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

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Showing Revision 2 created 11/18/2019 by Joseph Geni.

  1. This is Sian Ka'an.
  2. just south of Tulum
    on Mexico's Caribbean coast,
  3. it's a federally protected reserve,
  4. a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
  5. and one of the most diverse
    regions on the planet.
  6. But when I first visited in 2010,

  7. I was horrified and completely confused
  8. as to why the beach was covered in trash.
  9. I soon realized that it was floating in
    from all over the world.
  10. I've since returned after
    that first journey several times a year

  11. to visit Sian Ka'an,
    to the country of my birth,
  12. to work with this trash,
  13. and so far we've documented garbage
    from 58 different countries and territories
  14. on six continents,
  15. all washing ashore
    in this paradise in Mexico.
  16. Although I can never know
    where a product was dropped,
  17. I can at times, based on the label,
    know where something was made.
  18. In red, you see all of the countries
    represented by their trash
  19. in Sian Ka'an,
  20. such as these Haitian butter containers,
  21. all shapes and sizes,
  22. Jamaican water bottles.
  23. Not surprisingly, a lot of the stuff
    is from neighboring Caribbean countries,
  24. but the stuff is from everywhere.
  25. Here's a sampling
    of international water bottles,
  26. and one of the ironies is that
    a lot of what I'm finding
  27. are products for cleaning
    and beautification,
  28. such as this item from the United States,
  29. which is actually made
    to protect your plastic.
  30. Shampoo from South Korea,
  31. bleach from Costa Rica,
  32. and a Norwegian toilet cleaner,
  33. and it's items that are all
    very familiar to us,
  34. or at least I hope you're familiar
    with these toothbrushes.
  35. Kitchen utensils.
  36. Toys.
  37. I'm also finding evidence
    of burning plastic trash
  38. which released cancer-causing
    fumes into the air.
  39. People ask what's the most
    interesting item that I've found,
  40. and that's by far this prosthetic leg,
  41. and, in the background if you can see
    that blue little bottle cap,
  42. at the time that I found it,
  43. it was actually the home
    to this little hermit crab.
  44. This guy is so cute.
  45. And it's these fascinating objects

  46. but also horrifying objects,
  47. each with their own history,
  48. that I use to make my ephemeral
    environmental artworks.
  49. And it all started with this image
    in February of 2010,
  50. when I first visited Sian Ka'an.
  51. I noticed that blue was the most
    prevalent color among the plastic.
  52. Purple is actually the most rare color.
    It's kind of like gold to me.
  53. But blue is the most prevalent,
    and so I gathered some of the blues
  54. and made this little arrangement
    in front of the blue sky
  55. and blue Caribbean waters,
  56. and when I took a photograph
    and looked at the test shot,
  57. it was like a lightning bolt
    hit me in that moment,
  58. and I knew I was going
    to have to come back
  59. to create a whole series
    of installations on location
  60. and photograph them.
  61. So this turned out to be a sketch
  62. for a work that I completed
    three years later,
  63. and I had no idea that
    almost 10 years later,
  64. almost a decade later,
    I'd still be working on it,
  65. but the problem persists.
  66. So I'm going to show you
    some of the images

  67. from the series that I called "Washed Up:
    Transforming a Trashed Landscape."
  68. Please keep in mind that
    I do not paint the garbage.
  69. I'm collecting it and organizing it
    by color on the same beaches
  70. where I find it.
  71. This is my precious trash pile,

  72. as seen in 2015
  73. after putting on a first edition
    of the "Museo de la Basura,"
  74. or Museum of Garbage.
  75. It's fully my intention
    to care for this garbage,
  76. to exalt it,
  77. put it on a pedestal,
  78. and to curate it.
  79. We have all seen devastating images

  80. of animals dying
    with plastic in their bellies,
  81. and it's so important for us
    to really see those
  82. and to take those in.
  83. But it's by making aesthetic,
    some might say beautiful arrangements
  84. out of the world's waste,
  85. that I'm trying to hook the viewer
  86. to draw in those that might be numb
    to the horrors of the world
  87. and give them a different way
    to understand what's happening.
  88. Some have described
    the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

  89. as an island twice the size of Texas,
  90. but I've been told that it's hard to see
  91. because it's more like a smog,
  92. so through my artwork,
  93. I attempt to depict the reality
    of what's happening with our environment
  94. and to make the invisible visible.
  95. My key question at first,
    after starting the project,

  96. was, "What do I do
    with the garbage when I'm done?"
  97. So I was told by some
    that it could be damaged goods
  98. after traveling across the ocean
    and being exposed to the elements,
  99. that it could become degraded
    and potentially ruin a batch of recycling.
  100. The landfill was not
    a happy resting place either.
  101. And then finally, it dawned on me,
  102. after all of the effort by me
    and all of the people who have helped me
  103. collect and organize and clean this trash,
  104. that I should keep it,
  105. and so that's the plan,
  106. to use it and to reuse it endlessly
  107. to make more artwork
  108. and to engage communities
    in environmental artmaking.
  109. So this is an example

  110. of a community-based
    artwork that we did last year
  111. with the local youth
    of Punta Allen in Sian Ka'an,
  112. and the key part of the community work
    are the beach cleans
  113. and education programming,
  114. and as this community
    around the project grows,
  115. and as my trash collection grows,
  116. I really believe that
    the impact will as well.
  117. And so, over the years,

  118. I've become a little obsessed
    with my trash collection.
  119. I pack into suitcases and travel with it,
  120. I take it on vacation with me,
  121. and in the latest work,
  122. I've begun to break the two-dimensional
    plane of the photograph.
  123. I'm really excited about this new work.
  124. And I see these as living artworks
  125. that will morph and grow over time.
  126. Although my greatest wish

  127. is that I run out of
    the raw material for this work,
  128. we're not there yet.
  129. So in the new phase of the project,
  130. I plan on continuing the community work
  131. and making my own work
    at a much larger scale,
  132. because the problem is massive.
  133. Eight million tons of plastic waste
  134. enter our oceans every year,
  135. destroying ecosystems.
  136. Right now, as I speak, there's literally
    an oil spill of plastic happening.
  137. I see this project as a plea for help
    and a call to action.

  138. Our health and future
    is inextricably linked
  139. to that of our oceans.
  140. I call the project "Washed Up:
    Transforming a Trashed Landscape,"
  141. but it's actually transformed me
    and made me rethink
  142. my own behaviors and consumption.
  143. And if it can help anybody else
    gain more awareness,
  144. then it will have been worthwhile.
  145. Thank you so much.

  146. (Applause)