were very afraid I would run around their company looking for problems in the way they work. On the one hand, their fear was understandable because so far I had only focused on the damages of consumerism and not on the solutions to it. It took them 3 months to think about it. And it took me a lunch and a lot of wine with the boss of the company to convince him to say yes to the collaboration. But the moment we started to work together, they were incredible. They opened every door for me, they let me do everything I had dreamt of.

The work with the excavator that you can see in the short movie was something I had dreamt of. I never thought they’d allowed me to do that because that would mean slowing down the work process, it would be complicated, require a lot of men power and they’d lose money. And yet, the moment I told them about my idea, they reacted very fast and made it happen.

During my research and over the course of these two weeks last summer when I tried to realise most of the works, I found it very easy to talk to everyone. Later in October, for the opening of the resulting show, I had a conversation with one of the people working there and I almost apologised for being this woman crawling everywhere on their working space, always in the way of the workers on this big scrapyard. But the worker said “No! Not at all! All the women who work here would never come on the scrapyard, they prefer to stay inside the offices but you looked so interested in our work, trying to understand, getting yourself dirty, etc. That was actually very flattering for us.” The people who are in charge of the place also understood the potential of this synergy between the artist and the company and how something completely new could emerge from it. I had warned them that I wanted total freedom, that they couldn’t interfere with the content (unless it was for technical reason) but we never had any situation of tension.

I saw the power of recycling our waste, of keeping the resources in this loop and not lose any of it. It’s the future. They always say that recycling is the 7th resource of the world. Recycling will become an essential resource. Without it, we’ll destroy the planet even sooner than expected.

For me it was a new experience. For once, everybody was so happy about my performances! Although in the end, I think that people getting angry and me being beaten up is part of the solution. It’s one of the puzzle pieces in trying to understand that we are on the wrong track.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, 2018. Photo by Tobias Hübel

One of the works in the LOOPS series intrigued me. The triptych titled LOOPS / LH 150 E. Did the excavator create these marks?

Yes, you can see the process in the video.

My concept was that I wanted to visualise how much power is in the logistics and in the physical effort you need to keep resources in recycling loops. While doing my research on the scrapyard, I saw the company´s excavators picking up what seemed to be big bundles of steel wires that look like balls of wool but weight tons. The excavators grab these bundles and use them to move the trash from one side to the other. When they’ve finished the work, they use the bundles to clean the spot where they were working. When you see 3 or 4 of these excavators doing it at the same time, it looks like a ballet or a choreography. You can also sense the power. You feel the soil moving and shaking, the air getting very hot and the loud noise. It’s like you’re in a parallel world. I wanted to visualize these movements so I asked if i could drip these bundles into red paint, put the three steel plates on the ground and thus capture these moments.

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, setting the plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 2, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, steel wire 1, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, intervention excavator 1 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

Swaantje Güntzel, LOOPS LH 150 E, finished plates, 2018. Photo by Jan Philip Scheibe

You hold a Masters Degree in Anthropology. How does that background inform and influence your artistic practice?

At the beginning, I didn’t think it would influence my practice. I was actually hiding that fact. When I started studying art, I was already older than the others and I was struggling to find my spot. Especially because I was working on ecological topics that no one really likes. In the first years, I had a hard time defining myself. After 5 or 7 years however, I started to realise that the way I look at the world, the way I work, the way I observe is so linked to my studies in Anthropology that I couldn’t deny this background anymore and that it played a huge part in my artistic practice.

Besides, I have this project series with my boyfriend Jan Philip Scheibe, who is also an artists, where we try and analyse with the instruments from contemporary art how the interaction between people and their surrounding landscape is still visible and how this defined their culture and understanding of nature. How these people trying to be nourished by the surrounding landscape have interacted with it over the course of the past several hundred years. These projects require a lot of research and I’m the one in charge of that before we actually start the work. My technique, my way of researching are linked to that understanding of the world as an anthropologist.

When I work on plastic pollution, I collaborate with many scientists, with marine biologists, with physicians, experts in acoustics, etc. Without this academic background, I would have hesitated a lot before before approaching them and asking them if they were open to collaborating with me.

Swaantje Güntzel, Stomach Contents, 2010. Photo: Swaantje Güntzel

Swaantje Güntzel, Box Set XL, 2018, plastics, wood, glass, 41,3 x 31,5 cm. Photo Tobias Hübel

Swaantje Güntzel, Cigarette lighter R, 2014. Photo by Anne Sundermann

How did you work with these other scientists? Do they play only a consulting role or a more active one?

It depends very much on the project. For example, I worked with marine biologist Dr. Cynthia Vanderlip on a series of projects in which she played an active role. She is the head of Kure Atoll Conservancy, a seabird sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the first scientists I approached in my artistic career because I needed items that had been swallowed by birds in the ocean. She works a lot with Laysan albatrosses that have ingested plastic objects and she agreed in 2009 to provide me with all the materials I needed. She collects the pieces found inside dead birds on that remote Atoll. Now she can’t go to the Atoll anymore but she still directs the team over there and asks them to keep on collecting the objects for me. She answers any question I might have. Her role is thus very active.

With other scientists, it’s more about getting answers to very specific questions.

Last year was the first time I dared to present my work in a scientific conference on microplastics. I had no idea if they would appreciate this kind of presentation or even if it made sense for them to see how artists are working on this topic. From the interested reactions I got after the presentation, it looks like it was the right thing to do.

You’ve worked on the topic of plastic pollution for many years now. How do you see the discussions evolving? It seems to me that on the one hand, awareness has been raised years ago. On the other hand, we’re not making much progress in controlling plastic waste, are we?

I started to work on that topic in a time when nobody really knew about plastic pollution or about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all in Germany. There were a few scientists in the States who had just named the problem but there was nothing in terms in public awareness. I was so naive at the time. I thought that if I started making the problem visible, an understanding would grow and that over time we would take action. However, I could see that time was passing and that my work kept being labelled in curatorial texts or critical reviews as “raising awareness”. Last year, I started wondering how long we’d need to “raise awareness” before we decide to actually do something. Five years ago or so, people who are in charge started to advise the public on how we could change habits, use as little plastic as possible or put pressure on politicians and on the industry to see changes emerge. But we’ve been stuck in this same movement for such a long time. By now, I think that each of us is aware of the problem and we all agree that plastic doesn’t belong in the environment. And yet, not much has changed.

At the opening of my exhibitions, people view me as a kind of priest and confess their plastic sins to me. They would tell me that they understand the importance of my work, that it’s essential that someone makes the effort but then they’d try and explain me why they can’t make an effort themselves: it takes too much time and too much energy, it’s the industry that should act, people at the other end of the world do worse anyway, etc. Classic whataboutism that doesn’t help us move forward.

It’s the same with climate change, we know we have to do something and yet we stand there. We prefer to blame others, keep our heads in the sand and prolong our way of life.

Swaantje Güntzel, Blowback II, 2015. Photo by HC Gabelgaard

What keeps you motivated and sane? because sometimes when I read how turtles choke on plastic, how microplastics ends up in the food chain and more generally how biodiversity is dying and the climate is warming up, i despair and want to forget about all that.

You have to look at my biography to answer that one. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time characterised by what some like to call “eco-pessimism”. As a kid, I was traumatised by what we were doing to this planet. I was a little girl asking adults “Now that you know what we did to the environment, why don’t you change your behaviour?” And I would always get an answer which meaning can be summed up in: “As adults we screwed it up. Now it’s on you to find a solution and save the world.” I was old enough to take their words seriously and I was depressed about the challenge I had to face: saving the world pretty much on my own.

Today’s young people feel the same but at least they have social media to connect and combine their energy and knowledge and turn it into something as powerful as the Fridays for Future movement. Back then however, it wasn’t the case and it’s only recently that I discovered that many people my age had experienced the same depression and sense of helplessness. We did what we could of course. For example, going from door to door asking people to sign petitions against seal slaughtering or collecting money for the local pet shelter. But we felt alone and under so much pressure. At some point, I decided I would leave aside those topics for a while. I went abroad and studied anthropology. Over time however, I realised that both the environmental issues and art were so deep inside of me that I couldn´t ignore it anymore. I decided that art could help me put up with the pressure and feel like I was doing something. It’s not on the level of activism where you have to dedicate your energy to a cause every day, you have to fight and you live with the constant frustration.
Art would allow me to do something but it wouldn’t consume me as much. It’s the only way I found to deal with this global insanity without completely losing it myself.

Thanks Swaantje!

Eric D. Clark, Music producer, DJ. A collaboration between Ocean Now and Swaantje Güntzel’s artwork “Microplastics II” for the In Your Face project, part of Ocean Now campaign “Microplastics in Cosmetics and Cleaning Products” Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp

Swaantje Güntzel has a few exhibitions coming up: she’ll be participating to the Deep Sea group show opening at Ystads Konstmuseum, Sweden, on 1 June 2019. This Summer her work is part of the touring exhibition Examples to follow! Expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability in Erfurt, Germany. She is also preparing, together with Jan Philip Scheibe the work Preserved/Grünkohl opening at DA Kloster Gravenhorst, Germany on 12 July 2019. And of course, her collaboration with Ocean Now is currently taking the streets of Berlin to inform passersby about the urgent need to ban microplastics in cosmetics and cleaning products.

Plastic Capitalism. Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Plastic Capitalism. Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste, by Amanda Boetzkes, Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Amazon USA and UK.

Publisher MIT Press writes: Ecological crisis has driven contemporary artists to engage with waste in its most non-biodegradable forms: plastics, e-waste, toxic waste, garbage hermetically sealed in landfills. In this provocative and original book, Amanda Boetzkes links the increasing visualization of waste in contemporary art to the rise of the global oil economy and the emergence of ecological thinking. Often, when art is analyzed in relation to the political, scientific, or ecological climate, it is considered merely illustrative. Boetzkes argues that art is constitutive of an ecological consciousness, not simply an extension of it. The visual culture of waste is central to the study of the ecological condition.

Edward Ruscha, Molten Polyester, 2005

Drawing on the writings of Georges Bataille, Timothy Morton, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Rancière and other thinkers of modernity, aesthetics, politics and ecology, Amanda Boetzkes investigates the use of waste in contemporary art. In her essay, the art historian challenges us not to reduce an artwork using waste to a critique of consumer culture or of modernism in general. It’s more complicated than that. If waste is so popular among artists today, she explains, it is because it reveals the value systems, beliefs and politics that shape our planetary condition.

Plastic Capitalism is both a book about contemporary art and an essay that exposes the blind spots between economy and ecology. Through her selection of artworks, the author dissects waste and reveals its many dimensions, dilemmas and contradictions. Waste is both valueless and a commodity. It is visible and invisible. It is a lowly legacy of global capitalism and a formidable force that hides complex industrial infrastructures, labor power and massive energy expenditures.

Alain Delorme, Murmurations: Ephemeral Plastic Sculptures, 2012-2014. Film by Quentin Labail

The final chapter offers a stimulating reflection on plastic. Plastic, Boetzkes explains, is the ultimate petroleum-based material, the agent that symbolizes humanity’s mastery of planet and its total impotence to alter the course of the Anthropocene, it is the icon of throw-away culture and of a durability that stretches into a future when there’s no one left to use it.

I won’t pretend that Plastic Capitalism is a light and easy book. I often found myself huffing and ploughing through the text. Yet, i soldiered on. The author’s readings of the work of well-known and less famous artists (Mal Chin, Agnes Varda, Critical Art Ensemble, Agnes Denes, Thomas Hirschhorn, etc.) opened up new perspectives on performances and installations i thought i knew. It also allowed me to see more clearly that the formidable power of waste extends far beyond its (much visualized and calculated) physical mass.

Some of the works i (re)discovered in Plastic Capitalism:

Critical Art Ensemble, A Temporary Monument to North America Energy Security, 2014

Critical Art Ensemble, A Temporary Monument to North America Energy Security, 2014

Antony Gormley, Waste Man, 2006

Francis Alÿs, The Seven Lives of Garbage, 1994. Photo via

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 24 July 1979 – 26 June 1980

Tejal Shah, Between the Waves – Landfill Dance, 2012

Swaantje Güntzel and Jan Philip Scheib, Spring Cleaning performance from the Plastisphere series, 2016

An Te Liu, White Dwarf, 2012 at the Musée d’art de Joliette

Tara Donovan, Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006-2015

A Hong Kong (plastic) Soup

According to Greenpeace East Asia, more than 17 million pieces of waste plastic are flushed into the sea via Hong Kong’s Shing Mun River every year.

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Transform. Recovered Transformers action figures reflect the inadequate disposal of children’s plastic toys. This group sends the message to transform the habits and behaviour of the younger generation in Hong Kong, with the emphasis being to take action. Part of a collection recovered from various beaches over 3 years

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup. Video by Shirley Ying Han

Mandy Barker, a photographer who keeps on reinventing the artistic language to raise awareness around the plastic catastrophe, has been collecting plastic detritus from over 30 beaches in Hong Kong between 2012 and 2015.

The type of waste she selected echo not only the type of products that found their way into local water streams, they also closely relate to the traditions and culture of Hong Kong: manufactured toys, food wrappers, fake flowers and even hazardous medical objects, agricultural and fishing related debris.

Barker then worked in her studio to compose striking photographs that play with the tension between an immediate aesthetic attraction and the emotional, nauseating response to water pollution.

The series is called Hong Kong Soup:1826 because over 1,826 metric tons of municipal plastic waste goes into landfills every day in Hong Kong. The precise number reflects the artist’s ambition to be scientifically accurate. “It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don’t distort information for the sake of making an interesting image and that I return the trust shown to me by the scientists who have supported my work,” she told Lensculture. “Although aesthetics are important, it has more to do with representing the facts of how we are affecting our planet and changing its environments irreparably.”

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Lotus Garden. A collection of different species of discarded artificial flowers that would not exist at the same flowering time in nature and should not be found in the ocean. The lotus flower reflects early connotation of beauty in China

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Birds Nest. Ingredients; discarded fishing line that has formed nest-like balls due to tidal oceanic movement. Additives; other debris collected in its path.

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Poon Choi. Ten objects of municipal waste collected from twn beaches that relate to Hong Kong’s traditional New Year’s dish: Poon Choi. The dish is comprised of ten layered infredients that go into a one-pot meal. Includes: child’s sandal, mannequin hand, race duck, ribbon, spectacle frame, toy dinosaur, fishing float, shipping tag, pocket game & toy boat. Collected from 10 beaches in Hong Kong, November 2013

Mandy Barker, Hong Kong Soup:1826. Zongzi. Miniature plastic imitation sticky rice packages found in the sea. Zongzi, or Zong, are traditionally made from bamboo leaves and thrown into the sea as part of the Dragon Boat Festival in Hong Kong. Recovered from Tai O Beach, Lantau Island

Mandy Barker: Hong Kong Soup is at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester until 20 January 2018.

Previously: Plastic plankton, the Anthropocene’s emblematic “microorganism”.

Plastic plankton, the Anthropocene’s emblematic “microorganism”

Mandy Barker, Ophelia medustica. Specimen collected from Glounthaune shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Pram wheel), 2015. Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

In 1816, John Vaughan Thompson was posted to Cork in Ireland as an army Surgeon. He was not only a physician but also a marine biologist. His interest in sea life led him to be a pioneer planktonologist, the first who systematically used a plankton net back at a time when plankton didn’t even have a name.

Inspired by Thompson’s research into small sea creatures, artist Mandy Barker spent several months exploring the shores of Cork to collect and document the aquatic specimens she encountered there. The samples she found on the beaches, however, are not living microorganisms, they are plastic detritus. A pram wheel, an electric plug, broken parts of children toys, a shoe sole, a mobile phone casing, plastic bottle parts, etc.

Mandy Barker, Laplusa forastuic. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Plastic bags). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Mandy Barker, Index spread. Recovered plastic objects alongside specimen images, with fictitious names that contain plastic. From the book Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Using defective photographic material and a bit of digital manipulation, Barker shot the plastic bits of trash to make them look like plankton in water. “Movements recorded during several seconds of exposure result in the blurred images that represent plankton drifting in water,” she explains. “Film grain is intentionally visible, alluding to microplastic particles being ingested. They were captured on expired film with faulty cameras to highlight the imperfection of both technique and subject matter.”

The images look like microscope slides one can find in the archives of a natural history museum. To complete the effect, the artist gave each ‘specimen’ a pseudo-Linnaean name.

Mandy Barker, Poletastae nipliuc. Specimen collected from Whitepoint, Cove of Cork, Ireland (Container base). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

Mandy Barker, Plamacina retroversta ic. III. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (White plastic horse, 3), 2015. Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

The photo series evokes the degradation and contamination of plastic particles in the marine environment. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. They can be found everywhere: in Antarctic snow, in the most remote oceanic spot, in plastiglomerates (a new type of rock made of plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, debris and other hard materials held together by plastic) and in plankton.

Plankton eating plastic caught on camera

Plastic can decompose in particles so tiny that plankton ingest them. After that, plastic particles keep on traveling up the food chain until they reach our digestive systems too. Plastic is so ubiquitous it has become an integral part of nature. One day, it might even consume us.

Mandy Barker, Amphilima distinctae. Specimen collected from Cobh shoreline, Cove of Cork, Ireland, (Coathanger). Series: Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, 2015

I discovered the photo series at the Prix Pictet Space exhibition currently open at CAMERA – Centro Italiano per la Fotografia in Turin. The Prix Pictet is an international photography award focusing on the theme of sustainability. This year, ‘sustainability’ is explored through the lens of ‘space’ understood in its broadest, most far-reaching sense. The concept of space was applied to so many subjects (urban overcrowding, migrations, territorial disputes, trash, etc.) that, to me, it lost much of its sense and purpose.

More photos from this edition of Prix Pictet:

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression 75, 2011. Series: Tokyo Compression, 2008–11

Saskia Groneberg, Untitled. Series: Büropflanze (office plant), 2012 © Saskia Groneberg, Prix Pictet 2017

I loved the humorous spin that Saskia Groneberg put on humble “the German office fauna.” Her photos show plants growing and taking control over the office architecture.

Sergey Ponomarev, Police on horses escort hundreds of migrants after they crossed from Croatia in Dobova, Slovenia. Tuesday 20 October 2015. Series: Europe Migration Crisis, 2015

Richard Mosse, Olympic Arena, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse, Idomeni, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse, Larissa, 2016. Series: Heat Maps, 2016-17

Richard Mosse won the Prix Pictet 2017 prize with his heat-map shots of refugees. He used a hi-tech surveillance camera designed to detect body heat from a distance of over 30km to track the movements of migrants from the Middle East and north Africa.

Pavel Wolberg, Protestor running from tear gas during riots in the Palestinian village of Nilin in the West Bank, 2010. Series: Barricades, 2009–14

Benny Lam, Trapped 04 Series: Subdivided Flats, 2012. © Courtesy of Benny Lam (photographs), Kwong Chi Kit and Dave Ho (concept)

Benny Lam, Trapped 08 Series: Subdivided Flats, 2012. © Courtesy of Benny Lam (photographs), Kwong Chi Kit and Dave Ho (concept)

Beate Gütschow, S#30, 2008. Series: S Series, 2004–09

Prix Pictet Space is open until 26 August 2018 at CAMERA in Turin.

HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

The focus of the Nordic art&science network program HYBRID MATTERs is the hybrid ecology that emerges when our environment interacts with technology, when two spheres so far regarded as independent start to affect each other and form new entities with new qualities.

The HYBRID MATTERs exhibition which closed last month at Forum Box in Helsinki showed works, experiments and proposals which expose and explore this complicated liaison between our environment and technology.


Laura Beloff and Malena Klaus, Fly Printer – Extended. Photo by Anna Autio

With art pieces that address plastic proliferation, global warming, the modification of species to satisfy capitalistic forces or the exploitation of natural resources, HYBRID MATTERs conjures all our darkest fears about the anthropocene. I would normally exit this kind of exhibition with a deep sense of doom and despair. This time however, the poetry, pertinence and also often the sense of humour embedded in the works took over and as i walked back to the hotel, i found myself thinking that we might still be able to make sense of the mess we’ve been so busy creating over the past few centuries. A twisted sense maybe but one that gives me home nevertheless. The show also left me looking at the world with even more questions than ever…

How do we fit in this hybrid ecology made of genetically engineered trees and machines that seem to gently breathe? How much in control of the hybridization process are we really? Should we expand and embrace new concepts of ecology or should we fight for our vision of an ideal (and possibly also outdated) ecology?

HYBRID MATTERs aims to provide a possibility to rethink and reevaluate our relations to this emerging world. As we humans drive this process of hybridization we are part of both the biological and technological. HYBRID MATTERs asks how we can address both ends and develop respectful and mutually beneficial forms of co-existence for all the actors in such a hybrid ecology.

I’ve already written about Laura Beloff and Jonas Jørgensen’s take on our postnatural Christmas trees and about Mari Keski-Korsu’s guerilla experiments in DIY climate manipulation. Here are some other works i found particularly interesting (or just beautiful to look at because i’m superficial like that) while i visited the show:

Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström, Plastic Imaginaries, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Plastics used to symbolize man’s mastery over nature. Today, they only evoke man’s poisoning and corruption of it. Plastics have invaded the ecosystem so intimately that researchers have identified a new kind of geological entity made of plastics, basalt stone, corals and more. They call it plastiglomerates.

Plastiglomerate walk organised by Åsa Ståhl and Kristina Lindström. Photo by the artists

Plastiglomerate found on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. It combines basalt clasts, molten plastic, yellow rope, and green and red netting

Concerned by this plastics invasion, artists Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl started looking into new places for plastic trash into our daily lives. They soon found some found for thought in a paper that details how common mealworms can biodegrade Styrofoam. The worms seem to be able to live on this depressing diet. It doesn’t even impair their ability to reproduce. Better yet, the animals digest and turn the plastic trash into a substance that can become a new soil component.

Mealworms eating Styrofoam. Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, discovered the larvae can live on polystyrene. Image credit: Yu Yang

Composting plastics. Photo by the artists

Just like the plastiglomerates, the Styrofoam-eating worms are examples of unintentional ‘encounters’ between man-made matter and natural matters. “We are curious about what these examples tell us with regard to whether we should or can continue to live with or without plastic in the future. These hybrid materials could be an asset in new design and offer potential for species to coexist,” said Kristina Lindström in an interview.

Ståhl and Lindström have since developed prototype kits for composting plastic. Their content is simple: a glass jar with mealworms and bit of extruded polystyrene inside. The duo then distributed the kits to participants around the Öresund Region to compost plastic waste into their home. Some of the participants regarded the mealworms almost as pets, found it cruel to give them styrofoam as snack and eventually fed them a ‘healthier and more natural’ diet. Others never managed to shrug off the disgust they felt for worms and found it difficult to welcome them inside their home.

The Plastic Imaginaries research project hints at a future where we might be able to find new roles and spaces in the ecology for plastic trash. Could one day plastic trash benefit the ecology instead of asphyxiating it slowly?

The morning after the opening of HYBRID MATTERs, Ståhl and Lindström organized a Composting Plastics workshop. Participants learnt how to DIY their own domestic plastic composting kit and at lunch they enjoyed a vegetarian meal while mealworms got to munch on styrofoam inside their little glass jars.

Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Johanna Rotko, Yeastograms – Living Images, 2016

Yeastograms in Hybrid Matters exhibition in Forum Box, Helsinki

Yeastograms are living portraits of strangers whom Johanna Rotko met on the street. They are made of yeast cells cultivated on growing mediums. The developing process consists in exposing a raster image with Ultraviolet LED lamps onto the yeast. The UV-lights kills the cells that are not protected by the stencil. A photo gradually emerges from the surviving yeast cells. After the exposure the artists leaves the petri dishes as they are but regularly documents the evolution of the images by photographing them. Over time conflicts may arise when molds, bacteria or other unknown microorganisms appear in the petri dishes.

Because her artistic research explores how nature is affected by her actions, Rotko favours the use of image-making substances and processes that are as less toxic as possible. She has thus expanded her research to anthotypes where she prints photographs using plants such as microalgae spirulina, beetroots, blueberries and coffee. As for the yeastograms, they end up in the biowaste bin.

Lawrence Malstaf, Folding, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Lawrence Malstaf, Folding, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

We are continually striving to be objective, we try to look from a distance, and we develop all kinds of technology to accomplish that, which is of course very interesting, but in a way this objectivity is something we know we will never really achieve, it’s a bit of an illusion. – Lawrence Malstaf

Folding combines 3D scanning, modeling software but also traditional origami techniques to build life-size kinetic sculptures and explore the boundary between representation and abstraction.

The sculptures expand, contract, and react according to how close you approach. Whether they are abstract models stuck on a wall or a human-like figure hanging from the ceiling, the sculptures have a clean and almost cold aesthetic but each of them seem to take an uncanny life in your presence, they breathe gently as if trying to communicate with the visitor…

Kristiina Ljokkoi, Life Studies, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Life Studies is a city inside a terrarium. The total absence of humans in this micro city means that other forms of life are taking over the infrastructure and thriving: wood-decaying fungi and bacteria are breaking down the infrastructure and producing a substratum for new epochs.

With this work, Kristiina Ljokkoi looks at the changing idea of a city. For as long as we can remember, the role of the city was to shelter centres of human activities from the so-called untamed nature, be they wild beasts or weeds. The time has now come to reconsider the role of the city and its place in the broader ecosystem.

Antti Tenetz, Wolfland, part of JÄLESTÄÄ TRACING. Photo by Anna Autio

Antti Tenetz, TRACING – JALESTAA trailer

Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016. Photo by Anna Autio

Hanna Husberg, In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016

While most works about global warming focus on the very visible and material harbingers of change, Hanna Husberg‘s In the Vast Ocean of Air brings the emphasis on the most eluding, the most border-defying agent: air and the slow violence that is implicit in the compositional changes of the atmosphere.

The work comprises a video and a series of neon signs. The film is set in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a region that has been subject to exploitation of natural resources since the early 1600s and also a region where the effects of climate change are particularly tangible, with temperatures getting shockingly warmer year after year.

As for the 5 neon signs, they are lit by ionised neon and argon gas producing their orange-red and blue glow. The signs evoke the carefully controlled temperatures found inside buildings all over the globe. Deriving, in large extent, from fossil fuels this energy to control the air is also a remnant of warmer climates in times past, that, while permitting vast accumulation of plants at high latitudes, would, however, be inhospitable for us humans.

Photos from the opening of the exhibition:

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

Exhibition opening. Photo by Anna Autio

The HYBRID MATTERs exhibition, opened at Forum Box in Helsinki last November. It was part of the HYBRID MATTERs Nordic art&science network program which investigates the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity. The program took the form of a series of researches, encounters, art commissions, exhibitions and a symposium. I got the chance to attend the symposium and i’ll write down my notes about it very soon!

Previously: Albedo Dreams. Experiments in DIY climate manipulation, HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet and The Christmas tree, your typical postnatural organism.