C Magazine


Issue 134

Kelly Jazvac Interviewed by Weiyi Chang
by Weiyi Chang

In February, my partner and I scoured the rocky beaches of Vancouver Island for a perfectly smooth stone. We sifted through countless contenders, debating the merits and demerits of each, gradually distilling the parameters of the prize. One tempting find was a smooth rock with a perfectly round hole neatly bored into the top, its deceptive lightness revealing a hollow interior. We briefty considered taking it home before returning it to the ocean to serve, we imagined, as a home to another inhabitant.
Beachcombing is a popular activity, evocative of summer vacations and communal gatherings. But artist Kelly Jazvac’s beachcombing excursions in Hawaii have yielded another, more tragic, invocation in the form of the plastiglomerate. The name designates a type of aggregate in which plastic waste has bonded with a mixture of sand, shell, coral and other natural materials to produce a new type of stone. Exhibited as both readymade sculptural objects and as objects of scientific research, the stones were collected as part of a collaborative effort between Jazvac and geologist Patricia Corcoran, who was invited to research the stones at the behest of oceanographer Charles Moore. Plastiglomerates have captivated both art audiences and scientists, indexing the entanglements between petro-capitalist economies, oceanic currents and human activity, and animating the forces at play between globalizing forces and local reverberations.

WC: Can you describe your initial reactions when you arrived at Kamilo Beach, and how the stones have impacted your perception of the relationships between disparate locales? What has been your experience working with local communities, and what are their thoughts on the situation at Kamilo Beach?

KJ: I’ll start by describing the nature of our fieldwork there. We didn’t just show up with our cameras and notebooks looking for something shocking. This work was the result of a long activist relationship that oceanographer Charles Moore had with local individuals and environmental groups. Charles asked Patricia Corcoran to talk to members of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, and locals Ron and Noni Sanford have led remarkable clean-up efforts on this beach. Through those conversations, this work began.

My initial reaction when arriving at Kamilo Beach was both sadness at the pollution, but also profound respect for the tremendous clean-up efforts of local organizations and individuals. A huge amount of plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre washes up directly on this specific beach. Literally tonnes of plastic have been removed by volunteers. Hawaii has no petrochemical industry; a lot of the debris on this beach was clearly coming from elsewhere, as evidenced by the different languages written on it and more precise locators, such as plastic fishing tags that pinpoint the source of a piece of plastic to a specific region. There is an interesting 2014 study by Yong, Chang, Yang et al1 that found that most of the plastic beach debris on six beaches in Korea came from the ocean, not the land. This has huge implications. And, like Kamilo, demonstrates how the people of one place can find themselves awash in other peoples’ trash.

Ron and Noni were frustrated because they were constantly dealing with this. Noni is a second-generation beachcomber, and describes the extreme shift in what was washing up on the beach, starting in the 1960s, when plastics became a commonly used material. I learned a lot from her. As an outsider, I had trepidations with this fieldwork – this is not my land or country. And yet Noni showed me debris that she collected that was from my country – objects she found washed up on a beach near her home. I recently wrote a paper called “Noni Knows,” for a publication edited by Maggie Groat published by Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery – it describes the extensive local knowledge that existed before the authority of science came in to study it, and how the two can possibly collaborate to productive ends.

WC: The stones seem to straddle a discontinuous territory, as both artistic objects and scientific artifacts, and as neither wholly industrial nor natural entities. Can you tell me how their reception has changed in different contexts? I also wonder about your thoughts on the liminal position the stones occupy, and how they intersect with current discussions about climate change and ecological crisis?

KJ: They have mostly been exhibited as objects in art contexts. Their life as scientific objects has revolved around the data that they generate. I think that art exhibition contexts can offer an important contribution – the opportunity to have a moment with an object, framed in a setting that suggests it has an extended and poetic meaning. Art contexts remind us that a physical, bodily experience of an object is also a site of knowledge. Natural history contexts can often set up a scenario where you see the thing, read the panel and then leave feeling like [you] “got” it. Art resists a simple reading.

In 2015, Patricia Corcoran and I had a display in the American Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., in a section of the museum called “Q?rius.” We had the samples on a table, along with other information, images and data about plastics pollution. Our audience was mostly kids and their parents. What struck me in that context was how ready the kids were to deal with something real. Often the parents were not, shuffl 湻*怀롰怀弁敭?翾 羍 湻åing their kids along saying things like, “That’s why we recycle!,” which is a way of shutting down the conversation pretty quickly. Meanwhile, kids kept wandering back with more questions. I was at a plastics pollution youth summit in Long Beach in February and none of the youth there would tell you that recycling is a solution to plastics pollution. They were way more invested and informed: “Refuse and reuse and lobby government” was their call to action.

I hope the plastiglomerates’ liminality acts as evidence that environmental harm doesn’t stop at a geopolitical border. That a fishing tag from Canada could end up on a beach in Hawaii because of ocean currents; or, as I learned from artist Gautam Garoo, plastic motherboards sent from a company in Canada to a company in India to be separated from their salvageable metals doesn’t absolve Canada when that melted plastic (and its toxins) ends up in the water. A scientist at [the] Smithsonian, Odile Madden, told us that she was often battling misconceptions from Americans about other countries’ role in climate change. She found people were quick to blame countries like China and India for pollution without considering their own nation’s driving role and complicity in the problem.

There’s been so much useful writing about the dysfunction of nature/culture binaries and the power structures they reinforce – it’s been very helpful to me in thinking through these objects.2 The idea that nature exists outside of humans – that it is there to be controlled or used by humans – is an idea central to modernity that is deeply damaging and thus being challenged on many fronts.

In terms of how liminality intersects with dialogues about climate change and ecological crisis, I think there is evidence everywhere for how climate change work requires us to think outside of established categories: Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]; Justin Trudeau’s approval of more pipelines; government muzzling of scientists; Trump’s grotesque glee in his own power to reinstate the Dakota Access Pipeline. These events clearly illustrate that this is a complex crisis that involves extreme and structurally biased imbalances of capital and power. Because of this, we need to start talking, in an accessible way, about the nature of knowledge, including ethics, borders, territories, science, economics, politics, education, ethics, race, gender and colonialism.

As an artist, I’m on the lookout for objects and materials that embody these entanglements.

WC: The aestheticization of anthropocentric interventions in the land, such as photos of melting sea ice and images of open pit mines, have been used to represent the actual, tangible realities of ecological crisis. What kind of social and political possibilities do you think the aestheticization of plastic pollution and climate change opens up?

KJ: This is a very important question for artists to be asking themselves. It’s fraught, but also full of possibilities. I think artists need to be careful and specific about how they put objects out into the world. It’s been very productive for me to learn the science behind the geology. The deeper I get into this research, the more I realize how much misinformed cultural production is out there, and how that can be unproductive or even damaging. I feel like the stakes have never been higher and it is my responsibility to inform myself as extensively as I can. As an artist, I’m not beholden to the facts in the same way a scientist is, which is a relief because straight-up illustrations of science rarely make good art. But I do think that I should know the facts in order to make my work.

I think aesthetics can play a very productive role here. I say that based directly on my experience of how people have had a sustained intellectual engagement with a plastiglomerate because they found it visually compelling. Everyone has seen plastic garbage before, but not this other object that stretches their understanding of “rock” and “trash.” I think that that is an intellectually active place. There has been a lot of talk of “charisma” in relation to environmental issues, fully realizing that charismatic objects can buy more time from their audiences. I think this can be productive as long as the artist is informed about the potential risks and pitfalls of aestheticization. This includes being ready to adjust when new problems present themselves.