GYRE: The Plastic Ocean
Art and Science Expedition | June 2013
This report focuses on presenting basic information about the expedition, touring exhibition, book, film and symposia. Supporting information includes data about audiences reached and examples of how the project has impacted upon various organisations and arts groups. Finally there is an edited list of information for further research.
History, background and development
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, when he and his crew caught sight of plastic waste floating on the sea surface.[i] The significance of spotting this debris, in one of the most remote regions of the ocean, was a major environmental discovery. Plastic and other forms of human waste have been floating at sea and washing ashore long before 1997 but this specific discovery drew attention to the issue, and since then oceanographers, marine biologists, scientific research teams, clean ocean and wildlife advocacy groups across the globe have discussed and researched the topic in greater detail. There are various research projects looking at the distribution of this garbage, its effects on sea life, and in turn on the various ecosystems by which all life on earth depends. Plastic waste on land and sea now attracts significant attention in the media and continues to be the focus of a growing group of concerned artists as well as designers, scientists, writers, explorers and environmentalists. More recently researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis calculated that at least 4.8 million metric tons of plastic material enters the ocean each year. However, it should be noted that this is a low calculation and the team has suggested the amount could be 12.7 million metric tons.[ii]
In 2011 a team of curators and marine science experts at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and the Alaska Sea Life Centre met to discuss the topic of plastic, waste and its increasing visibility in the ocean across the world. Over a period of two years, the team developed a project with the intention to explore complex relationships between humans and the ocean. The project was created to specifically facilitate cross pollination between various discourses; art, science and advocacy. The participants were convened to look at mass consumption of material goods and the resulting proliferation of plastic waste in the marine environment. The results of these meetings and activities were shared amongst peer groups and were integral to the creation of a survey exhibition. [iii] An international team of scientists, artists and educators were approached, all of these were identified as having made some significant contribution to the discourse surrounding plastic waste and the Ocean. [iv] The team titled the project Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. This references the term Ocean Gyre. There are five ocean gyres, each gyre shifts vast volumes of water in a circulatory motion across the earth. The world’s oceans are dominated by these gyres. They can be hundreds to thousands of miles in diameter. Along with other ocean current systems, they re-distribute and aggregate all kinds of debris in our oceans with plastic waste an ever-increasing ingredient.
1.1 The expedition
In the summer of 2013 the team was assembled in Anchorage, Alaska. They joined a crew aboard the research vessel RSV Norseman and journeyed along the Alaskan coastline with Hallo Bay being the final destination. The boat travelled over 500 nautical miles stopping and landing at various remote beach locations.
Various research activities took place on board ship and on shore. Each artist and scientist developed discreet activities, for example: Oli Maden carried out Spectroscopy with various sample of plastic collected from the beach; Nicholas Mallos continued his research work on the global distribution and origins of plastic bottle tops; Mark Dion carried out various systematic collecting activities. Throughout the expedition conversations were recorded and film interviews took place, and there were a number of presentations made to the group by onboard team members. These presentations ranged from work being carried out to identify fishing nets to explanations about the processes by which marine waste is distributed at sea. The team also met with wildlife experts and undertook a beach clean-up operation with Katmai Park Rangers. And at Hallo Bay they experienced the thrill of a close encounter with a female grizzly bear and her three cubs. These unique experiences, the presented texts and diaries, and the films and artwork, considered and highlighted plastic as a very particular ecological problem. All of these outcomes and discussions were organised and curated to form the final project event.
1.2 The touring exhibition
The exhibition Gyre: The Plastic Ocean opened in February 2014. It displayed some of the resulting scientific discoveries made on the journey and included the art created from each invited artist. The exhibition also incorporated content from the Burke Museum’s “Plastics Unwrapped” exhibition, offering a scientific and cultural history of how plastics are used in our daily lives. In addition to the featured artists, the curator selected works from other international artists from around the world. The presented visual works were complemented by a collection of essays from eminent scientists and writers who were linked through the common thread of the Gyre project. Each element discusses ideas connected to plastic waste, covering eco-artistic-activism through to scientific theory and marine biology; their contributions extend and put into context ideas initiated by the organisers. The exhibition ran for six months in Anchorage (2014) before travelling to the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta (2015), Fisher Museum in Los Angeles, (2015) and University of Southern California Santa Cruz University, (2016).
1.3 The book
The accompanying book Gyre: The Plastic Ocean explores and examines the relationship of plastic waste as both an object of visual, creative and artistic enquiry alongside scientific reports and info-graphical presentations of current scientific data sets. This book resides as a key reference text; a text which can be seen as an additional source of knowledge within current the global environmental discourse. It visually presents its ideas, questions and conclusion through the interplay of nature and consumer culture.
1.4 The film and symposia
In support of the project two filmmakers were on board to document the expedition, commissioned by National Geographic, this film was shown at each exhibition venue. It was submitted to various film festivals since its completion, and was shortlisted for a number of oceanic film awards. It is available to buy or can be watched online on various websites. A one day symposia event took place at the Anchorage Museum during the opening week. And in an effort to raise awareness and discourse on the global crisis of plastic pollution, the Welch Foundation at Georgia State University (GSU), David J. Sencer Museum of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) jointly hosted another Gyre focused symposium. The Anchorage Museum continues to host an archived site dedicated to the project.
Data from Anchorage Museum showed that in May 2014 the Gyre Project was has the subject of 80 news media stories, including in the New York Times, Wired and Slate. These featured reviews and stories had a circulation of more than 50 million. It is difficult to aggregate data in terms of calculating the response to this project, there have been a number of similar projects since. Other organisations such as the Cape Farewell project all continue to develop and create cooperative projects where artists and scientist work together. Museums, arts organisations, designers, NGO’s and others continue to explore plastic as both creative material and as a destructive and problematic substance. Plastic is becoming even more visible, this project and others like it will continue to add to and create further debate and discourse.
2.1 Reference and further reading
Decker, J. (2014) Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. London, Booth Clibborn Editions.
Anchorage Museum Mini Site https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/gyre-the-plastic-ocean/exhibit-overview/
Georgia State University Symposia Mini Site http://artdesign.gsu.edu/plastic-gyre-artists-scientists-activists-respond/
National Geographic Film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr5m8b28eqA
Burke Museum Plastics Exhibition http://www.burkemuseum.org/exhibits/past
[i] Moore, C., Phillips, C. Plastic Ocean (2011). How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.
USA, Avery Publishing.
[ii] Julie Cohen. (2015) An Ocean of Plastic. Available from http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2015/014985/ocean-plastic [Accessed 19th February 2016]
[iii] A survey exhibition or group exhibition are usually collective and often focus on a specific theme or topic (“survey shows”).
[iv] Expedition Leader Howard Ferren, former director of the Alaska SeaLife Center. Lead Scientist, Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute.
Curator, Julie Decker, Anchorage Museum. Scientists: Odile Madden, Smithsonian Institution, research scientist. Dave Gaudet, Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, director. Nicholas Mallos, Ocean Conservancy, conservation biologist. Peter Murphy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John Maniscalco, Alaska SeaLife Center. Artists: Mark Dion, New York. Andrew Hughes, England. Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Anchorage. Karen Larsen, Anchorage. Pam Longobardi, Atlanta. Biology Teacher, Harker School, Katherine Schafer. Photographer, Kip Evans, Mountain and Sea Productions. Filmographers,J.J. Kelley and Josh Thomas, Dudes on Media for National Geographic.