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← How I use art to tackle plastic pollution in our oceans

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Showing Revision 1 created 11/18/2019 by Joseph Geni.

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    This is Sian Ka'an.
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    just south of Tulum
    on Mexico's Caribbean coast,
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    it's a federally protected reserve,
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    a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
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    and one of the most diverse
    regions on the planet.
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    But when I first visited in 2010,
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    I was horrified and completely confused
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    as to why the beach was covered in trash.
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    I soon realized that it was floating in
    from all over the world.
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    I've since returned after
    that first journey several times a year

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    to visit Sian Ka'an,
    to the country of my birth,
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    to work with this trash,
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    and so far we've documented garbage
    from 58 different countries and territories
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    on six continents,
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    all washing ashore
    in this paradise in Mexico.
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    Although I can never know
    where a product was dropped,
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    I can at times, based on the label,
    know where something was made.
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    In red, you see all of the countries
    represented by their trash
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    in Sian Ka'an,
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    such as these Haitian butter containers,
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    all shapes and sizes,
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    Jamaican water bottles.
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    Not surprisingly, a lot of the stuff
    is from neighboring Caribbean countries,
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    but the stuff is from everywhere.
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    Here's a sampling
    of international water bottles,
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    and one of the ironies is that
    a lot of what I'm finding
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    are products for cleaning
    and beautification,
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    such as this item from the United States,
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    which is actually made
    to protect your plastic.
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    Shampoo from South Korea,
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    bleach from Costa Rica,
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    and a Norwegian toilet cleaner,
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    and it's items that are all
    very familiar to us,
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    or at least I hope you're familiar
    with these toothbrushes.
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    Kitchen utensils.
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    Toys.
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    I'm also finding evidence
    of burning plastic trash
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    which released cancer-causing
    fumes into the air.
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    People ask what's the most
    interesting item that I've found,
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    and that's by far this prosthetic leg,
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    and, in the background if you can see
    that blue little bottle cap,
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    at the time that I found it,
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    it was actually the home
    to this little hermit crab.
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    This guy is so cute.
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    And it's these fascinating objects
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    but also horrifying objects,
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    each with their own history,
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    that I use to make my ephemeral
    environmental artworks.
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    And it all started with this image
    in February of 2010,
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    when I first visited Sian Ka'an.
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    I noticed that blue was the most
    prevalent color among the plastic.
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    Purple is actually the most rare color.
    It's kind of like gold to me.
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    But blue is the most prevalent,
    and so I gathered some of the blues
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    and made this little arrangement
    in front of the blue sky
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    and blue Caribbean waters,
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    and when I took a photograph
    and looked at the test shot,
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    it was like a lightning bolt
    hit me in that moment,
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    and I knew I was going
    to have to come back
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    to create a whole series
    of installations on location
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    and photograph them.
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    So this turned out to be a sketch
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    for a work that I completed
    three years later,
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    and I had no idea that
    almost 10 years later,
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    almost a decade later,
    I'd still be working on it,
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    but the problem persists.
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    And so I'm going to show you
    some of the images
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    from the series that I called "Washed Up:
    Transforming a Trashed Landscape."
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    Please keep in mind that
    I do not paint the garbage.
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    I'm collecting it and organizing it
    by color on the same beaches
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    where I find it.
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    This is my pressure trash pile,
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    a scene in 2015
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    after putting on a first edition
    of the "Museo de la Basura,"
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    or Museum of Garbage.
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    It's fully my intention
    to care for this garbage,
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    to exalt it,
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    put it on a pedestal,
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    and to curate it.
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    We have all seen devastating images
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    of animals dying
    with plastic in their bellies,
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    and it's so important for us
    to really see those
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    and to take those in.
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    But it's by making aesthetic,
    some might say beautiful arrangements
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    out of the world's waste,
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    that I'm trying to hook the viewer
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    to draw in those that might be numb
    to the horrors of the world
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    and give them a different way
    to understand what's happening.
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    Some have described
    the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
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    as an island twice the size of Texas,
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    but I've been told that it's hard to see
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    because it's more like a smog,
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    so through my artwork,
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    I attempt to depict the reality
    of what's happening with our environment
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    and to make the invisible visible.
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    My key question at first,
    after starting the project,
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    was, "What do I do
    with the garbage when I'm done?"
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    So I was told by some
    that it could be damaged goods
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    after traveling across the ocean
    and being exposed to the elements,
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    that it could become degraded
    and potentially ruin a batch of recycling.
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    The landfill was not
    a happy resting place either.
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    And then finally, it dawned on me,
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    after all of the effort by me
    and all of the people who have helped me
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    collect and organize and clean this trash,
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    that I should keep it,
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    and so that's the plan,
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    to use it and to reuse it endlessly
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    to make more artwork
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    and to engage communities
    in environmental artmaking.
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    So this is an example
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    of a community-based
    artwork that we did last year
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    with the local youth
    of Punta Allen in Sian Ka'an,
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    and the key part of the community work
    are the beach cleans
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    and the education programming,
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    and as this community
    around the project grows,
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    and as my trash collection grows,
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    I really believe that
    the impact will as well.
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    And so, over the years,
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    I've become a little obsessed
    with my trash collection.
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    I pack into suitcases and travel with it,
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    I take it on vacation with me,
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    and in the latest work,
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    I've begun to break the two-dimensional
    plane of the photograph.
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    I'm really excited about this new work.
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    And I see these as living artworks
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    that will morph and grow over time.
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    Although my greatest wish
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    is that I run out of
    the raw material for this work,
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    we're not there yet.
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    So in the new phase of the project,
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    I plan on continuing the community work
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    and making my own work
    at a much larger scale,
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    because the problem is massive.
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    Eight million tons of plastic waste
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    enter our oceans every year,
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    destroying ecosystems.
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    Right now, as I speak, there's literally
    an oil spill of plastic happening.
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    I see this project as a plea for help
    and a call to action.
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    Our health and future
    is inextricably linked
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    to that of our oceans.
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    I call the project "Washed Up:
    Transforming a Trashed Landscape,"
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    but it's actually transformed me
    and made me rethink
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    my own behaviors and consumption.
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    And if it can help anybody else
    gain more awareness,
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    then it will have been worthwhile.
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    Thank you so much.
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    (Applause)