I am an illustrator, activist and drawer, using my visual skills to create dialogues about the way we treat nature, what we value and how these issues relate to our impact on the world. This practice has been shaped by the experiences of my masters degree at the Royal College of Art and ‘Surface’ was a project that helped me shape my visual language and methodology.
‘Surface’ is a critique on the excesses of artistic waste in the pursuit of cultural critique, the ubiquity of plastics in modern life and our lack of understanding of their impact. Created in 2016, ‘Surface’ was installed in a gallery at the Royal College of Art at the end of a year long elective that sought to challenge how we as students understood communication. This piece was part of our end of elective exhibition during the first year of our Visual Communication MA and was created by Jaione Cerrato Bengoechea, Doonam Lee and myself as part of the Common Room Exhibition.
Both the space and the work were created in relation to the provocation ‘Turning Complaint into Change’. Spurred on by a year’s worth of development, we thought about who we wished to connect to, how and why. This created the gallery’s transformation from white cube to relational space, a critique of the College’s lack of communal areas and a desire to create a horizontal platform wherein the hierarchy of exhibitor and audience would be broken down. By channeling Nicholas Bourriaud’s theory of Relational Aesthetics, we hoped to use dialogue, the space and the work as forms of communication to create change that would be more impactful than the didactic relationship between artistic work as loudspeaker and audience as receiver.
While the space was a cultural critique of the College, we all took it upon ourselves to create a piece of work for one day of the exhibition to create a changing context which stimulated new conversations every day. For Jaione, Doonam and myself, we wished to collaborate on a piece that would challenge the habits of the creative by confronting them with their own excess. As a generalisation, the creative industry is incredibly resource dependent, utilising materials in a myriad of ways and yet the waste and the end life of art and design objects are not taken into consideration enough. Walking around our studios, this culture was exemplified by the plastic bottle, the ubiquitous symbol of our wasteful and fast paced society and this became the focus of our work.
Having two canteens on site, we quickly realised how many of these bottles were floating around and in realising their excessive use in our small campus of 750 students we were horrified at the thought of our ‘small’ impact and the multiplication of humanity’s impact on the environment. We wanted to confront their use to the user, revealing the ‘hiding’ of plastic by the bins and waste centres that litter our landscapes and float in our oceans through an experiential piece so that the reality is not just a number, but a emotion created through experience. By feeling a reality, the user is brought into a narrative based on truth and creates a deeper connection to the situation than through the rationality of empirical data.
In creating an experience, we thought about ways to make plastic consumption understandable beyond the isolated experience to make the reality universal. For this reason we took the plight of sea life as our context, where fish, birds, mammals, crustaceans and plants live in the excesses of humanity. We came across the fact that 46,000 pieces of plastic float around in each square mile of the ocean and wished to translate this to the 44m² of the gallery space. This amounted to 1265 pieces of plastic.
We explored how this could be experienced by the viewer thinking about grand narratives, cruel piñata inspired tricks and projections before settling on the simplicity of suspension to make the gallery into an ocean for the day. We spent weeks collecting the bottles lying around the studios at night, cleaning, removing labels and the caps to create a unity in the installation while developing a canopy for the gallery space. Once our day came, we deployed our installation early in the morning so that the audience would walk into the space and be confronted by their own reality. As people began to file in for the day, the responses ranged from astonishment to despair. People could not fathom that this much plastic would be in the sea around them, that they produced this much waste and that they had not realised the extent of their actions. Throughout the day we spoke to people in the Common Room, explained the context of the installation and discussed not only the reality but what could be done. Once our day was up, we passed the bottles on to other creatives who used the bottles in unique ways so that they were recycled beyond our own intervention in their lifecycle.
Throughout this installation, we focused on fashioning a dialogue that developed a visual narrative for the audience. Due to the effect of our work, several people declaring that they would give up plastic bottles and while not empirical, we hoped that this did in fact change some habits for the better. This was only possible through the active engagement of the audience beyond the spectacle of the installation. By capturing their imagination in the installation, we created a context from which our conversation would yield greater results than either action on their own. Their experience under the ‘surface’ would give them a visual aid when thinking about the issue and act in a better fashion in the future.
It is in this experience of the narrative that the artist should focus. While science does the vital task of understanding the world, giving empirical data to society and furthering our species, if it is not communicated in an empathetic and understandable manner then those who have the greatest impact on our world will continue to devastate the environment with uninformed or malicious vigour. As has been seen, politicians can dupe an uninformed electorate, pull them along with short term answers to their problems and bring us ever closer to disaster. Yet, the artist can collaborate with the scientific world and bring this vital information to the audience. Through creative dialogue, spectacular interventions and beautiful forms, we can bring the world to a better place.
Written by John Halls.