Alaska possesses some of America’s wildest places, but if you journey the state’s most remote beaches, you’ll find trash–tons and tons of manmade trash washed up on the shore. In June, a group of scientists and artists did just that, embarking on a 450-mile, Jacques Cousteau-style expedition to observe ocean trash that washes up on the beaches.
The trip was dubbed “Gyre” because much of the marine debris found in Alaska comes from a large, circulating ocean current known as the North Pacific Gyre. Those currents cover some beaches with as much as one ton of trash per mile. Although the debris comes in all shapes and sizes, almost all of it is plastic.
Debris washed ashore from the 2011 Japanese tsunami is a part of the mess, but it’s far from the only plastic on the beaches of Alaska. “We had an aversion to [the tsunami] at first, because that’s really not the cause,” says Anchorage Museum curator Julie Decker. “A natural disaster is nothing we’re going to prevent.” But the arrival of tsunami debris did raise awareness about the issue, she acknowledges, and it gave people a vocabulary for talking about ocean trash.
The Gyre team found thousands of fly swatters emblazoned with American sports team logos, plastic beer crates, and countless soda bottles. But the most common type of debris they found were materials that were lost from commercial fishing and shipping boats, like fishing nets, buoys, and rope–objects that are most likely to snare and injure wildlife.
Throughout the one-week expedition, which started at Seward and continued south along the Kenai Peninsula, the scientists categorized their findings, while the artists collected pieces of trash that will be used to create sculptures and assemblages for an exhibit curated by the Anchorage Museum.
Although visual arts and marine biology are two very different fields, they actually share a lot of similarities, says Decker. “Artists will engage in research in the same way that scientists do and become so fascinated by a subject that they will embed themselves in it–live it,” she says. Dion suggests that artists and scientists are natural allies in the effort to prevent the world’s oceans from becoming a giant landfill, because they both think and care deeply about conservation issues. They’re united by their mutual disgust at the landscape being cluttered with trash–not merely because of its aesthetic ugliness, but because it is actually harmful to marine ecosystems.
One of the best photographs from the Gyre expedition shows artist Mark Dion kneeling down on the beach organizing dozens of plastic bottle caps and lids into tidy rows according to color. In a journal entry published on National Geographic‘s website, scientist Carl Safina mulled over what Dion was doing. “It strikes me as a bit odd that this counts as work for an adult,” Safina thought at first. “Any child could do this.” But then he realized what sets Dion apart: “Mark is doing what artists should do; he’s getting our attention,” Safina concluded. “Not everyone could do this.”
Dion says a big part of his work involves recontextualizing the pieces of plastic trash he encountered in Alaska. “The most important artist of the 20th century wasn’t Picasso–it was Marcel Duchamp,” who famously signed a urinal and called it art, Dion says. The pieces of debris that Dion and other artists discovered in Alaska had already been decontextualized when they discovered them on the beach; by rearranging them and presenting them in a museum exhibit, the artists are again assigning them new meaning.
When plastic objects like drink bottles and other types of packaging are mass-produced, they’re branded and marketed to appeal to consumers. But after they’ve been used and discarded they completely lose that commercial appeal and become harmful objects. And that’s the state in which the members of the Gyre expedition discovered them, as foreign objects.
For the museum exhibit, Dion plans to display different pieces of ocean debris in a cabinet of curiosities, a throwback to the natural history collections assembled in Renaissance Europe.
Pam Longobardi, another artist who went on the expedition, says she will produce a “timeline” of 77 plastic pieces that range in size from a small ball of Styrofoam to a 4-foot-tall buoy, arranged in ascending height. “The piece also suggests a ‘timeline’ visually but it is a timeline without end. Because the plastic never ‘goes away’ it only breaks apart, even down to molecular size,” she says.
The exhibit, which will run at the Anchorage Museum from February 2014 to September 2014, will feature the work of more than 20 artists from around the world, not all of whom took part in the Gyre trip. People like Fran Crowe, a British artist who collects ocean trash and repackages it as souvenirs that might be sold by beach vendors, playing on the idea that now people comb beaches for plastic instead of shells. And Finnish artist Tuula Narhinen, who creates false aquariums using plastic trash and other beach items.
Although the Gyre expedition and the artists who took part in it will be central to the exhibit, its focus will be much broader, emphasizing that ocean trash is a global problem. After the Anchorage Museum show concludes, it will be repackaged as a traveling exhibit to be shown at museums around the world.