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Plastic Pollution in the Water? Drink Up!

Plastic Century

What happens when you bring together an artist, a marine biologist, and two futurists for an interactive art installation? The answer, on display this week at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is Plastic Century, an installation created for the 100th birthday of Jacques Cousteau.

Designed by artist Sarah Kornfeld, oceanographer Wallace J. Nichols, and futurists Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan, the display explores the relationship between people, plastic, and the environment. The creation of the piece, according to Candy, was guided in part by a question: "How do we get people to feel a certain emotion in what would otherwise be an abstract domain?"

Plastic Century asks onlookers to drink water from four different coolers, each filled with bunches of plastic. But there's a catch—the four coolers are labeled by year, extending from 1910 all the way through 2030. The amount of plastic in each cooler rises based on how much plastic exists (or is projected to exist) on the planet at any given time.

Plastic Century

The creators of Plastic Century came together a month and a half ago when CAS commissioned their piece. "We wanted to see what would it look like if we figured out a way to make artifact, an installation, where people could engage with this difficult topic but where they had options that came out of it," Kornfeld explains. "This is something that people can look at and feel on a visceral level." The emotions that come from drinking trash-filled water—disgust, revulsion, sadness—are offset by the knowledge that 2030 hasn't arrived yet. There is still time to fix things.

Nichols, a marine biologist, founder of Ocean Revolution, and research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, brings scientific knowledge to Plastic Century. "I bring some of that cold water in the face," he explains. "Although I love the artistic side of things, I'm pretty grounded in the facts."

Plastic Century

Dunagan and Candy are no strangers to the concept of interactive art. Candy has served as Game Master on the Institute for the Future's "Superstruct"—a massively multiplayer forecasting game that allows participants to face the problems of the year 2019. And in 2007, the pair launched FoundFutures, a series of public multimedia projects that manifest alternative futures in Hawaii. As part of the project, Candy and Dunagan mailed out postcards from four future scenarios of Hawaii. "We mailed the postcards out to people all over the islands without a return address. And we had a Web site where people could talk about reactions to getting these postcards," Dunagan says.

Similarly, Plastic Century will also feature a Web site where onlookers can express their reactions to the piece. The social media component is important, explains Kornfeld. "Projects like this need to be presented elegantly, and the proof is in how people respond to it."

Want to check out Plastic Century? The installation will be at the California Academy of Sciences on June 10.

[Plastic Century]


Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.