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The Synthetic Collective is an interdisciplinary collaboration between visual artists, cultural workers, and scientists. We work together to sample, map, understand, and visualize the complex ways in which plastics and microplastics pollute the Great Lakes Region. We locate our inquiries at the intersection of plastics pollution, geologic processes, and artistic production. Our intent is to follow plastics through from manufacture and consumption to disposal and disaggregation. Interdisciplinarity is crucial to our research methodology – we are led by a driving principle that artists and scientists conduct research together from the outset of the inquiry. As such, we hope to better connect scientific knowledge with arts-based research and enrich artistic production with informed science.
Mobilizing practices of institutional critique, Plastic Heart proposes an alternative method of exhibition development and presentation that addresses ecology and sustainability in content and form. The guiding question of the Synthetic Collective in developing Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through was: Is it possible to curate a zero-carbon exhibition?
Putting this exhibition together involved many decisions aimed at limiting its carbon and waste impact, from restricting the travel of artworks, to re-using existing museum infrastructure and displays; from leaving holes in the wall from previous installations to hand-printing with natural inks and card offcuts as an alternative to vinyl didactics.
Art Museum at the University of Toronto / New dates TBD
Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Christopher Mendoza, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Terry O’Shea, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood
Plastic is a surface, all the way through. It has no interiority; its form and substance are
designed to emerge together. It is often thought of as immortal, but it also readily breaks and
degrades into smaller, yet lasting pieces. As Eva Hesse said in relation to the synthetic rubber
that she often used in her practice, “The rubber only lasts a short while . . . it's not going to
last. I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is. . . . Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last.”
There is a profound, earthly lesson here. The fact that plastic does last, often in the form of
microplastics, for an unknown time into the future is a form of colonial violence. It also has
myriad untold effects on people’s bodies and the bodies of other beings with whom we share the
earth. It is part of our aesthetics and felt everyday experience, with its beauty and toxicity, its
helpfulness and ubiquity.
This exhibition explores such tensions, between the desire for immortality and preservation, and the realities of an ever-changing earth. It explores how we might think of art and exhibition making differently, by paying close attention to when it is important to make something new—when the cultural import offsets the carbon footprint— and when and where materials can be reduced, reused, or salvaged. Throughout, we were guided by the question of how to create a contemporary art exhibition that is thought-provoking and aesthetically interesting, while also asking how we could limit the impact of fossil fuels and material extraction. The works in this exhibition offer many ways to engage with the complex dialogue about plastics in the museum, the environment,
and our bodies.
Plastic pellets (also called nurdles) are the raw feedstock produced by petrochemical industries to sell to manufacturers making plastic goods and packaging. The lentil-sized granules can end up in water systems via leaks and spills between production, transportation, and product-manufacturing processes. Nicknamed “mermaids’ tears” because of how prevalent and potentially harmful they are, they accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the pesticide DDT (banned in Canada and the U.S. almost 50 years ago), in water systems worldwide. Floating on the water’s surface with a likeness to fish eggs, they are consumed by marine life and can cause a slew of digestive issues and transfer accumulated chemicals to animal tissues.
In October 2018, the Synthetic Collective conducted a study that provides a first-ever snapshot of
post-industrial microplastics pollution on the shores of all the Great Lakes.
The group collaboratively surveyed for industrial plastic pellets deposited on 67 beaches around the
Great Lakes. By sifting and hand picking through the top 5 cm of sand in 1 m x 10 m quadrats, the
group collected a total of 12,597 pellets. The majority were found at two beaches: Baxter Beach in
Sarnia (Lake Huron), and Bronte Beach in Oakville (Lake Ontario), areas densely populated with
polymerization plants and plastic manufacturers. By further sorting, measuring, and forensically
categorizing the samples by distinguishing traits, the Collective has compiled a dataset that can be
used by industry as a resource in taking steps to prevent further mismanagement of this material.
Read more about this in our recently published study:
“A Comprehensive Investigation of Industrial Plastic Pellets on Beaches Across the Laurentian Great Lakes and the Factors Governing Their Distribution”
Museums and galleries create climate conditions for the preservation of art works and material culture through carefully monitoring and adjusting humidity levels and temperatures. Such controls are energy intensive, but without them objects are placed at risk. When museums try to be greener, goals of preservation are often at odds with environmental protections. Plastics enter this conversation at an oblique angle. Their very cheapness makes some environmental protections appear ridiculous: Is a plastic gadget worthy of the same protections as an irreplaceable manuscript? But by the same token, many items made from plastics, such as artworks or spacesuits, have become the centre of conservation discussions precisely because they are so difficult to preserve. Steady and controlled climates are not enough. As seen in the case of Eva Hesse’s and Naum Gabo’s work in Plastic Heart, plastics break down anyway, though their detritus remains. Plastics expose a flaw at the core of attempts to regulate environments and preserve material culture, a microcosm of the long-term impact of a disposable culture in a time of climate chaos.
What does ‘powering down’ look like for an art exhibition? How does this compare to on-the-grid,
versus off-the-grid power sources? And are some grids ‘cleaner’ than others? Video works in Plastic
Heart are powered by portable solar panels custom outfitted as signboards. The signboards are taken
outside each day by museum staff to charge batteries which then plug into the tablets on display
throughout the gallery. Originally planned to be interactive with exhibition viewers, COVID-19
regulations now require that no viewers touch these objects, which also includes solar-charging
sunbrellas and backpacks. Post-pandemic, these charging stations will be made available through the
Synthetic Collective’s lending library: artists, researchers and galleries may loan them out to
power devices such as phones and tablets. The SC will track the life-span and energy production of
these objects as best we can, and weigh the quantity of power they generate against their embodied
energy, ie. the resources required to make them. There are many forces at play, including the mining
for minerals involved in production, fossil fuel heavy energy used in manufacturing, and potential
In this exhibition, viewers are experimentally offered a view of what a low-power art experience might look like. Charging stations were designed and assembled by Artist and Research Assistant Nicolas Lapointe, and all sewing done by Artist and Research Assistant Shelley Ouellet.
“What does it take to make art green?”
“SHORING: The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”
Kelly Jazvac is an established Canadian artist and scholar. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montreal. Her academic interests center on visualizing the nature and accumulation of plastic waste in the environment.
Kirsty Robertson is an Associate Professor and Director of Museum and Curatorial Studies at Western University. Her work asks how curating might respond to ecological crisis. She directs the Centre for Sustainable Curating and is project co-lead on A Museum for Future Fossils.
Kelly Wood is a senior Canadian artist and scholar specializing in photography. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University. Her research focuses on subjects that relate to the environmental impact of waste accumulation, waste economies, and all forms of visible and invisible pollution.
Heather Davis is a researcher, writer, and editor from Montréal. She is an assistant professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College, The New School, in New York. Her current book project traces the ethology of plastic and its links to petrocapitalism.
Tegan Moore is informed by structures and systems that work invisibly within synthetic environments. Her work with the collective is developing alongside laboratory work in manually characterizing plastics pollution samples.
Dr. Patricia Corcoran is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University. She is also the Chair of the Centre for Environment and Sustainability. Her research focuses on natural and anthropogenic sedimentary deposits, including distribution, accumulation, and degradation of plastic debris in marine and freshwater shoreline and lake bottom sediments.
Sara Belontz is a PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University. She is an environmental geoscientist investigating sediment and surface water of aquatic systems for emerging anthropogenic particles.
Ian Arturo is an MSc student in the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University. Ian's research focuses on microplastics Lake St. Clair and St. Clair River benthic surface sediments, beach sediments, tributary surface sediments, surface water, and stormwater.
Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza is an Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Her expertise is in environmental chemistry pollution focusing on toxic compounds adsorbed onto microplastic.
Kathleen Hill is a geneticist with a research focus on DNA mutations. She is primarily interested in the forensics of mutagenesis i.e., finding evidence to solve unknown origins and mechanisms of mutations. Her research team studies mutations in the context of cancer, neurodegeneration, synthetic biology and environmental agents.
More on the Synthetic Collective: https://syntheticcollective.org/
Website design by Anna Eyler
Solar server design by Jean-François Robin
Inspiration provided by: https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/