The staggering amount of anthropogenic debris that has accumulated in the oceans over the last few decades has spread to the most remote regions on earth, evidence of a human-made emergency closely related to climate change, yet much more tangible. This side effect of modern industrialization and hyper-generation of standardized products is growing to alarming proportions: In 2017, the UN estimated that 51 trillion plastic particles are floating in our oceans, a number that is growing every day, and their weight is estimated to outnumber fish by 2050.
Due to UV-light, wave action, and other weathering processes, larger plastic objects break into fragments called microplastics, measuring less than 5 millimeters. They rarely biodegrade. Instead, they absorb toxins and other harmful additives while floating or sinking to the seabed. Moreover, synthetic microfibers and microplastics can’t be filtered out by urban water-treatment plants, and they can be airborne. Once ingested by marine organisms, they accumulate in their bodies, consequently disrupting the organisms’ immune and endocrine systems or, in a worst case, permanently damaging their gastrointestinal tracts.
As a selected participating artist for the Arctic Circle 2016–Fall Residency, Oskar Landi sailed for two weeks in the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. Being interested in the examination of mankind’s relationship with the environment through experiential approaches both in the studio and in the field, and vexed by extensive reports on plastic pollution in the oceanic gyres, he wondered if microplastics could even be found in such a remote region.
To this end, Landi built a floating device named Acceptance, designed to filter surface water following the protocols provided to him by The 5 Gyres Institute 1. As a first-time citizen-scientist attempt at such latitude, these protocols proved to being extremely difficult to follow, and this challenging, perhaps quixotic, experiment ended with the sinking of the apparatus at approximately 78° 28.9′ N, 011° 46.3′ E. Any attempt at recovery proved dramatically ineffective.
Nonetheless, prior to disappearing into the Arctic abyss, the Acceptance collected five water samples, sieving for a total of 12 hours off the northwestern coast of Svalbard. A partial analysis of that material subsequently conducted at the University of Connecticut with SEM (Scanning Electronic Microscope) and FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) detected four microplastic fragments and 3 synthetic kinds of microfiber. Numerous larger items were found beached in remote locations and picked up by hand.
Part of Landi’s interest and art practice is to identify and to bring to light the effects of humanity on our planet Earth. Searching for the byproducts of our apparently innovative industries and technologies has become a valuable tool for a deeper sociological and environmental analysis that deserves a larger audience than the scientific community. "While interested in the scientific aspects, I am fascinated as much by the sculptural properties of these items, considering them enigmatic, captivating, and engaging. Cracks and abrasions convey missing synthetic material unimaginably dispersed in the environment while questioning their history, their origin, and their destination". They also represent a visual record of a specific historical moment, often referred to as the Plasticene by the scientific community.
Voyage of Acceptance captures both the scientific efforts and the visual complexity of plastic pollution in the oceans. It takes the viewer on a journey into the ice-cold waters of the Arctic, a physical battle with the currents, floating ice, and a breathtaking silence that leaves traces in our memory like the natural corrosion leaves on those dispersed plastic particles. The journey’s sounds—the threatening noise and echoes of calving glaciers and the ones of the Acceptance’s drive through the waters—culminate in a drumming confrontation with the images of those found objects, which speak to us in their Pompeiian nature about the gravity of human interference with nature.
The video is accompanied by a photography series in which these oceanic-archeological finds become the only protagonist. Captured on the point of a hot needle and against a monochromatic background, their microscopic existence hovers over an untold story of destruction and decay. In a play of complementary colors that recalls the advertisement industry and the arctic’s monochromatic landscape, these images represent, in a metaphoric way, both a sophisticated, ultimate stadium of photography and a detailed, scientific dissection of human behavior.
While this topic has received more and more attention in recent years, a general awareness of a healthier planet and better future living conditions still has to be fostered. In this spirit, Landi hopes that his ongoing projects, and specifically Voyage of Acceptance, will shed light on the gravity of the issue and transmit, through the power of video, photography, and sound, an emotional and cognitive response. He hopes it will challenge and inspire new ideas, visual communication, and critical discourse.
1 The 5 Gyres Institute’s mission is to empower action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, education, and adventure. Its vision is a world free of plastic pollution. Learn more.