The Wings That Were Crushed By Human Waste

The impact of our garbage on the environment cannot be overstated. It is clearly evident that it causes untold amounts of damage to the ecosystem by polluting the waters and choking the wildlife.

However, Chris Jordan’s “Midway: Message from the Gyre” makes it exceptionally clear that our current efforts are not enough. The image depicts the carcass of a bird that, while it was alive, consumed an incredible amount of garbage, and died due to the amount of waste in its system. It is a very emotionally-charged photograph. Seeing these poor birds who died because their ecosystem was so clogged up with trash that it killed them truly puts into focus how terrible the problem is.

The photograph is clearly intended to spark an emotional reaction. However, that is not its only purpose. It is a call for action to stop the root cause for this bird’s death; the exorbitant dumping of waste into the environment. The emotional weight of this picture pulls into the spotlight the ongoing discussions of how the environment’s problems can be remedied. Death is a very powerful motivator, and the fact that our garbage is directly causing the deaths of animals pulls us toward the conservation of nature, so that we may one day keep these birds alive and well.

This piece of art did not take much to make. As an article discussing the photo states, there were several birds who died in this exact manner. The photographer merely had to find one and take a quality photo of it. And the relatively little effort it took almost makes it seem even more of a tragedy, since that just means there are hundreds, if not thousands of birds who died the same terrible way. It creates a lot of change by presenting the reality of the situation. Little cost, great reward.

Sounds of a Melting Glacier

Katie Paterson’s sound of Vatnajokull Glacier melting draws attention to climate change through the accelerated melting of glaciers. It specifically points to the overall warming of cooler climates, impacting the systems life depends on. Glaciers specifically impact how erosion occurs, how water is release in large watersheds in late summer and store lots of water. The reduction in the amount of glacial area impacts the rising sea levels which are impacting low lying places throughout the world.

Paterson’s work encourages and brings attention to the severity and speed at which glaciers are melting, rather than aesthetic. Although the sound is satisfying to listen to, that sound may only become more pronounced as the climate continues to change at the rate it is. Using the work, the discussion of how to address the changing climate and rising sea levels as a result comes up as a result of the role glaciers play in the global freshwater system. The sounds of the melting glacier remind me of the glacier that is closest to me. The glacier on Mt. Hood is the smallest it has ever been (October 2020) and losing it would impact the local areas in many ways. Its loss can result in an economic impact for the people that use the glacier in the summer months as a livelihood, as Timberline is the only ski area in North America that is open year-round, drawing professional skiers, and others from around the globe, and in turn contributing to the local economy. Another result is that it would impact the local watershed negatively, impacting salmon and steelhead runs, which are also economic drivers in the area. The forest below the glacier, in the water shed it feeds would also be impacted by little water coming from the glacier in late summer, potentially contributing to more intense wildfires.

The work does not call for action, as partial melting is a normal process for glaciers in summer months, but the conversation surrounding the sound leads to a call for action. As for the materials required for the piece, it requires electronics, most likely produced in China and energy to keep it up on servers so people have access to it. The major environmental impacts are just the shipping for the microphone and getting it to Iceland and the glacier, so it is not zero by any means. However, it creates a conversation that is invaluable for changing perspectives and education about glaciers and the role they play in the earth’s ecosystem.

Beautiful Garbage

The specific art piece that I examined was “Sandstars”. This piece consisted of a myriad of man made artifacts off the coast of Mexico neatly arranged by color laid out in a rectangle on the floor. Some of these items included lightbulbs, bottles, driftwood, helmets, and toilet paper. This artwork clearly draws attention to the environmental issue of huge swaths of garbage floating around in the ocean. While this is not a unique statement, the way in which “Sandstars” demonstrates that is unique. I think we’ve all seen some variety of the ad that shows birds being choked by the plastic pieces that hold soda cans together and tell you to stop littering. That kind of message is very direct and makes you feel bad and guilty to see, but “Sandstars” doesn’t do that. The art piece is pleasant to look at and is disconnected from the adverse affects of these artifacts in the ocean. And they truly are artifacts; as opposed to random pieces of plastic the items in “Sandstars” are interesting. We already know that all the trash we dump in the ocean is bad, but “Sandstars” gives scale to that. It makes you ask, if there are this many intact lightbulbs, how many shattered and living inside sea creatures? or If there were this many interesting things, how many boring pieces of plastic are out there?

I don’t think this art piece lends itself toward a scientific approach. The objects and arrangement of them is very clearly aesthetic and they don’t communicate scientific findings or a hypothesis to be tested. We already know that there is a huge amount of trash in the ocean and this doesn’t objectively quantify that, but rather shows it to you in a very personal way. I also find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the call to action is here. We are presented with an issue we know is an issue in an interesting and unique way, but there is no new solution offered, except possibly to simply go pick up trash off the beach. It seems that the piece does much more to make the viewer think about the issue. One of the ways I think this piece does that is with the toilet paper rolls. If viewed out on a beach instead of as part of this art piece, one might look over them completely. As was said in the video, they look like some sort of natural object, but upon closer inspection they are not. It’s clear the roll has been degraded, but in considering how much toilet paper we flush down the drain, it’s alarming.

One of the best things about “Sandstars” is that it does a great job in terms of environmental cost. Gabriel Orozco literally cleaned up a wildlife reserve to gather the materials for the art piece. Furthermore it seems fair to assume that a lot more was picked up than just the items used in the piece. The only possible environmental impact I can see from this is the fuel cost of shipping the items. This seems like it would be relatively small considering the small amount of objects.

surrounded by plastic: metaphorically and literally

See the source image
“The Labyrinth of Plastic Waste,” Photographed by Gustavo Sanabria

The “Labyrinth of Plastic Waste” created by Luzinterruptus is an interactive art piece in Barcelona. It raises awareness on the amount of plastic that’s consumed. The audience attempts to “escape” from a maze made with plastic waste. The plastic that’s used is also representative of the products being consumed, with the majority of them being plastic water bottles. When the first project was introduced in Poland (in 2014), the focus was on recycling. However, it’s now shifted to bring light upon how unsustainable human practices have become. Based on scientific evidence of the overconsumption of plastic, this piece allows humans to metaphorically “escape” from their unsustainable practices. Building on this metaphor, the “Labyrinth of Plastic Waste” physically shows how humans are surrounding themselves with literal trash and wastage— with little to no regard on the environmental consequences. By building this art piece from products used the most by people, it strikes a feeling of uneasiness in the audience and calls for a reflection of their relationship with the environment. This effort could be amplified by somehow bringing to attention how this overconsumption of plastic is harming the environment.

Although this piece highlights a detrimental issue concerning the climate crisis, no real solutions are provided. Overall, the costs of production do pay off. Although no alternatives to reduce these practices are given, it’s a first step into forcing individuals to think about their own harmful behaviors. Sometimes, that’s enough to get the ball rolling.

Lost in Waste

This piece of artwork is known as The Labyrinth of Plastic Waste. Located in Barcelona, this plastic complex is created out of local usages involving beverages, packaged items, and more. This piece of work looks to bring awareness to the overuse of plastic within our world and our local environments. These artists use products that are local to the area to create a greater discomfort for its visitors. Not only do they get to visualize the vast amount of plastics, but they can see how they contribute to the cause as well.

When it comes to the harmful effects of humans on the environment. Science is found everywhere. In this case, the maze of waste supports the scientific evidence that humans contribute to the well being of the environment. Especially, in terms of biodegradable materials. One needs to understand the science behind how plastic impacts the environment in order to work on making a change.

But that’s not to say that different individuals respond to the artwork in a different way. In fact, most people who view the artwork continue to use plastic waste on a consistent basis. Yet, when viewed in the right perspective, this artwork can be used as a tool. Not only are individuals able to see their impacts on the environment, but they are presented with a work of art that they can admire. It’s easier to admire art then it is to admire our impacts on the environment. As ironic as it may sound, people have the tendency to avoid the topic of plastic waste. So by combining art with a global crisis, it can give people more motivation to act.

Although this is displayed in a way that is a “call-to-action”. It’s overall real impacts may not reflect it’s motives. The artwork clearly states that plastic waste is a significant problem within our world, yet it is not displayed in a manner that will make individuals act based on guilt. Art in its own form can only display the problems, not provide solutions for it. Therefore, it would be difficult for one to act solely based on a common problem. 

The balance between making the artwork and presenting the artwork, is a topic in and of its own. For example, the artist uses local resources to produce their piece. However, the materials themselves are still negatively impacting the environment. Even though the materials are being recycled, they are still a source of harm that we have still yet to solve.

The Sculpture That is Never Finished

Host Analog
“Host Analog” created by Buster Simpson

Host Analog is an art installation next to the Portland Oregon Convention Center. It is comprised of 8 sections of an old, felled Douglass Fir tree that was found at the base of Mt. Hood (Wy’east Mountain) in the Bull Run watershed in 1990. When it was transported and put into this installation, the pieces of wood were “nurse logs” carrying various species of plants on them already. Since it’s installation in 1991, the log and the small plot around it has developed and grown into a mini-ecosystem consisting of the native plants introduced by the Douglass Fir logs and the plants that seeded themselves over time. 

The living sculpture draws attention to the changing climate and the human element in that change with the foundation of it being a felled tree. Overall, however, it brings awareness to the adaptiveness and the resilience of nature. While humans may over-extract resources and create irreplaceable damage to parts of the global ecosystem, this art piece optimistically shows the resilience of nature and its ability to adapt to a completely new and different environment. 

The installation is in both support of science and is based on science. It is literally a biological art piece that is a demonstration of the natural process of biological adaptation.

The piece is interesting because so much of its significance comes from its history. To an ordinary person just passing by, it appears to be nothing more than a plot with some landscaping. However, if one takes a closer look at the installation and to read the history of the sculpture, it takes on a whole new meaning and that information is the doorway to engaging in further discourse. One of the most interesting things to reflect on is how this is a piece of art that will never be finished because it will always grow and always change. 

Host Analog calls for action but the call is different from some other pleas made by environmental art. The sculpture calls for the reaching out of humans towards nature. It calls for connecting with and observing ecosystems so that we may learn about resilience from them. By observing the adaptiveness of nature there is a possibility we may learn tools that could help us on a global scale with our changing climate.

This art installation outweighs the resources it took to put it into place. Yes, the transportation of the Douglass Fir logs created some emissions which negatively impacted the environment. However, the production of oxygen and the intake of carbon dioxide for the 29 years its been installed and the social impact it has had and will continue to have is, in my perspective, worth it.

The Walls of Plastic that Surround Us

  1. This piece is called the Labyrinth of Plastic Waste and, as its name suggests, it is a comment on the human population’s disregard for their use of plastics. It a topic that is very prominent when discussing the state of waste in the world, especially in the ocean. The art is relevant and its meaning is clear making it very effective at drawing attention to the main issue. 
  2. I would have to say that this piece relies much more on aesthetics than any science. You can only appreciate it by looking at it in its entirety. The walls of plastic are a warning of what’s to come and maybe what’s already present. You are meant to walk through and be surrounded by all of the plastic waste. 
  3. By creating a maze of out of this material, the artist has created a stronger message than if the plastic had just been strewn about. This interpretation is strongly related to the overall aesthetic. Again, it is meant to bring awareness and caution to a growing issue.  
  4. I believe that there is a call to action here. The artist is saying that we need to curb our use of plastics and dispose of them in a much better way. I don’t think anyone looked at it and thought that they were being urged to create more of a mess. 
  5. Based on looks, I can’t imagine that the cost of creating the maze was very high. It’s actually likely that the artist recycled by using waste they had found in their environment. To me, it seems like they used PVC pipes to the walls from which the plastic is hung. The last thing to note would be the area that it covers which looks relatively small. Overall, the potential for it to create change would be greater than its costs. 

to forge a purpose

The artpiece I chose to look at and review was Antti Laitinen’s Forest Square. As an art piece alone, it is very beautiful. What the artist has done is take a 10 x 10 meter of forest and essentially, sort out every little bit of what was in that 10 x 10 meter box by its color. Aesthetically and probably for those that love neatness and perfection, it is simply, beautiful and very pleasing. As for what environmental issue it draws attention to, I’m having trouble deciding if it’s making a point about the environment at all. Even after doing more (but brief) research about the artist and this art piece it’s hard to say that he wants to convey a certain environmental message through it. In fact he mentions in an interview that he didn’t have a particular audience in mind when he made the art piece which in some ways indicates that he didn’t really have a “message” in mind either. Therefore, it is assumed that this art piece was mostly an aesthetic art piece. He mentions in another interview that although this was his most laborious art work, he didn’t think much of it and doesn’t necessarily consider it anything more than another art piece. However I think this art piece can be used to spark a conversation about our environment in that we can do certain things like compare this artwork to certain parts of the world where climate change has had a huge effect on forestry or perhaps use this art piece as a medium to have a “pathos” conversation about earth’s beautiful nature and how we should work to preserve “natural art”. Obviously these are only two random examples that I had just thought of but clearly, this art piece can at least be a good conversation starter about that sort of topic. Obviously, since there isn’t really a message attached to this art piece, there isn’t a “call to action” either. If anything, I think people will be quick to realize that the artist just took 100 meters squared of forest for an art piece and especially since there is no “activism” behind this will realize that it’s sort of counter intuitive to spark a conversation about our environment using this art piece. But who knows, people will first notice the art work and the beauty first and have probably have a long conversation about our environment before they get to the nitty gritty details about how this art piece was made.

Indigenous Injustice

All throughout history, we have neglected the presence of the indigenous people within the United States. It has been repeatedly recorded time and time again that the indiginous individuals always suffer at the expense of the rest of America. One way that these people have suffered, is through the effects of climate change.

This week in Dawn of Anthropocene we analyzed “Indigenous peoples and cultural losses” by Robert Melchior Figueroa. Figueroa separated the figure into 9 separate sections – all of which – explained how the lives of the indigenous people are being impacted by the malpractices of our modern day world. One point that I thoroughly agreed on was the claim that “indigenous and local communities are among the first to face the direct adverse consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources.” Indigenous groups have always been known to lean more towards natural resources in order to make a living. Yet once we take a look at what consequences are being made due to climate change, then we can see the negative impacts that they have on the indigenous society.

First and foremost, the author touches upon the country’s reliance on indigenous support. For example, there are written agreements between the state and the native groups that allow for the full participation of native groups in the development of their area. In other words, the state will now have written implications that can force the natives to adapt, mitigate, and monitor the well-being of their designated area. Furthermore, with all of our advancement in technology we have learned to depend on our new advancements in order to make predictions of our future. However, we must realize that it was vital observations made by local indigenous people that was efficient before technology came into play.

Now that’s not to say that the prediction of whether wasn’t practical but rather, that the impacts of climate change would now alter the past strategies of the natives tribes. Not only physically, but culturally as well. As a result, even though we may not see how we influence the impact of climate change, we shouldn’t neglect the impact climate change has on those around us.

We Sank an Island, then saved its people, then sank some more.

            “Savages,” it’s really easy to say, and being an adjective to describe something “not domesticated or under human control” or “lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings,” I would expect the word to be used to describe animals with rabies, or zombies, or warfare, but not people. Yet this is what the indigenous in our own country were called upon our arrival in the Great Planes in the 1800s. Native Americans were deemed savages, taken from their lands, and either assimilated by force, or, at times, subjected to genocide. This sort of arbitrary authority undermines the very “civility” most colonial nations claim. The indigenous have been moved and manipulated, directly and indirectly, albeit without as overtly savage tact as in the past, without true question or consideration thereof. A modern example of such powerful change was the sinking of the island Tuvula, an indigenous populations homeland, due to global warming. Amending such a situation isn’t as simple government would like, because its banks cannot measure the death of a culture with a price tag. Robert Melchior Figueroa assesses the nature of the struggle through the lens of environmental impact within “Indigenous People and Cultural Losses,” in what is dubbed the “environmental justice framework.” First, Robert identifies the major losses of indigenous cultures to encroaching powers: their language, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), culture and sovereign habitat. The “environmental justice framework” is an outline for how to empower the indigenous to save ecologies. Of particular importance to “environmental justice” is the idea of TEK: the stored knowledge indigenes have of their environments, told through song, tradition, and other experiences of the people. Data which can save lives is lost in colonialism, or, more recently, alongside the march towards permanent climate change, with the death of TEK. By empowering indigenous to preserve their TEK, they will seek the preservation of their lands, and hopefully influence others to do the same.

It’s more than just colonialism

Cultural loss comes from many aspects, the one I tend to think of is colonialism. That general thought comes from what I have learned previously. In that context cultural loss comes from an immediate change in politics and power in a region, where typically “Western” cultures force themselves upon indigenous people. Cultural loss may not come from just colonialism, some of it may not even be classified as loss. Some cultures may evolve over time, creating cultural evolution.

At the root of cultural loss is the deficit in the information that is being passed from generation to generation. In many cases, such as native populations in many parts of the world, older generations may not be able to live long enough to pass down their knowledge. Indigenous people are the most susceptible to climate change and instability. The reason for that is because climate change alters the traditional aspects that are the cornerstones of their culture. When the climate changes, many seasonal animal migration patterns and crop rotations are altered, creating a deficit in knowledge of the environment that surrounds them.

The core of many cultures might be language, and the loss of a language may be the demise of the culture it belongs to. As we learned last week, communication across languages is difficult, for example the word “sustainability” does not have a direct translation to other languages. The same exists with the loss of language. Language, for many indigenous cultures was the only way stories and knowledge were passed from generation to generation. Without the existence of written language, some cultures are in danger of truly being lost as a result of the death of the spoken language. The nature of language, particularly indigenous ones, is that there is no exact or perfect translation. The nuance of that in cultural loss is that, even if it is recorded, the oral history will never have an exact translation, and therefore exact perspective and purpose.

 The “fix” or righting of wrongs put forward by western cultures in reparations, and land to those effected by cultural loss and climate change in the name of sustainability is happening too late. It is happening in a way that does not always make sense to the people most affected. The changes have already had a large effect on their way of life, and more restrictions prevent them from being able to protect their way of life and culture. The mindset of all parties needs to change in order for a fix to actually work where all can live in a sustainable way where culture can be preserved.

the hypocrisy of the western “fix”

The climate crisis is undeniable, and its impact on humankind’s future is unimaginable. However, what’s certain is that not all populations will pay the same consequences. In Dr. Robert Figeuroa’s chapter “Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Losses,” he outlines how the environmental crisis poses a threat to the very lifestyle and culture to the Indigineous people— as if the Western world hasn’t harmed them enough. It’s ironic as to how the communities contributing least to the adverse effects of climate change are the ones being harmed the most from them. Native lifestyles are intertwined with the environment; they coexist with nature. Western colonialism, on the other hand, exploited the environment for its own gain. This article reminds me of the piece from last week,“Sustainability,” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr. Climate change policies and legislation can’t only be made by Western civilizations and be expected to benefit communities with fundamentally different relationships with their surroundings. Sustainable and efficient policies can only be made with representation from all people– something the Native tribes don’t currently have. The “Western fix” to climate change won’t apply to other communities. Again, it’s ironic how the Indigenous are forced to stand back and watch Westerners tamper with their land; nothing has changed. 

In the end, the true solution for the environmental damage that’s been done has to come from a change in mindset, the ability to view the world from multiple perspectives, and the drive to help others even though it may not benefit you directly. The current Western culture has stripped humankind with these qualities— the very qualities making us human. Until empathy is at the forefront of environmental issues, and not capitalistic gain and/or materialistic wealth, the climate crisis will continue to get worse, and marginalized communities will pay the price.

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities